French side. Dutch side. Lagoon. Marigot. Crossing borders on the dinghy…. What the hell are you talking about.
I hear ya…. We have travelled some pretty cool places and I have resisted posting history or in depth information about those islands as it seemed like I would just repeat Wikipedia. However.. St. Martin is a little different, it has such and strange and interesting history that I thought I would dedicate a blog post to it. I know there are more than a few readers that have been here on a cruise ship. I promise to do my best to show you a completely different side of St. Martin/Marteen!.
So lets first start with the history. Although St. Martin/Marteen today is Dutch and French territory it was not originally. Originally the Spanish whooped the Dutch and held St. Martin/Marteen for almost 15 years. Once the 80 year war ended the island was no longer required for its military value and it had little economic value. As such the Spanish abandoned the island in 1648. The French and Dutch quickly moved back in and settled the island. While there were initial skirmishes and fights, both sides realized the loses would be too great if they kept fighting. So in late 1648 they signed the Treaty of Concordia and split the island in two. However there is a cute story they tell cruise ship people about a drunk Frenchman and a drunk Dutchman that raced around the island to determine the boundaries. The Dutchman was held up by a girl for some sexy time and this is why the French have a bigger portion. Although it’s a cute story, its completely untrue. Those that had the bigger guns got more land (the French).
Moving into more modern times (the 19th century), St. Martin/Marteen suffered economically well into the 1900s. In 1939 St. Martin/Marteen was declared a duty free port. This move began a small boon to the economy but not enough to turn it around. Eventually the Dutch realized that tourism was the path to the future and began supporting and promoting tourism in the 1950s. The French were busy drinking wine and enjoying beaches and didn’t start working on tourism until the 1970s (with the standard French half-assedness) . As such the Dutch side is much more built up and modern than the French side. In fact the Cole Bay area on the Dutch side feels like you are in Miami or any other big coastal city in the USA/Canada (casinos, fast food, and luxury condos). It was during this rise in tourism that people realized the potential of the lagoon in the center of the island. Up to that point, the lagoon was mostly a mangrove swamp surrounded by a few beaches and used by local fisherman. The marshy inlet used to traverse between the lagoon and the Caribbean sea was dredged and a drawbridge installed. Eventually the French caught up and installed a channel of their own with their own draw bridge. This created a very protected place for ships, boats and cruisers to hide and enjoy some calm water. However it also created notorious traffic problems until the new causeway bridge was opened in 2014. Until the causeway bridge opened the only way to the airport was over the St. Marteen drawbridge. More than a few flights were missed over the years due to bridge opening and closing delays. Another major issue this caused was pollution. Since the lagoon was opened to the sea, it now became common practice for the sewage pipes to lead into the lagoon. This has lead to parts of the lagoon having some of the highest concentrations of bacteria in the Caribbean waters. Unfortunately its not an easy problem to solve although they are working on it.
I hope that little bit of history helps readers understand how cool and unique St. Martin/Marteen (really Sint Maarten in Dutch) really is! One final thing to understand is that the French side of the island is considered EU territory. As such anyone with a passport issued from an EU country can work here. This has led to St. Martin being a kind of “catch basin” for cruisers. Many arrive with intentions of just staying a few weeks but end up staying years. We have spoke with cruisers that have been here 5,6 and even 9 years. The ones that have been here 9 years originally intended to be here for 2 weeks to complete some repairs.
We are now anchored in the center of the lagoon (referred to as middle ground) and can be in 2 unique cultures with just a 10 minute dinghy ride (right or left). Head one way and you are in a decidedly French culture. French signs, food, architecture and language. Even the bank machines spit out Euro as currency. Head the other way and 10 minutes later you are in a completely different world. Burger King, McDonalds, Casinos, SuperYatchs and large posh boat stores with countless doodads to pull money from your wallet. On that side of the island the bank machines dispense either Netherland Guilders or good old fashion “Freedom Bucks” (aka US greenbacks), your choice.
The really interesting thing is that the Party of Five crew seems to prefer the French side much more. Its dirty, beat up and gritty however it somehow feels like home to us now. Its only been a year but we have somehow become acclimated to the culture. We just feel more comfortable walking the unpolished streets with cracked sidewalks, shuttered buildings (from the 1800s), while catching snatches of French that we only 1/2 understand!
A funny story.. We actually headed to the Carrefour Supermarket on the Dutch side earlier this week. Upon walking in, I almost had a break down episode as I stood staring at shelf after shelf of every conceivable product that could be carried. Seriously the Carrefour rivals ANYTHING we have in Canada. They carry not only French brands but brands from North America (Bush Beans, Häagen-Dazs, Clamato, Mr & Mrs T’s) At the end of our shopping trip I felt exhausted and longed for the much smaller but more than adequate Super U on the French side. Making all those decisions is exhausting. Instead of grabbing a loaf of bread and moving on, I had to look at 14 different brands before deciding.. Sigh!
Anyway… Here are some pictures for you to enjoy!
This picture is to give an overview of St. Martin. The North is the French Side, the South is obviously the Dutch Side. The one unmarked arrow is where Party of Five is parked. The “Howell-Center” is where the Super U is located. The red line is our sailing path originally into Marigot Bay! From where we are parked, we can get anywhere in the lagoon in a 10 minute dinghy ride (shorter if there is only one in the dinghy).
The new Causeway bridge. Its pretty cool to see her open. She lifts up on those 2 pillars and rotates creating 2 openings (just like a hi-way).
A very typical street on the Dutch side. Scotia Bank this way. Burger King the other way. Seriously it feels just like parts of Vancouver, except all the paint is falling off the cars! (a funny aside.. Once we got south of Key West it became apparent that paint manufacturers suck. No paint lasts over 6-7 years).
Rhonda and Quincy waiting for me to come back from the bank. Super modern marina.
Well hell.. The Caribbean looks good on me (ignore the little beer pouch forming). Please don’t yell at me for not wearing the kills switch.. I just forgot on this trip, usually its always on!
Ahh the luxury condos!
Entering the town on Marigot on the lagoon side (there are 2 sides, ocean and lagoon). I really should have posted the picture right before this as I’m just passing a sunk boat on the right (remember a little gritty, dirty and unpolished). Look close, scroll up and look at the Dutch side, the boats are all organized in marinas, orderly and tidy. Here, mooring balls are haphazardly strewn to the right and left of the channel. Some boats are too big for the balls they are on and actually touching balls behind them. In a word, chaos..
Typical street in Marigot.
Pretty sure the trademark laws don’t extend here, or its not worth their time.
No idea what this building used to be. I just thought it was interesting and wondered why it was boarded up