Destination: St. Martin/Sint Maarten
This post continues my Caribbean destination mini-series (see Belize, Nassau, St. Thomas, St. John). St. Martin/Sint Maarten is a brilliant choice for those of us gunning for membership in the Travelers Century Club who enjoy the Caribbean – it’s two countries on one tiny island! It’s divided approximate in half between France (northern half) and the Netherlands Antilles (southern half) and is the smallest inhabited sea island divided between two nations.
Getting There and Around
By plane: Princess Juliana International Airport is the second busiest airport in the Eastern Caribbean (after the San Juan airport). In 2005, the airport handled 1,663,226 passengers! This is where you’re likely to fly in, though there is the Grand Case Airport, a smaller airport on the French side.
By boat: More than 1.4 million people visited the island in 2006 by cruise ship. The ships dock in Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side. Cruise lines stopping here include Carnival, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, etc. This was how we visited, and we loved it.
Car rental: We rented a car, which was an inexpensive and easy way to see a lot of the island without being stuck to the time limits of a tour. Options include Budget, Thrifty, Avis, Dollar, Chicky’s, and Kenny’s. It’s easy as pie – there is a row of stands pretty much as soon as you get off the ship. We were there during low season so didn’t bother to reserve in advance, but you might consider checking into it.
Other options for getting around: Taxis, scooters, Harleys, and private drivers. If you get a scooter, definitely consider NOT doubling up. It’s pretty hot down there. Also, there are a lot of hills, and the scooters aren’t always sufficiently powerful to get two people up them at a decent rate. Of course, you can sign up for a ship tour or check out other options, such as those offered through ShoreTrips.
What to Do and See
Beaches: Orient is the largest and most popular beach, partially because It’s gorgeous and partially because of the amenities (bars, beach chairs, umbrellas, etc.). It’s also popular for those intrigued by the nude, southern portion by Club Orient. Cupecoy is also gorgeous with sandstone cliffs making a stunning backdrop. Mullet Beach, on the Dutch side, is for the surfers. Le Galion Beach is nice for children due to the shallow, calm water near the shore and because they can watch the windsurfers. Check out Sint-Maarten.net for more beach info.
Snorkeling: This is not the best island for snorkeling, but it can be found. There’s a reef off of Dawn Beach, but it requires some swimming. Friar’s Bay is another snorkeling off the beach option. Ile Pinel is allegedly the best of the snorkeling spots, but it requires a ferry trip (5 mins, every hour and half hour during peak season). All of them have rough surf at times, so don’t get your heart set on snorkeling if you’re visiting for just a short time. Source: The Scuba Shop.
Shopping: Philipsburg and Marigot, the capitals of the Dutch and French sides, respectively, are the places for duty-free shopping on the island. Shop for handbags, men’s shoes, alcohol, cosmetics, jewelry, electronics, and cigars. There’s a cute market in Marigot. My personal favorite thing to pick up is guavaberry liquor at the Guavaberry Emporium. If you like fruity drinkies and don’t at least try a drink while on the island (I recommend a guava colada), you are missing out! The best one I’ve had was actually at the store. Fodor’s has some specific info about shopping.
Where to Sleep and Eat
If I were staying for a week, I’d definitely want to rent a condo or a house. A good resource for finding one of those is VRBO.com. Otherwise, I’d check out the rates for Le Domaine de Lonvilliers, Hotel L’Esplanade, and Le Petite Hotel. They all look gorgeous and have good reviews on Trip Advisor.
Grand Case is a beach town by day and gastronomic capital by night. Heck, it’s worth a stop for lunch from a lolo (defined: a low-key Antillean beach bar/restaurant) too. Marigot is a great place to check out some French pastries. Check out Fodor’s for a few reviews.
Proposed One Day Itinerary for Cruisers
Hop off the cruise ship, rent a car, head for Marigot for French pastries for breakfast, do a bit of shopping, mosey up to Grand Case for lunch. Take your time over lunch, enjoy a guavaberry drink and/or a Caribbean beer. Then head for Orient for a couple of hours. Swim, relax, enjoy another guavaberry drink and/or Caribbean beer. Drive back to Philipsburg for a little shopping, including a stop at the Guavaberry Emporium, and drop the car back off by the pier. There’s a cute little place to grab a final drink before getting back onboard right there at the pier. This is what our group did, and we had a wonderful time.