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Tucked away in a small corner of the Caribbean lies the island of Sint Maarten and St Martin, the world's smallest area of land divided into two nations. The French and Dutch have shared this strip of paradise peacefully for more than 350 years, ever since (as legend has it) a gin-drinking Dutchman and a wine-imbibing Frenchman walked around the island to see how much territory they could claim for their country in a day. The French won more land, but the Dutch lay claim to the most prized part.
The Dutch may well have a point. Sint Maarten is known for its beaches, local rum-based liquors, casinos and festive nightlife. Duty-free shopping is the order of the day for tourists pouring out of the numerous condos and resorts. Those who find this all too overdeveloped and artificial can get a taste of a different side of the Caribbean on the quiet, picturesque beaches of Simpson Bay and Little Bay. Visitors who are looking for a more rugged holiday would do well to head north to the French side of the island.
St Martin is significantly quieter than its Dutch counterpart. The French side of the island is a lovely mix of white-sand beaches, small town centres, and beautiful stretches of mountainside. Shopping is a more relaxed affair at the outdoor markets, and some of the finest Caribbean cuisine is on offer.
The island as a whole hosts 120 different nationalities, giving it a rich cultural heritage. Food, drink and friendly Caribbean hospitality are all on the agenda. Visitors can also enjoy snorkeling, diving, and jet-skiing, or head inland to hike in the mountains or zip-line through the tree tops.
Tourists flock each year to Sint Maarten and St Martin for one reason; the beaches. Long Bay offers peace and quiet, and perfect sunsets fromt eh abr at La Samanna's restaurant. Anse des Peres is a family friendly affair in the northwest, with legendary Full Moon parties at Kali's Beach Bar. Orient Bay, the 'Saint Tropez of the Caribbean' is the haunt of celebrities and jet-setters. Galion Beach is the domain of the surfers and windsurfers. Little Bay is becoming a haven for bird life. Visitors can also watch the Jumbo Jets fly low overhead as they come in to land over Maho Beach.
Marigot, the French capital, is a town of trendy restaurants and traditional stalls, home to a lively market full of interesting colours and smells. Philipsburg, on the Dutch side, is the duty-free shopping capital. Jewellrey and souvenir shops line the main street, and weary shoppers can recharge in the endless restaurants and bars. The village of Grand Case comes alive from January to April for the Harmony Nights Festival, a traditional Caribbean celebration of gastronomy, music, arts and crafts.
Other attractions include tree-top tours in the Loterie Farm, and the colourful, soothing atmosphere of Butterfly Farm, the first of its kind in the Caribbean. Young families will also enjoy the Sint Maarten Park zoo, with over 80 species of wildlife and dedicated play area for children.
2 miles (4km) off the coast of St Martin lies Tintamere Island. This uninhabited island is wild and rocky, but has some great swimming spots. Lucky snorkelers may even glimpse of turtles. Visitors are advised to take supplies for the day; there are no shops here.
The Voorstraat (Front Street) faces south onto the ocean, running about half a mile (1km) east to west, and is the main drawcard in Philipsburg for tourists. At its eastern end is Wathey Square, housing the tourist information kiosk, just a minute's walk from the semi-circular Great Bay Beach, and two casinos, the Rouge et Noir and the Coliseum Casino. On the north side of the square is one of the town's most impressive buildings, the white wooden courthouse topped with a cupola, built in 1793 and now serving as a post office. Just off the west of the square is the quaint Methodist church built in 1851. Farther along Voorstraat is a group of elegant colonial houses, and at the far end is a small museum and two large marinas.
Voorstraat is also known as the best shopping area in Philipsburg. A number of jewellery stores, perfume boutiques and electronics shops take advantage of the island's duty-free status to draw tourists in their droves.
The town of Philipsburg boasts the remains of two historic forts that bear witness to its one-time strategic importance for the Dutch. Fort Amsterdam, the first Dutch military establishment in the Caribbean, was built in 1631 on a peninsula between Great Bay and Little Bay, but it was captured almost immediately by the Spanish. The Spanish later abandoned it and the little fort returned to Dutch hands, being kept in use right up to the 1950s as a signalling and communications station. Interestingly, Fort Amsterdam has become an important breeding site for brown pelicans.
The other Dutch fortification, Fort Willem, lies to the west of downtown Philipsburg, topped with a television transmission tower. Both forts are worth the walk to visit, particularly for the panoramic views afforded from their elevated positions.
Not to be outdone, the French have their own historic fort. Fort St Louis was built according to plans sent from France by Louis XVI in 1767 to guard the settlement from invaders. It is St Martin's largest historical monument and looks out over Marigot. The ruins sit atop a hill, which is worth the steep 15 minute climb for the panoramic view of the island afforded from the summit. Open 24 hours a day, the area has many signs detailing important historical events.
Dutch St Maarten's prime popular beach resorts extend as a series of sandy bays from Philipsburg along the southwest coast of the island, reaching a grand finale at the great spread of Simpson Bay, site of the international airport. From the headland at the western end of Great Bay stretches the secluded beach of Cay Bay, famed for being the spot where Dutchman Peter Stuyvesant was injured in battle against the Spanish. This quiet beach can only be reached by dirt road or horse trail. Further west, towards the airport, is Simpson Bay Lagoon, surrounded by resort developments. There is also a series of good beaches with fine white sand. Maho Bay is St Maarten's largest beach resort, well developed with facilities, a casino and its popular Sunset Bar. Mullet Bay, with its gentle surf and shady stretch of palm trees, is usually the most crowded beach. Cupecoy is favoured by nudists, and has dramatic sandstone cliffs and caves.
Next to the Marina Port la Royale, on the southern end of Marigot, is a worthwhile archaeological museum, dedicated to preserving St Martin's history and culture. It houses numerous exhibits, including a variety of pre-Colombian treasures excavated by the Hope Estate Archaeological Society and several interesting exhibitions on Arawak culture. There is also a reproduction of a 1,500-year-old burial mound and ceramics dating from 550 BC. The island's more recent history, before tourism took hold, is encapsulated in evocative black and white photographs of quiet streets populated by a handful of children and donkeys, and of labourers toiling in the salt industry. The museum has a small gift shop for souvenirs and is rewarding for those seeking insight into the island's history as well as a really good tan.
Fronted by a sweeping curve of beach, the little fishing village of Grand Case, at the northern tip of St Martin, is famed for its fine foods and distinctive style of architecture. The small wooden houses are decorated in gingerbread style and painted pastel colours. Numerous good restaurateurs have chosen to congregate in the town's main street, which has become one of the finest dining centres in the region, earning Grand Case the epithet 'Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean'. Tuesdays are dubbed Harmony Nights, with live music and entertainment spilling out into the streets. The beaches are also lovely, with calm, protected waters that make for safe swimming for the whole family.
Paradise Peak, St Martin's highest point, rises from the centre of the island to a height of 1,390 feet (424m), and is crowned with a communications tower. Visitors can climb through thick woods twisted with vines and full of colourful birds to reach the summit, where there are two observation decks providing spectacular views of the island and surrounding region (on a clear day you can see all the way to Anguilla). Paradise Peak is a great place to stop for a photo opportunity in St Martin, even if just for a few minutes.
The Loterie Farm Nature Reserve is nestled on the slope of Paradise Peak, and is set on the site of a 135-acre former sugar plantation, established in 1721. The reserve has many miles of groomed hiking trails through the beautiful forest, where visitors can spot local flora and fauna. 90-minute guided tours are offered, and are worth it for the fascinating historical, cultural and scientific facts given about the area. The most popular attraction at Loterie Farm is the zipline, which is divided into three zones for children, adults, and thrill-seekers. Visitors glide along the canopy between centuries-old mango and mahogany trees, via a series of cables, ropes and suspended bridges.
There are a number of good beaches on the French side of the island that are very popular with tourists. Orient Beach, the largest and most popular beach in St Martin, is known for watersports, and borders a number of shops, restaurants and beach bars. The southern end of the beach has been reserved as a nudist resort. Prune Beach (or Plum Bay) is frequented by surfers while Rouge Beach offers great snorkelling and is regarded as the island's most beautiful beach. Long Beach is on the border with Dutch St Maarten and has little shade and generally no breeze, so it is known as a hot spot. Le Galion Beach is the island's best windsurfing beach and has shallow, calm waters. Anse Marcel in the north is usually quiet and favoured by French tourists. Friars Bay, just north of Marigot, is backed by a lagoon containing various waterfowl, and just north of Friars is Happy Bay, beautiful and peaceful because of its inaccessibility. Reaching Happy Bay requires a 10-minute uphill walk from Friars.
A popular family attraction in St Maarten, The Butterfly Farm is a large greenhouse housing more than 40 different varieties of butterflies and moths. Guests can take a 20-minute guided tour that explains the lifecycle of the butterfly and its place in the ecosystem (guides are also helpful in advising which plants will attract butterflies to your garden). Guests are free to handle and interact with the butterflies, and morning is the best time to visit the Butterfly Farm to see brand-new butterflies emerging from their cocoons. The farm is wheelchair accessible, and there are snacks and drinks available for sale.
The island is sunny and warm all year round, with average monthly temperatures varying little throughout the year. Temperatures in coastal areas range from 72ºF (22ºC) to 86ºF (30ºC) and inland areas range between 66ºF (19ºC) and 81ºF (27ºC). Cooling winds buffet the island throughout the year. Showers can be expected at any time of year but rainstorms generally pass quickly. Hurricane season in the Caribbean lasts from June to November, with the most storms occurring in September. December to May is considered the dry season (though rain can occur at any time of year), and is considered the best time to visit St Maarten and St Martin. Winter and the Christmas/New Year holidays are traditionally the most popular time to visit the island, but summer can also be a good time to visit because lodging rates are much lower and the beaches, roads and restaurants are not crowded.
On the Dutch side the currency is the Netherlands Antilles Guilder (ANG), where one guilder is divided into 100 cents, but US Dollars are also widely accepted and prices are usually quoted in Dollars as well as Guilders. On the French side of the island the Euro (EUR) is the local currency, although establishments will also accept US Dollars. There are numerous bureaux de change and banks throughout the island and ATMs in the main towns in both national sectors. Major credit cards are widely accepted.
Dutch and English are the official languages. Locals commonly use a language known as Papiamento, a mixture of Portuguese, African languages, Spanish, Dutch and English.
110/220 volts, 50/60Hz. Standard, flat, two- and three-pronged plugs, as found in the United States, are used.
US nationals: United States citizens require a valid passport. No visa is needed for a stay of up to 90 days.
UK nationals: British citizens require a valid passport, but do not require a visa for a stay of up to 90 days.
CA nationals: Canadians must have a valid passport. No visa is needed for a stay of up to 90 days.
AU nationals: Australians must have a valid passport. No visa is needed for a stay of up to 90 days.
ZA nationals: South Africans must have a passport valid for the period of intended stay, and a visa for entry.
IR nationals: Irish nationals must have a valid passport. No visa is needed.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a valid passport. No visa is needed for a stay of up to 90 days.
Travellers should note that for some nationalities visa and passport requirements might vary between St Maarten and St Martin - specific requirements should be checked for the desired destination. All tourists, regardless of which side of the island is being visited, must have return or onward tickets, all documents needed for next destination and proof of sufficient funds. Passports must be valid for at least the length of intended stay, but six months of passport validity is recommended. As part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travellers travelling between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean region are required to present a passport or other valid travel document to enter or re-enter the United States. If departing from the USA a valid passport will be required by immigration authorities. It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
No vaccination certificates are required for entry into either St Maarten or St Martin. However, a yellow fever certificate is required for travellers arriving within six days from infected areas. A vaccination for hepatitis A may be recommended by your doctor. The Manchionneel tree that grows all over the island, mainly along the beaches, is extremely poisonous. The sap and fruit, which look like small green apples are caustic and burn the skin. The water is safe to drink. Medical care on the island is good, but patients are likely to be transferred to the US for anything serious. Comprehensive medical insurance is strongly advised.
On the Dutch side of the island hotel bills include a tax of five percent, and often a service charge of 15 percent. Waiters and bar staff should be tipped 10-15 percent if a gratuity is not included in the bill. On French St Martin hotels usually add five percent occupancy tax per person, but a small gratuity is appreciated for good service. Restaurants and hotels usually add a service charge of 10-15 percent to the bill, and it is always best to check for this before adding a tip. Taxi drivers and porters expect to be tipped, particularly if they have handled luggage.
Most visits to the island are trouble-free, however petty crime has been increasing in recent years and visitors should refrain from leaving valuables unattended on beaches, in cars, or in hotel lobbies. Care should be taken to keep rooms and cars locked, and visitors should refrain from carrying large amounts of cash on them. Burglaries and break-ins occur sometimes at resorts, beach houses and hotels, and there have been incidents of armed robbery. Precautions should also be taken against car theft and insurance cover is advisable.
Island culture on St Maarten and St Martin is very relaxed, and there are few dress codes aside from high-end restaurants and clubs. Dressing provocatively may attract unwanted attention, however, and wearing beachwear off the beach is considered disrespectful by some. Though many residents speak English, visitors should not assume this and a little effort to speak French or Dutch is greatly appreciated.
On St Maarten/St Martin things are fairly informal, but jackets and ties should be worn by men for meetings. English is spoken widely throughout both the French and Dutch parts of the island and is often the language used in meetings. Business hours are generally 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday, with a break from 12pm-1.30pm.
The country code for St Maarten is +1 721. The code for French St Martin is +590. Phoning from one side of the island to the other is considered to be an international call. The outgoing code for both sectors is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). City/area codes are not in use. Mobile network coverage extends across both parts of the island. Internet access is available at internet cafes. Note, there is not wifi coverage of the whole island. There are wifi hotspots in bars and cafes on the boardwalk of Philipsburg, at Oyster Pond, at Orient beach, and in the Maho area.
Arrivals in St Maarten/St Martin don't have to pay duty on any goods. Products like tobacco, alcohol, cameras and perfume should be limited to an amount needed for personal use.
Office of Tourism for Saint Martin, Marigot, Saint Martin: +05 9087 5721 or St Martin: qww.stmartinisland.org
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 244 5300.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7590 3200.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 237 5031.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6220 9400.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 425 4500.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 269 3444
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 471 6390.
American Consulate-General, Willemstad, Curacao (also responsible for St Maarten/St Martin): +599 9 461 3066.
British Consulate,Willemstad, Curacao (also responsible for St Maarten/St Martin): +599 9 461 3900.
Canadian Consulate, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (also responsible for St Maarten): +868 622 6232.
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