Sea Palace Resort (timeshare) - Phillipsburg, St. Maarten,  Dutch West Indies - Feb. 4-11 2006

I read other advices and booked this trip with some trepidation. But—it was pretty “cheap” and very last-minute so I went ahead.

The bad things:

At present, the “road” in front of the resort is blocked off and torn up for rehab. It needed it, but this makes it very difficult to get to the hotel. We arrived, as is usual, on Saturday. Phillipsburg is crowded, parking is non-existent. We drove around for well over an hour trying to find a place to park so we could just get to the hotel, register, and find out where we could park overnight. I was just about to give it up, go back to the airport and take the next flight out of there when I spotted a parking area for a closed restaurant about 4 or 5 “blocks” from the Sea Palace. After we had locked up our luggage and walked over, one of the staff came back with us and directed us to the hotel parking lot. The reason we didn’t see it before is that it involved going the WRONG WAY down a one-way street (Front Street) - which was OK because there was no way to enter Front Street between the barricade blocking off the street and the front of the Sea Palace. We, of course, did NOT know this - and I’m not likely to take off the wrong way down a one-way street in a foreign country without knowing what I’m doing. The Sea Palace parking lot is across the street and down an alley behind some other buildings. Work WAS proceeding on the road, and I expect that maybe 3 or 4 weeks after we left, it would probably reopen.

If you have read any other reviews here, you may have gotten the impression that the Sea Palace is in a bad neighborhood. It isn’t. Quite. The Sea Palace is the LAST building BEFORE the bad neighborhood. To the East, it’s downtown P’burg and pretty much OK. To the West, it’s “urban renewal badly neededville” and a little scary. They ARE in the process of “beautifying” that area, at least to the extent of renewing the road, so maybe by the time you get there it’ll be better. Some, anyway. We had no difficulty—but then, we didn’t walk around there after dark, either. I don’t recommend it.

View to the WEST.View to the EAST
St. Martin may bill itself as the “friendly island”, but we didn’t find it particularly to be the case. We’ve been treated better; we’ve been treated worse. Everyone we meet was an individual, just like anywhere else and some were friendly, some just cordial.  I got panhandled once when walking back from dinner. The staff at the Sea Palace were quite accommodating and not unfriendly. Not exactly rocket scientists though. I had arranged for a 4 tank dive package over 2 days on Monday at the “orientation” meeting in the hotel lobby. (This was reminiscent of the “port talks” we got aboard cruise ships which were mainly to promote their business partners and book tours. Some other information is given however, so you might as well attend if you can - free breakfast.) After the first dive on Tuesday, I developed a migraine (the seas were unusually rough and we took a beating getting out) and also had a problem with my left ear that seemed would definitely prevent my diving the rest of the week - I was scheduled to go out again Thursday. I went to the “activities desk” at the Sea Palace (which is really just the front desk..) on Wednesday morning and advised them that I would be medically unable to dive as scheduled and needed to arrange a refund of the unused balance. Someone had thoughtfully lined out all the phone numbers on the Dive Safari flyers at the counter so I couldn’t call them directly and they were located all the way out by the airport so I didn’t really want to drive over there just to cancel.  The young lady working behind the counter didn’t even have the number. I explained the problem, and she said that she would handle it. Three days later - as I was checking out of the Palace - I was FINALLY getting evidence of the refund from the manager after SEVERAL stops at the desk to inquire if the problem had been finally handled. Right up until the end, no one seemed to fully realize that I had paid 20% of the cost to the Sea Palace as a deposit at time of booking on Monday and the balance directly to Dive Safaris when I went out the first time on Tuesday.  It was finally taken care of, but at great expense in time and aggravation. I would recommend that you try to deal DIRECTLY with tour operators, and don’t pay for anything ahead of time if you can avoid it. The 20% they collect at the “activities desk” is apparently their commission. Maybe you can negotiate the tour operator down a bit. There is a place over by the airport that claims to be able to book tours at a discount. Maybe try them?
Living Room Kitchen

Another warning: take along mosquito repellant. There isn’t supposed to be a bug problem on these small tropical islands. However, in the case of the Sea Palace, there is a very successful mosquito breeding facility about ½ block to the west. An abandoned concrete foundation that holds a large amount of stagnant water. I got eaten alive every time I was in the hotel lobby, and killed several of the bastards in our room - up on the 5th floor. I mentioned the problem to the hotel staff, and the most response I got was “If you stay here awhile, you’ll get used to them.” and a suggestion to put on repellant. Which I didn’t have. You are warned. I only saw 1 cockroach inside the building, on the first floor, outside the restaurant. We saw several rats along the buildings by the “boardwalk”. Didn’t think too much of it - it’s a seaport, bound to be rats.

The Sea Palace itself is pleasant enough. We were put in room 503. Nice large accommodations - a separate bedroom with bath - and bidet - and a second bathroom and 2 fold out couches in the kitchen/living area. 2 TVs. Could have pretty easily accommodated 6. Full kitchen, the only thing we couldn’t find were bowls to make “instant” mac&cheese. We got by. The refrigerator door opens the wrong way and is right up against the wall so it is quite awkward. The door leading out to the balcony leaks when it rains and creates a puddle on the floor in front of the door. The rooms had apparently been recently repainted etc. and by an amateur with little talent or ability. The “new” tile on the bathroom floor was badly gouged and cut. The new paint had been applied over the top of something it ought not to have been - it was already bubbling in the shower area. The bidet was apparently an afterthought in consideration of expected French guests as it keep the bathroom door from opening more than about 1/3 of the way - had to practically squeeze in there. The plastic shipping wrapper had been left on the mattress and box springs. Don’t know if that was deliberate to keep them from becoming infested or just carelessness, but it DID crinkle ever time anyone moved on the bed. The “maintenance”, although fresh and clean looking is poorly done. It appears that a quality contractor ought to be able to make a good living on this island.  The facility was kept clean however.  The manager who was there when the place opened is still there. Apparently takes the job seriously.

The good:

I don’t really have anything particularly bad to say about the actual facility or staff at the Sea Palace - it’s all OK or a little better. The location isn’t great, but the facility is a good bargain I think. Everything worked; the A/C wasn’t too noisy, recent paint, cable TV.  Joe, the manager, is a nice fellow who let us occupy our room until after 11:00 am on check out day even though checkout is supposed to be 10:00 am. There IS a restaurant on the premises. Chinese. We did NOT eat there. Nor did we see very many other people eating there. The building is right on the beach. They provide lounge chairs and umbrellas. The new civic improvement “boardwalk” (actually more like a wide sidewalk) now extends as far as the Sea Palace and is very convenient for walking towards the center (or other end) of town to visit various bars and restaurants. We didn’t feel uncomfortable walking along it even at night - pretty well lighted. There are several restaurants within easy walking distance, as well as a couple of bakeries - and of course as many jewelry and junk stores as you care to go into. Some of the merchants are a little “pushy”, most are cordial, and some are quite personable. We spent a fair bit of time in a couple of stores just chatting with the owners. My wife owns a retail business so there’s plenty to talk about it seems. The hotel parking lot is a big convenience, although it will cost you $35 per week. Better go for it if you have a car - there just ain’t no place to park.

Food is incredibly expensive if you dine out. $18 for spaghetti, plus another $8.95 for a salad, plus $4.00 for water (bottled - tap water is complimentary) - yikes! If you are used to eating at a resort town, or maybe downtown Chicago or New York - you won’t be shocked. Any “normal” place—be prepared. There are several Burger Kings, McDonalds, KFC, etc. on the island so you CAN get a bit of a break from really expensive food if you wish. But those are significantly higher than here also. We did have pretty good food most places - never had a BAD meal. I got an $18 Filet at Chesterfield’s that was very good. Food at Antoine’s is good, but a bit pricey. The Harbor View has food that is more like “cooking” than “cuisine” - and a bit more reasonable - we ate there 3 times. Don’t be too surprised if you end up with French Fries at a French restaurant that aren’t particularly good. Apparently the French don’t really know how to make them. Also, any time we asked for a baked potato with a meal, they were “out” of them. Apparently frozen French fries or rice is easier (and cheaper) to keep on hand and serve.  If you are not adverse to it, there are also “supermarkets” where you can get groceries and cook meals in your room - but the larger ones are NOT within easy walking distance. We didn’t, but if we had been there longer than a week we certainly would have. We’d have been too broke to eat out any more. The water at the hotel is potable. I think the water most places is OK as there IS a municipal water system. A lot of people seemed to prefer to drink bottled water, however. 

The ugly:

We were advised that there are more rental cars on St. Martin than on any other Caribbean island. I didn’t count them, but I can advise that the island is only about 8 mi. by 8 mi. and traffic is CONTINUOUS. We only saw 2 stoplights on the entire island, and they weren’t really where they needed to be. Getting across traffic is pretty much a matter of closing your eyes, punching the gas, and hoping the other guys have working brakes. If you leave 10 feet between you and the next car - someone will slide in. Also, knuckleheads riding scooters and other 2 wheelers do NOT believe in lane markers. Or, perhaps they become invisible when you get on one. Many, many times some silly S.O.B. would just go around us if we were in a line of traffic, squeezing down the center line between “his” lane of traffic and oncoming. Some of the driving exhibited scared the crap out me. Couple of times knuckleheads took off and passed me when I KNOW they couldn’t see whether or not there was oncoming traffic. If you read something that says the local drivers are tolerant of tourists driving too carefully --- don’t believe it. If you are looking at a road map, you should be aware the notion of a “road” on this island could vary widely from what you would consider reasonable. For example, “Water Street” in Phillipsburg looks like a regular street in Anytown USA when seen on a map. What it REALLY is, is a muddy alleyway between two buildings where someone had thrown a number of pallets to keep people from having to walk through the mud. No way any vehicular traffic ever goes down there.  A LOT of the “streets” they show on maps would barely qualify as alleys (maybe more like a “gangway”) in the U.S. A number of streets in town are one-way streets. European style signs. If you are driving, you will never be more than a few inches from a scrape or dent. And, people will walk out into the road in front of you as though it were a sidewalk. Which, in many cases it IS, because there isn’t any other choice. Dry land is at a severe premium here, and not much space is “wasted” in unnecessary clearances. If I were to go there again, I don’t know that I would rent a car. There are taxis and jitneys everywhere. I would say, if you have plans to go to other parts of the island regularly - beaches, restaurants in Grand Case, Merigot, whatever - pretty much every day and/or night, maybe it would be worthwhile to rent a car. If you are going to hang out at your resort a lot - you are probably better off using taxis or jitneys.

A cautionary note: when you eat out, check the menu carefully. Some (I’d say about ½) of the places automatically add a 15% “service charge” to your tab. It - MAY - show up on your bill listed as “tax.” It isn’t. There is no tax. Actually, there is a 3% tax, which we are told is always INCLUDED in the price of the food. There was one place (the Green House, I think) where they listed the 3% as a line item. We were told that the French were notorious for obfuscating the bill to get people to “accidentally” double tip. The Dutch side of the island (which is where the Sea Palace is located) is pretty much priced in U.S.Dollars everywhere. Sometimes the Florin price will also be listed. On the French side of the island (no passport required...) many times things will only be priced in Euros. Some places will just let $1 = 1 E, but the actual conversion is around $ 1.20 per Euro. Check your menu and your tab.

Gas stations are ALWAYS in local currency (and there is NO self-service - gas is pumped for you) so when buying gas, be sure to explicitly tell them $10 worth U.S. and watch the pump. When we were there gas was running at about $1 per liter. Yes, the numbers on the pump are liters, NOT gallons. If you don’t recall, it’s a bit less than 4 liters per gallon. Oh yes, drive on the RIGHT, as in the U.S., not on the LEFT, as on St. Croix.

The Sea Palace does NOT have a pool - nor did we see the hot tub that is featured in their promos. I think it must have gone away when they extended the “boardwalk.” Nor do they have a bar (other than in the restaurant) or nightclub. If you want to stay at a 5 star resort that has a pool, a bar, a gift shop, several restaurants, and a lot of staff to pamper you --- better find somewhere else. If, like us, you just want someplace to relax, stay in and watch a few movies (took along a DVD player and several titles), wander around the shops, maybe hang out at the beach and read—the Sea Palace will be fine.