“The Friendly Island”, Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, shared by the French Republic and the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the northeast Caribbean approximately 190 miles from Puerto Rico, has been famous for hundred of years dating back to 1648 for being the smallest area of land in the world (87 sq. kms.) divided into two nations with no border patrols or customs between them.
About 41,000 people live in Sint Maarten, the southern Dutch side and 36,000 in Saint Martin on the northern French side with Philipsburg and Marigot as capitals, respectively.
We love Sint Maarten/Saint Martin – simply because of its uniqueness of being half-Dutch and half-French, with its dual cultural heritage allowing the visitors/tourists the opportunity to enjoy a variety of lifestyles whether its food, music, art, and communications. Although half-Dutch and half-French, English is the dominant language. As its currency, Saint Martin uses the euro while Sint Maarten uses the Netherlands guilder although almost every shop, store or restaurant accepts the US$ and all major credit cards.
The Oasis of the Seas docked at the AC Wathey Pier of Philipsburg on a beautiful April morning with the ship’s gangway opened at 7:30 and we immediately disembarked to start our guided tour of the island.
The capital of Sint Maarten has three main streets parallel to the water. The first is the street along the beach with a boardwalk meandering between shops and the beach lined with hotels. Next is the cobblestoned Front Street with duty free shops, jewelry stores and boutiques most of which offer a free drink – a taste of local specialty : an exotic cocktail made with the native rum-based guavaberry liquor. The Courthouse, a grand white wooden structure topped with a copula, is the most prominent landmark at Front Street. Across from the Courthouse is the busy Wathey Square, a lovely spot to stroll. The third street, Back Street, is the main street for the local black population.
Still within the city we viewed the once great salt ponds where salt used to be harvested by the early Dutch settlers and sent by shiploads to Europe. The island, before it was discovered by Christopher Columbus, used to be called Island Svalugia or land of the salt by the first inhabitants of the island called the Arawaks, a tribe of Amerindians who migrated northward from South America.
Our tour continued through the Orleans region as we enjoyed the view of Orient Beach and the neighbouring islands. Passing through Grand Case area we reached the French capital, Marigot, for a free time browsing the unique boutiques and the colourful open-air markets set along the wharves on Blvd. de France offering an array of homegrown produce, tropical fruits, spices, and freshly caught fish. Across the market are the Lolo`s featuring arts, crafts and local restaurants.
And towering over us and rising from the centre of Saint Martin stands Pic Paradis (Paradise Peak), the highest point in the entire island.
With colonial houses standing beside small cafes and bistros, pastry shops and luxury boutiques, the capital city of Marigot is perhaps the most French in spirit of all the cities in the Caribbean.
Before sunset after a brief stop at the International Lookout Point we rejoined our coach for journey back to Oasis passing a landmark monument to indicate we were on the Dutch side once again.