If you had to pick a single island to represent the variety of travel experiences available in the entire Caribbean, St. Maarten would be a good choice. It has two nationalities, French and Dutch, which provide a good sampling of the different European cultures that have left their mark on the West Indies.
The island has coral reefs for diving and snorkeling, spreads of beautiful white sand for sunbathing and all the duty-free shopping you could dream of. It's partly exclusive and upscale, with pricey restaurants and boutiques, partly geared to the mass tourism of cruise ships and large resorts. You will also find an island that's well connected to the outside world, with fine hotels, glitzy casinos, Wi-Fi access island-wide and excellent restaurants.
St. Martin/St. Maarten, which lies 144 mi east of Puerto Rico, is covered with conical hills. Coarse grass and scrub, palm trees and poinsettias dominate the landscape of the triangular-shaped island.
The island's coastline zigzags erratically, with rocky peninsulas separating quiet coves of white-sand beaches and soupy salt ponds, often fringed with mangroves. On the generally flatter west side, the beaches are washed by the calm Caribbean. On the east side, the hills descend to the livelier surf of the Atlantic Ocean.
The divided status of St. Maarten is a result of the colonial tug-of-war between European powers in the Caribbean. The island was inhabited well before Europeans arrived, however: An archaeological dig in St. Martin revealed tools and pottery dating back to 550 BC. Columbus supposedly set foot on the island in 1493, naming it in honor of Bishop St. Martin of Tours. However, by that time, the island had been taken over by the fierce and cannibalistic Caribs, which may be why the Spanish never developed it.
Dutch settlers arrived in the early 1600s, and every colonial power active in the Americas thereafter owned a piece of the island at one time or another. Legend has it that a Frenchman and a Dutchman finally settled an argument over territorial rights by pacing off their shares. Of the 37 sq mi/96 sq km, the French got the bigger slice, but the Dutch got the most valuable real estate—the Salt Pond and the harbor (the international airport is also on the Dutch side). The 1648 Treaty of Concordia marked the formal division.
The French part of the island is a COM (Collectivite Outre Mer), a largely self-governing part of France. The Dutch side changed its status in October 2010 from an island territory of the Netherlands Antilles to an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands remains head of state, while The Hague continues to be in charge of overseeing foreign affairs and defense. The people of St. Maarten remain Dutch nationals and carry Dutch passports. St. Martin uses the euro as its currency, and St. Maarten uses its own currency, athough both commonly accept payment in U.S. dollars, too.
The island's attractions include Dutch and French culture, fabulous white-sand beaches, friendly people, fantastic duty-free shopping, snorkeling and scuba diving, volcanic mountains, deep-sea fishing, horseback riding, excellent food (especially in St. Martin) and casinos and nightlife (in St. Maarten).
Those interested in the classic Caribbean holiday—shopping, beaching, gambling, eating, partying—will enjoy St. Martin/St. Maarten.
There's an upside to having to rebuild after a hurricane: Everything is shiny and new. St. Martin/St. Maarten has been hit hard by storms in recent years, so the island may seem more modern (and less quaint) than many other parts of the Caribbean.
If someone calls you doudou, don't be insulted. It means "sweetie" or "darling."
Sunbathers heading for the pretty beach at Maho Bay should know that they will be directly under the flight path of the island's main airport. If you're prepared, the giant jets provide an amazing spectacle as they scream over the beach close enough for you to get a clear look at the pilots.
Unprepared beachgoers caught snoozing may need an additional week on a very quiet beach to recuperate.
St. Martin/St. Maarten is the smallest land area in the world where sovereignty is peacefully divided between two countries. It is also home to people of more than 120 nationalities.
The island is home to numerous salt ponds and was, in fact, originally named Land of Salt (Soualiga) by the original Arawak inhabitants. Salt later became important to the island's economy. In the days before refrigeration, it was used to preserve food, including the salt cod that was a staple of trade. When the sugar industry met its demise at the end of the 19th century, salt became a main export and remained so until 1960.
During the off-season (mid-April to mid-December), hotel room rates can fall by 30%-50%.
You'll notice that many of the older wooden houses on the island have gingerbread-style trim. These intricate decorations are known as fretwork in the Caribbean, and there are more than 100 different patterns on the island. If you're looking for ways to tell the French side from the Dutch side, look at the decorative touches on the older buildings. You will see more wrought iron on the French side.
Peter Stuyvesant, who later founded New Amsterdam (New York City), lost a leg fighting the Spanish over St. Maarten.
When shopping in the market in Marigot, keep in mind the first sale of the day is considered lucky for the vendors and the best time to bargain for a lower price.
The low strip of land on which Philipsburg is built purportedly did not exist when Christopher Columbus "discovered" St. Martin. It was later that a sandbank formed, creating the Great Salt Pond behind the town as well as a now-valuable piece of real estate.
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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