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All about St. Martin


OK, so buy one island and get one free. That is to say, St Martin is a French enclave just north of Dutch St Maarten. It's like being in a mini-Europe with coconut trees. If you tire of Franco-Dutch ambience, there is a ferry to British Anguilla and transportation to other Dutch islands as well as once-Swedish St Barts.

St Martin/Sint Maarten is the official Franco-Dutch name for this Caribbean Eden with a wonderful split personality. Both nationalities live together peacefully, and there is no hassle when you cross the island's international borders.

According to local folklore, the island is mostly French because a Frenchman could hold his liquor better than a Dutchman who fancied gin. The story goes that the Dutch and French decided to divide the island by means of a boundary-setting foot race starting from Oyster Pond. A Frenchman, fuelled with wine, and a Dutchman with a flask of gin, circumnavigated the island and where they met became the jurisdiction division line. When the race was over, France laid claim to 21 square miles and Holland got only 16 square miles.

As one might expect in France - and St Martin is officially a part of France - the food is French, fresh and fantastic. There's nothing finer than fresh-caught tropical fish in whimsical bistros, brasseries, and sidewalk cafes alongside duty-free shops, galleries, and bakeries where even the Dutch drive up for fresh-baked pastries and baguettes. Marigot - it's a Creole word for marsh - has one of the busiest and most picturesque of Caribbean public markets. This lively spot opens at 6am, and produce comes in from as far away as Dominica. At 1pm it's all over, and vendors dismantle their lively tableaux of spices, fruits, vegetables, fresh fish, crafts, t-shirts and colourful textiles. Climb 91 steps to the ruins of Fort Marigot and get an overall glimpse of one of the Caribbean's most mind-blowing seascapes. Marigot is sophisticated, tres chic and tres Francais. As in mainland France, dogs are welcomed guests all over town, even in restaurants.

Changing marshland into world-class resorts is one of the special wonders of modern-day tourism. All French Caribbean islands have settlements named Marigot. The gayest section of Paris is Marais, and yes, it means marsh. Miami's South Beach is a swamp-based landfill. Nassau's bustling Bay Street, and much of princely Monaco rose from land reclaimed from the sea.

And then there is St Martin's famous Orient Bay. That's where you can legally go starkers. Best refer to this beach as "clothing optional." Words like naked, nude, or nudist are considered to be a bit tacky.

Mango-lovers will have a field day, literally, at Mango Grove, an area known for its mango, almond and guava groves. The French side of the island has several working farms. French St Martin also sports a butterfly farm, where you can see
about 40 species of butterflies from around the world.

North of Marigot is Pic du Paradis, or in English: Paradise Peak. It rises to 1,260 ft and offers, on a clear day, panoramic views of St Barts, Anguilla, Saba, and assorted smaller isles.

Other St Martin options include: duty-free shopping for French luxury items, water sports, scuba diving, golf, horseback riding, tennis, and side trips to the shops and tourist attractions on the Dutch part of the island. You might even spot a fake windmill.


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