The Accidental Chef Travels: St. Martin on a budget

It was just a few months ago that I found myself, once again, with itchy feet. I needed to go somewhere warm and tropical, and I needed to get there as soon as possible. I ran the idea by the hubby, who is always up for a last-minute jaunt, especially when we’re talking the Caribbean, and started the proverbial search for where and when.

This is where things started to get tricky, and to complicate things, we were on a major budget. While flights to just about anywhere were at an all-time low, itineraries to the Caribbean islands were all over the map from my hub, Richmond, Virginia, with several boasting multiple stops with exceptionally long layovers, some in excess of 24 hours. One itinerary, Richmond to Nevis, offered a whopping thirty-one hours travel time, which essentially negated the fact that I actually live on the east coast of the United States.
Islands were quickly narrowed down because of this, and it wasn’t long before I discovered the beauty of Charlotte Douglas Airport which serves as major hub to many Caribbean islands. Connecting through CLT was showing uber-cheap flights ($350 round trip on US Airways including taxes and fees from Richmond to St. Maarten. Toss in flexible travel days (a Saturday to Thursday stay, which offered the lowest fare) and I was sold. Estimated money saved, thanks to CLT, travel flexibility and banging low rates on US Airways, roughly $200 per ticket.

Yet, the budget challenge continued as we needed a week’s worth of accommodations, and of course, plenty of cash money for eats and drinks. Luckily, we were traveling during the off-season, which I highly recommend for a couple of reasons– it’s way cheaper and the beaches are less crowded. Traveling from mid-April through early December is a great way to take advantage of some crazy reduced hotel rates. Whether it’s a 7th night free offer, complimentary spa treatments, meal vouchers or just super-low rates in general, if you can swing traveling during this time (and don’t mind the heat or fear hurricanes) you can manage to score some amazing deals.

For example, we discovered a total gem of a hotel in Grand Case, French St. Martin, the Grand Case Beach Club, an oasis of calm, azure swimming holes, impeccable service on all fronts, oceanfront rooms with views of Anguilla, and incredible food and drinks to be enjoyed at the hotel’s waterfront Sunset Café. Our one bedroom oceanfront room came with a fully equipped kitchen, separate living area and a king size bedroom, where sliding glass doors opened to take in the breezes from off the bay.

Like all guests, we arrived to a complimentary bottle of wine, soft music playing from a rotating CD player in our room, and hibiscus flowers scattered about the bed and bath. A complimentary continental breakfast in true French St. Martin style (croissants, yogurt, French butter and dark roast coffee) was offered oceanfront every morning, all non-motorized water sports were free, and on Wednesday, a hosted manager’s reception was held hillside complete with hors d’oeuvres, rum punch and great conversation with the staff . The price for all this luxury? $200 bucks a night including a 5th night free offer. By comparison, in-season rates for February 2010 for the same exact room are showing $435 per night.

The lesson? Visit the Caribbean in the off-season, look for package deals such as free night offers, and try to go for hotels/resorts that offer guests more than simply a room. As a result, our total estimated savings was roughly $1,375 in accommodations alone with the little extras serving as priceless additions.

Now, the food part was easy. We were in French St. Martin, after all, home to some of the finest cuisine in the Caribbean. Yet, many of the restaurants in Grand Case, while amazingly good, didn’t come cheap and would have totally thrown us off budget. We managed to find financial solace in the many lolos that dot the streets of town, but we still wanted to have at least one “nice” meal out. In order to do this, we needed to cut costs in other areas. This is where our in-room kitchen came into play.

I figured, along with the continental breakfast, which was quite generous, we could cook our own lunches in the room. Within walking distance of the hotel was a fantastic local grocery store, the U.S. Supermarche, brimming with delicious French specialties (think tins of imported foie gras, local vegetables, homemade pizzas, freshly baked baquettes, gobs of gooey French cheeses and $3 bottles of wine). With delights like this, who would want to eat out?

Nearly every day, we packed our picnic lunch of French delights and enjoyed them either on the beach or overlooking the bay from our patio. Estimating that the average breakfast for two would cost $20/day with tax and tip, and lunches would hover around $40/day with tax a tip, we saved approximately $300 more dollars sans the small amount we spent on groceries, and we ate a whole heck of a lot better.

I can’t talk about budgeting a Caribbean vacation without mentioning booze. This stuff will bite you in the butt when traveling (and I’m not talking hangovers). Partaking of wine, beer or cocktails can throw your entire budget off in a matter of days, so be careful when hitting restaurants and bars, or when it comes to the Caribbean beaches, calling over the cabana boy a few too many times while lying face up in the sand. Don’t worry, I’m not going to recommend abstinence while on vacation, but I will recommend watching where those hooch dollars go.

One way to save big is by stocking up in your room. It’s the Caribbean for god’s sake, so go get a bottle of top quality rum, a few mixers and have at it beach side instead of tossing out fivers at the tiki bar all day. Lastly, while it may be tempting, step away from the mini bar. Mini bars are the red button you never want to press. I don’t care how much fun you’re still having at one in the morning. Grab a big bottle of water and go to bed.

We were lucky during our trip to St. Martin since we were surrounded by fine French wines as well as fantastic locally made rum, so drinks on the beach consisted of a quick trip upstairs to the room to fire up the blender. We also saved by having a pre-game cocktail before heading out to dinner, which was one less drink we paid top dollar for. Estimated booze savings by drinking in, roughly $150 for our entire trip.

The bottom line, is that with careful planning, you can have a great Caribbean vacation just about anywhere without breaking the bank, but it will probably involve some minor sacrifices, such as carefully researched off-season flights/hotel, a good amount of flexibility, along with less eating out and more eating in. Yet, there’s one constant that I will bequeath you from firsthand experience, and that’s when you’re actually in the Caribbean sipping rum jumbies poolside, the last thing you’ll be contemplating is sacrifice.

Got a great Caribbean budget travel tip to share? We’d love to hear it.