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St. Maarten's Proud History & Culture Create Unique Island Within Caribbean

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Richard Kahn /
Theresa Oakes /
Kelly Graham /

PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten – While St. Maarten offers an abundance of beachfront resorts and the Caribbean’s only fully duty free shopping experience, it is the island’s unique history and culture that truly sets it apart from the rest of the Caribbean.

Dating back to pre-Columbian days when the indigenous Amerindians first began to cultivate the island’s salt ponds, St. Maarten’s riveting history continues through the 80 Years War between Spain and the Netherlands to the more than 300-year-old peaceful coexistence between the islands.

The result of St. Maarten’s extensive history is its proud culture, a fusion of influences from many parts of the globe, predominantly from Africa and Europe which have transformed the island into a truly Caribbean melting pot.

In addition to a penchant for fine international cuisine, St. Maarten’s history has also created a dynamic artistic cultural vibe which shines brightly through the nation’s many contributions to Caribbean art, literature, poetry and music.

In fact, St. Maarten is blessed with more than 20 art galleries and leading Caribbean masters such as Sir Roland Richardson. With one of the leading publishing houses in the Caribbean (House of Nehesi Publishers) as well as one of the few Book Fairs in the region, St. Maarten’s literary accomplishments are a true reflection of the island’s Caribbean heritage.

Musically, the island offers a range of Caribbean styles with fusion elements that create a unique vibe, and an even more unique dance known as the “Ponum,” a rhythmic, high-energy jig passed down from the day the island’s slaves were emancipated. Danced in conjunction with a “Freedom Song,” Ponum is the national dance of St. Maarten and is performed with great pride during the island’s Carnival as well as other cultural events.

“We are extremely proud of our unique heritage and of our multi-faceted cultural elements, which have proven to be a major tourism draw and have helped us distinguish St. Maarten as a one-of-a kind destination,” said Regina Labega, Director of Tourism for the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau.

“While the sun, sand and tropical sea we share with the rest of the Caribbean makes us an ideal vacation paradise for North American visitors, it is our history and culture which gives us a competitive edge in attracting visitors interested in more than just relaxing beach days and watersports,” she added.

The history of St. Maarten begins with the indigenous people of the Americas, most notably the Amerindians, who cultivated the land and first began to take advantage of the island’s many salt ponds – St. Maarten’s most valuable resource throughout history until tourism eventually took over as the country’s driving economic pillar.

Originally labeled as Isla de San Martín by Christopher Columbus as he sailed past the island during his second voyage to the Americas in 1493 (he never actually stopped at the island), St. Maarten was first colonized by the Dutch in 1631. French and British settlements began popping up around this time as well; however, war between Spain and the Netherlands followed the arrival of the Dutch and in 1633, the Spanish seized control of the island due to its strategic position in the Caribbean salt trade.

After 15 years of Spanish control, Spain’s priorities changed and the colonial government eventually left the island, enabling the Dutch and French to re-establish their territories. With both the Dutch and French laying claim to the island, and neither side in a position to weather another long war, the Treaty of Concordia was signed in 1648, paving the way for more than 350 years of harmonious peace which has lasted until the present day.

After peace was established, St. Maarten enjoyed great prosperity due to its salt mines, as well as the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations which soon covered the island. Labor was brought to St. Maarten from Africa and the rest of the Caribbean, further adding to the conglomeration of cultural influences which blend together to create the modern day persona of St. Maarten’s proud and welcoming people.

In modern times, most of St. Maarten’s remaining plantations have been converted to world-class resorts as the country is now reliant on tourism – an area in which it truly excels thanks to its warm and hospitable culture and intriguing historic wealth.

St. Maarten’s population is extremely well educated, with many of the island’s inhabitants being multi-lingual, speaking English, Spanish, Dutch, French and Papiamento, the latter spoken locally throughout most of the Netherlands Antilles.

St. Maarten

St. Maarten is truly a unique island in several ways. It is the smallest island in the world to be shared by two nations, the Netherlands and France, creating a European-influenced vibe with a Caribbean flair. St. Maarten is also the culinary capital of the Caribbean with an eclectic array of elegantly-perfected culinary fusion that keeps “food lovers” returning each year. And with more than 300 restaurants, the island has something for everyone.

Located at the northern end of the Lesser Antilles, the island has 37 breathtaking beaches and is home to many historical and family-oriented attractions including the vastly abundant treasure of rare animal and plant species at the St. Maarten Zoological and Botanical Garden. The historically-pivotal Fort Amsterdam, the St. Maarten Museum and the picturesque and symbolic Mount Concordia, where a treaty and harmonious peace was forged between the island’s two cultures more then 350 years ago, provide other unique attractions.

The Dutch capital of Philipsburg offers duty-free shopping and a bustling city atmosphere in the heart of the Caribbean, while nightlife activities provide endless entertainment at the island’s 14 casinos and numerous nightclubs. For water enthusiasts scuba diving and snorkeling facilities are located throughout the island, which boasts a wide array of marine biodiversity and unique underwater dive sites such as the H.M.S. Proselyte, a notable British frigate which sank in St. Maarten’s waters in 1801.

Accommodations are varied with many designed to exceed the expectations of even the most discerning traveler and include elegant private villas, family oriented resorts, quaint cottages and luxury spa resorts. Air service is available to Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten from a number of U.S. and Canadian cities as well as Europe, South America and the Caribbean.