French flair and Dutch treats

St. Martin and St. Maarten are two distinct nations basking in Caribbean sunshine on either side of the world’s shortest undefended border 

Historic Fort Louis stands guard over Marigot, the French-side capital. The 17th-century courthouse (top) in Philipsburg, the Dutch-side capital, may be the most photographed building on the island. (Stephen Wickens photos)

 

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on February, 18, 2006. The new airport and the Westin Hotel have since been completed and some specifics in the story, such as prices, will be out of date. Since 2010, when the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved, St. Maarten has been a constituent country within the Dutch Kingdom. Since 2007, St. Martin has been a separate “collectivite” of France, rather than a part of Guadeloupe. Reconstruction was has finally begun at Mullet Bay Beach Club. 

By STEPHEN WICKENS

BAIE NETTLE, ST. MARTIN — In Dutch St. Maarten, they really want your business.

Here on the French side of the island? Well, not so much.

Generalizations are always dangerous. But visitors who spend much time crossing what may be the world’s shortest undefended border will probably notice much more than differences in currency and language, phone numbers and the shape of electrical plugs.

It’s rare to find a small island with so much variety (at 37 square miles, it’s about one-seventh the size of Toronto). If you don’t want anything other than a North American-style vacation with casinos, nightlife and the option of fast food, load up on U.S. dollars and stay on the Dutch side, which is part of the Netherlands Antilles. It’s where your flight will land, and nearly everyone speaks English.

But if you prefer European insouciance, a good night’s sleep and a particular emphasis on good food, load up on euros and head for the other side, part of France’s department of Guadeloupe. Here, the gas station convenience store offers great pastries, tiny groceterias have huge cheese counters and even a beachside snack bar offers a long list of gourmet salads. Just be forewarned: all of this can come with attitude — and a little Gauloise smoke with your breakfast.

“Oh, the French are always trying to be so different,” William Bell says half-jokingly of the island’s split personality. Bell, a former member of the Netherlands Antilles volleyball team, considers himself Dutch. But his wife is from the French side and their two multilingual sons must eventually choose to become citizens of the Antilles or of France and the European Union.

There are, naturally, things common to both sides apart from reliable weather: It’s the only entirely duty-free island in the Caribbean, and shopaholics make parking difficult in both Marigot and Philipsburg (the French- and Dutch-side capitals, respectively).

The island is also very cosmopolitan, considering there are fewer than 100,000 residents. You’ll hear boasts of 77 to 135 nationalities here. And, while it’s said that quality dining was once the preserve of the French side, things have clearly evened out. Restaurants aren’t cheap — entrées run from $48 to $60, especially in the touristy areas of Marigot — but not one meal disappointed over the course of my one-week stay.

The cultural divide, however, is very clear. When I call St. Maarten’s Toronto office, a representative picks up messages on her Christmas break. In five calls to the French side’s Montreal office, I’m twice forgotten on hold.

Once on the island, a Dutch-side official is again eager to help by providing a tour of the whole island, including the French side. As for his French counterpart, it takes repeated phone calls to make appointments he doesn’t keep.

D’Jackson Suriam laughs upon hearing of my ordeal. “It’s not just you,” says the owner of Madinina, a Creole restaurant at Baie Nettlé. “I am French and I prefer it here on the French side. But the Dutch, they know how to make it easy for you to start a business …  or spend your money.”

Maybe that’s why the Dutch side is booming. Cramped and antiquated Princess Juliana Airport is getting a new terminal and runway extension, slated for completion in July. Condo, time-share and hotel construction appears to be everywhere on the Dutch lowlands in the southwest (with the exception of the Mullet Bay Beach Club, ruined by Hurricane Luis in 1995 and not yet rebuilt because of a legal battle). A new Westin hotel is going up at Dawn Beach, while redevelopment of the waterfront continues at Philipsburg.

Philipsburg has also made a name for itself in international yachting. The Heineken Regatta ensures both sides of the island are hopping in early March. The 12-metre challenge and its fleet of former America’s Cup boats has become a year-round sports fantasy camp for sailors.

Still, the French side isn’t entirely sleepy. Construction around Marigot’s harbour is aimed at luring wealthy mega-yacht owners, and many locals hope development will be spurred by a recent agreement to make St. Martin a separate department of France by 2008, a move that will allow Marigot to deal directly with Paris rather than having to go through Guadeloupe.

And in many respects, the laid-back approach to tourism in Gallic St. Martin is what appeals to both guests and residents. On his tour of the island, William Bell of the Dutch tourism office spends nearly as much time showing off the charms of the French side — scenic undeveloped areas in the northeast, the street-side restaurants of a picturesque former fishing village called Grand Case, and clothing-optional Orient Beach.

“I don’t mind that you prefer staying on the French side,” Mr. Bell tells me. “Lot’s of people like its style, without any fast food. But I know lots of people will prefer the Dutch nightlife. Either way, with the split personality and the hilly scenery on such a small island, there’s really nothing else like it in the Caribbean.”

JUST THE FACTS 

  • Air Canada, Westjet and Sunwing all fly directly from Toronto. Cheaper fares can be had on U.S. carriers, if you’re willing to switch planes at an American hub airport.
  • Take a day trip to Tintamarre, an uninhabited flat island east of St. Martin. It’s now a nature preserve with pristine beaches, great snorkelling and endangered species. It was once a mini-kingdom with its own currency. A battle is brewing over plans for an onsite wind farm.
  • Do the Fort Louis and the “On the Trail of the Arawaks” tour with biologist-geologist-archeologist-historian Christophe Henocq. The museum, which is going into a former prison from the 1700s, is a little hokey, but Henocq is a passionate and entertaining leader.
  • For more activities on both sides of the island check out this link or this link
  • St. Maarten/St. Martin is a hub for the northeastern Caribbean, and a short hop to other destinations such as St. Barthelemy, Saba, St. Eustatius and Anguilla. Day trips to Anguilla by ferry are popular, but remember to bring your passport.

 

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