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Fantasy islands.

Byline: By Emily Beament

The movie star treatment begins the moment we step off the plane into the Caribbean heat.

Being met on the tarmac by a VIP greeter who gets us waved through customs and into waiting taxis before we've even shed our winter coats, it becomes clear we've stumbled into the luxury side of the Caribbean.

St Martin and St Barthelemy, two islands in the French West Indies, are favourites with the stars.

We're beginning our holiday in St Martin and by visiting the island we are following in the footsteps - if not actually rubbing shoulders with - the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Naomi Campbell.

It's also a popular destination with new couples and our first hotel, La Samanna, has been listed in the top 10 honeymoon spots in the world over the past few years.

La Samanna is quite a small-scale resort with a number of rooms lining the beach, as well as 12 rooms above the restaurant that looks out over the bay. There's a gym, spa, tennis courts and a watersports centre providing opportunities for snorkelling, scuba diving, waterskiing and jet-skiing. Or you can just lie on the beach like I did.

There is, of course, more to St Martin than beaches and palm trees and we managed to tear ourselves away from the sand long enough to visit Marigot, the capital of the French part of the island.

The island is divided in two, between the St Martin of France and St Maarten, which is part of the Dutch Antilles.

Legend has it that the island was carved up by a Frenchman and a Dutchman who agreed to start together at one point and walk in opposite directions round the territory until they met again and then draw the boundary between the two points.

According to the French, their half is much bigger because the Dutchman spent most of his time getting drunk instead of walking.

Marigot is a pretty town reminiscent of New Orleans' French Quarter, with a market largely catering for tourists and a wide variety of restaurants.

The official currency on the French side is Euros but everywhere seemed to accept dollars and - as many places tend to adopt a one-to-one exchange rate between the two - it's worth taking the cheaper currency if you want to get a good bargain.

From Marigot we drove along the coast and then took a small boat to Pinel Island, a little rocky outcrop with a beach and the Yellow Beach caf, where you can sample the local rum and simple-but-tasty fish dishes.

If St Martin is all laidback style, St Barts is obvious chic, and the smaller island is that little bit more exclusive. Flights take 15 minutes to reach St Barts, landing on a tiny airstrip covered in skid marks which ends in the sea.

It's an interesting descent at the best of times, and we flew on a particularly windy day.

By the time we got out of our eight-seater we were a little hysterical, in contrast to the only French passenger on board, who was completely unfazed,

We stayed at the Carl Gustaf Hotel, where each suite has a private plunge pool on balconies overlooking the harbour where the luxury yachts dock.

The streets of Gustavia - the island's capital - are lined with Gucci and Cartier stores, while the really cool visitors hang out round the coast on the white cushions and double beds of Nikki's Beach, a beachside restaurant with sister bars in Miami and San Tropez.

The island itself is very small. We took a drive around the whole place in a couple of hours with plenty of stops, which was just as well as the narrow roads and steep hills can make a trip feel more like a rollercoaster ride than a country drive.

Despite this, St Barts is worth exploring as the quieter Atlantic side plays host to some idyllic beaches.

'With enough planning, anything can be arranged,' one of our hosts said, and the quality and range of foods on St Martin and St Barts - neither of which produce anything themselves - is testament to that statement.

Cocktails as the sun set were followed by delicious 'fusion' cuisine - featuring elements of Cajun, French, Japanese and Thai food, and a wide array of fish dishes.

At Carl Gustaf I sampled the delights of wild mushroom ravioli with vanilla-flavoured pumpkin cream, swordfish marinated with Cajun spice and Creole sauce, sweet corn and potatoes, raspberry cheesecake and red fruit coulis. And that was just one meal.

In fact, standing in the arrivals hall of Heathrow Airport on a cold winter morning, my slightly larger waistline and a bottle of rum in my bag were the only signs that the whole trip had been anything more than a very good dream. CHECK IN: Emily Beament was a guest of Great Hotels of the World and Air France. Air France flights via Paris and also from Manchester, Birmingham and Southampton. Flights start from pounds 503 in low season and pounds 586 in the high season. Information is available from Air France on 0870 142 4343 or online at www.airfrance.com

Further information on both hotels is available from Great Hotels of the World on 0800 032 4254 or www.ghotw.com

Operators to La Samanna on St Martin include Elegant Resorts which offers seven nights' B&B in a Deluxe Ocean View room in 2007 from pounds 1660, incl BA flights from Gatwick and private car transfers. Regional returns from Manchester and Glasgow start at pounds 65 per person.

Enquiries to Elegant Resorts Caribbean (01244 897516 or visit www.elegantresorts.co.uk).

For seven nights at the Hotel Carl Gustaf on St Barts, Wimco International offers returns flights ex-Gatwick via Antigua from pounds 767.80 from London; and from pounds 858.80 ex-Manchester. A one-bedroom suite with private pool sleeping two at the Carl Gustaf costs from pounds 4,959 per week, including breakfasts and champagne on arrival.

Enquiries to Wimco International on 0870 850 1144 or www.wimco.com
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 31, 2006
Words:1008
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