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The Americas & Caribbean

About St. Martin

A lush and picturesque island shared by two nations, St. Martin is a fascinating mix of French and Dutch cultures. The Dutch side of the island is dotted with resorts, while the French side exudes the romance of a quaint village. Together, the two halves make for one wholly impressive Caribbean destination.

On November 11, 1493—the feast day of St. Martin of Tours—Columbus sighted the island and claimed it for Spain, naming it in honor of the Catholic saint. Yet he never set foot on St. Martin, and as Spain made little effort to colonize it, the island remained relatively untouched by Europeans.

That changed in 1631, when the Dutch founded a settlement near what is now Philipsburg and began mining the island’s plentiful salt deposits. Awakened to St. Martin’s economic potential, the Spanish—already at war with the Dutch—fought to control the island. When the Eighty Years’ War ended with a Dutch victory in 1648, Spain surrendered the island.

While the Spanish and Dutch had been fighting, the French had established their own outpost. The Dutch opted for a different approach this time: In 1648, the two countries signed the Treaty of Concordia, agreeing to share the island. The French took the northern portion, establishing Marigot as their capital, while the Dutch controlled the southern part from Philipsburg. Although the boundaries between them would change 16 times over the next 140 years, the two nations proved able to coexist amicably, giving rise to St. Martin’s nickname: the “Friendly Island.”

St. Martin Lifestyle and Culture

In addition to salt mining, early settlers grew cotton, indigo, tobacco, and sugarcane. Colonists relied on slavery to grow its economy until the mid-18th century, when both nations abolished the practice.

This history is reflected today in the island’s rich cultural pastiche. Most natives of St. Martin consider themselves Creole, tracing their lineage to both European and African ancestors. Though French, Dutch, and English are the official languages, Creole patois is widely spoken. There’s even a distinctive Creole-style architecture, consisting of small but sturdy, brightly painted wooden buildings with decorative gingerbread trim.

The people of St. Martin exude a leisurely pace typical of the Caribbean. The island is also known for its robust arts scene. Its idyllic landscapes have attracted scores of painters, photographers and sculptors, many of whom welcome visitors into their studios. Others showcase their works at the island’s numerous galleries, many of which can be found in the French-side enclave of Grand Case.

St. Martin Sights and Landmarks

The bustling port of Philipsburg consists of a narrow strip of land wedged between tranquil Great Bay and the Great Salt Pond, where the Dutch West India Company began its lucrative salt-mining operations in the 1630s. Now a bird sanctuary, the pond’s earlier economic importance is attested to by the abandoned salt factory still standing on its shores.

Fort Amsterdam, built in 1631, lies on a peninsula west of the capital, between Great Bay and Little Bay. Though little remains of the stronghold today, it’s worth visiting for superb views of Philipsburg, the glimmering sea and neighboring islands.

Philipsburg’s St. Martin Museum (Sint Maarten Museum) offers an in-depth look at the island’s history. Exhibits here include pre-Columbian Arawak pottery; objects recovered from the Dutch frigate HMS Proselyte, shipwrecked in 1801 in Great Bay; and artifacts from the salt-mining and plantation periods.

On the French side of the island, the village of Quartier-d’Orleans is steeped in French charm and the capital of Marigot, known as the “Caribbean Paris,” boasts quaint cafés serving heavenly baguettes and pastries. And for grand panoramas of the island’s turquoise coast and long beaches, the island offers many lookout points, including Hope Hill, Paradise View and Rotary Lookout Point.

St. Martin Entertainment and Activities

St. Martin is known for its picture-perfect beaches—nearly 40 in all, each with its own unique atmosphere. On the Dutch side, crowds gather at Maho Beach to watch jetliners arrive and depart at the adjacent airport, while Dawn Beach is the preferred place to catch a spectacular sunrise. On the French side, Orient Beach features nearly two miles of velvety white sand, and is a popular site for parasailing, waterskiing and snorkeling, while Anse Marcel Beach is known for its calm, crystalline waters.

Once a humble fishing village, the French capital of Marigot captivates with its continental charms. Just four streets wide, it’s filled with cozy boulangeries fragrant with the aroma of freshly baked croissants, and sidewalk bistros ideal for people-watching and savoring a café au lait. Along the harbor, vendors sell fresh produce, just-caught seafood, flavored rums, spices and handicrafts in the town’s festive open air market. Overlooking it all is Fort Louis; St. Martin’s largest historic monument, the stalwart French garrison was built in 1789.

St. Martin Restaurants and Shopping

Widely regarded as the culinary capital of the Caribbean, St. Martin is home to more than 400 restaurants, ranging from no-frills lolos (open air barbecues) and casual cafés to elegant, refined establishments. Combined, they offer innovative menus that masterfully blend French, Dutch, Creole, and Indian flavors.

In Philipsburg, the husband-and-wife proprietors of L’Escargot have been serving up fine French cuisine—including the eponymous escargot, available in six different preparations—for more than 40 years. You can dine with the locals at the Greenhouse, a lively and laid-back waterfront restaurant offering scenic views of Philipsburg’s harbor. The eclectic menu includes quintessentially Caribbean dishes like conch fritters and Cajun Cognac grouper, as well as steaks and sandwiches.

On the French side of the island, Grand Case, renowned for its gastronomic delights, is home to more than 70 restaurants. At Le Pressoir (“The Press,” a nod to the island’s history), you’ll find dishes such as tandoori frog legs and conch tortellini, accompanied by excellent wines. Le Ti Coin Créole serves Caribbean favorites like accras (cod fritters), curried goat and sweet potato pudding.

St. Martin is known for its superior shopping. In Philipsburg, high-end boutiques on Front Street sell jewelry, designer fashions, electronics and locally produced items such as hand-rolled cigars, hot sauces, and the island’s signature liqueur, made from aged rum and wild guavaberries.