A tale of two capitals . . .
One small island divided into two and peacefully co-existing for hundreds of years, means that visitors can get a feel for the Dutch and French Caribbean on one holiday, simply by crossing the road.
Rumour has it that the island borders were determined by a walking race around the island by a Dutchman and a Frenchman. Whatever the truth, the two sides are quite different in terms of characteristics, customs and laws. Lively St. Maarten is a riot of colour with plenty of duty-free shops, restaurants, casinos and nightclubs, especially in the capital Philipsburg. The Dutch Caribbean mix is a fascinating blend of cultures and is reflected in the food, music and dance St Martin is very chic. Although it has plenty of duty-free shops, evenings tend to be more sedate with long, relaxed dinners at one of the huge choice of gourmet restaurants, either in the capital Marigot or charming Grand Case.
Sightseeing in St. Maarten and St. Martin
The capital of St. Maarten is a busy town with lots going on. The Courthouse built in 1793, is a grand white building topped with a magnificent cupola. Nearby the St. Maarten Museum gives visitors an excellent introduction to local history. Two main roads cut across the length of Philipsburg. Front Street, the main thoroughfare, is lined with duty-free shops offering everything from Italian leather goods and Japanese cameras to native crafts. The capital of St. Martin is only four streets wide so it is very easy to get around.
French in spirit, colonial houses stand beside smart cafés, bistros and luxury boutiques. The open-air markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays, offer a colourful array of local tropical fruits and spices. Famous for its distinctive style of architecture, Grand Case, St. Martin is a charming town and considered to be the ‘dining capital’ of the Caribbean. Between two sides of the island, there are 37 different sandy beaches to choose from. The dress code ranges from modest (on the Dutch side of the island) to nudist (on some parts of the French side). Fort Louis overlooks Marigot Bay and was built in 1767 to Marigot from invaders. Fort Amsterdam guards Philipsburg, St. Maarten. There are great views both historical sites. St. Maarten is one of the Caribbean’s most leading sailing venues, offering plenty of stunning anchorages. Fully equipped marinas welcome visiting boats and rent anything from speedboats to canoes.
Try the famous Guavaberry liqueur, a rum based cocktail mixed with wild red berries that grow up in the hills. Just make sure this doesn’t lead into a trip to one of the 10 casinos in St. Maarten, this is the side of the island where guests need to keep their shirts on! Visitors can walk amongst rare and exotic butterflies from around the world, flying freely in the tropical gardens. Visit the Butterfly Farm, St. Martin, in the mornings when butterflies are most active. The 150-acre reserve is the gateway to Pic Paradis, the highest point on the island at 1400ft. The Great House Mansion is the scene for meditation and yoga.
St. Maarten is the smaller, Dutch part of a beautiful and lively Caribbean island. Half of the world’s smallest island on which two separate nations, with two very different characters and two sets of laws and customs, co-exist on either side of a border marked only by welcome signs.
The Dutch section of the island – only 17sq miles (44sq km), of which five lie under the waters of lagoons and salt ponds – has become vacation and shopping destinations.
Not only can visitors hop across the invisible border to get a taste of French Caribbean life – although the excellent cuisine in St. Maarten is cosmopolitan, they can also enjoy the advantages of shopping in one of the world’s few completely tax-free ports.
In Philipsburg, the capital, there are more than 500 stores in pastel-coloured, clapboard Dutch-style buildings selling luxury goods at 25 to 50% below normal prices. Goods to the value of US$600 can be taken home duty-free from St. Maarten by American citizens, many of whom arrive in Caribbean cruise ships putting in for one-day shopping trips. For truly local shopping with a Caribbean flavour, do not miss Philipsburg’s Saturday market.
Children will enjoy St. Maarten’s zoo, where they’ll see ocelot wildcats, bat caves, marmosets, owls and capybara – which look like giant hamsters. Grown ups in search of a turn at the tables can try their luck at the 12 casinos in Dutch St. Maarten – there are none on the French side – or sample the island’s lively nightclubs.
The island’s fascinating history, although owned by the Netherlands and France since 1648 it has also been occupied by Spain and Britain; can be glimpsed in Philipsburg museum and at the ruins of colonial forts, one of which, at Great Bay Harbour, was the first military base built by the Dutch in the Caribbean.
For rest and relaxation after shopping expeditions, sightseeing trips and nights on the town, there are superb beaches offering safe swimming, the full range of water sports from surfing and scuba diving to parasailing and jet-skiing and fine Oceanside restaurants.
The sporting highlight of St. Maarten’s year is the Heineken Regatta, in March, which draws yacht crews from across the world and which provides an excuse for parties and steel bands shows on both the Dutch and French sides of the island. Why not accept the year round 12-Metre Challenge, which lets sailors, even those without any sailing experience, join the crew of the Americas Cup Yacht Stars and Stripes?
The annual carnival, after Easter, is an extravaganza of calypso competitions, costume and dance, as is the official holiday celebration marking Queen Juliana’s birthday on April 30. If that isn’t enough partying, islanders and visitors can pop across the border to the French side to enjoy the festivities on Bastille Day; June 14th; just another advantage of the one island, two-nation tropical resort.
Wine & Dine
Philipsburg is an excellent place for eating out, with a range of places from classy French and Indonesian to simple spots for a snack during a shopping expedition.
L’Escargot: tel: +599 542 2483: Colourfully tiled and brightly painted and is one of Philipsburg’s longest running restaurants. French specialities include frog’s legs and caviar as well as a variety of snail options, while the trademark grilled red snapper in pineapple and banana sauce is not to be missed. Friday is cabaret night, which includes dinner and a show.
Sunset Beach Bar: tel: + 599 545 3998: on Maho Bay is a lively bar, that’s a great place to catch the sunset, with cheap beer and a variety of sandwiches, burgers and pizza. On your way home it is something of a tradition to check in early and then watch your plane come in to land from the bar.
Temptation: tel: + 599 545 225: on Cupercoy, casually blends different culinary traditions, you’ll see Indian style chicken served with spinach basmati pilaf and papadums served right alongside Italian sausages. The menu also recommends that for couples their ‘high iodine and phosphorous content in grouper has beneficial effects on sexual potency’ – and to help you get in the mood, the pianist will happily play your favourite song.
Where to Stay
Wyndham Sapphire Beach Club & Resort: tel: +599 545 2179: is situated on the beach in Cupercoy. This luxury resort has terrific views of the ocean. Amenities include several bars and restaurants, a couple of freshwater pools, spa and hair salon, a business centre and a video rental service. All suites have a kitchen with a dishwasher, refrigerator, ice machine and cooking utensils. The bathrooms are luxurious with Italian marble tubs. Suites have oceanfront or lagoon terraces or balconies.
Prices from: US$250.
Passangrahan Hotel: tel: +599 542 3588: in Philipsburg is colonial in feel and was once a guesthouse for royal visitors. The hotel overlooks the sea on the south side of Front Street and makes a good base for exploring if you want to stay in town. The former grandeur may have faded, but it’s comfortable and there’s a welcoming bar and a good restaurant.
Currency: Netherlands Antillean Guilder.
Language: The countries of St. Maarten and St. Martin are one island with two official languages: French and Dutch.
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