By Robert Luckock
MARIGOT–If the boulevard in Grand Case has a dusty, ghost town feel to it during the day that’s partly because the height of the low season is approaching.
The 2017 hurricanes left their calling cards on the numerous crumbling buildings on either side of the street and sand-filled trenches on the boulevard only add to a sense of a village far from any semblance of recovery. An uninformed visitor can easily get the wrong impression.
Despite the appearance, there is an undercurrent of positive vibes everywhere, in the confidence restaurant owners have in the boulevard regaining its status as the Caribbean’s much acclaimed gastronomic haven. But it will take a while. The boulevard may be sleepy during the daytime, but at night it is starting to light up as businesses shake off the post-Irma blues.
The good news is that the burying of fibre-optic cable and other utility cables on the boulevard has been completed, the work now moving on to La Savane. All that remains is for the street to be resurfaced in time for the start of the season in November.
At least a dozen eateries are open, mostly at night, from tapas bars to creperies, pizza places, snack bars, ice cream parlours, and of course the famous “lolos” open day and night.
Some of these are small businesses that have changed hands since the hurricanes where new owners are re-opening in what was left of a damaged building, such as Belgian speciality snack bar “La Frite au Vent,” a new player with an interesting menu and selection of Belgian beers.
Needless to say, these small businesses are on the opposite side of the street, or away from the water and closer to the Cultural Centre-end of the street. Among them are Max’s Place, Nice SXM, Au bout du Monde, and more. Farther along the street is Piazza Pascal, temporarily closed. All the way at the Marigot end of the boulevard was Frenchy’s. Today there is nothing left of that restaurant and its future is unknown.
For aficionados of fine French cuisine L’Auberge Gourmande, Bistro Caraïbes, La Villa, and the recently opened Le Cottage are all open at night. At the other end of the street, Rainbow Café is open for lunch and dinner. Aside from the lolos, Rainbow was the first waterfront restaurant to open after the hurricanes and today is still the only full-service restaurant open on the water.
Question marks hang over the future of Le Pressoir, Oyster Café, Calmos Café, Villa Creole, Blue Martini, Shambala, and Tastevin all of which are firmly closed up, and in some cases their owners were off island. The same goes for the future of shops and art galleries, although the general consensus is that they will open eventually.
“If we don’t get another bad hurricane this time, it will be good news for the next season. Everybody wants Grand Case to come back how it was before,” said the sales girl in La Boutique d’Anaïse, opened just a few months ago adjacent to the remains of Calmos Café, and seemingly the only boutique open.
There are signs too that at least two more restaurants on the waterfront are going to re-open, Il Nettuno and Zenit Beach, the latter situated next to the bridge. Il Nettuno plans to re-open in October, a worker told this newspaper. Workers were also seen at Zenit, constructing cement columns to replace the former wood columns, and replacing the roof.
“I’m confident that this building will now be 75 per cent stronger than before,” said the building’s owner.
New visitors and repeat visitors to the culinary capital can expect the usual high standards of cuisine and service.
“What’s good is that we now have regular flights coming in from France with the fresh products,” said Pascal Narme, L’Auberge Gourmande’s owner. “We reopened in May. We are not very busy, but the support has been wonderful from locals and tourists wanting to come back and help the economy. Tourists tell us they are passing through immigration speedily and easily at the airport and that’s a good sign too.
“Things are moving slowly but surely. There is still the delay in settling insurance claims and applying for building permits, which is proving to be a challenge with the new regulations. Even if you have received insurance money you can’t rebuild without the permit.” Narme is also part owner of Ocean 82, (formerly the Fish Pot) on the waterfront. He is hoping to receive the permit in a couple of weeks to rebuild the restaurant.
L’Auberge Gourmande is arguably the oldest restaurant on the Boulevard, opening in 1979. Narme and his wife have been running it since 2000. L’Auberge will close for holidays in September, he disclosed.
Narme confirms there is a good, positive atmosphere in the village. Nobody is discouraged by the hurricane threat and all want to build back, he said.
“AirBnB is bringing tourists, Grand Case Hotel will be re-opening with their first 45 rooms, I believe, and the small boutique hotels are re-opening one after the other. So, I think it’s going to be a decent season,” he added. “And next year will be even better.”
According to Rainbow Café owner Gobert Douglas, agents of the Collectivité visited all the restaurants, shops and businesses a week ago to ask how everything was going and to see what they needed.
“I was encouraged that they realise Grand Case is very important for tourism,” he said. “They talked about streetlighting and closing the street to traffic at certain times, 12:00pm to 3:00pm and 6:00pm to 10:00pm. It’s a good sign.
“I didn’t have insurance, but I rebuilt very quickly and took back my staff. I got my building permit and I also have my AOT [temporary occupation permit – Ed.] for beach chairs and umbrellas thanks to President Gibbs. I had been fighting for 10 years for that.”
He said that building permit applications are taking too long and some of the strict French building regulations are “crazy” and not compatible with the reality of St. Martin and the needs of tourism.
“If we had to follow some of those regulations Grand Case and Orient Beach would be dead. Of course, we must build better and stronger. But I think the Collectivité has had to make compromises, bending the rules to suit tourism, but at the same time trying to conform to the law. I’m sure it’s not easy for them.”
Rainbow Café will be closed in September and October, reopening November 2018.