Does your idea of the perfect vacation include delicious food, exceptional duty-free shopping, and gorgeous beaches? If so, traveling to St. Martin/St. Maarten is an excellent way to go. Keep in mind, however, that the island is a popular tourist destination and cruise ships make regular stops here. If you’re in search of solitude, head elsewhere ... or at least to the French side of the island, which is more laid-back than the Dutch half.
Location: Between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, southeast of Puerto Rico
Size: 37 square miles.
Capitals: Marigot (St. Martin), Philipsburg (St. Maarten)
Language: French (St. Martin) and Dutch (St. Maarten).
Religions: Catholic and Protestant
Currency: St. Martin: euro; St. Maarten: Netherlands Antilles guilder. U.S. dollar widely accepted
Area Code: St. Maarten, 599. St. Martin, 590
Tipping: 10 to 15 percent
Weather: Average year-round temp is 80 degrees. Hurricane season July-Oct.
St. Maarten is the only Caribbean island with 100 percent duty-free shopping. In Philipsburg, more than 500 stores sell luxury items like leather goods, electronics, cameras, designer clothes, watches and jewelry at 25 to 50 percent discounts. Marigot, on the French side, offers similar discounts on perfume, china, crystal, jewelry and clothes. Water sports are big on both sides of the island, and numerous operators rent boats, offer deep-sea fishing expeditions, or supply equipment for parasailing, waterskiing, windsurfing or kayaking.
The island has about 40 dive sites and some good snorkeling, as well.
Reports vary on the exact number, but everyone agrees that the white-sand beaches on both sides of the island are lovely. You’ll know which half of the island you’re on by the dress code — modest on the Dutch side, topless or nude on the French. Top picks include mile-long Mullet Bay Beach and Maho Beach, which are known for their great swimming; Cupecoy Beach, with a gorgeous swath of white sand backed by sandstone cliffs; and Dawn Beach, known for its lovely sunrises. Orient Bay on the French side is a clothing-optional beach.
Hotels and Resorts
Accommodations on the island range from megaresorts like the Sonesta Maho Beach to small guesthouses like The Horny Toad. Low-season rates, mid-April to December, can be as little as half of the rates during high season.
Restaurants and Cuisine
Foodies look no farther than Grand Case on St. Martin for some of the best and most varied fare in the Caribbean. Here you’ll find an enormous variety of French, Italian, Vietnamese and West Indian restaurants. Try Il Nettuno if you’re in the mood for Italian, or Le Ti Coin Creole for Creole flavors.
Culture and History
The Dutch and French established small settlements on the island in 1630 and shortly thereafter joined forces to repel Spanish attackers. After achieving this goal in 1644, they agreed to divide the island, although the exact boundaries were not established until 1817. Today this is the smallest territory in the world to be governed by two sovereign nations. Dutch, French and British traders as well as African slaves all brought their traditions, culture, and languages.
Events and Festivals
St. Maarten's most popular yearly event is its Carnival, which includes parades, the main one coinciding with the birthday of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, as well as calypso competitions and reggae shows. It takes place in late April and early May. St. Martin also celebrates Carnival, but theirs takes place during Lent. The Heineken Regatta in March is a draw for yachting enthusiasts from around the world.
On St. Martin, look for beachside barbecues with steel bands and folk dancing sponsored by some of the larger resorts. Many bars and bistros have live music performances, mainly reggae or piano players. There’s no gambling on the French side, but you’ll find a baker’s dozen of casinos on the Dutch side. The Casino Royale is the largest of these. Several bars, including dance spot Boo Boo Jam, line the sands of Orient Beach.