Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten

Shared amicably between Holland and France, this island is the smallest in the world to be divided by two nations and offers you two cultures within easy reach of each other. Good international air links have encouraged the construction of large resort hotels with casinos and duty-free shopping in the Dutch part. The French part, although increasingly Americanized, is considered more 'chic' and packed with restaurants, dedicated to the serious business of eating well. There are no border formalities, only a modest monument erected in 1948, which commemorates the division of the island three centuries earlier. Both sides have good harbours and marinas and are popular with the sailing crowd. Heavily populated, there are not many places on the island where houses have not been built, this is not somewhere to come to get away from it all, but it is ideal for a fun beach holiday perhaps in combination with a quieter island nearby. Island hopping is easy.

Getting there

International flights arrive at the
Juliana Airport
on the Dutch side. Sint Maarten has good long-distance air connections, with charter and scheduled flights from Europe, the USA and the Caribbean. It is used as a jumping-off point for many of the smaller islands in the area which do not have the capacity to receive large aircraft, such as Saba or Anguilla. A taxi to Marigot will cost about US$15. On the French side is the
Espérance Airport
which can only take 20-seater light planes for short hops to neighbouring islands. There are good
ferry
connections with both Anguilla and St-Barthélemy most days. It can be an unpleasant trip to the latter. If rough, take the plane.

Getting around

There are
buses
between Philipsburg on the Dutch side and Marigot on the French side as well as to the main towns on the French side.
Taxis
are available for short journeys and island tours. There can be a shortage of
cars
or jeeps for hire in high season. It is advisable to request one from your hotel when you book the room. Out of season car rental is inexpensive. Traffic is very heavy, not just at rush hour, and there are frequently traffic jams, so allow plenty of time for a journey.

Philipsburg

Philipsburg, the capital of Dutch Sint Maarten, is built on a narrow strip of sandy land between the sea and a shallow lake which was once a salt pond. It has two main streets, Front and Back, and a ringroad built on land reclaimed from the salt pond, which all run parallel to beautiful
Great Bay Beach
, perhaps the safest and cleanest 20-m wide city beach anywhere, with a new boardwalk running along it. Front Street is full of shops offering duty-free goods and has been enhanced with palm trees and pretty street lighting as well as strategically placed benches. Back Street contains low-cost clothes shops and low-budget Chinese restaurants. The historic
Courthouse
dating from 1793, on De Ruyterplein, better known as Wathey Square, faces the pier. In the past it has been used as a Council Hall, a weigh station, jail and until 1992, a post office. Now renovated, it is used exclusively as a courthouse. The
harbour
is frequented by cruise ships and a host of smaller craft. Captain Hodge's Wharf can handle 1800 passengers per hour and has a tourist information desk, telephones, toilets, taxis and live entertainment, but in 2001 another cruise ship harbour was opened outside Philipsburg.

The
St Maarten Museum
, www.speet jens.com/museum, is upstairs in a restored 19th-century house, exhibiting the history and culture of the island. There is a museum shop.

Fort Amsterdam
was the first Dutch fort in the Caribbean, built in 1631 but captured by the Spanish in 1633 and partly pulled down before they left the island in 1648. It was still used for military purposes until the 19th century and as a signalling and communications station until the 1950s. Fort Amsterdam can be reached through the grounds of a private timeshare development. The guard allows visitors to park outside and walk to the fort.
Fort Willem
, started by the British at the beginning of the 19th century, has a television transmitting tower and there is a good view from the top.

A large part of the island is occupied by
Simpson Bay Lagoon
which straddles the international boundary and is fringed by a narrow strip of land round its southern, western and northern shores. There are two bridges allowing an outlet to the sea. The main one, just east of Juliana Airport, on Simpson Bay, opens for a maximum of 20 minutes at 0900, 1130 and 1730, to allow large boats to enter the lagoon. Just inside the lagoon by the bridge is a new harbour for mega yachts, an amazing sight. Allow extra time to get to the airport if coming from the east of the island at these times. The other bridge is a much smaller affair on the north side at Sandy Ground, just west of Marigot, used by fishing vessels and small craft.

Sint Maarten Park
, www.stmaarten park.com,
close to New Amsterdam shopping centre, has a small exhibition of the fauna and flora from the islands. All the animals were born in captivity and the emphasis is on conservation of endangered species.

Marigot

The capital of French Saint-Martin lies between Simpson Bay Lagoon and the Caribbean Sea. (
Marigot
is a French West Indian word meaning a spot from which rain water does not drain off, and forms marshy pools.) Despite lots of new building works, Marigot still has charm and the modern architecture is in keeping with the traditional style. Rue de la République has 19th-century Creole houses with gingerbread fretwork and rue du Général-de-Gaulle is in the same style, though it dates only from the 1980s. Recent development includes the new, upscale Marina Fort-Louis in the bay in the shadow of the 18th-century fort on the hill, and the West Indies Shopping Mall overlooking the marina and the ferry.

Shopping is good. Boutiques offer French prêt-à-porter fashions and St-Barts batiks, and gift shops sell liqueurs, perfumes, and cosmetics at better duty-free prices than the Dutch side. At the
Marina Port La Royale
complex there are chic shops, cafés and bistros where you can sit and watch the boats. Rue de la République and rue de la Liberté also have good shopping with fashion names at prices below those of Europe or the USA. The market on the waterfront is a colourful affair with clothing and souvenirs available daily as well as fruit and vegetables. On the right-hand side of the market (as you face the sea) is the taxi stand and the ferry departures to Anguilla and St-Barts. It is a 10-minute climb to
Fort-Louis
(built 1767-1789) overlooking Marigot Bay and Marigot. It was built in 1767-1789 by Chavalier de Durat, who also oversaw the construction of a prison (now the fire station) and a bridge, known as the
Pont de Durat
, which opened up the village of Marigot to the north of the island. The fort was used to defend the
settlement and its cotton, indigo and tobacco from pirates but fell into disuse after 1820.

Beside the
tourist office
, on the Route de Sandy-Ground, the historical and archaeological
On the trail of the Arawaks
, has an exhibition from the first settlers of Saint-Martin around 3500 BC to 1960. There are sections on pre-Columbian, colonial and 20th-century history and geology, with lots of information on the salt industry, photos and a gift shop. Most of the archaeological exhibits came from the Hope Estate Plantation, which grew sugar cane and cotton in 1750-1850. Christophe Henocq, curator and president, leads tours to
Hope Estate archaeological dig
.

Grand Case
(locally pronounced
grand cars
in English), 13 km east of Marigot, is a quaint town by an old salt pond (which has been partially filled in to provide the Espérance airstrip) with a long sandy beach, partly eroded at the north end by hurricane damage. At the far northeast end is another beach,
Petite Plage
, delightfully
petite
in a calm bay.
Pic Paradise
(424 m) is a good lookout point from where, on a fine day, you can see Anguilla, Saba, St Eustatius, St Kitts, Nevis and St-Barts. By 4WD you can reach the top on the track used for access to the radio-television transmitting tower at the top; take a turn-off at Rambaud on the Marigot-Grand Case road. There are also footpaths from
Colombier
(1½ km) and
Orléans
(1 km). Colombier is a small, sleepy village with some wonderful gardens, well worth a visit. In Orléans you can visit the home of
Roland Richardson
, the only well-known native artist on St-Martin.
Loterie Farm
. It is being restored by BJ Welch, who discovered it after damage caused by Hurricane Luis revealed a farmhouse (believed haunted by ghosts originating from a dispute and murder between the Gumbs and Fleming families) and stone walls. Trails once used by slaves have been marked in the forest up the mountain and in the fields for serious hiking or a gentle stroll. This is one of the few places left on the island where mature forest remains and it is a delight. You can also swing through the trees on a zip line and brave a tree top adventure park, the 'Fly Zone' if you are over 4 ft, or try 'Ti Tarzan' if you are shorter.

At Baie L'Embouchure, there is a
butterfly farm
, www.thebutterflyfarm.com,
just before you get to the riding centre and animal rescue. It was opened in 1994 but has been rebuilt five times because of hurricanes. It's best in the morning and in full sun when the butterflies are most active although afternoons are better for photography. Wear bright colours to attract them; they also like citrus-based perfume.

Beaches and activities

The bays on the south and west shores are excellent for swimming, diving and fishing, and the beaches are of fine white sand.
Great Bay
is home to Philipsburg and visiting cruise ships with a lovely clean beach lined with restaurants and bars. The peninsula of Fort Amsterdam protects
Little Bay
, the next bay west, which has the only shore dive site.
Cay Bay
is isolated and generally visited only by horse riders and mountain bikers because of its inaccessibility.
Simpson Bay
beach is a large sweep of sand with very few hotels on it, partly because of its proximity to the airport, sandwiched between the sea and the lagoon.
Maho Beach
, at the end of the runway, has regular Sunday beach parties with live music competitions; don't forget to duck when planes arrive and hang on to your towel before it is blown into the sea. The most popular beach is
Mullet
Bay
, where you can rent umbrellas, beach chairs, etc. It can get crowded in season and at weekends. It is good for surfing when the swell comes from the north. The most westerly beach on the Dutch side of the island is
Cupecoy
, where rugged sandstone cliffs lead down to a narrow sandy beach, providing morning shade and a natural windbreak. This beach changes according to the seasons and is the only beach on the Dutch side where nudity is more or less tolerated.
Baie Longue
lives up to its name as the longest beach on the island, stretching away from the luxury hotel,
La Samanna
, on the cliff at the east end to
Pointe du
Canonnier
, the most westerly point on the island. Round the point is
Plum Beach
, popular with surfers but also good for snorkelling around the points at each end.
Baie Rouge
is popular with cliffs at the eastern end to add interest.
Baie Nettlé
is a long strip of sand within easy reach of Marigot, but a number of hotels have made access to the whole length of it difficult. North of Marigot is
Friar's Bay
, a sheltered bay with a couple of restaurants, from where you can walk along a path to
Happy Bay
.
Grand Case
beach has been eroded by storms but the sand is gradually coming back with each new swell. It is difficult to walk the length of it because the sea now reaches the foot of the buildings lining the shore in places.
Little Beach
, at the end of Grand Case beach has no shortage of sand but is dominated by the
Grand Case Beach Club
hotel.
Anse Marcel
, north of Grand Case, is a shallow beach, ideal for small children, but packed with guests from
Le Meridien
hotel. On the extreme north of the island is
Petites Cayes
, a narrow strip of sand fringed by reefs, a 25-minute walk along the coast from Cul de Sac.

On the east side,
Grandes Cayes
is popular for family picnics.
Cul-de-Sac
is a traditional village, and departure point for boats to the
Île de Tintamarre
(take all food and water with you) and
Pinel Island
(US$6 per person return) just offshore. The sea is calm and fishing boats come in here.
Baie Orientale
(Orient Bay) is beautiful but rough (beware of its undertow). There are several new developments along the beach and the area is often overrun with day visitors. At the southern end is a clothes-optional resort. Windsurfers and kitesurfers can be hired, with both a good protected area for beginners and more open waters. From here you can find boats to
Caye Verte
, just offshore. Round the point is
Le Galion
, good for families with protected water, and then
Baie de l'Embouchure
, a long strip of sand separating the Étang aux Poissons from the sea, great for windsurfing and kitesurfing. The next bay,
Baie Lucas
is good for snorkelling.
Oyster Pond
is a land-locked harbour which is difficult to enter because of the outlying reefs, but which is now home to a yacht club and bare boat charter.
Dawn Beach
nearby is popular with body surfers and snorkelling is good because of the reefs just offshore. However, the beach is now dominated by the 317-room Westin St Maarten Dawn Beach Resort and Spa, opened in 2006 with the biggest pool on the island, a casino and night club.
Guana Bay
, next to Dawn Beach, is the bodysurfers' best beach.

Diving and marine life

Water visibility is usually 23-38 m and the water temperature averages over 21° C, which makes good snorkelling and scuba diving. Reefs surround the island providing habitats for a variety of fish while marine turtles nest on the beaches.
Wreck Alley
on Proselyte Reef, has several wrecks which can be explored on one dive.
HMS Proselyte
is a 200-year-old British frigate (mostly broken up and covered in coral, although cannon and anchors are visible), while
The Minnow
and
SS Lucy
are modern ships deliberately sunk as dive sites. Diving the east side is recommended in good weather, either from the shore or drift diving from a boat. The coral barrier reef is undamaged by silt run off and there are lots of fish, fed by Atlantic currents.

Day sails

There are some 40 boats offering different trips around the islands, some just going out for snorkelling on the reefs or taking cruise ship passengers around. Sailing trips with lunch and snorkelling to beaches around the island or smaller islands such as Tintamarre, Sandy Island or Prickly Pear.

On certain days there are sailings from Pelican Marina at Simpson Bay, or from Marigot. The trip to St-Barts is normally quite rough and unpleasant on the way there but better on the return journey. Check the weather, the swell and the waves can be up to 3.5 m even on a nice day. Most boats offer some snacks, sodas and rum punch.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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