Region adds culture to the mix

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PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten -- This bicultural, bifurcated island, where clients can go Dutch or French as they please, is a favorite with U.S. sun-and-fun seekers.

Today's increasingly sophisticated travelers, however, also are beginning to crave a little culture, history and retail therapy, and St. Maarten/St. Martin -- a mix of African, Native American and European influences -- has plenty to offer on these new fronts.

"Travel agents find it easy to sell St. Maarten because of its cosmopolitan nature," said Theo Heyliger, tourism commissioner for the Dutch side of the island. "The combination of shopping [and] cuisine and the number of day trips people can make to nearby islands ... is quite appealing," he added.

The quaint capital of Philipsburg, at the heart of the St. Maarten side, is home to shopping, dining and cultural and sightseeing delights.

Built on a sandbar, the city is home to lively, exotic and architecturally significant thoroughfares, such as Front Street and Back Street.

Both are lined with colorful shops, modern hotels and renovated older buildings ornamented with typical West Indian gingerbread trim.

With the island's increasing popularity as a cruise port -- cruise passenger arrivals rose 12.2%, to 730,000 total, in 2002 -- duty-free shopping is becoming big business.

Philipsburg on St. Maarten offers multicultural dining delights. Above, the Reggae Cafe. St. Maarten is one of the world's few truly "free" ports; that means no duties are paid on any item coming in or going out, enabling local merchants to offer rock-bottom prices.

According to the St. Maarten Chamber of Commerce and Industry, savings can run from 25% to 50% -- and higher -- over U.S. prices.

The shopping streets are attractions in themselves; stylish "arcades" that run off-street in either direction are holdovers from the days of Dutch traders in the 17th and 18th centuries.

At the foot of Front Street, visitors will find Little Bay and the remains of old Dutch fortification Fort Amsterdam.

The fort, constructed more than 300 years ago, stands on the remains of an earlier Spanish fortification.

The nearby St. Maarten Museum boasts exhibits, artwork and artifacts illustrating the island's rich history.

And for the adventurous, day trips and excursions around the island and to neighboring islands, such as Saba and Anguilla, are available.

For more information, contact the St. Maarten Tourist Office at (800) 786-2278 or visit www.st-maarten.com. Or get in touch with the St. Martin Tourist Board at (877) 956-1234.

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