• close family • small boat • big world •

Saint-Martin -- Sint Maarten

April 11, 2015

by Paula
At anchor, Saint Martin

Amazing pastries everywhere
on the French side

Vous sentez-vous français... or... je Nederlands voelen? That is, are you feeling French... or... are you feeling Dutch? You can have it either way, or both, here on Saint Martin. Or, rather, Collectivité de Saint-Martin if you’re on the French side or Sint Maarten if you’re on the Dutch side.

Lagoonies, one of the Dutch-side
yachtie hangouts, reachable
by dinghy of course.
While generally friendly, perhaps a bit of animosity still exists between the two countries, and of course each considers itself the "better side." In practice the border is not an issue, and people can come and go as they like from one side to the other (boats, however, need to check in and out when making the transit from country to country).

Like so many Caribbean countries, the history here involves Arawaks replaced by Caribs, who were eventually wiped out by Europeans. After years of tussling among the English, Dutch, French and Spanish for control, the Dutch and French won out. After a long period of coexisting, they divided the land in 1648, and the story of how they did so is well-known folklore:

"The inhabitants chose a Frenchman and a Dutchman to determine the placement of the border between the two countries. Each started at a spot on the coast, on opposite sides of the island. They walked toward one another, and their eventual meeting place determined the location of the border line. Of course, the Frenchman started his journey with a bottle of wine, while the Dutchman was drinking Jenever, Dutch gin. Apparently, the Frenchman did not get quite as drunk as the Dutchman, thus enabling him to cover
more distance. The result was a roughly 60/40 split of the land. The Dutch tend to dispute this telling of events, and claim the difference was due to cheating on the part of the Frenchman who ran, rather than walked.

The Witch's Tit, seen from
the north and from the west

Plenty of options for dropping the hook on the west side of the island. To the south on the Dutch side is Simpson Bay; to the north is the French-side Marigot. Between the two bays is a central Lagoon that straddles the border-line, where boats must pass through one of two lift bridges to enter. The French bridge leads to a shallow and ever-shifting channel, so make your way into the Lagoon by the Dutch bridge if your keel is deep. The recently-built Causeway Bridge serves as the dividing line in the Lagoon. Just north of the bridge is the French side, with it’s easily recognizable geographic landmark called the Witch’s Tit. Head further west in the Lagoon for quiet Nettle Bay or head further northeast to get to the inside anchorage near Marigot.

Sandy Ground Bridge in canal on French side
Simpson Bay Bridge on Dutch side

Regarding your dinghy at the city dock
in Marigot: Lock it or Lose it
The French side feels French. The women look French - it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how. I guess they have that certain je ne sais quoi. Fewer people speak English on this side, and they prefer for you to speak French even when they do know English. The young man at the phone store responded to my "hi!" with, "ah, Anglais... merde." The Dutch side feels more like the US, but with a European flavor throughout. English is standard here, though one can always hear Dutch, French, Spanish, German, or Afrikaans.

Several large defunct boats have come to rest in the Lagoon.
Hurricane Gonzalo in 2014 sunk or damaged many boats.
The Dutch are excellent with record-keeping and bureaucracy, so perhaps you might want to anchor on the French side haha.  The French port is a "free port" and doesn't even require passports. Check-in there requires only $7 US and requires no previous-port paperwork, and they don’t care how long you stay. The Dutch are more precise. Boats are required to pay a fee for each transit of the Simpson Bay Bridge and daily anchoring charges. But just pass through the Causeway Bridge to the French side of the Lagoon and you can avoid Dutch check in (and fees). Be advised, though - they take notes. Last year, a cruiser decided to check in on the Dutch side after years of coming and going to the French side via the Simpson Bay bridge. He had to pay for six years of bridge fees diligently marked on record.

Best customer service on the French side:
Shrimpy's Laundry& Yacht Support
If you need to take care of your boat, head to the Dutch side. (Expensive clothing and shoes? - that’s the French side). This is truly a sailors' port, and the chandleries Budget Marine and Island Waterworld here are outstanding - huge, well-stocked, very helpful - but only on the Dutch side. The same stores on the French side stores are tiny and they close from 12:00 to 2:00 for lunch. Customer service... qu'est-ce que c'est? Many boats come to St. Martin’s Dutch side to do repairs and upgrades - riggers, machine shops, metal fabricators are all here. This is where the mega-yachts dock.

Grocery stores are a fantastic adventure on both sides. Good wine, lots of cheeses, fresh baguettes - all are deliciously inexpensive and plentiful everywhere. Stores like Simply on the French side have most labels in French, and their inventory includes some intriguing items. Great sausages, jams, cookies, and all sorts of meats. Dutch stores like Market Garden or Le Grande Marche stock many American-brand items (for a prices), but also have a great variety of items not found in US stores. This is a place to do some serious eating, especially after the slim pickings up-island.

THE Best ice cream in the Caribbean

Most notable about St. Martin is the large cruising community. A solid group of live-aboards are here, with many other boats coming and going regularly. The winter season brings both motor- and sailing- yachts who come to get work done, do some shopping, stock up, or enjoy the Heineken Regatta or St. Barts Bucket.

We’ve met a wonderful group of people here, with a big contingent of kid-boats. After months of little socializing, our teenagers have found a marvelous group of peers. Like so many others, we arrived with the intent of staying just a few days... and here we are eight weeks later (though we did take a trip to St. Barts and Saba during that time). Soon we will shove off for islands south, but we will certainly miss this place.