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One Island, Three Themes
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
Discovered by Columbus on November 11, 1493, he named the island for Saint Martin of Tours. St. Maarten is snugly tucked into the Caribbean just south of Anguilla and east of St. Croix, USVI. The two countries have gotten along fairly amicably over the centuries, so much so that there are no checkpoints at border crossings. In fact, if one isn't paying very close attention, one will cross the border without realizing it; the border markers are small and unobtrusive.
The French side, well known for the fine French cuisine featured in the many restaurants, is a sub-prefecture of Guadeloupe, an overseas region of France. Air France makes daily flights to the island so there is always a good supply of French wines and fresh ingredients for hard-working chefs of the island. The market days of Wednesday and Saturday finds Market Square in Margot jammed with shoppers. The colorful market is a cacophony of sounds as tourists seek bargains and residents shop for the best prices on fruit, vegetables, and fresh fish. As we meandered through the market, the aromas drifting out of the area restaurants stirred hunger within us--never mind that we had eaten shortly beforehand. Margot serves as the capital of French St. Martin and here is the place to catch a ferry to one of the neighboring islands. The French side has a distinct European-feel, while the Dutch side is more Caribbean in culture.(Cleaning fish, Marigot, Saint Martin)
The Netherlands Antilles which includes Curacao, St. Eustatius, Saba, and Bonaire also takes in Dutch St. Maarten. The capital of Philipsburg is a popular cruise ship port-of-call. When a ship is in, the downtown streets are gorged with tourists looking for a shopping bargain--reason for some visitors to avoid the area. Don't miss having a look at the Courthouse in the heart of Philipsburg. The original structure was built in 1793. Since St. Maarten is a true duty-free port, some of the best prices in the Caribbean are found here. Along with the cruise ship stops, the Dutch side also has twelve casinos--something one does not find on the French side.
A popular outing in Philipsburg is the St. Maarten 12-metre Challenge. Using three former America's Cup yachts, guests serve as crew and race these boats on a shortened 12-metre course. Visitors choose a job, from grinding to time keeping to trimming the sails. Each yacht is sailed by a real captain, so no experience is necessary. Some guests take the race very seriously. Others try to look busy while enjoying the outing on the water. Fun is had by all.
The hilly island is ringed with beautiful beaches--a total of 37, one for each square mile of land area. Lovely wide stretches of white sand hemmed-in by crystal-clear blue water describes the many beaches. The island is accommodating for those who like to go for that all-over tan. Orient Beach is the only official clothing-optional beach, however nudity isn't strictly ruled out on any beach, but is more common on the French side.
Outside Quarter d' Orleans, near Orient Bay is the Butterfly Farm. The Butterfly Farm, housed in the "butterfly sphere," features 45 species of tropical butterflies in all stages of growth from eggs through mature, breeding adults. One may see, as we did, a new butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Watch the new, soft, moist wings spread out, take shape and harden before your very eyes. Listen as guides explain the natural history of the order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). The farm is open year-round, seven days a week from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM
A driving tour of the island could be wrapped up in two-three hours, but why rush things? Rental cars are available and will be delivered to one's hotel. There is no airport pick-up. However, the narrow roads are more than we wanted to negotiate--it is much easier to use taxis to get around the island.
Official languages of the island are French and Dutch--though English is heard and spoken everywhere. The official currencies are the French Franc and the Netherlands Antilles Florin--though US Dollars were accepted everywhere we visited, and most prices are marked in US Dollars. Speaking of which, one shouldn't necessarily pay the marked price for all items--especially jewelry. There is plenty of room for negotiation.
The French side doesn't have a monopoly on good food. We enjoyed an exquisite dinner at The Lighthouse Restaurant, at the Caravanserai Beach Resort. Chef Brian Kontos goes to great lengths preparing each dinner individually. His menu changes nightly and he only uses the freshest items--daily having ingredients flown in for the evening menu. We had his Tri-Cheese Tortellina Gratin served in an Alfredo Sauce appetizer. Baked to perfection, the dish was a mouth-watering delight.
Princess Juliana Airport has direct flights arriving from Atlanta, New York, Miami, Newark, Detroit, Minneapolis, Charlotte, Philadelphia, and San Juan; making access to the island hassle-free. US citizens need only a passport or an official raised-seal US birth certificate and photo identification. There is a difference in the electrical voltage from one side of the island to the other. The Dutch side is 110 volts--the same as the US. The French side is 220 volts--the same as France. If you plan on staying on the French side and using electrical appliances, take an adapter.
Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher/PROSE and PHOTOS