Is this the Caribbean’s coolest party?
The first SXM Festival, held in March 2016, saw the hottest names in house music descend on St Martin. And the 2017 event looks set to be even bigger and better, says Chloe Gunning
A multi-coloured light show illuminated our faces, flashing in time to the throbbing beat. We swayed and shuffled on the sand, arms pumping the sky until the inevitable bass drop. Whoops and cheers filled the air as we closed our eyes, completely lost in the music. This was the vibe on Palm Beach, St Martin, at SXM 2016, the Caribbean’s newest boutique music festival.
The split Dutch/French island of Sint Maarten-St Martin has long had a strong party scene, with several glitzy nightclubs located on the Dutch side. But the launch of the SXM Festival was seen as an opportunity to supercharge it. Get the formula right for the inaugural festival, and the island could be placed firmly on the map for lovers of house and techno music worldwide. SXM had the potential to be the next hot destination festival. St Martin is a small island, but ambitions were big.
In March 2016, the scene was set. Soon, 75 gods of the DJ world touched down at Princess Juliana Airport (airport code: SXM, hence the festival’s name), ready to entertain. Along with them, a cool and unpretentious crowd of festival-goers jetted in from around the world and swiftly filled up the island’s hotels and villas. While I’d travelled from London, others had flown in from New York, Paris, Sydney, Tokyo, Montréal. There was also a good local contingent, curious to find out what was enticing new vacationers to their island. We were all there to let our hair down. For five days straight.
With just a few thousand people attending, it was an intimate experience. There was a real chance to run into the same people across the week, build some friendships and become part of what became the ‘SXM family’. One reveller from San Francisco summed it up: “I’m excited to visit somewhere new to enjoy the music that I love.”
Lazy days, crazy nights
Each day from mid-afternoon until midnight, I enjoyed the relaxed ambience on Palm Beach. A mock-jungle pyramid stage had been constructed on the sand. Created from palm leaves, the interior was festooned with cascades of brightly coloured tropical flowers and the odd exotic bird thrown in for good measure. As the waves rolled in behind, I realised I was in music festival paradise.
After midnight, I hopped on a festival bus full of high-spirited passengers over to the Dutch side of the island, where I enjoyed some of my favourite DJs at nightclubs Tantra, Sky Beach and Le Shore. Many of the artists performed chilled sets on the beach during the day, before heading into techno territory later. As the night wore on, some revellers sloped off to glamorous villa parties in the hills, while others (including me) returned to our beds to recharge the batteries, ready to do it all over again.
A few days into the festival, while sipping rum and eating jerk chicken on the beach at Calmos Café, I bumped into some of the new friends I’d made at the previous night’s beach party. We chatted about the music and the after parties, and bonded over how this experience was just what we all needed. The general consensus? Let’s stay here forever!
A highlight came mid-week as I joined 400 VIP guests at the festival’s most exclusive event, the jungle party at Loterie Farm. Having spent most of my time on the island by the beach to this point, it was an adventure to head inland to this lush area of rainforest, infinity pools and smart cabanas. On any other day this would have been an oasis of tranquillity, but today was different. Today there was a DJ mixing in a treehouse overhead. I perched on the edge of the pool sipping a cocktail, watching as women in bejewelled bikinis attempted to climb onto a giant inflatable swan. I chuckled, put down my empty glass and dived in to join them.
On the penultimate day, after days of glorious Caribbean sunshine, some ominous clouds gathered – big, grey and ready to burst. Surprisingly, the torrential rain shower that followed was one of my fondest memories. We were having a great time and the weather wasn’t going to get in the way. The lights dimmed but the music continued as we grabbed some tarpaulin, raised it over our heads and continued to dance.
For dance-music lovers the line up of SXM couldn’t get much better, with headliners including Israeli DJ superstar Guy Gerber, multi-award-winning Maceo Plex, Jamie Jones (whose Paradise club night is world famous) and Miami’s finest Danny Daze. Italian DJ Francesca Lombardo, who fuses electronic music with her classical roots, was ecstatic to be invited: “It’s a dream to be able to play my music on a Caribbean island surrounded by so many electronic music lovers.”
British DJ Lee Burridge, who has been DJ-ing internationally for over 25 years, had the honour of closing the festival with an ambient sunrise party at Layla’s Bar. As I wandered down a secret path to the beach bar, it felt like I’d stumbled upon something extra special. My feet were tired from dancing, my eyes heavy, but I summoned my last bit of energy. As the sun’s rays appeared on the horizon, I danced on the sand one final time, thankful to be part of a very special moment.
Afterwards, Lee spoke of the wonderful innocence of playing a new festival in its first year: “It was just like-minded music fans all hanging out and having fun.”
So, was my time on St Martin all party, party, party? Well, yes and no. I, like many of the other first-timers, was keen to explore the island’s many charms. We rented jeeps and ventured to Maho Beach, where planes flew metres above our heads as they came in to land. We hiked up to Fort Louis to delight in the incredible views across the island and beyond. We visited an art gallery in the French capital Marigot, and shopped at boulangeries on the French side and duty-free stores on the Dutch side.
For many, when they think of the Caribbean festival scene, they think of flamboyant carnivals, regattas, rum and food. SXM Festival’s inaugural event offered something completely different – and it was a huge success. “The first edition was truly a fantastic experience from start to finish,” Montréal-based house DJ Maher Daniel said. “The mixture between the island’s beauty along with the friendly locals made it so enjoyable.”
Bigger and better
An event like this takes some serious organising. Festival founder Julian Prince, a successful producer and bar owner from Montréal, has been involved in island life ever since his parents started running the Mercure Saint Martin. He soon spotted St Martin’s potential for dance-music fans. “There is a broader group of discerning music lovers who are adventurous, and looking for a special festival experience,” reckons Prince. For him, St Martin has it all – natural beauty, atmosphere and some of the Caribbean’s friendliest people.
After SXM Festival 2016 earned praise from attendees, locals and the music industry alike, 2017’s festival was assured. And it’s shaping up to be even bigger and better. For five sunrises and sunsets, 5,000 attendees (with 1,000 tickets specifically available to locals) will enjoy the anthems of over 100 DJs.
After popular sets in year one, Maher Daniel and Lee Burridge are among the DJs returning for another stint in paradise. Meanwhile, newcomers include hot German duo Âme and Chilean-born techno superstar Ricardo Villalobos. There will be beach and jungle parties, VIP yacht and villa parties, and a new stage to showcase local talent. And, of course, the setting is already epic. The biggest challenge, according to Prince? To curate an “even better DJ line-up, if that’s possible”.
As St Martin prepares to welcome another rush of passionate music lovers this March, it feels like the potential is greater than ever.
SXM Festival is taking place 15-19 March 2017. Tickets are available online at www.sxmfestival.com. A five-day general admission pass starts from 275 euros;
1,000 VIP passes are available, which include admission to secret parties throughout the week.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE…
St Martin-Sint Maarten has plenty to offer non-festivalgoers, too. Try these six island highlights
1 Go plane spotting
Princess Juliana Airport is just metres from the sand of Maho Beach, so planes come in to land right above. Sunset Bar posts the daily landing schedule on a surfboard outside.
2 Hit the waves
Coconut Reef offers powerboat tours to great snorkelling spots around the island. Tours end at Pinel Island, which is home to tortoises and iguanas.
3 Dine on the sand
St Martin is home to plenty of casual, reasonably priced restaurants. Reggae, rum and great seafood are just three reasons to visit Calmos Café in Grand Case. Mezza Luna in Nettle Bay serves gourmet Italian food, and some of the best pizza on the island. In Philipsburg, Lizzy’s Bar and Grill offers super-tasty sticky BBQ chicken.
4 Explore Marigot
You can’t visit St Martin and not venture to the colourful French capital Marigot. It oozes sophistication and charm. Don’t miss the daily market, which sells everything from spices and jewellery to clothes.
5 Go shopping
Head to Front Street in the Dutch capital Philipsburg to pick up duty-free bargains from brands including Mac and Tiffany. Fancy a flutter? There are more than 20 casinos to choose from.
6 Stay right on the lagoon
For a change from beachfront hotels, check into the Mercure Saint Martin Marina and Spa. With its own picturesque bay in the marina, quirky artworks and water sports, it’s a great base for your time on the island.