Flavors of France, Holland permeate Caribbean island

November 08, 1992|By Luaine Lee | Luaine Lee,Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service

C You don't need to fly the Atlantic for a flavor of Europe. The 37-square-mile Caribbean island of St. Martin/St. Maarten offers two countries for the price of one.

It is the smallest island in the Caribbean that is occupied by two different nations -- France and the Netherlands.

Divided into a northern and southern half, legend claims that a walking contest between a Frenchman and a Dutchman determined the dividing line. But the salt beds, greatly prized in older times, probably encouraged the Dutch to annex the southern half.

While the two languages flourish on the island along with Creole and papamiento -- the native language that combines snatches of 11 different tongues -- English is understood almost everywhere.

Though the official currency is the florin and the franc, that great equalizer, the U.S. dollar, speaks volumes.

Situated about 1,500 miles south of New York, St. Martin is served by American Airlines, Continental, Air France and BWIA. There are also small inter-island flights, and St. Martin/St. Maarten is a favorite stop of the cruise lines.

While it was the Dutch side that first capitalized on tourism and still boasts the deeper port and airport, the French half is catching up.

With the sun-dappled atmosphere of the small fishing village it once was, the French capital, Marigot, still boasts market days

on Saturdays

and Wednesdays from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and French cuisine that abounds with fresh seafood.

The island is outlined by coral beaches that stretch beyond the horizon, each one more perfect than the last. Orient Beach on the northeast coast is singled out for nude bathers, but the French prefer the liberty of going topless on any coast.

Water sports from scuba diving to windsurfing to deep sea fishing can fill the hours far too quickly and are available through the hotels or the many agencies in Marigot and Philipsburg (the Dutch capital.)

The Caribbean waters are translucent jade and streaked by piebald tropical sea life that can be viewed in living color with a snorkel and mask or from a glass-bottom boat. Rentals are available.

Excursions to nearby islands leave from various sites all day. A ferry departs Marigot for the fairy-tale island of Anguilla, 10 miles away, leaving every half hour till 5 p.m.

Accommodations range from the modest guest houses that rent for as low as $40 off-season to the most elegant four-star resorts.

One of the most picturesque sites is La Belle Creole, a transplanted Mediterranean village perched on a peninsula at the northwest side of the island. Run by Conrad Hotels, a subsidiary of Hilton, this retreat offers both a lagoon for lazy swimmers and the sea for braver sorts.

Not to be outdone by the French cuisine, the Dutch offer gambling casinos. Among the better known casinos include the Pelican Resort, Belair, Great Bay, Maho Reef and Beach Resort. Legal age for drinking and gambling is 18, and, yes, the slot machines are partial to American coins.

Since the island is duty-free, goods may be purchased at 25 percent to 50 percent below U.S. costs, and shops range from high fashion chains to small vendors offering everything from fine linens to juicy mangoes.

Taxis are expensive, and their prices go up as the evening wears on. Taxi fare is about $10 from the airport to Marigot, but buses cost only 85 cents and can be hailed from anywhere on the street. Car rentals may be reserved at the airport and will be delivered to the hotel. They may not be driven from the airport.

Famous for their guavaberries, the islanders make a sweet liqueur from their juice. They also brew a mango liqueur.

Rum punches are popular. Try Milo's rum shop for his famous concoctions on Rue de Holland in Marigot. Liquor is cheap and drinks -- which range from $3 to $5 -- are very generous.

The cuisine ranges from spicy Creole flavors to the gastric delicacies of the French sauces, with seafood the best choice. For authentic Creole and small prices, try Chez Yvette in the French Quarter.

Le Palmier in Sandy Ground is famous for its fish with coconut; La Case Creole in Sandy Ground makes an inspired concoction with sea whelks and dumplings. Le Jardin Creole offers antiques with dinner, and Hevea in Grand Case boasts "desserts to die for," according to one native. Le Poisson d'Or in Marigot sports a limited menu of French delights at fairly reasonable prices.

Much of the food, except for seafood, comes from the States, and the water is safe to drink.

Most of the 45 inches of rain per year falls around September. But the occasional rainstorms usually pass quickly to make room for the indefatigable sun.

IF YOU GO . . .

Entry requirements: Passport, birth certificate or voter's registration card.

Average temperature: 80 degrees, rainfall 45 inches.

Special festivals: St. Martin Food Festival, May 12 on the French side. African Festival island-wide, June 9. Bastille Day, July 14, on the French side. Concordia Day, public holiday, Nov. 11.

Tourism boards: Dutch side: Department of Tourism, Island Government of St. Maarten, Imperial Building, W.J. Nisbeth Road, Philipsburg, Sint Maarten, Netherlands Antilles. French side: St. Martin Tourist Information Bureau, Waterfront, 97150 Marigot.

More information: Dutch side: (212) 989-0000; French side: (900) 990-0040; (312) 337-6301; (213) 272-2661; (214) 720-4010.

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