Serendipity In Philipsburg, Sint Maarten

Serendipity In Philipsburg, Sint Maarten

 

Resham's family store just got served (read below for context)!

 

So on my last day for a few hours before my afternoon flight home, I went back to Maho Beach at around noon, parking up at a bench at Sunset Bar & Grill and getting some good studying on while catching flights landing every 20-30 minutes.

 

 

Some were huge (crowd pleasers)…

 

 

Some were mid-size:

 

 

Some were even smaller…

 

 

Some were tiny (some do their best to get as close as possible to put on a show)…

 


 

And others were simply plain crazy:

 

 

And to round off this perfect study session, how about some freshly cooked lobster?

 

 

Remember, it doesn’t feel a thing:

 

 

I think I did good.

 

 

If you’re here, don’t stand too close to the jetstream as planes are taking off as you’ll get blown into the water (or worse)

 

 

But what about the city of Philipsburg itself and my 3 days staying here? Well I got more to talk about!

Remember the good old days of Saint Martin that we mentioned a few posts earlier? That would be found on the northern French side, of which its capital city is Marigot. In the Dutch capital of Philipsburg however…

 

 

Very developed. Very gentrified. This is their boardwalk (and they have a legit one!):

 

 

And one street behind the boardwalk is a shopper’s paradise:

 

 

Turn the corner and you’ll find Old Street, meant to evoke old memories of European colonialism, if that’s considered a good thing:

 

 

You can drive or hike up to the prison…

 

 

..,to get views of Philipsburg below:

 

 

Hungry? Locals would recommend Chesterfield’s:

 

 

Whatever you order here, order it with the Hurricane Sauce.

 

 

It was so good I dipped my lobster in it over (and with) buttercream.

 

 

Don’t forget dessert!

 

 

But as good as dessert can be, the true magic of Philipsburg lies in its people. , . .

Destiny wouldn’t have had me come here at random.

4 years ago when I was a 3rd year med student and taking my medical licensing exam, the USMLE Step 2, at the NYC Herald Square Prometric Testing Center, I struck up a casual conversation with a fellow 3rd year med student and test-taker named Resham (who was also taking the same exact exam as I was, so we had the same breaks). Now, we would expect these conversations to be dry, cordial, and superficial at best — after all, taking the worst and one of the most stressful exams of your life would not be a kind of social lubricant that would lead to real friendships (And who even bothers to MAKE FRIENDS while taking the boards?!).

But just like how a photo oddly emerged from the darkest recesses of my memories when I was Anguilla yesterday, life has a weird weird way of working out.

That day of the exam, I remember how Resham and I almost gave up hope. As we stressed over the million contingency plans if we were to bomb the exam, we also distracted each other with positive conversation; we found out we had mutual friends and I found out she grew up on a little island in the Caribbean. We then exchanged contact info before parting ways, and a few weeks later I received my USMLE Step 2 score: it was literally 1 point away from failing, which all but guaranteed I would become a doctor. Resham also found herself in a similar predicament. But over the course of the next few months we met up a few times, both promising to each other to persist relentlessly, graduate med school, and match into residency.

And we did: 1-2 years later we went on our separate ways for our respective residencies on opposite coasts, after which we eventually lost touch.

2 weeks ago, an immense fear of failure reemerged when I realized I needed to prepare for USMLE Step 3 — the same kind of overwhelming, nearly paralyzing dread that I faced when I prepared, took, and received my score for the USMLE Step 2 four years back.

And in face of that fear, I did the only thing I knew best to reset the balance and take a true mental break: Travel. And where to? It could’ve been Slovenia, Slovakia, Kuwait, Oman…I even posted on Facebook multiple times looking for interested co-travelers and monsooners. None of the signs were pointing to those places, however: Flights were too expensive. People were interested but it was too soon to prepare for. Ideal itineraries couldn’t fit within the 4-day timeframe. I even entertained the thought of staying in the city instead for the next 5 days and wallow in my fear of standardized exams (Blasphemous!).

But it was not until the last minute 4 days ago I would find a spurious cheap flight to Saint Martin. The decision seemed random and on a whim, but nothing could be further than the truth  — Remember that little island in the Caribbean that Resham said she grew up in? It’s actually Sint Maarten. And I had totally forgotten that fact (or did I?). So when she saw my Facebook status 3 days ago that I arrived here, it would be determined that I would meet her family on the island.

Had Resham and I not bothered to talk to each other while taking the USMLE Step 2 four years ago, starting to study for the USMLE Step 3 here would be awfully anti-climatic and story-less. But alas, this one shall have a story.

So after getting back from Anguilla at 5pm, I took a cab with Sisko back into Philipsburg and walked into Resham’s family-owned store, Mona Lisa, (located opposite of “Jump In” Casino and on Back Street).

 

 

And there was her mother, Rohini, expecting me!

 

 

And soon enough, I was driven around Sint Maarten when I ended up meeting her grandmother at Resham’s childhood home.

 

 

And as natural as the conversation Resham and I had 4 years ago at The Prometric Testing Center (*cough* where all great memories begin -_-), the 3 of us spent the entire evening getting to know one another, talking about Resham, and trying to piece together all the random pieces of figurative fabric that would bring us together. With coincidences like these, you can’t help but believe there’s a reason for these stories to happen.

And now I forge ahead towards conquering USMLE Step 3 with a reinforced faith in destiny.

 

 

- At time of posting in Philipsburg, Saint Martin, it was 29 °C - Humidity: 82% | Wind Speed: 29km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Angsty Anguilla

Angsty Anguilla

Angulla just got served

 

Ever have the most random parts of your distant past come up when you least expect it? Or when a feeling of déjà vu actually becomes verified by a very real memory? This just happened in Anguilla.

So after a whirlwind morning in Saba (which already feels like yesterday, but that was actually Saint Barthélemy that began with an 8:15am Winair flight, I begin this post — same day as the last one — at 12:15pm.

Right after I parted ways with Manish and Gil, with whom I just flown back from Saba, I stamped into Saint Martin’s at customs, walked out of arrivals and approached a “Funtime” Representative waiting outside, telling her I had booked a ferry to Anguilla on St. Martin Bookings

The roundtrip ferry to/from Anguilla, which cost me $80 total, would have me depart on a 1:45pm ferry from SXM/St. Martin’s to arrive at Anguilla at 2:10pm. I would then return 2 hours later on a 4pm ferry from Anguilla (arriving back at SXM/St. Martin’s at 4:30pm). Therefore, to see both Saba and Anguilla from Sint Maarten or Saint Martin in a single day is totally and easily doable no matter what anyone else is telling you!

She checked her list and then promptly directed me to a driver who took me to his car and drove me 3 minutes away to the local Ferry dock.

FYI before I go on, you should book these tickets at least 24 hours in advance if you want to pull off this itinerary, And Calypso is the other ferry charter company you can choose for more flexibility (but was also $10 extra).

 

 

When I arrived at the office, they checked me in and stamped my passport out of Saint Martin’s.

 

 

At around 1:40pm they began to shuffle us out of the waiting room towards our boat.

 

 

The boat was way way smaller than the one I rode back and forth yesterday to Saint Barthélemy!

 

 

But unlike yesterday’s rockily rough ride to and from Saint Barthélemy, the ride to Anguilla from Saint Martin is much smoother.

 

 

By 2:10pm we arrived at Anguilla; the ride takes only about 20-25 minutes!

 

 

You then have to fill out an immigrations form here and stamp your passport into Anguilla.

 

 

Then I headed to a taxi stand right in front of the exits, where I then booked a $55 USD 1.5 hour tour of Anguilla with a local Anguillan named Daron. But I would soon learn from Daron that a “tour of Anguilla” is really a “tour of all its 5 star hotels.” This obviously bummed me out, but I reluctantly obliged. What else was I to do?

But then he said the first stop would be The Four Seasons, which he then followed with, “used to be The Viceroy.” 

Now when he said “The Viceroy” a low pitched ding suddenly emerged from in the recesses of my hippocampus. And yet, I couldn’t quite put a finger on why “The Viceroy” would sound so familiar. After all, Anguilla was a last minute decision I made yesterday and I had no idea this place existed…except…

 

 

…hmm…what does this place seem so familiar? Where is this immense feeling of déjà vu coming from? I’ve never been here before!

Then visceral automatic kind of brain-muscle memory kicked in; a whisper that led me to suspect that the answer may be hidden within emails I haven’t looked at in 7 years, during the time when I was stranded alone in Egypt (yes, my first ever monsoon!).

So I did a quick scan of messages I had received during my time in Egypt, and within seconds I found an email that an ex had sent to me 7 and a half years ago that teased me of what her life was like at the time on the other side of the world — in a place called Anguilla…at The Viceroy — with a photo no less:

 

IMG00073-20100108-0814
Her photo: 01/08/10.

 

And where was I?

 

IMG_5608
My photo: 7/20/17.

 

Surreal. I soon inadvertently found myself sitting down in the very same chair she did when she took that photo, leading me to grasp, holy shit, how far I’ve come since Egypt.

And this wasn’t any random trip I was on 7.5 years ago . . .when I had received a photo of what “another type of travel” was like . . . Egypt was the first trip.

*cough* Anyways, the rest of the hotel is pretty nice, as you can see.

 

 

Yes, we shall move on; after all, the world works in such mysterious ways, it remains mysterious even when mysteries reveal themselves. Instead of paralyzing myself with a million theories, I’ll just appreciate what just happened as a sign I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. Needless to say, I was amusing Daron with this story.

Here’s another nice beach situated within another 5 star property:


We then drove down to the water and passed by what appeared to be…snow?

 

 

But it’s actually sea salt foam that blew onto land, thanks to a natural combination of intense sunlight, evaporated salty seawater, and heavy winds.

 

 

We then took a view below of Sandy Ground

 

 

…before driving into The Valley, which is the capital city of Anguilla and ask referred to as “Town.” It’s pretty dead and mostly commercial.

 

 

On its outskirts lies Anguilla’s only Catholic church…

 

 

…which sits next to the oldest building in Anguilla (also a church)…

 

 

…And a former cotton plantation built by slaves.

 

 

After that, it was time to head back to the ferry station. Once we returned, I bid goodbye to Daron and headed back inside.

 

 

Then my passport was stamped out again, and I went through the only security I’ve seen so far for ferry departures.

 

 

The ferry ended up being delayed by nearly half an hour, arriving to pick us up for boarding at around 4:25pm. But whatever, it’s island time.

 

 

Too bad when I boarded, I ended up sitting across from an angry American tourist who was evidently pissed and yelling about how someone had stolen her shorts. She had knocked out my phone charger that was plugged into the wall twice without hesitation, as well as being verbally abusive to her partner. He was taking all of this in stride and was apologizing to everyone in the boat on her behalf. 

Sandwiched between her and the partner on the boat, I realized the ride back was gonna be so real.

But luckily, the staff noticed my predicament and opened up the front part of the boat for us to escape. And half of the boat did.

 

 

This was a good call because we ended up getting a great view of our ride back to St. Martin/Maarten.

 

 

- At time of posting in Anguilla, it was 28 °C - Humidity: 80% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Saba Rattling: The World’s Shortest (‘Scariest’) Runway Landing

Saba Rattling: The World’s Shortest (‘Scariest’) Runway Landing

At 1300ft, this is the world's shortest commercial airport runway
The world's shortest commercial airport runway just got served.

 

5 countries in 24 hours: how about that?!

After a day trip to Saint Barthélemy yesterday, I turned in early last night to catch my 8:15am Winair flight to Saba this morning (which I booked altogether online with a roundtrip flight returning at 12:15pm for $177 USD total).

Although waking up at around 6:30am was bit of an overkill (could’ve slept in as late as 7:15am and still would’ve made it), I used my Priority Pass to hang out at SXM Airport’s only Executive Lounge for half an hour.

 

 

They had good coffee and I had the whole place to myself. Can’t complain.

At around 7:55am, they announced for boarding, so I made the 5 minute walk over from the lounge to my gate where they corralled us downstairs to a corner.

 

 

Then the 10 of us boarded a bus outside…

 

 

…drove over 30-40 seconds to our plane…

 

 

…and got inside…

 

 

…before quickly taking off literally within 5 minutes of boarding. And the whole flight from SXM airport to Saba takes about 15 minutes!

 

 

What makes Saba, aka “The Unspoiled Queen” of the Caribbean, famous is that it boasts the world’s shortest airport runway landing for commercial flights (1300 ft). It is also known as one of the most dangerous (and scariest!) for commercial air pilots and they have to be specially trained in order to be able to land here.

Here was my experience:

 

 

And a video from a 3rd person point of view:

 

 

Either way, I went on this anyway, while full well knowing that there has been no major tragedy as of yet with the landings here (knock on wood).

 

 

Once you disembark, you can literally walk up to what probably is also the world’s tiniest airport: The Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport is just a big room. Nevertheless, they still have to stamp your passport in (so don’t forget it at home!).

 

 

Leaving the airport I hired one of the cab drivers waiting outside, a guy named Willem, who offered to show me around the island for an hour for $50 USD. And off we went with the airport behind us.

 

 

At only 5 square miles with a population of 1,900 people, the island is mainly served by a single main road, known as “The Road“, which construction in 1958 marked a massive feat in achieving what had thought to have been impossible.

But as long as you stay on it (and on the right side!), you’ll get to see the entire island within an hour.

 

 

The capital of Saba is called The Bottom, named for literally being on the bottom of the island. It houses the Saba University School of Medicine, hosting mostly med students from the USA.

 

 

Driving through The Bottom itself, however, made me feel like I was in a pretty quiet part of town, in all of town. I was also bummed out there weren’t any medical students hanging around; I was a little curious what it would’ve been like if I went to med school here instead of in NYC.

 

 

Afterwards we headed back out and past the ferry port…

 

 

…before stopping back midway up past The Bottom, where Willem left me so I could park myself at the Bizzy Bee for brunch.

 

 

It was at this point I realized I forgot to pack an iPhone cable to charge my phone (all the juice had been used up taking video), which never ever happens

But nevertheless I shrugged this off as a positive thing, shirking off my original plan to study at The Bizzy Bee until my return flight, and instead take a walk around town looking for a cheap replacement cable.

 

 

Eventually I found a cheap $4.00 replacement at the local grocery store, which then led me to find a nice bar around the corner called Scout’s Place that had wifi and a view. So plugging in my phone over a cup of coffee, I ended up getting in some great board studying in here for the next hour and a half.

This is way better than what it was like in med school!

 

 

At around 11:30am, I packed up and headed back out to the parking lot by the Bizzy Bee where Willem returned for me to drop me off back at the airport for my 12:15pm flight back to St. Maarten. 

FYI, prior to leaving Saba, they’ll make you pay a $30 USD departure tax in cash!

 

 

This is what it’s like to take off from the world’s shortest commercial airport runway:

 

 

We landed in SXM airport 15 minutes later, with Maho Beach right below us:

 

 

And it was at this point where I overheard some talk about medical school: There were Saba University School of Medicine students on my flight!

 

 

I ended up speaking with 1st year med students Manish and Gil for the rest of our way from disembarking to arrivals, eventually exchanging contact info to catch up again. Keep in touch!

And it’s only 12:15pm — Onwards to Anguilla!

 

- At time of posting in Saba, it was 25 °C - Humidity: 75% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy

 

A Saint Martin Getaway To Saint Barthélemy

A Saint Martin Getaway To Saint Barthélemy

When I travel solo I tend not to plan as much, which can be a big problem when you arrive at a place like Saint Martin/Sint Maarten island during the low season (there’s not a lot to do and not a lot of people to meet and go on adventures with). So after a day on the French side and a few hours on the Dutch side, I was already getting island fever…

…and studying for the boards for the past 8 hours in my room was just not going to cut it (yes, I really did that).

So at around 3pm I headed out from my hotel in Philipsburg and walked about 5 minutes from the main boardwalk (the front street facing the Great Bay) southeast to the Great Bay Ferry Terminal Office, paying $55 USD for a roundtrip ferry ride from Sint Maarten/Philipsburg to Saint Barthélemy leaving at 3:45pm (and returning at 6:45pm).

 

 

At about 3:20pm I lined up and got my passport stamped out of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin.

 

 

At 3:45pm we boarded and got on our way.

See ya Philipsburg!

 

 

FYI, the 45 minute ride from Saint Martin/Sint Maarten island is not a smooth one; if you decide to sit outside the boat, put away those sunglasses and hold on lest something gets thrown off!

 

 

Put on your headphones and with a good soundtrack, the ride goes by fast; we arrived at Saint Barthélemy’s port town of Gustavia on time at 4:30pm.

 

 

Once docked, we took about a few minutes to stamp our passports into Saint Barthélemy.

 

 

And that’s it — an hour later from your hotel room Sint Maarten you’re now in a whole new country and have a whole capital city to yourself! It’s horseshoe-shaped, and takes only 10-15 minutes to walk around the whole place.

The architecture here is a mix of Swedish, French colonial, and Caribbean and there’s a fort up in the distance which now has become the island’s sole police station.

 

 

And while walking along here, how can you not notice the glittering array of high-end boutique shops, cafés, and super-yachts that crowd Gustavia’s harbor?

 

 

After doing a whole loop around town, I realized I had another hour and a half to spare here. So I went over to the nearby taxi stand (right by where you get off from the ferry) and asked for a tour around the island. There was only one taxi driver, Mathurin, who was a local born and raised in St. Barthélemy. For $70 he agreed to show me around for the hour. 

Our first stop was Gustaf III Airport, arguably boasting the 3rd shortest (and therefore dangerous) runway in the world. Most full-sized planes cannot fly directly into Gustaf Airport so visitors who want to get to Saint Barthélemy must first fly to St Martin and then take a smaller plane or a boat from there. 

The runway also ends onto a beach of sunbathers, much like the one we saw at St Martin’s yesterday.

 

 

From the airport we headed up around the island taking in gorgeous views of its northern side.

 

 

Along the northern elevated parts of the island is where the wealthy stay, for about $40,000 USD a week!

 

 

After an hour driving around and getting to learn about St. Bart’s history, I thanked Mathurin for showing me around and spent the rest of the time in Gustavia studying up over some tea and crème brûlée while watching the sunset at Le Repaire café.

 

 

Then at 6:30pm I checked back in for my 6:45pm ferry ride back to Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, during which I almost nodded off completely.

And at 7:30pm we arrived back in Philipsburg, where I stamped in my passport and headed back to my hotel for an early morning.

 

 

- At time of posting in Gustavia, Saint Barthélemy, it was 28 °C - Humidity: 80% | Wind Speed: 27km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Lying Low In Marigot, Saint Martin

Lying Low In Marigot, Saint Martin

Having been given an unexpected 4 days off before my next shift in the ED, I decided it was another time to attempt a solo trip getaway.

Although I was also entertaining traveling from Slovenia to Slovakia (the flights were too expensive), Oman to Kuwait (I came up with an itinerary so sexy I decided it was better to save it for a group), and Moldova/Transnistra (the flights were too cost-prohibitive), the 34 sq mi Caribbean island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten (+ and its surrounding islands!) somehow beckoned to me when it popped up on my Hitlist searches. Given its easygoing vibes, its cheap roundtrip flight at $450, and the ability to lock myself down and study for a bit for the USMLE Step 3 Exam (aka the last of the medical licensing board exams), it emerged to be the perfect getaway.

Saint Martin is actually comprised of 2 separate “territories”: the southern, smaller, and yet more populated Dutch side (Sint Maarten) covering 13 square miles and the northern, larger French side (St. Martin) covering 30-31 square miles. This makes Saint Martin the world’s smallest inhabited island divided between two nations….a unique designation like that was just too hard to pass up!

So getting up at 6am, I caught a 7:30am flight from NYC to Miami, where I spent a one hour layover checking out its new Centurion Lounge (open and free to all AMEX Platinum and Centurion cardholders).

 

 

Then I hopped on a 12:11pm flight, taking off with the Bahamas right beneath us.

 

 

At 3pm we landed at SXM Princess Juliana’s Airport on the southern Dutch side of the island. Make sure you look to your left when you land and the landings are famous for getting up way close to the suntanners camped out on Maho Beach.

 

 

Once in the airport, I soon remembered how every single major Caribbean Island international airport is notorious for their long lines stamping into their countries…

 

 

After about 20 minutes in queue, I was stamped in within seconds and was soon picked up by Sisko of the Dutch St. Maarten Taxi Association, who conveniently curated for me a last-minute customized itinerary for me around the island for 2-3 hours. 

But first we needed to turn a corner around the airport and stop by Maho Beach (and its adjacent Sunset Bar) for some shots of our own of these low-landing airplanes. Traditions are traditions.

 

 

Saint Martin actually notoriosuly made it into international news 4 days ago, when a New Zealander tourist was killed instantly after she was blown away by a jet blast right at this spot (GRAPHIC VIEWING IS ADVISED): New Zealand woman dies after jet blast at world’s ‘scariest’ airport.

I was now standing in the very same spot she was.

 

 

Unfortunately, current events have not deterred other tourists’ curiosities from getting up close — although nobody was holding onto the fence today when I was watching.

 

 

And after about half an hour here, we headed up north towards the French side of the island, stopping by its respective capital, Marigot.

 

 

Life in quaint, quiet little Marigot is what the Saint Martin island used to be, before the excesses of gentrification, colonialism, and tourism took over (which you’ll see especially in the Dutch side and its capital, Philipsburg).

 

 

It was a nice 10 minute stroll along the marina here looking into Marigot Bay, while grabbing an espresso and croissant at local favorite pastry shop Sarafina’s.

 

 

On the days that large cruises dock and spill out its 6000+ passengers into the island, the open air markets set up shop right here in Place du MarchéLuckily for me today was not one of those days.

 

 

We then headed into Grand Case in the northern part of the island where I grabbed some awesome conch at Lolo’s/Cynthia’s Talk of the Town for a steep price of 16 euros (although they convert 1:1 to USD making it $16 USD. Nice!)

 

 

Then we drove out to Orient Bay, where further to the east of here are their famous nude beaches (That is so French) and resorts.

 

 

Then we headed back south past the Dutch/French border.

 

 

Then at around 8pm and saying goodbye to Sisko, I checked into my seaside room at Horizon View.

 

 

Make sure you eat enough food by then as Philipsburg is literally dead at this time of night on a Monday.

 

 

- At time of posting in Marigot, Saint Martin (France), it was 27 °C - Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy