Blessed with turquoise waters and gorgeous beaches, the beautiful island of St. Maarten features a delightful French-Dutch duality dating back to its origins. By David Menzies, March/April 2008
You must understand, I wasn’t looking for trouble. I was…well, just looking. As it turns out, gawking at the wrong people at the wrong time can get you in trouble. Even in paradise.
Your correspondent was strolling along Orient Beach, in the overlooked/underrated Caribbean playground that is St. Maarten. Thankfully, all those clichéd tropical descriptors were fully evident – trees: palm; sun: shining; temperature: smokin’; beach: sandy; water: turquoise. Sauntering along the shoreline, I noticed a couple approaching me sporting his-and-her matching flesh-tone swimsuits. Such a change of pace from the garish neon-green swim trunks and jet-black Speedos that made up the de rigueur swimwear poolside at the hotel. Alas, it soon occurred to me that the couple’s skin-tone, skin-tight swimsuits were actually, well, skin. And lots of it, too.
They must’ve figured I was lost or had lost something, because the lady, Dominique, and her significant other, Marcel, asked if I needed help. Understandable, to be sure, given that I was making eye contact with them – not to start a discussion, but rather, to avoid gazing upon various naughty bits.
“Can I help you?” asked Dominique, en français, followed by a similar query – I think – from Marcel. It was soon determined that it would be best to carry on the discussion in English, yet, to my dismay, Dominique and Marcel were a pair of blabbermouths. As they droned on, my eyes darted up and down, as though I were observing a vertical tennis match. It’s just not my cup of Darjeeling to stand within arm’s length of a naked man.
We eventually got around to the now painfully obvious fact that Orient Beach was ‘clothing optional.’ Dominique and Marcel suggested, to my horror, that I shed my shirt and shorts and proudly join the parade of pasty white flesh (parts of which appeared to be turning ever more crimson by the minute under the unforgiving sun.) While I do possess a washboard stomach, there are about 15 lbs. of laundry hanging there, so I declined their offer.
Dominique and Marcel seemed inexplicably miffed by my lack of enthusiasm to let it all hang out. Or maybe it was my wandering peepers that irked them? Or maybe they were able to read my mind, in which case they’d happen upon this particular train of thought: why is it that so many people who embrace nudism really shouldn’t?
When Dominique and Marcel reverted back to their mother tongue and used a number of not-so-nice French words that even I was able to understand, I sensed it was time to bid adieu to Orient Beach.
There are a few things visitors need to know about St. Maarten. And it boils down to this: the French have no problem with you getting bare-naked, but please, no wagering. The Dutch, meanwhile, are happy to entertain gamblers at the numerous casinos on their side of the island. But for goodness sake, keep your pants on – even if you’re losing your shirt.
Still, the mishmash of etiquette on such a tiny island is all part of the quirky, cross-cultural charm that makes St. Maarten (or Saint-Martin, depending on which chunk you’re standing upon) so endearing. Embedded in the island is an inherent duality that dates back to the nation’s origin.
In 1648, after the Spanish decided to leave St. Maarten, the remaining occupiers, the Dutch and the French, agreed to cease hostilities by carving up the isle. The French side encompasses some 21 sq. mi., whereas the Dutch part is only 16 sq. mi. Legend has it that the boundaries were determined by a footrace. Oyster Pond, a small town on the east coast, served as the starting line. A Frenchman and a Dutchman stood back-to-back; when the pistol sounded, they ran along the coastline in opposite directions. Their eventual meeting point would serve as the dividing line for the border.
Several theories abound as to why the race was so lopsided. Some say the Dutchman stopped to drink gin and take a nap – a seldom-prudent strategy when one is competing in a marathon. Another school of thought suggests the fix was in from the start, given that the French had a rather large naval vessel sitting offshore. Whatever the actual reason for the real-estate disparity, peaceful co-existence prevailed, and visitors to St. Maarten/Saint-Martin continue to receive two diverse nations (language, currency, phone systems) for the price of one.
Indeed, while many destinations embrace tourism slogans wherein the reality doesn’t quite live up to the hype, the current marketing pitch for St. Maarten – “A little European. A lot of Caribbean.” – resonates.
For meeting planners, the news only got better last year, with the introduction of the sumptuous Westin St. Maarten, Dawn Beach Resort & Spa. This gorgeous, five-star property offers 308 rooms and 10,000 sq. ft. of banquet and meeting space. The facility has vaulted St. Maarten to the next level.
Beverly Read, sales director with Mississauga, Ont.-based Reward Worldwide, recently had a client book the Westin for a 240-person meeting. “There wasn’t anything in St. Maarten in the past that was either a four- or five-star hotel with capacity for large meetings of more than 100 people, but the Westin has totally opened things up to meetings and conventions,” she says.
Read agrees that the only blatant negative to St. Maarten is traffic, which can stretch a 15-minute car trip into an hour-plus.
Beyond the lodging and meeting amenities of the Westin, Read says St. Maarten excels at delivering a complete Caribbean experience. “I’ve stayed at nicer hotels and prettier islands, but with St. Maarten, the whole package is there: unique tours, island hopping, shopping beyond belief, and the food – especially on the French side – is spectacular.”
Other St. Maarten activities include deep-sea fishing, horseback riding, diving, snorkeling and other land and water sports.
“You can easily do a five-night programme in St. Maarten, whereas with many other islands, people start looking for something to do after the second day,” says Read.
Finally, there’s an omnipresent quirkiness to the island, something that’s readily apparent in the names of several shops (example: apparel store Last Mango in Paradise).
There are numerous unique galleries, too, such as Island Arts of the YodaGuy. ‘The YodaGuy,’ incidentally, is Nick Maley, ‘a key contributor to the creation of Yoda.’ Not surprisingly, his galleries specialize in Star Wars memorabilia.
If you’re looking for a keepsake a tad more personal than a Yoda knockoff, you can commission a sculpture of your body (bust, torso or full body) at Dimitrios art gallery. And if Dominique and Marcel down at Orient Beach don’t know about Dimitrios, how about we just keep it a secret?
David Menzies is a Toronto-based freelancer writer.