St. Maarten, St. Martin
About Sint Maarten, Sint Maarten
Sint Maarten, part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is a country on the southern part of a Caribbean island shared with Saint Martin, a French overseas collectivity. Natural landscapes span lagoons, beaches and salt pans, while the capital, Philipsburg, has cobblestone streets and colorful, colonial-style buildings lining its Front Street shopping area. The port is a popular cruise-ship stop.
This island offers one of the most unique destinations in the Caribbean. It is ideal for those looking for true European flair but in the relaxed atmosphere of the Caribbean. St. Maarten/St. Martin is shared by two countries: the northern part is French while the southern part is Dutch. A peaceful treaty dating 350 years was formed to keep out the Spanish.
Some of the most popular tourist towns and coves include Philipsburg, Great Bay, Mullet Bay Beach, Little Bay Beach and Maho Beach on the Dutch side; Grand Case, Marigot, Orient Bay and Anse Marcel on the French side.
With a breezy tropical climate the beaches are the biggest tourist attraction. You will find all water sports available for practise as well such as diving, snorkeling, sailing and windsurfing. The island is also considered a shopping Mecca since most stores are duty-free. Gamblers will rejoice on the Dutch side, no less than 13 casinos may be found.
Dutch side: Philipsburg. French side: Marigot. Currency : Dutch side: Antilles florin or Guilder. French side: Euro. Driver's License : International license recommended. Must have a credit card. Electricity : Dutch side: 110 volts, 60Hz. French side: 220 volts, 60Hz Entry Requirements : A passport, valid 3 months beyond intended stay, and an ongoing or return ticket are required. It is the traveller's responsibility to check with the country’s Embassy for up-to-date information. GMT Time : -4 h Government : Parliamentary democracy, as an autonomous part of Kingdom of the Netherlands; and overseas department of France in Saint-Martin. Land size : 88 km2 Language : Dutch in Sint-Maarten and French in Saint-Martin. English is also spoken everywhere. National Airlines : Winair serves many islands of the Caribbean. Population : 77,000 approx. Religion : Mostly Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. Required Vaccines : none Tourist Season : December through April.
Traditional dishes are centered on one-pot stews blending fish, seafood and produce with peppers, local spices and coconut. All the international restaurants can be found as well such as French, Italian or American.
Sweets and desserts include sugar cakes, scones, potato-pudding, guava berry tarts, and coconut pies.
One must taste the Guavaberry liqueur, a unique liqueur made from the wild local berry. The Guavaberry fruits are found in the central hills and are rare. Centuries ago every family made their own recipes and the liqueur is present in many folk tales from the island.
Culture The island has embraced many artists of various faculties who are endlessly inspired by their exotic surrounding. Several styles and techniques have been used to represent the locals and the landscape. The art galleries are filled with works of painters, sculptors and sketchers. Wonderful literary works have been written about the rich folklore of the island. Music is part of everyday life, if you can try to see the “Caribbean Happy Boys”, the local band playing merengue, calypso, bolero, polka and three-beat waltz. Gospel music is magical and poignant here as well.
Religion is very present as well and numerous religious communities are found. The main ones are the Catholics, the Anglican, the Adventists, the Baptist, the Methodist, the Rastafarian, the Hindus and Voodoo practitioners.
Games play an important role in the islands traditions, a favourite is domino; every evening and Sundays you will see men sitting on terraces, sidewalks or in bars playing the game. Next favourites in line are bingo and calabash. Gambling on vicious cockfights is also a part of the culture.
Geography St. Maarten/St. Martin is part of the Leeward Group of the Lesser Antilles. The east shores bathe in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean whereas the west side enjoys the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea.
The terrain consist of hilly terrain covered with brush and cactus, several coves and bays embracing the waters with white sandy beaches, salt ponds and small pockets of dense vegetation including palm trees. Mount Flagstaff, an extinct volcano, is the most noticeable feature of the island.
History The island's history dates back to the Stone Age (4,000 BC) where excavations indicate tribal life. The Arawak Indians settled around 800 AD and lived peacefully from the land but things changed in the 14th century with the arrival of the cannibalistic Carib Indians. A rich economy was founded on the discovered salt mines, explaining the islands original name “Soualiga”, or “Salt Island”.
Christopher Columbus sighted the island in 1493 but it remained uncolonized until 1630 when separate small groups of Dutch and French settlers took the land. The Spanish soon attacked but were defeated in 1644 by the join efforts of the Dutch and French. The two signed an accord within a few years and agreed to divide the island. Today’s boundary date from 1817. Sint-Maarten became a constituent countrie within the Kingdom of the Netherlands on 10 October 2010.
Nature The coastal landscape is shaped by the deep waters, rocky and sandy shores, mangrove, underwater sea-grass beds and coral reefs. Here animal life mostly consists of sea urchins, molluscs and the like that feed on the many species of algae due to the constant wave erosion as well as the shifting rocks and sands. In turn, sea birds come to feed here after hours of flight.
Red and black mangrove trees are found in the marshy areas, such as Simpson Bay Lagoon and l’Etang aux Poissons. This area where the sea waters and the mangroves meet is a veritable breeding ground for thousands of marine creatures which feed of the urchins and molluscs. This delicate ecosystem is protected by the St. Martin Natural Marine Reserve.
Land vegetation has adapted to the salty soil and harsh sun. Shorelines include grasses and vines, and are followed by a low brush, cacti and some shrubs. The forests include trees like the Coconut, Almond and Tamarind trees. As the altitude and humidity rise lush rainforests of ferns and larger trees emerge such as the Mango tree. The animal species are represented by iguanas, hummingbirds, monkeys, mongoose and parrots.
A great place to experience this, is on the hiking trails of Paradise Peak, the highest point of the island at 424 m.
Sports You will find a large selection of land and water sports available for your enjoyment:
Boat trips, sailing, kayaking, jet skiing, windsurfing and surfing can all be practised. Deep-sea fishing excursions leave daily. Scuba divers can explore the 40 dive sites found around the island and some spots offer great snorkelling as well.
Biking is very popular as well as mountain biking with cleared paths ideal for beginners as well as experts. Hiking is another great option along the vast network of hiking trails. Horseback rides along the beach can be magical experiences. The adventure seekers should try the paragliding and parachuting facilities.
The Mullet Bay Golf Course offers a full 18-hole golf course. Tennis courts can be found in various locations and many are lit for night play.
Banks & Money
Since the island is shared by two countries you will find two different legal tenders. The French side has adopted the Euro where as the Dutch side uses the Netherlands Antilles Florin (also know as the Guilder). Although prices are listed with the national currency, US dollars are accepted readily so you may not need to exchange your money at all.
Money can be exchanged in the many banks and change offices. Banks ATMs are available throughout the more populated areas of the island. All major credit cards are accepted on both sides of the island.
Climate St. Maarten/St. Martin enjoys sunny and warm subtropical climate year-round with a summer temperature averaging 28° C and only a couple of degrees less in the winter months. A breezy trade wind helps to keep things temperate. June through November is considered the rainy season. The annual water temperature oscillates around 25° C.
Communication To call the French side you must dial the code 590.
To call the Dutch side you must dial the code 599.
When calling between the two sides other local codes are required.
Most hotels on both sides of the island have radio and television broadcasts from the major American networks as well as some European ones. Several local newspapers are published.
Health Tap water is safe to drink at all the hotels and restaurants, otherwise bottled water is recommended. The most common illness is the traveler's diarrhea (turista), usually showing up on the third day.
There are no required vaccines to enter the country however precautions do need to be enforced unless you are arriving from a yellow fever affected destination. The following vaccines are recommended for any tropical destination: hepatitis A and B, rabies, typhoid, tetanus and yellow fever.
The Manchineel tree, found mostly along the beaches, is extremely poisonous, the sap and the fruit, which looks like a small green apple, can burn and blister the skin.
Official Holidays January 1 - New Year's Day March/April - Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday April 30 - Queen's Birthday (St. Maarten) May 1 - Labour Day July 14 - Journée de la Bastille (St. Martin) November 11 - St. Maarten's Day, commemorating the reconciliation of the Dutch with the French in 1817. (St. Maarten) December 25 - Christmas Day
Each side celebrates its own Carnival - the French side is timed with Lent, while the Dutch coincides with the birthday of Her Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands, Beatrix. The later is the most popular and it spans over 17 days and nights.
Safety This island is considered generally safe and enjoys a low crime rate, however as a tourist you are more likely to be a target of petty crime.
Use good judgement, take advantage of the safety deposit boxes provided by the hotels, do not leave valuables unattended in public and carry your wallet and camera discreetly. Car theft is the most common crime so make sure to lock your car and take the proper insurance package with your rental.
Shopping Since many cruise ships dock in St. Maarten it is favoured by many duty-free shoppers. You will find here all the luxury items at incredible discounts, sometimes up to 50 percent less than other countries.
The West Indies mall, on the Marigot waterfront, is the place to shop on the French side where as shoppers located on the Dutch side should head for Front Street in Philipsburg.
Duty-free shops offer perfumes, liquor, watches, cameras, electronics and jewellery. Several art galleries showcase the work of the local artists. Those looking for a more authentic souvenir will find traditional handicraft, West Indian hammocks, wood carvings, handmade jewellery, and bottles of the local Guavaberry liquor.
Taxes & Tips All purchases are duty-free hence prices are often 25 to 50% less than US prices. Hotels and restaurants do charge a tax and service fees which may or may not be included in your bill and can add up to 20%, make sure to inquire first.
If a service fee is not included on your restaurant bill it is customary to leave a 10 to 15% tip. Taxi drivers are tipped $0.50 to $1 and porters should receive $2 per bag.
The departure tax of around US $30, per person, is usually included on your plane ticket, but if not added it will be payable at the airport Please verify.
Transportation International flights arrive at Princess Juliana Airport located on the Dutch side of the island. Short distance flights from other Caribbean destinations may arrive either at this airport or at St Martin's Esperance Airport.
Ferry and catamaran services to and from neighbouring islands are also available. Marinas at Marigot, Simpson Bay Lagoon, Oyster Pond and Anse Marcel can welcome yachts and boats.
Taxis can be hired and fares are regulated by the government. Bus routes get you around the island at very reasonable rates. Car, motorcycle and moped rentals are available.