What is the smallest island in the world shared by two nations? No, it is not an atoll in the Pacific Ocean shared by a couple of island nations you have never heard of. And it is not Hispaniola in the Caribbean divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. That island is close, but much larger. The island we are looking for is Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, shared by Holland and France. This tiny island of about 37 square miles is 150 miles southeast of Puerto Rico and three hours by air from New York and two hours and 40 minutes from Miami. The island may be tiny, but it is large enough to have more than 30 of the finest beaches scattered round the island in beautiful bays and coves and over 300 restaurants of all genres which have earned the island the reputation of being the gourmet capital of the Caribbean. And the great shopping, of course, reflects the fact that the island is a tourist paradise.
When you are on the French side of the island you are in an overseas collectivity of France, technically and surprisingly part of Europe. On the Dutch side you are in St. Maarten which on 10 October 2010 became a country in its own right within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. St. Maarten is not considered to be part of the European Community. Don’t worry about taking your passport out of the hotel safe when you set out to cross from the Caribbean to Europe. The border that separates one side of the island from the other is marked, provided you look hard enough for the sign at the side of the road. There is no gate or barrier and no line across the road and the border is completely unguarded. Many cross without knowing they have done so. And do not worry about traveling freely throughout the island. St. Maarten/St. Martin is not one of those places where your resort is protected round the clock by armed guards and you dare not put a foot beyond the locked gates.
The two parts of St. Maarten/St. Martin are subtly different which adds to the pleasures of the island. Note the very French uniforms of the gendarmes and make sure you fasten your seat belt, because they are often on the lookout for those that do not. As a tourist they will probably let you off with a warning, particularly if you start by apologizing for not being able to speak French. English is spoken by every one of the 41,000 people on the Dutch side, (at least those old enough to speak at all), and by almost every one of the 37,000 on the French side. Legend has it than when the French and Dutch decided to share the island in 1648 and agreed to live in harmony no matter what was happening in Europe, a Frenchman and a Dutchman stood back to back on the beach to create the first point for the border. They started off walking in opposite directions round the island and where they met established the other end of the border with a line drawn through the middle of the island. Well, not quite the middle. The French ended up with 21 square miles and the Dutch with 16. There are many stories about why the Dutchman was slower than the Frenchman, or, as some insist, why the Frenchman was faster than the Dutchman. Most of the stories are scurrilous, involving wine, women, song and gin! However, the real reason has been lost in the mists of time but may well have had to do with the fact that the French had a large fleet at their disposal and the Dutch did not.
On the French side of the island the Euro is the official currency but I have not yet found a shop or restaurant that is not happy to accept U.S. Dollars. Some shops and at least one restaurant I know of will take Dollars at par with the Euro. Always ask. On the Dutch side the official currency is the Netherlands Antilles florin, confusingly called Guilders, and officially fixed at NAf1.77 to the U.S. Dollar although, for some unknown reason, my electricity and water bills are sent to me in both currencies with NAf converted at 1.78 and I know a gas station that quietly calculates at NAf1.75 to the U.S. Dollar. As a tourist or a non government employee I doubt you will ever see the notes and coins of the local currency. When the jovial lady at the market in Philipsburg quotes you $10 for three T-shirts she means U.S. Dollars. In the supermarkets prices are marked in both currencies. Speaking of supermarkets, grocery shopping is exceptional with a wide range of American products as well as enough Dutch, French and a sprinkling of British goods to satisfy those wishing for a taste of home or for tourists wanting to try something different. The Grande Marche grocery stores on the Dutch side compare favorably to grocery stores anywhere in North America or Europe.
For entertainment, as well as the beaches and swimming there are cars, jeeps, boats, seadoos, para gliding and wind surfing equipment for hire, trips round the island and boat and ‘plane trips to neighboring islands to be taken. Shopping for jewelry and table linen is a favorite with the ladies while the men covet the Cuban cigars or the cameras and other electronics on display. And after dinner at a fine restaurant or at McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken, there are always the casinos, the cinema and the nightclubs. You will not be bored in St. Maarten/St. Martin. So check out the hotels and time share properties and the villas for rent. There is something for you in every price range and you will be welcome on our spot of paradise known as The Friendly Island.