The commercial hub of the northeast Caribbean is the unusual divided island of Saint Martin. 60% is an overseas Department of France, and the reminder is a country under the Dutch Crown, and called “Sint Maarten”. Similar in status to one of the British Commonwealths, except the “homeland” is the Netherlands. The border here is, and always has been for hundreds of years, invisible. No signs, no border guards. People live in one country and work and shop in the other.
On the Dutch side of the island, English is the standard language. We did hear a few conversations in Dutch, but that was not at all typical. On the French side, the standard language is (surprise!) French. Our French is nonexistent, but everyone we interacted with could speak English, and was helpful and friendly. The only place we struggled at all, was grocery shopping on the French side. Where it seems a rule that no French label could ever include any other language.
A lot of what we learned about this place was due to a former Amel owner, Alex Uster von Baar who lives here on the island, and took us under his wing. He has been our tour guide and taxi service for the last several days, and we are endlessly grateful for his help!
The island is beautiful, with mountain peaks rising 1000 feet and more above the ocean. It is a huge center for boats of all sizes, from tiny little Optimist prams in the Yacht Club Youth program to huge super yachts.
As beautiful and interesting as the island’s people and geography are, the thing we are most likely to remember is (believe it or not) the shopping. Seriously. It has chandleries (a boat parts store to you landlubbers) that are better stocked than ANY we have seen–anywhere. Even in Fort Lauderdale. Prices are a bit higher, but not insanely so. We found parts here we needed, and in the USA would have to order in, but here they were on the shelf. Even more amazing (if it’s possible!) than the boat supplies, is the food.
Oh My. The Food. First you have to understand that the locals seem to not understand what the English word “super” means. By way of example, this is a Supermarket:
To be fair, this “Supermarket” is pretty similar to what we expect to find “out in the islands”. You could live very well from this market, it is well stocked with fresh produce and all the normal stables.
But… drop the word “super” and you walk into this “market”:
In the Dutch Market the prices are posted in US Dollars, Euros, and NAF.
NAF? Netherlands Antilles Guilders. Which doesn’t makes any sense on a lot of levels… Somehow “florins” got translated into “guilders.” And the “Netherlands Antilles” no longer exists as a political entity. But Money is slow to change. The NAF is fixed at the rather computationally inconvenient rate of 1.79NAF to US$1. I don’t think we have seen any NAF in circulation. Everybody uses USD.
And to add to the amusement, pretty much everything in the store is either priced in Dollars or in all three currencies–except meat, which is only priced in NAF. I am sure there is a logical explanation…
Considering that the island has no agriculture at all, the produce is abundant and inexpensive. Meat is of a quality I can only dream about, and imported European products (canned fois gras anyone?) are cheaper than a US consumer could even dream of.
When you are traveling on a boat, you stock up on things when you can, because you don’t know when you might find them again. We added a lot to our ship’s stores here!
From here, we are sailing in a day or two to Martinique, another overseas department of France. The attraction there is the Caribbean Service Base for Amel Yachts. We have a few projects that we want the experts on our boat to take care of.
Once we run out of money to spend at Amel, we are heading further south. We are not at all sure how many stops we will make between Martinique and Grenada. Timing, weather, and our curiosity will decide.