By Victor Block
By day, visitors on one side of the tiny Caribbean island enjoy patisseries and other hard-to-resist sweets at small sidewalk cafes. After the sun sets, they head for restaurants whose cuisine attests to the well-deserved reputation of French chefs as among the best in the world. Close by, the picture is very different. Gambling casinos and go-go night life contrast sharply with inhabitants whom one local observer described as "reserved, rule-driven and well-disciplined."
This diversity on an inviting beach-rimmed dot of land is to me the most appealing aspect of French St. Martin and Dutch Sint Maarten. The dual-nationality island is the smallest land mass in the world that's divided between two governments, and therein lies much of the appeal for many visitors. If ever a destination has exhibited a split personality, it's here.
The fact that the far-flung enclaves of two European countries coexist in complete harmony — and in many ways as one entity — adds to the enjoyment. Say, for example, that you wish to drive from the French side to the Dutch area. No passport is needed, and no border crossing formalities are required. The only indications that you're moving from one side of the island to the other are small roadside welcome signs.
Once there, the ambience echoes ties to each motherland. At the same time, the two areas share a long list of beaches and water-related activities that are common on other Caribbean destinations.
Some three dozen stretches of sand offer something-for-everyone variety that ranges from long expanses adjacent to large resort hotels to tiny, isolated crescents hidden at the end of narrow dirt roads. On a few beaches, sun-worshippers of all ages, shapes and sizes lose their inhibitions — and their bathing suits — in the quest for the perfect all-over tan.
But primarily it's the split personality of the setting, the combination of Dutch traditions and French joie de vivre, that sets the island apart from other Caribbean vacation havens. It doesn't take long for the visitor to discern this intriguing difference.
Phillipsburg, the capital of Dutch Sint Maarten, is bisected by two main roads aptly, if unimaginatively, named Front Street and Back Street. They're connected by a network of narrow alleyways with Dutch names reminiscent of Amsterdam.
Restaurants and duty-free shops are often crowded, especially when cruise ships come calling. Phillipsburg is the prime magnet on the island for shoppers seeking discounts. Duty-free shopping means that savvy buyers can find discounts of 50% and occasionally more on items ranging from jewelry, crystal and perfume to alcoholic beverages and cigars.
The Dutch side of the island is also home to much of the active nightlife activities. Those seeking to try their luck at casinos also are, well, in luck. Sint Maarten has more gaming machines per resident than any other country in the world.
Marigot, in St. Martin, bears resemblance to a French town that has been transported to the tropics. Cafes and restaurants line the small harbor. On market days, island women sporting colorful dresses and big-brimmed straw hats sell fresh fish and produce, baked goods and spices.
Visitors should also plan to venture outside of the main towns. It is possible to drive around the compact island in about an hour, depending upon the traffic. Along the way it will be tempting to take in some of the varied attractions.
Brooding Fort Louis overlooks Marigot Bay, as it has since 1789. The remains of sugar houses serve as reminders of the island's role as a major cane-sugar producer during the 18th century.
The main road climbs rolling tree-blanketed hills, in places following the coastline and offering views of neighboring islands. It passes through and near tiny towns such as Colombier, a village of Creole huts tucked in a valley, and French Cul de Sac, a gathering of red-roofed houses clinging to a hillside.
As magnificent sunsets give way to the star-filled evening sky, the Dutch side of the island serves as a magnet for night owls seeking excitement. Much of that is found at casinos, hotels and disco-'til-almost-dawn spots.
When it comes to dining, even many residents of Dutch Sint Maarten admit that the best restaurants are in "la partie Francaise." Gourmets often rate the food on the Island — French flair with Dutch touches augmented by traces of West Indian and Creole cuisine — among the very best in the Caribbean.
Marigot has enough restaurants to provide a different dining experience for weeks on end. The little town of Grand Case is anything but grand. It's little more than a single road, but that street is lined on both sides by inviting places to eat, many with an outdoor terrace overlooking the sea. Dining is al fresco in a setting that in ways resembles Paris with palm trees.
Whether strolling the lively streets of Philipsburg or simply lolling in the sun on a white-sand beach, the little island of St. Martin-Sint Maarten blends the best of what a Caribbean vacation should be with a unique dual culture that brings flavors of all kinds from far away.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: www.st-martin.org or www.vacationstmaarten.com
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Eating, drinking and duty-free shopping abound in Phillipsburg, the capital of Dutch Sint Maarten. Photo courtesy of Enrico Powell-Dreamstime.com.