France VFR St. Martin/St. Barthelemy Scenery For FS2004 Or FSX
By Andrew Herd (14 September 2007)
n 11th November 1493, a wandering Spaniard by the name of Christopher Columbus found an island in what is now known as the Leeward Group of the Lesser Antilles in the northeast Caribbean about 150 miles east of Puerto Rico. It must have seemed like paradise, given that even at that time of year the temperature rarely drops below 17 degrees Centigrade and Columbus and his crew wouldn't have taken long to explore, or put too much effort into the process, given that the highest hilltop is only just over 400 m above sea level. Columbus named the island after the feast of the saint's day on which he visited it and he noted in passing that there were rich reserves of salt, a commodity which was in high demand in Europe at that time.
Columbus sailed away and nothing disturbed the island's peace for another hundred and twenty five years or so, when some French tobacco planters arrived. That was more or less the end of the idyllic peace the islands had enjoyed, because a few years after that, some Dutchmen established a small colony to gather salt; and then the Spanish arrived, built a fort and then went away again after only staying for a couple of years. In 1648, the French and Dutch settlers divided the island by mutual agreement into a northern (French) and southern (Dutch) zone, legend having it that the dividing line was decided by having a Frenchman walk south from the northern extremity of the island to meet a Dutchman walking the other way; the place where they met being agreed as marking the border, although the Dutch have been known to complain that the Frenchman must have cheated, because the border is noticeably nearer to the southern end of the island. Sadly, this very sensible compromise didn't last and in 1679 the French occupied the entire place. Ten years later, the Dutch West India Company re-established a Dutch zone, only for the British to arrive in 1690 and take the whole place over. For the next century, ownership of the island yo-yo'd between the French, the Dutch and the British, before the French and Dutch zones were re-established in 1816 and nowadays St. Martin/St. Maarten enjoys the unique status of being the world's smallest island to be divided between two countries. The French part is presently a dependency of Guadeloupe, while the Dutch half is part of the Netherlands Antilles. If that wasn't complicated enough, St. Martin is part of a group called the Windward Islands by the Dutch for administrative purposes, although geographically, St. Martin is part of the Leeward Islands (and to make matters even more interesting, Dominica lies just to the south, formerly administered by the British as part of the Leeward Islands, but geographically part of the Windwards).
Today's St. Martin population numbers around 70,000, almost exclusively devoted to supporting a tourist turnover of over a million visitors per annum. This makes St. Martin/St. Maarten a favorite destination for the world's major airlines, who operate 747s and A340s, no mean feat at Princess Juliana International, which has a runway only 7000 foot long, forcing the heavies to fly a long flat approach that appears to barely scrape over the thousands of bodies soaking up the sun on the beach which lies under the threshold. This has to be seen to be believed, because the bogies of the incoming jets are dangling at only fifty feet above the sand on short final and shots taken with long telephotos make it look as if an accident is certain to happen on every approach. This accounts for why the island features so often in Flight Simulator 'dangerous approach' addons and articles.
St. Barthelemy is at the northern end of the Windward Group and is administered by the French as an arrondissement of Guadeloupe. Although the island is very fertile, it has a much duller history than St. Martin, having been occupied by the French in 1648 and remained in their hands ever since, apart from a ninety year interlude during which it was sold to Sweden.
Having read the above, you can imagine why France VFR's St. Martin/St. Barthelemy addon caught my eye - a scenery which captures the flavor of this extraordinary place just had to be worthwhile, especially because there is such a wide range of interesting destinations within a short range of the islands. The Caribbean is one of the best bits of FSX, having apparently been given special attention and yet it seldom seems to attract FS scenery developers.
The package is a 57 Mb download from the Pilot Shop and installation to FS2004 is easy, once you have entered the license key, the only choices you need to make being to confirm the installation folder and to choose a language for the installation dialogs (English or French, but not Dutch). The FSX installation is another matter - although the blurb says that the addon is 'FSX ready', installing it in FSX is a complicated process. The first stage is no more difficult than doing an FS2004 installation, the only difference being that you have to point the installer at the FSX folder; but after that a great deal of file management has to be done, a process which has half a dozen steps in total and takes you deep into the FSX file structure, although it is perfectly well documented. If you are used to Windows file management, this shouldn't be a problem, but if you aren't sure where the FSX folder lives, or aren't confident about moving files, then I would wait until the package has been upgraded to full FSX compatibility.
I reviewed the package using a 2.66 Ghz Core2Duo system with 4 Gb of RAM and a 768 Mb GeForce 8800GTX running Windows Vista, using FSX SP1. The St. Martin/St. Barthelemy package version I reviewed included the 1.1 patch, the only issue about it worth noting being that if the scenery is viewed using an FSX texture setting of less than 5m resolution, a thin black line tends to appear along the coastlines due to a texture format issue - this is visible in some of the screenshots. The usual post-installation checked found a new Start menu group, containing links to a seven page user's manual in English and French, a couple of airways charts and plates for the St. Barthelemy (TFFJ) and St. Martin Grand Case (TFFG) approaches, but nothing for Princess Juliana International (TNCM), which is of course part of the Netherlands Antilles, although it is included in the scenery. So if you were planning to buy this package in order to fly the Princess Juliana approaches, you will need to find some plates elsewhere, but it is worthwhile, because the addon transforms the islands. You get replacement mesh, replacement photorealistic textures, replacement airports, lots of custom buildings and totally new shorelines, the latter enhancement making a big difference to the way the islands look, because the shorelines are relatively simplistic in a default Flight Simulator installation. You also get scheduled AI traffic and a free Twin Otter to tour the islands in.
The first thing to note about the package is that it uses textures optimised for FS2004, based on aerial photography. The means that the resolution is 5 m a pixel, which translates into pixellation if you fly much below 2500 feet - the manual makes many suggestions about how to optimise performance using the scenery and the section is well worth reading if you have a marginal system, although I had no problems with texture blurring while I was testing the package. Even at 5 m per pixel, flights around the islands are very rewarding, because there is always something to see, given the convolutions of the shoreline and the amount of detail that the developers have packed in. There are yachts, powerboats and ships everywhere, with an abundance of cruise liners and although most of the water borne traffic is static, you will see some moving boats if you have the slider settings right. The airports are quite well done, a huge improvement on the default versions and up to the standard of some of the multi-airport packaged German Airports series, if you want a yardstick to judge them by; and as you fly around the islands you will keep seeing new features. The only bug I came across was some floating houses at Grand Case, which I suspect may not be a problem in FS2004.
Verdict? A very interesting package, given the location and the challenge the approaches present. Even though Princess Juliana International is best known as a big iron destination, the other airports make great bases for exploration in smaller aircraft and the place is a paradise for amphibians and float planes. There really is something for everyone in this scenery and as long as you are happy to get your hands dirty fixing up the FSX installation, it works well and looks good.Andrew Herd