The Caribbean island that houses both St. Martin and St. Maarten is culturally different depending on what side you're visiting. The Dutch side (St. Maarten), with its distinctively Caribbean flair, has a colorful vibe that matches the bright buildings and colonial streets. On the less-developed French side (St. Martin), restaurants that seem straight out of Paris, French fashion boutiques, and croissants and pastries everywhere make it feel 100 percent like its homeland. But despite the fact that the island is actually two different countries, going back and forth between them is easy—whether to revel in the secludedness of St. Martin's Natural Reserve or engage in the hustle-bustle of Phillipsburg—and contributes to the drawn of this unique two-sided island.
Founded in 1763, the Dutch capital of St. Maarten has a rich history, great shopping, and lively activity day and night. A narrow band of streets wedged between a salt pond and the Caribbean Sea makes up the main downtown area and shopping district. On Front Street (Voorstraat), which runs parallel to a waterfront boardwalk, is where you'll find bars, restaurants, strollers, and Segway tours. Cruise visitors can easily walk from the cruise-ship pier to downtown, where highlights include the Guavaberry Emporium, the Sint Maarten Museum, a photogenic historic courthouse, and a pair of casinos.
On the west coast of St. Martin sits the center of the French side's activity in Marigot. This town, still guarded by Fort Louis, was built to order by King Louis XVI in 1789. Take a fort tour or join the local scene at the town's open-air market. But don't forget to sample French Caribbean cuisine at some of the village's world-class restaurants. Browse the latest French fashions at Marigot's duty-free shops and take a stroll through history on Rue de la Republique.
The St. Maarten Museum in downtown Philipsburg makes a great rainy-day activity or a quick stop while strolling the streets of the Dutch capital. Run by the Sint Maarten National Heritage Foundation. The museum features diverse exhibits covering everything from pre-Columbian history to the ravages of Hurricane Luis which devastated the island in 1995.
Grand Case is the culinary capital of both St. Martin and St. Maarten and a foodie haven. Restaurants occupy many of the village's historic buildings and beach bars line the town's sandy beach. Expect to eat fish straight off the boat and fine French Caribbean cuisine at any of the restaurants on the main street. This street, which runs alongside the shoreline, is also a popular place for a pre- or post-meal stroll.
Loterie Farm, St. Martin's only private adventure reserve, offers a host of activities for active outdoor families. This historic sugar plantation, which dates back to 1773, was transformed after the 1995 hurricane left it in a state of destruction and vandalism. Take a hiking tour of the grounds to learn about the history of the farm while reveling in the local flora and fauna. Adrenaline junkies can test their nerve on the ziplines and the treetop adventure course. Or, relax by the pool's waterfall while indulging in treats from the cafe.
While the island of St. Maarten and St. Martin is relatively compact and highly developed, you can still get a sense of nature's beauty. St. Martin's Natural Reserve, located on the northeastern coast of the island, includes 8,800 acres of land and sea and houses several ecosystems. It's home to sea turtles, seabirds, and land animals like mongoose and iguanas. Hike the reserve's extensive trail system or join dive groups offshore to experience underwater wonders.
Often overlooked by visitors to St. Maarten, Pinel Island sits at the center of Orient Bay within the St. Maarten Marine Park. Take the ferry over to this local's hot spot to spend your day kayaking, eating and drinking at the island's three beach bars, or lounging on the sand. For an adventurous day trip, take a hike to one of the deserted beaches on the undeveloped side of the island where sunbathing is clothing-optional.
Bare It All at Orient Bay Beach
For an adult-only experience, head to Orient Bay Beach, the most famous clothing-optional beach in the Caribbean. In true French fashion, you'll find nude sunbathers along this whole stretch of beach. The closer you get to Club Orient (a nudist resort), the more prevalent they become. Still, there's more to do at Orient Beach than just work on your all-over tan. Check out the beach bars and eateries lining the shore and a myriad of available water-sports activities like parasailing, jet skiing, and kiteboarding.
St. Maarten's native guavaberry has a tart taste when eaten raw. But when used as the main ingredient in locally-produced liqueur, rums, and hot sauces, it's incredibly delectable. The colorful Guavaberry Emporium carries all the island's guavaberry provisions and is a must-see attraction in downtown Phillipsburg. Don't forget to take an obligatory selfie in front of the famous signpost outside.
The Butterfly Farm (or Le Ferme des Papillons) teaches everything you need to know about a butterfly's lifecycle, from egg to pupa to chrysalis to full-fledged adult. A tour of the farm will put you smack dab amidst thousands of fluttering works of aerial art. Hold one of these captive creatures in your hands and enjoy viewing delicate and endangered varieties like the Blue Morpho, the Scarlet Swallowtail, and the huge Atlas Moth.
Feel the Roar at Maho Beach
Maho Beach sits at the end of the runway of St. Maarten's Princess Juliana International Airport. And, as you can expect, it's quite the sight to see giant passenger jets fly over the sand at only a few hundred feet up. Daring beachgoers will grab ahold of the airport's fence and hang on as they are buffeted by the back blast from jet engines. Watching and partaking in this ritual is one of the more unusual experiences you'll have on this island.
Go Scuba Diving
With shallow waters surrounding the island, both St. Martin and St. Maarten offer beginner divers a way to get their feet wet. The area boasts 20 dive sites, including 11 shipwrecks, coral reefs, and coral-encrusted rocks. Swim among colorful fish in an astoundingly beautiful seascape while obtaining your SCUBA certification. Should you want to explore further, the surrounding islands of Saba, Statia, Anguilla, and St. Barts also offer a unique underwater experience.
Hop aboard one of the fastest 12-meter-class sailboats in the world and race like a pro with 12 Metre Regatta. This unique experience gives you the option of sitting back and enjoying the adrenalin-producing ride or actively participating by grinding winches and trimming sales as you race other boats on a genuine America's Cup race course. After the race, enjoy a victory celebration at the clubhouse and browse the boutique for race gear and souvenirs. Boat racing is open to anyone over the age of nine and no prior experience is necessary.