By Renée S. Gordon
“And some who don’t know anything at all about S’maatin shorten her history just in johnny cakes and fish”
Two nations share the 37-sq. mile island of St. Maarten, making it the smallest island in the world to be the home of two sovereign nations. Each, the Kingdom of the Netherlands and France has its own government, city services, police force, etc. This gem in the Caribbean has so much to offer, all of it easily accessible, that the list seems endless. The island is recognized as “the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean”, with more than 350 restaurants, a shopper’s paradise, with completely duty-free shopping and numerous high-end shops and the location of outstanding white sand beaches with an eclectic mix of outdoor activities. There are 14 casinos and a host of nightlife opportunities. www.experiencestmaarten.com
The island is not only filled with options for a wonderful vacation but also has the advantage of being an ideal hub for exploration of nearby islands. The ferry makes island hopping easy and visitors can be in Anguilla, St. Barths, Saba or St. Eustatius in less than an hour.
St. Maarten’s written history begins on November 11, 1493 when Columbus sighted the 37-sq. mile island during his second voyage. Had he landed he would have encountered the Carib Indians who had inhabited the island they called “Soualiga,” “land of salt.” For more than 2,000 years the land was occupied, first by the Ciboney (3250 BC), then by Amerindians, Arawaks and finally by the Caribs. He claimed the land for Spain and named it St. Martin because it was the day of the Feast of St. Martin of Tours.
The Spanish maintained a nominal hold on the island and this allowed a small French group to occupy land in the French Quarter in 1629. The Dutch gained a foothold in 1631 after having landed on the island in 1624 and seeing the salt pond. Using 40 enslaved Africans they constructed a defense system at Great Bay Harbor and picked salt from the pond. Two years later the Spanish sent 53 warships to successfully retake the island.
Ultimately the French and Dutch joined forces to drive the Spanish out and in 1644 the Spanish abandoned the island. It is believed that eight men, four Dutch and four French, one of which was a black man, hid on the island. In all probability there were also slaves who escaped and hid until the Spanish left. The Treaty of Concordia was signed on March 23, 1648 and stated that the French and Dutch would partition the island, share the natural resources and “live as friends and allies.”
The division of the island was as remarkable as the treaty. One Frenchman and one Dutchman started out in opposite directions from Oyster Pond. The Frenchmen took wine and the Dutchman took beer. It appears that the beer had a greater effect than the wine and the French ended up with the larger portion of the island, 21-sq. miles, and the Dutch the smaller, 16-sq. miles. In spite of the treaty the boundary was not officially set until 1817 and the island has changed hands 16 times since the 1600s.
The earliest settlers brought in slaves to cultivate the crops and work in the salt ponds. Just as slavery existed from St. Maarten’s beginnings, so to did the slaves spirit of rebellion. The island has a strong history of revolt and escape. The slaves who fled their owners were called maroons. They established communities in inhospitable places where it was difficult to recapture them.
Maroons were so problematic that in 1734 special laws were passed to outline the treatment of the “maronnegers.” The French abolished slavery in 1848 and the Dutch in 1863. At the time of emancipation 90% of the population was of African descent. After slavery was abolished workers were imported from China and India. The result of this infusion of people was a diverse culture that exists in few other places. There are 109 nationalities represented on the island today.
One of the legends to emerge from the slavery era is that of One Tété Lohkay a tenacious and defiant slave woman who toiled on a plantation in the south part of the island. She fled her life of servitude and was hunted down. Upon her return to the plantation she was flogged and one of her breasts was removed, hence the name One-Tété, and she was warned that another attempt would result in the removal of her other breast. As soon as she was able to stand she ran away again, this time successfully. She managed to live alone in the hills and the slaves believed that the smoke they saw rising in the morning as they left for the fields was the result of her campfires. Their knowledge of her success gave them hope.
Although there are few tangible testaments to St. Maarten’s African heritage it is apparent throughout the island. One need look no further than the slave built stonewalls that line the roads. These walls were built to separate the plantations. The most famous of these walls was constructed in 1772 to definitively mark the boundary between the two nations. It still stands between Marigot and Cole Bay. The Border Monument was erected in 1948 to commemorate 300 years of peace between the French and the Dutch.
A narrow waterway in the Oyster Pond area separated the French and Dutch territories. When slavery was abolished by the French the Dutch slaves would often attempt to cross the stream knowing that the French would not recapture or return them to the Dutch, nor would the Dutch try to recover them from French territory. Many slaves were shot as they tried to make the crossing. Today visitors can make the historic crossing via a wooden bridge.
Emilio Wilson Historical and Cultural Park was developed as a place to preserve and present the island’s cultural heritage. Until a recent hurricane it featured reconstructed slave quarters and an 1863 house constructed by former slaves. A bust of Wilson, grandson of a slave, is located on the property that he purchased in 1954 for $14,000 for the purpose of creating the park.
The Butterfly Farm, La Ferme des Papillons, is located in St. Martin near Orient Beach. This delightful attraction, a huge greenhouse with winding paths, waterfalls and a tiny bridge, invites you to explore the fascinating world of butterflies. Tours are partially self-guided and in the narrated portion of the tour you observe the life cycle of butterflies as you learn about metamorphosis and the characteristics of the individual types as these colorful creatures swirl freely around you and amidst the flowers. Photography is encouraged. The farm is open seven days a week and your admission is good for the duration of your vacation. www.thebutterflyfarm.com
It is no surprise that the island has beaches but what is so surprising is the number and quality of beaches, 37, each with its own personality. You would have to visit a beach a day for more than a month to experience them all however there are four that visitors should not miss.
Dawn Beach, as its name implies, is a great place to watch the sunrise and catch early morning glimpses of St. Barths. You can snorkel the reef, swim or simply soak up the sun.
Orient Beach Bay has been listed as the “Most Beautiful Beach in the Caribbean.” If its powdery white sand is not a big enough draw there is always the long line of restaurants, delineated by their colorful umbrellas, lining the shore. A section of Orient Beach is clothing optional.
One of the most fun spots on the island is Maho Beach and no visitor should leave before sharing in the fun. From a spot on this beach at the end of the airport runway you can almost touch the airplanes as they fly overhead. The experience can be so intense you will need a drink at the famous onsite Sunset Bar.
If it is seclusion you are seeking head for Happy Bay Beach. It requires a drive to Friar’s Bay and then a hike but it really is a special place.
St. Maarten makes a perfect backdrop for a wedding or renewal of your wedding vows. It has often been the choice of the rich and famous, most recently that of Evelyn Lozada. The island is a perfect choice for a destination wedding and the planning and details can all be taken care of for you. Sint Maarten Marry Me is the largest destination wedding company on the island and they specialize in customized weddings. Their motto, “If you can dream it we can do it,” says it all.www.sintmaartenmarry-me.com
A favorite venue for weddings is the Westin St. Maarten Dawn Beach Resort & Spa and it offers ideal accommodations for travelers. Its 317 guest rooms feature all the standard amenities as well as luxurious extras such as Westin’s Heavenly Bed and Heavenly Bath. Additionally rooms all have breathtaking views and are decorated in lush tropical colors and hung with artwork that evokes a Caribbean vibe. Aura, the 4-star restaurant, is renowned for its dining experience and Ocean Restaurant gets special kudos for its Sunday Champagne Brunch.
The Hibiscus Spa offers a stunning palette of services including their signature Hibiscus Rain Shower Ritual. Guests can select from beautifying, pampering and relaxation treatments. www.westinstmaarten.com
There are direct flights to St. Maarten from Philadelphia and this is a perfect time to make plans for that special 2013 vacation. All the information you need to get started can be found on the website. http://en.vacationstmaarten.com
I wish you smooth travels!
Now is the absolute best time to visit the National Christmas Center, deemed by the Travel Channel to be one of the “Most Christmasy Places in America.” Highlights of the 20,000-sq. ft. venue are the “O Holy Night,” “Christmas Around the World” and an authentic 1950s Woolworth’s 5 & 10, complete with merchandise. You will love tis place. www.nationalchristmascenter.com
One of the most exciting places to be to ring in 2013 is Washington, DC. And The Liaison Capitol Hill, an Affinia Hotel, is currently offering a package that just made it a more affordable possibility. This appealing New Years Eve package includes a luxurious accommodations, a 3-course meal at Art and Soul, complete with music, late check-out and a “Hangover Kit” to help your transition from party-mode. Menus, prices and details are available at www.Affinia.com/nye13