As first-time visitors to St. Martin (or St. Maarten or Sint Maarten or Saint-Martin), the Eastern Caribbean island the Dutch and the French share, we purposely didn't know what to expect after disembarking from the Norwegian Epic. We were prepared just to let it happen.
It started with John Salmon — "like the fish." John is a cab driver who convinced us to ride with him from Philipsburg (the Dutch capital) to Marigot (the French capital) for twenty bucks, including tip. The fact that we were standing in a downpour when he asked made the decision an easy one.
The ride was about half an hour and if we didn't see every kind of tree on the island (at least the Dutch side), we didn't miss many. John the Arborist knew them all, drove past them all, and gave us a brief history of them all. He even included the family tree, showing us where he and some of his relatives live….and, of course, what the trees were in their yards.
As an arborist, he was a good tour guide, too. On the half-hour drive, he pointed out sights on both sides of the island, which changes from Sint Maarten to Saint-Martin once you cross the invisible border. The two races seem to co-exist without incident but with uneasiness — even though it's promoted as "the friendly island" — and the French side is more French than the Dutch is Dutch, starting with the languages.
"They use seven languages to make one in Philipsburg," says John, who called it papniton, described elsewhere as a Dutch-based creole.
We took a rain check (showers were over) on his offer to show us the entire island for another $90 (euros and dollars are equal here), and wandered through Marigot. The people at the tourist office were helpful in providing some options, and we chose old Fort St. Louis on the hill because we knew there would be good photo ops.
What we didn't know was it would take 129 steps to get up the hill, but the panoramic overview of the French section made it worthwhile. The fort is abandoned, offering great views and old cannons from what remains of walls that once protected this city.
In need of coffee and an Internet check, we stumbled across La Sucriere, which offered not just WiFi but French pastries. We took an hour to eat the pastries (there weren't THAT many) and were entertained by pleasant pigeons and friendly folks behind the counter. There's not a lot to see in Marigot, just some appealing restaurants, window shopping and a couple of casinos.
We'd been warned about traffic problems that could leave us short of time for the Epic's four o'clock departure, but we still wanted to take the local bus back to get a better feel for the culture. The ride was not much longer than John's cab took, the fare was two dollars each and the people — whether they were French or Dutch — went out of their way to accommodate the obvious tourists…like waiting for the next business, just a few minutes down the road. Every bus has a driver and a conductor (or "collector") and you pay when you get off.
The traffic turned out to be non-existent, or more normal than we expected, and there was plenty of time to see Philipsburg. Probably too much. Tourism reigns even when
Mother Nature rains and there must be enough Colombian emeralds available to fill every suitcase on a cruise ship.
There's also a long and attractive boardwalk — on the aptly-named Barefoot Avenue — that stretches along the beach and away from the port, which is easily accessible on foot. The port is undergoing some expansion but Philipsburg needs to be more than a shopper's paradise and a place where you don't have to "limit happy to just an hour" to command our interest.
Having said that, the Epic brings as many as 6,000 people there every week all winter, so there's no shortage of potential customers.
February 27, 2013
Los Angeles (return): Hilo, Honolulu, Nawiliwili, Lahaina, Ensenada
Cost per day: $71