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St. Martin/St. Maarten Hotel, Resort & Villa
Phillipsburg 01/23/2003
Reviewers Rating: Excellent
Sunday, 8 March 1998: Philipsburg, Sint Maarten
We are awakened by the pealing of the church bells of the Catholic Church next door, calling the parishioners to Mass. It's 8 a.m. and there's no chance of sleeping in with those bells gonging! So we get ready to go explore Philipsburg.
It helps to know a little about the cultural identity of this unique place. Located about 150 miles southeast of Puerto Rico, this triangular-shaped island is shared by two nations, the Dutch and the French. Today, this 37-square-mile island has two names, two governments, three currencies (one of which is the American dollar), at least four languages (thank goodness one of them is English!), and two dominant cultures. The Dutch and the French have amicably shared the island since the Treaty of Mount Concordia was signed, splitting the territory, in 1648. Popular legend has it that the division was settled by a footrace. A Frenchman and a Dutchman were to circumnavigate the island, starting from Oyster Pond on the east coast. Wherever they met would determine the other endpoint of the border. As the tale goes, the Frenchman went north with a flask of wine, while the Dutchman went south with a flask of a gin-like drink known as Genever. The Frenchman covered the lion's share of the island, capturing 21 square miles. The Dutch were left with the southern 16 square miles. And we can only assume that this originated as a French morality tale about the advantages of wine over gin!
The island has managed to take its colonial heritage and infuse it with delightful island sensibilities. In the west end of Dutch Sint Maarten is the low-lying Simpson Bay Lagoon. Yesterday we drove down Airport Road, separating Simpson Bay lagoon from the ocean. Chic high-rise resorts and casinos designed to lure tourist dollars line the beautiful beaches ringing the lagoon. Heading east, the interior of the island is hilly and arid, and covered with scrubby brush and grassy plains. The southern coastline is indented with sandy bays. Just inland are large salt ponds. Salt used to be major export item of the island, along with sugar cane and livestock. Poor soil and lack of rain, along with the emancipation of slavery in 1863, marked the demise of the plantation system, though. Today, the island is thoroughly inhabited by and economically reliant upon tourism. No substantial farming enterprises exist, and what little fishing is done by the locals is for the benefit of the hotels and restaurants. Most everything must be shipped to the island, including lumber, clothing and food. Even water is a precious commodity. The roofs of most of the buildings on the island are designed to collect what little rain does fall into basement cisterns. But this is not enough to support the locals and all the tourists. Additional water must be either desalinized or brought in by tanker!


Philipsburg, on the sandy southern coast of the Great Bay, is the capital. It is the main shopping and duty-free center of Sint Maarten. And we girls intend to shop! But hunger is taking precedence. We ask a local to recommend a good place to eat breakfast. He directs us to the Pasanggrahan Inn. What a find! This is a stately colonial mansion that was once the governor's palace. It was also used as the Royal Guest House, hosting Queen Wilhelmina and other Dutch royalty. Now it is a hotel and restaurant. At once we are completely charmed by the surrounding ambiance. We walk into the verandah, filled with wicker peacock chairs, palms, antiques and 18th century art, and are directed by the hostess to take a seat with a vista of the bay. The large shutters swing out from top-mounted hinges and give us shade from the intense sunlight. Ceiling fans overhead make us temporarily forget the hot, humid weather. As we settle in to enjoy a scrumptious selection of eggs, pancakes, french toast and fresh-squeezed orange juice, we notice that the regatta is racing in the bay again today. We overhear from the other patrons that this regatta is a major spectacle this weekend. Dennis Conner is out there somewhere, trying to beat those dratted Canadians that made off with his America's Cup! But this is an all day affair, and we have shopping waiting for us. So, we drag ourselves away from this heavenly place and head back into the bustling street.
The typical architecture is replete with gingerbread fretwork and bright colors. We wander in and out of all the shops, taking lots of pictures as we go. I can't help but notice the discontinuity from building to building. Some have sidewalks, some don't. The curb may be high, low or non-existent. The surface may be brick, cobblestone or cement. But one thing for sure, you have to watch where you are walking so you don't trip and fall! Philipsburg would be a building inspector's worst nightmare. But it is a shopper's paradise. We find a marvelous art gallery, the Greenwith Gallery. It is filled to the brim with the paintings, lithographs, ceramics and sculptures of very talented local artists. There is a Harley-Davidson store, lots of jewelry stores (with Colombian emeralds a specialty), Cuban cigars, rum and other spirits and liqueurs, and the ever-popular tourist souvenirs - mugs, magnets, T-shirts, etc. In the center of town is the pier and Wathey Square. On the square is the town hall, a white 2-story wood structure originally built in 1793. The courthouse is upstairs and the post office is downstairs. This square is also the best spot to find a taxi. Down the road apiece is the Sint Maarten museum. On the outskirts of town are the remains of Fort Willem and Fort Amsterdam. But it is Sunday, so none of these historical sites is open. Darn, we have to go back to shopping! So, we each buy some touristy stuff...can't resist temptation. And we finally end at a delightful store called the Shipwreck Shop. Here we buy some brightly colored orange and lime green postage stamps so we can mail those obligatory postcards to all our friends and family back home.

Roacket Girl

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