posted by: Michele Peterson Posted date: March 17, 2014 In: Travel
Mention the Caribbean French-Dutch island of Saint Martin and most people–including 1.6 million annual cruise ship visitors – think of the glossy Dutch side. But the more relaxed French territory is also well worth exploring. Popular among a European and French Canadian clientele, it boasts a personality that’s chic and charming with a dash of joie de vivre.
Located east of Puerto Rico and just 86 sq. km in size, Saint Martin is the world’s smallest island to share two different nations. The Treaty of Concordia divided the island in half, French (Saint-Martin) to the north and Dutch (Sint Maarten) to the south, in 1648, but borders weren’t finalized until 1817. Since then, the island’s dual nationalities and boundaries have stayed the same. But don’t expect to get your passport stamped when you cross the border. There are no passport control stations or other red tape, meaning travellers can soak up the unique character and individuality of two nations in one visit.
Begin your explorations in charming Marigot, the capital of the French side of the island. The glossy Le West Indies shopping centre on Le Front de Mer offers luxurious boutiques such as Chanel, Rolex and Lacoste. Fashion mavens will also want to browse the chic boutiques on Marigot’s side streets for top labels such as Hermes, Longchamp and Yves Saint Laurent, all at duty-free prices.
If you time your visit for Wednesday or Saturday morning, you can browse the open-air market along Boulevard de France where shopping for fragrant spices, bright batiks and mouth-watering tropical fruits is a time-honoured tradition.
Near the market is a collection of pastel buildings with white lacy gingerbread trim and airy verandas. Many of these historic homes have been converted to bistros, brasseries and cafes and are ideal for enjoying a leisurely meal. Stop for a croissant at Sucriére bakery or browse the daily menu on chalkboard-and-open-kitchens, where servers present French classics such as escargot, foie gras with Calvados brandy and grouper à la Marseillaise.
Marigot is also the starting point for a hike to Fort Louis, the imposing stone fortress that has stood sentinel over the above town since 1750. Climb to the summit and you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of the marina and the sparkling blue Caribbean. Along your walking route to the fort, be sure to stop at the Musée de Saint-Martin where you can examine artifacts of the Arawaks, the nomadic hunters, fishermen and farmers who settled the area from 800 BC.
Other pleasures include Orient Bay, the French Riviera of the Caribbean, with its 2.5 kilometres of white-sand beach. Rent a beach lounger and or, if floating in the water in your birthday suit sounds like fun, this is the place to shed your inhibitions. The furthest point on the beach is home to Club Orient, a clothing-optional naturist resort. In general, the attitude towards topless sunbathing is relaxed on Orient Bay, but there’s no pressure to do as the French do.
Evenings mean it’s time to party Mardi-Gras style, so head to Grand Case near the northern tip of the island. Tuesday nights during high season (January-April) are known as Harmony Nights, with Boulevard de Grand-case closed to vehicles and throngs of revelers packing the pedestrian zone and waterfront. Plumed Mas dancers, drum parades and the music from steel drum bands will get you dancing in the streets.
Few things are as vital to the French as food, and Grand Case is home to many of the island’s best restaurants. But it’s not all about fine dining. Take a cue from the locals and scout out French Creole dishes in humble roadside stands and outdoor grills, called lolos. Try Sky’s the Limit or Talk of the Town for the best Creole shrimp, Johnny cakes and barbecue chicken.
At nightfall, sip Moet-Chandon champagne at a waterfront terrace at Marina Royale and then indulge in a Caribbean lobster bisque or classic bouillabaisse. A top choice is L’Escapade where you can enjoy a view across the bay of Anguilla. Rhum l’orange is a spirited – and complimentary – finish to evening meals in true French Saint-Martin style.
Just as the island joins two nations, it also links two seas, the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean. Philipsburg, the capital of Sint Maarten on the Dutch side, is tucked in a protected harbour on the south of the island. This free port has been a trading hub for centuries thanks to its strategic geographical position in the Eastern Caribbean.
In modern times, Great Bay Port is where the action begins for the thousands of cruise passengers who disembark hoping to score a bargain at one of the more than 500 duty free shops along Front Street. Expect prices 25-50% below those in designer shops in Canada.
With so many tempting deals, you might be inclined to think there’s nothing to do except shop. That would be a mistake. Signs of the port’s rich history abound around Wathey Square in the heart of the port area. An iconic Philipsburg landmark is the town hall and courthouse, a tall wood-framed building with a picturesque cupola. Constructed in 1793 as the home of Commander John Philips, the town’s founder, this white and green building has served as a jail, fire station and post office over the years
Movie buffs won’t want to miss a stop at Planet Paradise on Front Street, where you can browse movie memorabilia from The Terminator, Star Wars, Superman and other Hollywood blockbusters. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an opportunity to chat with Nick Maley aka “ThatYodaGuy” an Emmy nominated make-up artist most famous for his work as the creator of Yoda on The Empire Strikes Back. His unique movie and island-inspired artworks can be wrapped for international transport if you’d like to take home a memorable original work.
Further along down Front Street is the iconic Guavaberry Emporium, where you can sample signature Guavaberry folk liqueur made of oak-aged rum, cane sugar and ripe local guavaberries. Other exotic fruit liqueurs such as mango, lime, island orange, passion fruit are also available for tasting. Or, sample food products such as the popular Creole Chipotle hot sauce made with African black peppers. This shop, known for its lively atmosphere of reggae music and enthusiastic patrons, is built on the site of an 18th century Jewish synagogue.
When it’s time for an evening of glamour, Maho Village offers Las Vegas glitz with plenty of choice entertainment, gaming fun and fine dining. With 450 slot machines and 20 tables of poker, roulette, blackjack and more, Casino Royale is the largest gaming facility on the island. Cabaret shows are free on Friday and Saturday evenings.
No matter whether you decide to go French, Dutch or both, a visit to Saint Martin offers an island experience to suit every aspect of your personality.
Language: English, French, Dutch, Creole and Papiamento are spoken on both sides of the island but on the French side, knowing a few words of French or having a dictionary handy will make your visit more enjoyable.
Currency: Euros and US dollars are accepted across the island.
Getting There: Sunwing, Air Transat, Westjet and Air Canada fly direct to Princess Juliana International Airport, Sint Maarten. Flying time is 4.5 – 5 hours from Montreal or Toronto. Other airlines such as American Airlines offer easy connections via Miami International Airport.
Official Sint Maarten Tourism (Dutch): en.vacationstmaarten.com
Official Saint Martin Tourism (French): www.stmartinisland.org
Long-Stays for Snowbirds
One of the many joys of retirement is the opportunity to stay longer at your chosen travel destination. It’s even economical: the longer you stay, the lower your cost-per-day becomes. Saint Martin’s reputation as a safe, secure Caribbean island makes it an especially popular choice for snowbirds.
Flights: While travellers on a one-week vacation often choose to book their Saint Martin hotel and flight as a charter package and stay at popular hotels such as Divi Little Bay and the Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort in the heart of the action, there is a growing trend towards longer stays, particularly among French Canadians and retirees. Frequent flights to Saint Martin mean you’re not limited to one or two week charters. You can stay a month or even longer.
Accommodation: If you’re considering a long-stay, you can choose a condo, a timeshare or even a villa with all the amenities. Princess Port de Plaisance is a luxury, all-suite resort with garden or water views from each of the studio, one or two bedroom suites plus full-size kitchen appliances. Some wheelchair accessible suites are available. Or, for extra value try an efficiency low-rise apartment in Orient Bay on the French side of the island. Accommodation is surprisingly affordable and even if your property isn’t oceanfront, it will likely include a day pass to a nearby beach club with loungers for the duration of your stay. The real estate agency Cap Caraibes offers something for every budget from cliff top condos to cozy apartments. Visit www.foncia-capcaraibes.com.
Food and Shopping: Older adults often have special dietary needs (low sodium, low fat, heart-healthy or diabetic) that make dining in a restaurant every night a challenge. One of the benefits of staying in an efficiency unit (apart from the money-saving advantages) is being able to plan and prepare your own meals. Unlike other Caribbean islands where grocery shopping options can be limited, Saint Martin offers open air markets, small Mom and Pop shops and large supermarkets like Le Grand Marché where you can pick up fresh produce, Dutch cheese and even French champagne.