Just as Great Britain is divided into countries, each with a unique personality and culture, so the tiny island of St Martin in the Caribbean finds itself divided into two. In the north, the French hold court with their 60 percent of land, and in the south, the Dutch with their larger population hold onto the smaller end. The divide is one of the most fought over separations of any sea island, and with the constant battles and continued threat of attack, St Martin has developed a history that fascinates the tourists who travel here from around the globe.
No one’s exactly sure how the divide came about in the first place. Local folklore tells tales of a competition between the French and the Dutch to find the centre of the island. Each country chose a walker and set them off from either end, heading towards the centre. When they met, the boundary line was drawn and it was sometime afterwards that the realised the divide was uneven. The Dutch blamed the French for cheating, while the French claimed the Dutch walker had actually been drunk on local spirits. But whatever the real reason for the divide, this island now has two distinctly different personalities to behold.
The Dutch like to party, so their half (or slightly less than half) of the island is given over to casinos, nightclubs and a heady concoction of locally produced guava berry alcohol, which may or may not be based on the same drink that kept their champion walker from getting to the centre of the island. There’s a very festive air here, in keeping with the rest of the Caribbean, and it offers a lively place to holiday. Heading over to the French side and things are a little different. The cuisine here is a French-Caribbean mix, the preferred beverage is unsurprisingly wine, and beaches here are more likely to be nudist-friendly. As holidays go, this island is the perfect destination, offering everything from cultural holidays to motor yacht charters, and what can only be considered a very unique blend of qualities.
These two unique halves do share a few commonalities though. English is the preferred language wherever you go, although the accents and colloquialisms are very region-specific, they share their use of the American Dollar, particularly since the Dutch tender ceased to exist in 2012, and they also share one very interesting airport. The Princess Juliana airport is located on The Dutch side, and so close to the sea that incoming craft pass within a few metres above sunbathing tourists. Take-offs can be equally as dramatic, and have become somewhat of a local sport, with fool-hardy tourists clinging to the chain-link fence at the end of the runway until the force of the starting jet engines blows them back onto the sand. The French side of the island does have its own airport serving different airlines, but it’s nowhere near as dramatic as the beach flyovers at Maho.
Surrounding the island of St Martin are some of the most picturesque reefs and bays in the Caribbean, and they’ve become a mecca for tourists and marine biologists who come to sail the waters and dive into its crystal clear depths. Some of the world’s most unusual fish can be found near the coral walls around the south of the island, and if you’re lucky enough to head out on one of the many Caribbean sailing vacations that charter from here, be sure you’ll have the chance to enjoy some snorkelling on your trip.
Byline: Fiona Galloway is a travel writer who writes about Caribbean sailing vacations.