Often referred to as the Caribbean island with a "split personality," St. Maarten/St. Martin--half Dutch, half French--offers cruise passengers the travel equivalent of a "two-for-one" special at their favorite store: two destinations, but just one stop.
A popular port of call on Caribbean voyages--St. Maarten/St. Martin welcomes 1.3-1.4 million cruise passengers per year, according to the St. Maarten Tourist Board. About the same number arrive by plane into the Princess Juliana International Airport, but whether they arrive by sea or by air, visitors experience double the pleasure in this dual nationality island paradise that was created in 1648 when Dutch and French citizens undertook a legendary foot race in opposite directions to divide the island.
The arrangement of boundaries agreed to between the Dutch and French became official with the Treaty of Concordia that same year. The same treaty also proclaimed that both sides would "co-exist in a cooperative manner," which the two sides have done to this day.
There are no border crossing formalities here, so visitors are footloose and fancy-free as they explore both the French and Dutch sides.
A tour of the island can begin with the Dutch side, at the capital of Philipsburg. It's a city that brims with duty-free shops along the main thoroughfares, Front Street (and yes, Back Street). The shops sell Dutch Delft china and all manner of imported goods including Japanese cameras and Swiss watches. Visitors often make a stop at the Guavaberry Emporium, housed in a former synagogue on Front Street, to pick up a collector's hand-painted bottle of the liqueur and shop for island spices and sauces. Guavaberry is a tasty souvenir (the national folk liqueur of St. Maarten) made from oak-aged rum, cane sugar and wild guavaberries--a rare fruit that is found in the hills in the center of the island. The guavaberry has been around for hundreds of years and is mentioned in old folk songs and island stories.
On Front Street the most prominent landmark is the historic Courthouse, a white wood structure topped with a cupola that dates back to 1793. Also of interest on Front Street is the St. Maarten Museum, with pottery from the island's first inhabitants, the Arawak Indians; antique maps; and a display featuring forts built on both the Dutch and French sides.
Ruins of two historic forts guard the entrance to Great Bay in Philipsburg: Fort Amsterdam, built on the western edge of the bay in 1631 and reportedly the first Dutch fort in the Caribbean, and on the eastern edge, the remains of a Spanish fortification built during Spain's brief occupation of the island.
Other attractions on the Dutch side include a small zoo with local fauna and flora north of the Great Salt Pond, restaurants, casinos and, of course, the beaches--with Dawn Beach being an excellent choice for snorkeling. Cruise passengers can opt for a water taxi ride from the cruise ship piers (or a walk or a regular taxi ride) to get to the closest beach, nearby Great Bay Beach in Philipsburg.
Beaches on the French side are idylls, particularly the ones at Baie Longue and Baie Rouge in Terres Basses in the westernmost part of the island, where the La Samanna Hotel, arguably the most famous resort on the island, is located. An Orient-Express property, La Samanna has welcomed such celebrities as Kevin Kline and Harry Belafonte. Its whitewashed buildings are nestled on 55 acres of sugar-white-sand beachfront. Amenities include tennis courts, swimming pool, a spa, fitness center and water sports.
Orient Bay is another popular beach in the French side--where incidentally, there is a clothes-optional section.
Marigot, the French capital, is quaint, with a picturesque port and marketplace, galleries featuring the work of local artists, and boutiques selling French perfume and fashions. Restaurants abound, including some open-air eateries where you can enjoy a meal alfresco--perhaps some fresh-caught seafood--with views of the ocean.
Excursions to neighboring islands like St. Barts and Anguilla are available by boat, both from Philipsburg and Marigot.
The Butterfly Farm (La Ferme des Papillons) on Le Galion Beach Road in the Quartier d'Orleans in the French side of the island is an enchanting side trip passing gardens and meadows filled with hibiscus, bougainvillea and flamboyant--it is a convenient stop on return trips from Marigot to Philipsburg. Opened in 1994, the attraction has a large meshed structure with tropical gardens, ponds, waterfalls and hundreds of butterflies, including exotic Blue Morpho specimens from the Amazon. Guided tours are offered at the farm to see the various stages of the life of the beautiful insect: egg, caterpillar, pupa and butterfly.
Lines that call on St. Maarten/St. Martin include Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, Disney, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, SeaDream, Silversea, Star Clippers, and Windstar.
IF YOU GO: For additional information on St. Maarten/St. Martin, visit www.st-maarten.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun