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St Maarten

If you like quizzes, and you’re ever asked ‘Where do France and the Netherlands share a border?’ … it’s here, on St Martin/Maarten. There are border posts, but they’re rarely, if ever manned, and consists of just a shack, with a French flag on one side, and a Dutch one on the other. The Dutch part also has its own flag, but the French sector, being regarded as a part of France, does not … not an official one, anyway, although there are several unofficial ones.

If you do see a border guard at the checkpoint, it’s usually for ceremonial purposes, and a case of ‘wave, and he might wave back’

But, it’s not always been divided between the French and the Dutch. It was discovered in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, What’s the date today, he demanded of his crew.

‘November 11th, Sir! St. Martin’s Day!’

‘Okay! We’ll call it St, Martin’

Then, he took possession of it in the name of the King of Spain, (Columbus was, of course, Genoese, but the expedition was backed by Spanish money) and sailed off to see what else he could find.

However, the Spanish don’t seem to have taken much of an interest in the place, for, by 1624, the French were growing tobacco on the island and, a few years later, the Dutch had set up a colony to work the salt pans. But, in 1633, the Spanish were involved in the Eight Years War, and realised their island was in a strategic position, and asked for it back.

The Dutch and the French were soon back, though, and formalised the arrangement in 1648, with the signing of the Treaty of Concordia, which divided the island up between the two nations,

The islanders like to tell a story of how the nations divided the island by sending a soldier from each country for a walk, on a blazing summer day.

For refreshment, the Frenchman took a bottle of wine, and the Dutchman a bottle of gin. The heat of the day, and the strength of the refreshment took more of a toll on the Dutchman, so the French were able to claim a greater part of the island.

In the years between 1679 and 1816, the island changed hands at regular intervals between the French and the Dutch; even the English took possession for a short while. This was a common story on many islands in the Caribbean, for these were troubled times, and several powers vied for military and naval power in the area.

In 1816 affairs settled down, to the situation that prevails nowadays. The French part (St. Martin) uses the euro as currency (technically, it’s a DOM, and as much a part of France as a Parisian suburb) and the Dutch part (Sint Maarten) uses the Netherlands Antilles guilder … although, in practice, the US dollar is widely accepted.

On our recent cruise, we visited St. Maarten twice. We’d docked at Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch part of the island. We were rather impressed with the ‘cruise terminal’, which is really just a complex of shops and bars. But, we didn’t pay much attention to these, as we were going to return to St. Maarten later in the cruise. We did, however, note an internet café, where wifi was on offer at a reasonable price,

We were bussed to Grand Case, on the French part of the island. Without stopping, we passed an unmanned border post which consisted only of a little shack and a raised barrier.

It’s probably the policy of most cruise lines to keep their clients above the surface of the ocean. But, today’s excursion took us under the waves. The semi-submersible was waiting for us here, and we cruised for about 45 minutes, observing coral, fish and turtles. I did wonder, did it actually semi-submerse, or did it just have a viewing chamber in the bilges?

All too soon, the cruise came to an end, and we were taken to Marigot, the capital of the French side. Here, we spent some time browsing around the ‘shopping centre’ … which was, in reality, really a collection of colourful stalls selling souvenirs.

On the way back, we got stuck in a traffic jam for a short while, right beside some trees where the guide pointed out iguanas. We couldn’t get off the bus to photograph them, because it was likely to move off at any moment. But, we had a go through the bus windows. The result was just satisfactory

On our second visit, we moored alongside the Norwegian Getaway, which we last saw through a restaurant window on a rainy day in Southampton …and if anyone thought the Costa Mediterranea was a big ship, just compare it with the Norwegian Getaway. It completely dwarfed our ship, which showed how ‘medium’ in size it is.

There was another example on the other side of the dock, where two P&O ships were berthed. I thought, at first, of a mother and baby. Adonia is a lovely compact SHIP; Azura is just a floating hotel.

We didn’t book an excursion this time. We just took a water taxi across the harbour to Philipsburg. It’s a charming town, but a little tourist-ridden. Which shouldn’t be surprising, for the island’s main industry is tourism, and there were five cruise ships in port. Even as we stepped off the pier, we were greeted by a steel band., and handed a jute bag, advertising one of the many shops around the cruise terminal.

I did feel a little guilty, for, although we made use of the bag, we didn’t buy anything at the shop it was advertising.

It’s easy to find your way around, for the town centre consists mainly of three parallel streets, and a boardwalk along the beach.

It wasn’t until much later, when I started sorting my photos that I spotted something I hadn’t noticed before. Just about any guidebook tells you that you must see the old Courthouse, built in 1793. But, what had escaped notice was that the sign on the wall is in English!

Similarly with ‘Old Street’ … in a Dutch possession, wouldn’t it be ‘Oude Straat’? In fact, as you’ll see from the pictures, most signs are in English … (American English; you may note a ‘jeweler’ rather than a ‘jeweller’

There’s still a vague Dutch atmosphere about the architecture … even though there’s not a clog, tulip or windmill in sight. But, there are places which look faintly Australian … plus a large slice of uniquely West Indian.

Along the boardwalk are many restaurants and bars, from which we chose the one that offered jerk chicken … we can’t leave the Caribbean without sampling at least one local dish … and free wifi, which didn’t work. Not for me, anyway. Nobody else seemed to be having any trouble.

There was entertainment, though. A reggae band performed outside; maybe a little too loudly for some tastes? You’re never far away from music anywhere you go. And, we were only a short step away from the pier, where we could take a water taxi back to the cruise terminal.

Later, I took a walk into town, watching a demonstration of cigar rolling on the way. I was drawn in first by the luxurious aroma of the tobacco, and regretted I hadn’t passed this way twenty years ago … when I used to smoke, and really enjoyed a good cigar.

This is the way to go if you don’t want to spend the $7 return fare on a water taxi. It takes about 15 minutes, but it’s not terribly inspiring, with a high fence on most of one side, and a sheer cliff on the other.

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Keith Kellett spends his ‘retirement’ travelling, writing, photographing, videoing and blogging about food and drink, beer, old cars, railways, beer, steam engines, history and historical re-enactments, bygones, beer, gardens, travel, beer and brewing, nature and the outdoors and beer. Sometimes, he gets published; sometimes, he even gets paid! He operates a blog ( and has written two books ‘One Thing Leads to Another’ and 'When the Boat Comes In'He’s originally from Cumbria, but now lives in Southern England, near Salisbury, just (I was going to say, a stone’s throw) a short distance from the ancient stones of Stonehenge, where he’s a volunteer at the Visitor Centre when time permits..

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