It is the island of superlatives in a region of extremes. St Maarten is the 37-square-mile island divided into two sides, one part of France, the other part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, making it the smallest island in the world shared by two nations.
Sixty years ago, St Maarten was a little-known stopover sandwiched between the better known islands of Antigua to the south and Puerto Rico to the north. Most of the workforce were forced to look abroad for a living, heading to the oil refineries in Aruba or by running cargo up and down the island chain. As a result, St Maarten – nicknamed the ‘Friendly Island’ – has retained a cosmopolitan mentality that hosts over a hundred different nationalities.
The biggest transformation came in the seventies and eighties, when a shrewd tourism masterplan lured tourists down from the US East Coast, marketing the island as a weekend getaway, a place in the sun for a second home, and the ideal spot to snap up a timeshare. Even though modern St Maarten boasts just one cruise ship port, two airports, and one set of traffic lights, it has nevertheless established itself as a tiny heavyweight in the Caribbean. The Heineken Regatta in March is one of the biggest events on the annual sailing calendar, the island’s abundance of high end marinas have earned it the label of ‘the megayacht capital of the Caribbean’, and over a million cruise ship passengers visit the island each year.
What are the attractions? St Maarten offers a short, sharp hit of instant fun. Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side, presents an alluring strip of jewelry stores and electronic goods. Marigot, the capital of the French side, is famous for its chic boutiques and established restaurants. Spread across the island, 37 beaches and 13 casinos cover day and night pleasure pursuits. Fly down on a Friday from the States and by sundown you can be enjoying a slice of the modern Caribbean.
Like all paradises, however, there is a shadow on the horizon. With limited space but ever expanding popularity, St Maarten finds itself choked by notorious traffic congestion that is responsible for many a nail-biting crawl along the single road that runs to the airport. Likewise, the days of locals leaving doors open are long gone – crime is a palpable factor. Possibly the biggest threat is out of the island’s hands. If Cuba opens up in the future to mass tourism, St Maarten will have a serious rival in the race to attract short stay visitors for a long weekend of abandon. In the meantime, however, this island is a little known spot, but loved with a passion by those in the know.