St. Maarten’s resilient charm

On the face of it, St. Maarten, its many hills dotted with little white houses, its waterside restaurants serving the freshest of local catches, and its shop-’til-you-drop ethos, seems a creation of the modern tourist industry. It’s also considered one of the 10 best sailing destinations in the world.

Yet everywhere there are whispers of an interesting past on this French/Dutch Caribbean Island.

These whispers took me down a laneway to Philipsburg’s museum. Acting curator Pat Lee told me about the Arawak Indians who came here in prehistory, and of Christopher Columbus’s sighting of St. Maarten on the feast day of St. Martin in 1493.

The French and Dutch squabbled interminably over St. Maarten. They finally settled their differences with a 1648 treaty dividing the island. The French portion of the island is called St. Martin. Like most of the Caribbean, St. Maarten knew the stain of slavery, which ended ithe mid-19th century and resulted in the unique Creole culture.

Recent hurricanes
However, it wasn’t until I came across a TV monitor and a stack of videos in a corner of the museum that I realized the biggest story in St. Maarten’s history is being written today. The videos and newspaper clippings recorded how the island has been ravaged by hurricanes in recent years.

Since 1995, there have been six hurricanes, culminating in the horrendous Lenny a few years ago. It defied all weather predictions by arriving in November after the usual summer hurricane season and doubling back as if to hammer the island out of pure malice.

With incredible resilience, the people of St. Maarten have fought back. “We clean up,” said Dorothy Lake, of the St. Maarten tourist office. “We’re rebuilding as fast as we can.” Restaurants that were flatter than crepes after the hurricane are operational again, and the famous shopping streets of Philipsburg are thriving.

Butterfly farm
And it isn’t only the human population of the island that suffers through such devastating weather conditions. At The Butterfly Farm, in French St. Martin, where they hope to re-introduce many exotic butterflies to the island, co-owner William Slayter said, “We’ve been smashed four times.”

Brilliant emerald swallowtails fluttered past our faces. “The first time, I cried – because we didn’t have insurance. Once the wind gets to 150 miles an hour,” he said, “we’re buggered.”

But the simple truth about St. Maarten/St. Martin is that people (and butterflies) have survived. Folk have picked themselves up and carried on. It is a story that makes you feel good about the indomitable human spirit.

Royal connection
St. Maarten is refreshingly devoid of big name resort hotels, and I was lulled to sleep every night by the sound of waves just outside my window at the excellent Great Bay Beach Hotel (also seriously damaged in Hurricane Lenny).

However, once I saw the classic outline of the little 1905 Passanggrahan Royal Guest House, a former governor’s mansion a few feet from the restless waves, even the allure of the unforgettably-named Horny Toad Guest House paled.

I will come clean – I am a royalty buff, and the prospect of sleeping in the secluded Queen’s Room, where Queen Juliana of the Netherlands once stayed, gives me goose bumps.

The cozy bar downstairs was once the bedroom used by Juliana’s mother, Queen Wilhelmina, on an earlier visit. I can just imagine their majesties popping out to the duty free jewellery stores on Frontstreet to price the tiaras and pick up a diamond necklace or two. Even queens like a bargain.