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SINT MAARTEN/SAINT MARTIN

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Virtual Tour:  Caribbean  St. Martin  

Duty-free shopping has turned the island into a virtual mall. The nightlife is among the best in the Caribbean, with lively happy hours and casinos galore. Sunshine is pretty much guaranteed year-round on St. Martin, so you can swim, snorkel, and sail almost any day. The island's 36 white-sand beaches remain unspoiled, and the clear turquoise waters are even more enticing.

For an island with a big reputation for restaurants, hotels, and energetic nightlife, St. Maarten is small -- only 96 sq. km (37 sq. miles), about half the area of Washington, D.C. An island divided between the Netherlands and France, St. Maarten (Sint Maarten) is the Dutch half, and St. Martin is French. Legend has it that a gin-drinking Dutchman and a wine-guzzling Frenchman walked around the island to see how much territory each could earmark for his country in a day; the Frenchman walked farther, but the canny Dutchman got the more valuable piece of property.

The divided island is the smallest territory in the world shared by two sovereign states. The only way you'll know you're crossing an international border is when you see the sign BIENVENUE PARTIE FRANCAISE, attesting to the peaceful coexistence between the two nations. The island was officially split in 1648, and many visitors still ascend Mount Concordia, near the border, where the agreement was reached. Even so, St. Maarten changed hands 16 times before it became permanently Dutch.

Returning visitors who haven't been to the island for a while are often shocked when they see today's St. Maarten. No longer a sleepy Caribbean backwater, now it's a boomtown. Duty-free shopping has turned the island into a virtual mall, and the Dutch capital, Philipsburg, is often bustling with cruise-ship hordes.

Although the island's 36 white-sand beaches remain unspoiled, much has been lost to the bulldozer on St. Maarten. This is not a place for people who don't like crowds, so if you want to get away from it all, head to the nearby Dutch islands of St. Eustatius (Statia) and Saba (or choose another getaway, such as the British Virgin Islands). Even the French side of the island would suit you better. Nevertheless, despite problems like crime, occasional storms, traffic congestion, and corruption, St. Maarten continues to attract massive numbers of visitors who want a Caribbean island vacation with a splash of Las Vegas.

The Dutch capital, Philipsburg, curves like a toy village along Great Bay. The town lies on a narrow sand isthmus separating Great Bay and the Great Salt Pond. Commander John Philips, a Scot in Dutch employ founded the capital in 1763. To protect Great Bay, Fort Amsterdam was built in 1737.

The French side of the island has a slightly different character. It's been undergoing a building boom of late, with lots of new hotels opening, but for now at least, it's still sleepier than the Dutch side. Most hotels tend to be quieter and more secluded than their Dutch counterparts, and you won't be overwhelmed with cruise-ship crowds. There are no dazzling sights; there's no spectacular nightlife. Even the sports scene on St. Martin isn't as well organized as on many Caribbean islands (though the Dutch side has golf and other diversions). Most people come to St. Martin to relax on its many white-sand beaches and to experience "France in the tropics."

French St. Martin has a distinctly French air. Police officers, for example, wear k?pis. The towns have names like Colombier and Orl?ans, the streets are rues, and the French flag flies over the gendarmerie in Marigot, the capital. It also boasts some of the best cuisine in the Caribbean, with an extraordinary number of good bistros and restaurants. Advocates cite French St. Martin as distinctly more sophisticated, prosperous, stylish, and cosmopolitan than its neighboring d?partements d'outre-mer, Guadeloupe and Martinique.

French St. Martin is governed from Guadeloupe and has direct representation in the government in Paris. The principal town on the French side is Marigot, the seat of the sub prefect and municipal council.

Marigot is not quite the same size as its counterpart, Philipsburg, in the Dutch sector. It has none of the frenzied pace of Philipsburg, which is often overrun with cruise-ship passengers. In fact, Marigot looks like a French village transplanted to the Caribbean. If you climb the hill over this tiny port, you'll be rewarded with a view from the old fort.

About 20 minutes by car beyond Marigot is Grand-Case, a small fishing village that's an outpost of French civilization, with many good restaurants and a few places to stay.

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