Saint Martin

Saint Martin

The island of Saint Martin sits near the center of the Caribbean Arc, a curving archipelago of volcanic islands formed at the juncture of the Atlantic and Caribbean tectonic plates. Basking in a tropical climate that makes it a dream destination all year long, Saint Martin’s coastline is an endless series of small bays with 37 beaches, it’s said, one for each of the island’s 37 square miles, It’s paradise for lovers of water sports: sailing, surfing, windsurfing, kite surfing, parasailing, sea kayaking and ocean fishing, snorkeling and deep sea diving—and all this in the middle of a protected ocean reserve where, depending on the season, you might see whales or dolphins. Not to mention the simplest, but no less delectable, pleasure of farniente—doing absolutely nothing, on the soft white sand.

Some islands are more welcoming than others, and Saint Martin is one of them. Divided since 1648, on southern side it’s Sint Maarten, and belongs to the Netherlands; the slightly larger northern side, Saint Martin, is French. Part of the overseas département of Guadeloupe, in 2007 the French section of the island became a collectivité d’outre-mer, a change in status that gave it more autonomy.

The island was originally settled, around the year 800, by Arawaks from South America, followed in the 14th century by Carib Indians. It was discovered on Nov. 11, 1493 by Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage to the New World. He didn’t bother to disembark, but promptly named it for Saint Martin of Tours, whose feast day it happened to be. The usual scenario followed, with the native population gradually decimated. A century and a half later, in 1648, after the island had changed hands many times, it was divided between the two nations who had settled it. In order to determine the border, the best runners from the two settlements raced toward each other, and the frontier was fixed at their meeting point. Apparently the French runner was faster—French Saint Martin measures 20 square miles, while Dutch Sint Maarten has only 13.

In those seafaring days, Caribbean islands changed hands quite frequently. Saint Martin was periodically occupied by the English, during which time its inhabitants took refuge in one part of the island or the other, or fled to neighboring isles (while their slaves remained in the same place, and only changed masters).

Today, of course, the border is purely symbolic and is marked only by a simple sign. Many of the planters over the years were English, which explains why English is spoken throughout the island. French, Dutch and especially Creole are spoken everywhere, almost indiscriminately, on both sides.

Sugar cane and salt

The island’s landscape is hilly, and its highest point, the Pic Paradis in the middle of the island, proudly stands at 1,391 feet. Except for a single village in the mornes, the low mountains in the island’s interior, the towns and hamlets are scattered along the perimeter, near the beaches bordered by coconut palms.

Although the island has no fresh water source, during the 18th and early 19th centuries it was nevertheless transformed into productive farmland by hard work and tenacity. The indigo plant, which produced a dye used for naval uniforms, was once a principal crop, as were cotton and, later, sugar cane—grown on plantations that used slave labor. Livestock was somehow raised too, and the island’s immense salt fields were exploited—salt was “white gold”, highly prized by the Dutch for preserving herring. (Salt was so important in the island’s history that the Caribs had named it Soualiga, or “Land of Salt”.) Another historically important product, now also abandoned like the others, was arrowroot, a rhizome used to promote healing, whose starch was also an important food ingredient throughout the Caribbean. But today the agricultural fields have almost all been abandoned, and nature has retaken the land.

Tourism, in fact, is now the island’s main industry, but the two sides offer very different experiences. In Sint Maarten, enormous cruise ships and immense hotels attract mass-market vacationers who come to enjoy the sun and the shopping advantages of a free port. In Philipsburg, the Dutch capital, electronics shops stand side by side and tourists line up to buy the latest camera or cell phone—the fact that they come with no guarantees doesn’t seem to bother anyone. As a bonus, a few chic boutiques pop up here and there.

In Marigot, the capital of the French side, it’s the luxury boutiques that vie with each other to tempt shoppers, but the shopping area is not very extensive, and the rounds are quickly made. Visitors here seem more interested in enjoying the douceur de vivre of this family destination, at once chic and relaxed, and truly much more appealing than the Dutch side.

Beaches and butterflies

If politically Saint Martin is divided north-south, geographically it’s divided east-west, with the much larger Grandes-Terres area on the east and the smaller Terres-Basses on the west. They are linked by very narrow strips of land that enclose Simpson Bay, a large inland body of salt water, part pond, part lagoon (and also half-French and half-Dutch, split lengthwise right down the middle).

Visitors can explore the island’s interior on foot or horseback, and a climb up Pic Paradis offers exceptional views over the tropical forest and the coast. The eastern coast, bordered by the Atlantic, on the windward side, gets the warm and humid trade winds, and is greener. The western side, bordering the Caribbean Sea, is drier.

Just off the Pic road, the Lottery Farm is a former plantation turned nature preserve, with thousands of trees and plant species, along with iguanas, monkeys, mongooses, parrots and delicate hummingbirds.

At Galion, the Ferme aux Papillons is a garden with ponds and a small waterfall, where dozens of species of butterflies flutter freely. Those who prefer wide, restaurant-lined beaches where water sports abound should head for Orient Beach, whose sand is so white it’s nearly blinding. Its large bay is flanked by an island on either side, and soft winds temper the implacable sun.

But no matter what your chosen pleasures, no visitor should miss spending an evening in the village of Grand Case. By day a very peaceful place, with pretty, colorful little houses, Grand Case cuts loose in the evening with an abundance of local music and a plethora of open-air restaurants serving all sort of grillades. The plates are plastic and the beer is swigged from the bottle, but the ambiance is unbeatable.

Lobster and champagne

On the same side of the island but farther northeast lies Anse Marcel, reachable by land or by sea. Imagine an arc of coastline so nearly enclosed that it feels protected from everything. Hillsides dense with vegetation slope down into the sea and a long spit of sand creates a beach well-sheltered from the wind. A hotel there, the Domaine de Lonvilliers, was bought recently by Christophe Leroy, who transformed it with a seductive French touch. A native of Normandy, Leroy has been a well-known figure in Saint-Tropez for 20 years. Originally chef at the Château de la Messardière, he opened his own restaurant and gourmet grocery, La Table du Marché, near the Place des Lices and with talent, flair and hard work gradually enlarged his territory, to Ramatuelle, Avoriaz, Marrakesh and now Saint Martin.

The architecture is best described as neo-Creole, and the rooms all have sea views. But guests may find they spend little time there; the ambiance of the beach is too delightful. Found at the end of an allée of royal palms, it seems all sweetness and light. No shouting, no background music, no brightly colored beach chairs or umbrellas to clash with the surrounding greenery and the transparent turquoise water. Swimming here is perfect: there are no rocks or seaweed, and swimmers reach deep water quickly so they can swim close to shore. There’s no crashing surf either, because the cove is protected by the natural barrier formed by the island of Anguilla in the distance. The water temperature is pretty perfect, too.

Beyond the sand, a grassy lawn is an ideal spot for the large armchairs and canapés where guests gather for cocktails of fruit juice, Planter’s Punch or a coupe de Champagne. The outdoor bar has the air of a beach cabana, and in the evening the ambiance is festive, with small gazebos scattered between the restaurant and the bar, the sea and the pool—ideal for romantic diners à deux or private dinners with friends. The restaurant, La Table du Marché, offers the same dishes that made it famous in Saint-Tropez, along with Creole specialties and lobster dishes.

There’s a large pool, a fitness room and an espace beauté offering plant-based facials, massages and even sunburn treatments. Sailboat excursions can be organized from the nearby marina, and director Michael Schoonewagen watches over everything with a smile.



Area code: 590

Tourist Offices


New York 646.227.9440



Le Domaine de Lonvilliers Anse Marcel, From 235 € (low season) website

La Samanna On Baie Longue Beach, a comfortable grand hotel, surrounded by gardens, with the lagoon on one side and the Caribbean on the other. From €330. Terres Basses, Baie de Nettle, website

La Plantation Charming villas with several rooms that can be rented separately; relatively calm despite the trendy location. Pleasant bar, meals served around the pool. From €120. Parc de la Baie Orientale, website


Le Tastevin Chic spot with traditional French cuisine and top-notch Creole dishes. Excellent wine list. 86 blvd Grand Case, Grand Case,

Les Lolos A mini-chain of four typical open-air cantines serving grilled dishes. Grand Case

Waikiki Beach Local fish and Creole dishes, superb salads, legendary côte de boeuf, and also caviar and great Champagne. Baie Orientale,


Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of France Today.

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