History and Shopping in St. Maarten and St. Martin



Historic Fort Louis
Historic Fort Louis sits atop a hill overlooking Marigot, St. Martin.


When you think of St. Maarten and St. Martin, the first thoughts are usually of a beautiful white-sand beach and some of the best cuisine in the Caribbean. But on a full-day tour of both the Dutch and French sides of the island during last month’s Caribbean Tourism Organization conference in the French side’s capital, Marigot, Travel Agent also discovered some attractions for history buffs, cultural tourists, nature lovers and shoppers.

Historic Fort Louis

Fort Louis sits on a hill, overlooking the bay of Marigot and the island of Anguilla. It was built in 1789 by locals, on the orders of Jean Sebastian de Durat, then governor of St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, for the king of France. Its primary function was to defend the harbor warehouses where valuable goods (salt, coffee, sugarcane and rum) were stored. Later, the fort was abandoned and fell into ruin. It was restored in the 19th century, only to be abandoned again. During this period the fort was also the site of battle between the French and the English, as the latter often crossed over from Anguilla to raid the warehouses.

Roughly 10,000 people a year visit Fort Louis. It is recommended that clients be in decent physical condition and carry a bottle of water, as the climb is steep and taxing. The attraction’s appeal is a little taste of history, some cool breezes in an otherwise hot destination and, most notably, the terrific view it affords of Marigot.

Christophe Henocq (+590-690-567-892), director of St. Martin Museum, conducts personal tours of Fort Louis. He charges $5 per person for a tour of the fort and $5 for a tour of the museum, which has a collection of what are purported to be the oldest ceramics in all of the Caribbean. There are three-hour bus tours that take groups to the museum, the fort and various sugar plantations throughout both the French and Dutch sides for $30 per person.

Natural Reserve

On the east coast of the island, the Réserve Naturelle Nationale de Saint-Martin is bounded by the sea in a triangle that starts at Anse Marcel, passes to the east of  Tintamarre Island and ends at the entrance to the lagoon in Oyster Pond. This sanctuary for fauna and flora comprises a 7,400-acre marine section and a section on land covering 370 acres. It includes the small islands of Pinel, Petite Clef, Caye Verte, Tintamarre and the islets in the Baie de L’Embouchure. The well-known Creole Rock, which lies opposite Grand Case, is also part of the reserve, as are the reefs that extend for an additional 650 feet.

Front Street in Philipsburg
Shoppers stroll along Front Street in Philipsburg, St. Maarten.

The marshland around the Etang aux Poissons and the salt ponds in Orient Bay fall in this protected area. The mangroves provide the breeding ground for a lot of marine species. The government has forbidden fishing and hunting in the designated park area. 

The natural reserve was probably the best part of our full-day tour. The main attraction here is to spend time on a “remote island that is lost in the Caribbean,” says Romain Renoux, director for the Réserve Naturelle Nationale de Saint-Martin. Clients can choose from 17 private certified charter boats that tour the island.

Travelers can picnic for the day and take part in the best snorkeling and diving in the destination. Agents looking for more information on any of the 17 approved companies should contact Renoux (+590-590-290-972; [email protected]).

For more information on the French side, visit www.stmartinisland.org or contact Atout France (212-838-7855; [email protected]).

Shopping in Philipsburg

On a visit to Philipsburg, the Dutch side’s capital, travelers should be sure to hit Front and Back streets and the Boardwalk. On Front Street, they will find mostly high-end jewelry stores, electronics and such, while Back Street is lined with local vendors selling arts and crafts as well as other souvenirs. On the Boardwalk, there’s a long strip of beachfront restaurants and bars, all selling small bites and beverages for a relatively cheap price.

Perhaps one of the coolest spots we checked out in Philipsburg was a small Front Street establishment called the Guavaberry Emporium, which sells a variety of products derived from St. Maarten’s national berry. Most popular is an aged liqueur that has a woody, fruity, bitter-sweet flavor and 35 percent alcohol. This shop, an old cedar townhouse that was once the governor’s home, also sells a hot sauce, barbecue sauces and other consumables, as well as some great souvenirs and probably the cheapest beers on the island. One popular brew, President, goes for $1.50 a bottle and can be consumed in public.

Shops in Philipsburg are usually open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but the hours are extended a bit during the holiday season. (Note: Cruise ships make several regularly scheduled calls a week at Philipsburg, crowding the streets with their passengers. Check cruise line schedules so you can suggest optimum shopping times for your non-cruise clients.)

For more information on Philipsburg, or if you are looking for some local tour operators, contact Lisa Noel ([email protected]; +599-542-0682), product development assistant for the St. Maarten Tourist Board.