The best time of day here is just after sunrise, when the air smells like April and the snow-white sun has just begun its sentinel over miles of some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean.

When my husband and I bottomed out last winter, we simply knew that two weeks of sun, food and shopping was the only cure for February anxiety. We settled on St. Martin/St. Maarten, a small island about 160 miles due east of Puerto Rico that has been divided both culturally and politically between the French (St. Martin) and the Dutch (St. Maarten) for more than 300 years. It seemed to offer something for every kind of tourist -- gambling, shopping, golf and sun -- as well as an exotic mix of French and Dutch culture.

Of course, such pleasures seldom come cheaply. And we soon learned that little on this island is inexpensive, especially when it comes to dining out. Dinner can easily run $70 to $100 for two.

So we settled on breakfast as a less costly way to enjoy the special cuisine, as well as a unique way to sightsee. We rented a car for about $170 a week and traveled the island's 37 square miles in search of breakfast spots.

It couldn't have been a more interesting way to explore the back roads and hills, with spectacular views of the Caribbean and the Atlantic. There are no restrictions in moving from one side of the island to the other. One minute we would be driving through the charming French town of Marigot with its shops and pretty marina, and the next would find us winding along narrow, hilly streets with a distinctly Dutch flavor. BAT10

St. Martin's restaurants are known to serve some of the finest cuisine in the world, and this applies to breakfast too. There are many little cafe's and bakeries to choose from, but we decided that in our limited time we wanted to try the bigger and better-known restaurants. And in our 10-day stay, we discovered a range of eateries for every mood and craving:

*The Pasanggrahan, in Philipsburg on the Dutch side of the island is a lovely guest house that years ago was the residence of the Dutch governor. For $4 per person you can have all the bread, juices, bacon and eggs you can eat, on a stone patio overlooking the Great Bay Harbor. From here, you can easily walk to a nearby marina where day-long boat trips to St. Barts and other islands can be arranged for about $35 to $50 per person round trip. (For more information, check at the St. Maarten Tourist Board, on the waterfront.)

The Pasanggrahan has a certain low-key charm, with ceiling fans instead of central air conditioning, no phones or televisions. We found it had more character than the larger resorts, for considerably less money (about $75 a day for two). Most of the rooms face the water and a picturesque little marina. At night we fell asleep to the sound of the waves. And there was a lovely little beach, which never seemed to be very crowded.

*The Caravanserai, near the airport, is a Spanish-style resort facing the Windex-blue sea, with a restaurant that is virtually a huge pavilion directly over the water. Eggs Benedict go for $5.95, omelets for $4.95, and the view is priceless. And the management graciously allows visitors to use one of the two tennis courts.

*Oyster Pond was my favorite breakfast spot. We stumbled upon this restaurant, which sits almost on the French/Dutch border, quite by accident, and enjoyed our most romantic breakfast here. This white stucco building is set on a knoll facing the Atlantic, and with its white rattan furniture, red stone floors and gentle breeze, it feels like the setting for a Hemingway novel. Breakfast here ran about $22 for two. It also looked like a quiet, pretty place to stay if R & R is your only desire. (Rooms and suites ranged from $200 to $260.)

*La Samanna, near Marigot, the main French town, charged about $35 for croissants, fresh juice and tony egg dishes; it was worth every penny. (By comparison, dinner here would run more than $100 for two.) Down the end of a winding, unmarked road, this world-famous resort exudes privacy and service. A manager said the key to its success is "informality," and indeed, you can show up for breakfast wearing shorts and be treated as if you were wearing satin. The dining room sits high above 4,000 feet of white beaches, and you can see the choppy ocean slapping and foaming.

For the ultimate in service and pampering, La Samanna is definitely the first choice among St. Martin accommodations. Inconspicuous security guards roam the property to ensure privacy; in fact, Richard Nixon and Jackie Onassis have stayed here. (Accommodations range from $400-a-day rooms in the main building to $1,000-a-day villas right on the water.)

From here, you're only a few minutes' drive from the French shopping district, where duty-free shops offer wonderful buys on perfume, French crystal, British china and every kind of jewelry imaginable. While it's fun to shop with francs, U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere. (Take note that many of the shops close for a few hours at midday.)

*Mark's Place, a very European cafe', while not exactly a breakfast place, is perfect for brunch. Tucked in between a mountain and a reservoir on a cul-de-sac, Mark's Place offers the zenith of laid-back, country dining. Here you can sip a liter of wine with the locals for hours and eat some of Mark's moderately priced and fabulous creole. We spent the better part of an enjoyable day here just drinking and eating. Settle in with a bottle of Beaujolais nouveau for less than $10, or a giant ice-cream sundae for $2. Lunch ran about $25.

Breakfast is a great way to start a beach day, and the beaches on St. Martin are desolate, gorgeous and hot. Or choose one of many other options: It's easy to get onto the one golf course (at the Mullet Bay Sheraton Beach Hotel), or to hop a boat to St. Barts, a quaint French island perfect for a romantic lunch and some shopping. And as an extra entertainment bonus, nouveau gamblers can have a heyday at the blackjack tables on the Dutch side of the island.

We found that if we ate a large breakfast -- and ate late -- a small meal was often enough in the evening. But we did try a few of the restaurants for which the island is famous. Our favorites, which are open only for dinner, included:

*Il Pescatore, a cozy spot offering Italian cuisine right on the water in Philipsburg. The seafood was fresh, and the best buys were pasta and the house wine. Figure on about $50 to $60 for two.

*Le Santal, possibly one of the prettiest French restaurants you'll ever see. Inside is a delicate blue-and-white decor, giving a clean, crisp feeling, and elegant linen and china add to the ambiance. The wall facing the sea is simply gone, so you feel like you're eating a wonderfully romantic candlelit dinner smack on the beach. The food is fabulous, and well it should be; anticipate spending no less than $125 for two.

*L'Auberge Gourmand, a little French restaurant in Grand Case, a small town where restaurants seem to be the main industry. The menu is chock-full of hearty lamb, beef and chicken dishes, and wonderful soups. Gingham tablecloths and soft candlelight make for a very romantic scene. Dinner for two is about $80.

*Gianni, an adorable art-deco-style Italian restaurant in Grand Case. Inside is stark black and white, with a pretty red rose on every table. Here seafood and pasta were a delight -- and moderately priced: about $50 for two and well worth it.