The Unlikely Journey of Going From Tourism in Saint Martin to a Place that Feels Like Home

It feels like 2018 just started and yet I’ve been back to Saint Martin three times already. My fourth visit is likely to happen this month, in April, with a follow up visit — this time a family vacation — near the end of May. And that will complete a whirlwind, full circle for me.

I live with my wife and two sons — ages 4 and 6 — in Phoenix, Arizona. My wife and I have been going to Saint Martin for over 10 years now. Actually, it was my wife who originally introduced me to Saint Martin. She worked on the east coast for US Airways and used to nonrev (that’s airline jargon for the free standby travel benefits that employees get as a perk for working at an airline) to SXM with fellow airline employees/friends.

Since our first trip to Saint Martin together, back in 2008, we’ve visited countless times. We share the same birthday — May 24 — so we’d oftentimes find ourselves heading to SXM to celebrate together. All of those wonderful adventures eventually led to marriage and kids.

Our kids have each been to SXM several times. In fact, each of the boys had visited Saint Martin before they turned one year old. This picture shows our oldest son playing in the sand for the first time in his life. Those of you who know the island well, likely recognize that we’re on Orient Beach. The photo was taken right next to Pedro’s Beach Bar, one of our favorite beach bars on the island prior to hurricane Irma.

We’d stayed committed to Saint Martin for the years following our son’s births. But during our visit in May of 2017, in celebration of our birthdays, we weren’t sure how much longer we’d be making the trek from Phoenix to Saint Martin. It’s a pretty long journey, particularly with kids and even more so since we have to overnight on the east coast to catch a morning flight to SXM.

While on our birthday trip in 2017, my wife and I began talking and we decided that this trip would likely be our last to Saint Martin for a while. We didn’t know how long, but you know how things like this go. You don’t go back for a few years, and then, next thing you know, it’s 10 years later, the kids are older, life has changed, and all you have are old pictures and memories of when you used to visit Saint Martin. Maybe you make it back again or maybe you don’t. It turns into a coin toss.

We recorded this video as we were leaving the Westin Dawn Beach that year, saying our final goodbyes to an island that had become such a special part of our lives.

We never could’ve guessed how real that final goodbye was. On the night of September 5, 2017, we laid in our bed listening to Laser 101, a local radio station in Dutch Sint Maarten. The next morning we were helpless, awaking to the reality that Saint Martin was in the midst of being punished by hurricane Irma. And suddenly, everything had changed.

If you’ve been following SXM Strong for long, you already know the story. And while that trip in May 2017 was thought to be a sort of farewell tour, in a sense it was the beginning of a whole new relationship with this wonderful place.

Ask anyone on Saint Martin and they’ll tell you about their “Irma experience.” They’ll tell you about the terrifying moments as they waited out the storm, and the dark days that followed. They’ll also look around, smile, and tell you how Irma was a rebirth of Saint Martin.

Karibuni on Pinel Island has rebuilt better than ever

Many places continue to rebuild, and lots of businesses have already completed the biggest parts of their “rebirth.” Places like Rainbow Cafe, Karibuni Restaurant, Spiga Restaurant, Buccaneer Beach Bar, Azure Hotel, and so many more, are open and better than ever.

Over the last seven months, since starting this blog, I’ve been able to get to know a lot of truly incredible people — mostly locals, some that live elsewhere — who are all committed to seeing Saint Martin build back better than ever. It’s been pure joy to become a small part of their lives as we team up together to help this wonderful island get back on it’s feet.

When you take the time to get to know the local community as they work to rebuild — the business owners, the volunteers, the people who live on Saint Martin — you get to see things that as a tourist I never truly realized. You get to see the core of what makes this place so unique, incredibly special, and unbelievably resilient. The people of Saint Martin are all part of the tapestry that makes this island what it is. It’s more than just a quick stop on a cruise, or a lovely place to vacation each year. It has heart and soul like few other places in the world.

Upon arriving on my most recent trip to SXM, just a couple weeks ago, I received a message from one of my local friends that simply read, “Welcome home.” And then it hit me, “Wow, I never thought of it, but this really does feel like coming home.”

And now, I understand. We used to be tourists in Saint Martin, but now it feels like coming home. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

If you like (or love!) what we do here at SXM Strong, please help support our efforts to restore and rebuild the local economy of SXM. Click here to visit the SXM Strong donate page and give today!

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Jon Ferlise

I fell in love with the island of Saint Martin the first time I visited to celebrate my 40th birthday in May of 2009. Since then, I've spent most birthdays there, and have visited countless other times getting to know this wonderful place and the friendly locals that make it so special. I adore the culture, the people, the community, and the beauty of this stunning island. SXM Strong is a website that I started to support humanitarian relief efforts following Hurricane Irma. There was no plan, it just evolved as I witnessed the devastation that Irma caused the island and the huge need to communicate and disseminate information about what had happened and how people could help support this island and its people.

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