Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, an Island Divided

Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, an Island Divided

The Caribbean island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten is the smallest island in the world shared by two countries. Present day Saint Martin is a peaceful tropic island vacation paradise. In the course of its long and often violent past, this was not always the case. At the origins of its known history, the island was first inhabited by the Arawak people around 800-900 AD. They farmed, made pottery and lived a generally peaceful life on the island of Sualouiga (salty land) until the arrival of the Caribs. The Caribs preferred fighting to farming. They feasted on the men and took the women for wives. It”s hard to imagine how awful it must feel to be forced to marry someone who ate your former husband. The word cannibal came from the way the Spaniards said the Arawak word for Carib. The Carib people conquered many islands in that region, hence the name Caribbean.

Eventually the Spanish conquered the Caribs, and built forts on many islands. Some still stand in places like Puerto Rico. Columbus discovered the island on November 11, 1493. In his time that was the holy day of Saint Martin of Tours, patron saint of soldiers and horses. Columbus claimed the land for Spain, calling it Isla de San Martin. In the 1620’s, Dutch Merchants came to Sint Maarten to collect salt from the natural salt pans on the island. Sailors of that era used salt to preserve food on extended voyages. Not having access to modern methods, salt was a common preservative of the time. French tobacco farmers soon came to Saint Martin and began growing crops.

In 1631, the Dutch built the first European settlement on the island, a small salt-collecting colony on Groot Baai (Great Bay.) This eventually became the first Dutch military outpost in the Caribbean. In 1633 the Spanish attacked, forcing the Dutch off the island for a time. The Spanish took over the fort, made it bigger, and added a church. In 1648, a longstanding war between Spain and Holland ended and the Spaniards abandoned the island. The Dutch had returned by then, and signed a treaty with the French on top of Mt. Concordia dividing the island between them. The Concordia Agreement is now the world’s oldest still-active undisputed treaty. Each country had a man walk around the perimeter of the island in opposite directions starting from the same spot. A line from the place they started to the place they met divided the island with the French to the north and the Dutch to the south. The French ended up with about 2/3 of the island. This treaty did not bring lasting peace to the island at that time. It changed hands many times in power struggles between the French, Dutch, and English, until 1816 when the French and Dutch re-established their old boundaries.

Pirates of the 1600’s and beyond found a safe haven in St Martin. The European countries spent their time and resources fighting each other over possession of the island. None established themselves long enough to protect it from pirates. The many warring nations sometimes even welcomed pirate attacks against their foes. Rumors of buried pirate treasure still exist in island folklore.

On present day Saint Martin/Sint Maarten people pass freely from one side to the other, the boundary marked only by signs and monuments. The two sides use different currency though. Saint Martin uses the Euro and Sint Maarten the Netherlands Antillean guilder, but both sides accept US dollars. The French side still has the most land, but the Dutch side has more people. Many people on both sides speak English. Islanders also speak French, Dutch, or one of the local dialects.

The average temperature stays at about 80-82 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Those great temperatures and lots of sunny days explain why St. Martin has become a vacationer’s paradise, at least most of the time. The island has not completely escaped violence, but in modern times it comes in the form of occasional hurricanes. It has about 45 inches of annual rainfall, occurring mainly in the late summer and early fall. That, and the end of the main hurricane season, probably explains why cruise ship season in the Caribbean usually starts around November.

Hotels, condos and time-shares abound, with rental cars as the main means of tourist transportation. The Dutch side has a major airport, Princess Juliana International Airport. Tourists flock to nearby Maho Beach for close-up photography of the underside of 747’s. Signs warn them against straying too close to the fence, where the jet blast of departing planes could bowl them over. Phillipsburg, the main city on the Dutch side, offers tourists a rich nightlife and abundant casinos and jewelry shops. It also sports a busy cruise ship port. Ships from many cruise lines stop there, including Holland America. Water taxis wait nearby to take cruise ship passengers for a short hop across the bay to the beaches, casinos, and shops of Phillipsburg. In Marigot, the major city on the French side, tourists find restaurants rivaling anything in New York City. The French side also offers nude beaches and shops with designer clothes. Cruise ship passengers wishing to see Marigot can book shore excursions that take them there by bus. A short visit by cruise ship gives just enough of a glimpse of the island to make many people want to return for a longer stay. Some like it so much they vacation there every year.

Both sides have busy tourist-friendly shopping districts, and all shops are duty-free. The French side has a local airport where smaller planes take visitors island- hopping to places where big jets can’t land. The island also has much more to offer including sailing or snorkeling excursions, zip line adventures, horseback riding, and water sports of all kinds. Take a boat ride and the crew will point out all the vacation houses of rich and famous people you pass by.

St Maarten has the largest lagoon in the Caribbean with its Simpson Bay Lagoon. Two narrow channels with drawbridges connect the lagoon to the sea. Sailboats, a large fleet of yachts, and marinas call the lagoon home. Hotels, condos and time-shares line its shores. Saint Martin/Sint Maarten is a perfect vacation paradise with enough variety to find something for everyone. Jets provide easy access from anywhere in the world. Whether it is white sand beaches with warm blue water, exotic cocktails, shopping, relaxing, or exploring, St Martin has it all. No wonder it is one of the most widely visited islands in the Caribbean.