The Caribbean island of St. Martin is the most unique destination in the region. The island is the smallest island in the world shared by two nations, with the French controlling St. Martin and the Dutch controlling Sint Maarten. Shopping, fine dining, water sports, and outdoor activities are just a few of the adventures awaiting you in St. Martin. If you run out of things to do on St. Martin, consider a day trip to some of its close neighbours to get the most out of your visit. (This article is written from first-hand experience and includes photos of the area taken by the author, available as a downloadable document).

The island nations of the Caribbean hold a wealth of cultural treasures for those who show an interest in hopping from one island to the next. For centuries, the islands scattered throughout the Caribbean Sea fell under the control of European colonisers. When Dutch, English, French, and Spanish explorers made their way from one island to the next, they encountered native cultures that had lived on the islands for thousands of years. As these colonizers took islands by force and established villages, shipping centres, and military fortifications, they added another culture to the mix with the introduction of slaves from Africa.

Today, the visible scars of slavery and colonisation are gone from sight (though never from mind), and left in their wake is a variety of tourist destinations that offer something for everyone. The island destination of Saint Martin is perhaps the most unique destination in the region. When you arrive, you will find a unique island location that mixes Creole, Dutch, and French cultures on a 34 square mile island in the Lesser Antilles.

Welcome to Saint Martin

The island itself is referred to as Saint Martin. It is located along the chain of Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, almost directly east of Jamaica. The 34 square mile island is the smallest island in the world to be divided by two countries. Saint Martin’s division between the French north side and Dutch south side was established by the Treaty of Concordia in 1648. With few exceptions, this division between the two has held firm to the current day.

On the south side of the island, the nation of Sint Maarten exists as a constituent country in the Kingdom of Netherlands. The Dutch control one-third of the island’s southern stretches, or just 13.4 square miles. Philipsburg serves as the capital city on Dutch Sint Maarten, and the nation has a total population of 37,000. Meanwhile, on the north side of the island is the nation of St. Martin. The French nation goes by the same name as the island itself, St. Martin, and is an overseas collectivity of France.

The Cruise Ship Capital of the Caribbean : Sint Maarten (The Dutch, South side)

In 1939, the future of Dutch Sint Maarten was set in stone when the island was declared a duty-free zone. When the tourism boom began during the 1950s, the international airport in Maho and the seaport in Philipsburg became some of the busiest passenger and freight terminals in the world. When you visit the island of St. Martin, you’ll arrive at Princess Julianna International Airport in Maho.

Given its long history as a tourist destination, Sint Maarten is a warm and inviting destination for travellers coming from the United States or Europe. The local population is fluent in English and Dutch, with many resort and restaurant staffs also fluent in French given the proximity of French culture on the island and within the region. Getting to Sint Maarten is easier than you might expect too.

Princess Julianna International is serviced with non-stop flights from Paris on Air France, while KLM services the island with non-stop flights from Amsterdam. Tourists from North America can easily get to Sint Maarten on Air Canada flights from Toronto, American Airlines flights from Miami and Charlotte, and Delta flights from New York City. Once you arrive, you’ll find plenty of accommodations at your fingertips.

The local village of Maho resembles a cross between the bright lights of Las Vegas and the glamour of South Beach in Miami. Many of the resorts, within walking distance of the airport terminal (or cheap cab ride), have brightly coloured stucco facades, casinos, beachfront bars, and plenty of shopping.

If you’re staying in Simpson Bay, you’ll be at the door of your resort in just 10 minutes after a short cab ride (roughly $12). Simpson Bay has numerous resorts, wonderful dining options that include North American cuisine, island cuisine, creole cuisine, and even Indian cuisine, and access to numerous water sports. All of this is nestled against the hills of the island.

The Dutch capital of Philipsburg is the hub of tourist activity on the South side of the island. The ride from the airport to Philipsburg is roughly 25 minutes, though island traffic can get bogged down, so always leave extra time in your schedule. Philipsburg is home to the largest cruise ship port in the Caribbean and is the second-busiest port in the world. Recent upgrades allow the seaport to accommodate up to six ships at one time.

Passengers that disembark for the day in Philipsburg will find the same colourful atmosphere as Maho, hundreds of duty free shops, and a variety of dining options lining Front Street. On the other side of this infamous duty-free shopping centre is an amazing boardwalk with white sandy beaches on one side, and dining on the other.

An American Airlines Boeing 757 approaching St. Martin.

An American Airlines Boeing 757 approaching St. Martin.
Photo: Markus Mainka

 

When visiting Sint Maarten, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • Shops in Dutch Sint Maarten accept US dollars ($) and the Netherlands Antillean guilder (ANG). Euros (€) are not widely accepted in Sint Maarten.
  • All registered taxis on the island have Sint Maarten license plates that read “TAXI”.
  • The island also has a bus service that runs throughout villages on both the French and Dutch sides. Minivans serve as the backbone of bus service on the island. All registered buses have a license plate that reads “BUS”.
  • Bus services are often cheaper than taxis, with the average trip totalling just $2 each direction. Every bus has a sign in the front window indicating its destination. Island life is informal, when you want a ride just throw up your hand when you see a bus coming. If you want out, just politely ask the driver to pull over.

St. Martin (The French; North Side), Where the Old World Meets the New

While Sint Maarten experienced a tourism boom starting in the 1950s, French St. Martin would not experience the benefits of tourism until the 1970s. It was during this decade that the French side of the island finally began to focus on tourism. Today, when you visit the French capital of Marigot you’ll find an impressive mixture of French and Indian Caribbean cuisine, high-end shopping, and even a little bit of history.

Marigot is located just across Simpson Bay Lagoon from Mullet Bay and Simpson Bay in Sint Maarten. When you visit Sint Maarten, you can expect endless nightlife, parties on the beach, casino gambling, and duty-free shopping. Life on the French side is decidedly laid back by comparison. Marigot is a bustling hub with commercial water craft waiting to shuttle visitors off to nearby islands (more on this later), shoppers walking the streets around Marina Royale, and food lovers enjoying lunch or dinner in one of the villages many restaurants or cafes.

If you fancy yourself as a history buff, pay a visit to Fort Louis just north of Marigot for a look into the island’s past. Fort Louis was constructed in 1789 atop a hill just outside the city. It served multiple purposes, including providing defence for the village, protection for ships in the harbour, and sightlines into the Caribbean to keep an eye on British naval vessels around nearby Anguilla.

From Fort Louis, you can look down into the city of Marigot, look out over its harbour, and (on a clear day) see the nearby British territory of Anguilla. It is easy to feel transported back in history as you stand within the ruins of this once mighty fort. To this day, it is possible to look through the musket windows that French defenders used, and stand behind some of the remaining cannons that once fired into the bay in defence of Marigot.

There is more to St. Martin than just Marigot. Venture away from the tourist centres on the western side of the island and you’ll find some interesting treasures to behold. If you want to experience the best French and Indian Caribbean cuisine in the region, head to the village of Baie de Grand Case on the northern coast of the St. Martin.

This small village is home to 67 different restaurants that serve traditional French and Indian cuisine, as well as French Caribbean, Indian Caribbean, and local Creole dishes. If you have a touch of adventure in you, head for Orient Bay along the eastern coast of the island. Swimsuits are optional on numerous stretches of the beach, so be prepared to see the wild side of complete strangers.

Marigot.

Marigot.
Photo: Matthew McCabe

When visiting St. Martin, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • English is the official language, but French and Creole are widely spoken in St. Martin.
  • The vast majority of shops (as well as taxis and buses) take US dollars ($), but Euros (€) are preferred in many establishments. The ANG accepted in Sint Maarten is not accepted in St. Martin.
  • Keep an eye out in the early morning hours for deals at restaurants and shops. While the currency exchange between dollars and euros is enforced, many establishments will forgo the exchange rate for certain periods of the day and offer one-to-one exchanges between the dollar and euro.
  • Taxis on the French side are indicated by “TX” on the license plate.
  • Buses operate on both sides of the island for the same fares.
  • Be careful when traveling to smaller villages away from Marigot, Philipsburg, and those villages surrounding Princess Julianna International. Taxis often stop serving these villages after sunset. Those that still offer a service charge more for doing so.

Day Trips  are a MUST

If you thought that experiencing the wild nightlife of the Dutch side, Old World charm of Marigot, or native culture of Creole villages was the main attraction in a visit to St. Martin, you’re in for a real treat. The islands of Anguilla, Saba, and St. Bart’s are all located within an hour of St. Martin (by boat) and are accessible via commercial day trips.

Anguilla is located just five miles north of the Marigot and is easily visible from the city. You can reach Anguilla in two ways. One option is to take the public ferry that departs from Marigot (and Orient Bay) on a daily basis. Alternatively, Aqua Mania (based in Simpson Bay) offers commercial transportation to and from Anguilla on select days. The ride from Marigot to Anguilla takes just 20 minutes. Regardless of your transportation, do not forget your passport.

Anguilla is an overseas territory of England, and as such you’ll find that most residents speak a British-influenced variety of English. Spanish and local Creole languages are also spoken. When you visit Anguilla, take the time to eat your way across the small island. Seafood is abundant on the menu of every restaurant, with menus featuring influences from Spanish, African, French, and native Caribbean cultures.

If you’re looking for a bigger departure from the norm, head east from Orient Bay on a day trip to Saint Barthelemy (better known as St. Bart’s). The island of St. Bart’s is an overseas collectivity of France, just like St. Martin, and offers first-class shopping and the finest in French cuisine. Again, public ferries depart from Simpson Bay and Orient Bay on a daily basis. Aqua Mania also offers a day trip to St. Bart’s starting at $75 per person (includes port fees, trip ticket, and snacks/drinks on the boat).

St. Bart’s offers a variety of French, West Indian, Creole, Italian, and Asian cuisines at the more than 70 restaurants on the island. If water sports are your game, Gustavia is popular among yachters, while Lorient, Flamands, and Corossol offer great fishing.

Last, but not least, if you are looking for something a little more rustic, set a course for Saba. The island of Saba is the smallest special municipality of the Netherlands, with a total land area of just 5 square miles. Saba has a population of just 1,991. Dutch is the official language, but English is widely spoken. The US dollar is the official currency.

There is no public ferry from the island of St. Martin to Saba, but Aqua Mania offers day trips to the island from its location in Simpson Bay. While there are a few inhabited villages on Saba, the primary attraction of the island is its rustic nature. Mount Scenery, which has a peak of 2,910 ft., is the highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands and is popular among hikers because it is a potentially active volcano.

Saba is also popular among divers. The waters surrounding Saba offer a welcoming environment for more than 150 species of fish. In addition to the fish, divers can go below the waters of the Saba National Marine Park to see underwater towers of volcanic rock that stretch from 85 ft. down to 300 ft. deep. These towers of volcanic rock represent spots where magma pushed through the sea floor.

Why St. Martin?

The Caribbean is full of unique, adventurous places for tourists to explore. However, there is only one island in the Caribbean that offers you the chance to explore so many different cultures in one vacation. When you arrive at Princess Julianna International, you’ll be hooked. Whether you are seeking an active nightlife (Philipsburg), great shopping and cuisine (Marigot), or various outdoor adventures, the only place to go is St. Martin. From your base on St. Martin, you can explore the best the Caribbean has to offer in no fewer than four unique cultures. Now the question is; what are you waiting for?

An open shopping market off Great Bay Beach. This popular market offers a variety of shops, bar, restaurants and beaches for visiting tourists.

An open shopping market off Great Bay Beach. This popular market offers a variety of shops, bar, restaurants and beaches for visiting tourists.
Photo: Ruth Peterkin