Just a few feet beyond the twisting border that separates the French and Dutch sides of this Caribbean island, things start to change. And the changes don't always sit well with visitors.
Like one afternoon, at my hotel on the French side, I met an Ohio couple who had just returned from Le Galion, a fine beach tucked into a bay and favored by families for its tame surf. The couple, however, were unnerved by women baring their chests while children frolicked in the sand. They had seen no such thing on the Dutch side.
"Coming from the U.S., that was obviously pretty shocking," said Joe Williams, 44, a Baptist pastor from Lodi, Ohio.
No surprise, then, that the Williamses were more comfortable on the Dutch side. They reported favorably on the friendly tourists they met and the endless shopping. One store even reminded them of the Sam's Club back home. You don't find that amid the French side's quiet sidewalk cafes.
St. Martin — or St. Maarten if you're on the Dutch side — easily breeds allegiance. The two sides have different governments, languages, cuisines, currencies and general dispositions. They have different electrical currents from different companies, which explains why blackouts are routine only on the Dutch side.
What they don't have is much of a border. All that denotes the divide, depending on your direction of travel, is a sign reading "Welcome to the French Side" or "Welcome to St. Maarten." No fences, no checkpoints.
Still, that border often leads visitors and locals alike to identify with one side of these 37 square miles, thereby turning the other into a faraway boogeyman.
In a Dutch-side restaurant, for instance, a man asked his server whether robbers still swiped purses from scooters on the French side. The waiter assured the man no such problem exists, but the man and his wife, from northern New Jersey, were hardly comforted.
"We've been coming for years, and I won't even give them my business anymore on the French side," the wife said.
"The French side is very ... French," the husband added.
What he meant was clear. He wasn't being nice.
But he was correct. The French side is very French, all the way down to Marigot's chocolate croissants and a languid pace generating a fraction of the traffic that plagues the Dutch side.
Between the language and the food, the sun and the surf, it's like a Caribbean version of Nice. As Muriel Demy, a 39-year-old Nice native who moved here to open a beachfront hotel, sunbathed on an 80-degree January afternoon (topless, it should be noted), I asked if true French culture exists on the island.
Yes, she said, in the beachfront village of Grand Case. There, on the main street wide enough for just one car at a time, French chefs craft dishes of snails, cassoulet, foie gras and local fish ladled in butter and cream at more than 25 restaurants.
"This is the real French food," Demy said.
I asked how often she goes to the Dutch side — a mile from where we talked — and she looked as if I had asked how often she visits Mars.
"Maybe sometimes for work or to shop," she said.
It might not sit well with the northern New Jersey contingent, but many locals, even on the Dutch side, said they prefer the French side. "Less tourists," a cabdriver said.
True enough; though slightly larger, the French side attracts a tenth of the cruise traffic, meaning fewer people wind up there.
The Dutch side, on the other hand, feels less like Holland and more like the Caribbean. As with much of the region, it is a cultural mishmash — local, Asian, Indian, European and American. It is admired for the shopping that comes in three essential experiences: the dutyfree liquor store, the duty-free jewelry store and, in a nod to efficiency, the duty-free liquor/ jewelry store. There are more than a dozen casinos and plenty of inexpensive clothing stores.
As you'd hope from the Caribbean, it's hard for anyone not to smile and offer a kind word on the Dutch side.
"It's much more casual," said Anne Dodril, 65, of Leesburg, Va., an annual visitor with her husband for 20 years. "We just feel more comfortable."
Because of the relentless tourism, everything is for sale: fast food, Cuban cigars, straw hats, towels that fold into beach bags and blessedly cold, cheap bottled beer. Men offer any stray tourist a taxi, and women peddle parasailing, writing the rates — it's more expensive the higher you go — on the back of a failed scratch-off ticket.
"Tell them Emily sent you," one said. "That way I get a little commission."
But it all comes with a Caribbean ease. When I arrived at the Dutch-side Harbour View restaurant for a delicious lunch of curried goat, my waitress plucked my hat from the finger where I twirled it, put in on her head and danced. Then she disappeared and, with my hat still on, served an ice-cold Carib lager with a short glass and a slice of lime.
The French were eminently friendly. But they did not clown with my hat.
IF YOU GO:
—Most speak English, but French is the default.
—Great French wine can be found at French restaurants.
—"Lolos"—local barbecue stands — offer great cheap meals.
—English is the language.
—Traffic is particularly bad.
—Casinos are casual.
—Check out the beach and bars at the foot of Juliana Airport's runway.
GETTING THERE: Nonstop flights to Princess Juliana International Airport (on the Dutch side) are available from a handful of American cities, including New York City, Miami, Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C. Depending on time of year, flights can approach $1,000 but will more commonly cost $350 to $550.
GETTING AROUND: Buses run regularly, and taxis are easy to find, but renting a car allows for the most exploration. The average daily rental from a major company is about $30 per day.
STAYING THERE: There are about 75 options, including resorts, inns, hotels and guest houses. Prices are $150 to $350 per night, including taxes.
CURRENCY: The official currency of the Dutch side is the guilder, but I only saw the dollar used. French-side businesses take euros and dollars.
(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.