Few Caribbean resorts are as sybaritic and exclusive as La Samanna. Located on 55 acres on the French side of St. Martin, the hotel's public buildings face the horsehoe-shaped Baie Longue, one of the finest white sand beaches in the tropics. The 81 rooms and suites are set back from the road to create a sense of total privacy, scattered among lushly landscaped vegetation and redolent with the scent of jasmine. La Samanna has been impressing the most jaded of international visitors since 1973, and has only improved since being acquired by Orient Express hotels in 1996.
Guests are chauffeured from Princess Juliana airport to the property, where the check-in process is eased by cold towels and refreshing fruit punch. Ensconced in a one-bedroom suite, visitors have terraces that give out directly onto the beach, which is patrolled by attendants offering drinks and snacks. The rooms are decorated in soothing pastels and feature oversized bathrooms with soaking tubs, kidney-shaped showers for two, and L'Occitane bath amenities. Guests are addressed by name for the duration of their stay, refrigerators are stocked with their preferences, and the management team makes a point of chatting with everyone throughout the day.
Keeping out the riffraff is an effortless exercise considering the prices, which begin at $1400 per day---excluding tax, service, meals and drinks. Tariffs such as these succeed in eliminating everyone except the international jet set and the occasional freeloading journalist. Little wonder that I accepted the chance to cover La Samanna's Gastronomic Week in June---five multi-course dinners prepared by chefs from Orient Express hotels around the world, paired with selections from top wineries. It promised to be a painless assignment. Without question, the standout was the menu created by Chef Jerome Ryan of the Hotel de La Cité in Carcassonne, accompanied by the wines of Chateau de Beaucastel (see below).
St. Martin is frequently referred to as the gourmet capital of the Caribbean. The island is split in half between the Dutch and French sectors, and the cliché is that the Dutch side has the casinos while the French side has all the good restaurants. It's true that no gambling is allowed in the French sector, but the Dutch half boasts many fine eateries in the towns of Phillipsburg and Simpson Bay. The French side, though, is a gourmet bonanza. Consider the town of Grand Case, home to more than 40 restaurants ranging from informal "Lolos" (outdoor barbecue joints serving freshly cooked food at bargain prices) to beachfront establishments such as Le Tastevin, where you can indulge in escargot, magret de canard, or foie gras prepared several different ways. In all, the island contains close to 300 full-service restaurants.
Back at La Samanna, the wine program is supervised by the dynamic and enthusiastic Thibaut Asso, who organizes a cellar containing 15,000 bottles. As expected, the wine list is very strong on Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, but also contains an extensive selection of both mainstream and artisan wine from California. "I'm a huge fan of California wine," he says, "which is very unusual for French people." Asso regularly hosts tastings and dinners for guests in the cellar, and takes particular delight in having his audience discover wines they're not familiar with.
The job of organizing the Gastronomic Week was a complex one, and required the co-operation of chefs and vintners separated from each other by thousands of miles. The wineries (Beaucastel, Tablas Creek, Louis Jadot, Marques de Caceres and Pio Cesare) were all properties which had long-standing relationships with La Samanna, as well as solid representation on the list. Samples were sent to the chefs for tasting, and there was a rare harmony between the chefs and winemakers (normally it's hard to find a room large enough to accomodate both egos). The result was menus which flowed seamlessly between food and wine, in which it was sometimes hard to identify the strongest player.
Chef Jerome Ryan's menu:
Marinated king prawns, fruit cocktail and seasonal vegetables
Fricasee of summer vegetables, cooked in a barigoule style with truffles
Braised sea bass with purple artichokes, tomato and zucchini, Picholine olives and basil jus
Beef tenderloin with duck foie gras, potato with onions and truffle churros, asparagus and Perigourdine sauce
Guanara chocolate fondue, poached pear and Williamine sorbet
Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc, Chateau de Beaucastel, 2006
Profound yellow gold color. Sprightly nose of lime blossom and spring flowers, underlined by reduced citrus. Full-bodied and lush in the mouth, with good balancing acidity; earthy flavors of tree fruits mix with citrus and contine on the long, earthy finish. B
Vieille Vignes Roussanne, Chateau de Beaucastel, 2002
Dark copper color. Glorious perfume of caramelized citrus mixing with earth scents on the nose. Fat and spicy in the mouth, yet refreshing, with excellent acidity still; the full-bodied texture coats the mouth in layers of bitter orange, apricot and almond. The finish is slightly attenuated---a wine in autumn---but I could still feel this wine resonating 24 hours later as we convened for the next dinner. A-
Chateauneuf du Pape, Chateau de Beaucastel, 2001
Deep, saturated purple. The nose is gamey, slightly foxy, with concentrated aromas of dark berries, anise and kirsch. Medium-bodied and graceful in the mouth, fresh and poised, with the tapenade flavors of the wine perfectly mirrored by the olives garnishing the sea bass dish. Finishes long, with echoes of brandied cherries. A charming and elegant wine. B+
Chateauneuf du Pape, Chateau de Beaucastel, 1998
Jet black. Sparkling, mineral-infused nose, enriched with scents of anise and melting chocolate. Medium-bodied in the mouth, surprisingly compact given the reputation of the vintage, with reduced flavors of dark berries and kirsch, syrupy but fresh. Finishes moderately long. Very good, to be sure, but doesn't live up to the hype. B+
Chateauneuf du Pape, Chateau de Beaucastel, 1989
This was regarded as one of the great Chateauneufs at the time, and it is still great 20 years later. The raw, animal nose of smoked meat, damp underbrush and tobacco is mixed with enticing aromas of dark berries. The palate is pure and clear, with expressive flavors of kirsch, crushed red and black berries, anise and fresh herbs. An amazing wine---open, gorgeous, opulent, Rhone at its best. A