SXM Festival Review: Panorama sunsets, villa parties and boat cruises in a Caribbean paradise

Kalatua beach at SXM
Kalatua beach at SXM Copyright geo.photo
By Jonny Walfisz
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"It doesn’t have to be your normal life" - Euronews Culture reports from the epic SXM Festival on the French-Dutch Caribbean island of Saint Martin. The dance music extravaganza's main attraction is it brings elements of the European club scene to a paradisiacal location in the Americas.

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SXM Festival makes sense from the moment you land in Saint Martin. The short runway is held back from the aquamarine ocean by a narrow stretch of beach. Planespotters on Maho beach on occasion are thrown into the ocean by the thrust of departing jets as the sand pulsates in its wake. That thrum of shifting sands is only just beginning.

The draw of SXM is it brings elements of the European club scene to a paradisiacal location in the Americas. While the weather in Ibiza is only just starting to warm up, early March is the perfect time to rave long into the night in the Caribbean.

The part-French, part-Dutch island of Saint Martin is just 87 km² in size. You can drive from one side to the other in under half an hour, provided there isn’t too much traffic on the single main road that snakes around the island’s perimeter.

Yet despite its small size, Saint Martin is bursting with cultures. As an overseas collectivity of France, the French side is in the EU. The Dutch side isn’t though and is still – for the moment – using the Netherlands Antillean guilder. Alongside the colonial history, the island also has a proud Caribbean heritage.

Part of the joy of SXM Festival is it stretches across the island, inhabiting every corner as it takes over venues, employs locals and builds community. You see the entire island as you’re bustled into crowded bus-taxis that scream along the road to your next venue.

Vibing on the main stages

And what incredible venues they are. SXM’s main two stages are set alongside the rippling waves of Happy Bay. The Arc Stage lights up the largest outdoor dance floor, while a short walk through Happy Bay’s neon-lit sands will take you to the more intimate Ocean Stage. It’s at these stages that the festival’s biggest draws like Loco Dice and Shimza hit the decks.

Konstantin at Happy Bay
Konstantin at Happy BayJames Bridle Photo

It’s on Happy Bay that most of the revellers time is spent, dancing well into the early hours. Other impressive artists like Ilario Alicante and Tiefschwarz bring their unique brands of techno and deep house to the festival there, while exciting younger acts like Mason Collective and Monkey Safari gave explosive high-energy sets. Back-to-back sets kept Happy Bay stomping, but with the beach just beside the stages, there’s always a spot for a chill-out break and debriefs on the action.

After their highlight set on the Ocean stage, German brothers Lars Rühlemann and Sven Fröhlich, best known as Monkey Safari, tell us why SXM feels like a unique stop in their busy calendars. “It’s really nice playing in spots like this. We definitely prefer playing in paradise, on the beach with the sand and the water,” Rühlemann says. “We had a really good flow and it was a lot of fun. The crowd was amazing,” Fröhlich adds.

Monkey Safari, like most of the booked artists, are from the European scene. While the weather over in continental Europe is still too cold for outdoor evening raves, part of the pull of the festival is that this little European corner of the Caribbean creates a microcosm of Europe’s summer clubbing season. On the island, we meet many attendees from both France and the Netherlands as well as “locals” from the two countries who have moved over in recent years.

Jonny Walfisz chatting with Monkey Safari
Jonny Walfisz chatting with Monkey SafariTheo Farrant/Euronews

It’s not just Europeans. The other major demographic at the festival is Americans. Just a four-hour flight from New York, it’s an ideal location for east coasters in search of sun. Rühlemann explains that while the German techno scene is known for its hard edge, the market in North America has “really developed”. “EDM is not that big of a player anymore. It’s more House. Especially also in Mexico, in Latin America and we love to play in the Caribbean, it’s such a cultural mix of all of them [genres].”

If you’re able to carry on going when Happy Bay closes at 5am, on two nights, SXM also takes over Boho Beach for an astonishingly beautiful sunrise party that stretches into the day. The Thursday morning set by Anjunadeep-signed artist Anyasa was a noted favourite with non-stop singalong bangers.

“The SXM sunrise party was definitely one of the most exotic locations I’ve ever played at!” Anyasa says. “The vibes were immaculate throughout the set and the dance floor was an eclectic mix of smiling faces.”

The exclusive festival within

If you’re going to fly all the way over the Atlantic to spend a week dancing in paradise, it makes sense to go all out. For the most-dedicated revellers, SXM organises essentially an entire second festival to take place for its premium ticket holders.

Anyone willing to fork out the extra dosh gets access to not one, not two but three entirely unique parties. The first is a quintessential island choice: a boat party. Directly after the first sunrise party, the hardiest partiers continue through the night and into the day to hop on a barge around the Simpson Bay Lagoon on the west of Saint Martin.

Waterskiiers fly past us, showing off death-defying tricks as the boat passes yachts and stunning beach-front properties as we stomp and sway on the still currents of the lagoon. Sets from Facundo Mohrr, Ella Romand and Ben Rau keep the party going, with festival founder Julian Prince and his crew getting involved, chartering a speedboat out to our location to jump on board mid-trip.

Bamboo House
Bamboo HouseMaxime Mro

The next exclusive party is a brand new location for the festival. At the end of a 20-minute chairlift is the Panorama Stage, set atop one of Saint Martin’s highest peaks, it’s an incredible feat of engineering to create a whole dance stage and bar. One of the people who helped build the stage, who goes by Mitch Mad Vibes, explains the slow process. “You bring everything up by chairlift, all the lumber, the fabric, the bamboo, everything has to go up in the chairs,” Mad Vibes explains. “It came together in about two-and-a-half days and it turned out great.”

While Mad Vibes may have helped engineer the stage, you can’t engineer the weather on an island. As we’re taking the long chairlift up, the heavens open and tropical rain and wind lash at the suddenly-flimsy feeling structure. DJ Pat and Andy Scorda play a back-to-back set through the shower until suddenly, the wind moves in the right direction and tranquillity is restored.

Dancers
DancersJames Bridle Photo

From out of the clouds, the views stretch out across the mountainside houses, the boats bobbing in the harbour and all the way to Anguilla. It’s the perfect timing for Kate Simko’s set, which rouses everyone from under the bar canopy onto the dancefloor in ecstatic reverie.

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“I was quite worried when I was on the ski lift, getting pissing down rain on me,” Simko tells us. “I showed up a little wet and ended up wearing a bin liner over my head. And then it stopped and it was amazing timing.”

“I really loved it. It was my favourite party here at SXM. It’s just amazing being up on the mountain and seeing the whole view. And it's really inspiring and everyone seemed to really enjoy it,” Simko says.

Once again, festival founder Julian Prince shows up. This time it’s to play a set of his own back-to-back with Doc Martin. We caught up with Prince before the next premium event, a day party in a $25 million (€23 million) luxury villa.

Having a chinwag with Julian Prince
Having a chinwag with Julian PrinceTheo Farrant/Euronews

Lapping in luxury

Prince was born in Montreal but considers Saint Martin his home after his French father moved out there to escape the cold winters. He founded the festival in 2016 and has guided it through trying times for the island, first when disaster struck after Hurricane Irma devastated Saint Martin in 2017 and then through the difficult pandemic years. “From the beginning, the idea was to have superstar DJs, but the superstar is the island,” Prince explains. The main economy of the island is tourism, so Prince’s vision has always been to prioritise sustainably bringing greater interest to his beloved home for the festival and throughout the year.

We chat with Prince in the extensive gardens that stretch out from the stupendously sumptuous villa. Infinity pools, vista views, and overall decadence is overflowing from the place. It feels like the set from a P Diddy music video instead of a festival stage. That’s the point for Prince: “SXM Festival, during that week, it doesn’t have to be your normal life.”

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Fleur Shore at the Villa
Fleur Shore at the VillaBryan Kwon Photos

“I come from a background of clubbing from the 90s. And what made clubbing in the 90s so amazing was that at the party, it didn't matter what you did, how much you earned. The idea was that you're here to share your vibes, you're here to share an intention. You're here to forget about your everyday life and release yourself and be yourself. And this is what makes a festival,” Prince says.

He’s right. This isn’t your normal life. It’s also not necessarily a normal cost. While the most affordable tickets for the festival are priced at €280, full access to the premium events will set you back €800. As the sun sets directly over the view from the multiple pools at the villa, techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson pumps up the intensity in time for Fleur Shore to take over and play an intimate boiler room style set. The beauty of Saint Martin combines with the luxury of the villa and the ecstasy of the crowd. This might have been the sort of exclusive fun promoted by the charlatans behind Fyre Festival, but at SXM the feeling is real and entirely worth the trip.

The waitlist for next year's edition is available here.

Video editor • Theo Farrant

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