Listen to me on KTRS/St. Louis every Friday, 3-6pm CT

Monday, April 18, 2016

St. Maarten

Thirty years ago, my wife and I went on our first Caribbean vacation, which turned out to be kind of eventful.

We arrived at a nice little resort in St. Maarten in the evening after dark. We unpacked, had some dinner, and went to bed. When we awoke, we opened the curtains and couldn't believe how beautiful the beach and ocean looked. As we walked down the beach towards the resort's restaurant, another tourist passing us said good morning, then made a comment about the space shuttle going up that morning. Or at least that's what I thought he said until my wife turned and asked, "Did he say the space shuttle blew up this morning?"

We rushed back to the room and put on CNN, then sat there for at least an hour transfixed by the horror of the Challenger explosion story. Finally, we tore ourselves away to get something to eat and spend some time on the beach. At the time, there was no internet, no cell phones, no other source of information, so we went back to the room every couple of hours to see if there were any new developments in CNN's non-stop coverage.

We were only going to be on St. Maarten for three days, and were determined to make the most of it. I took scuba lessons and went on my first dive, stunned at the beauty of the undersea world with fish and coral I never knew existed. My wife didn't want to dive, but she went along on the boat, where we left her -- alone -- while the rest of the group dove into the sea. She'd brought a book and lay back in the sunshine, enjoying the solitude, although she later said the thought did cross her mind that she'd have no idea what to do and where to go if we never came back up, because there was no land in site from the dive location.

The only thing that marred the adventure for me was another rookie diver, who was so nervous that he breathed too much and too quickly, thus using up his oxygen in twenty minutes instead of the scheduled thirty, forcing the dive-master to bring us all back to the surface prematurely. But I really couldn't complain because I'd discovered a new world, and continued to scuba dive on many of our vacations over the next decade.

We walked to the nearby town of Philipsburg, where the streets were lined with stores targeting cruise ship tourists with expensive nonsense. We found an off-the-main-drag restaurant whose name I can't remember, but the food was delicious.

Speaking of food, we'd heard about a very upscale resort on the French side of the island called La Samanna. We'd read that people like Mick Jagger had bungalows there, and that the view of the ocean from the well-regarded restaurant was magnificent. So we took a cab there and requested a table with a great view, which we got. Both the meal and the view lived up to the hype, but I was in for a bit of a surprise when the check came and the total was $560. The blood drained from my face. Nothing else on this trip had been even remotely that expensive and, frankly, we didn't have that kind of money. I wondered how we'd run up such a huge bill with only two people having lunch and a couple of drinks.

My wife noticed my panic and asked what was wrong. I showed her the check and asked what we should do. She paused for a moment, then said we should inquire about the exchange rate. I was still too shocked to understand what she meant. She explained that on the French side, their currency was probably the franc, not the dollar (as it was on the Dutch side). Just then, the waiter came by, so she asked and he explained that there were eight francs to the US dollar. Quick math: 560 / 8 = $70. Phew! Pricy, but not heart-stopping.

That evening, after dinner, we found the resort's tiny casino, which had a couple dozen slot machines, two blackjack tables, and a roulette wheel. That's where my wife gambled for the first -- and last -- time in her life (a story which I told in detail here).

The next day, we went for a walk on the long beach, which was fronted by several resorts. We left ours, walked past a few others, then came to a rock wall that seemed odd. It wasn't very tall, but it ran the depth of the beach and into the ocean a bit, like a jetty. It was low tide, so we had no trouble walking around it and continuing on our way.

Once on the other side of the wall, however, we discovered quickly why it was there -- for privacy. Within five seconds, we realized that every other person on that portion of the beach was completely naked. We had stumbled upon a nude beach, where fantasy and reality collided. In your mind's eye, when you think of a nude beach, you may think of very attractive people of both sexes, in great shape, romping in the sand and water or maybe just lying on a towel sunbathing and applying lotion to their beautiful bodies. 

That's the fantasy. The reality, in the form of this gathering of random individuals, was living proof that not everyone should be walking around unclothed. Being shy people -- who own mirrors -- we knew that the latter group included us. Unfortunately, these several dozen people didn't have the same honest appraisals of themselves. Or maybe they did but didn't care. Whatever. 

We quickly withdrew to the other side of the rock jetty and headed back to our resort, having learned a valuable human lesson and in need of a shower, where I tried to scrub from my eyes the images I'd just taken in.

We kept to our beach the rest of the day, with occasional CNN breaks, and relaxed in the sunshine until it was time to head for the airport for our flight home. That concluded our first international trip together, but I'm happy to say it's been followed by many more in these three decades.

And on each of those, we have studiously avoided nude beaches.