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imgZDtiny.GIF (531 bytes) St. Martin / St. Maarten: About the Island

  Saint Martin (Dutch: Sint Maarten) is a tropical island in the northeast Caribbean, approximately 240 km (150 miles) east of Puerto Rico. The 87 km² island is divided roughly in half between France and the Netherlands; it is the smallest inhabited sea island divided between two nations. The southern Dutch half comprises the Eilandgebied Sint Maarten (Island area of Saint Martin) and is part of the Netherlands Antilles. The northern French half comprises the Collectivité de Saint-Martin (Collectivity of Saint Martin) and is a dependency of France.

The main towns are Philipsburg (Dutch side) and Marigot (French side). The island has a total resident population above 71,000, divided evenly between each half. Human density is three times that of Holland. In addition there is an average of one million tourist visitors per year.

The highest hilltop is the Pic Paradis (414 m) on center of an hill chain. There is no river on the island, but a lot of dry guts. Hiking trails give access to the dry forest covering tops and slopes.

The average yearly air temperature is 27 C (min 17 C, max 35 C) and sea surface temperature 26.4 C. The total average yearly rainfall is 995 mm, with 22 days of thunder.

No checkpoints or noticeable boundaries exist between the Dutch and French sides of St. Maarten/St. Martin. While families and friends live, work, play and travel between the sides without giving it a second thought, each side proudly offers a different landscape and cultural experience.¹

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imgZDtiny.GIF (531 bytes) St. Martin / St. Maarten: Political Status

France and the Netherlands agreed to divide the island on March 23, 1648. To divide the island in two sections, the inhabitants had to choose two walkers, one chosen by the French-dominated community and the other one, named Menno Versteeg, by the Dutch-dominated community, who were put back to back in one extreme of the island, making them walk in opposite directions, and not allowing them to run. The point where they eventually met was set as the other extreme of the island, and the subsequently created line was chosen as the frontier, dividing Saint-Martin from Sint Maarten. Seemingly, the French walker had traveled further than the Dutch walker. According to tradition, the French walker drank wine beforehand, while the Dutch walker drank beer. Some people of the French section claim that the restorative effects of the wine are the cause of their representative's longer walk, while some in the Dutch section accuse the French walker of having run.

Sint Maarten is officially an "island territory" part of the Netherlands Antilles, which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands though not in the European Union. Its currency is the Antillean guilder (however, the United States dollar is widely accepted).

A planned restructuring of the Netherlands Antilles would see Sint Maarten become an independent component of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in its own right, possibly as early as summer of 2007.

Saint-Martin is a French commune forming part of Guadeloupe, which is an overseas region and overseas department of France and is therefore in the European Union.


The official currency in Saint-Martin is the Euro (though the U.S. dollar is also widely accepted). In 2003 the population of the French part voted in favor of secession from Guadeloupe to form a separate overseas collectivity of France; this has yet to be implemented.

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The French commune of Saint-Martin is governed by a mayor and a municipal council elected by the European citizens living on the French side of the island. As is the case in metropolitan France since the promulgation of the Maastricht Treaty, nationals of any member state of the European Union are allowed to vote at the municipal elections. Nationals from countries not part of the European Union, which represent a large part of the population on the French side of the island, are not allowed to vote in the elections.

The Dutch island territory of Sint Maarten is ruled by an island council, an executive council, and a governor appointed by the Dutch Crown.

imgZDtiny.GIF (531 bytes) St. Martin / St. Maarten: Touring Philipsburg

To feel the pulse of St. Maarten, you must walk the narrow streets and alleyways of Philipsburg, stopping to gaze at the array of merchandise featured in store windows or the colorful paintings adorning gallery walls. You must take a moment to study the architectural details of the old buildings that line Front Street. And you must listen to the carnival rhythms blaring from open storefronts as traffic hums in the background. After absorbing the sights and sounds of this thriving capital, you can head to the hills and discover another side of St. Maarten. Great Bay is aptly named as it is the largest bay on the entire island.

imgZDtiny.GIF (531 bytes) St. Martin / St. Maarten: Philipsburg

The heart of Philipsburg, and the center of its tourist activity, is a thin stretch of land, only a few blocks wide, that stretches for about a mile between Great Bay and the Great Salt Pond. Its two main thoroughfares, Front Street and Back Street (called Voorstraat and Achterstraat in Dutch), are connected by little alleys (steegjes) with Dutch names recalling the street signs in Amsterdam. Lining the two main arteries are colorful shops, modern hotels and domestic dwellings, as well as some renovated older buildings that still retain their distinctive West Indian gingerbread, or fretwork, ornamentation.

In the heart of Philipsburg is Wathey Square, a bustling center of activity filled with taxis, vans, peddlers and pedestrians. Just off the square is the renovated Captain Hodge Wharf. The pier, with its gingerbread detailing, is where cruise passengers disembark to spend the day on the island.

Across from the square is the courthouse. Originally built in 1793, the beige-and-green structure has been renovated several times, most recently in 1995.

It has housed the council hall, a weigh station, the post office, the jail and a fire station.

Over the years, these various services expanded and moved to their own quarters, and today the building is used exclusively by the court.


Walking along Front Street, you'll realize why Philipsburg has become known as the shopping mecca of the Caribbean. In one of the world's only 100% duty-free destinations, visitors from around the globe discover an impressive array of stores offering the finest in fragrances, fine jewelry and watches, liquor and tobacco, leather and accessories, fashions, electronics and more at great savings.

Near the east end of Front Street is the historic Passangrahan Hotel. The oldest inn on St. Maarten, it was once the Royal Guest House hosting such luminaries as Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. Its picturesque West Indian-style architecture and fragrant tropical foliage impart the feeling of a bygone era.

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Closer to the end of Front Street, in a small bayside alley (Speetjens Arcade) at number 10, you'll find the two-story Sint Maarten Museum. The museum's objective is to reflect the history and culture of the island and its people. On display are pre-Columbian relics and artifacts from Fort Amsterdam and the shipwreck of the HMS Proselyte. You'll also see stamps, coins and an array of household items. The museum shop offers books on island and regional history, politics, nature and poetry, along with a selection of 17th- and 18th-century replica maps. There's also an array of unusual artwork, crafts and souvenirs from the island, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and West Africa.

If you're fascinated with diving and maritime history, don't let the museum be your only stop. Just around the corner on Front Street, inside the Last Mango in Paradise store, is the HMS Proselyte Maritime Museum. On display here is a variety of artifacts, shipwreck coins and more.

imgZDtiny.GIF (531 bytes) St. Martin / St. Maarten: West from Philipsburg

At the far west end of Front Street, away from Philipsburg's commercial activity, is Little Bay. Still standing on the narrow sliver of land between Little Bay and Great Bay are the remains of Fort Amsterdam. Dating back more than 300 years, the fort was built by the Dutch and stands on the foundation of an earlier Spanish fort. From here, you can also see what was once the site of Fort Willem, directly north atop Fort Hill. From 1801 to 1848, this fort changed hands 16 times between Dutch, British and French powers; soon thereafter it was abandoned.

Photo of Orient Beach St. Martin -
At Orient Beach area on St. Martin side of the island.
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© - Luke Handzlik - All Rights Reserved

You can reach Fort Amsterdam via the Little Bay Beach Resort. You can park near the tennis court at the waterfront and walk through the resort, then up the hill. To get to Fort Willem, drive up the road that begins opposite the entrance to the Great Bay Beach Hotel. The upper road is unpaved, and the hill is very steep. There is little left of the fort, but the view from here is magnificent.

Heading to the western end of Dutch St. Maarten, you'll cross over Cole Bay Hill. An observation platform on top of the hill, just off A.J.C. Browers Road, offers a spectacular view of Simpson Bay and, on a clear day, the neighboring islands of Anguilla, Saba and St. Eustatius.

imgZDtiny.GIF (531 bytes) St. Martin / St. Maarten: Over the Hill to Marigot

Once you've made it over the hill, turn right at the stoplight for the most direct route to Marigot. You will soon pass the Border Monument welcoming you to the French side.

Erected in 1948, the monument commemorates the friendly relations between the two nations that share the island.

From there, you'll travel through the Bellevue area, a stretch of rolling green hills with great lagoon views, before reaching bustling, elegant Marigot.

imgZDtiny.GIF (531 bytes) St. Martin / St. Maarten: Over the Hill to Airport & Beaches

To make your way to the airport and beaches, turn to the left at the stoplight once you've traveled over Cole Bay Hill. You'll reach the Simpson Bay area, where the Princess Juliana Airport is nestled on a narrow strip of land between Simpson Bay and Simpson Bay Lagoon. This area is popular for its many restaurants and nightlife. As you continue, you'll pass three of Dutch St. Maarten's best beaches: Maho Beach, which lies at the foot of the airport runway; Mullet Bay Beach; and Cupecoy Beach, considered by some to be one of the most beautiful in the Caribbean.

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For a peek at some remarkably different scenery, continue west and follow the signs to the Terres Basses, or Lowlands. En route, the road passes through an area of heavy brush growing out of the sand. This is the isthmus that separates Simpson Bay Lagoon from the Atlantic Ocean. Passing across the sand spit, you'll enter the Terres Basses. This area of exclusive villas lends a special atmosphere to the wonderful beaches found along this portion of the island; Baie Rouge and Plum Bay are both local favorites. Beyond these you'll find Long Bay, one of the island's most secluded beaches. Keep going over the bridge and through the Sandy Ground area to complete the long and scenic route to Marigot.

imgZDtiny.GIF (531 bytes) St. Martin / St. Maarten: Marigot

Marigot is the kind of city made for lingering sipping coffee at a café with friends, window shopping at a leisurely pace or strolling along the waterfront as the sun sets. Located on the Baie de Marigot, the town is blessed with cool breezes that make it perfect for outdoor activity.

During the day, the town is alive with the hustle and bustle of businessmen, shoppers and tourists. When the sun goes down, however, Marigot takes on a different mood. Boats returning from day excursions now bob in the bay. Couples walking hand-in-hand, families pushing baby strollers and teens on skateboards roam the waterfront area. Music can be heard coming from the crowded open-air cafés near the water. On the hill above, lights illuminate Fort Marigot, adding a touch of magic to the French town below.

Fort Marigot on the French side of the island
Photo Copyright
© - Luke Handzlik - All Rights Reserved

To fully enjoy Marigot, come expecting to enjoy a leisurely lunch with a friend. Marigot's bustling shopping and commerce comes to a virtual halt from around 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. daily, ensuring a relaxing break for residents and visitors alike at any of the numerous outdoor cafés and bistros. Don't miss Marina Port la Royale, a cozy marina lined on one side with trendy French boutiques and on the other two sides with restaurants and sidewalk cafés.

A visit to Marigot is not complete without a visit to the outdoor market on the waterfront. A combination craft, produce and fish market, it is in full swing early Saturday morning. Women wearing brightly colored dresses tend makeshift stands piled high with bananas, coconuts, mangos, pineapples and tubers. The rich aroma of spices emerges from boxes filled with cinnamon sticks. Prices are set on fresh fish, fruits and vegetables, but you can bargain for other goods.

High above the city's waterfront are the remains of Fort Marigot, formerly called Fort St. Louis. The fortress was built in 1789 to protect the French from the British. It can easily be reached on foot; from the waterfront tourist-information booth on Rue de la République, a footpath leads up a hill to the street and on to the fort. Stone walls with loopholes and a few cannons still face the bay. The view of Simpson Bay Lagoon and the surrounding verdant hills and valleys is refreshingly beautiful.

A visit to the Saint-Martin Museum is a must. Its "On the Trail of the Arawaks" exhibition features wonderful collections and photo displays with particular attention given to various pre-Columbian treasures discovered by the Hope Estate Archaeological Society. One of the most impressive displays is the reproduction of a 1,500-year-old Amerindian burial site discovered in 1994.

Among the other finds are various remains of indigenous inhabitants dating back to 1800 B.C.; beautifully adorned ceramics from 550 B.C.; and a selection of carved beads, pendants and amulets of stone and shell.

An exhibit on St. Martin's colonial history highlights the plantation and slavery periods, while early-20th-century photographs of the island along with historic maps and photographs depicting St. Martin's natural environment are also on display.

Group tours of the museum are offered; guides speak English and French. The museum's gift shop and second-floor art gallery feature local artwork, handicrafts and souvenirs. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.  


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