St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island, is still somewhat more developed for tourism than the French side, with large hotels, villas, condos, resorts, time-share developments, casinos and an amazing variety of nightlife. Its capital, Philipsburg, is a favorite destination of cruise ships and plays host to thousands of tourists when ships are in port.
The French and Dutch sides of the island, although culturally distinct, have a shared history dating back to the early 17th century. Early settlers banded together to ward off the Spanish, then divided the 37-sq-mi/96-sq-km island between themselves. The hilly, southern Dutch side is the smaller half, covering 16 sq mi/41 sq km. The French side is often called "the north" by locals.
The Arawak Indians named the island Soualiga, or Land of Salt, and the Great Salt Pond, near Philipsburg, remains a prominent geological feature protected by local environmentalists. The capital's sheltering Great Bay has attracted international traders for centuries, and St. Maarten is still known as a duty-free shopper's paradise. With its sheltered harbors, trade winds and proximity to other islands, St. Maarten is also a yachting hub.
The Dutch side changed its status in October 2010 from an island territory of the Netherlands Antilles to an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands remains head of state, while The Hague continues to be in charge of overseeing foreign affairs and defense. The people of St. Maarten remain Dutch nationals and carry Dutch passports.
Note: St. Maarten sustained widespread damage during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. One year after the storms, St. Maarten is coming back better than ever. Historic buildings weathered the storms beautifully, and nature quickly reasserted itself, returning tropical foliage and stunning beaches to their original beauty. Infrastructure is a little slower to replace, but it's well on its way, with most tourist attractions, shops, restaurants and casinos open for business. Major hotels and resorts are taking longer to restore, as several required extensive reconstructions.
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