St Maarten/St Martin is a unique island. It is home to two countries that share the same name – one half French, one half Dutch.
As the only place in the northern Leeward Islands with a large airport, it has become a popular tourist destination. Large cruise ships also dock in Philipsburg releasing their hoards of passengers loose on the duty free shops in the town. Trump even has a residence on the island (which he is now selling).
Touching down at the airport, the first impression you get is of the beautiful blue waters that seem to surround the runway on all sides.
Dangerous past times
St Maarten’s Princess Juliana Airport abuts the sea at Maho Bay. Everr day large Delta and American Airlines flights, as well as a number of smaller charter flights land every day. But in doing so they hover mere feet above the beach where sunseekers lay out on their towels.
It has become a bit of a sport to snap a selfie with an incoming plane or try to resist the winds generated by the engines of large planes when they take off. Many participants get blown down the beach and into the crystal waters.
Hills and beaches
The island’s topography is also unusual. It contains a number of inland bays and lakes that were once used in the production of salt. Today these make it a popular sailing destination, providing a safe haven from the open waters.
As a former volcanic island beautiful beaches at Mullet Bay, Orient Bay and Happy Bay are offset by the cliff sides of Point Blanche and Fort Hill. The drive from Maho to Philipsburg takes you from the beachside up over the high hills above Indigo Bay. Its undulating landscape also makes it a great spot for ziplines.
Legend has it that the dividing line between the two halves was determined by a drunken bet.
A Frenchman and a Dutchman were to get drunk on their national tipples (wine for the Frenchie and genever for the Dutchie) then set off from their respective capitals on foot, following the coastline. Where they met would be the start of the border line. However, on account of the Dutchman falling asleep and being distracted by the attentions of a lady, and the Frenchman cutting a corner, the French have ended up with the lion’s share of the island.
The border line is marked simply by a welcome sign. There are no customs or immigrations requirements between the two parts of the island.
This is an unusual arrangement as while St Maarten is considered a country in its own right by the Dutch and does not have a formal relationship with the EU, St Martin is part of a French overseas collectivity with St Barts and is an OCT associated with the EU.
Is there anywhere else you can enter an EU country so easily from a non-EU one?
The island is vulnerable to hurricanes, and despite its inland bays that provide some protection, many buildings and boats sustained significant damage from Hurricane Irma. Buildings in Maho Bay, Philipsburg and Marigot are still being reconstructed.
I took a walk around the airport one day and came across a number of wrecked and abandoned boats, including one that looked like an old pirate galley ship, that were waiting to be salvaged or reclaimed.
What we did in St Maarten
We stayed in an all-inclusive hotel in Maho Bay. The area has has easy access to the beaches at Mullet Bay, Maho Bay and Simpson Bay.
The easiest way around the island is by the buses that pass by every few minutes and cost only a couple of dollars to get where you need. A sign in their window tell you where they are going. Taxis have a fixed price, which is fixed at $20.
Amazingly, because of the EU connection, we had access to our free data roaming on F-Orange, which worked on most of the island. Philipsburg however seemed to be a bit of a mobile black spot for me.
I took a couple of day trips. The ferry to St Barts takes 45 minutes and costs around $85 return, and the ferry to Anguilla takes 20 minutes and costs $20 each way, plus exit taxes on each side. Both islands were very different. St Barts is like St Tropez transplanted onto a hilly Caribbean island, popular with celebrities. Anguilla is much more laid back flat island with gorgeous broad white sand beaches and a cuople of famous BBQ joints. The blue of the water in both places is unreal.
I was also working whilst I was there so spent a lot of time in a small cafe in Maho called Cape Cafe. They have good wifi, serve good coffee, smoothie bowls and have freshly baked cookies and pastry. What more could you want?
I haven’t been to a place quite like St Maarten/St Martin, and while it has a lot to recommend it, it is mcuh more of a mass tourism place. My choice in future would be to spend more time in Anguilla or St Barts.