Monday, 15 October 2012

St. Maarten/St. Martin, December 2011

And now, we move away from Europe to a small island in the northeast quadrant of the Caribbean.  Sint Maarten/Saint Martin was first settled by the Arawak Indians from South America.  They were followed by the Carib Indians who named the island "Soualiga," Land of Salt.  On Christopher Columbus' second voyage in 1493, he came across the island, opening the door for European settlement.  The first were the Dutch in the 1620's, who began to harvest the salt ponds.  The value of this commodity was widely known and the Spanish built forts in 1634 in order to ensure access to it.  During this same century, both the Dutch and the French created small settlements, eventually running off the Spanish.  On March 23, 1648, the two nations signed the Treaty of Concordia, officially dividing the island between the Netherlands and France.  Today, Sint Maarten/Saint Martin is the smallest island to be divided between two countries although the border is virtually invisible.

St. Maarten's capital, Philipsburg, is a lively starting point, housing the island's airport and cruise ship terminal.  Focused primarily on tourist traffic, we didn't hang around on this side for very long.  One of the more unusual destinations on the Dutch side, however, was shown to us by our local guide.  She is quite involved with an iguana rescue farm and made a point of taking us to see it.  What initially appeared to be a rather nondescript dusty plot of land soon revealed its hidden treasures.  Around a small pond, a number of low lying trees housed a multitude of saved iguanas.  They were camouflaged amongst the leaves on the branches so you really had to look hard for them.  In the background, the moo-ing of a nearby cow provided the soundscape.  It was loosely chained to a fence and appeared to be rather disturbed by our presence.  As if that were not incongruous enough, as we stood there, a peacock wandered out from I'm not sure where and strutted around in the dirt.  This was not your typical tour stop.

See it?

How about now?

Most of our time was spent on the French side of Saint Martin in Orient Bay.  To get there it's best to rent a car as it is about a 45 minute drive.  It is also best to make this trek during daylight hours otherwise you may just crack the axle of the car.  Much of the drive is along the Dutch side and, unfortunately, the government has not been vigilant in the area of road maintenance.  Can you say potholes?!

The French capital, Marigot, hosts an interesting marketplace right on the water.  With rhythmic Caribbean music playing, the market boasts bright and colourful souvenirs as well as numerous food offerings of local origin.

The world on this side is a much more relaxing and beautiful place.  Orient Bay is a long, flat and deep stretch of fine white powder sand.  Azure waters have active white caps causing waves to curl and crash on shore.  There is always a slight salty taste in the air and the blue, blue sky is spotted with puffy clouds and parasailers.  All along the beach, locals wander selling their wares - CD's, jewelry, hats - whatever they have.  However, inlike most tourist spots, these vendors are never pushy.

Placed along the land edge of the beach, Orient Bay is lined with local, casual eateries with little wooden huts hovering over the tables.  From these huts, you can simply walk out to soft cushioned beach chairs warmed by the sun.  These belong to the hotels on the Bay.  The only charge for the use of the chairs is for the ones closest to the water.

The other area of Orient Bay is its main square behind the beach and hotels.  There are no large resorts here so everything is in close proximity.  The square is paved with small gravel and contains numerous wooden benches and a few shade trees.  It's a terrific place for people-watching.  The "French-est" element to Orient Bay is the attention to cuisine. Lining each side of the square are outdoor restaurants.  They provide a wide array of tastes - French, Italian, Thai and more.  In addition, a few shops can be found at the far end of the square.

Orient Bay is primarily a destination for those who wish to do as little as possible.  Lie in the sun on the beach and then make your way in for a nosh.  What more do you need?

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