Caribbean Holiday

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Caribbean Holiday

Between August 27 and September 3, 2005 we spent a vacation in St. Martin in the Caribbean. The landscape is beautiful, with palm trees, beaches and lush hillsides.  Reminders of the island’s volcanic origins can be found everywhere, including the pancake-like holes of cliffs by the ocean front.  Steep hills adorned with lush vegetation dot the landscape, an indicator of frequent rain falls.  The highest peak rises to over 400 metres above sea levels.  The sand on the beaches feels magnificent, and the waters appear mostly very clean.  Apart from tourism, few industries have left any marks on the island, apart from some aluminum mining, refining and the production of Guava Berry rum, the local liquor.  There is one exception: The local banana plantations have apparently fallen victim to unsustainable practices.

The island is only 26 square miles in size and administered by the Dutch and French governments.  The French part is slightly larger than the Dutch, and a lot more tidy.  The conclusion suggests itself that France invests more in its island protectorate: Better road maintenance, garbage disposal, planning, and public safety are the result.  Infrastructure investment pays; this lesson became very obvious during our brief visit. 

Planes were our reason for visiting.  The international airport is located next to the beach, with the Sunset Beach Bar next to it.  Onlookers can enjoy close-ups of large planes about to touch down.  Our son spent many hours there.  The weather remained hot but dry throughout our stay, beginning at dawn.  Air conditioning in the rented car was an absolute must, as were the top hats and caps worn.
The local population of about 75,000 is predominantly of Creole origin.  There are Dutch and French minorities, nestled in their own enclaves, such as Oasis beach.  The school system is clearly influenced by European customs.  The black youngsters wear uniforms, with yellow shirts and turquoise pants.  Other than for shopping purposes, the grown inhabitants do not appear to mix much.  The natives indulge in a variety of religions and beliefs, animism, Christianity, and Islam (about 1,500 people).  The potential for social unrest is suggested by security guards in grocery stores and the scars of the jewelry sales people along the main street.  Poverty surfaces everywhere, particularly on the Dutch side. 

But people take it in stride.  The elderly chap riding on his bike, one hand on the handle, the other on a bottle of Heineken provides a case in point.  That beer is king, evidenced by the plane in Heineken colours.  Life is comparatively easy when all the clothing you need all day is a pair of shorts.  Some knowledgeable locals suggested that most inhabitants do not work more than absolutely necessary to make a living.

The island and its neighbours appear well-prepared to weather any major storms, including hurricanes and tsunamis.  The day after our arrival, New Orleans was hit by Katrina, and the local newspapers instantly produced locations of designated shelters.  The Dutch military made an appearance by ship and landing boats, ready to intervene with emergency management when necessary.  The European stamp on society dominates all facets of the community. 

One of the biggest drawbacks of getting around on St. Martin is the overabundance of cars, occasionally in horrible conditions.  Break shops and mechanics in general are kept busy by potholes and steep hills.  The local food tastes excellent, including fish, shrimp and ribs.  In the French part there is a weekly barbecue cook-off, with delicious offerings.  The duty-free availability of goods provides the major economic engine that keeps the island going.  Most of the tourism revenue seems to flow from the cruise ship passengers flocking to the Capital several days of the week.  They stroll down Main Street, checking out the dozens of jewelry stores and duty-free booze available.

Understandably there was a big uproar in the local press during our stay over discussions by the Dutch government to impose sales taxes on selected goods.  The universal outcry: This is going to kill our economy!  On the other hand, such deliberations are unavoidable, for it seems clear that local services are heavily subsidized from the mainland.  The locals do not make enough money to fix the roads. 

Tourist spending is kept high by the great variety of casinos and tour offerings, including fishing and visiting neighbouring islands.  We took two trips, to Anguilla and St. Barthelemy.  The first of these is a British protectorate, immediately evident by the left-hand side traffic on the roads.  Anguilla appears to be a sleepy place compared to St. Martin, much flatter and dominated by resort development.  The best beach of all during this Caribbean vacation we found on this island: Azure blue water, with the softest sand imaginable.  The only discord in this beach paradise was the stern warning provided by a sign at our entry point: Absolutely no topless bathing!

That was not the rule on St. Barthelemy, a French protectorate.  Several prominent Hollywood stars own properties on this small upscale island, including Jim Carrey.  Among the three islands, this was the cleanest and best planned.  All industrial and commercial activities have been concentrated in one designated and secured area.  The garbage is compacted, even old cars.  No wreckages or half-finished houses mar the landscape, as in St. Martin.  The lifestyles mimic continental France, including food and dress.  The population we saw was predominantly Caucasian.  The towns and villages are beautifully designed, with no flat roofs or other faux passes.  Several exclusive (spell: expensive) beachfront resorts can be found here, in addition to a prominent nude beach. 

We left with mixed feelings: Sad at the short duration of our stay, but also slightly worn out by the oppressive heat (by Canadian standards).  The seasons do not change much in the Caribbean; hurricane season provides the major excitement.  Such risk of storm damage serves to discourage thoughts of investing there.  But a return visit remains a distinct possibility.

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