'Time Share' In Paradise

April L. Dowd photo

PHILLIPSBURG, St. Maarten -- This 37-square-mile Caribbean island is the smallest land mass in the world shared by two sovereign powers. In this case, the Netherlands and France, and they've been sharing it for 350 years.

Sint Maarten, located 150 miles east-southeast of Puerto Rico, is a small volcanic part of the Leeward Islands, a mixture of independent island nations as well as land owned by the Dutch, the French and the British.

Although the terrain is much the same across the island -- Paradise Point, at an elevation of 1,400 feet, is a high volcanic peak in the central area, sloping down to sandy beach and settlement areas -- life is a bit different depending on which side you see.

The Dutch side is marked by a busy center of commerce  -- dominated by more than 80 jewelry shops and numerous duty-free enterprises -- particularly in the crowded business sector of the capital of Philipsburg. The French side is a bit more laid-back, shown by the daily open-air market on the town dock and fish mart (shown above) in the capital of Marigot, overseen on a steep hill by the old Fort St. Louis.

The airport -- Princess Juliana International, where you can only land and take off in daylight because there are no lights -- is on the French side. All the casinos are on the Dutch side, but the beaches are fairly well sprinkled around the island.

Cuisine ranges from resort hotel continental to fine French food (Grand Case is a small town on the French side considered one of the top dining spots in the Caribbean) to one of the many "lolos" -- outdoor barbecue spots that dot the countryside. And don't miss trying the native liquer, called guavaberry liquer. It's like a mild raspberry, and is often found in guavaberry coladas and has a comparatively low alcohol content.

As you check out these and other attractions, don't be concerned about the border. It's an open one, and the only real way you can tell when you cross from one side to the other is by seeing discrete little stone markers.

And if you don't speak French or Dutch, no problem. English is spoken by virtually everyone. If you want to practice any other language it's not at all uncomon for shopkeepers, hotel staff and the like to nimbly jump from one language to another -- sometimes in mid-sentence -- as the need arises.

Severe hurricane damage several years destroyed or damaged many buildings and eradicated much mature plant growth. In recent years, the island has been battling to regain its share of the Caribbean tourist trade, so bargain packages are plentiful. And for convenience's sake, the U.S. dollar is the preferred currency everywhere.

Day trips to nearby islands are popular: St. Bart's, Anguilla, Saba, Ilet Pinel and Caye Verte, the latter two particularly attractive to snorkelers. But if your tastes run more to land activities -- say, golf -- you have only one choice: the 18-hole course at Mullet Bay.

The island abounds with typically tropical beaches as well as bustling shopping areas. Above, a view of Marigault, the capital of the French side, and at left a shot of its main street. Below left, the shop-lined main drag in Phillipsburg, capital of the Dutch side.
• Island Hopping Guide
• French Caribbean International
• Friendly Caribbean
• Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel
• Official St. Maarten Home Page
• St. Martin Weather Forecast
• The daily newspaper
• Hospitality & Trade Association
• Special travel guide
• Restaurant Guide

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