Two Nations, One Island
St. Maarten/ St. Martin is home to approximately 77,000 people from some 70 different countries, but governance of the 37-square-mile (96-square-km) island is split between France and the Netherlands. It’s the smallest island in the world divided between two ruling powers. The Dutch capital is Philipsburg; the French capital is Marigot.
Welcome to St. Maarten
St. Maarten/ St. Martin is virtually unique among Caribbean destinations. The 37-square-mile (96-square-km) island is a seamless place (there are no border gates), but it is governed by two nations— the Netherlands and France— and has residents from 70-some different countries. A call from the Dutch side to the French is an international call, currencies are different, and even the vibe is different. Only the island of Hispaniola, which encompasses two distinct countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, is in even a similar position in the Caribbean. Happily for Americans, who make up the majority of visitors to St. Maarten/ St. Martin, English works in both nations. Dutch St. Maarten might feel particularly comfortable for Americans: the prices are lower (not to mention in U.S. dollars), the big hotels have casinos, and there is more nightlife. Huge cruise ships disgorge masses of shoppers into the Philipsburg shopping area at midmorning, when roads can quickly become overly congested. But once you pass the meandering, unmarked border into the French side, you will find a bit of the ambience of the south of France: quiet countryside, fine cuisine, and in Marigot, a walkable harbor area with outdoor cafés, outdoor markets, and plenty of shopping and cultural activities.
Almost 4,000 years ago, it was salt and not tourism that drove the little island’s economy. Arawak Indians, the island’s first known inhabitants, prospered until the warring Caribs invaded, adding the peaceful Arawaks to their list of conquests. Columbus spotted the isle on November 11, 1493, and named it after St. Martin (whose feast day is November 11), but it wasn’t populated by Europeans until the 17th century, when it was claimed by the Dutch, French, and Spanish. The Dutch and French finally joined forces to claim the island in 1644, and the Treaty of Concordia partitioned the territory in 1648. According to legend the border was drawn along the line where a French man and a Dutch man, running from opposite coasts, met.
Both sides of the island offer a touch of European culture along with a lot of laid-back Caribbean ambience. Water sports abound— diving, snorkeling, sailing, windsurfing, and in early March, the Heineken Regatta. With soft trade winds cooling the subtropical climate, it’s easy to while away the day relaxing on one of the 37 beaches, strolling Philipsburg’s boardwalk, and perusing the shops on Philipsburg’s Front Street or the rues (streets) of the very French town of Marigot. Although luck is an important commodity at St. Maarten’s 13 casinos, chance plays no part in finding a good meal at the excellent eateries or after-dark fun in the subtle to sizzling nightlife. Heavy development— especially on the Dutch side— has stressed the island’s infrastructure, but slowly some of the more dilapidated roads are showing signs of improvement. A series of large roundabouts, with the beginnings of some decent signage, and attractive monumental sculptures has improved traffic flow (remember, the cars already in the roundabout have right-of-way). right-of-way). At long last, the eyesore of hurricane-wrecked buildings that line the golf course at Mullet Bay have been demolished, and most welcome is the new swing bridge that crosses Simpson Bay Lagoon, connecting the airport and Cole Bay.
When cruise ships are in port (and there can be as many as seven at once), shopping areas are crowded and traffic moves at a snail’s pace. We suggest spending the days on the beach or the water, and planning shopping excursions for the early morning or at cocktail hour, after “rush hour” traffic calms down. Still, these are minor inconveniences compared with the feel of the sand between your toes or the breeze through your hair, gourmet food sating your appetite, and having the ability to crisscross between two nations on one island.
Banks and Exchange Services Legal tender on the Dutch side is the Netherlands Antilles florin, but almost everyone accepts dollars. On the French side, the currency is the euro, but most establishments accept dollars. At this writing, quite a few restaurants continue to offer one euro for one dollar exchanges in cash. ATMs dispense dollars or euros, depending on where you are.
Generally, 110 volts AC (60-cycle) on the Dutch side, just as in the United States. The French side operates on 220 volts AC (60-cycle), with round-prong plugs; there, you’ll need an adapter (many hotels can supply these for you).
Dutch-side emergencies. | 911, 721/ 542– 2222. French-side emergencies.
There is Wi-Fi service on the boardwalk behind Front Street if you have your own laptop, and most restaurants will supply a Wi-Fi password for patrons. Language Dutch is the official language of St. Maarten, and French is the official language of St. Martin, but almost everyone speaks English.
A valid passport is required for all visitors.
Calling from one side of the island to another is an international call. To phone from the Dutch side to the French, you first must dial 00– 590– 590 for local numbers, or 00– 590– 690 for cell phones, then the six digit number. To call from the French side to the Dutch, dial 00– 721, then the local number. To call a local number on the French side, dial 0590 plus the six-digit number. On the Dutch side, just dial the seven-digit number with no prefix. Any of the local carriers— and most hotel concierges— can arrange for a prepaid rental phone for your use while you are on the island for about $ 5 a weekday plus a per-minute charge.
Service charges may be added to hotel and restaurant bills on the Dutch side (otherwise tip 15%– 18%). Check bills carefully so you don’t inadvertently tip twice. On the French side, a service charge is customary; on top of the included service it is customary to leave an extra 5%– 10% in cash for the server. Taxi drivers, porters, and maids depend on tips. Give 10% to 15% to cabbies.
Dutch-side Tourist Information Bureau. | Vineyard Park Bldg., 33 W. G. Buncamper Rd. | Philipsburg, St. Maarten | 721/ 542– 2337 | www.vacationstmaarten.com. French-side Office de Tourisme. | Rte. de Sandy Ground, facing Marina de la Port-Royale | Marigot, St. Martin | 590/ 87– 57– 21 | www.iledesaintmartin.org.
Top Reasons to Visit St. Maarten/ St. Martin
The island has so many good places to dine that you could eat out for a month and never repeat a restaurant visit.
Lots of Shops
Philipsburg is one of the top shopping spots in the Caribbean, and Marigot brings a touch of France.
Beaches Large and Small
Thirty-seven picture-perfect beaches are spread out all over the island.
Water Sports Galore
The wide range of water sports will satisfy almost any need and give you the perfect excuse to finally try stand-up paddleboarding or kitesurfing.
Nightlife Every Night
There is a wide variety of nightlife: shows, discos, beach bars, and casinos.
St. Maarten/ St. Martin, a half-Dutch, half-French island, is a place where gastronomy flourishes, where most resorts are large rather than small, where casinos draw gamblers, where sporting opportunities are plentiful, and where the sunning, as on the south end of Orient Beach, is au naturel.
As guests of the R.E. Michel Company you will enjoy:
Full Buffet Breakfast Daily
Three Hours of Open Bar Daily
Two Dine Arounds (One evening to Simpson Bay and the other to Grand Case)
Farewell Dinner and Dancing