St. Maarten: The Friendly Island
With lively Dutch Sint Maarten to the south, laid-back French Saint Martin to the north, and no marked border in-between, visiting the Friendly Island is like getting a two-for-one deal.
Two countries, one island: St. Maarten and St. Martin offer the world a lesson in sharing. Its split personality is distinguished by two distinct European cultures, each with an unmistakable Caribbean vibe. With dozens of beaches, excellent duty-free shops, countless land and water activities, and abundant world-class dining options, this tiny island is one of the leading destinations in the Caribbean.
Almost 4,000 years ago, it was salt, not tourism, that drove St. Maarten’s economy. The Arawak Indians, the island’s first known inhabitants, were a peaceful people who lived off vegetables, fruit, and seafood. They called the island Soualiga, meaning “land of salt,” which is appropriate considering that salt harvesting was one of the longest-sustained industries on the island.
The Arawak’s prospered until the warring Caribs invaded and conquered them. On November 11, 1493, Christopher Columbus spotted the isle and claimed it on behalf of Spain. He named it after St. Martin, whose feast day falls on November 11. European colonists didn’t populate the island until the 17th century, when it was claimed by the Dutch, French, and Spanish.
When the Dutch arrived, they sold the salt to traders in the Caribbean and “New England,” which would eventually become the United States. Remnants of Arawak villages have been found on the northern part of the island near Grand Case Lagoon. In 1644, the Dutch and the French combined forces to control the land (their common enemy being the Spanish), and the Treaty of Concordia established an official territorial divide in 1648.
Legend has it that the island was initially divided during a footrace between a Frenchman and a Dutchman. The two met on the coast, shook hands, and set off in opposite directions; the border was drawn at the point where they met again. The Treaty of Concordia is considered the oldest active peace treaty—a claim that is honored with a monument at the location where the treaty was signed on Mount Concordia.
The smallest island in the world to be shared between two different countries, St. Maarten/St. Martin has existed peacefully for more than 360 years and counting. In 2003, the population of St. Martin (and St. Barthélemy) voted to secede from Guadalupe, the administrative capital of the French West Indies. This became official in 2007 when St. Martin became a French overseas collectivity. In fact, St. Martin is now officially known as the Collectivité de Saint-Martin. The borders remain unmarked, but a phone call from the Dutch side to the French side is an international call.
Currently, the island’s population is nearing 80,000 people from about 70 different countries. Tourism fuels the local economy, which has been growing steadily since the first deepwater pier opened in Philipsburg in 1964. For panoramic views of the waterfront capital, head to Fort Amsterdam, located on the peninsula between Great Bay and Little Bay. The fort, circa 1631, was the first Dutch stronghold in the Caribbean.
Its final official use took place in 1874, when a cannon was fired in honor of the silver anniversary of King William III’s reign. In 1987, a group of Dutch archaeologists excavated a portion of the fortress.
To learn more about local history, visit the Sint Maarten Museum on Front Street. The museum is run by the St. Maarten National Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to preserve and promote the island’s heritage. Exhibitions in the museum include tributes to the national heroes, endemic flora and fauna, local geology, and artifacts from a number of nearby shipwrecks.
Stop by the Guavaberry Emporium on Front Street to sample St. Maarten’s national beverage: guavaberry liqueur. The guavaberry is an integral part of the island’s culture and tradition and is even acknowledged in various folk songs and local stories. Not to be confused with guava, this special fruit grows on the branches of flowering trees found high in the hills in the center of St. Maarten. To make the liqueur, the berries are gathered, washed, and placed into wooden barrels to age. While there’s something to be said for frozen guavaberry cocktails, the spirit is especially tasty when mixed into a flute of dry champagne.
Be sure to stroll down Old Street, a tiny pedestrian-only promenade located between Front and Back Streets. It’s home to colorful shops and open-air cafés serving crepes, chocolates, and other island delicacies. The yellow taxicab parked on the alley is a permanent landmark that has come to be a symbol of St. Maarten’s shopping district. The streets are lined with characteristic gingerbread-style homes with grand verandas overlooking the cobblestoned paths. These excellent examples of traditional West Indian architecture make picture-perfect backdrops for vacation photos.
This is also a great area for picking up a souvenir or two for friends and family back home. Locals are friendly and gladly help with any questions you may have.
The best way to explore the island is by car and the scenic loop around the island gives guests plenty of stops and attractions. St. Maarten is mainly known for three things: the shopping, the beaches, and the dining scene. The island is sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, where constant trade winds help create near-perfect temperatures year-round.
Philipsburg, the capital of Dutch St. Maarten, stretches about a mile along an isthmus between Great Bay and the Salt Pond. Most of the shops and restaurants are on Front Street, a narrow, cobblestoned stretch that runs along the beachfront boardwalk. The street is lined with palm trees and quaint cast-iron streetlights—an unbeatable setting for any bargain-hunting adventure. St. Maarten is one of the top ports for shopping in the entire Caribbean region and prices can be as much as 60 percent less than on the US mainland.
Front and Back Streets bookend a group of four streets running parallel to the waterfront for the length of the town. Little lanes known as steegjes connect the two. In the shopping district, dozens of stores and boutiques are packed with a near-endless array of covetable goods at incredible tax-free, duty-free prices.
To find the stores backed by the cruise line’s Port Shopping guarantee, check your official Port Shopping Map, which is delivered to your stateroom the night before a port visit.
Wathey Square is in the heart of Philipsburg, and facing it is the Philipsburg Courthouse, one of the city’s oldest standing historic monuments. The white structure with dark green shutters was built in 1793 as a home for Commander Willem Hendrik Rink, who was governor of St. Maarten between 1790 and 1806. Since then, the building has been recast as a fire station, a jail, and a post office. The St. Maarten coat of arms includes depictions of the national flower, orange sage, and the national bird, brown pelican, as well as its slogan, Semper Pro Grediens, or “Always Progressing.”
If you’re looking to catch some rays, the beaches in both St. Maarten and St. Martin have been heralded as among the Caribbean’s best by the Travel Channel and U.S. News & World Report. The coastline comprises a series of inlets and bays, making for a total of 37 distinct beaches within 37 square miles. Each one of those beaches is unique and each is open to the public. Great Bay is the closest beach to the cruise pier. The strip of soft white sand curves around Philipsburg just off Front Street. It’s a bustling spot that attracts a decent-sized crowd, especially when there are a lot of ships in port.
Maho Beach, also on the Dutch side, is a bit more exhilarating—and not just because of the shimmering turquoise waters. Jumbo jets in their final descent fly directly over Maho just moments before touching down on the runway at Princess Juliana International Airport. The photos can be surreal so have a camera ready and try not to scream while staring at the underbelly of a massive jetliner.
When you’re tired of the beach, head to the Sint Maarten Museum for rotating cultural exhibits and a permanent historical display called Forts of St. Maarten-St. Martin. Artifacts include Arawak pottery shards and objects salvaged from the wreck of the HMS Proselyte. The St. Maarten Park, a charming zoo, showcases animals and plants indigenous to the Caribbean and South America and is a great place for families to create lasting memories.
Marigot is the charming capital of French St. Martin and its biggest town. It’s about 15 minutes by car from Philipsburg, but the quiet village seems worlds away from its bustling Dutch sibling. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, open-air craft markets expand to include fruits, vegetables, spices, and seafood. Stop and breathe in the smell of food cooking and you just may think you’re in Provence. The streets are lined with restored French-colonial buildings with colorful facades and rust-colored roofs that have retained much of their architectural authenticity. The town, founded around 1769, owes its name to the many marigots, or swamps, that once covered the area.
In Marigot, restored traditional Creole houses have been transformed into luxury boutiques. French designer shops line the town’s main street, Rue de la République. Marigot also has many outdoor cafés that serve classic French dishes.
The town’s top attraction is the St. Martin Museum, housed in a historic building near the Catholic Church. The exhibitions showcase a journey through 5,000 years of the island’s history, highlighting the archaeology, anthropology, geography, marine life, and history of St. Martin. The attractive displays offer explanations in both French and English.
Overlooking the Marigot Bay harbor sits Fort Louis, which was constructed in 1750 by the French as a defense against the plundering of Marigot’s warehouses for sugarcane, rum, and salt before the goods were exported. Though little remains of the original fortress, it’s fun to take the 92 steps to the top for breathtaking views of the island and neighboring Anguilla.
At the nearby Butterfly Farm (La Ferme des Papillons), soothing sounds of running waterfalls and spa music set the tone. If you arrive early, you’ll see butterflies break out of their chrysalis and flutter around in a myriad of colors and designs.
At any given time, 40 species of butterflies from around the world—totaling as many as 600 individual insects—move freely inside the landscaped tropical garden. They can also be seen in all stages of the life cycle, from microscopic eggs to pupae to caterpillars hatching, growing, and forming their chrysalis. And in case you want to come back, your ticket is good for your entire stay on the island.
Fittingly, the Caribbean’s Restaurant Row in Grand Case is the heart of St. Martin, a short 10-minute drive from either Orient Bay or Marigot. Known as the Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean, Grand Case presents a veritable buffet of authentic French cafés and brasseries. If you want something casual, try the lolos, small barbecue shacks along the beach where locals grill lobster, chicken, spareribs, and other meats, or splurge on a five-star establishment. Either way, Grand Case’s restaurants serve fine French fare infused with island flavors.
Orléans, located north of Oyster Pond and the Étang aux Poissons (Fish Lake), is the island’s oldest settlement. It is also referred to as the French Quarter. Enjoy the classic, vibrantly painted West Indian-style homes with the original gingerbread fretwork, alongside large areas of nature and marine preserves. This quiet fishing village was founded by the French in the 17th century and offers an interesting glimpse into how the settlers lived.
Between Marigot and Grand Case, Pic du Paradis (Paradise Peak) is the island’s highest point at 1,492 feet. There are two observation areas and from them you’ll have gorgeous vistas of the tropical forest. Halfway up the road to Pic du Paradis is Loterie Farm, a 135-acre private nature reserve. Visitors to this lush hillside hideaway can wine, dine, climb, hike, and glide over the treetop canopy. Various vantage points provide mesmerizing views of the island landscape as it slopes down to the aquamarine waters and surrounding islands. Loterie Farm is also home to three treetop zip-line adventure courses: Ti-Tarzan for the little ones, the Fly Zone for adults, and the Fly Zone Extreme for gutsy thrill-seekers.
On the French side, the best beach is unquestionably Orient Bay Beach, on the northeastern coast. Known as the French Riviera of the Caribbean, this au naturel (read: clothing-optional) spot has more than a mile of sugar-soft, pristine white sand and gentle turquoise surf fringed by swaying coconut palms and sea-grape trees. Orient Bay also boasts one of the island’s largest selections of water-sports options, including snorkeling, kayaking, wave running, and more. The reef just offshore fends off rough seas, turning this particular bay into a paradisiacal swimming hole.
For a more tranquil experience, head to Simpson Bay Beach. While the half-moon strip of powdery sand is also near the airport, it’s not in any flight path. It’s away from the big resorts, which means it’s also away from any crowds. There are few concessions here; there’s little more than clear, warm water gently lapping the sun-kissed sand. Simpson Bay is also the setting for one of the island’s newest treasures: a 16-sided Venetian carousel with cerulean tiles that graces the water’s edge. After a ride, savor a refreshing gelato, made using only the finest natural ingredients.
Simpson Bay Lagoon, opposite the beach of the same name, is the Caribbean’s largest saltwater lagoon. The island’s imaginary border runs through the body of water, with the Dutch side to the south, the French to the north. The lagoon is entirely landlocked save for two narrow channels with drawbridges: one on the French side, one on the Dutch side. The protected body of water is often visited by some of the world’s most impressive mega-yachts, some spanning more than 300 feet long. A plethora of water-bound activities here help visitors take advantage of the calm conditions.
The Cole Bay International Lookout Point sits on a hill overlooking Simpson Bay Lagoon and nearby Cole Bay. The observation platform is easily accessible from the main road and provides panoramic views of both the Dutch and French sides, as well as the neighboring island of Anguilla. On clear days, the view may stretch as far as the nearby islands of Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Kitts, and Nevis.
Friars’ Bay Beach (also known as Anse des Pères) is a family-friendly stretch of sand located on the northwest coast of the French side of the island. Nearby, Happy Bay, one of the island’s most secluded beaches, is accessible only by making a 10-minute hike through the hills from Friars’ Bay Beach.
The waters surrounding the island provide plenty of options for exploration. The Man of War Shoal Marine Park, St. Maarten’s only legally protected area, is a sanctuary for whales, dolphins, sea turtles, a few different shark species, plenty of species of tropical fish, coral reefs, and other intriguing underwater creatures. The 7,660-acre park is just south of Great Bay, where the Man of War Reef claimed the frigate ship HMS Proselyte in 1801. Divers can explore the wreckage, which is strewn with anchors, cannons, and cannonballs. A handful of guided sailing excursions travel to some of the prime snorkeling sites around the island. Favorite spots include Creole Rock, Pelican Rock, Green Cay, and Shipwreck Cove.
To participate in a time-honored Caribbean tradition, sign up for the America’s Cup Sailing Regatta shore excursion, which has been consistently voted one of the best excursions on St. Maarten. Start out the morning by learning the basics of sailing, and by noon you’ll be heeding your captain’s orders in a euphoric adrenaline rush on your way to crossing the finish line in a 40-foot-long America’s Cup yacht. An expert team of guides will show participants exactly what to do in their “crew member” positions before it’s off to the racecourse. Grind a winch; trim a sail; punch a stopwatch; or just sit back, relax, and enjoy the complimentary refreshments.
To explore below the surface without getting wet, board the Seaworld Explorer. This state-of-the-art semi-submarine was developed in Australia for use at the Great Barrier Reef. The vessel doesn’t submerge itself, rather the participants do. There’s an observation deck about five feet below the water’s surface, where windows provide crystal-clear views of the colorful marine life during an hour-long cruise around the coral reefs surrounding Creole Rock.
You can also angle for snapper, grouper, marlin, tuna, and wahoo during deep-sea fishing excursions. These big-game species aren’t reeled in without a fight, which makes for an exciting day on the water.
Boat to Grand Case for gourmet cuisine. Experience the French village atmosphere, explore shops, and local nightlife. Savor hors d’oeuvres and drinks at a local restaurant.
Visit a fish market with the ship’s chef. Travel to a Marigot market and a Grand Case restaurant. Join the chef for a galley tour and dinner.
Take a fun-filled double-decker cruise to Marigot. Discover the charming village of Grand Case, Orient Bay beach, the Rum Factory, and Fort Louis.
Travel the French coast to Orient Bay beach. Bask in the sun, lounge under a palm, cool off in the Caribbean. Then, head to the beach bar for lunch. On the way back, stop in Philipsburg to shop.
Feel the adrenaline rush as you power through St. Maarten’s pristine waters aboard a two-man Rhino Rider. Then, relax under a palm or snorkel among the fish at the Happy Bay reef.
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