Pinel Island, St. Martin, French West Indies
Grab some sun and gourmet food on Pinel’s gorgeous beach, then head to the hills for some island adventures.
One of the first images I stumbled upon while researching our next vacation was one of a sort of ramshackle wooden boardwalk interspersed with thatched-roof structures, umbrellas, and coconut palms. It looked something like this:
St. Martin was never really on our radar until it was enthusiastically recommended to us by a friend of ours. Intrigued by his rave reviews and repeat visits, my first stop was the aforementioned Google image search. This sort of beach “shack” was sitting on a gorgeous white sand beach with the typical calm, azure waters we’ve come to expect in the Caribbean. Upon further investigation, I found out that this shack was actually a well-reviewed restaurant called Karibuni on Pinel Island, a small, protected island sanctuary just off the northeast coast of French St. Martin.
As if the stunning beaches, outdoor adventures, and mouthwatering cuisine that St. Martin is famous for weren’t enough to seduce us to visit, Pinel Island manages to wrap all of these traits into a single, breathtaking nature preserve just a few hundred acres in size. We were sold. St. Martin it is!
Arriving in Paradise… Get there early
Getting to Pinel was easy. We were staying in a condo on the French side of the island, so were just a few minutes from the ferry in Cul-de-Sac. A quick 5-minute ferry ride and a nominal fee is all it takes to reach this island oasis.
It looked to be quite the popular day trip, so we knew we had to visit early. We wanted to beat the cruise ship and package tour crowds and have the opportunity to enjoy its pristine beaches and hiking trails in solitude… if only for an hour or two.
We hopped on the first ferry of the day. Off to paradise! Upon arrival, we were greeted by the resident iguanas, which can be found all over the island. The first beach you encounter is known as Yellow Beach. There is a restaurant and bar here, as well, and from everything we heard, it was every bit as good as Karibuni. But we were still smitten with our first impression of St. Martin–that breathtaking photo of Karibuni from many months ago was still etched in my mind. I had to experience it first hand.
So we walked around the “point” of Pinel Island, that sandy spit that juts out into the bay, and found ourselves at Karibuni. We had arrived. We promptly staked out a prime waterfront location under an umbrella, enabling us to watch the girls frolick in the water while we relaxed and noshed on gourmet French-Caribbean fusion cuisine. Although the lounges and umbrellas cost a pretty penny ($25 USD), we found it to be worthwhile, as it provided comfortable seating, waiter service, and shelter from the intense equatorial sun.
Gourmet food prepared fresh. Real fresh.
One of the cool things about arriving so early is getting to experience the island before the crowds arrive. The girls had the water to themselves, my wife was able to soak in the solitude and catch up on some reading, and I was able to do a bit of exploring. I was wandering around the boardwalk when I stumbled upon a human chain of workers, unloading well over a dozen massive coolers from a boat. Curious, I asked what was in them. Apparently, the island doesn’t have electricity (although they do have a generator), so food and ice have to be brought in from the mainland (meaning St. Martin) each morning. I continued on, rounding the corner where I encountered a table full of food preppers, chopping, slicing, and dicing fresh fruit, veggies, and herbs to be used in the day’s lunches. Wow. It looked amazing. My mouth was watering. And since the island lacked electricity, you know the food is fresh. Just off the dock were the lobster cages, holding dozens of lobsters and bringing literal meaning to the phrase fresh catch of the day.
I returned to the beach to hang with the family. We snorkeled, did flips in the water, raced, built sand castles, searched for iguanas, drank lots of tasty tropical drinks. It was heaven… and it wasn’t even noon. Since the crowds were starting to trickle in, we decided to grab a table at Karibuni to get a sample of what everyone had been working so hard on earlier in the morning.
The food was straight up masterful. My wife had the lobster. The chef just waded out to the lobster cage and grabbed her lunch. I had a steak. We split some tapas, as well, and the kids noshed on some chicken dishes. While the menu was fairly simple, the food was flavorful and prepared to perfection. And the drinks? Top notch, as well. The girls raved about the virgin pina coladas and rated them among the best they’d had on any of our trips.
We headed back to the lounge chairs, deep in the throws of food comas. The kids, surprisingly, jumped right back in the water. Oh, to have their energy (and metabolism)… As we rested and relaxed, the beach crowds became almost unbearable. Time to head for the hills.
Leave the crowds behind… head for the hills.
If you spend any time wandering around Yellow Beach or Karibuni, you’ll notice narrow trails that cut through the vegetation and head inland. For whatever reason, not many people spend the time finding out where these trails lead. Armed with my camera gear and drone, we left the crowds behind and set off to find out.
The initial climb up from the beach can be a bit strenuous, especially in the intense midday sun. However, once you reach the plateau, you’re rewarded with a magnificent view of the entire island. Much of the island is covered in a sort of prairie grass that seems to dance in the warm tradewinds. Scrub forest, cacti, and other succulents can be found interspersed among the hills and grass, and a network of hiking trails connects it all with the island’s three beaches. What? Yes, Pinel Island has three beaches, yet most visitors are content to stay firmly planted on the main beach. Fine by us.
We really didn’t encounter anyone else during our hikes. We visited the other beaches, which, while beautiful in their own right, were a bit more rugged and rough than the calm, sandy waters of the main beach. The girls enjoyed searching for iguanas and marveled at the massive flower stalks that shot more than two stories up from the giant agaves found near the north beach.
We soon rejoined one of the main trails that worked its way east towards the highest point in the island. None of us could wait to see the view from up there. As the trail meandered along the spine of the island and up the hill, you could see the island’s other two beaches in the distance. A rainshower in the distance threatened to put a damper on our hike, but as we kept walking, it became evident it wasn’t moving in our direction.
Finally, we made it. We could see forever from up here. Ile Tintamarre was just a few miles offshore. Further south, you could see the craggy peaks of St. Barthelemy on the horizon. The kitesurfers on Orient Bay danced in the wind, while below us, the waves crashed hard against the rocky cliffs. We took in the views, caught our breath, and then headed back, delighted in knowing that we probably burned off all of the calories we consumed with our delicious lunch (and drinks). At least that’s what we told ourselves…
When we returned to the Main Beach, our daughters were exhausted and questioned us about the Ice Cream boat that we had mentioned when we got to island that morning, as if thinking we were pulling one over on them. No sooner than we were about to let them down by , enter the Ice Cream Boat to the rescue. The Ice Cream Boat! What a time to be alive! We gave them and their two friends $20 and sent them out into the water to get their well-deserved treats. Those that have been to the Ice Cream Boat know what comes next–one of the girls returning for more money… I guess ice cream delivered to the beach by boat in the tropics is worthy of a slight premium.
As the sun dipped lower in the horizon, the crowds had all but disappeared. This is the way we liked it. Peaceful. The only sounds were the palm trees swaying in the breeze, the birds looking for some stray morsels of food, and the occasional sound of a young child crying in the distance, no doubt worn out from a fun day and in desperate need of a nap. As the staff began cleaning up tables and stacking the lounge chairs, we took that as our cue to head back. Right at the good part. Just before sunset, with the beach nearly to ourselves. Sigh… We dragged ourselves to the last ferry off the island and headed back to Cul de Sac, silently watching with a mixture of exhaustion and contentment as the island slipped away into the distance.
Getting here & additional information
Visit Caribbean Paddling’s website for additional information on getting here, activities, and more.
Pinel Island can be accessed via a quick 5-minute ferry ride out of Cul de Sac, at the far northeast tip of French St. Martin. For the more adventurous you can rent a kayak or SUP for the day and paddle across the still waters of Cul de Sac Bay. As with any island, arriving by private yacht is also an option.