The island of St. Martin/St. Maarten was discovered and named by none other than Christopher Columbus in the year 1493. Columbus never set foot on the island, but while sailing by, decided to name it after the Saint's feast day, St. Martin of Tours. This small, but beautiful island was never colonized by the Spanish, however the French were eager to inhabit it, and established a presence on the western side near what is today Marigot. Not long after their arrival the Dutch started to settle on the opposite side of the island and eventually took over a significant portion of the land. The first civilization built by the French was the Quartier d'Orleans, which was followed by the Dutch establishment of Fort Amsterdam. After multiple invasions from the Spanish, there were constant battles between the two main powers on the island. The French and Dutch were in a constant struggle for control.
In 1648 a treaty was signed between the two countries and the island was split in two, the French took the western side and referred to it as. Martin, and the Dutch took the eastern side and referred to it as St. Maarten. The French claimed the north side of the island, while the Dutch were in control of the south. Both sides of the island kept their distance and reportedly changed the boundary lines over 16 times, but eventually they began to grow in peace.
The French developed their portion of the land with a sense of relaxed sophistication and maintained more open spaces, while the Dutch more aggressively developed the land. Both sides of the island relied heavily on salt production and flourished with their abundance of plantation crops such as cocoa, sugar, coffee and cotton. The dominant trading partners with St. Martin at this time were the United States and Europe, both of which had a heavy demand for all plantation products. This led to a need for slaves, so when slavery was abolished in 1848 the Island's economy suffered greatly.
It wasn't until many years later when the first major airport was constructed that the economy began to pick back up and tourism really grew in St. Martin. Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) was converted from a military landing strip to a commercial hub in 1943. It's dramatic placement by Maho Beach has always given the airport plenty of cache, since beachgoers can not only watch take offs and landings at close range, but feel the a blast from jet engines.
With an uptick in tourists from the U.S. and Europe, the terminal was remodeled several times, once in 1964, again in 1986. In 1997 a three phase plan was put into action that modernized facilities, improved runways and saw the building of a new control tower and terminal. Completed in 2006, the airport sustained serious damage from hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria, but set up temporary departure and arrivals structures in October 2017 which allowed service to continue while the main terminal was being rebuilt.
Aside from beautiful beaches and welcoming weather, the appeal of this dual nation lies in the distinct personalities of its Dutch and French sides.
In Philipsburg, the Dutch side's capital, visitors can stroll along a beachside boardwalk dotted with bars and boutiques, or get a taste of the island's history on Front Street. Built in 1793, the Courthouse originally served as the private home of a Dutch sea captain and went on to house a post office, town jail and fire station. Just down the street is the Guavaberry Emporium, in a colorful house from the 1700s, local distillers produce a unique liqueur made from the island's native fruits. Although the Dutch side of the island was impacted by the hurricanes of 2017, the bounce back has been relatively quick with most restaurants, shops and hotels up and running.
Worlds away from the casinos and nightclubs of the Dutch side, life on the French side of St. Martin has a decidedly different feel. The town of Grand Case was built to house the sugar mill workers and fishermen. When the tourism boom hit in the 1970s, gastronomic restaurants began popping up along the Boulevard de Grand Case. Over the years, this small strip gained the title of Culinary Capital of the Caribbean, and with good reason. Between the open air barbecue spots known locally as lolos there are restaurants helmed by French chefs that marry traditional techniques with local produce, oceanside bars and restaurants offering elevated beachy fare, as well as patisseries and gourmet shops. This marriage of flavors makes for intriguing menus of French classics and Creole dishes, all matched with polished service and wine cellars filled with bottles not often seen outside of Europe.
Just east of Grand Case is Orient Bay, a stretch of white sand that's been called the Saint Tropez of the Caribbean. The beach made its name for itself as a mecca for naturists and remains partially clothing optional to this day. During the 1990s and 2000s Orient expanded to a welcome swimsuit-clad clientele as well, with beach bars and restaurants opening along the shoreline, offering chaise lounges, umbrellas and excellent dining and drinking options for day trippers.
The French side of St. Martin suffered heartbreaking damage at the hands of the hurricanes, but slowly, restaurants and bars in Grand Case, Orient Bay and the French capital, Marigot are making a comeback.
Today St. Martin continues to prosper because of its exotic charm and diverse culture. It is now home to some of the most beautiful vacation villas in the Caribbean. Although the island is still split by nationality, it has double the excitement and activities to offer. Whether you are traveling to the French side of the island or the Dutch, your stay will be equally remarkable.