The Arawak named it Soualiga, the Land of Salt, and the great salt pans which they cultivated still remain on Saint Martin, enjoyed today by an amazing variety of birdlife which forms part of the spectacular Caribbean Birding Trail.
Since the 15th century this desirable island was fought over by the French, Dutch, British and Spanish, until in 1817 it was finally settled, the division allegedly decided by a Frenchman and a Dutchman walking the coastline and splitting it where they met – the Frenchman walked faster fuelled by wine rather than Dutch gin and won the larger portion. A period of American occupation during WWII saw the airport built, kick-starting the first tourist destination in the Caribbean, and today it is still a tropical hotspot offering a rich diversity of accommodation and experiences. For a taste of pure luxury look no further than St Martin beach rentals for exclusively handpicked villas across the region, rivalled to none.
Earlier this year Saint Martin took the full force of Hurricane Irma, followed by Maria two weeks later, and the French side suffered 95% destruction. Incredibly this amazing island pulled together and within days the power was on, by October the airport was reopened and the first cruise ships returned last month. The island is due to be back in full holiday mode for 2018, which epitomises the spirit of the people and love from a legion of loyal visitors who have donated and assisted directly to help get St Martins back on its feet.
It is an island of two halves – the Dutch side a fine example of commercial development – opulent hotels along picture postcard white sand beaches, large resorts, casinos and fast food restaurants. The French side is smaller scale with many owners coming from mainland France, and boasts incredible cuisine with the village of Grand Case in the north being dubbed the gourmet capital of the Caribbean – people are raving about Bistrot Caraibes, which can be summed up with the words Lobster! Lobster! Lobster!
The beaches are some of the most beautiful in the region. The famous Orient beach is a must if you like to make the most of the sun and bathe au naturel – the Naturist Club Orient is located at the south end. Temperatures range from a balmy low of 22 in January to a sizzling high of 30 in July. For those needing a bit more privacy there are many secluded coves and bays, with unparalleled opportunities to snorkel and dive, exploring coral reefs, underwater caverns and the famous wreck of HMS Pittsburg off Proselyte reef. Water taxis from the NE coast whisk you across to uninhabited islands where you can relax and enjoy a beach BBQ. Every watersport imaginable is available round the coast and in Simpson Bay Lagoon.
For an exciting experience head down to Maho Bay, passing through Saint Martin version of the Las Vegas strip lined with high rises and casinos, to discover a beach the end of the runway of Princess Julianna airport where planes pass at a height of only 100ft above the sunbathers. Take selfies next to the warning signs with plane overhead, then head down to Sunset Beach bar to calm your nerves with a sugarcane guavaberry rum liqueur and some Angry Fish Tacos.
The benefit of a dual nationality island is double the carnival – The French side celebrates a traditional creole Mardi Gras in Marigot ending on Ash Wednesday, then 2 weeks after Easter a fortnight of partying in true Caribbean style kicks off around the Dutch capital of Phillipsburg with street processions, magnificent costumes and steel drum bands. Many locals add impromptu jump-ups – bringing massive sound systems to the roadside for parties fuelled by fine home-cooked food and island rum flowing.
The Dutch capital, Phillipsburg, serves the shopping and cruise ship clientele. More commercial than quaint, top end boutiques and a wealth of lively restaurants and bars chasing the tourist dollar, it can be a bustling and heaving experience during the day when the liners pack the waterside. The town boasts a botanical garden and zoo, but perhaps one of the most unique spots is a relatively unknown gem called the ‘Planet Paradise – The Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit’. An off-beat geek paradise run by Nick Maley, who developed Yoda amongst other sci-fi classics, this not-for-profit treasury of movie memorabilia, passionately curated and presented by Nick, is straight off the block of downtown Hollywood and seems strangely incongruous, yet brilliant, on this small island.
By contrast the French capital Marigot still retains a colonial and traditional charm with remains of 18th and 19th century architecture. Weave your way down to the waterfront and head west to find small bars and lolos, food shacks, erected on the beachfront plus a bustling traditional market full of local crafts and fresh produce.
If you wish to take the island energy down a few notches you have the choice of heading inland, or hopping across to some of the least developed and breathtakingly unspoilt islands in the Caribbean – day trips to mountainous Saba, with stunning dive sites of underwater volcanoes, St Eustatious, covered in rainforest and rare orchids, or Aguilla, with stunning white beaches and bays and prehistoric petrogylphs. The seas boast turtles, dolphins and whales so spotting trips and private charters are abundant.
Journey inland just 2km to Colombier for an idyllic glimpse of rural life in the lush green interior, where cattle graze between wooden houses and plantation farms. Unmissable for nature lovers is a visit to Loterie Farm an eco-tourist utopia boasting freshwater pools and cabanas, canopy zip-wires through the hidden forest and winding trails through silk cotton trees, mango and palms. A hiking trail to the highest peak of Pic Paradis offers spectacular view across the bays and onward trails for more experienced walkers.
Saint Martin was the original Caribbean island holiday destination, designed to cater for every need. Whether recharging on a sun soaked beach, exploring nature, indulging in fine food or discovering unique wares in designer boutiques, Saint Martin may be a small island, but it really packs a rum punch.