French Dutch St Martin Travel Article

Dual nation St Martin – Sint Maarten… a melting pot of inhabitants

French Dutch St Martin article written by Active Caribbean Editor & Travel Writer Linda Jackson

The dual nation island of French Dutch St Martin (French St Martin, Dutch St Maarten) is a melting pot of inhabitants. Expect delicious French cuisine with a tropical Caribbean twist and French joie de vivre, Caribbean style.

Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Caribbean Sea to the west, and sited 150 miles southeast of Puerto Rico, the unique French Dutch St Martin dual-nation island is just over nine miles long and eight miles across at its widest.  Amicably shared between the French and Dutch, the island is now home to a melting pot of inhabitants, nearly 100 different nationalities, using the common languages of English, French, Dutch and Spanish plus the island’s unique local Creole dialect, Papiamento – a form of Creole indigenous to the Dutch Antilles, a term derived from the old Spanish verb papear meaning to converse – thought to have been a secret language shared among the slaves when they didn’t want their shons (owners) to understand them.

History of the Caribbean island of French Dutch St Martin

Discovered by small bands of Amerindians who left South American shores in dug-out canoes thousands of years ago; by Christopher Columbus in 1493; by the Dutch, Spanish, French and British colonisers from the 15th to 18th centuries, and latterly by millions of holidaymakers, the small Caribbean island of St Martin has had a turbulent past.

First came the Arawak settlers from South America around 3,500 years ago (dated by ancient relics), with more arriving around 800 A.D; but their peaceful farming and fishing society was all but annihilated by Carib Indians long before Europeans began to explore the Caribbean in the 15th century.

Spied, named and claimed by Christopher Columbus on 11 November 1493 – St Martin’s Day – the island became a Spanish territory but was not considered of any significance to Spain.  However, it did become significant to the French and Dutch who were busy colonising strategically-placed islands in the Caribbean.  The Dutch, wanting an outpost halfway between their Brazil and Nieue Amsterdam (New York) colonies and with an interest in St Martin’s salt-pans, founded a settlement on the island in the early 17th century; with the French and British following in their footsteps – much to the chagrin of the Spanish who wanted to maintain their control of the salt trade.

Dutch French St Martin inhabitants stop squabbling and share island

The Dutch settlement was attacked and fell to Spanish forces in the mid-17th century and other colonists were driven away, but after only fifteen years the Spanish abandoned the island – it was no longer profitable and their interest in defending it had waned.  The French Dutch St Martin inhabitants soon re-established settlements and, rather than going to war with each other for the island, signed the Treaty of Concordia in 1648 – dividing the island in two.

Finally, after many years of conflicts and border changes, the Dutch (aided with their decision by the presence of a fleet of French naval ships sitting offshore) settled for 16.5 square miles and the French 20.5 square miles.

About the Dutch French St Martin island – amicably shared in the Caribbean

Towns on the French side still retain a distinct French flavour but are fused with West Indian charm; seafront cafés could well have been uprooted from the south of France, and some bakeries are typically French.  Apart from two “welcome” signs, “Bienvenue en Partie Française” and “Welcome to Dutch Sint Maarten, N.A”, there is no visible border between each half of French Dutch St Martin but it’s clear once the border into the Dutch half has been crossed. Street signs change from French to Dutch, low-rise boutique hotels are replaced by high-rise blocks, and that French je ne sais quoi is noticeably missing.

Sightseeing in the Caribbean – what is there to do in French St Martin?

Meander along the picturesque waterfront and narrow streets of lively Marigot, the capital of French St Martin, and its duty-free shops.  There are designer shops in the modern ‘le West Indies Shopping Mall’, and small boutiques and classy jewellers along Rue du General de Gaulle in the centre of the town.  Although touristy and somewhat crowded when coach loads of passengers from cruise ships turn up in search of souvenirs, T-shirts, brightly-coloured clothing, shining conch shells and locally made crafts, the lively daily market is engaging and colourful (although stall owners are not at all happy having their photographs taken without permission, and some demand hefty fees for the privilege!). The best time to visit the bustling market is when the fish, fruit and vegetable markets also come to town (Wednesday and Saturday mornings), when every spice under the sun can be found as well as locally-produced psychedelic-coloured liquors made from guava berries.

Attractions and things to do in St Martin

Climb up to Fort Louis.  It was built in 1765 to protect Marigot from the British.  To get there from the seafront head down Rue de la République and take a left, the path to the top starts at the Sous Préfecture building.  The steep uphill climb is rewarded with beautiful sweeping views of the bustling town, marina, shimmering turquoise lagoon and far beyond.

Boasting 37 sun-kissed, palm-fringed white sand beaches and crystalline waters, you’ll be sure to find a beach on the island to suit your mood.  Hire a car to best discover the contours of the island, the hills and plains, the sea and lagoons, and numerous palm-lined beaches.  You’ll find family-friendly beaches (Galion, Friar’s Bay); great beaches for surfing (Baie de l’Embouchure, Wilderness), for partying and water-sports (Baie Orientale). There are also beaches that are wild (Îlets Pinel, Tintamarre), deserted and relaxing (Baie Longue, Baie aux Prunes), for nudists (one end of Baie Orientale) and, so very French, beaches lined with gourmet restaurants (Grand Case).

All the things we at Active Caribbean love about eating out in France are here in French St Martin – despite being some 4,000 miles away from France.  For a casual day at a lively beach (music, water sports, an abundance of sun-beds) head for the Baie Orientale.  Eat under the shaded awnings of restaurant Waikiki Beach; the rum punches are good, the crawfish kebabs even better.  For ambiance, a lively evening, and a street full of restaurants, head for the gourmet village of Grand Case. Here you can really savour the French joie de vivre, Caribbean-style.

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