Half Dutch, half French, the island of St. Maarten/St. Martin is all fun when it comes to keeping visitors entertained, day and night. Here's some of our favorite things to do when we're visiting this uniquely two-sided Caribbean island.
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Stroll the Streets of Philipsburg
Founded in 1763, the Dutch capital of St. Maarten has rich history, great shopping, and lots of lively action day and night. A narrow band of streets wedged between a salt pond and the Caribbean Sea is the main downtown area and includes the main shopping district, Front Street (Voorstraat), which runs parallel to a waterfront boardwalk where you'll find bars, restaurants, strollers and Segway tours whizzing by.
Cruise visitors can easily walk from Philipsburg's cruise-ship pier to downtown, where highlights include the Guavaberry Emporium, the Sint Maarten Museum, a photogenic historic courthouse, and a pair of casinos.
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Tour the French Capital of Marigot
Located on the west coast of St. Martin, Marigot is the center of activity on the French side of the island and is still guarded by Fort Louis, built by order of King Louis XVI in 1789. A fort tour is a must-do when visiting Marigot, as is joining the locals at the town's open-air market and sampling the French Caribbean cuisine at some of the village's restaurants. You can browse for the latest fashions from Paris at Marigot's duty-free shops or take a stroll through history on Rue de la Republique.
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The St. Maarten Museum in downtown Philipsburg is a great rainy-day destination and also worth a visit if you're strolling the streets of the Dutch capital. Run by the Sint Maarten National Heritage Foundation, the museum features a diverse assemblage of exhibits covering everything from pre-Columbian history to the ravages of Hurricane Luis, which slammed into the island in 1995.
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Grand Case is the undisputed culinary capital of St. Martin and St. Maarten -- French or Dutch. Restaurants occupy many of the village's historic buildings, and beach bars line the town's sandy beach. Expect fish off the boat and fine French Caribbean dining at the restaurants arrayed along the main street, which runs alongside the shoreline and is a popular place for a pre- or post-meal stroll.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
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You don't have to pick numbers to visit Loterie Farm, but you will be a winner if you like a taste of adventure in your vacation. This historic sugar plantation, dating to 1773, has been turned into a tourist attraction with ziplines, a lushly landscaped pool area with cabanas and waterfalls, and a cafe with great views of Pic Paradis, the island's highest point.
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St. Maarten/St. Martin is a relatively compact and highly developed island, but you can still get a sense of its great natural beauty at St. Martin's Natural Reserve, located on the northeastern coast of the island. Comprising 8,800 acres on land and sea, the nature reserve is home to sea turtles, seabirds, and land animals like mongoose and iguanas. Visitors can hike trails through the park or join dive groups offshore.
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Often overlooked by infrequent visitors to St. Maarten, Pinel Island sits at the center of Orient Bay within the St. Maarten Marine Park. It's essentially the local party island: ferry over and you can spend your day kayaking, eating and drinking at the island's three beach bars, or lounging on the sand. For a mini adventure, hike to the deserted beaches on the undeveloped side of the island, where sunbathing is clothing-optional.
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Orient Bay Beach is the most famous clothing-optional beach in the Caribbean: you'll find nude sunbathers almost anywhere on this French St. Martin beach, but you'll see more the closer you get to Club Orient, which is a nudist resort. There's more to do at Orient Beach than working on your all-over tan, however: also check out the beach bars and eateries lined up along the shore and the myriad of water-sports activities waiting for you to experience.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
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St. Maarten's native guavaberry may be a little tart when you eat it raw, but it has found endless uses on the island, including as the main ingredient in a locally produced liqueur, rum, and hot sauce. The colorful Guavaberry Emporium is a must-see in downtown Phillipsburg, and don't forget to take an obligatory selfie in front of the famous signpost outside.
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Le Ferme des Papillons will teach you everything about butterflies, from egg to pupa to chrysalis to full-fledged flying adult. And of course a tour of the Butterfly Farm means walking amid thousands of flapping, fluttering works of natural aerial art. You'll have the chance to hold a butterfly and enjoy meeting some really cool varieties of these delicate, endangered insects, such as the brilliant Blue Morpho and the ruddy Scarlet Swallowtail, plus the huge Atlas Moth.
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Feel the Roar at Maho Beach
Maho Beach sits at the end of the runway of St. Maarten's Princess Juliana International Airport, and it's quite the sight to see giant passenger jets passing over the waves and sand just hundreds of feet up as they make their final approach, bringing yet another wave of visitors to the island. Daring beachgoers grab ahold of the airport fence and hang on as they are buffeted by the backblast from the jet engines -- it's one of the more unusual rituals you'll experience in the Caribbean!