Tiny island hosts 2 nations' culture, history and lifestyles

Associate editor Kimberly Scholz recently explored the 37-square-mile, two-nation island known as St. Martin/St. Maarten. Her report follows:

Just how did the French wind up with 21 square miles of this island and the Dutch with the smaller portion of only 16 square miles?

It all happened a long time ago.

In 1648, after banding together to drive out the Spanish, the Dutch and French agreed to divide the island.

The division was disputed for several years, until a "foot race" settled it, once and for all. Legend holds that a Dutchman and Frenchman stood back-to-back near Oyster Pond to begin their walks along the coast in opposite directions. The spot where the two met would determine the location of the border.

The Dutchman took along two bottles of a Dutch alcohol resembling vodka, while the Frenchman took two bottles of water. He covered more ground than his Dutch rival, who paused several times to imbibe.

The legend makes for a good story, but the more likely reason that the French got more land was due to its larger naval presence in the area.

Although the dispute was resolved peacefully, the two sides of the island are as different as French wine and Dutch beer.

The French side is very European and has a ritzier, more cosmopolitan feel.

The Dutch side has been Americanized with casinos, large shopping areas and an 18-hole golf course.

St. Martin/St. Maarten offers some of the best duty-free shopping in the Caribbean.

Shopping areas include the capital city of Philipsburg, Maho and Simpson Bay on the Dutch side and Marigot on the French side.

Shops generally are open daily from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Many French shopkeepers observe the customary European midafternoon break.

When cruise ships are in port, stores stay open longer. Shops in the Maho area are open late to accommodate casino and bar patrons.

A must-see on Front Street in Philipsburg is the Guavaberry Company Shop.

The shop's name comes from a purple fruit grown in the island's interior that has a woody, spicy flavor and is not related to guava, another native fruit.

Visitors can sample a guavaberry daiquiri and shop for souvenirs to bring home.

Other visitor-friendly areas on St. Maarten include Simpson Bay near the airport; Mullet Bay, with an 18-hole golf course, and Maho, which is popular with the late-night crowd.

I checked out Cheri's Cafe in Maho, a restaurant-bar where the Sweet Chocolate Band performs nightly. The food was not memorable, but the atmosphere was lively, the decor colorful and the cafe well worth a visit.

Casino Royale, located next to Cheri's, is one of 12 casinos on the Dutch side of the island.

As casinos go, this one is small, but its theatrical productions are first class. The performance, Casino Royale Seduction, runs through March 16.

The French side of the island seems to have more attractions and activities, such as Orient Beach, known locally as a place to party. Part of the beach is a nudist colony, but I spotted nude sunbathers and swimmers in the public areas, as well.

Although the beach shrank in size after Hurricane Lenny's visit in 1999, shops, restaurants and bars line the shore.

Water-sports vendors offer jet ski rentals and parasailing lessons.

A short drive from Orient Beach is La Ferme des Papillons, or Butterfly Farm St. Martin.

The mesh-enclosed facility is home to hundreds of butterflies from all over the world.

Guided tours, offered daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., show the evolution of the butterfly from eggs to caterpillars and pupae.

The $10 entrance fee includes unlimited return visits for vacationers during their island stay.

The Old House museum is another attraction high on my list. The 1843 house-turned-museum details everyday life on a sugarcane plantation and is owned by Pierre Beauperthuy, whose French family once lived in the house.

A rum museum on the property features a collection of antique labels, old bottles and colonial-era tools of the rum trade. Admission is about $5.

St. Martin also is home to several ecotourism projects, including Loterie Farm, opened by B.J. Welch in 1998.

Welch arrived in St. Martin from California in 1976. He first opened a chain of beachwear stores that were later destroyed by Hurricane Luis in 1995.

Driving down from Pic du Paradis one day, the island's highest point at 1,278 feet, Welch spotted a farmhouse that later became Loterie Farm.

He believed that Caribbean visitors want more than just beaches and casinos.

His goal was to offer an attraction that focused on the natural history of the destination.

The 160-acre farm includes five hiking trails, a restaurant and a lap pool fed by natural springs. Horseback riding and a sixth trail will be available later this year.

Until now, guests have been on the honor system to deposit the $5 admission fee at the entrance.

Because some visitors have used the facility without paying the fee, Welch now plans to station a guard at the entrance to collect the fee.

Guided trail tours, which range from $15 to $45 per person, require reservations at least a day in advance.

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