Just 37 square miles, St. Maarten/St. Martin is the smallest island shared by two nations, France and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and its residents represent the cultures of more than 100 nations spanning the globe.

Originally settled by Taino – Arawak and Carib Indians from South America’s Orinoco Basin, the island came to the attention of European colonizers after Christopher Columbus sighted it in 1493. Both France and the Netherlands coveted the island as a strategic outpost between Europe and North America but avoided conflict by dividing it in 1648 along the treaty of Concordia. The French would keep Saint Martin in the north and the Dutch would maintain an existing fort in southern Sint Maarten. The inhabitants then would share the island’s natural resources.

In succeeding years, St. Maarten/St. Martin saw people arrive from around the world. Answering a call of then governor Philips (providing his name to Philipsburg) of Scottish descent to make St Maarten their home in the 18th century, many of the plantation owners were British of origin. This is why English became the dominant language of St Maarten / St Martin and most original surnames show the same backgrounds. Enslaved Africans worked sugar plantations and salt flats until both sides abolished slavery in the mid-19th century, many of their descendants continuing this hard labor for decades to come.

In a research pertaining to St Maarten’s most admired points, many tourists mentioned its familiarity and village feel. As a tourist from a big city you might feel new to this, but on St Maarten everybody still greets each other on the street. Mingle in and greet us with a good morning, good afternoon or good evening – it is prone to be returned on the Friendly Island!

Migrants also arrived from India and neighboring Caribbean islands, as well as from French colonies in southeast Asia and Dutch holdings like Indonesia. Today St. Maarten/St. Martin is one of the most culturally diverse destinations in the world.

On the French side, French is spoken in government departments and schools; on the Dutch side, Dutch is used in government departments and some schools, but English is widely spoken everywhere. You also may hear Spanish, Creole and Papiamento on both sides of the island.

Some suggestions for understanding local slang amidst these international languages: when people say they are going to “town”, they mean Philipsburg. This stems from the time that now also bustling areas like Simpson Bay were still smaller fishing villages.

What is SXM? On both the Dutch side and the French side, you might run into the abbreviation SXM a lot. The three spellings in French / English and Dutch of the patron  that St Maarten was named after leads to a wide diversity of how people address the island : St Maarten (Dutch and official name for the Dutch side), Saint Martin (French and English). On the Dutch side, you can also run into beloved local dialect name “S’Maatin”. Tourists have also added names like Saint Marteen, St Martins, Sint Marteen and Sint Martin. These are not correct by any language.

While the best way to address the island as a whole would be Sint Maarten / Saint Martin or Saint Martin / Sint Maarten, you can imagine for its citizens that is quite a sentence. That is why locals in writing mostly abbreviate the island as a whole to “SXM”, as per the international flight code of main hub Princess Juliana International Airport.

If you’re a people person, interested in the ways and traditions of others, you’ll be right at home in St. Maarten/St. Martin, where two European nations have spawned a vast historical cultural mélange that’s reflected on the menus of its many restaurants.

Only a marker separates the French and Dutch sides, yet each retains its distinctive flavor. Quiet elegance and world-class cuisine characterize French St. Martin, while the more casual Dutch side favors casinos, shopping malls and vibrant entertainment venues.

For those who want to immerse themselves in St Maarten culture, see our Go where the locals go segment!



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