St MartinCopyright: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com
St MartinSun-drenched and palm-fringed, the island of Saint Martin is one of the most beautiful in the eastern Caribbean. It also has a dual personality: the northern Saint-Martin is a little outpost of France, and the southern Sint Maarten oozes the warmth of the Dutch. The border between them is basically non-existent, and visitors are free to enjoy everything from water sports and cultural festivals to shopping.
The IslandHundreds of islands form the Caribbean, but none are quite so enigmatic as St Martin. The island is one of the smallest to ever be divided, with residents of both the French and Dutch sides working together in mutual friendship and respect. Of course, the island had human inhabitants long before the European colonisers arrived in 1493. Ancient relics date the island's first settlers, probably Ciboney Indians (Arawaks), back to 3,500 years ago. The locals were joined by migrants from South America's Orinoco basin around 800 A.D. Because of St Martin's salt pans, they called the island "Soualiga," or "Land of Salt". Mainly a farming and fishing society, the locals lived in villages of straw-roofed buildings which were strong enough to resist hurricanes. They were a tranquil people, who valued artistic and spiritual pursuits. Their lives were turned upside-down, however, with the arrival of the Carib Indians. A warrior nation, the Caribs killed the Arawak men and enslaved the women. When Europeans began to explore the Caribbean, Carib society had almost completely displaced the Arawaks. In the era of the European colonisation, St Martin was a coveted piece of land. The French wanted to have an island between Trinidad and Bermuda, while the Dutch found San Martín a convenient halfway point between their colonies in New Amsterdam (present day New York) and Brazil. The Spanish captured the island during the Eighty Years' War only to abandon it in 1648, allowing its former colonial masters to reestablish their control. Today, the island is divided roughly 60:40 between the French Republic and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, with the Dutch part being more populated than the French part. The division dates to 1648. Culturally, Saint-Martin and Sint Maarten are quite different. Saint-Martin has some of the most chic fashion shops and restaurants in the Caribbean and beaches elegant enough to rival those in Cannes and Saint-Tropez, while Sint Maarten shares the serious pragmatism of its fellow continental countrymen. For the visitor, this means there’s lots to do. Dine out on French à la carte cuisine and wines one day and sample fresh pastries inspired by the finest Dutch chefs the next. Enjoy activities like horseback riding and water sports and exploring breathtaking beaches and scenery are other options to fill your day.
Beach LifeFrom lengthy spans of sand hugged by palm trees to secluded coves and sunbather-attracting dunes, St Martin's 37 beaches are a haven of white sands and inviting shores. The grandest of these beaches can be found on the French side, with many embracing a naturist ethos. In contrast, Sint Maarten boasts a multitude of picturesque coves, each more charming than the last.
Do & See
St Martin has a rich and interesting history, which can be seen today in its unique cultural heritage. Visit the Sint Maarten Museum and some of the many historical sites to learn more about the island's history and its impact on modern life. However, do not forget to take some time to relax while you enjoy the unspoiled beauty of the island's many beaches.
Visitors to Saint-Martin and Sint Maarten will be spoiled with all of their choices when it comes to dining out. For lovers of French cuisine, there is probably nowhere else in the Caribbean where you can dine on à la carte and French-inspired gourmet food at such reasonably inexpensive prices. The food is usually al fresco or located on the beach, with fine wine lists to accompany the meal. Seek out the wonderfully aromatic Creole and Caribbean cuisine, or taste some other popular cooking styles, such as Mexican, Indonesian, and Italian. Most restaurants have a varied menu of meat, fresh fish, and shellfish dishes, while beach bars with non-stop barbecues offer spicy chicken and fish dishes cooked with traditional Caribbean recipes.
St Martin is dotted with cafes and informal restaurants where you can enjoy snacks and beverages while gazing at the stunning panorama. Most of the popular beaches have their own cafes, usually serving local fresh products, while some other great spots offer several hidden treasures just waiting to be discovered.
Bars & Nightlife
Nightlife on St Martin is synonymous with long, refreshing cocktails on the terrace before dinner, followed by relaxing meals of French and Caribbean-inspired cuisine. Although, visitors often head for the casinos and beach bars to enjoy livelier evenings of music and savour local drinks. The island has 12 casinos, all on the Dutch side.
The island of St Martin is a shopper's duty-free paradise, especially for high couture fashion from French and Italian houses, jewellery, leather goods, fragrances from the world’s top perfume companies, fine porcelain, crystal and handcrafts. Passengers from ships touring the Caribbean are drawn to the shops around Front Street in Philipsburg. On the other side of the island, Marigot gathers numerous chic shops and boutiques, and the waterfront West Indies shopping mall proves a temptation for shoppers. If you are looking for local handicrafts and produce, then head to the Marigot Market, where you can purchase tropical fruits, spices, freshly caught fish and unique souvenirs to bring home.