Saint Martin is a tropical island in the northeast Caribbean, approximately 186 miles (300 km) east of Puerto Rico. The island is divided roughly in half between France and the Netherlands Antilles; it is the smallest inhabited territory divided between two nations. The southern, Dutch half is known as Sint Maarten and is part of the Netherlands Antilles. The northern, French half, Saint-Martin, is an overseas collectivity of France. Together, the two territories are known as "Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten."
The differences between the two sides are more cultural and linguistic than political, with unrestricted border crossings. Although only a marker divides the two parts, each retains its own distinct flavor, with the French side reflecting quiet elegance and the Dutch half more casual, including casinos and shopping malls. Both sides rely heavily on tourists to sustain their economy, and both offer duty-free shopping. Tourism accounts for 85 percent of the island's economy.
Saint Martin has a land area of 37 square miles (96 km²), 20 square miles (52 km²) of which is under the sovereignty of France and 17 square miles (44 km²) under the sovereignty of the Netherlands. The island is more than one-third the size of Washington, DC.
The main towns are Philipsburg (Dutch side) and Marigot (French side).
The highest hilltop is Paradise Peak (Pic Paradis) (424 m) at the center of a chain of hills on the French side. There is no river on the island. Hiking trails give access to the dry forest covering the tops and slopes of the hillsides. The lowest point is at the coast.
Salt is the major natural resource. Fresh water supply is dependent on desalinization of sea water.
Physically, the west end is an atoll surrounding a lagoon, while the east end is a range of conical hills. The island has numerous bays, rocky shores, and white sandy beaches.
The temperature averages 80-85°F all year long. In general, the climate is characterized by low humidity, gentle trade winds, and brief, intense rain showers; July to November is the hurricane season. The total average yearly rainfall is 995 mm, with 99 days of thunder. In September 1960, Hurricane Donna badly hit the island, causing extensive damage. Thirty-five years later, Hurricane Luis again devastated the island.
Saint-Martin offers shelter for more than 95 bird species, some indigenous while others are migratory. Among the indigenous, some are vagrants from surrounding islands; others are more permanent residents, including Audubon's shearwater and brown pelicans.
The St. Maarten Marine Park surrounds the entire Dutch side, from Oyster Pond to Cupecoy Bay, stretching from the coastal waters and the beaches out to the 200-foot depth, including areas that are some of the last pristine marine locations on the island, providing breeding grounds for birds, fish, and other marine life. The Marine Park features some 28 dive sites that include natural and man-made coral reefs.
Marine life includes blue crabs, banded coral shrimp, spiny lobsters, conches, sea urchins, sponges, porcupine fish, barracuda, moray eels, nurse sharks, a wide variety of tropical fish, seahorses, and dolphins. In recent years there has been an increase in foraging hawksbill and green sea turtles and the occasional loggerhead as well, all of which feed on the sea grass beds and sponges.
Evergreen forests are found at higher elevations in the central hills, while deciduous and mixed evergreen/deciduous woodlands are abundant in the lower plains. Coastal vegetation and succulent evergreen shrubland are found near the shore. Mangroves line brackish ponds and parts of the Simpson Bay Lagoon.
Saint Martin's history shares many commonalities with other Caribbean islands. Its earliest inhabitants were Amerindians, followed by Europeans who brought slavery to exploit commercial interests.