|Size||34 square miles (87 square kilometers)|
|Population||78,000 (major ethic groups are Afro-Caribbean, European, Chinese and East Indian)|
|Status||two separate territories – overseas collectively of France and constituent country within the Kingdom of Netherlands|
|Official language(s)||French, Dutch, English|
|GDP per capita (2008)||$15,400|
|Currency||Euro (French side), Antilles florin (Dutch side)|
|Electricity||US standard two and three-prong (Dutch side), European standard two-prong (French side)|
|Driving||on the right|
An island divided between two European countries and yet united in peaceful coexistence, St. Martin/St. Maarten is a land that has been equally split between France and the Netherlands for more than 350 years. We say “St. Martin/St. Maarten” as this is the appropriate way to discuss the whole island that gives equal weight to the two sides, (the proper French spelling used as dash instead of a dot: St-Martin). The history of this division goes back to the early 1600s when both colonial empires set up their respective settlements in different parts of the island. Although the borders or each settlement were then disputed for decades, the two sides eventually made an agreement in 1648 to lock the borders between them and co-rule the island, while defending it against other imperial powers and particularly the Spanish! Impressively, the peaceful coexistence between the French and the Dutch endured for centuries with about 60/40 split of territory and about 50/50 split in population.
Of course, although the island remained mostly conflict free between the 17th and 21st centuries, it has gone through a couple of significant developments over that time impacting its population and livelihood. For one, like on many other Caribbean islands, slavery was practised throughout St. Martin/St. Maarten in the 17th, 18th and early 19th with tens of thousands of slaves brought to the island from Africa during that time. As a result much of today’s population is of African descent while the island is dotted with remains of sugar cane plantations. A completely different, but also very significant impact has been due to hurricane Irma, which struck the island in 2017. As many as 90% of all of the island’s buildings were damaged by the hurricane, while many were destroyed beyond repair. For weeks after the hurricane, tourism to St. Martin/St. Maarten completely stopped while even a couple years later travel to here as well as qualiy of life of the island’s residents are both still not up to 100% of what they were before September 2017.
Despite its difficulties, St. Martin/St. Maarten is still a very popular destination for vacationers who are looking for an easily accessible location, a large variety of premium as well as inexpensive accommodations, a huge number of dining, shopping, partying and gambling choices and probably most importantly, as many as 37 powdery beaches facing turquoise and mostly calm waters of the Caribbean Sea as well as the Atlantic. There is no doubt St. Martin/St. Maarten is an almost perfect vacation destination, especially for those who are looking to simply kick back, relax, be beach bums all day, while enjoying great food and drinks. Is this you? If so, find out what is what from our description below!
Although both, the French and Dutch sides each have their own airport, it is only the Juliana International Airport that accepts commercial flights from outside the Caribbean. In fact, most of the inner-Caribbean flights also land and depart from the Juliana airport. If you are travelling from the US, you have plenty of choices to fly non-stop to St. Maarten from the East Coast including from New York, Charlotte, Miami and Philadelphia. From outside the US, you can also get to the island via a direct flight from Toronto, Paris (both, from Charles de Gaulle and Orly) and Amsterdam. A connection will be required from any other European country like the UK, Germany or Italy. Keep in mind that flying is not your only option of getting to and from the island. You can also take a ferry from Anguilla, St. Barts or Seba to Marigot or Phillipsburg (Marigot connects to Anguilla, both Marigot and Phillipsburg connect to St. Barts whereas Phillipsburg connects to Seba) and each of these trips will cost you less than $100 one way. One final note to keep in mind is that if you are a EU citizen, make sure to have your passport on you when traveling to the island as neither the French nor the Dutch side are part of the European borderless travel area of Schengen.
St. Martin/St. Maarten has possibly the busiest traffic of any of the Caribbean islands, especially on all the routes connecting the two capitals, Marigot and Phillipsburg. The good news is that renting a car is inexpensive and most of the main roads and signs are in good condition so navigating to the various destinations is relatively easy. Still, hours spent in traffic will be very frustrating, especially if you are only visiting the island for several days and want to take as much advantage of everything it has to offer. Therefore, consider several of the alternatives of renting a car. Scooters and motorbike rentals are also popular and they tend to do much better in navigating through local traffic. Alternatively, consider using local minibuses, which are inexpensive and any time stuck in traffic, you can at least use to meet and socialize with fellow travellers and locals. Finally, you can also use local taxis, which are reasonably priced and you can socialize with your driver whenever stuck in traffic. Many taxi drivers will be able to provide you with great tips on things to see and do.
Things to explore
Although St. Martin/St. Maarten is home to many picturesque towns and villages, its main attraction are the tens of stunning beaches spread evenly around it. In fact, you could count as many as 20 miles of wide stretches of sand fronting the coastal waters of the island. What is more, both of the capitals, Marigot and Phillipsburg are located in expansive bays with huge and beautiful beaches being a walking distance from their respective city centers. In Marigot alone, we have counted four separate beaches you can access on foot and they are the usually quiet Anse des Sables, busy with hotels and restaurants Nettle Bay Beach and Marigot Bay Beach as well as small and rocky De La Potence Bay beach. In Phillipsburg and its immediate neighbourhood you will find even more beaches, eight by our count. The biggest and most impressive of them all is Simpson Bay Beach, which despite being close to town and the right by the airport, feels very quiet and a million miles away from civilization. Not far away is Great Bay where you will find several great restaurants and shops. One more fun beach close by is Maho Beach, famous primarily for the large commercial planes that flight tens of feet above it, while landing on the runway of Juliana airport. Actually, You may have already seen some photos and videos from Maho Beach of people observing the landing planes and some of them getting pushed back in the air by the strong air flow from the jet engines.
Less than half a mile away from Maho Beach is yet another stunner – Mullet Bay Beach, which is located in a calm lagoon and is one of the most picturesque on the island. And, if you continue to go north west into the French part of the island you will keep encountering more fantastic beaches like Long Bay, Plum Bay and Red Bay. Finally, much further north pass Marigot, there is very peaceful Happy Bay, plus busy Orient Bay and Baie de Grand Case and Orient Bay. And, not more than a mile form Orient Bay is a small island called Ilet Pinel that also has a splendid beach and is a popular spot for snorkeling. You can get to the island via a quick ferry from the town of Cul-de-Sac. As you can see the choices you have for being a beach bum on St. Martin/St. Maarten are broad. This is especially the case as all of the beaches on the island are open and free to the public. In fact, they are so open that on some like Orient Bay you can go completely naked!
Besides the many lovely beaches, there is also of course, much to do and see in the island’s towns and beyond them. In Phillipsburg on Front Street you will find the museum of the island, which is free to enter whereas not too far away at Madame Estate, you will locate the St. Maarten Zoo with many examples of local species of birds, amphibians and reptiles. Marigot, on the other hand, is a popular shopping destination with lots of fancy shops and several markets selling all kinds of goods from fresh produce to sophisticated crafts. If you head east of out Marigot towards the other side of the island you will come about Loterie Farm, a beautiful nature reserve and adventure park and further you will run into a steep climb that you can still easily conquer in a 4-wheel drive that will take you to the top of Pic du Paradis, the highest mountain of the island. From here, you can see much of the surroundings and take many great pictures. Once you do that and continue to drive east, you will eventually get near Orient Beach as well as La Ferme Des Papillons (The Butterfly Farm). This is a very unique place to visit and both kids and adults alike have a blast here!
Those who travel a lot will likely find it surprising how many hotel options are available on such as small territory like St. Martin/St. Maarten. As much as a third of the whole island is made up of resorts and their grounds, inns and rental villas. On one hand, this means you will have plenty of accommodations to choose from, but on the other hand, this also means St. Martin/St. Maarten doesn’t feel quite as wild and untamed as many other places in the Caribbean. Still, many of the island’s best resorts have beautiful and secluded grounds that offer a sense of privacy and tranquillity. If this is exactly what you re after, we recommend two options, one inexpensive and one costly, but very luxurious. For the cheap, but beautiful setting, investigate staying at Karibuni Lodge near Cul-de-Sac. It has acres of beautiful gardens and the small size of the inn means that you get plenty of privacy and peace as well as full attention of the management. What’s best is that you can get a room here for less than $350 per night. Alternatively, if you are able to spend much more (like $800 per night), consider staying at Green Cay Village nearby, which offers beautiful and large villas within lush gardens overlooking Orient Bay.
Food & restaurants
Just like the people of St. Martin/St. Maarten are multicultural, so are the food options of the island very diverse and wide-ranging. There are hundreds (more than 400) of restaurant here, which is approximately one for every 200 residents, more than on any other island in the world. With that many establishments, competition is fierce and the long list of trending restaurants change every season. Therefore, we will refrain from mentioning any restaurant by name here, except to mention the biggest clusters of top notch eateries are around Grand Case and Orient Bay on the French side and around Simpson Bay and Cupecoy on the Dutch Side. As far as the types of cuisine, sky is the limit as you can pretty much find any type of restaurant – besides French, Dutch and Caribbean there are also lots of Italian and Asian options, but also a few Middle Eastern, African and South American as well. Dining in St. Martin/St. Maarten is a pretty casual activity even at dinner time. However, you won’t get into many of the best restaurants without a reservation so plan ahead!
St. Martin/St. Maarten is a party island! Not only are there lots of bars, night clubs and casinos on the French and the Dutch side, having two independent territories means there are also two carnivals happening here every year! Marigot hosts its festival celebrations starting from mid-January and for as long as a month, while Phillipsburg holds its carnival in April. Both events are filled with street parades and parties, entertainment shows, concerts and even fresh food markets. However, even without the carnivals going on, all you have to do is head to the Phillipsburg, Marigot or Orient Bay neighbourhoods in the evening of a week day or a weekend and you are sure to find a lively carnival vibe. Maho Beach on the Dutch side is where you will find the best dance clubs with famed DJs and large dance floors. The Dutch side is also where you will locate all of St. Martin/St. Maarten casinos located along the beaches or close by them. And, Orient Bay on the French side is where you can expect to uncover the highest concentration of cool beach bars with a relaxed atmosphere and a large variety of delicious rum based cocktails.
Sports & adventure
All kinds of water adventures plus some hiking and horseback riding are the leading activities on the island. In fact, St. Martin/St. Maarten is a superb destination for all those who enjoy sailing excursions as there are tens of operators operating primarily out of Philipsburg and Marigot who have whole menus of trips: for fishing, sightseeing, partying, diving and snorkelling or just to learn sailing. Snorkeling trips are especially popular as the island has lots of great spots for this activity. Some of the best ones are around Orient Bay, Pinel Island and Maho Bay and you will have plenty of fun snorkelling there even if you don’t get on a boat to do it. For those who do prefer diving to snorkelling, you may want to plan a trip to visit HMS Proselyte, an impressive shipwreck of a 133 feet long Dutch frigate sunk right outside Great Bay in 1801 and accessible to experienced divers at a depth of about 50 feet.
Besides big yacht and catamaran trips, many hotels and beach-side shops offer water equipment rentals such as kayaks as well as paddle, surfing and kitesurfing boards. The large Simpson Bay Lagoon as well as Orient Bay and its nearby islands are especially popular and fun places for kayaking tours. Near Simpson Bay you will also find a great little farm called Seaside Nature Park, which offers horseback rides along several of the nearby bays like Cole Bay and Cay Bay. And, expert runners, swimmers or tennis players will appreciate the nearby publicly accessible Raoul Illidge Sports Complex, which has a professional running track, a swimming pool and a couple tennis courts. However, the biggest adrenaline junkies will want to get to Loterie Farm in Rambaud, which has one of the best if not the best zip-lining parks in the Caribbean costing about 50 euros to explore and open every day except Mondays.
Safety and security
St. Martin/St. Maarten are generally safe for visitors and local residents alike. There are however, several types of crimes that are more common here than in other places in the Caribbean. Firstly, rental cars are a popular target for break ins and theft. Criminals recognize rentals by their stickers as well as license plates, which are almost always Dutch. Hence, if you are able to rent a car with French license plates, do so! What’s more, be sure not to leave any valuables in your car, not even in your trunk as you will be wrong to think that what’s out of sight is safe. And secondly, avoid late night walks along the beaches, especially the ones in or around Marigot and Philipsburg. There have been quite a few stories circling around about night time beach muggings occurring in places such as Simpson Bay and Grand Case.
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