Looming over the town of Marigot, the capital of the French side of the dual nation island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten, is the imposing presence of Fort Louis. While many travellers know the French side of the island for its incredible offering of picturesque beaches, luxurious villas, and dynamic cuisine, Fort Louis is symbolic of a different facet of the destination’s appeal. What awaits visitors to St. Martin is not only a thriving contemporary culture but a fascinating story: one intertwined with some of the most influential figures in European history. Each weathered fort and colonial building on the island has its own tale to tell. In our view, visiting these sites is as quintessential to any St. Martin getaway as a day on the beach or an afternoon at the spa!
In this newsletter, we zero in on Fort Louis, diving into its origins, its legacy, and why it remains one of St. Martin’s must-visit destinations.
Imagine artillerymen loading cannons with powder and heavy balls, checking their aim and lighting a fuse to fire the guns on a pirate ship, brave or foolish enough to be tempted by the rich loot that awaited in the warehouses of the traders in the town. It’s hard to envision such a scene when one looks at the now-rusted batteries that rim the historic ruins, but they remain impressive even after the passage of several centuries.
The original fishing village of Marigot was developing as a trading centre on the French side of the island. It was named for the series of lagoons, swamps and backwaters, or ‘marigots,’ which surrounded the site. As commerce increased, it was clear that defences against Dutch pirates and raiding British from Anguilla were needed.
The fort was built in 1789 by then-governor Jean-Sébastien de Durat to protect the rich stores which lined the harbour, housing many valuable trading goods such as rum, sugar, coffee and salt. Cannons were positioned to rake any aspect of the harbour so the artillerymen could fire at will. Because of the fort’s elevation, they could do so without fear of retaliation.
The imposing edifice overlooks Marigot Bay, Simpson Bay Lagoon, the Lowlands, Nettle Bay and Anguilla, so the ships of friend or foe could be seen long in advance of their arrival to threaten the town. The site isn’t especially large, as it needed merely to serve as a platform for the guns which could pour a withering fusillade on any enemies foolhardy enough to attempt a raid on the harbour.
By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the fort fell into disuse and was eventually abandoned, but restored to protect against continuing raids by the British from neighbouring Anguilla. More recently the fort was renovated and bilingual explanatory signs in English and French were installed to aid interested tourists.
Today, the French tricolour flag flies proudly above the storied battlements, providing a guidepost for visitors. Climb up all the way from the town, or drive to a parking lot just below the walls. The fort is always open. Entry is free and the 360-degree view is priceless.
On St. Martin, the annual holiday of Bastille Day on July 14 is marked with as much celebration as it is in France, perhaps without the military parades, but with all the fireworks and fun.
July 14 commemorates the day in 1789 when the population of Paris rose up against the rule of King Louis XVI and destroyed the hated Bastille prison, releasing all those unfortunate incarcerated within. This event was the beginning of the end for Louis, who was eventually executed in 1793, along with his famous consort Queen Marie-Antoinette. Thus ended a thousand-year reign of French monarchs and introduced the present Republic.
What better place to observe the national Bastille Day holiday than a trip to Fort Louis? Traversing the fort makes for a relatively easy hike, and the payoff is excellent: you’ll enjoy the same panoramic views of the water that the fort’s vigilant defenders relied upon to keep St. Martin safe. It’s also a great destination for a picnic, and you may even spot a few wild iguanas as you walk amongst the rubble. The Fort is accessible via walking or driving from Marigot, but don’t be afraid to ask a local for directions if you get lost.
Engaging history and breezy views blend seamlessly at Fort Louis, one of the destination’s most desirable (and educational!) day-trip destinations. Add a history lesson to your next St. Martin itinerary and visit https://www.st-martin.org/ to start planning.