Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021
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A Week in St. Maarten

A Week in St. Maarten

Day One: History Lesson
Caribbean islands have been so extensively plundered and pillaged that piecing together their respective histories is no small feat. The St. Maarten Heritage Museum (7 Front Street, Philipsburg; tel: 599-542-4917) does a good job chronicling the country's past, beginning with tools, pottery and zemis (spiritual artifacts) belonging to the Arawaks. Economic activity after European discovery is well documented with artifacts and weaponry, and one showcase displays slave beads, a skull, Afro-Caribbean pottery and prints. Visitors are also introduced

to the island's natural environment with displays and literature focusing on coral reefs, flora, fauna and geology. At the end of the tour you'll find a section detailing -- by way of video, photos and newspaper clippings -- the devastating effects Hurricane Luis had on St. Maarten in 1995. There's also a reference library and a small portrait gallery of locals who have made significant contributions to the island. The first floor houses a gift shop with lots of interesting souvenirs. Admission is $US1, free for students and children. Open from 10am to 4pm, Monday to Friday and until 2pm on Saturday.

Day Two: Shop Till You Drop
Philipsburg is a shopaholic's paradise. Just about everything under the retail sun can be found on the main drags of Front and Back Streets. St. Maarten is a free port and there's no sales tax, so you can find jewellery, cameras, clothing, liquor, cigars, leather goods and perfume for up to 60-percent less than what you'd pay in Canada. Generally prices are set and not negotiable, but at some private shops where the owner or manager is on-site, you may be able to haggle a bit.

Little Switzerland (52 Front Street; tel: 599-542-3530) has tons of brand-name watches, jewellery, crystal and china. Boolchand's (50 Front Street; tel: 599-542-2245) is the place for bargains on digital and video cameras. Cigar Emporium (66 Front Street; tel: 599-542-2787) has a staggering selection of Cuban brands like Monte Cristo, Habanos and Cohiba, as well as Dominican and Jamaican labels. Guavaberry is the local liqueur and the best place to pick up a bottle is at The Guavaberry Company (8-10 Front Street; tel: 599-542-2965). For handicrafts and souvenirs, try Shipwreck Shop (34 Front Street; tel: 599- 542-2962). Jimmy Buffet fans -- if in fact such people exist -- will want to stop at Last Mango in Paradise (17 Front Street; tel: 599-542-2058) for CDs, books, videos and various other paraphernalia. The Belgian Chocolate Shop (109 Old Street; tel: 599-542-8863) is the best of its kind on the island, and despite rumours to the contrary, not all of the confections are pornographic -- only some are shaped like parts of the anatomy. You'll also find designer clothing boutiques like Tommy Hilfiger, Benetton, Ralph Lauren and Max Mara.

A word of caution though: if you're planning on purchasing more expensive items like cameras, check prices at home first -- the deals may be good but they might not be better.

Day Three: Sail Away
The 12-Metre Challenge (Bobby's Marina, Philipsburg; tel: 599-542-0045) is a shortened version of the famous America's Cup race and the most (legal) fun you'll ever have on a boat. Participants crew on one of the four yachts, including the Canada II and the Stars & Stripes -- the winner of the 1987 America's Cup. Don't worry if you don't know starboard from port. The crew is experienced and there's a thorough briefing before you begin the race. Assigned roles include trimmer (releasing and coiling up the sail line), primary grinder (spinning the crank handles either forward or backward to reposition the primary sail) or timekeeper for those who prefer a life of lethargy. And if you're lucky enough to be around on March 8, you can check out the annual Heineken Regatta and see the real 12-metre challenge. There are four departures per day and each race lasts about three hours. Cost is $US60-70 per person.

Day Four: Heavenly Creatures
The Butterfly Farm (Galion Beach Road; tel: 590-873-121) is technically on the French side of the island, but this is one foray you've got to make. The 1000-square metre farm is run by two wonderfully eccentric Englishmen and is a perfect outing if you're travelling with the kids.

The enclosed area is a tropical garden with waterfalls and ponds filled with Japanese fish and hundreds of butterflies. The guided tour details the evolutionary cycle -- from egg to caterpillar to pupa to imago. There are over 40 species to be seen here, including Tree Nymph, Zebra and Blue Morpho. Hint: wear brightly coloured clothing or perfume if you want the butterflies to land on you. Admission is $US10 for adults, $US5 for children. Open daily from 9am to 4pm.

Day Five: Shipwrecked
The HMS Proselyte, a British frigate built in 1770, sunk in Great Bay in 1801. The wreck is one of the most popular dive sites around the island's waters and is a must for scuba enthusiasts. The 15-metre dive takes you down to the 200-year-old ship remains, which have been transformed into stunning reef formations. You'll see canons that are now encrusted with coral and three huge anchors. And besides several varieties of reef fish, you're also likely to see great barracudas, moray or snake eels, manta rays, stingrays, nurse and reef sharks, turtles and lobsters. And remember, the waters are part of a protected marine park, so the removal of anything -- including coral, conch shells and turtle shells -- is strictly prohibited. A good outfitter is Dive Safaris, which has two shops, one at Bobby's Marina (tel: 599-542-9001) in Philipsburg and another at La Palapa Marina (tel: 599-545-3213) in Simpson Bay. Call for prices and to make reservations.


Day Six: Life's a Beach
There are plenty of stretches of sand to choose from, and these are your best bets. Dawn Beach and Little Bay Beach both offer good snorkelling opportunities with their coral reefs, calm waters and high visibility. Simpson Bay and Mullet Bay are good for swimming, but there aren't any changing facilities at Simpson, and Mullet can get quite crowded when cruise ships are in. Guana Bay has a strong undertow so it's not a good idea if you've got young children or you're not a strong swimmer. Maho is near Princess Juliana airport and, providing you don't mind the noise, is one of the prettiest beaches on the island. Great Bay stretches out along the coastline of Philipsburg's Front Street and there are lots of restaurants a few steps away, so it's a good choice if you want to spend the whole day. Cupecoy is probably the most beautiful and unpopulated beach. It's made up of a string of white swaths of sand at the foot of limestone cliffs. Stay until early evening to see the cliffs turn a gorgeous ochre red when the sun sets.

Day Seven: Get Lost
Yachties love St. Maarten because it's so close to several other islands. But you don't have to sail in on one to sail out. Charter companies offer day trips to the surrounding islands: Anguilla, St. Barts, Saba and St. Eustatius. If you're only doing one, I suggest heading out to little Saba for the day, which is actually the cone-shaped peak of a volcanic mountain rising from the ocean's floor. Make sure you take the twisting road -- you can't miss it, it's the only road -- up to visit Hell's Gate, which is also the site of the island's largest church. From there, you can climb 1064 steps that rise up through cloud banks and orchid forests to the 879-metre peak of Mount Scenery, offering a stunning view of the villages below and the neighbouring islands.

Round-trip tickets for day excursions cost about $US50 to $US75, and many include a picnic lunch. Ask your hotel concierge or try Voyageur (Bobby's Marina, Philipsburg; tel: 599-542-4096) or Blue Beard Charters (Kim Sha Beach; tel: 599-545-2898).

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.