ABOVE PHOTO: The Saltpickers sculpture.
By Renée S. Gordon
“If you should still ask why it is because our ancestors made history a sacred tradition.”
The perfect tour of “the Friendly Island” is easily accomplished by taking the ring road around the 37-sq. mile island. While touring you must take note of absolutely everything you see because everything has some cultural, environmental, spiritual or historic importance. This is an island that values its culture and it is apparent if you pay attention to the public art, architecture and physical features.
No physical feature was a greater determinant of its history and culture than St. Martaan’s five major saltpans. It was these pans that produced the salt that was of significant value to early settlers from 1631 with the industry dying out in the 1940s.
The Great Salt Pond, originally a circular square mile in size, was the most important. The earliest written record regarding the pond that remains is a 1778 Dutch petition requesting that the Dutch West India Company not sell any portion of the pond to a private owner. The labor-intensive job of picking the salt was reserved for slaves from the beginning and was the island’s first cash crop. The sharp chunks of salt were plucked from the pond bottom and placed in baskets for washing. Each slave was required to pick about 10 barrels daily. With slave labor the three largest saltpans were capable of producing enough salt to fill more than four boats annually.
Prior to emancipation other crops were introduced to the island. In the mid-1600s the French began to cultivate indigo for use as a blue dye. At the turn of the 18th-century cotton supplanted other crops to become the most important. Along with the growth in the cotton industry came a corresponding need for more slaves. When sugar cane became the biggest crop in the late 1770s there were nearly 100 sugar mills, the largest of which had 31 slaves and by 1830 more than half a million-pounds of sugar was produced annually. The last sugar mill ceased operation in 1895. Ruins and remnants of many of these plantations are visible today.
Many of the trees you pass are regarded as cultural monuments and symbols. It is said that the sandbox tree should never be cut down because it was the tree under which the slaves rested, sheltered beneath its leaves and the leaves of the sandbox tree are depicted on the National Flag of St. Maarten. The baobab and silk cotton trees have spiritual significance. Jumbies, spirits, are believed to live in the silk cotton tree and baobab trees, honored by the slaves, were said to house the souls of the griots, African recounters of legends, and other good people. Tamarind trees were imported from Africa in the early 1600s for their many practical uses and their fruit. In St. Maarten they were also used as markers of plantation property.
Fort St. Louis was constructed in the 1700s to protect the French colony at Marigot. King Louis XVI of France sent the plans from Versailles. A trip to the fort provides an outstanding panoramic view after an invigorating walk. Remnants of the walls and a few cannons remain.
Marigot, the capital of the French side, is nestled at the bottom of the hill leading to the fort. Within its tiny four street width there is excellent, tax-free, shopping in designer boutiques, cafés and the outdoor market on the Boulevard de France on Wednesdays and Saturdays. On a small street near the harbor is the Saint Martin Museum an important stop on the island tour.
The museum interprets the history of the island for the past 4,000-years. A highlight of the museum’s collection is a series of pre-Columbian artifacts from the Hope Estate and 2500-year old ceramics. The slavery era is also featured. Souvenirs can be purchased in the gift shop and there is a second-floor art gallery. The museum is open daily and guided tours are offered. This is a good place to begin your tour. www.stmartinisland.org
Great Bay in the south of the island was the home of two forts and two batteries. It was felt that strong defenses were needed to defend the salt shipments leaving the island. The Bel-Air and St. Peter’s batteries no longer exist. Fort Willem stands in ruins atop Fort Hill. The 1801 fort, originally called Fort Trigge by the British, underwent three name changes prior to being known as Fort Willem. The walk to the fort can be challenging but the view is superior.
Early 1600’s fortifications evolved into Fort Amsterdam in 1631, the first Dutch fort and one of the first European forts constructed in the islands. The Spanish took control shortly after the fort was built and held it until 1648. A few of the original walls still remain and the view of Philipsburg is unparalleled.
Philipsburg, located between Great Bay and the Great Salt Pond, is the capital of the Dutch side of the island. John Philips, a Scot, founded it in 1763. The city has two main thoroughfares, Back Street and Front Street, and a number of enchanting small side streets connect the two and are filled with trendy shops that offer all the major designer labels, luxurious jewelry items, cutting edge electronics and an array of eclectic restaurants.
The Philipsburg Courthouse is one of the most recognizable historic monuments in Philipsburg. A two-story building was constructed in 1793 but suffered significant hurricane damage in 1819. The structure was built originally for John Philips, island commander, and has served other functions, a jail, weigh station, trade center, etc., over the years. When it was reconstructed in 1826 it was without the 2nd-level but with the addition of a bell tower. In 1964 the 2nd-level was once again added and in 1995 the pineapple, a symbol of hospitality, was replaced on the tower.
Kangaroo Court Restaurant, situated a short walk from the Courthouse, is rated one of the top eateries on the island. The historic building was constructed out of the stone used as ship’s ballast and was once a salt storage facility. It is open for breakfast and lunch.
The Crossroads, a wonderful place for a photo op, is located on the street outside of the Guavaberry Emporium. It is a large signpost that gives the mileage from St. Maarten to numerous countries around the world. It has the effect of making you feel you are at the center of the world as St. Maarten once was.
Guavaberry is the national drink and a folk liqueur with a long history. For hundreds of years it has been the drink of choice for home brewers and in the 1900s demijohns of the liqueur were exported. The liqueur is made of a combination of guavaberries, sugarcane and oak-aged rum. The Guavaberry Emporium is situated inside a historic Dutch Creole cedar townhouse. At the emporium visitors can taste the various liqueurs and purchase any number of unique related items.
When slavery was abolished on the French side of St. Maarten in 1848 the Dutch found it increasingly difficult to enforce in their territory and the owners vacated many already difficult to manage estates. They left them to trusted slaves or in some cases former slaves were able to purchase the plantations. Several of these plantations continue to be owned by their heirs.
Loterie Farm, in Pic Paradis, is an outstanding example of this historical process and one of the most exciting destinations on the island. The former plantation was left to a former slave and the property has remained in the family, the Flemings, and been developed into a “hidden” 135-acre private nature reserve filled with natural beauty and outdoor activities. Architectural remnants are scattered around the property and hikes through the reserve reveal slave built stonewalls from the 1700s used to terrace the land, 11 wells and the ruins of a sugary. The name is a result of the plantation being won in a lottery held in England in 1721 by Richard Bailey.
An added bonus is one of the few remaining houses in St. Maarten built by architect Ali Tur. Signatures of the Tunisian architects’ style are tile floors on the exterior of the house, high ceilings and vents on top. He renovated the Palais de Justice and was the first to use reinforced concrete on the island.
In 2005 the farm created “Treetop Adventure,” a 45-minute zipline experience and in 2007 added Extreme Fly-Zone. The extreme adventure is 1.5-hours, 1,200-ft. long, 90-ft. aloft, with no option to quit. These activities are considered the most awesome on the island. Hikes of the area can be guided or self-guided and are moderate to difficult. No matter which activity you select you must include a dip in the Jacuzzi situated at the top of a free form river.
End you day with a drink and a meal at the incredible treetop level Hidden Forest Café or Tree Lounge. The food is a fusion of Caribbean and Asian cuisine using fresh ingredients. Loterie Farm has become a culinary destination. www.loteriefarm.com
The Arawak name for the island was “Qualichi,” “the Land of Brave Women.” The name is totally appropriate because it takes a brave woman to resist the temptation to spend every penny in the more than 500 quality stores on the island with discounts ranging from 25 percent to 50 percent. All import and export taxes were removed in 1939 making St. Maarten a 100 percent free port offering the best shopping in the Caribbean with prices quoted in US dollars to avoid confusion. Americans are allowed an $800 duty-free tax exemption and for the brave this can go a long way.
I can’t think of a single reason not to visit St. Martin and detailed planning information is available on the web. Be aware that the French side is spelled St. Martin while the Dutch side is St. Maarten. Either country makes a memorable getaway, wedding destination or romantic hideaway. Check it out. http://en.vacationstmaarten.com
I wish you smooth travels!
*Did you know that sapphires and rubies are the same mineral? The difference is only the color. When the stone, a corundum, is red it is a ruby. Any other color is classified as a sapphire.
What are you doing New Years Eve? If you want something a little left of traditional you can find it in Pennsylvania.
First Night® Bethlehem, sponsored by ArtsQuest, offers downtown entertainment and activities culminating in the city’s signature 85-lb., lighted, 4.5-ft., PEEPS® Chick Drop & Fireworks at 5:15 PM at Steelstacks.
Dillsburg’s signature is, you guessed it, the midnight, 18th annual Pickle Drop and 30-minutes of fireworks.
Lebanon drops a 16-ft. Lebanon Bologna at 12, Beavertown’s life-sized beaver makes a 75-ft. descent landing on the stroke of midnight and there is a list of other equally unique activities available at www.visitpa.com
If you desire an out-of-state thrill check out all the activities and events available in Atlantic City, New Jersey. www.atlanticcitynj.com/newyears.aspx
No matter where or how you spend New Years Eve I wish you the very best!
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