Caribbelgium–It’s Better On The French Side

“Caribbelgium is what this island ought to be called,” writes Correspondent Paul Lewis, continuing his New Year’s Caribbean cruising.

“Half-French and half-Dutch, St. Martin or Sint Maarten has no internal frontiers, and its two linguistic communities mix freely, united by a common ability to speak English, run duty-free shops, and extract money from visiting cruise-ship passengers.

“If only Belgium’s perpetually feuding French- and Dutch-speaking communities could make common cause like those of St. Martin or Sint Maarten.

“Legend has it the island was discovered simultaneously by Dutch and French warships whose captains, with improbable good sense, decided not to fight over it.

“Instead, they agreed to set off on foot in opposite directions to see how much land they could cover in a day and claim for their respective countries. Impaired by a heavy beer intake, the Dutch captain was able to claim only 16 square miles, against 21 square miles hiked by the more sprightly Frenchman.

“Philipsburg on the south coast is capital of the Dutch half. It boasts an 18th-century courthouse with a pineapple on top and has a shipyard doing repairs. Otherwise, the town is made up mostly of duty-free shops, sheltered by a line of palm trees, selling the usual selection of watches, clothes, and jewelry.

“Neither in the capital nor elsewhere in the Dutch half is there the faintest hint of Dutchness. In smarter areas, the shops and malls seem transported straight from Florida. Elsewhere, Dutch Sint Maarten seems rundown and poor, with tiny, decrepit houses and narrow bumpy roads.

“French St. Martin, on the other hand, is better organized and definitely French.

“The postage stamp capital of Marigot has everything you would expect a French town to have–a Boulevard de France; an Avenue Général de Gaulle; a Prefecture; a Hotel de Ville; gendarmes riding bicycles along its miniature streets; and, above the town, a tricoleur fluttering from the ruins of Fort St. Louis.

“In an elegant little wooden marketplace on the waterfront painted blue and white, native island women sell fish, fruit, vegetables, long sticks of cinnamon, and mysterious potions in reused bottles. Hippy French vendors are moving in on them, setting up rows of stalls selling the usual tourist nonsense–homemade jewelry and printed clothes from China. Not all is lost, however. The Marigot waterfront still has airy French-colonial restaurants, offering real bread, grilled shrimp, and cold rosé wine.

“Unfortunately, bottom line, neither Sint Maarten nor St. Martin is particularly attractive in a part of the world that is still very attractive. But of the two, St. Martin is definitely better.”

Kathleen Peddicord

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