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Magestic St Maarten

Natanga Smith

Magestic St Maarten

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On my way to St Maarten for the first time there were a couple of stops on my LIAT flight before I got to my final destination but who can complain when you are landing in different islands and seeing such beautiful countryside sceneries in Dominica, St Vincent and St Kitts.

Travel to St Maarten was for work but I got a little bit of play there. St Maarten, of course, is sold as a one-stop shop and why not, as it is a two-for-one island. There is a French part (St Martin) and a Dutch part so there are two Mothers’s Days, two carnivals, two governments, two police forces and two hospitals.

I stayed in the Dutch part, and with work out the way I was able to go on a tour around the island and take in some shopping, some dining out and one dip in the ocean.

Terry the tour guide from Thomas Transportation and Tours was a wealth of knowledge on:

History of both sides of the island: Mother language is English but Dutch side speaks dialect called papimento and the French dialect creole.

Money: Dutch uses the Antillean guilder and French, the euro

Food: Over 300 different restaurants but I had the best food from the Lolos (more on that later)

Transportation: Bus goes district to district and taxis can be taken if you have the cash.

Housing: Lots of small fishing villages with wooden homes. New developments of condominiums, palatial two-storey homes, timeshares and hotel resorts.

Education: There are only two colleges so many students go overseas to finish their education. Every French district has its own school.

Leaving from the Dutch side to go to the French side, Terry filled us in on St Martin as we drove through some sections.

The No. 1 sport is baseball and there are eight different stadiums that also accommodate basketball and volleyball.

Simpson Bay Lagoon overlooks three different nations and I can see Anguilla, the Dutch island of Saba and the luxurious playground of the rich and famous – St Barts.

We venture to the French side, crossing a border where the marker was stolen by some unknown culprit. Travelling deeper into the countryside we pass pickup trucks going from village to village selling produce and fruits.

The island doesn’t produce much, so boats from other islands arrive with fruits and other necessities while local fishermen and butchers provide meat. The marketplace is in the French capital Marigot.

Salt was the main income earner during days of slavery but that way of life has since dried up, literally, but the memory remains as there are many salt ponds and monuments depicting how the salt was harvested and one remaining salt grinder.

Tourism is the main income earner and on that day there were eight cruise ships in port. We continue, venturing into the French quarter called Orleans and we almost get caught in a funeral procession, with the mourners walking and dancing behind the coffin on its way to the church.

We stop at a nude beach to refresh our thirst and go on a bathroom break. We are now in Grand Case, a small fishing village, and pass goats, sheep, cows, horses and long stretch of beaches. There is an oyster pond and an iguana park but they were both closed for renovations.

We didn’t stop at Fort Louis Marina nor the huge West Indies shopping mall with high end French restaurants and cafes.

Since we want the local experience we go to Low Town, so called because the next street was High Street with the fancy places.

In the Lolos are many shacks selling local food done on the spot – fish, chips, burgers, ribs . . . the variety on the menus was vast. Everyone seems to know everyone and the atmosphere was warm and friendly.

We pass the gendarme relaxing. They are French military police that take care of law and order and get rotated every six months while the local police take care of traffic.

Bellies filled, the group went back through the French side and this time we get to the route marker that says “Welcome to St Maarten” and we stop to take pictures for posterity.

No trip is worth it without some shopping and Philipsburg is where I went. Again two streets: Front Street which resembles Broad Street (high-end brands of Michael Kors, Gucci, there was even a Little Switzerland) and Back Street which is a mirror image of Swan Street with shops selling African fabric, souvenir T-shirts, liquor, makeup, perfumes and every electronic item ever made.

I said au revoir to St Maarten after five days (yes, I am two-word fluent in French), and as the LIAT flight climbed above the clouds, I snapped pictures trying to hold onto the memories. As the view disappeared I made a silent promise that my next visit will be longer.