Welcome to Saint-Martin / Sint Maarten
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Welcome to Saint-Martin / Sint Maarten
With more than 350 years of history, inhabitants of over 70 nationalities and some 39 beaches concentrated in just over 37 square miles of land, the island of St. Martin is a model of diversity on an intimate scale. The French north (Saint-Martin) and the Dutch south (Sint Maarten) coexist in harmony yet remain culturally distinct. A local legend holds that the boundary between them was drawn by a two tipsy explorers--one from each motherland--and, although this is unlikely, it aptly describes the border's seemingly aimless meandering and the convivial spirit of the island's people.
Visiting Americans are relieved to find that English is spoken, and US dollars accepted, throughout both territories, but they will be less delighted when prices on the French side are converted to dollars from the Euro standard. Despite the sometimes-inflated prices, the island's popularity--both as an all-in-one destination and as a cruise stop--has continued to grow. What thirty years ago was all but a secret to most of the Western Hemisphere now enjoys a booming economy thanks to a steady stream of international tourism.
The greatest concentration of tourists gathers in Dutch Sint Maarten (it's okay, just say Saint Martin), the more urban side of this multicultural paradise. Here you will find abundant nightlife, copious casinos, and watersports to spare. Its capital, Philipsburg, is one of the Caribbean's best destinations for duty-free shopping, but with its 13 casinos and the spillover of several cruise ships each day, there is also food and fun aplenty. Many Americans will feel especially at home in this city, with its busy streets and bustling entertainment port.
Outside of Philipsburg, there are several smaller villages with their own restaurants and casinos, fun beaches, and easy access to Philipsburg's long list of diversions--from day trips to nightlife.
French Saint-Martin, both larger and less developed than its Dutch counterpart, is also more relaxed and quietly sophisticated. Known for its quiet French air, fine dining establishments and a less Americanized approach to Caribbean life, visitors come here from all over the world for a taste of France in the Tropics. The French capital is the city of Marigot, a sleepy village in comparison to the frenzy of Philipsburg on the Dutch side. While the shopping is not as affordable as in Philipsburg, the boutiques here are less ubiquitous and more distinctive. Visitors lavish in the city's stylish shops, French flair and cosmopolitan appeal.
The vacation hotspot of the French side is Orient Beach, where the sun and a string of fine hotels assuage the stressors of everyday life into a happy acknowledgement of the "live and let live" attitude that permeates the island. Beachgoers stroll on the white sands in as much or as little clothing as they see fit, sun-bathe and admire the view, or build sand castles with the kids. Visitors keen on French-Caribbean cuisine make their way to Grand Case, a fishing village with lots of French flavor and some of the best dining options in all of the Caribbean.
Beaches in Saint-Martin / Sint Maarten
Every one of the 39 beaches on St.-Martin/St. Maarten is open to the public, and each has its own appeal. There isn't a place on the island far away from a beach, and the beach is always inviting. The cooling, gentle sea breeze and warm waters are ubiquitous, but the sand and surf come in all shapes and sizes and attract visitors of different stripes. The following list includes those beaches that visitors remember time and time again and, for each, a summary of why.
Cupecoy Beach - Close to the Dutch-French border, between Mullet Bay and Baie Longue and guarded by sandstone cliffs, this white-sand beach is characterized by prominent rock formations and watery caverns. Stone steps lead from street level to the sand, where the surf can be rough, but the morning shade afforded by the cliffs is a welcome escape from the unrelenting sun. There are no restaurants, bars, or other facilities here, so visitors must pack their own refreshments or purchase them from enterprising locals. This is also the island's most popular gay beach, and clothing becomes less popular toward its northwest end.
Dawn Beach - Praised by locals as the best place to watch the sunrise, this beach sits near the border on the eastern edge of the island. This is one of the island's best beaches for bathing in the sun or with the multitude of colorful sea life in its reefs. There are waves and wind enough to attract surfers of all kinds and several nearby restaurants to lure convenience-minded tourists. Although it's not generally crowded, occasional public events and activities provide entertainment suitable for families with young children.
Great Bay - Right behind Front Street in Philipsburg, this beach is hardly hidden, but it is certainly convenient. The white sand stretches on for more than a mile around the city, so there's almost always a free spot to throw down a towel for a quick nap between lunch and the next shopping excursion. The beach suffers, though, for its proximity to the crowds and cruise ships; most visitors forego swimming and just enjoy a chance to unwind. A quick uphill hike away, historic Fort Amsterdam stands high above the sea and rewards every little bit of exertion with a big panoramic view. Little Bay lies just to the west.
Little Bay - This is a quiet, scenic beach with great views of Philipsburg, with its fleets of cruise ships, and several neighboring islands. The sand is not as soft here, but the views and relative quiet make it a popular spot for laid back afternoons or evening walks.
Mullet Bay - On the west side of St. Martin, south of Cupecoy and to the west of the airport, this beach has a mile of soft, white sand and lots of enticing shade under its many palm trees. The generally calm surf makes it ideal for swimming but, when it occasionally surges, it may teem with surfers. A nearby kiosk rents out surfboards and other equipment to anyone who doesn't want to be left out. The beach has been relatively quiet during renovations at a nearby resort, but it is widely considered one of the island's best and is busy with locals during weekends.
Maho Bay - Occupying an attractive plot on the western side St. Martin, this is one of the island's most popular beaches, despite the coming and going of planes that fly astoundingly close the ground as they land at the neighboring airport. Many people find the air traffic an amusing backdrop or just not distracting enough to diminish their fun. Palms provide ample shade for lounging, a steady breeze brings hordes of windsurfers, and food and beverages are readily available at the nearest hotel.
Simpson Bay - To the west of Philipsburg, on the way to the airport, this beach is a 1 ¼ mile crescent with lots of white sand and no crowds. With no giant resorts in the surrounding area, the resulting lack of tourists means more peace and quiet. It's a great place to swim without dodging scads of screaming children or to walk without running into a street vendor. Water sports equipment is available for rent but, because there are no changing rooms or other facilities, the beach may be best suited for a quiet morning, afternoon or early evening.
Friars' Bay - Between Grand-Case and Marigot, at the end of a nondescript road, this is one of the island's quietest beaches. With a few restaurants to choose from, mellow waters and a clear view of Anguilla, it is perfect for a day of relaxation after, or in between, livelier outings elsewhere.
Grand-Case Bay - Bordering the fishing village of Grand-Case and within walking distance from its restaurant row, this is a great beach for vacationing families. The calm waters are ideal for swimming, and water sports are available. A number of barbecue stands, or lolos, are handy for quick meals, and the renowned eateries of Grand-Case Boulevard are enticingly close. The beach is often crowded, especially during weekends in the high season between December and April and on weekends. However, because it is relatively far away from the cruise ship crowd, it's generally populated with longer-term, and therefore less rushed, visitors.
Long Bay - On the shore of the French Lowlands, on the western side of the island and north of Cupecoy, this is the island's longest beach. There are no vendors or kiosks and, with all this sand, it's hardly ever crowded. The snorkeling is good here, thanks to the reefs that teem with life and while maintaining the mild surf. Couples are comfortable here and are commonly found walking the considerable length of the beach at all times of the day.
Orient Bay - On the eastern side, opposite Grand-Case, this beautiful beach on Orient Bay is often described as the best on the island. It has lots of white sand, a coral reef with an abundance of sea life, and all kinds of water sports. Beach bars sell refreshments, live bands play lively music, and vendors sell their various wares. With all that, and a convenient location close to a number of good hotels, it is definitely the most crowded beach on the island. The northern end is better for families and generally more conservative than the southern end, where clothing gradually shifts from mandatory to optional to prohibited.
Rouge Bay - Minutes from Marigot in the French Lowlands, this beach gets its name from the tinge of pink that characterizes its soft coral sand. The snorkeling here is among the best available at any of the island's beaches, especially with the novelty of a submerged cave to swim through. Along with Cupecoy, this beach is also especially popular with gay islanders.
Ilet Pinel - This little island off of St-Martin's eastern shore is the last refuge for beachgoers who are sick of the crowds, and it can only be reached by boat. Luckily, ferries leave French Cul de Sac often and charge only $5 per passenger for the short ride. The island has no modern conveniences to speak of, but visitors are too enthralled with snorkeling about the reefs, lazing on the white-sand beaches, or grazing at the beach bars to mind. Also, the shallow water accommodates children, allowing their parents also to enjoy being stranded on this paradise.
Dining in Saint-Martin / Sint Maarten
St. Martin attracts tourists with all of its charms, not the least of which is a selection fine dining that is arguably unparalleled anywhere else in the Caribbean. The island's indisputable variety is as apparent here as it is in the faces and accents of its people, and renowned chefs from all corners of the world come here to add their own personal touches. This curiosity, combined with Dutch artistry, French indulgence and the freshest ingredients, make this little island a culinary competitor of megalithic proportions.
There are excellent eateries on every part of the island. On the Dutch side, epicureans can dine at any of a rapidly growing number of restaurants under the fabulous sunsets at Maho, on the idyllic lagoon at Simpson Bay or over the scenic bay in Philipsburg. On the French side, there's first-rate food on the gorgeous Orient Bay and Francophile open-air dining on the breathtaking marina in Marigot. But, lo and behold, that's not all. Not even close.
No, the highest honors are always reserved for the French village of Grand-Case, which has been called the "Gastronomic Capital of the Caribbean." In the course of less than three decades, this unassuming fishing village became one of the world's most talked about culinary experiences. From dining room decor to wine lists, only the best will do. Some of the world's most talented and adventurous chefs have laid claim to this strip of buildings that once housed modest fishing families, and a few of the worlds most dedicated foodies have followed suit. Critics have come with skepticism and left with their feet in their astonished mouths.
For visitors who crave sun and sand but refuse to compromise their epicurean appetites, this little island offers a microcosmic sample of the world's best dining in a setting that, if this is possible, make its formidable fare taste even better.
Nightlife in Saint-Martin / Sint Maarten
There are 13 casinos on St. Martin, but they are all on the Dutch side, making Philipsburg, with the highest density, the island's nightlife capital. The French side has no casinos, but there are dozens of beach bars and late night cafés all around the island. Most of the casinos are in hotels or resort complexes which, on both sides of the island, also include good restaurants or clubs that host music and dancing. Hotels often also run so-called beachside barbecues, where local performers play in steel bands and lead guests in authentic folk dances. The action starts early--often at sundown--, so savvy tourists plan their afternoons and evenings accordingly.
Shopping in Saint-Martin / Sint Maarten
Because Dutch St. Maarten and French St. Martin are both duty-free ports, retailers here can sell their goods at significantly reduced prices. Liqueurs and linens, clothing, colognes and even cameras are all sold here, but most bargains are found on the Dutch side, where there is no sales tax and prices are as much as 50% lower than in the US or Canada.
On the Dutch side, Philipsburg is by far the best place to shop. A vast selection of shops, galleries and boutiques makes this port of call a hot stop for cruise-loosened shoppers. The prices are in dollars here, too, so there are no surprises at the register. On Front Street, 1 ¼ miles of red brick are lined with palm trees, busy shops and outdoor cafés. More shops--and the Philipsburg Market Place, where smaller-ticket items are sold and haggling expected--can be found on Back Street, and still more shops lie along Old Street and the smaller lanes that connect Front Street to Back Street. Outside of Philipsburg, there's an affordable outlet mall and a collection of chic and costly boutiques in the shopping plaza at Maho Bay and a nice collection of shops and restaurants at the Plaza del Lago at the Simpson Bay Yacht Club.
On the French side, shoppers are wooed more by the charming French character of the boutiques than by bargains, although many of the prices are still excellent by everyday standards. The prices are in euros, though, so they may not be quite as amazing as they at first appear to be. Here, again, the best shopping is in the capital. Marigot's colorful boutiques along rue de la République and rue de la Liberté sell clothing by the world's most celebrated designers; dazzling jewelry and fine wines are sold out of classy shops. Vendors at the harborside market sell local produce and various wares. More designer boutiques can be found at the West Indies Mall, Port La Royal, and Plaza Caraibes.