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The Caribbean island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten is the smallest island in the world shared by two countries. Today, Saint Martin is a peaceful vacation paradise on a tropical island. Over the course of his long and often violent past, this was not always the case. At the origins of its known history, the island was first inhabited by the Arawak people around 800-900 AD They farmed, made pottery, and lived a generally peaceful life on Sualouiga (salt land) island until the arrival of the Caribs . The Caribs preferred fighting to farming. They feasted on the men and took the women for wives. It’s hard to imagine how horrible it must feel to be forced to marry someone who ate your ex-husband. The word cannibal comes from the way the Spanish said the Arawak word for Caribbean. The Carib people conquered many islands in that region, hence the name Caribe.

Eventually the Spanish conquered the Caribs and built forts on many islands. Some still stand in places like Puerto Rico. Columbus discovered the island on November 11, 1493. In his time it was the feast of Saint Martin of Tours, patron saint of soldiers and horses. Columbus claimed the land for Spain, calling it Isla de San Martín. In the 1620s, Dutch traders came to Sint Maarten to collect salt from the island’s natural salt pans. Sailors of that time used salt to preserve food on long voyages. Lacking access to modern methods, salt was a common preservative of the time. French tobacco growers soon arrived in Saint Martin and began farming.

In 1631, the Dutch built the first European settlement on the island, a small salt-gathering colony at Groot Baai (Great Bay). Over time, it became the first Dutch military post in the Caribbean. In 1633, the Spanish attacked and forced the Dutch to leave the island for a time. The Spanish took over the fort, made it bigger, and added a church. In 1648 a long war between Spain and Holland ended and the Spanish left the island. The Dutch had returned by then and signed a treaty with the French on top of Mount Concordia dividing the island between them. The Concordia Agreement is now the oldest still active undisputed treaty in the world. Each country had a man walk around the perimeter of the island in opposite directions starting from the same place. A line from where they started to where they met divided the island with the French to the north and the Dutch to the south. The French ended up with about 2/3 of the island. This treaty did not bring lasting peace to the island at the time. It changed hands many times in power struggles between the French, Dutch, and English, until 1816, when the French and Dutch reestablished their old borders.

Pirates of the 1600s and beyond found a safe haven in St Martin. European countries spent their time and resources fighting each other for possession of the island. None settled long enough to protect it from pirates. The many warring nations sometimes even welcomed pirate attacks on their enemies. Rumors of buried pirate treasure still exist in the island’s folklore.

Today, the people of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten pass freely from one side to the other, the boundary marked only by signs and monuments. However, the two parties use a different currency. Saint Martin uses the euro and Sint Maarten the Netherlands Antillean guilder, but both sides accept US dollars. The French side still has the most land, but the Dutch side has more people. Many people on both sides speak English. The islanders also speak French, Dutch or one of the local dialects.

The average temperature stays between 80 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. Those balmy temperatures and plenty of sunny days explain why St. Martin has become a vacationer’s paradise, at least most of the time. The island has not entirely escaped violence, but in modern times it comes in the form of occasional hurricanes. It gets about 45 inches of rain annually, which occurs mostly in late summer and early fall. That, and the end of the main hurricane season, probably explains why the Caribbean cruise season usually starts around November.

Hotels, condominiums, and timeshares abound, with rental cars the main means of tourist transportation. The Dutch side has a major airport, Princess Juliana International Airport. Tourists flock to nearby Maho Beach to take close-up photos of the underside of 747s. Signs warn them not to get too close to the fence, where jets from departing planes could knock them over. Phillipsburg, the main city on the Dutch side, offers tourists a rich nightlife and an abundance of casinos and jewelry stores. It also has a busy cruise port. Ships from many cruise lines stop there, including Holland America. Water taxis wait nearby to take cruise passengers for a short hop across the bay to Phillipsburg’s beaches, casinos and shops. In Marigot, the major city on the French side, tourists find restaurants that rival anything in New York City. The French side also offers nude beaches and designer clothing stores. Cruise passengers who want to see Marigot can book shore excursions that take them there by bus. A brief visit on a cruise ship gives you enough of an idea of ​​the island that many people want to return for a longer stay. Some like it so much that they vacation there every year.

Both sides have busy tourist-friendly shopping districts, and all shops are duty-free. The French side has a local airport where smaller planes take visitors from island to island to places where larger planes can’t land. The island also has much more to offer, such as sailing or snorkeling excursions, zip line adventures, horseback riding and water sports of all kinds. Take a boat ride and the crew will point out all the vacation homes of rich and famous people you pass.

St Maarten has the largest lagoon in the Caribbean with its Simpson Bay lagoon. Two narrow canals with drawbridges connect the lagoon with the sea. Sailboats, a large fleet of yachts, and marinas call the lagoon home. Hotels, condominiums, and timeshares line its shores. Saint Martin/Sint Maarten is a perfect vacation paradise with enough variety to find something for everyone. Jets provide easy access from anywhere in the world. Whether it’s white sand beaches with warm blue water, exotic cocktails, shopping, relaxation or exploration, St Martin has it all. No wonder it is one of the most visited islands in the Caribbean.

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