St. Martin/Sint Maarten

BEST PLACE TO LEARN A LANGUAGE

Outside

Outside    

Population: 72,000
Annual Household Income: $36,000
Median Home Price: $350,000
Climate: Out-of-nowhere cloud bursts refresh sun-soaked islanders.

After the tans fade and the underwater photos are developed, those who return from the Caribbean island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten inevitably debate one question: Which was better, the French side or the Dutch? The French scores points for its white-sand beaches, newly carved singletrack, and gourmet restaurants. The Dutch, for duty-free shopping in Philipsburg and guavaberry coladas. No contest.

The truth is, separately they appeal to two very distinct types of visitor, but together they are a budding linguist's dream. The 37-square-mile island is the smallest landmass in the world that's shared by two nations; English, Dutch, and Papiamento (in that order) are spoken on Sint Maarten, French and English on St. Martin. Whether you pop down here for a year's sabbatical or try to make a serious go of it, soon enough you'll find yourself reading Hugo in the original, pronouncing "gouda" and "van Gogh" with properly phlegmy intonation, and dreaming in a linguistic m‰lange so perplexing even Freud would've turned you away.

THE HOME FRONT: Despite the construction frenzy that followed Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn (which tore up 75 percent of homes on the island in 1995), houses don't come cheap. Low-end duplexes in the Dutch Lowlands with two bedrooms and two and a half baths, but lacking a full ocean view, go for $225,000. Tucked higher up on Cay Hill, a four-bedroom, four-bath with a pool is priced at a "firm" $399,000. The good news on the Dutch side? No property taxes. On the French side, expect to pay $500,000 and up for a single-family home that sports acreage and a view. Think villa-with-lanai for sub-$300,000 affordability.

THE BACKYARD: In and around Simpson Bay, the Dutch side's largest town, you'll find the best deals for sailing charters. Novices can hire one of the seemingly omnipresent local guides for a day on the bounding waves; sailors with some experience can set their own course for a half-dozen nearby islands, such as Anguilla and St. Barts. It'll run you about $350 for a day of cruising on a 42-foot catamaran.

Divers and snorkelers should head for the eastern shore; more than a third of the area is a maritime reserve. Back on land, hiking up the 1,400-foot Pic Paradis, the highest point on St. Martin, makes for a pleasant day's excursion, thanks to easy access by trail. Mountain biking is a recent startup here, but a tasty stretch of mango- and coconut-palm-lined singletrack was cut earlier this year, along with a 12k loop for races, by the folks at Frog's Legs bike shop in Marigot.

NINE TO FIVE:Tragic news for nearby Montserrat has become an economic boom here. A massive eruption from Montserrat's Soufriˆre Hills Volcano in 1997 buried much of the island, including American University Medical School--which has since relocated to Sint Maarten, creating hundreds of jobs and pumping millions into the island's coffers. In other words, even if you're neither teacher nor student, you'll find a newly robust business climate in which to set up shop.

ON THE TOWN: Not ashamed of its scruffiness or European-schizo heritage, St. Martin aims to please by not trying too hard to please. Usually placid Marigot has the feel of a French city, but with less attitude. In Grand Case, you can dine at a different French restaurant each night of the week without being disappointed. And if you're staying for at least a few months, you'll become an expert on the the local music scene by alternating visits to the clubs at Marina Royale in Marigot and Friar's Beach Caf‰ in Friar's Bay, where rock 'n' roll and reggae bands take their turns on stage.

THE PRICE OF PARADISE: Of course, air and water are free. But that's outdoors. Inside, you'll pay close to $400 a month for even smallish apartments and homes.

DON'T BE SEEN WITHOUT: Lait de Moustique brand insect repellent. The wicked trilingual mosquitoes will avoid you at all costs.

BEST OF THE REST SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, MEXICO: ÀComo se dice en espa±ol ANTIGUA GUATEMALA, GUATEMALA: Cobblestones and coffee in the volcano-ringed highlands.

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