The island of Saint-Martin is the jewel of the Caribbean
“Have you ever felt like we’ve been watching the same show over and over for a few years now? I think it’s time to change the channel!” I announced to my puzzled husband, a man who has the uncanny ability to watch “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “King of Queens” over and over and even laugh hysterically at the same jokes each time.
Thinking my analogy might help him better understand the repetitiveness – the dullness – I felt on a freezing day last week, I continued, “Check out this email I just received from Elite Island Resorts from Antigua. They offer free airfare on Frontier Airlines if we stay 7 nights at any of their five all-inclusive resorts in Antigua. Remember how much we loved this little island and great beaches. A salty destination like this would most certainly spice up those gray days and, as one email suggests, isn’t it nice to be swept away, surprised and spoiled?”
Unfortunately, my excitement faded when my epic island escape with a free plane ticket on Frontier Airlines only worked if I flew to Antigua from Orlando and stayed there for a week. Yet all was not lost. While doing my research, I found a great travel deal to the beautiful Caribbean island of St. Maarten. Honestly, if I had to choose just one island to best represent the very diverse travel experiences found throughout the Caribbean, it would be St. Martin/St. Maarten where two nationalities, the French and the Dutch, coexist beautifully to create the most unique cultural experience the Caribbean has to offer.
It is said that Columbus set foot on the island in 1493 and named the island after Bishop St. Martin of Tours, but, when he learned that its 37 square miles of land was shared with the cannibalistic Caribe tribe, he left very quickly. Spain lost. The island was up for grabs, so in the 1600s Dutch and French settlers arrived. Each claimed the land for their respective country, but diplomatic ownership became a big issue.
Things got confusing. To resolve the issue of territorial borders – who got where, how much and what – the two countries agreed to run for land. Unlike the Oklahoma land rush, it was a foot race. From the agreed starting point, the Frenchman ran/walked the furthest, and France received the most land. Still, it seems the Dutchman was smarter: he ran towards the port area, which was then, as it is now, the most valuable real estate on the island.
These racial boundaries remain today, as two distinctly different autonomous countries govern their part of the island. Residents of St. Maarten are Dutch nationals; they carry a Dutch passport. In Saint-Martin, a French passport is used. St. Martin uses the Euro while St. Maarten has its own currency, but luckily for us they both accept US Dollars! English works well on both sides of the island, but this duality of systems is also strange. For example, a phone call made from the Dutch side to the French side – within 36 miles – is considered an international call!
Having the chance to experience two distinct European cultures with a Caribbean twist contributes to the island’s popularity. Most American tourists may feel more comfortable on the Dutch side where prices are lower, larger hotels have casinos and there is more nightlife, all reasons why cruise ships land regularly in the city of Phillipsburg for a busy day of shopping, sightseeing. , and beach fun. The contrast between bustling, bustling St. Maarten and the tranquil countryside and port towns of French St. Maarten is decidedly noticeable.
I think two very different atmospheres on the same island, where everything can be changed in just a few minutes is really very nice! Many years ago, as a travel agent at Monroe Travel Service, I might have suggested customers stay on the Dutch side but eat on the French side. However, today, everything is different. We are a more “greedy” society, moreover, thanks to a hurricane in 2017, everything changed. Irma was the Category 5 storm that refused to go. It flew over the island for about 8 hours and about 90% of the buildings on the island were damaged with more than a third completely destroyed.
The road to recovery has been long and difficult for the islanders, but the result has been a nice facelift, especially for tourism. On the Dutch side, Divi Littl Bay, Simpson Bay Resort and Oyster Bay Beach have recovered beautifully, and on the French side, the Belmond La Samanna is still as magnificent as ever. For Secret Resort fans, it took $20 million to transform the Riu Palace St. Martin into a premier property of this luxury brand.
While the resorts may look different, it’s highly doubtful that their 37 beaches, where you can just stretch out on a lounger, soak up the blue of a Caribbean view, and experience it all (or not), could be best. Divers also tell me the marine life is thriving on Saba, a nearby island easily reached by high-speed ferry from Simpson Bay, and, with the easing of pandemic restrictions, day trips to famous beaches. from Anguilla or in the glitzy shops and restaurants of Saint-Barth will soon be possible again.
Honestly, the only problem with vacationing in St. Maarten is getting there. Leaving Jackson airport is a necessity, but, again, if I think of that extraordinarily decadent lemon dessert that Rob and I enjoyed at a little French restaurant named Oceans 82 on the French side, I would drive to New -Orleans or Dallas to get there. It doesn’t matter which side of the island we stay on. There are no wrong choices, and I’m so ready to switch channels and travel again.
Dianne Newcomer is a travel agent with Monroe Travel Service. Our service is free and our advice is valuable.