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THE PACE SLIPS AT THE BORDER

A newly arrived tourist on this tropical island stopped at a local store to buy a copy of the Wall Street Journal. "What day do you want," asked the shopkeeper, "yesterday's or today's?"

"Today's, of course," the confused customer replied.

"Then come back tomorrow," said the proprietor, matter-of-factly.

No one on this friendly little island is in a hurry to get anywhere -- they figure they're already there. With 70 percent of the population engaged in tourism, the locals celebrate the joy of rejuvenation, dedicated to the proposition that all visitors should return home rested and refreshed.

St. Maarten/St. Martin is an island with a split personality -- French on one side, Dutch on the other. A mere fly speck on the map, located 150 miles east of Puerto Rico, the entire island covers a total of 37 square miles. That's about the same size as Paris, but with only 55,000 inhabitants.

The island was discovered by Columbus in 1493. For four centuries, control was bandied back and forth by the feuding Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English, like a shuttlecock in a badminton game. In 1640, Peter Stuyvesant (who later became the last Dutch governor of New York) lost a leg in a skirmish with Spanish forces over possession of the territory.

In 1648, the ownership problem was finally resolved. According to one fanciful account, a slightly inebriated Frenchman and a somewhat tipsy Dutchman squared off, back to back, then set off in opposite directions around the coastline. Where they met, they drew a line, one side was declared French territory, the other Dutch.

The inhabitants have lived in peaceful coexistence ever since, on the smallest island in the world shared by two governments. Today, there's only a roadside obelisk to mark the border.

There's no language barrier, either. Although French and Dutch are the official languages on their respective sides, English is widely spoken everywhere.

Naturally, you'd figure St. Maarten to be the French side and St. Martin the Dutch. Just the opposite. But to simplify matters, the English pronunciation is the accepted way to refer to this Caribbean paradise.

Local legend has it that infamous 16th century buccaneers, the likes of Sir Henry Morgan, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, buried millions in gold bullion and other plunder on this mystical island retreat. Visitors are welcome to hunt for the booty, but most are content to seek out the more obvious rewards of sun, surf and great waves of peace and tranquility.

Finding such treasures is best accomplished on any of the 36 sun-drenched beaches. The waters surrounding the island reflect undulating shades of blue, turquoise and emerald, as effervescent as a gin and tonic and twice as intoxicating. If you search a bit, it's possible to find a secluded beach where the only footprints in the sand will be yours.

As you might expect, most outdoor activities take place in, on or above the placid waters, with excellent scuba diving from boats (including night diving), snorkeling, water skiing, parasailing, windsurfing, sailing and deep-sea fishing.

If golf is your passion, you can indulge at the Mullet Bay Resort Casino on the Dutch side. The golf course remains open for play; the resort itself, heavily damaged last fall by Hurricane Luis and now being completely rebuilt, is scheduled to reopen in December.

Other land-based diversions, such as horseback riding and tennis, are available at many of the hotels.

It's axiomatic these days that vacationing and shopping go hand in glove, and on St. Maarten/St. Martin, you'll find the perfect fit. Whether strolling along St. Maarten's Front Street, the main shopping drag in the capital city of Philipsburg on the Dutch side, or the quaint streets of Marigot, the capital of St. Martin on the French side, you'll discover a great profusion of well-stocked duty-free shops. The best bargains are in fine perfume, jewelry, china, crystal, silver, fashion watches, cameras and stereos.

Nightlife on the island is low key, with a few nightclubs still pulsating to a disco beat. Most of the action takes place at the larger hotels. The biggest attraction is the casinos, located only on the Dutch side. They're of modest dimension, and no match for the gaudy gambling palaces of Las Vegas or Atlantic City.

Dining is something else again. The island more than lives up to its reputation as the culinary capital of the Caribbean, with a selection of 250 or so restaurants. Bounty from the ocean, sea-dripping fresh, is the speciality of the day, every day, with variations in preparation ranging from American, Creole, French, Italian, Swiss, Continental, Szechuan, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Thai, to specialties of Argentina, Peru, Chile and Venezuela. Prices for a three-course meal (without wine) range from $30 to $50 and up.

Accommodations on St. Maarten/St. Martin are what you might expect on a Caribbean island that caters to tourism: large resort hotels, small inns, guest houses, villas and apartment hotels with cooking facilities. Rates during the high season (mid-December until mid-April) at a first-class hotel or resort range from $160 to $500 per day (based on double occupancy). For a guest house or efficiency apartment during the high season, you can expect to pay $50 to $250.

You can see the whole island by taking a three-hour taxi tour for about $30. But what's the rush? In a rented car, you can take your time exploring every nook and cranny, and a tank of gas should last you a week.

If island fever should set in, you can consider a day trip to one of the neighboring islands -- St. Barthelemy (St. Barts), St. Eustatius (Statia) or Anguilla, all only a short boat ride or quick puddle jumper flight away.

But most visitors to this blissful isle are perfectly content to stay put, lolling on a sunny beach or stretched out on a hammock in the shade, while the rest of the world goes rushing by.

Travel information

Entry requirements: Proof of citizenship -- passport, birth certificate or voter registration card.

Money: The franc is used on the French side, the guilder on the Dutch side, but the U.S. dollar is universally accepted.

What to take: Informality rules the day (and night), so casual summer clothing is the best bet. The climate is warm and dry, with an average year-round temperature of 80 degrees. Pack a jacket or lightweight sweater for the occasional cool night.

Contact: Dutch side, St. Maarten Tourist Office, (800) 786-2278; French side, French Government Tourist Office, (900) 990-0040 (95 cents per minute).

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