St. Maarten is the world's smallest sea island shared by two nations – in this case, France and the Netherlands. St. Maarten has a fascinating history that shapes the island's character to this day. Blink and you may miss the largely unmarked border between the French and Dutch sides. The differences will soon become apparent when you travel between the two sides of the island though.
In St. Martin, many street signs are in French, prices are in euros and you need an adapter to plug your appliances into the 220-volt power outlets. In St. Maarten, most signs are in English, some prices are in the Netherlands Antilles guilder currency and electricity comes through a North American-style 110-volt grid.
When you make a phone call from one side of the island to another, you pay long distance charges since it is routed through international systems at least several islands away.
According to reports, Christopher Columbus first spotted the island – then inhabited by Amerindians – in 1493. However, European settlers didn't show up until the early 1600s. England, France and the Netherlands all jockeyed for possession of St. Maarten for a couple of centuries.
In fact, the official border between the northern and southern halves changed 16 times in St. Maarten’s history before the current border and joint French/Dutch ownership was established, once and for all, in 1816. The French got slightly more territory, but the Dutch side today has slightly more people (41,000 versus 36,000).
These days, the island is a unique mix of Caribbean, European, North American and international influences. On the Dutch side, you'll find branches of familiar Canadian banks and American fast-food chains, as well as bus stops designated by signs reading bushalte.
On the French side, a breakfast croissant and coffee in your hotel restaurant may well arrive with an international copy of the Miami Herald. Meanwhile, Marigot radio station La Voix FM 101.5 broadcasts calypso, hip-hop and just about everything in between. The songs are punctuated by birthday greetings, horoscope predictions and public service announcements in French and English and updates from the BBC World Service.
Since the French side of St. Maarten is an integral part of France, European Union nationals can live and work here with minimal paperwork. As a result, that side of the island has a somewhat more European feeling than the Dutch half, where ties to Europe are not as strong.
The best part for travellers is that all this diversity on the island makes St. Maarten exceptionally easy to navigate. Just about every traveller-oriented business accepts U.S. currency and many people working in the tourism sector speak both English and French.