Janet Silvera, Senior Gleaner Writer
WESTERN BUREAU:An imaginary line is all that separates French Saint Martin and Dutch St Maarten in the eastern Caribbean. Two countries, one island. This is the smallest island that has been cohabitated by two different nations for more than 360 years. The only things that separate them, of course, are the currencies, the two flags depicting each government, and the languages.
Each year, on November 11, 'National Islands Day', the two countries, one under France's rule, the other reporting to Holland, come together in a morning mass to improve upon agreements and dine in a traditional lunch setting.
Two weeks ago, I arrived at the Dutch St Maarten International Airport, later crossing the brand new state-of-the-art bridge to the French side of the island, where I basked in a unique experience consisting of a delightful blend of nightlife, captivating shopping, while immersing myself in nature's treasures. Possibly, the only regret I have is not attending a church service while on the island, but I hardly attend church in Jamaica, so there is really no reason why I should be surprised at myself. The predominant denominations on the island include, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Methodists.
From accommodations that offer the best of all worlds the minute you enter the country, a visit to St Martin ties you into a rich history of Fort Marigot, built specifically to protect the island from invaders, to the salt ponds which had great value in preserving food. Signs of the bourgeoisie, who came to the island in the era of the wheat trade, and the architecture differentiating this affluent middle-class group, are a dime a dozen in Marigot.
The same type of architecture that characterises places such as New Orleans in the United States can be seen in this French-looking district. Close to Marigot, a statue in honour of Lady Liberty stands proudly, reminding women in the country how the battle for equality was won.
Some 110 nationalities live on the island of 40,000 people. An equal number reside on the Dutch side. Access to the islands of Anguilla, St Barths (Barthélemy) and Dominica is easy, with ferries and small aircraft being the transportation of choice.
The residents on the island get their water through desalination, which means the water that comes from the ocean goes through a process that allows it to be consumed by humans; and electricity is diesel-run. Solar power is becoming popular, complementing the all-year sunshine that the island boasts.
St Martin is all of 37 square miles, and each boasts a beach. All the beaches are accessible to the people, and there are no plans to become an all-inclusive destination. The island is a popular jaunt for the likes of Donald Trump, Harry Belafonte, and Stu Leonard, and top celebrities, including Sandra Bullock, Gabriel Union, the late James Brown, and Secretary of State, USA, John Kerry, who finds luxury in some of the largest villas in the Caribbean.
The country has a 95 per cent dependency on tourism, which is easy to understand, owing to its offerings of tiny hidden places in its surrounding mountains, playing host to some of the most spectacular views, or the fine white-sand beaches that act as coves for the caressing, delicious, cool waters and warm sunshine.
While in St Martin, I was able to immerse myself in the music, food, and the rhythm of the Mardis de Grand Case, while I slept for four nights at the renowned Grand Case Beach Club. Grand Case claims it is the culinary capital of the Caribbean, and no other island has dared to contest that. The island boasts more than 500 restaurants. The spicy sweetness of steamed fish, the traditional mouth-watering johnny (Journey) cakes, finished off with a guavaberry punch are must-haves on this incredibly beautiful island.
Indeed, both countries, St Martin and St Maarten, are the cruise ship and yachting capital of the region. In 2013, some 1.4 million cruise ship passengers visited the island. A visit to Colombier, a residential area that boasts the status - the gardens of the island, was the most memorable. This area is unspoiled, the flora is rich, the environment offers tranquility and peace, and every yard is home to fruit trees such as mangoes, avocado, papaya, breadfruit, jackfruit; vegetables such as ackee and starches including sweet potatoes.
Goats, sheep and cows can be found in Colombier, which is also home to two major annual events, 'I love my ram' and the 'Arrow Root competition'. Colombier could easily take on the tag line, 'The eco drive of lushness' and no one could argue. The national flower, the flamboyant, decorates the homes in the area.
There are slave walls or stone fencing (walls built by slaves) around the island, and there is Orient Beach, one of the most popular in the region. Orient is home to five tiki bars, local restaurants, souvenir shops, hotels, villas, waterskiing, parasailing, windsurfing, kite surfing, jet skis, and a clothing-optional beach.
I had what would be considered the total experience, from perfume-making in the only factory in the region to watching iguanas make hay while the sun shines!
Having visited St Martin again, I have now come to the conclusion that I want a job that allows me to go to work in shorts. After all, aren't we all living in the Caribbean! Why must some of us wear jackets and ties while some of us relax, unwind and let our hair down!