Saint Martin is the smallest island in the world to have been partitioned between two different nations, the Netherlands and France, but each side offers a surprising variety of quiet attractions. It’s a dangerous game, stereotyping. But can there be two places, two peoples as different as Holland and France, the Dutch and the French? What happens when these erstwhile Colonial powers cohabitate? They apparently make a beautiful, if somewhat schizophrenic, island with 37 beaches and the unwieldy moniker of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin.
The Arawak Indians once lived here until the war-like Carib Indians moved in and destroyed the place. So when Columbus passed these shores in November 1493, he sighted an empty island of gorgeous beaches and swaying palm trees. In the tradition of all discoverers, Columbus was into the naming business, calling this place St. Martin in honor of a Spanish (or Italian) holy man, St. Martin of Tours.
Fast forward to the conflicts between the French, Spanish and Dutch for possession of the territory and a “toe hold” in the New World. The Spanish eventually withdrew leaving the French and Dutch facing each other. In March 1648, they signed a treaty dividing the island into Dutch Sint Maarten (16 square miles) and French Saint Martin, (21 square miles.) The story, doubtlessly apocryphal, says that when the representatives of the two powers paced off the island, the Frenchman carried water, but the Dutchman carried beer. Falling asleep, the man from Holland failed to keep pace, thus ending up with the smaller share.
Charming Marigot, capital of Saint-Martin
About 150 miles southeast of Puerto Rico, Marigot is the capital of St. Martin, and here the French influence is evident in more places than in the French tricolor snapping proudly in the breeze on top of Fort Marigot. St. Martin has managed to combine the depth and flavor of French culture with the richness of Caribbean ethnicity.
Take the Marigot market for example. Almost any really interesting place has a fun market, and any fun market will appeal to kids. I grinned my way through this one. Maybe it was the setting: festivities right on the edge of the turquoise Caribbean, beneath very blue skies, surrounded by fringed palm trees. Fort Marigot looking down benignly from its perch on a lush green hill. The makeshift stalls were filled with colorful batiks, polished wooden crafts and lace. The bananas were piled chest-high and the whack-whack of machetes splitting coconuts provided a counterpoint to the reggae music and the haggling over fresh fish that attracted sharp-eyed buyers.
Marigot retains the chic that is French, but it’s leavened by the Caribbean culture. It’s an interesting town, made more interesting by the architecture, much of it classic gingerbread lace work.
It’s a town of a few walking blocks, set off by an attractive marina — Marina Port La Royale — ringed with unique and somewhat upscale restaurants, bars and cafes. And while many of the clothing shops are also expensive and very French, others are down-to-earth, sharing space with funky restaurants and stalls selling roots, spices and local vegetables. The boulangeries or bakery shops and French specialty shops add their flavor to this creative and fashionable enclave, and provide the makings of a picnic to enjoy by the sea or at the fort.
The French Tourist Office across the parking lot, near the small rotary, will provide lots of free maps and brochures.
Beyond Marigot on French side of Saint-Martin
Grand Case (pronounced cause) is about five miles north from Marigot and offers two faces to visitors: by day, it’s a sleepy hamlet; at night, a haven for diners in search of a quality eating experience. The restaurants may well be the best on the island, many with a view of neighboring Anguilla. In the center of this sleepy village, not far from one of the salt ponds, is a rusted old salt grinder, a reminder of the times when folks virtually slaved gathering salt for sale.
Orient Beach, on the east side of St. Martin, like almost all of the 37 beaches on the island, is a lovely stretch of sand. A couple of deserted islands off shore beckon scuba divers and the adventurous. The beach is accessed via a dusty, bumpy road — a typical trek — but the view of the sparkling, azure water is well worth it. Visitors have a choice: the nude or clothed section. I noticed a lot of rubber-necking on the part of those who choose to wear swim suits since nothing divides the two sections except a makeshift billboard announcing the Orient Club at Orient Beach. It’s a measure of how pervasive the Web has become because the sign announces the nudists’ website.
For kids, and adults who just want to be kids, there’s a unique and somewhat “unknown” attraction that I loved–The Butterfly Farm or La Ferme De Papillons). Run by some offbeat Brits, the place is a tropical jungle look-alike with 45 species of butterflies flitting weightlessly from flower to flower and limb to limb. One settled on my arm. I was told that this was a great honor because these Thai butterflies seldom settle on people. That it stayed with me as I moved around the “jungle,” swaying with my motion, had something to do with my smell — err, scent. Whatever.
Some of the creatures are vivid flashes of electric blue that look like jewels moving in space. There’s a Koi carp pool where I learned that one Koi, whose color so resembled the Japanese flag (white face, red circle), sold for $100,000.
Vive la Difference!
It’s important to realize that in spite of their differences, the Dutch and the French have made St. Maarten/St. Martin the smallest island in the world to be shared by two powers. And the relationship works very well.
No borders exist dividing the two sections, only an occasional marker quietly stating that the traveler is entering the Dutch side or leaving the French. The street names reflect the difference (straat and rue), as do the flags flying in front of government buildings. French is heard in the streets of Marigot; English in Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side. But English is understood throughout the island.
Sint Maarten reflects a truer Caribbean culture because the African-Indian-East Indian presence is more dynamic here. It’s also more commercial. This is where the international Princess Juliana Airport is located. And it’s where more than a hundred cruise ships call, attracted by the many duty-free shops that line Philipsburg’s Front Street. Prices in the shops are roughly 25%-50% lower than comparable prices in the States for such items as French perfumes, liquor, cigars (many Cuban), Swedish crystal, Swiss watches, German cameras and lots of fine jewelry. St. Maarten is also where the 12 or so casinos attract high rollers (and the not-so-high), creating a glittering nightlife.
The restaurants in St. Maarten, while lacking the flair of those on the French side, are probably more fun. Diners can expect lots of dancing, entertainment and music with their fresh fish and Creole sauces. At my visit, the entertainers reached out to all ages in the audience, involving them in some good-natured dancing and singing. I was recruited to demonstrate a loose hip swivel to a reggae tune. I failed miserably, but it was fun. Another night at another restaurant, the staff danced with the patrons to a jazzy Caribbean beat.
Exploring Dutch island of Sint Maarten
After you’ve settled in, take the time to walk a mile or so out of town on Front Street or Back Street. Getting out of the center of town by foot, moped or rental car is important. Your family will get a chance to see how the people live, shop and sell.
Small shops, far from the madding crowds, have names like A-Z Discounts or Sherry’s Enterprises, and sell stuff like cologne, “Ecstasy Hair Cream” and the brightly colored batiks. At Fong’s, at 171 Front St., there’s a bizarre mix of more hair creams, Chinese herbs, spices and stuff I couldn’t quite identify. In between, there are tiny connecting alleys (steegjes) running between pastel colored homes and corrugated tin-hut shanties with small cafes and restaurants. Many of these are Indian or Chinese.
All but ignored by the tourists, the Pasanggrahan Guest House (1-721-542-3588) is a gem of a place. This former governor’s home and VIP guest house is the oldest, most authentic colonial style inn on St. Maarten. Located off the main street but tucked away in a lush tropical garden, it’s the kind of place where one imagines distinguished ladies and gentlemen sitting and discussing society and affairs of state while gazing out at the restless sea and its long, sandy beach. The Guest House has only 30 rooms and Old-World charm that makes it one of the loveliest places in the Netherland Antilles.
Another gem is the Sint Maarten National Heritage Museum. This postage stamp-size venture on Front Street is run by Elsje Bosch-Wilson, a Dutch St. Maartener with a huge heart and great vision. The small curio shop on the first floor attracts the artists of the island. I was invited for coffee and I listened to the chatter between Elsje and a couple of local artists.
Later, we went upstairs to explore this museum dedicated to unearthing, literally, the hidden history of the island. The museum traces the rise and fall of the Amerindians on the island, various artifacts found from sunken ships, unearthed forts and so on. She has a video of the awful destruction of Hurricane Luis, which devastated the island in 1994. But Elsje believes in the spirit of the people to bounce back from such disasters– a view I heard expressed at a St. Maarten/St. Martin unity celebration, and experienced first hand.
The parking lot was filled with food, drink and music. Dignitaries from both sides gave old-time political speeches. The Sous-Prefet of French St. Martin spoke passionately about giving the youth of the island a sense of purpose. Sarah Wescott-Williams, a political party leader, spoke in Dutch-accented English about the need for the islanders to rely upon themselves to solve their problems, not on outside or government aid. Another spoke about the dangers of drugs and lack of vision, about the need to believe in one’s community. Sound familiar?
Kaleel’s Helpful Travel Links
The nights in St. Maarten/St. Martin are soft, clear and gentle. And although the dynamic night life is as near as the nearest casino or reggae-filled disco, it’s possible to get away and walk any of the lovely beaches without fear.
This is a developed island with two personalities and lots to offer– that’s the good and bad news. It’s possible to find a small hamlet or secluded piece of beach, but you have to look for it. And I encourage you to find it.
• Visit the official home page of the Dutch side of the island here: St. Maarten Tourist office (599/542-2337)
• Or call the St. Maarten Tourist Office in the United States, at (212/953-2084)
• Check out the St. Maarten/St. Martin Travel Guide for information and secure reservations for car rentals, hotels, guesthouses or villa rentals and all activities that are available on the French and Dutch Caribbean island.
• The interactive website for the French St. Martin is in French, English and other languages. Take a look for virtual tours, a business directory, activities, museums and galleries and media links.
• On a budget? Visit Priceline.com and get great rates on flights and accomodations.
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.
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