When you think of France you immediately think of food, wine, style, fashion, elegance… Put all that in an exotic tropical setting with beaches, yachts, suntans, cocktails and spas and you must be in one of these beautiful islands in the Caribbean!
These tiny islands may well be grouped together as part of the French Antilles, administered from France as a 'Collectivite' but they each have their individual character too, and there is also the Sint Maarten part of the St Martin Island that is Dutch.
St. Barthélemy (St Barths in French and St Barts in English) is a tiny island just 8 square kilometres in size (21sq Km) to the east of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, with the closest other island being St Martin. St Barts Island has some 14 beaches along its rugged coastline which is a series of small sandy beaches, bays and inlets. Here you will find the tiny towns of Gustavia and Corossol with their white houses and red roofs set out around the harbour bay sides.
Flying in from St Martin (Grand Case Regional Airport) by small plane to land at the Gustave III airport in St Barts, or arriving by yacht or on a speedboat ride from St Martin, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the island with the blue waters dotted with yachts at anchor, the tiny groups of houses hugging the coastline and an island backdrop of rugged mountains covered by trees. Two of the mountain peaks here rise to around 900 feet above sea level (270 Metres).
Christopher Columbus first sighted the island in 1493 and named it in honour of his brother, Bartolomeo Columbus (1460-1515).
When you think of the Caribbean and its early colonial history – you become aware of the conquests made by Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and the British but also see the impact on Taino, Carib and other islanders. You also become aware of the massive forced migration of Africans brought to the islands as slaves; also of Aristocrats, Kings, Queens and Royal Courts and their decrees; of pirates/privateers, buccaneers and piracy; of wars, conflicts and treaties as well as the role played by Governors and settlers arriving to establish plantations to grow sugar, tobacco and other crops and the merchants, sailors and others who left Europe to establish a life in the New World.
Into this mix also were the Companies in Europe that were set up to fund journeys, explore, find gold and other valuables and establish settlements- companies like the Dutch and British East India Companies, the Massachusetts Bay Company in New England and the Hudson Bay Company in Canada.
Another overlay on this story is the role of religion with the Conquistadors, Papal Bulls and decrees, Jesuits, Franciscans and other religious orders, the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England all seeking to spread their religion and convert those people they found to Christianity.
Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) was the French Cardinal who was also the French Secretary of State for war and foreign affairs and chief Minister for King Louis XIII in France. He was also a shareholder in the 'Companie de Saint-Christophe' that was set up and given a Royal Charter in 1626 to colonise the island known as Saint-Christophe ( now called Saint Kitts and Nevis Island). The company's name was changed to the Compagnie des Iles de l'Amérique in 1635 and its Charter extended and expanded to allow settlement of other islands with Martinique settled that year, and also Grenada and Saint Lucia islands but in 1651 the company was bankrupted and dissolved.
The Governor of Saint-Christophe,(from 1639) a French Aristocrat, Phillippe de Lonvilliers de Pointcy (1584-1660) was also the Bailiff member of the Sovereign Military Knights of Malta Order (sometimes called the Knights of St John) and in 1651 he convinced the Order to buy the ownership rights over the islands of Sainte-Croix, Saint Martin, Saint Barts and Saint-Christophe. After buying the rights, de Pointcy continued as Governor but then after his death, the Knights of Malta then sold their rights in 1665 to the French West India Company (Compagnie de Indes Occidentales) that had been established in 1664. This company too was dissolved in 1674.
There is a flowering tree with bright crimson red flowers, the Poinciana that is named after the Governor, Phillippe de Longvilliers de Pointcy.
The initial attempts to establish a settlement in St Barts failed and those few French settlers in 1651 were killed by Carib Islander cannibals and their heads placed on stakes set out along one of the beaches on the island as a warning to others who might want to venture here. While some Pirates did use the island as a hideaway, It would be another 112 years (1763) before another attempt was made to settle on the island, but then in 1784 French King Louis XVI sold the island, this time to the Swedish, on the basis of the Swedes allowing French trading ships free access to trade in the Swedish port of Gothenburg (where today's Volvo cars are made).
The Swedes in the America's also set up a Colony on the Delaware River in the USA called 'New Sweden' the settlement lasting from 1638 to 1655.They also had control over Guadeloupe from 1813 to 1814 during the Napoleonic Wars.
The names of the town of Gustavia in St Barts and the Airport name, Gustave III date from this time. The French then bought the island back from the Swedes in 1878 and it has remained in French hands since then, becoming an Overseas Collectivity (French Territory), with the people retaining French as the official language and holding a French passport too.
The St Barth's (St Baths) flag shield has 2 Pelicans next to the shield with a Castle and Crowns, 3 Fleur de Lys, and a central Maltese Cross in recognition of the island's history. The word 'Ouanalao' below the shield is a Carib word meaning Pelican.
St Bart's Island is easy to get around by rental car and there are lots of resort hotels and other accommodation options in Gustavia, St-Jean, Corrossol and in one of the very small places like east End, Petit Cul-de-Sac or Grand Cul-de –Sac. No doubt while you are here on the island you will see all of these places.
Gustavia, named after Gustav III is the Capital of St Barts - a small town built around and above the harbour on the hillsides and narrow streets. There is a long boardwalk beside the harbour and a marina here too, with a number of yachts both big luxury craft and smaller yachts anchored in the inner and outer harbour. Here in town there are a number of stylish restaurants and fashion boutiques, luxury duty free stores and a museum called the Wall House Museum on La Pointe that has some of the historic information and memorabilia of the times when St Barts was under Swedish control. The remains of the original three forts that were built – Fort Gustav, Fort Oscar and Fort Karl all reflect in their names their Swedish origins.
St Barts caters for and attracts many of the rich and famous to its shores and prices in shops and restaurants reflect this too. Being isolated, most goods are imported and quite a lot of these goods come from France with the Euro being the currency used.
As you would expect, the resort hotels have all the spas and facilities to cater for their guests, and there are the small beaches to sunbake and swim off. It is also possible to go hiking, sailing, ride a jet ski, go diving or snorkel on the reefs offshore, also enjoy deep sea fishing – with a number of companies providing these as day trips. All hotels will be able to provide you with contacts to make arrangements for you.
The island of St Martin/ Sint Maarten - "The friendly islands"
This island, just 88 square kilometres (roughly 34 square miles) is roughly divided into two halves – the bigger northern half being French, named St Martin and the smaller southern half being Dutch and named as Sint Maarten.
Christopher Columbus first came here in 1493 on his second voyage of discovery, naming the island St Martin, as it was St Martin's day on the day that he saw it, but it wasn't until 1631 that the first Dutch settlers arrived here to gather up and sell salt from the natural salt ponds, and then grow tobacco, coffee, sugar and even cotton.
That same year they began to build a fort, Fort Amsterdam. It was however conquered by the Spanish in 1633, but largely destroyed in 1648, with the Spanish abandoning the fort and the island. All that can be seen of the Fort today is some of its foundation stonework. Another fort would however be built, this time by the English in 1801 and named Fort Trigge on Phillipsburg Bay. This was later renamed Fort Willem I by the Dutch but ultimately it too would be largely destroyed in 1846. Today there is a TV Tower next to the ruins of the old fort, and from the fort you can get great views over Phillipsburg and the Bay. Phillipsburg is the main town in Phillipsburg, located between Great Bay and Great Salt Pond, with the two main streets, Front Street and Back Street being the centre of town, with small alleyways and arcades running off them. Most likely you will see one or more cruise ships anchored just offshore here.
The French also built a Fort, called Fort Louis in 1780 on Marigot Bay and later a prison here too which was used up to 1968, at which point the building was turned into a fire station. Today the old fort still stands on top of the hill overlooking the Fort Louis Marina. It is definitely worth climbing up to the Fort for the great views and photo opportunities. While the fort is largely in ruins, the old cannons and walls of the fort are still here, as imposing as ever.
This division of the island into two halves dates back to 1648 when the Treaty of Concordia
( Partition Treaty) between the French and Dutch was drawn up and signed on Mount Concordia on St Martin Island and that Treaty still stands today. There is a border between the two halves, marked only by an Obelisk, four flagpoles and flags of France and the Netherlands standing on each side of the border. People can move freely between the two halves of the island. Under the Treaty both sides agreed to live in harmony together, and work together for the betterment of each other, and fight for each other too against any outside forces that might try to invade the island – their common enemy being pirates and possible Spanish and British forces.
The island was originally occupied by Arawak people possibly as early as 2000BC, and later by Caribs and then Taino people, but few of these people were here in the 1600's when the French and Dutch came to settle here. Archaeological digs have unearthed pottery and other signs of their civilisation and there is a History Museum at 7 Rue Fichot in Maricot where some of these relics can be seen and also in Sint Maarten there is the Sint Maarten Museum at 7 Front Street in Phillipsburg. There are also see the remains of an Arawak village at the Hope Estate (near Grand Case Airport) where archaeologists are working. If you would like to know more about the old plantations and the days of sugarcane, head to the Old House just out of St Martin, an original Manor House from the days when sugar was the main industry on the island. They also have lots of information and artefacts from those days too.
Initially the Dutch and French settlers mined the salt ponds and began to grow cocoa, coffee and sugar, produce rum and extract Indigo dyes from Indigo and Woad plants and just as in other islands in the Caribbean, the Dutch and French brought in slaves to work in the sugarcane fields and do other work. Slavery in French St Martin was formally abolished in 1848, but on the Dutch side only in 1863. As a matter of interest, indigo dyes were used before the advent of synthetic dyes, in the manufacture of Levi Strauss jeans and that distinctive 'blue' colour is still used today.
While sugar and salt were the two industries that enabled the island to develop, it was the development of aircraft and cruise liners that allowed people to travel that led on to the tourism industry becoming the biggest industry in St Martin/Sint Maarten.
Today International flights arrive at Princess Juliana International Airport (see www.pjiae.com) in Sint Maarten and there is also the regional airport of Grand Case Espérance in St Martin with Cruise ships arriving in Great Bay on the Sint Maarten side of the island. Taxis can be found at the airport to take you to where you are staying, or you can rent a car.
The island caters for tourists and holiday makers with 1000's of rooms available to stay and a stunning array of white sandy beaches. There is a lot to do with all the water sports – swimming, snorkelling, sailing, kayaking, wind surfing, diving, cruises, beach walking, banana boat rides, big game fishing even floating trampolines at some locations. Beside the beaches with their beach chairs and umbrellas set out for sun baking, there are the beach bars, cocktails and land activities like biking, quad bikes trails, horse riding and of course shopping almost wherever you go, and lots of nightlife activity too.
There are also 'clothing optional' beaches too and naturalist/nudist beaches and resorts too – see www.cluborient.com . This is on Orient Bay where on the central square you will find a number of restaurants too.
For shopping there are the high end French fashion and duty free stores in St Martin, and along the waterfront in Marigot there are a mix of both high end shops and also local ones too. There are also locally made perfumes, colognes and cosmetics made in St Martin – look for Tijon Parfumerie in Grand Case on the corner of French Airport Road and Beach Road. Grand Case is a small pretty village and here you will also be able to see some original wattle houses on and off the main street called the Boulevard de Grand Case. There are a number of restaurants here too.
One of the attractions of St Martin is the natural landscape and beaches, as well as the birdlife. The National Nature Reserve which covers wetland areas as well as parts of the Reefs offshore and tiny offshore islands is a natural habitat for birds and marine creatures. There is also a Butterfly Park on Route de Gallon where you can see 100's of Butterflies in the greenhouse in and around the tropical vegetation. In Sint Maarten on Arch Road there is the Sint Maarten Park where there is a Zoo and Botanical Garden where the main attraction is the large number of different Parrots. To see some of birds in the wild, head to the cliffs next to Simpson Bay Lagoon where you could spot herons, warblers and other migratory and local birds. There is also a marina here too called La Royale with boutiques and other shops.
For character head to Rue de la République in Marigot where you will see galleries and shops in the older stone and wooden houses with their intricate fretwork lined verandas that were built here – what they call the 'Gingerbread' houses. There is also the colourful Marigot Market on the waterfront where you will find fresh fruit, fish, spices, meats, handcrafts and even different rums to try.
If you are looking for an adventure head to Loterie Farm, an old sugar plantation and tropical farm below Pic Paradis that dates back to 1773. Here they have a zipline and also swimming pools to enjoy along with other nature based activities. The mountain, Pic Paradis is the highest point on the island and 424 metres (1391 feet) above sea level with great views over the island too.
In Sint Maarten there are 12 Casinos with the island very much geared towards catering for families, individuals, honeymooners and couples looking for a great island with great beaches, climate, food, atmosphere and nightlife. High season is roughly December to April and many people who come here also return every year to the island and while the island is fast developing with real estate agents pushing people to buy here for an island lifestyle, it remains one of the best islands to head to for a great holiday.
While there is no border crossing from Sint Maarten to St Martin, there are Dutch police in Sint Maarten and Gendarmerie on the French side. The US Dollar and ATM machines all work here as well as the Euro and in Sint Maarten you might also come across the Dutch Caribbean Guilder, which is the official currency. You will also come across French, Dutch and English being spoken, depending on where you are on the island, and will also hear Creole French being spoken too.
In the Caribbean there are six islands that have Dutch Heritage – three of these are now constituent Countries in their own right – Aruba, Curaҫao and Sint Maarten, while the other three islands, Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba are Municipalities (BES Island – Caribisch Nederland) of the Netherlands.
To get to the islands of Saba and St Eustatius (originally called Statia) is by flying from Sint Maarten, both of them being tiny volcanic islands just a few miles (kilometres) across.
Saba is just 13 square kilometres in size with a tiny airport on the Atlantic Ocean side and a steep winding road that leads up over the mountain side to the town of Bottom and down to Fort Bay on the Caribbean Sea coast on the southern side. The island is dominated by the dormant Mt Scenery Volcano and those tourists who come here mainly come for the isolation and hiking or for diving on the reefs offshore. Most dive expeditions leave from the main pier is located at Fort Bay and head to one of the many dive sites off-shore in the Marine Park and to the 'pinnacles', small cones of former volcanos plugs that stand out a conical shaped rocks hundreds of feet high above the water.
St Eustatius (formerly called Statia) first colonized by the Dutch in 1636 is slightly bigger in size at 21 square kilometres and it is dominated by 'The Quill' a dormant volcano too that rises about 600 metres above sea level. People also come here for the diving in the Statia Marine National Park and for the hiking, bird watching and isolation. While the island is pretty quiet today, in the days of sail in the 1700's and 1800's, in the main town and port, Oranjestad there were around 20,000 people here in the town – slaves, free slaves, traders, merchants, sailors and others. In those days, Oranjestad was one of the busiest ports in the World and in the year 1779 in its heyday there were 3551 ships that had entered the Harbour to trade pick up or drop off coffee, cocoa, sugar, with vast warehouses build for this purpose. The main reason for this was there was no tax on the goods, including slaves being traded, and traders and smugglers of any and all of these goods including slaves could avoid the taxes that were due in other Caribbean ports by trading here. Once the Dutch slave trade ended in 1863, the town no longer was used as a centre for trade, and in the end they even sold off the bricks that were used to build the warehouses.
Today you can see some of the buildings that were constructed during that time – a barracks, old Fort Oranje, built in 1629, a Dutch Reformed Church, built around 1750 and even a Synagogue, the Honen Dalem Synagogue, built in 1739. Here in Oranjestad there is the St Eustatius Centre for Archaeological Research that has a number of Archaeological digs underway on some of the old plantations that existed here on the island. In 1742 there were 88 sugar plantations, but by 1810 there were just 10 left operating. To gain a glimpse into the days of the plantations, there is the Lynch Plantation Museum just a mile or so from Oranjestad.