St. Maarten-2

The ninth day of our West Indies Explorer cruise aboard the MS Viking Sea brings us to an island divided into two distinct nations. The northern part of the island comprises Saint Martin while the south is home to Sint Maarten, a constituent country that’s part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

If you’re traveling out this way, there’s a few interesting differences to note. The Dutch side officially uses the Netherlands Antillean Florins (NAF, or Guilders) though the US dollar is most commonly used. The French side uses the Euro.

25 gulden

Sint Maarten’s voltage is 110; Saint Martin’s is 220. Each half has its own country code. Calling from one side of the island to the other is considered an international phone call!

While France and The Netherlands don’t share a border in Europe, they sure do here. While docked at the Philipsburg port for the day, we were excited to get out and explore the Dutch side (our tour was revised as there’s a strike going on with road blocks on the French side).

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We take in beautiful views of the coastline, stopping at Oyster Pond, Coralita Lookout Point (our only stop on the French side) and Grey Bay.

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[This marina has yet to be rebuilt following Hurricane Irma]

Our lively tour guide Eva explains that there are currently two main protest points: bromide in the water supply, making it unusable for both drinking and bathing (even though the residents are still paying taxes for its availability), and those being asked to evacuate property along the shore lines following 2017’s Hurricane Irma. They’re fighting to keep the land they own (when land is given up, it’s likely to go to French buyers).

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Salt was a big industry here. It helped to preserve meat, which made it a key reason for the Dutch wanting St. Maarten. The salt ponds eventually became contaminated, forcing the industry to close down. The mines could have well been saved, but fines were not put in place in time – today it would be too costly to resurrect the mines.

The Spaniards were the first colonizers of St. Maarten after Columbus discovered it in 1493, however by 1648, Spain had had enough and deserted the island. France and Holland decided to go in together to get the island and signed the Concordia Treaty.

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Fast forward to 300 years later, and the two populations hadn’t exactly had a peaceful coexistence (there had been 17 uprisings). In 2010, a referendum was signed. The Dutch side voted for autonomy (staying within the Kingdom of The Netherlands). France opted for the same thing. Holland gave it to the Dutch side. France did not give it to the French side.

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[The picturesque 18th century courthouse on Wilhelminastraat]

While the Dutch side makes its own decisions in parliament, Holland is responsible for proper governance on Sint Maarten.

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St. Martin, on the other hand, has to wait on France to make its decisions. The Dutch side has an international airport, does more marketing and has more hotels. The French benefit from all the work of the Dutch. Hard to imagine a country that’s only 37 square miles in size yet with two governments!

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Our morning wraps up as we’re brought to our awaiting catamaran for an afternoon of snorkeling with local tour operator Eagle Tours. We wind up having a blast on the most stunning water, heading to two snorkeling spots: Mullet Bay and Little Bay.

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En route, we pass several luxury yachts, take in hillside views and even make a slow pass by infamous Maho Beach (aka Airport Beach), where jumbo jets fly so low to the water that tourists have made a visit here a bucket-list destination in its own right.

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We do get to see a few planes fly overhead and make their way to the tiny strip at Princess Juliana International Airport in Simpson Bay. Part of me wishes we could have actually spent some time there, but none of the cruise ships allow tours since the traffic is so bad that it can delay ship departures by hours.

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[Just past noon, tiny Maho Beach is filled with people waiting for the big planes to arrive]

Imagine a tiny, packed beach with a couple of restaurants and a nearby airstrip, and you pretty much have Maho.

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Although visibility around the Caribbean has been less than ideal these past couple of days, the crew give us an entertaining day out, with sandwiches at lunch, beer, rum punch, water, and lots of tunes as we sail around and enjoy our afternoon, knowing full well that in two short days, we’ll all be returning to our chillier climates around the US, North America and Europe.

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