On St. Martin, a nature preserve lets wilderness take the lead

Email|Print| Text size + By Mary Grauerholz
Globe Correspondent / April 7, 2004

ST. MARTIN -- This tiny island partitioned by the Dutch and French lies east of Puerto Rico and has some of the most spectacular beaches in the world. Orient Beach, for example, is a glorious stretch of white sand with colorful restaurants and shops on one side and the gleaming Atlantic Ocean on the other.

Even dedicated water babies on a gorgeous Caribbean island need an occasional break from sunning and swimming, though. We found a lush pool of quiet at Loterie Farm on the French side, the island's only private nature preserve and a model of ecological good sense. Loterie Farm spills down the mountainside of Pic du Paradis, the island's highest point. Loterie is a seductive 150-acre hideaway, enveloped in a rain forest and dotted with signs of its roots as a centuries-old farm.

Three hundred years ago, Loterie Farm was a slave plantation with rich fields of bananas, sugar cane, and guava berries. Today, B.J. Welch, a 49-year-old from Pennsylvania, leases and runs the farm as an example of how an island can achieve economic growth without sacrificing wilderness. (Any visitor to the island these days sees the dramatic struggle between development and nature.)

A sign posted on a tree at the entrance to the farm explains Welch's mission: "A small team of environmentally conscious individuals are working real hard to send a message: The survival of the Earth's delicate biodiversity depends upon figuring out ways to create micro-economics through protection and preservation rather than compromise and plunder."

Welch puts it more succinctly: "Our mission is, it stays the same." In other words, let the trees, streams, and animals be, and carve out an unimposing, environmentally sound avenue to make a little money. At Loterie, money is generated through rain forest hiking tours and a lovely organic restaurant, Hidden Forest Cafe. Yoga, meditation, and massage are also offered.

On a beautiful 80-degree winter day, we entered the Loterie complex: a shallow bowl of green that holds the restaurant, an elegant old mansion that housed farm managers in earlier centuries, and, in the middle of a meandering set of stone walls, a platform for yoga. From there, we took the trail into the rain forest system, a moderate hike of about 1 1/2 hours at an average pace.

Before setting out, we briefly caught up with Welch, but this sun-washed former Los Angeles surfer is as elusive as the monkeys that live in the rain forest. (In fact, Welch is rather famous for being hard to catch). As he roared off in his pickup truck, in stepped Eveline Shillingford, who introduced herself as a Carib from "a long, long family, a huge family" in Dominica.

"Monkeys, mongoose, iguanas," Shillingford said brightly, reciting a list of creatures on the rain forest trail that visitors most want to see. People long for a sighting of a monkey, she said, but those are rare. Iguanas might be difficult to recognize, because Peanut the farm dog occasionally bites off their tails. She smiled. "But he catches rats, too."

Soon after we entered the narrow, rocky trail system, the rain forest folded over us in all its steamy, lush glory. Although it seemed completely wild and undisturbed, Shillingford said it is mostly secondary rain forest. Much of the primary rain forest was destroyed by European farmers in the 1700s and 1800s.

The farms often ran on slave labor, and the signs are evident: an overgrown banana field, paths used by slaves to get to the sugar cane, stone walls built by the slaves from rock on the property.

Loterie's trees carry their own stories. Here and there in the fields are "slave trees," brought from Africa and planted by slaves, who believed their odd shapes represented spirits of African animals. The breadfruit trees, it is said, were brought in by Captain Bligh on the HMS Bounty. On the hiking trail, we were engulfed by masses of banana trees, royal palms, silk cotton trees, tropical pines, and coconut trees, whose leaves caught a soft rain that began to fall. All was quiet except for the sounds of nature: the faint patter of the rain, chirping birds, buzzing insects, and water running over rocks.

We saw the source of the murmur of trickling water: a little stream next to the trail, which Shillingford said is the only active riverbed on St. Martin. A sign pointed to "La Source" and we followed it to a bigger pool of water encircled by boulders. We found the Coiffard family, vacationing from France, taking a rest.

Leaving the water pool, the trail got suddenly steeper. Shillingford generally recommends that some hikers stop here. "However, 70- and 80-year-olds have made it, no problem," she said. A short time later the reward was rich: a view of the nearby island of Anguilla.

Back at the Loterie complex, we sat down for a cold drink at the Hidden Forest Cafe. It may be the only eating place on the island that offers simultaneous entertainment by geckos cavorting on the open-air restaurant walls and peacocks strutting on the grass outside. The dishes, including avocado stuffed with fresh tuna and capers, and duck breast with banana, tamarind, and mint salsa, are excellent.

Food aside, the international flavor of the cafe is probably its most charming feature. This day, there was a hodgepodge of languages. Shillingford served the lunch crowd while the farm dogs, Peanut and Mr. Bones, alternated between running through the restaurant and chasing the peacocks.

We finished our sodas and walked to our car. As we turned for one last look, a cloud of white butterflies swooped out of a copse. We interpreted this gentle gesture as a sign: We would be back.

Mary Grauerholz is a freelance writer in Falmouth.

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