St Maarten is a unique Caribbean island, located about 150 miles east of Puerto Rico. The island is half Dutch (St Maarten) and half French (St Martin). The border however, is barely perceptible to visitors and many islanders live on one side and work on the other.
The small nation is a popular winter vacation destination for North Americans as well as Europeans. The small island, with a population of around 66,000 permanent residents is known for its long stretches of beach, tropical weather, duty-free shopping, and excellent French restaurants and cafes.
St Maarten was first "discovered" by westerners on Christopher Columbus' second voyage to the Western Hemisphere. He reached the island on November 11, 1493 and the nation is named for the feast of St. Martin of Tours (held each year on November 11). The island was original inhabited by two tribes: the war-like Caribs and the culturally-developed Arawaks. Both tribes were eventually eliminated through forced slavery, European diseases, and starvation. The ensuing two centuries brought conflict as the French, Dutch, Danes, and Spanish fought for control of the island. The French and Dutch agreed to divide St. Maarten/St. Martin in 1648.
St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island, is known for its exuberant nightlife, plentiful beaches, and casino gambling. It is also home to the island's Princess Juliana airport, infamous for its low-flying approach that brings planes in just over the beaches.
Philipsburg, the capital of St Maarten, is a popular port of call for cruise ships. The lively port city is noted for its Dutch colonial architecture, including the landmark white wooden courthouse building, constructed in 1793, and its duty-free shopping. The town is also home to the Simartin Museum, which houses a collection of artifacts from the island's history, beginning with pottery from the Arawak tribe.
St. Martin, the French side of the island is best known for its French ambiance, its excellent French restaurants and cafes, and its charming harbor at Marigot. Unlike its bustling counterpart, Philipsburg, Marigot is a quiet seaside village, with sidewalk cafes, a local straw market, and peaceful shopping streets. St. Martin also boasts some world-class beaches, particularly the one at Grand Case. The French side of the island is also home to Ft. Louis, a 17th century outpost, named for the French king Louis XVI. Today, visitors can relive that era of island history by touring the restored fort.
Visiting St Maarten/St Martin
St Maarten is easily accessible by plane via non-stop flights from New York, Miami, and Chicago as well as Amsterdam and Paris. Accommodations on the island vary greatly, from small guest houses to large casino resorts. Many packages are available that combine airfare and accommodations for a substantial savings. Look to tour operators such as GoGo Tours, Travel Impressions, or Continental Vacations.