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Philipsburg on the island of St. Martin (istockphoto)

Philipsburg on the island of St. Martin

(istockphoto)

How we planned our St. Martin family vacation (without the Internet) Add to ...

Ours would prove to be an island hotel of true distinction, a rare gem available only to the most dedicated and discerning of guests.

But we couldn’t find it on the Internet. Travel agents and magazines didn’t have a clue. My wife and I (two independent-minded postbackpacker parents with a young child) spent half a year chasing shadows and rumours, and we were starting to think it didn’t exist.

We wanted worthwhile family lodging in the Caribbean for less than $150 a night, high season: a cheerful bungalow with a pool, easy beach access and ocean views at the other end of a direct flight. But we were nearly ready to throw in the beach towel, before we finally found it in St. Martin. The key to our find was surprisingly simple, and hidden in plain sight.

As the ice of last year’s rough winter gave way to spring optimism, we plunged into the warm waters of the Internet. But without having chosen a specific destination, we churned up a Sargasso Sea’s worth of chaff: resort ads, package clearinghouses, suspicious reviews, Condé Nast articles, blog posts from 2007. Anything promising had to be cross-checked for direct flights, price updates, child-friendliness, availability and our interest in visiting the island in question. There was nothing we trusted on VRBO or Airbnb. The few options we liked were always too expensive, too remote, too something.

The writer and his daughter hit the water in St. Martin. (Christina Vardanis)

The months passed. We turned to the travel agents, who had brochures and last-minute deals but all of it was generic; we didn’t want to be herded. We issued worried appeals to trusted friends and family. A few recommended magical islands that required too many plane changes. Some whispered of resorts with full-time nanny service – expensive. Others told us to shut it down and head for Florida, which would be tantamount to admitting defeat. How could we escape the clutches of Disney Caribbean, only to wash up in Orlando?

Fall came and went, and it was becoming hard to escape the conclusion that the modest, independent family island vacation we had envisioned simply did not exist. Florida was starting to look good, or at least inevitable. Resigned to our fate, we agreed to make a decision after Christmas.

How had it come to this? When my wife and I wandered through Asia and South America, we had always run into families kicking around the low-key beaches. “Why were the Caribbean’s travel physics so different?” we wondered, wistfully looking at our shelf of old backpacker travel guides.

That’s when it hit us. The concise, reliable, indexed information capsules in those guides had always helped inform our trip planning, but whether through rust, baby brain or cabin fever, we had forgotten our own best practices. We ran directly to a book store. A treasure chest of island resources awaited, begging to be plundered.

Just a few days of reading turned up a wide (but not too wide) array of the places we’d sought for months. One sterling review led us to do more research on the French side of St. Martin. Here there was a property that had everything we needed, either on site or close by. The cheerful owners gave us their last room, graciously tolerated our rusty French and helped arrange for a rental car.

A car made their vacation truly independent (when they ventured away from the beach). (Christina Vardanis)

In truth, it was the car that made our island vacation truly independent, in ways no shuttle bus can match. Liberated on our own schedule, we used it for excursions each day, from the cruise ship and casino bustle of Philipsburg to the kid-friendly Butterfly Farm near Quartier-d’Orléans and the ferry dock for a day trip to nearby Saint-Barthélemy. We also used our wheels to reach sandy swimming spots around the island, from Anse Marcel and undeveloped Îlet Pinel to busy Orient Beach and jet-buzzed Simpson Bay – and to sniff out food, from groceries and takeout pizza in Oyster Pond to Creole-style ribs in Grand Case and real French coffee wherever the urge hit.

A guidebook isn’t a travel bible. We learned less from ours than we did from the small talk and suggestions of our like-minded neighbours around the pool. But through the week, it continued to serve as a quick reference point for maps, sights and context – and of course, without its guidance, we never would have found that particular pool in the first place. Our choice was validated one day when we accidentally wandered into the corridors of a large chain hotel on the outskirts of Oyster Pond, where lunch tasted too much like home and we quickly found ourselves fighting off timeshare sales agents, the true modern pirates of the Caribbean.

It turns out that the Caribbean islands are not exempt from the normal laws of travel physics. You can get that impression from the noise generated by geography and marketing, and the pull of the all-inclusive. But independent alternatives exist, and you don’t have to spend six months searching. You just have to remember how to look.

IF YOU GO

Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten is an all-purpose family vacation destination. It’s compact enough to be reliably circumnavigated by rental car in 90 minutes, but diverse beyond its size: French style and euros; Dutch nightlife and U.S. dollars; beaches for every purpose; and cuisines to suit most tastes. Major Canadian carriers fly direct to Princess Juliana International Airport near Philipsburg on the Dutch side; ferries and regional airlines provide quick service to noteworthy nearby islands, including Anguilla, Saba and Saint-Barthélemy.

Saint-Martin offers good accommodations for every budget and taste, but we have only good things to say about Les Balcons d’Oyster Pond. French transplants Carine and David Poret maintain 10 tidy hillside suites with broad vistas of Oyster Pond harbour and the sea from $1,025 (€700) a week in high season. Lonely Planet describes a stay as “without exaggeration, one of the best deals in the Caribbean.” lesbalcons.com

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