Some day, some one will rescue the golf course at Mullet Bay on St. Maarten
ST. MAARTEN, Netherlands Antilles - We had been warned that the Mullet Bay Golf Course was not in great shape, but I don't think we were prepared for the travesty that it has become. It's just too bad.
In the 1970s and 80s, the 600-room Mullet Bay Resort and Casino was one of the finest resorts in the Caribbean. As described in one guidebook:
Mullet Bay is a golf and tennis Shangri-La with its sprawling palm-studded 18-hole course and 16 all-weather courts. Virtually a town unto itself, this community of fully outfitted condos and suites has an excellent beach. two pools, many shops, a disco and grand casino - and six restaurants, running the culinary gamut from Italian to Chinese to pub fare."
I well remember driving through the complex on my first visit to St. Maarten/St. Martin, the lovely leeward island that is shared by the Dutch and the French. The Mullet Bay golf course was so popular that you needed to stay at the resort just to get on.
But on the evening of Sept. 4, 1995, Hurricane Luis slammed into the island with 140 mph winds that gusted up to 165. As the storm abated in the early morning hours of Sept. 6, the shell-shocked islanders emerged from their shelters to face utter devastation. Many houses had been demolished, resorts were leveled, some 95 percent of the boats around the island had been sunk or run aground and every scrap of vegetation was stripped away.
Mary and Tom Smith remember it well. Recently retired from National Geographic magazine, they had just moved from the States to their dream home on St. Martin (the French side) in July. "We spent three days in the utility room under house and wondered when it would ever stop," Mary explained. "Many still refer to it as the 'storm of the century.'"
The lovely golf course at Mullet Bay was laid waste as well, stripped of its palms and with most of the condos along its fairways left without windows or roofs.
But while the rest of the island immediately began rebuilding, Mullet Bay's owners held back. Who knows precisely what the actual situation is, but Sun Resorts owns the majority of the property, including the golf course, while the condominiums were controlled by their owners. Sun Resorts wants to consolidate the condos into multiple-story buildings while the condo owners wanted the resort returned to its pre-Luis conditions, with the units scattered along the fairways. It has been tied up in courts ever since.
The result is that while the island is bustling, with construction going on everywhere and visitor arrivals at record highs, almost 10 years later Mullet Bay Resort and Casino still lies in ruins.
Except for the golf course. That remains open because of an arrangement with the government that the course would always been kept open. (It is the only golf course on the prosperous island that has a population of 216,500.)
We arrived at Mullet Bay via a cruise ship, the Sea Dream 2. We had decided on this cruise to play as many courses as we could along the way, setting up our own tee times. But when we tried to reach the Mullet Bay course via e-mail, we ended up finding the St. Maarten Golf Association. We e-mailed that group and were answered by the Smiths.
Tom is the tournament chairman for the SMGA and he and Mary have been playing the Mullet Bay golf course for over 25 years. They offered, via e-mail, to play the course with us.
It was great that they did. Through their eyes, we were able to see the way Mullet Bay had been and its potential for the future. But, for now, it is obvious that just keeping it up is a struggle, mostly a labor of love for the SMGA members.
"See those tee blocks?" Tom points. "I made and painted them all - and then almost lost them when some workers were burning debris!" They are unremarkable, just painted blocks of wood. But they surely represent the spirit of those locals who love the Mullet Bay course.
The day we played it was windy and rainy, but it was still obvious that this had been a great course. Designed by Joseph Lee, the par-71 course winds around the Mullet Bay Lagoon (just off the Simpson Bay Lagoon where some 1,400 boats were sunk during Luis) with views of Cupecoy beach. It plays 6,200 yards from the back tees, 5,514 from the whites and 5,050 from the reds.
There is not much point in describing the course in great detail because it is in such unfortunate condition. The greens are spotty, the fairways uneven. There is no irrigation. All along the way are the carcasses of condos, stripped but still the bones are there. There are only 12 carts available. For me, all this is hard to ignore, but not for Mary.
"I hardly notice it any more I'm so used to it," she explains. She and Tom play golf here several times a week, usually walking. "I remember how it was, and hope that someday it will be so again. All in all, it is still a great course to play," she says.
At the signature hole, No. 12, we certainly can appreciate the design. This dogleg right over water is a challenge and offers dramatic views from the tee. Mary explains that most of the greens used to be surrounded by either palms or lovely flowers.
To be fair, the course is maintained to the extent that it is mowed,there is signage along the way, some sand in the bunkers and there are pins in the holes.
Yet the pride remains for these ex-pats. There is a catch basin near the tee of No. 14. Black plastic sprawls around the rim, yet there is a small island in the water and we notice numerous sea birds. "We think it is neat that this area, once pretty desolate, now attracts wildlife," Mary says. "We have planted water lilies in there and are trying to make it more attractive."
Tom speaks of the fact that the course is going to host a Caribbean tournament within the month and of the ambitious preparations that are underway. This kind of pride and determination is what will assure the future of this course.
The Smiths, and most everyone else on St. Maarten, are hoping that Mullet Bay will soon be restored to its former glory, including the golf course. We couldn't agree more.
St. Maarten or St. Martin is a Caribbean Island in the northern West Indies. For it's relatively small size, 38 square miles, this island has more flights from U.S. and foreign gateways than any other in this region. The major cities are Phillipsburg on the Dutch side and Marigot on the French side. There is only one airport, located near Phillipsburg. Orient Beach, perhaps the most famous clothes-optional beach in the Caribbean, is on this island..
Where to stay
Hard decision. The larger resorts are on the Dutch side while the French side has many smaller hotels and guest houses. The Dutch side is more commercially developed while the French side is laid back. Timeshares and villa rentals are plentiful. It is best to rent a car while staying here so as to explore the entire island. The Towers at Mullet Bay adjoin the golf course and are now timeshares (discounted golf fees apply).
Where to dine
The small town of Grand Case on the French side offers some of the most exquisite dining in the Caribbean. There is one lovely restaurant after another on the tiny main street where you can linger a couple of hours over lunch with wine and easily drop $150 per couple. We recommend napping on a beach after such a repast. If you are staying on the Dutch side, be wary of too much wine at dinner in GC because of the precarious ride back over the hills on narrow roads. In Phillipsburg, be sure to experience an authentic Indonesian rijstaffel (as many as 20 dishes, all served with steamed white rice).
The verdict on Mullet Bay golf
The real estate is so valuable that someone, if not the current owner,will certainly rescue Mullet Bay Resort and Casino soon. In the meantime,playing the Mullet Bay course when you are on the island is still a fun thing to do, especially if you have visited the island before. However, the fees are stiff for the quality of play.
April 22, 2004