Where over the world say, where
you find an island there,
So lovely small with nations free,
With people French and Dutch,
Though talking English much,
As thee Saint Martin in the sea?
I arrived late to the island of Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten due to a six-hour flight delay. It was raining. I asked the Frenchwoman who drove me to my Airbnb rental how the French and Dutch on the island get along. “Hmph,” she replied.
French and Dutch imperialists once fought over this Carribean island. Now they share it. Saint-Martin, the French side, has a population of 36,000; Sint Maarten, the Dutch side, 40,000. The combined population is spread over 33 square miles. The border is open.
Sint Maarten, along with Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands, is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Saint-Martin is part of the French West Indies.
On the French side, the natives speak French and English. The currency is euros. The atmosphere is quaint and refined. Every conversation starts with a cheery “Bonjour!” Girls in bikinis buy baguettes at bakeries. The towns roll up their streets around 9 p.m.
On the Dutch side, they speak Dutch and English and accept both U.S. dollars and Dutch guilders. Much of Sint Maarten feels like a mini-Vegas with casinos, strip clubs and late-night sports bars.
Like Lennon and McCartney, the two sides may be better together than apart.
Day One: On the first morning, I explored Marigot, Saint-Martin’s capital, where I was staying. The narrow one-way streets are lined with colorful shops and congested with traffic. A man walked along followed by a horse. Chickens roamed freely. The restaurants have French names and menus. I ate breakfast at La Vie en Rose café, facing the harbor. My only choice: omelette or crêpe.
The disparity between the wretchedly rich and the wretchedly poor in “paradise” is blatant. Million-dollar yachts bob in the harbor, while island natives live in shacks. Tourists bargain-shop for expensive designer jewelry and clothing, while locals hawk made-in-China straw hats and coconut meat. Yet, the two are inextricably linked. Tourism employs 85% of the labor force.
In a rented car, I drove north, past Marigot to Orient Beach. Young daredevils zoomed down the center stripe of the main road on motorbikes, as if the white line was their exclusive traffic lane. Orient, the tourist beach, was covered in seaweed and brimming with sunbathers and swimmers. A line of restaurants offered free Wi-Fi with chair and umbrella rental. At the far end was a well-designated nudist section. Local natives walked through the throng, selling hats, scarves, jewelry. The coconut man pushed his wheelbarrow.
I shouldn’t share this story. As I walked through downtown Marigot after my birthday dinner, I realized I didn’t know the electronic code to the gate into my apartment complex. There is quite a lot of security in place: a code to get through the gate, a key to get into the residential area and another key to get into my apartment on the third floor. I had the keys but forgot the code. I knew it involved four digits, some combination of 8, 1 and 0. I punched every combination I could think of. None worked. I would have called the manager and asked for help, but I intentionally left my phone behind when I went to dinner. Other than attempting to check into a hotel for the night, I could only think of one other solution–climb the spikey eight-foot-high iron gate.
I planned my moves ahead of time–where to place my feet. One step onto the lower crossbar, one onto the handle, then to the top bar, over the spikes carefully, one onto the handle on the other side, then a jump to the ground. The street was dark. Traffic was light. I waited until there were no passersby, then went over. If someone had seen me, I imagine I would have appeared to be a burglar. A little dangerous, but scaling an eight-foot security gate felt like a celebration of my sixty-fourth birthday.
Day Two: I drove around the island in the other direction, counterclockwise. A million tiny yellow butterflies filled the air like snow flurries. Boys on bicycles tried to catch them with their hands. Stopped for the view from the hill overlooking Cole and Cay bays. In Philipsburg on the Dutch side, I strolled the long boardwalk, mostly put off by the commerce. Every restaurant is pirate-themed, appropriately. The locals aggressively offer taxis, beach chairs, handmade baskets.
Further north at Oyster Pond, the hotels and condo developments blocked access to the beach. Drove to the beach at Maho Bay at the end of the Prince Juliana Airport runway–a truly crazy place. An open-air bar serves those who thrill at experiencing Boeing 747s and Airbus A340s landing and taking off just twenty feet over their heads. The engine noise is deafening. Jet exhaust sandblasts those with drinks in hand clinging to the chain-link fence at the end of the runway. Some get blown off their feet. I watched a pilot stick his hand out of the cockpit window and wave appreciatively to the crowd.
Back in French Marigot, the locals celebrated New Year’s Day with a free concert and fireworks over the harbor.
Day Three: Found the beach at Friars Bay and hiked a mile to the Happy Bay beach. Beautiful and secluded. No restaurants. Only a few people were there, half of them families and the other half nude. The French seem willing to remove their clothes at the drop of a chapeau. Saw two iguanas during the hike.
I ate lunch in Grand Case at one of the “lolos,” smoky Creole-bbq shacks with wooden picnic tables on the beach. I ordered grilled chicken with sides of mac-and-cheese, salad, beans and rice, spaghetti, potatoes and peas, cole slaw and broccoli. Lolo comes from the French lot, meaning a portion of goods or rations set aside for slaves on plantations. My lolo was called Sky’s the Limit.
At the top of the steep, single-lane, rocky road to Pic Paradis, the highest point on the island, I scrambled even higher for a spectacular 180-degree view of the whole east coast, from Orient Beach to Oyster Pond to Philipsburg.
Day Four: Saturday morning is market day in Marigot. I was up early enough to see the fisherman selling their lobsters. Climbed the hill overlooking the bay to the ruins of Fort Louis. The fort was built in 1789 on the orders of the French governor of Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélemy to defend the harbor warehouses full of salt, coffee, sugar cane and rum. Visited the beach at Baie Rouge in the afternoon.
Day Five: I walked around Marigot one last time, a quiet Sunday morning on the French side. The shops were closed. Churches propped their doors open to allow breezes inside. From the street I heard parishioners singing hymns to the accompaniment of electric organs.
After turning in the rental car, I hired a taxi to the Dutch side to board Sagitta, a sailing ship. Along the way, the driver, Gabriel, told me his life story. He is from Saint-Martin but lived for a while in Chattanooga. He showed me the building near the harbor that used to house his grade school. On hot days, the children were allowed to swim naked during recess. He showed me the cemetery where his parents, a sibling and a child are buried. “It’s okay. They are all together up above.” The man glowed with spirit. Upon parting, he extended his hand and said, “If I do not meet you again here, I will shake your hand in heaven.”
We passed Maho Bay. Revelers with drinks cheered the landing of another jet full of tourists.