Saint Martin
North America, Travel Tips

A Historical Tour of Saint Martin

There is so much more to the island of Saint Martin than just its white sand beaches, low-flying jet planes and European shopping. Saint Martin has a long and colorful history, with remnants of the centuries left standing in hidden hills as well as bustling city centers. Travel through time on a unique adventure of the centuries.

Although the island had been inhabited by indigenous peoples for millennia, Saint Martin was first sighted by European eyes on November 11, 1943 by Christopher Columbus. Because November 11 is the feast of Saint Martin of Tours, Columbus named the island in his honor. Although he claimed the island for Spain, Columbus never actually landed on Saint Martin. The natives were left undisturbed for several more decades. One of the few remaining evidences of the indigenous people is found at Hope Estates Archaeological Site, where Arawak petroglyphs have withstood the force of the elements since the 6th century.

One of the oldest European buildings on Saint Martin is Fort Amsterdam. This fort was built in 1631 to defend the Netherlands’ claim on the island. Although the fort was built in a good location, it was not built well enough to withstand the 17th-century conflict between the Spanish and Dutch. The Dutch eventually constructed the stronger Fort Willem on a different hill. Ironically, Fort Willem is not as well preserved nor as popular as Fort Amsterdam is today. In addition to a military base, Fort Amsterdam has also served as a radio station and a farm. You can explore the ruins of the fort’s walls, canons, and buildings freely on a self-guided tour.

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Amsterdam and Willem are not the only forts on the island. After the Spanish left Saint Martin, the island was split between the French and the Dutch to avoid further war, making Saint Martin the world’s smallest dual-national island. Take a trip across the border to the French capitol of Marigot, and you will find the majestic remains of Fort Louis. In the lowlands below, several pre-revolution buildings line the bustling streets of the shopping district. One of these is now the art gallery of Caribbean painter Roland Richardson. His gallery is a gingerbread-style home that has been in his family for about 150 years. The garden and barracks behind the house date to the reign of King Louis XVI. Both the gallery and garden are open to visitors on a daily basis. You may even be lucky enough to find Roland among the flowers, painting vibrant scenes while enthusiastically instructing his guests on the qualities of light and art.

Take a hike through the lush highlands of the island while exploring remnants of the plantations era. Loterie Farm is a former sugar plantation turned outdoor adventure park. You can relax by the pool, zipline through the treetops, or take the challenging hiking trail to the island’s highest peak. Along the hiking path are the ruins of the plantation’s past: an old sucrerie, an abandoned well, and even a few eerie gravestones.

End your tour of Saint Martin’s history in downtown Philipsburg, where the 19th century meets the 21st century. Crowded together on the busy, narrow streets are modern shopping structures side-by-side with historical churches, government buildings, and homes. Not to be missed is the Sint Maarten Courthouse, an 1800s building that retains its original purpose. Wherever you go on Saint Martin, you will be delighted by the mix of svelte modernism and antique charm.