Saint Martin is one of the many beautiful islands in the Caribbean. But, if your visit there doesn’t take you to Pinel Island, you would be missing one of its true gems. Pinel Island is a small island on the French side of St. Martin, just a few hundred yards offshore from the town of Cul de Sac. It is technically uninhabited but that is just a technicality, because during the day the two restaurants, a shop, and beach chairs are full of people enjoying the wonderful food, gorgeous views, and crystal clear water.
St. Martin isn’t very big, but since the roads are all two lane, it ended up being a pretty good drive to Cul de Sac from our hotel on the Dutch side. The curvy, mountainous road out there is an adventure in itself, but without much signage, we often wondered how lost we were. Luckily, we spotted a small white sign with Pinel scribbled on it with an arrow directing us to the harbor.
There are two ways to get on the island, either by renting a kayak or riding on an open boat ferry. We chose the ferry, which departs from Cul de Sac wharf. It was a short, ten-minute ride that cost $12.00 roundtrip per person. As is common throughout the island, boarding was a laid back system. There was not any tickets. We just paid the captain in cash.
From the open-air boat, the island looked like the tropical island paradise everyone is looking to escape to. You need to come here looking for some peace and quiet, because it’s not a loud party scene – at least the day we where there. What we found upon disembarking were gently swaying palm trees alongside a long stretch of beach lined with beach chairs and umbrellas. A brilliant blue sky hangs above as white, puffy clouds float by.
There are two restaurants on the island, Le Karibuni and Yellow Beach. Claiming our spot in front of Le Karibuni, a well-known French restaurant, we quickly got over being a part of the captive audience for two restaurants, considering it just part of the adventure. We chose Le Karibuni, since it seemed to be at the quieter side.
Walking into the ocean is just like walking into a zero entry pool. The waters were so calm and clear, we could see the fish swim beside our legs. After putting on our gear, we snorkeled out to a portion of the National Marine Reserve. Out here where it was deeper and a bit closer to the open ocean, the waters were a little choppy, but the view was worth it. Snorkeling above a large reef, we saw an octopus, and many tropical fish swimming among the colorful coral. The snorkeling was okay, but we found the snorkeling experience a little better on another part of St. Martin.
Perched on the water’s edge, Le Karibuni is in the idyllic spot for a tropical restaurant. Wooden tables shaded by dried-palm thatched umbrellas are scattered along the shore. In the main dining area, picnic-style tables are nestled among Sea Grape trees. Without a hostess to seat us, we chose one of the waterfront tables. It didn’t take long for several frisky iguanas, the islands true natives to start scurrying among the tables looking for a handout.
A native French server greeted our table took great care of us throughout our meal. We learned from him that operating a restaurant on a remote island is quite an undertaking. Every morning, the staff hauls all the food supplies to the island by boat and the remaining supplies back to the mainland in the evening. Every afternoon the staff rakes and cleans out the sand floors of debris. In spite of looking to be in nice shape, he claims he doesn’t need to work out since there is so much physical work to his job.
After hearing the staff has to physically haul all the remaining food supplies off the island each night, we understood why everyone in our party got a small salad prior to our main entrée even though no one ordered it. Even the ones who ordered a salad were served a salad before their salad entrée arrived. That’s a first for any of us. We speculate it was a slow lunch for them and not worth the effort to haul salad ingredients back to the mainland.
Salad Crevettes with grilled shrimp served with lettuce, fresh fruits, and mint sate sauce
Ceviche ou Tartare Dujour – raw pieces of fish marinated with lime juice
Local Trunk Fish stuffed with Mahi-Mahi alongside grilled zucchini and onions
A fresh fish lunch seemed to be the best choice. Everyone who ordered a fish entrée was pleased. There were two in our party who were disappointed. They ordered the mini spareribs, which tasted like charcoal and lighter fluid. Likely the ribs were cooked too close to the flames. I would return to this restaurant in spite of the unpleasant taste of the ribs and a bit too long wait to receive our entrees. The free round of banana rum shots from our server was a great way to make amends.
After lunch, we took a walk to the ocean side of the island. There is a well-worn path from behind Karibuni leading up and over the top of the hill in the middle of the island. It’s a gentle incline and descent down to an isolated beach. While the harbor side of the island is pretty busy, not many venture to the windward side. As a consequence, the piles of seashells washed up by the surf lie waiting to be discovered.
Spending a day on this dream-like island will be one we will long remember. It was worth the time and effort to get here. It’s my kind of place, both exotic and peaceful – that’s my dream.