On my first morning on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten, which takes its name from the day on which it was discovered by Christopher Columbus (the saint’s day of November 11 in 1493), I climb to the top of Pic Paradis.
At 424 meters, Pic Paradis is the highest mountain on the island. Here begins a series of walking paths laid out by the Heritage Foundation that fan out all over the island, following ridges and summits. I start in a cool, dense mist that limits the view to a few meters. As the sun rises, the clouds start to burn off in the heat and I get glimpses of a cottage or a road. As if in a theater, the curtain slowly lifts to reveal the scenery of blue ocean and bluer sky. The delightful soundtrack is of birds chirping. It is going to be another wonderful day in the Caribbean.
The scenic view reveals another insight. Here, in Saint-Martin, the French part of the island, I see a marked contrast to the Dutch side of Sint Maarten. All is green and rural, rolling and charming, but Sint Maarten is busy and built-up, messy and gray.
Where is the famous Dutch sense of order? Has it not made it to this remote outpost? Saint-Martin is undeniably French: the Euro is legal tender – an exception in the dollar-dominated Caribbean – and the gendarmes are as stern as anywhere in France. But the main reason for the difference is that 80 per cent of the French side is in the hands of one wealthy family, which has been absolutely opposed to all forms of development. This ban is the salvation of the island. Visitors can enjoy dance halls, casinos and shops on the Dutch side, and find good restaurants and unspoiled nature on the French side.
The walk that began on the Pic Paradis ends up in paradise. After six hours I reach the beach at Petites Cayes. It feels like the end of the world. I count three other visitors, one of them a surfer far out at sea on a brightly colored board, waiting for a big wave. I look for a place in the shade and let the New Age sounds of the surf work on me.
The next day, in Marigot, the capital of Saint-Martin, I enjoy a breakfast of café au lait and croissants. I have already visited the local fish market, held early every morning with no tourist in sight. When I pull out my wallet to settle the check, a passing bum asks me for a “small contribution.” I give him two euros and he sits at a table and orders a glass of red wine.
Ah, yes, this must be France.