It has a bit of a lounge atmosphere, the terrace of the Holland House Beach Hotel on the Philipsburg boardwalk, where I am having an afternoon tea and looking out over the sparkling blue expanse of Great Bay where Philipsburg was founded in 1629.
The hotel lobby behind me also looks nice and through it I can see the traffic stuck on Front Street, the street running parallel to the boardwalk where many of the tourist outlets are. 'Maybe I should have booked in here after all', I muse. Two comments on Tripadvisor by people who, having made a pre-paid booking, had to pay again when they arrived late and then had no other option or be out on the street for the night, had made me decide against it. I knew I would also arrive late and it was indeed almost midnight when I finally checked in in Captain Oliver’s Resort, just across the border on Oyster Pond on the French side of the island. Quite a nice place, but a bit further from Philipsburg and the state of the roads makes for a slow journey.
A steady stream of tourists from the three cruise ships docked to the left of the bay at the Dr A. C. Wathey Cruise Pier, saunter by on their way back to their ship. It is just past 4 p.m. so they still have almost an hour to walk the 15 minutes or so back to the cruise pier before their ships leave at 5 p.m. and their day in Philipsburg and St Maarten is over. 'Cruising the Caribbean instead of arranging it all myself, that would be another option', now crosses my mind and while I pick up my ‘Daily Herald‘ of Friday January 20th,which opens with the headline that the Minister of Infrastructure Theo Heyliger admits that St Maarten has ‘…major issues with drainage and sewage…’(roger that), I make a mental note to look into it. The cruise thing I mean, not the drainage and sewage.
Here on St Maarten I am exactly halfway through my Caribbean Round Trip. I visited three Spanish-language islands (Cuba [with Olive], the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico), and three Dutch islands (Curacao, Bonaire and St Maarten itself). From here I will literally crossover (I arrived at Princess Juliana International airport and will leave from the regional airport Le Grand Case on the French side), to continue with three French islands (St Martin, Guadeloupe and Martinique) and three English islands (Dominica, St Lucia and Barbados). Twelve communities on eleven islands.
A 21-night Holland America Line cruise (American Carnival owned, but the ship’s officers are still Dutch I understand) to the Eastern Caribbean would also give you 12 different ports of call: 1 Spanish (San Juan), 9 English (St Thomas, St Croix, Dominica, Antigua, Tortola, St Kitts, St Vincent, Barbados. Bahamas), 1 Dutch (St Maarten) and 1 French (Martinique).
The cruise would set you back $4200 (outward cabin, on a minimum 2-person basis), which works out at about €160/day. While on my trip I expect to spend some €13500, which works out at about €185/day for the 77 days that I am travelling. On a daily basis the difference is not that big, but since I spend so many more days the difference is huge.
In fact most people probably don’t want to spend 21 days on a cruise ship and rather prefer a 7-day cruise like the Carnival Southern Caribbean starting in San Juan Puerto Rico, calling on St Thomas USVI, Barbados, St Lucia WI, St Kitts WI and St Maarten NA. This selection is also skewed towards English speaking destinations, but the prices are actually surprisingly low. For an inside cabin for two you pay $838, which works out at €48 pp/pd all included. I had lunches where I paid as much, because some islands (don’t act innocent, I am talking about you, Dominica), are outrageously expensive.
‘But is a 9 hour stop-over really enough to appreciate the city and the island‘, you ask?
Apart from San Juan which certainly merits two or three days, 9 hours is plenty. In Philipsburg you will have 6 hours to spare to make an excursion over the island or spend time shopping in the 40-odd jewellery shops that crowd Wathey Square and Front Street at the cruise pier end, because, frankly, most of those Caribbean destinations have very little to offer but sun, beaches and cocktails. If you start in San Juan you simply arrive a few days earlier and you’ve got El Morro and other goodies of San Juan covered too.
“What are you looking for?”, she stops arranging books and prints on another table in the St Maarten museum shop to come and help me. I’m perusing a pile of old maps she had put on a table along the wall just before. “I was hoping to find a copy of the map I saw in your presentation room on the first floor, the one of the ‘Nova Belgica, Nieuw Nederlandt’ area of the WIC colony along the US east coast“, I explain.
In September 2010 Olive and I spent a three-week vacation traveling from New York , over Long Island, crossing the Long Island Sound, following the Rhode Island coast to Mystic Seaport with its very engaging whaleboat captains’ houses and on to Cape Cod. From there we took the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, the island off the Cape Cod coast that, together with Nantucket, is the preferred summer retreat for the east coast’s political, financial and popular elites. We cycled the island from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown where we first stopped for lunch in The Seafood Shanty (very tasty, go there) and then the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. It was there in a back room on a darkish old map that we were surprised to discover that the island used to be called ‘Texel‘, after one of the Dutch North Sea islands.
I am in luck: she has one last display copy. “It has pin holes from being stuck on the wall”, she says apologetically, but I don’t mind. I have never seen this map and it has a lot of interesting details that I was not yet aware of. “Look“, I point out to her, “t’Lange Eylandt’ has obviously become Long Island, but I did not know that the name for Rhode Island, the state, came from ‘Roode Eylant’ (Red Island)”. Nantucket Island was ’Vlielant’, with Martha’s Vineyard (Texel) at the edge of the ’Zuyder Zee’, as they are in the Netherlands. “I love these maps”, I say. “I do too”, she says. I look at her: “No you shouldn’t, you are a woman; women love engravings of old cities, men like old maps“, I tell her. But she is Elsje Bosch, the museum director, and she easily stands her ground.
We inspect the map a little more and are intrigued by the Indian wooden-palisade fortifications west of the Delaware river (then the border), that I never associated with Indians, but rather with European-settler fortifications in the Wild West precisely to defend against Indian attacks.
Until the 1950s St Maarten was a quiet backwater, but with greater independence in 1951 and under the leadership of Claude (A.C.) Wathey (where have I seen that name before) and his Democratic Party, the development of tourism on the island began in earnest. ‘The Big Pier’, St Maarten’s first cruise pier, opened in 1964 and the number of cruise visitors went from 105.000 in 1980 to over a million in 2002 and 1.4 million as we speak (not bad, considering there are about 4 million tourists cruising the Caribbean), who spend some $75 million per annum. The present A.C. Wathey Cruise Pier can, as I noted myself, accommodate up to four cruise ships. With hotels, resorts, casinos and tax-free shopping, tourism is by far the most important economic activity and 85% of the population depend on it.
The picture is however not all rosy for the Caribbean islands. Take my case, the €175 a day I spend goes directly into the local economy, but the €160 you would spend goes into the pockets of the cruise operators who are predominantly American and English, and only the $50 that people on average spend on land (on-board food is free, so no lunches and dinners on shore), go into the local economy. The cruise companies are also striving to further increase their share, sometimes by shortening berthing times or developing their own on-shore shopping and dining facilities (like the Renaissance Riffort Village in Curacao) and even more drastically by developing Caribbean destinations fully owned by them, like Halve Moon Cay, Princess Cay or Coco Cay, cutting out the original Caribbean destinations entirely.
The increase of cruise tourism over the years has also led to a reduction in independent travelers coming to the Caribbean islands, to the point where American Airlines demanded a $4.5 million subsidy from Antigua, Grenada and St Lucia in order to maintain the daily flights from Miami (didn’t save AA though, they are currently under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection). While in Dominica the increase in numbers of cruise tourists clash with the eco-tourist character the island also wants to promote. It is true, if you are walking the demanding Waitukubuli-trail (14 segments, 149.3 km, 83.5 hours walking from Scotts Head to Capucin Cape; I did not do it, but met a few younger guys who did), you are probably not too keen to have your view of Trafalgar Falls obstructed by tour busses (you are safe at the Valley of Desolation and the Boiling Lake though, no roads go there).
“I didn’t find much of old Philipsburg aside from the Court House“, I observe, “that was nice, but is there anything else?” According to Elsje there is (I didn’t call her that then, but writing about her it seems more natural), there are still a few older colonial houses at the end of Front Street. She should know since she is also one of the founders of the St Maarten National Heritage Foundation and when a delegation of the Dutch ‘Raad van State’ (the highest judicial court for administrative matters) came to visit recently, they specifically asked for the ‘lady of the museum’ to show them around. “There is also Fort Amsterdam, which we saved from demolition, you should certainly go there“. It was already on my list, but now even more so.
The French side developed tourism much later and in a much more restrained fashion and it shows. While Marigot, the main French village, has retained some provincial French charm with a splash of Caribbean flavour and a lot of nice restaurants around the marina, Philipsburg (as well as the resort area around Simpson Bay) is pretty awful. Crassly commercial, with very little of the original village left, Front Street is a rather worn, unappealing collection of tourist stores, with a curious overdose of jewellery shops (indeed some with an old shop front), and the boardwalk along the beach is bland at best. Even the remains of Fort Amsterdam, the first Dutch WIC fort in the Caribbean dating from 1631, would have been bulldozed by the adjoining Divi Little Bay Beach Resort if a last-ditch effort by the Heritage Foundation had not prevented that from happening (and however hard I tried I was unable to locate the remains of the other fort, Fort Willem). Fort Amsterdam now languishes waiting for money to restore it to some semblance of what it once was; would be good for tourism too I would think.
“Have things changed, since St Maarten became an independent country on 10-10-10”, I ask her. She can know, she came to the Netherlands Antilles back in 1972, together with her Antillean husband whom she met studying. ‘Not very much yet’, is her view, 'they are still trying to find their footing and building up a state apparatus'. “Why did they want to be an independent country anyway, St Maarten is a mere 34 km² and has only 30.000 inhabitants; a good-sized village really. Why did they not choose to become a special municipality and remain an integral part of the Netherlands, like the other small islands Bonaire, Saba and St Eustatius did? Dutch laws and social arrangements would apply, the Dutch could take care of border control and other essential services and they could choose their own council anyway“.
That question has been increasingly on my mind the last few days. The French side is a French collectivité (I knew about the DOM, ‘départements d’outre-mer‘, and TOM, ‘territoires d’outre-mer', but this is a COM): part of France and the EU, with a locally-chosen council, police, courts , infrastructure and the Euro and it definitely looks in better shape than the Dutch side.
She is not sure herself, and takes me up to the museum floor to show what the alternatives were and how the St Maarteners, as they are called, voted in the 2000 referendum. The results were clear 70 % voted for independence within the Kingdom and only 12% for integration as a special municipality. ‘It probably had to do with the strained relations at the time and the fear of Dutch meddling‘, is her understanding.
Wathey’s virtual one-man rule of the island had another unfortunate consequence. From 1978 onwards accusations of corruption cropped up and after further suspicions of links with the Italian mafia, a 1991 report concluded that St Maarten was financially broke and the government an oligarchy that flouted democratic rules. St Maarten was put under direct Dutch rule from 1993 to 1996. Wathey resigned in protest at ‘Dutch interference’ in 1992, was prosecuted for corruption, fraud and being part of a criminal organisation, but in an Al Capone-style move was convicted to one year for perjury. That has not ended the problems though. In 2004 renewed accusations surfaced of money laundering, cocaine trading and use of the island to finance terrorist networks like Hamas and in 2009, Louis Laveist, a former commissioner, was accused of forgery, fraud and bribery and convicted to 18 months for the bribery part.
While Elsje is not in favour of the chosen solution, which means that all the trappings of a state have to be put into place, requiring skills and money easily surpassing the resources of such a small community, she is also not very complimentary about the Dutch experts she met who came over to advise and help the fledgling St Maarten government set it all up. “I often find them arrogant and disrespectful of the local customs and culture”, is her verdict, echoing the sentiments of that other ‘lady of the museum’ I spoke to in Curacao and my own impressions for that matter. I would dismiss it as a generational thing if not for the fact that the Spanish already had a dim view of Dutch uncouth behaviour in the 16th century.
She tells me that when she came to the island in 1972 things were quite different. “No discrimination because I was a white woman with a black husband and a much more relaxed society“. “I am 68 now”, she tells me, not having lost Dutch directness herself,“ and I am doing this work because I like it, but also because I need to financially”. And she does. She was a teacher on several of the islands, yet for all the years as a teacher her pension only amounts to NAF 700 per month (€290; Netherlands Antillean Florin/Guilder) and since she lived abroad for so long, she only receives about 1/3 (€300) of her Dutch state pension. “I have my own apartment and I don’t need much, but you can’t live on that amount on St Maarten; what is it in Euro, about 600?”. I nod in agreement since I know price levels are comparable to Europe. “So I pay myself another $1000 as a museum director”. That would probably make it workable and she is not complaining, but it is still only €1400 a month.
While she and her assistant are carefully packing my precious map in a cardboard tube, I still digest what she told me. We don’t differ that much in age, and at about the time she left for St Maarten, I also started to work. Come 2012, she still has to work and I was able to retire comfortably in 2004. Probably not the sort of thing she worried about or was even aware of when she followed your husband to the Netherlands Antilles in 1972. The tube is too short and they busy themselves fashioning an extension so it will survive the trip in my case. Her case reminds me of colleagues I met at the UIC (International Railway Union in Paris) from the former east European communist countries who, after the system collapsed, also were left with pensions worth a pittance.
“Thanks a lot for packing it so nicely”, I tell them, as pay my contribution to keep the museum (and Elsje) in business and prepare to take my leave. I am hesitating in the door opening, the first raindrops of an oncoming shower are darkening the pavement. ‘I better run now, before it is pelting, my car is not that far‘, I say, more to convince myself than to them and I rush off along the Kanaalsteeg to the boardwalk. Then the shower bursts and together with a bevy of cruise tourists on their way back to their ships I get soaked anyway.
Which reminds me. If you don’t mind being on a ship with a lot of other tourists and eat buffet food most of the time, cruising the Caribbean really is not a bad alternative. It is a lot less expensive, does not take the inordinate amount of time I need to find hotels, cars, planes and ferries, it gives you enough opportunity to see most of what is interesting, it is safe (well, the Costa Concordia put a little dent in that) and can work out very well as Olive and I experienced when we did the Galapagos cruise in 2009 (see entry 216). We were lucky enough to have an interesting mix of people in our Pengüinos group, which added to the fun, the islands and the wildlife were fascinating, and the excursions quite informative.
If you do, but still feel guilty for not supporting the Caribbean economy enough, you can always buy something extra, like a nice old map, but remember men buy maps and women buy engravings (or maybe jewellery: 40 shops full of it).