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Learning the ropes

An intrepid grandmother soars through the treetops in St. Martin in a harness and hooked to a cable ''zip-line.''

Published June 27, 2006

Though I'm a petite, slightly gray, suburban grandmother, when I discover exploits like the Fly Zone on the French side of the island of St. Martin, I am hyped.

A former 160-acre sugar plantation on the road to Pic du Paradis, the Loterie Farm is the only tropical forest system on the island. It was rediscovered by American ex-pat B.J. Welch, who turned the former plantation into a nature preserve.

The preserve's guided eco-tours and 5.6 miles of hiking trails were its biggest draw until the Fly Zone was created.

This attraction is really an obstacle course - kind of like basic training but up in the trees.

It begins, for me, easily enough. I am fitted with a harness that has ropes with a pulley and two carabiners - those clips that mountain climbers use - attached to the harness.

"Safety is our first concern," Welch says during the briefing.

Every activity is supervised by a "cable guy" - someone who literally knows the ropes. My cable guy, Raymond, tells me what I will have to do and how to hook onto the cable lines that accompany each task. He has his job cut out for him: Even though I thrive on activities such as this, I am also the quintessential klutz.

There is a trial run - a quick tree-to-tree trip via a cable "zip-line," which involves a stroll across a cable about 15 feet above the ground, and a jaunt on a suspended bridge. It's the kiddy course, but it serves as a test to see if we are up to the more difficult stuff. For this semi-daredevil granny, it's a piece of cake. I am ready to soar, and stumble, between 200-year-old mahogany and mango trees.

Knowing I have Raymond and the other cable guys looking after me, I eagerly ascend the ladder into the tree canopy. I stare at the maze of cables and ropes dangling from the branches. One side of my brain is saying, "Are you nuts?" The other is saying, "Let's do it!"

Hooking my ropes and pulley to the cable line, I jump off the platform. The wind is in my face, the green blur of the trees whizzes past and I soar to the next tree platform. My gloved hand acts as the brake so I won't go splat against the tree. What a rush!

The next task is more challenging. Between two trees are a series of playground-type swings - only they are hanging about 50 feet above the ground. From the platform, it is easy to reach the first one. I start to sway. How will my short legs reach the next one? It seems so far away.

Carefully, I lean forward and catch the next swing. Steady. My foot reaches it and very slowly I continue. Sweat pours from my face . . . I keep telling myself the platform is only a few swings away.

I make it to the platform.

Now comes the woven rope bridge. This requires walking from one knot on the rope to the next. But my legs only stretch to the open air between the knots.

I figure out a plan: The bottom path of ropes is attached to cables. I grasp the cables to reach the next platform. And there hangs another zip-line. Yes!

The suspended bridges have put a bounce in my step, but the single log bridge that hangs there requires real balance - not my strength.

So it is a step-and-stumble dance to the next platform. Hooking onto the rope and swinging to the next tree is a hoot.

My confidence is building - until I reach what is a suspended staircase. Though the cable railing is somewhat reassuring, there is nothing between the steps except air.

I look down. The ground is far away. I falter.

Why am I doing this?

Raymond urges me on: "You can do it. There is a zip-line ahead."

Maybe if I just close my eyes and not look - no, that's a dumb idea. Gingerly, I clip onto the side cables. I cautiously take a step, then another and another. It isn't getting any easier. There is too much air between me and the ground.

Finally, the last step. I have never been so happy to see a tree. And there in front of me, just like Raymond promised - another zip-line. I hook my pulley onto it like an old pro and leap off the platform. I am flying through the forest again.

It doesn't get better than this.

The average time it takes to complete this course is about 90 minutes. When it is over, I feel exhilarated. Now I can go back to suburban granny-dom.

But first, I think I'll relax on one of St. Martin's beaches.

Roberta Sotonoff keeps her feet firmly on the ground at her home in Glenview, Ill.


For more information, contact the following.

St. Maarten Tourist Office (Dutch side of the island), call toll-free 1-800-786-2278, or (212) 953-2084;

St. Martin Tourist Office (French side), call toll-free 1-877-956-1234, or (212) 475-8970;

Loterie Farm: Pic du Paradis, St. Martin, (590) 87 86 16 or (599) 57 28 55;


[Last modified June 27, 2006, 07:18:04]

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