St Martin: an island like a new world

One small island, part Dutch, part French, where everyone speaks English, spends US dollars, and dances to salsa and bachata — that’s the puzzle of St Martin, where many worlds meet and mingle. Montague Kobbé explains its unique charms

Philipsburg, capital of Dutch Sint Maarten, stretches between Great Bay and Great Salt Pond. Photo by Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.comThe gorgeous sea off Cul-de-Sac, a village in French Saint-Martin. Photo by Bcampbell65 / Shutterstock.comL’Escargot, a culinary institution in Philipsburg. Photo by Onfilm/iStock.comThe island’s markets are an extravaganza of produce and spices. Photo by Sprada/iStock.comSt Martin has beaches for every taste — from secluded hideaways to busy watering-holes. Photo courtesy Sint Maarten Tourist Office

Sitting at the Tropicana, my favourite bistro in Marigot’s Marina Royale, awaiting my moules flown in that day from France, sipping my glass of Sancerre shipped all the way from the Loire valley, dreaming of the local banana rum I’ll be having with dessert, enjoying the tropical heat tempered by the breeze blowing in from the sea, I think to myself, this is what this island is all about.

The marina almost looks like it’s been taken from a brochure of Caribbean clichés: tucked into a naturally sheltered corner of the huge Simpson Bay Lagoon — the most singular topographic feature of the island of St Martin — it forms a neat, self-contained square of interlocking pathways tiled in terracotta and laid out around the perimeter of the waterfront like the arcades of a cloister. Three of its four flanks are populated by unassuming traditional buildings which house the boutiques, gift shops, galleries, and restaurants that give this quartier its distinct feel. In the shadow of the dramatic hills above, street traders crowd the pedestrian alleys with souvenirs and craftworks, while curious tourists try to figure out whether they should feel annoyed by the inconvenience of having to negotiate their way through the narrow and cluttered paths, or glad to be given the chance to find a special something on their way to their restaurant of choice.

You might argue, of course, that all these tourists would enjoy a more genuine St Martin experience if they bought a bowl of whelk or bull-foot soup in a plastic container from a street vendor by the side of the road to Cole Bay — and such succulent temptation would indeed be hard to resist. But the truth is that neither of the two options is more authentic than the other — because those are precisely the two antithetical poles between which St Martin is constantly oscillating, the boundaries that contain this island’s seemingly conflicted identity: an eminently provincial metropole, a truly diverse outpost deep in the periphery.

Historically, there is good justification for this phenomenon: from the earliest days of Dutch interest in St Martin, all the way back in the 1630s, what most appealed to the Dutch West India Company was the island’s location as an effective stopping point halfway between its newly acquired possessions in northern Brazil and the already established colony of New Netherland in North America. Alas, the island that eventually emerged as the true transhipment centre in the region was neighbouring Sint Eustatius, while St Martin was left to plod along with the times.

Inevitably, St Martin was caught in the middle of the fracas that dominated Caribbean colonial history, until a seemingly irrelevant development at the start of the eighteenth century left its mark on the island forever: the Peace of Utrecht at the end of the War of Spanish Succession awarded the French portion of Saint-Christophe, modern-day St Kitts, to the British in 1713. So what? you might ask. So consequential, is the answer: because from that moment on the French possessions in the north-east Caribbean — Saint-Barthelemy, Saint-Martin, and Saint-Croix — were all effectively left orphaned. Hence the British, who had already recorded their interest in St Martin by invading it first in 1672 and then in 1690, would be allowed to extend their influence on the island without having to officially annex it.

Fast forward a few centuries, and you’ll find that the dominant language in a territory that for over three and a half centuries has been governed jointly by French and Dutch authorities is still, to this day, English. Nor is this the only aspect of St Martin’s identity that has been Anglicised: through a completely different set of mercantile rather than historical circumstances, in the land of euros (French Saint-Martin) and guilders (Dutch Sint Maarten), it is undeniably the US dollar which is king. This palpable North American influence can be traced to the vastly increased volumes of visitors arriving from the United States since the great boom of resort tourism hit St Martin in the mid 1970s — and, more emphatically so, since the port of Philipsburg became a regular destination for cruise ships in the 1980s and early 90s.

 

Philipsburg itself, capital of the Dutch side, the largest town on the island, a Mecca for the hordes of shopaholics (almost two million yearly) descending from the cruise ships, owes its name and current layout to a British sailor. John Philips, a Scottish captain in the Dutch navy, became commander of Sint Maarten in 1735, and promoted a series of initiatives that included modernising the town at the foot of Fort Amsterdam, on the narrow strip of land between Great Bay and the Great Salt Pond. Thus, if Marigot is the quintessential French colonial town, with its quaint architecture and narrow lanes named after the principles of the Revolution (Rue de la Liberté, Rue de la République), Philipsburg is a monument to the Protestant values of simplicity and practicality, in which the two main thoroughfares, intuitively named Front Street and Back Street, reveal themselves as the perfect playground for bargain-hunters in the land of duty free.

Quite apart from haggling — or parallel to it, if needs must — Philipsburg presents an opportunity to enjoy a surprisingly diverse array of dining options, from the traditional L’Escargot, by now almost an institution in town, to the delicious Anand Indian restaurant. But testing the gastronomic offerings of a place that prides itself on its culinary quality and tradition takes longer than a day. Indeed, it would be criminal to conclude any visit to St Martin without strolling along the single lane of bars, restaurants, and bistros that adorn the coastline of Grand Case, on the north-west end of the French side. By night, the atmosphere here is unlike anywhere else on the island, as boutiques and shops open late to cater for guests on their way to dinner. By day, the scents and colours emanating from the street market are extraordinary, and when they blend with the smoky trail of fresh fish and lobster being grilled in the open air, it all becomes a literal feast.

While on the topic of feasts, it’s worth noting that celebrations in St Martin are also often dual. That’s the case with Carnival, which on the French side corresponds to the traditional pre-Lenten festivity, and consists of a full week of bacchanal culminating in the Mardi Gras parade. Dutch-side Carnival, meanwhile, seems to be designed specifically to carry on liming through the period of Lent, as it stretches from mid April to the closing ceremony in the first week of May, during which a huge human effigy is set ablaze in what is traditionally known throughout the Dutch Caribbean as the Burning of King Momo.

 

The rule of dual celebrations is broken, though, with the island-wide commemoration of the abolition of slavery on 27 May. The history of slavery in St Martin is peculiar, not least because the system fell of its own weight in 1848. When news arrived in the French Antilles that the February Revolution had overthrown the Bourbon monarchy in France, and that committed abolitionist Victor Schoelcher was included in the new government, unrest spread among the labour force at unstoppable speed. In Martinique, a massive demonstration on 22 May resulted in the death of over one hundred people, enslaved Africans and colonists alike. Emancipation was proclaimed by the authorities the following day in Martinique, and four days later, on 27 May, in Guadeloupe, to which French Saint-Martin had been officially annexed in 1763. The news didn’t arrive in St Martin, however, until sometime in early July, by which time the local enslaved Africans had seized their freedom by force. Though the Dutch government was not ready to join the abolitionist bandwagon, maintaining the bond of slavery on the Dutch half after abolition on the French proved simply impossible. Thus, the close to two thousand labourers who worked on the Dutch side of the island remained enslaved mostly in name, while the abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies on 1 July, 1863 — so momentous for other colonies — was so meaningless in St Martin that today the date isn’t even recognised as a public holiday.

In many ways, this illustrates the essence of St Martin, an island constantly being pulled by the forces of global affairs, an island where even the most universal of concerns acquires an eminently local visage. St Martin’s identity, St Martin’s culture, is varied and diverse, plural and multifarious. It allows for figures such as Roland Richardson, the island’s most celebrated painter, whose plein air technique is reminiscent of, but also radically different to, that of the great Impressionist masters. And it appropriates figures such as Antoine Chapon, a French artist who has embraced St Martin to such an extent that his paintings could only, really, be from this island.

It is encapsulated in the indigenous dance called the Ponum, a slow-paced celebration to be savoured in its own gentleness, a performance of relief that dates back to the days of emancipation and is said to have been danced by enslaved Africans around a flamboyant tree. At the same time, it is reflected in the bachata and merengue that over the last few decades have taken the island by storm, in the soca and calypso that are part of the heritage of this region, in the vallenato and reggaeton and the salsa and cumbia that on a nightly basis set the world — this world — alight.

 

For decades now, people have travelled in great numbers to St Martin from all over the world. The overriding reason is the extraordinary quality of its beaches. Graced with over thirty beautiful bays, St Martin is one of those rare destinations where seclusion and entertainment coexist peacefully. Perhaps the most gorgeous and also the most popular of St Martin’s beaches is Orient Bay, on the French side, with its clothing-optional policy and staggering choice of watersports activities. With the exception of stunning Cupecoy Beach, clothing is compulsory everywhere on the more family-oriented Dutch side. If the Robinson Crusoe in you is gagging to express himself, remote Geneve Bay lies at the end of a one-hour hiking trail from squally Guana Beach. If, instead, your inner self is more like Robert Redford in Havana, phenomenal Friar’s Bay (Anse des Pères) has a charming beach bar where you can relax and take it all in.

And yet, if over the course of many years people from the world over have been coming here for the beaches (and the shopping, and the dining, and the atmosphere — not for nothing is this known as “the friendly island”), the reason they keep returning is that they find their very world palpably present, but reinterpreted in this island. St Martin is, above all and perhaps more so than any other island in the Caribbean, the product of a rich and constant mishmash of cultures and influences — a place where guests from all corners of the planet can lose themselves, but also recognise themselves, a place where a plate of mussels and a glass of Sancerre acquire a different taste, exist in a different context, but exist nonetheless.

In other words, this is an absorbing island that welcomes its guests and uses them to create what ultimately is nothing other than a world of its own.

 

One island, many names

Called Soualiga (“Land of Salt”), or perhaps Oualichi, by its indigenous inhabitants, St Martin was given its modern name by — who else — Christopher Columbus, who’s supposed to have arrived here in 1493, on his second voyage to the New World. Sighting the island on 11 November, the Roman Catholic feast of St Martin of Tours, Columbus christened the island for the fourth-century bishop.

The northern, French side of the divided island is officially the Collectivité de Saint-Martin, and the southern, Dutch territory is Sint Maarten — only thirteen square miles in extent but a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, alongside Aruba, Curaçao, and the Netherlands itself. But geographers use the English version of the name — plain St Martin — to refer to the entire island.

 

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