Go Dutch in Philipsburg

November 03, 2015 4 Comments

Cruise ships dock on the Dutch side of the island at the A.C. Wathey Cruise Pier, known as The Big Pier, at the John Craane Cruise Terminal in Great Bay Harbor. The terminal is about one mile from the center of Philipsburg, the capital of Dutch St. Maarten.

To get downtown, walk along the scenic boardwalk or take a water taxi for an enjoyable short cruise across the bay to Wathey Square in the heart of town. When the port is extremely busy, ships drop anchor in the harbor and guests are tendered ashore to Little Pier, right in Philipsburg. In the past decade, the sleepy island town has been infused with cosmopolitan flair. The vibe in Philipsburg is one part Caribbean paradise and one part hip European village, with a splash of Las Vegas glitz thrown in for good measure.

St. Maarten is one of the top ports for shopping in the entire Caribbean region. Prices can be as much as 50 percent less than on the U.S. mainland. The best bargains are found along the mile-long cobblestone Front Street, which runs along the beachfront boardwalk. The street is lined with palm trees and quaint cast-iron streetlights—an unbeatable setting for any bargain-hunting adventure. Front and Back Streets bookend a group of four streets running parallel to the waterfront for the length of the town. Little lanes known as steegjes connect the two. The downtown area is flanked by Great Bay to the south and Salt Pond to the north. Salt was once the mainstay of the island economy, extracted for export. Today, the pond is steadily being reclaimed to make way for further expansion of the burgeoning town.

In the shopping district, dozens of stores and boutiques are packed with a near-endless array of covetable goods at incredible duty-free prices. To find the stores backed by the cruise line’s Port Shopping guarantee, look for the diamond-studded palm tree in shop windows or check your official Port Shopping Map, which is delivered to your stateroom the night before a port visit. Look for fabulous deals on electronics, jewelry, watches, liquor, linens, perfume, and other luxury items, alongside a mix of island-themed keepsakes and mementos.

Philipsburg Courthouse

Philipsburg Courthouse

Facing Wathey Square, the Philipsburg Courthouse is one of the city’s oldest standing historic monuments. The white structure with dark-green shutters was built in 1793 as a home for Commander Willem Hendrik Rink, who was governor of St. Maarten between 1790 and 1806. Since then, the building has been recast as a fire station, a jail, and a post office. The pineapple that crowns the cupola was added in 1995 to symbolize the island’s hospitality. The St. Maarten coat of arms is displayed below. It includes depictions of the national flower (orange sage) and the national bird (brown pelican), as well as its slogan, Semper Pro Grediens, or “Always Progressing.”

Stop by the Guavaberry Emporium on Front Street to sample St. Maarten’s national beverage: guavaberry liqueur. The guavaberry is an integral part of island’s culture and tradition and is even acknowledged in various folk songs and local stories. Not to be confused with guava, this special fruit grows on the branches of flowering trees found high in the hills in the center of St. Maarten. To make the liqueur, the berries are gathered, washed, and placed into wooden barrels to age. While there’s something to be said for frozen guavaberry cocktails, the spirit is especially tasty when mixed into a flute of dry champagne.

Be sure to stroll down Old Street, a tiny pedestrian-only promenade located between Front and Back Streets. It’s home to colorful shops and open-air cafés serving crepes, chocolates, and other island delicacies. The yellow taxicab parked on the alley is a permanent landmark that has come to be a symbol of St. Maarten’s shopping district. The streets are lined with characteristic gingerbread-style homes with grand verandas overlooking the cobblestone paths. These excellent examples of traditional West Indian architecture make picture-perfect backdrops for vacation photos.

St. Maarten’s strategic position at the elbow of the Caribbean island chain has earned it a reputation as the Crossroads of the Caribbean. The story begins thousands of years ago, when it and neighboring islands St. Barths and Anguilla formed one large landmass. The end of the Ice Age caused sea levels to rise gradually until the lowlands were submerged and the land was divided into the three separate islands. Local artifacts from ancient Arawak Indian settlements date back to 1800 BC and can be traced well into the 15th century.

The Arawaks were a peaceful people who lived off vegetables, fruit, and seafood. They called the island Soualiga, meaning “Land of Salt,” which is appropriate considering that salt harvesting was one of the longest-sustained industries on the island. When the Dutch arrived, they sold the salt to traders in the Caribbean and “New England,” which would eventually become the United States. Remnants of Arawak villages have been found on the northern part of the island near Grand Case Lagoon.

On November 11, 1493, Christopher Columbus claimed the island on behalf of Spain. Since it was the holy day of St. Martin of Tours, he dubbed his new find Isla de San Martin. The European colonists didn’t populate the island until the 17th century, when it was claimed by the Dutch, French, and Spanish. The Dutch and the French combined forces to control the land in 1644, and the Treaty of Concordia established an official territorial divide in 1648. Legend has it that the island was initially divided during a footrace between a Frenchman and a Dutchman. The two met on the coast, shook hands, and set off in opposite directions. The border was drawn at the point where they met again. The Treaty of Concordia is considered the oldest active peace treaty—a claim that is honored with a monument at the location where the treaty was signed on Mount Concordia.

In 2007, St. Martin became a French overseas collectivity; three years later, in 2010, St. Maarten became an independent nation within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It remains the smallest island in the world to be shared by two different countries. The borders remain unmarked, but a phone call from the Dutch side to the French side is an international call.

Cruise ship passengers enter the St. Maarten port and marketplace

Cruise ship passengers enter the St. Maarten port and marketplace. By: Ruth Peterkin / Shutterstock.com

The island’s population is nearing 80,000 people from about 70 different countries. Tourism fuels the local economy, which has been growing steadily since the first deepwater pier opened in Philipsburg in 1964. For panoramic views of the waterfront capital, head to Fort Amsterdam, located on the peninsula between Great Bay and Little Bay. The fort, circa 1631, was 
the first Dutch stronghold in the Caribbean. Its final official use took place in 1874, when a cannon was fired in honor of the silver anniversary of King William III’s reign. In 1987, a group of Dutch archaeologists excavated a portion of the fortress.

To learn more about local history, visit the Sint Maarten Museum on Front Street. The museum is run by the St. Maarten National Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to preserve and promote the island’s heritage. Exhibitions in the museum include tributes to the national heroes, endemic flora and fauna, local geology, and artifacts from a number of nearby shipwrecks.

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Sail past St. Maarten’s picture-perfect seashore in a sleek catamaran, then snorkel in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea.

An inflatable motorboat is yours to command. Maneuver through the lagoon to Marigot and Fort Louis, overlooking the bay. Continue along the coastline toward Happy Bay for hiking, snorkeling, or relaxing on the beach.

Relax on a guided tour to top attractions like the old French Quarter, Orient Beach, Grand Case, and Marigot. Stop at the international lookout point for photos. End in Philipsburg to explore the Dutch capital and shop, then continue on to the dock to return to the ship.

The first stop: Cole Bay Hill for picturesque photo ops. Next, cross the border to Marigot and stroll through the quaint French capital. Continue through Grand Case to Orient Beach to enjoy a welcome drink, barbecue lunch, and lounge chair at the beach.

Discover the island’s history and landmarks during the scenic ride to Marigot, where you can explore the shops, quaint streets, and cafés at your leisure. The double-deck boat ride affords views of luxury villas and mega-yachts while enjoying music, live entertainment, and complimentary tropical drinks.

Enjoy a pampered catamaran excursion to an unspoiled St. Maarten beach, reaching speeds of up to 20 knots. Swim, sun, and snorkel. Recharge on the return to Philipsburg with sandwiches and cold drinks served by the friendly crew.

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