Sitting at the Tropicana, my favourite bistro in Marigot’s Marina Royale, awaiting my moules flown in on the day with Air France, sipping my glass of Sancerre shipped all the way from the Loire valley, dreaming of the local banana rum I’ll be having with desert… enjoying the tropical heat tempered by the breeze blowing in from the sea, I think to myself, “this is what this island is all about”.
The marina almost looks like it’s been taken from a brochure of Caribbean clichés: tucked in a naturally sheltered corner of the huge Simpson Bay Lagoon—the most singular topographic feature in Saint Martin—it forms a neat, self-contained square of interlocking pathways tiled in terracotta and laid out around the perimeter of the waterfront like the arcades of a cloister. Three of its four flanks are populated by unassuming traditional buildings which house the boutiques, gift shops, galleries and restaurants that give this quartier its distinct feel. In the shadow of the dramatic hills above, street traders crowd the pedestrian alleys with souvenirs and craftworks while curious tourists try to figure out whether they should feel annoyed by the inconvenience of having to negotiate their way through the narrow and cluttered paths or glad to be given the chance to find a special something on their way to their restaurant of choice.
You might argue, of course, that all these tourists would enjoy a more genuine Saint Martin experience if they bought a bowl of whelk or bull foot soup in a plastic container from a street vendor by the side of the road to Cole Bay, and in some sense such succulent temptation would be hard to resist. But the truth is that neither of the two options is more authentic than the other because those are precisely the two antithetic poles between which Saint Martin is constantly oscillating, the boundaries that contain this island’s seemingly conflicted identity—an eminently provincial metropole, a truly diverse outpost deep in the periphery.
Historically there is good justification for this phenomenon: from the earliest days of Dutch interest in Saint Martin, all the way back in the 1630s, what most appealed about the island to the Dutch West India Company was its location as a potentially effective stopping point halfway between its newly acquired possessions in northern Brazil and the already established colony of New Netherland in North America. Alas, the island that eventually emerged as the true transhipping centre in the region was the neighbouring Sint Eustatius, while Saint Martin was left to plod along with the times.
Inevitably, Saint Martin was caught in the middle of the fracas that dominated Caribbean life, until a seemingly irrelevant development at the start of the XVIII century left its mark on the island forever: The Peace of Utrecht at the end of the War of Spanish Succession awarded the French portion of Saint-Christophe, modern-day Saint Kitts, to the British in 1713. So what?, you might ask. So consequential, would have to be the answer, because from that moment on the French possessions on the northeast Caribbean—Saint-Barthelemy, Saint-Martin, and Saint-Croix—were all effectively left orphaned. Hence, the British, who had already recorded their interest in Saint Martin by taking it first in 1672 and then in 1690, would be allowed to extend their influence on the island without actually having to officially annex it.
Fast forward a few centuries and you’ll find that the dominant language in a territory that for over three and a half centuries has been governed jointly by French and Dutch authorities is still, to this day, English. Nor is this the only aspect of Saint Martin’s identity that has been Anglicized: through a completely different set of mercantile rather than historical circumstances, in the land of euros (French Saint-Martin) and gilders (Dutch Sint Maarten) it is undeniably the US dollar which is king. This palpable North American influence can be traced to the vastly increased volumes of visitors arrived from the United States since the great boom of resort tourism hit Saint Martin in the mid seventies and, even more emphatically so, since the port of Philipsburg became a regular destination for cruise ships in the eighties and early nineties.
Philipsburg itself, the largest “city” on the island, the capital of the Dutch side, the Mecca for the hordes of shopaholics (almost two million yearly) descended from the cruise ships, owes its name and current layout to a British sailor. John Philips, a Scottish captain in the Dutch navy, became commander of Sint Maarten in 1735 and promoted a series of initiatives that included modernizing the town at the foot of Fort Amsterdam, on the narrow strip of land between Great Bay and the Great Salt Pond. Thus, if Marigot is the quintessential French colonial town with its quaint architecture and narrow lanes named after the principles of the Revolution (Rue de la Liberté, Rue de la Republique, etc), Philipsburg is a monument to the protestant values of simplicity and practicality in which the two main roads, intuitively named Front Street and Back Street, reveal themselves as the perfect playground for bargain hunters in the land of Duty Free.
Quite apart from haggling—or parallel to it, if needs must—Philipsburg presents an opportunity to enjoy a surprisingly diverse array of dining options, from the traditional l’Escargot, by now almost an institution in town, to the delicious Anand Indian restaurant. But testing the gastronomic offer of a place that prides itself for its culinary quality and tradition takes longer than a day. Indeed, it would be criminal to conclude any visit to Saint Martin without strolling along the single lane of bars, restaurants and bistros that adorn the coastline of Grand Case. By night the atmosphere here is unlike anywhere else on the island, as the boutiques and shops in town open late to cater for guests on their way to dinner; by day, the scents and colours emanating from the street market are extraordinary, and when they blend with the smoky trail of fresh fish and lobster being grilled out in the open air it all becomes a veritable feast.
While on the topic of feasts, it’s worth noting that celebrations in Saint Martin are often dual. That at least is the case with carnival, which on the French side corresponds to the Christian festivity and consists of a full week of bacchanal culminating in the Mardi Gras parade. Dutch side carnival, meanwhile, seems to be designed specifically to carry on liming through the period of Lent, as it stretches from mid April to the closing ceremony in the first week of May, during which a huge human-shaped dummy is set ablaze in what is traditionally known throughout the Dutch Caribbean as the Burning of King Momo.
The rule of dual celebrations is broken, though, with the island-wide commemoration of the abolition of slavery on May 27. The history of slavery in Saint Martin is peculiar, and merits especial attention not least because the system fell of its own weight in 1848, once the manumission campaign had gathered strength. When news arrived on the islands that the February Revolution had overthrown the Bourbon monarchy in France and that committed abolitionist Victor Schoelcher had been included in the new government, unrest spread among the labour force at unstoppable speed. In Martinique, a massive demonstration on May 22 resulted in the death of over one hundred people, slaves and colonists included. Emancipation was proclaimed by the authorities the following day in Martinique, and four days later, on May 27, in Guadeloupe (to which Saint Martin had been officially annexed in 1763). The news didn’t arrive in the island, however, until sometime in early July, by which time the local slaves has seized their freedom by force. Though the Dutch government was not ready to join the abolitionist bandwagon, maintaining the bond of slavery on the Dutch half after abolishing it on the French proved simply impossible. Thus, the close to 2,000 labourers who worked on the Dutch end of the island remained slaves only in name, while the abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies on July 1 1863—so momentous for some—became so meaningless in Saint Martin that today the date isn’t even recognized as a public holiday.
In many ways this illustrates the essence of Saint Martin, an island constantly being pulled by the forces of global affairs, an island where even the most universal of concerns acquires an eminently local visage. Saint Martin’s identity, Saint Martin’s culture, is varied and diverse, plural and multifarious. It allows for figures such as Roland Richardson, the island’s most celebrated painter, whose plein air technique is reminiscent of, but also radically different to, that of the great Impressionist masters; and it appropriates figures such as Antoine Chapon, a French artist who has embraced Saint Martin to such an extent that his paintings could only, really, be from this island. It is encapsulated in a single autochthonous dance, the Ponum, a slow-paced celebration to be savoured in its own gentleness, a performance of relief that dates back to the days of emancipation and is said to have been danced by the slaves around a flamboyant tree; but at the same time it is reflected in the bachata and the merengue that over the last few decades have taken the island by storm, in the soca and the calypso that are part of the heritage of this region, in the vallenato and the reggaeton and the salsa and the cumbia that on a nightly basis set the world—this world—alight.
For many years people have been travelling in great numbers to Saint Martin from all over the world. The one overriding reason why many of them are interested in the island in the first place is the extraordinary quality of its beaches. Graced with over thirty beautiful bays, Saint Martin is one of those rare destinations where seclusion and entertainment coexist peacefully. Perhaps the most gorgeous and also the most popular of Saint Martin’s beaches is Orient Bay, on the French side, with its optional clothing policy and its staggering choice of water sports activities; with the exception of the stunning Cupecoy Beach, clothing is compulsory everywhere else on the more family-oriented Dutch side; if the Robinson Crusoe in you is gagging to express itself, the remote Geneve Bay lies at the end of a one-hour hiking trail from the squally Guana Beach; if your inner self is more like Robert Redford in Havana instead, the phenomenal Friar’s Bay (Anse des Peres) has a charming beach bar where you can relax and take it all in.
And yet, if over the course of many years people from the world over have been travelling in great numbers to Saint Martin for the beaches (and the shopping, and the dining, and the atmosphere—not for nothing is this known as “the friendly island”), the reason why they keep returning is because they find their very world palpably present, processed and reinterpreted in this island. Saint Martin is, above all and perhaps more so than any other island in the Caribbean, the product of a rich and constant mishmash of cultures and influences, a place where guests from all corners of the planet can lose themselves but also recognize themselves, a place where a plate of mussels and a glass of Sancerre acquire a different taste, exist in a different context but exist nonetheless. In other words, an absorbing place that welcomes its guests and uses them to create what ultimately is nothing other than a world of its own.
Published in issue number 137 of Caribbean Beat, Caribbean Airlines’ inflight magazine in January/February 2016.