There’s one thing that Steve Ward learned quickly after purchasing his dream retreat on the beach in St. Martin. For all its pleasures, “A house on the beach demands the same maintenance as a boat!” And that, he says laughing, is a lot! But he and his wife Lori agree that the maintenance is a small price to pay for the sunsets, breezes and views over Baie Rouge Beach that they enjoy from their villa Les Palmiers.
The one-bedroom home is beautifully reminiscent of a Mediterranean beach house where a writer might finish her novel, or new lovers might hide away. It was not, however, Steve and Lori Ward’s first choice when they decided to buy a family retreat on St. Martin. The house that initially seduced them was, in fact, next door to Les Palmiers. That one was larger and grander but did overlook the same beautiful crescent of sand and sea. As Steve Ward tells it, the first moment they walked up the stairs to Beau Rivage, they were both smitten with the house and the beach.
What they hadn’t imagined at that moment was that after some twists and turns, their family (who usually spent their vacations skiing in Vermont) would end up buying two houses on St. Martin, Beau Rivage, the oldest home on the beach, and its smaller and younger sibling next door, Les Palmiers. “Neither of the properties were even for sale at the time,” Steve says. But somehow coincidence and Lori’s perseverance changed that. Though the homes weren’t listed, it turned out that the owners were in the process of thinking about selling. “Somehow Lori always makes things happen!” Steve says admiringly. The owners’ “thinking” turned to “deciding” and the Wards bought both houses.
The well-traveled couple who have been together since college have undertaken many projects in the past (including raising three now adult boys) so they were undaunted with the prospect of a loving makeover for the two retreats. Lori took the lead on the redo – she wanted the interiors to evoke a feel of the Mediterranean, “something like the mood of Under the Tuscan Sun”. Lori set out to make that happen and in North America’s historic mecca of furniture production, Highpoint, North Carolina, she found just the right furniture. But first, Lori says, they had to make room. There was absolutely no design scheme in place before, she says and, “There was a LOT of furniture, big pieces cluttering the small house!”
Both Lori and Steve had spent parts of their childhoods in California so theirs is an aesthetic that recalls that state’s Spanish missions, with their orange tiled roofs, travertine and limestone floors and the sunny glow and durability of redwood. For Les Palmiers, Lori chose something that would incorporate those elements, the stylish but cozy and comfort-driven Postobello Styleas popularized by design maven, Jen Kates. Lori used neutral hues of beige, creams and browns for fabrics and crema marfil for floors. Juxtaposed with the neutral and calming interior are the bursts of bright color from the sunshine yellow oleander, red and pink hibiscus and delicate violet plumbago surrounding Les Palmiers. “The house,” Lori says, “is just very romantic!”
Adding to the romance is the carefully curated collection of local artists’ work. Since owning the house Lori has gradually searched for and found a number of prints of the island’s flowers and plants. Her favorite finds, however, are bronze sculptures of a lionfish and of a hermit crab. No surprise those particular pieces are her favorites because Lori, an experienced diver, and is fascinated by undersea life. “We’re just not the types who lie around at the beach!” she says of herself and her husband.
It’s not necessary to don tanks and wetsuits, however, to thoroughly enjoy the sea at your doorstep. The views of the beach and ocean from Les Palmiers (as well as from Beau Rivage) are positively cinematic. Baie Rouge beach is one of St. Martin’s more secluded, less hurried and less populated bathing spots. It is a wide sandy crescent nestled in a cove created by the nearby Falaise des Oiseaux cliffs (Bird Cliffs). When not under the water, the ocean-loving couple says they often sit on the patio to enjoy the view across to nearby Anguilla or just watch the ocean’s many moods. Steve is well aware how rare and precious the location is, and never fails to appreciate all that a house on the water offers. “There is just an awesome power in the ocean,” he says.
Both Lori and Steve agree that as beautiful as the house and the beach are, it is the island that adds to their absolute joy. Where else, Steve says, in thirty-seven square miles could you experience two cultures, referring to the fact that St. Martin AKA St. Maarten is both French and Dutch. Each side of the island offers its own special delights. There are the casinos and buzz of the Dutch side and the croissants and brioche on the French side. And both sides of the island have glorious beaches. Who wouldn’t love the tony haute cuisine in the restaurants of Grand Case (some call it the gastronomy capital of the West Indies), but Steve is as happy with a lolo, a hole-in-the-wall barbeque found along the beach.
The couple’s affection for the island also means a commitment to its inhabitants and their hard work, says Steve, former CEO ofLenovo, who worked his way through college in his dad’s gas station. He now uses his management skills to advise small businesses on the island and consistently tries to buy everything locally to support the island’s entrepreneurs. And where other villa owners might stick to a circuit of home, restaurant and mall, Steve, trained as a mechanical engineer, has deeper interests on the island. “I enjoy visiting small factories,” he says.
While there is always something to do to keep up the two homes, Steve does manage to find time to hide out in the gazebo with a book (current favorites include Peter Mayal and John Grisham). And when Lori isn’t underwater or in her garden, you can find her settled in one of the deep soft seats on the deck reading about dog training, one of her other pastimes. It is clear that for Lori and Steve Ward, their vacation homes aren’t just houses and St. Martin isn’t just any Caribbean island. They have a deep cultural and personal connection with the island and respect and care deeply for its environment and its people. “We realize that for us it is a vacation, but for many of the people who live here tourism is a livelihood. We know how important it is to support them and protect the land.”