Sint Maarten is the Dutch, southern half of the island of Saint Martin. While Sint Maarten is part of the Netherlands Antilles, it is set to become an independent country in 2008. The border between Sint Maarten and Saint Martin is unguarded. However, Sint Maarten is very different from the French side, and is known more for its better tourist facilities, nightlife, beaches, and casinos.
Sint Maarten was originally occupied by Carib Indians, whose ancestors have been around since prehistory. The island was sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1493, although the first settlers were the Dutch and French in the 1640s. The two sides partitioned the island into a northern and southern half. The Dutch took the southern half, which they struggled to retain during the 17th and early 18th century as a result of Spanish invasion attempts. The island has remained dually governed for centuries. In 1954, Sint Maarten split from the Netherlands to form the Netherlands Antilles with a few other Dutch Caribbean islands. The Netherlands Antilles, however, will disband in 2008 and Sint Maarten will become a separate country, though it will remain part of the Kingdom of Netherlands.
The main destination of Sint Maarten is Philipsburg, which sits on a sand bar between the salt marsh known as the Great Salt Pond and the Atlantic Ocean. Philipsburg offers the charm of colonial era architecture, numerous duty-free shops, and the historic Fort Amsterdam established by the original Dutch settlers. Fort Amsterdam is more than 300 years old and was built on top of a former Spanish fort. Most of the shops are found along Front Street and sell European clothes, perfume, liquor and jewelry at bargain prices, designed to cater to the swarm of cruise passengers.
Outside of Philipsburg to the west, you’ll find excellent beaches at Maho Bay, which is popularly frequented by tourists. In Mullet Bay, you’ll find self-contained resorts like the Mullet Bay Resort, which also has a golf course, although it is restricted only to island residents and hotel guests.
Sailing is another big attraction in Sint Maarten. The Great Bay Marina and Bobby’s Marina is the disembarkation point of sailing trips every day, including “picnic sails” that take visitors to uninhabited islands and secluded bays. Some of them even sail to nearby Caribbean islands like Anguilla. Sailboats can also be rented for personal adventures.
Scuba diving and snorkeling in the coral reefs of Sint Maarten’s shores are also popular. A great dive spot is the shipwreck of HMS Proselyte, which was a British man-of-war that sunk in 1801. The Maho Bay is also one of the best places for submarine activities.
The nightlife in Sint Maarten is crowded and raucous. Most tourists frequent the large casinos at night, highlighted by the Casino Royale at Maho Beach. But there are also casinos at the various hotels such as at Treasure Island, the Grand Bay Beach Hotel, and the Pelican Resort, among others. The popular discos, bars, and clubs are mostly found in, near, and around Mullet Bay.