About Saint Martin (French West Indies)
The island of Saint Martin, located about 300 km east of Puerto Rico, is just 87 square kilometers, and is evenly divided between the northern half (Saint Martin – which is an overseas department of France) and the southern half (Sint Maarten – which is part of the Netherlands). Saint Martin was initially under Spanish control, thanks to Christopher Columbus’ discovery of that island during his second voyage to the Americas in 1493. However, the Spanish eventually lost interest in the island and abandoned it by 1648. That same year, the French and the Dutch divided the island in half, with control of the entire island changing hands between the two powers, along with the British, until 1816 (when the French-Dutch split was restored).
With a 2009 population of nearly 37,000 residents in Saint Martin (and nearly 41,000 residents at Dutch Sint Maarten), the entire island’s main economic activity is tourism (which employs 85% of the population). Due to the island’s limited size, the main airport for both sides of the island is Princess Juliana International Airport (in Sint Maarten). Because of Saint Martin’s direct ties to France, it reportedly has the highest per capita income in the Caribbean (estimated 2005 GDP per capita of $19,300). With French being Saint Martin’s official language, English is widely spoken because of the influx in visitors from North America (with over 2 million tourists visiting in 2007). While many visitors fly in, others arrive as cruise ship passengers (through the port located in the Dutch side).
Interestingly, there are few if any manifestations of a border between the two sides, with visitors going back and forth without being aware of entering the other part of the island. Because it’s part of the Caribbean, Saint Martin has a multi-ethnic population, which manages to maintain the area’s French character, right down to the latest Paris fashions and fresh croissants and pastries sharing table space with West Indian cooking.
Tourist-wise, Saint Martin has four areas of interest:
Marigot, the cosmopolitan capital of the French side, is home to all the local government departments. Here, boutiques and trendy restaurants sit side-by-side with traditional stalls. Don’t miss the colors, smells and buzz of the local market.
A former fishing village, Grand-Case has a unique Creole charm. Along its magnificent bay you will find a large number of restaurants in traditional huts and wattle houses.
In the remote village of Colombier, which is surrounded by nature on all sides, authenticity meets identity.
Having sprung up only recently in the last ten years, Orient Bay Village is considered one of the “musts” of the Caribbean.