By day, visitors on one side of the tiny Caribbean island enjoy patisseries and other hard-to-resist sweets at small sidewalk cafes. After sunset, they head for restaurants whose cuisine attests to the well-deserved reputation of French chefs as among best in the world.
Not far away the picture is very different. Gambling casinos and go-go night life contrast sharply with inhabitants who have been described as reserved, rule-driven and well-disciplined.
This diversity on an inviting beach-rimmed dot of land is to me the most appealing aspect of French St. Martin and Dutch Sint Maarten.
The dual-nationality island is the smallest land mass in the world that’s divided between two governments, and therein lies much of its charm for many visitors. If ever a destination has exhibited a split personality, it’s here.
The fact that the far-flung enclaves of two European countries coexist in complete harmony, and in many ways as one entity, adds to the enjoyment. Say you wish to drive from the French side to the Dutch area.
No passport is needed. No border crossing formalities are required. The only indications that you’re moving from one side of the island to the other are small roadside welcome signs.
Once there, the ambience echoes ties to each motherland. At the same time, the two areas share the long list of water-related activities that’s common on other Caribbean destinations.
Beaches on St. Martin/Sint Maarten Offer Something for Everyone Variety
Then there are the beaches! Some three dozen stretches of sand offer something-for-everyone variety. They range from long expanses adjacent to large resort hotels to tiny, isolated crescents which are hidden at the end of narrow dirt roads. On a few beaches, sun worshippers of all ages, shapes and sizes lose their inhibitions, and their bathing suits, in the quest for the perfect all-over tan.
But primarily it’s the split personality of the setting, the combination of Dutch traditions and French joie de vivre, that sets the island apart from other Caribbean vacation havens. It doesn’t take long for the visitor to discern this intriguing difference.
Philipsburg is a Shopper’s Paradise
Let’s begin our exploration in Phillipsburg, the capital of Dutch Sint Maarten. The town is bisected by two main roads which are aptly, if unimaginatively, named Front Street and Back Street. They’re connected by a network of narrow alleyways with Dutch names reminiscent of Amsterdam.
Restaurants and duty-free shops often are crowded, especially when one or more cruise ships has come calling. Phillipsburg is the prime magnet on the island for shoppers seeking discounts.
Duty-free shopping means that savvy buyers can find discounts of 50% and occasionally more on items ranging from jewelry, crystal and perfume to alcoholic beverages and cigars.
The Dutch side of the island also is home to much of the active after-dark activities. Those seeking to try their luck at casinos also are, well, in luck. St. Maarten has more gaming machines per resident than any other country in the world.
St. Martin, a Taste of France in the Tropics
Marigot, in St. Martin, bears resemblance to a French town that has been transported to the tropics. Cafes and restaurants line the small harbor. On market days, island ladies sporting colorful dresses and big-brimmed straw hats sell fresh fish and produce, baked goods and spices.
If possible, visitors should venture outside of the main towns to enjoy very different experiences. You could drive around the compact island without stopping in about an hour, but given the usual traffic expect the trip to take longer.. Along the way, you’re likely to be tempted to take in some of the varied attractions.
Brooding Fort Louis overlooks Marigot Bay, as it has since 1789. The remains of sugar houses serve as reminders of the island’s role as a major cane sugar producer during the 18th century.
The main road climbs rolling tree-blanketed hills; in other places follows the coastline and offers views of neighboring islands. It passes through and near tiny towns like Colombier, a village of colorful Creole huts tucked in a valley, and French Cul de Sac, a gathering of red-roofed houses clinging to a hillside.
St. Martin Serves Up Dining in Paradise
When it comes to dining, even many residents of Dutch Sint Maarten admit that the best restaurants are found in “la partie Francaise.” Gourmets often rate the food on the Island among, if not the, very best in the Caribbean. The local cuisine combines French flair with Dutch touches augmented by traces of West Indian and Creole cooking.
Marigot has enough restaurants to provide a different dining experience for weeks on end. The little town of Grand Case is anything but grand. In fact, it’s little more than a single road, but that street is lined on both sides by inviting places to eat, many with an outdoor terrace overlooking the sea.
Picture yourself dining al fresco in a setting that in ways resembles Paris if it had palm trees, strolling the lively streets of Phillipsburg or simply lolling in the sun on a white-sand beach. The little island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten blends the best of what a Caribbean vacation should be with a unique dual culture. The result is an enticing two-world combination in a compact setting.
Authors: Fyllis Hockman and Victor Block are a husband-wife team of experienced travel journalists who have gallivanted throughout the United States, and to nearly 80 countries around the world, and written about what they have seen, done and learned. Their articles have appeared in newspapers across the country and on websites across the Internet, and they each have won numerous writing awards. They love to explore new destinations and cultures and uncover off-the-beaten-path attractions. Read more of their work at The Rambling Writers