Philipsburg, St. Maarten
While Hurricane Irma hit St. Maarten (and many other areas of the Caribbean) hard in the fall of 2017, as of January 2018, Philipsburg, the capital, is recovering quite nicely. Roads are clear, beaches are clean, and more than 90% of the stores on Front Street are up and running.
Princess Juliana International Airport reopened in October 2017 and the cruise port reopened in December 2017. The majority of the hotels and guest houses are open with additional reopenings coming in early 2018. For the latest about accommodations, visit the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau Website. More than 80% of the land-based activities and 60% of the sea-based activities were back just a month after the hurricane.
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Philipsburg, the capital city of Dutch St. Maarten, is just a few blocks wide but packed with interesting sights and shops, from jewelry stores and casinos to the historic Courthouse on Watney Square.
Built in 1793 as the home of Commander John Philips, the town's founder, the building has served as a fire station, jail, and post office over its long history and is one of St. Maarten's most prominent landmarks. It's hard to get lost in Philipsburg as there are only two main downtown streets between Great Bay and the Salt Pond, but the Courthouse is a good place to begin and end your walking tour of the town. If you're driving into town, there's a municipal parking lot a block away.
Philipsburg's main drag is Front Street, and this is where you'll find most of the jewelry stores, electronics boutiques, parfumeries, and other shops that take advantage of the city's status as a duty-free port. When cruise ships are in port, the narrow streets can become quite crowded, but you'll rarely have to jostle for attention from the dozens of jewelers selling high-end watches and gold and diamond jewelry.
Towards the east end of Front Street (closest to the cruise pier, connected to downtown by a walkway) are a pair of casinos, the Rouge et Noir and the Coliseum Casino. Back Street, parallel to Front Street on the Salt Pond side of town, is a bit less touristy and where more locals tend to congregate.
Dining in Philipsburg
The Kangaroo Court is one of Philipsburg's best restaurants and conveniently located just a block away from the Courthouse on Hendrickstraat. There's a small indoor dining area and bar, but walk through to the back and ask to be seated in the lovely courtyard framed by the ruins of an ancient salt warehouse. Creative salads, pizzas, burgers, pastas, and sandwiches appeal to locals and tourists alike. Other downtown dining choices include the fine French L'Escargot on Front Street and the beach bars and restaurants along the Boardwalk.
Does anyone visit Philipsburg and not come home with a photo of the crossroads sign? Located next to the Guavaberry Emporium on Front Street, the sign sits in a small plaza that's a magnet for tourists and a nice spot to take a break from walking the streets of Philipsburg.
The Guavaberry Emporium is the most popular tourist attraction in Philipsburg and well worth a visit. Located in a former governor's home (not much more than a rough cedar building, actually) the store sells all manner of products derived from the native guavaberry, notably a tasty folk liqueur blended with rum and cane sugar. (Even today native St. Maarten/St. Martin residents make their own guavaberry liquor at home.) The shop offers visitors samples of the liqueur as well as guavaberry coladas (excellent) at a walk-up bar; also offered for sale are barbecue sauces, hot sauce, and even honey blended with guavaberry juice.
The Philipsburg Boardwalk is one of the biggest attractions in town. Nearly 50 feet wide and running almost the entire length of the city's Great Bay waterfront, the Boardwalk serves as a lively "back porch" for the hotels and restaurants on the south side of Front Street. You'll find strollers, skaters, and even Segway tours cruising along the half-mile-plus ribbon of concrete.
Within sight of the cruise-ship dock, the Boardwalk is a great place to grab an inexpensive cold Carib or Heineken from one of the many beach bars and linger while street musicians perform, or duck inside one of the many restaurants lining the strip for some local Dutch/Indonesian influenced cuisine or just a burger or hot dog. Other attractions include a sun-drenched Catholic Church that looks out over the bay, an arcade with pinball and video games, and a beachfront playground. Speaking of the beach, you can rent beach chairs, an umbrella, and buy a half-dozen beers for about $20.
The lovely Pasanggrahan Boutique Hotel on Front Street is definitely the place to stay in town if you dig history and are looking for a quiet, shaded oasis. The hotel, which was the original governor's house on St. Maarten, has a set-back porch for people-watching on Front Street, and the lobby includes a semi-shrine to the Netherlands' Queen Wilhelmina. The colonial style of the hotel carries over into the Sidney Greenstreet Bar and guest rooms. The hotel restaurant and beach bar overlook the Boardwalk and Great Bay.
More toward the middle of town you'll find the high-rise Holland House Beach Hotel, a thoroughly modern property that has been recently redesigned and boasts the sleek Ocean Lounge Restaurant & Bar. Budget travelers can find guest houses in town for under $100 a night.
Side Streets of Philipsburg
Connecting Back Street, Front Street, and the Boardwalk are a series of short side streets, typically jammed with small souvenir shops and a few hidden cafes and restaurants. Many of the shops sell a similar assortment of tropical shirts and bric-a-brac, but you also can find mom-and-pop shops selling smooth flavored rums and Indian crafts.
The Black Pearl is just one of your drinking and dining choices on the Philipsburg waterfront. Beach bars like this are the most casual (other than the stands selling take-away beers for $2), and you usually can get a snack to cushion the drinks. Other choices include Bamboo Bernies, a nightlife hot spot, and Paula's Beach Bar.
A Little Miami Beach in the Caribbean
Between the Boardwalk, the beach, bright spaces like the Island Flava Beach Grill, and the very cool Holland House, there's more than a little touch of Miami Beach on the Philipsburg waterfront. It's a great place to spend a few hours shopping, dining, gambling, or just hanging out on the beach, whether you're staying on the island or taking the short walk from the cruise pier. You can even mix a bit more history into your visit by exploring the nearby Fort Amsterdam, built in 1631, or Fort Willem, both designed to protect Philipsburg from seaborne invaders.