LA SAMANNA, ST. MARTIN: COLORFUL CARIBBEAN CONTRASTS
by Janine S. Pouliot

The first and most startling impression upon arriving at the upscale boutique hotel La Samanna on the Caribbean island of St. Martin is one of sharply contrasting color. The bright azure of the sea is framed by blindingly white sand. A deep cobalt sky is juxtaposed against the purest white of the hotel’s exterior. It is elemental, basic, stunning. This ultra high-end hotel offers honeymooners both aesthetic beauty and creature comforts.

La Samanna began humbly enough. After a tour of Greece, wealthy Americans James and Nicole Frankel were infused with inspiration by the simple whitewashed adobe architecture. They went to St. Martin intent on re-creating the same uncomplicated lines in a retreat for themselves. Purchasing 55 gorgeous acres, they hired distinguished architect Happy Ward to design a typical Mediterranean seaside villa.

As the plans progressed, however, the Frankels began to visualize the commercial possibilities of a marriage between topography and architecture. They decided instead on creating an intimate inn, naming it La Samanna after their three daughters. Selecting the first letters of each child’s name, Samantha, Anouk and Nathalie, and adding the French prefix “La” (this is a French island, after all), they opened the property in 1973.

Roughly 30 years later, it does, indeed, look like it belongs more along the Mediterranean than the Caribbean. Arches, domes and white stucco would all be quite comfortable there. But this is precisely what makes La Samanna so distinctive in this part of the world. Combined with lush garden landscaping, meandering stone paths, brilliant tropical flowers and rocky cliffs, it looks as attractive as it is luxurious.

Renowned Caribbean artist Roland Richardson couldn’t agree more. While staying at La Samanna, my husband and I meet him by chance at a showing of his work in the hotel’s gallery. A collection of his paintings is on permanent display, refreshed by new pieces as guests buy up what they like. During a cocktail reception in the gallery on a Friday night, we corner Richardson to ask him why, of all places, he chose La Samanna as his theme.

“Color is the subject,” he says matter of factly, confirming what we already knew. But it’s nice to have it reinforced by such an acclaimed artist. Richardson, who has exhibited all over the world including Beirut and Moscow, is often singled out as the most representative artist depicting the Caribbean. With his dramatic flowing white beard and deep red/bronzed skin, he is an exercise in colorful contrasts himself. “La Samanna provides an idyllic opportunity to look at that extraordinary color,” he adds. “It is blessed with warm glorious light manifesting in vibrant color.”

We examine his canvases and agreed that they are the human expression of the natural drama all around. Bright splashes of tint precisely capture the vivid intensity of sea and gardens. Later, when we return to our suite, we notice one of his original works on the wall. His paintings punctuate much of La Samanna.

The hotel is also recognized for its extensive wine collection of more than 10,000 bottles. We attend a wine tasting in the grotto by descending torch-lit stairs below ground level, transitioning from the balmy tropical heat down into the cool damp chamber. We enter what looks exactly like a European wine cellar in an old chateau, right here in the Caribbean. The wine list is impressive and scanning it, we spot a Romanee-Conti Grand Cru red at a cost of nearly $5,000. But there’s also an excellent Australian vintage at around $70.

Couples who seek the ultimate in romance can pre-arrange for a private wine paring dinner, served at the dining table set up in the center of the cellar. Soft classical music and candlelight accent the special occasion. Depending on their preference, they can either choose the menu and have the wines selected to complement the food or consult with the sommelier on the wines and have the chef build the courses around their choices.

More romance is found in the roof-top honeymoon suite. In the main building atop a cliff, it’s situated for the best vistas of the rocky promontory and wide curved bay. Three terraces provide slightly different vantage points, one is a wood patio with a huge plunge pool that resembles a small rocky mountain and a lounging cabana decked out with white canvas ceiling and drapes. Plants and palm trees are all about. Inside, the marble flooring is the backdrop to crisp white overstuffed upholstery, endless candles, fresh flowers, a selection of romantic novels and a massive collection of DVDs.

Other units are housed in adobe buildings rambling throughout the property, all with views that open directly onto the long dazzling stretch of beach.

There’s plenty to do at La Samana besides soaking up beauty and romance. The hotel offers such activities as wind surfing, sailing, snorkeling, kayaking, tennis and just plain fun like a beach lobster BBQ or an open air movie at the beach bar.

La Samanna is also renowned for its haut French cuisine. The alfresco dining offers a changing menu served in a leisurely fashion on a patio overlooking the shimmering sea, candles flickering in the breeze, the gentle lapping of the surf in the background. The setting is particularly idyllic at sunset when a fiery red ball drops into an endless ocean, the sky streaked with ribbons of red and orange.

More relaxation can be found at Elysee Spa, where treatment rooms open onto individual private gardens with outdoor showers and the tweeting of birds. A full service spa menu lists a variety of massage, body and facial treatments. To help remove the gallons of sunscreen coating my skin, I pick the body polish that leaves me feeling like “budda.”

La Samanna draws the A-List of Rich and Famous: Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Jodie Foster… But it also attracts honeymoon couples seeking remarkable beach and personal attention. It’s a civilized but casual retreat that defines what the Caribbean is all about.