The sun sets quickly at Orient Beach, St. Martin. Around 4 p.m., we gaze at the sky and shiver from the slight drop in temperature. We have become spoiled by 80-degree days, light breezes and the easy routine here. Joggers and walkers — some clothing optional — make their way along the shore. Parasailers, like human kites, wave their hands (and feet!) to those on the beach.
Many, including Condé Nast Traveler, have recognized this beach for its beauty. But its powdery sand is hidden most days, stabbed by cranberry-and-gold beach umbrellas. While we pack up our beach towels, the topic of conversation turns to dinner. There are so many choices in St. Martin, French West Indies, our winter escape for more than 20 years. Are we in the mood for Salade Niçoise at a quaint bistro or moules frites (mussels and french fries) at a sidewalk cafe? Or we could take the 15-minute ride to the other side of the island — St. Maarten, Netherland Antilles — for rogan josh or kung pao chicken.
We decide to head for Marigot, capital of the French side, in search of Moroccan delights. We venture into an outdoor garden reminiscent of the movie "Casablanca" and are encouraged to wait for our table under a tent. Moroccan music fills the air, as do smells of cumin and turmeric.
For those who live on St. Martin, life is very simple. For tourists, it's a mecca for shopping, dining and lounging on the beach. Pouilly Fuisse and St. Emilion can easily be found at any wine store on the French side for less than $30 a bottle. Beaujolais and beer are cheaper than Coke.
We set aside one day for shopping. The Dutch side is congested with casinos, timeshares and large restaurants. Cruise ships dock there, releasing hordes of visitors onto cobblestoned Frontstreet, the main street of Philipsburg, Dutch St. Maarten's capital. They go in search of Nikons and iPods, David Yurman bracelets and Prada perfume while the Indian merchants haggle with them about pricing.
We walk from store to store, edging our way along the narrow sidewalks, inquiring about the price of a bottle of Le Must de Cartier only to discover it is $71 in some locations, $47 (in cash) in others. We find sizable bottles of Absolut for only $5.95. Mikimoto pearls, Tiffany gems and loose emeralds are everywhere.
We return to Marigot, the French capital, where the streets are quieter, the stores more elegant. The designer names MaxMara and Kenzo take their places next to the Americans: Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren have moved in next door. Still, the ambiance is far more European.
As our shopping day ends, we make our way back to our car. At 3 p.m., the clouds are rolling in again. Instead of a tan, we've got bags full of cosmetics — Christian Dior, Guerlain, Clarins — discounted 25 percent or more from department-store prices. We call that a good day in paradise.