St. Martin/St. Maarten is a charming slice of Caribbean Paradise that is so easy to fell in love with.
Since the 17th century, the island has been shared by the Netherlands and France. However, there is no official border between the two sides and no passport is required to get from one side to the next.
The French side calls the island Saint Martin (capital Marigot) and the Dutch side Sint Maarten (capital Philipsburg). The island is a melting pot of cultures, history, food, and activities.
St. Martin’s Dutch side is well known for its festive nightlife, sandy beaches, casinos, and jewelry shopping.
St. Martin’s French side is known for its nude beaches, “Mardis de Grand Case” street festival, clothes shopping, and gourmet restaurants.
Roman and I first visited the island when we were on a Caribbean cruise. We spent around 6 hours on the Dutch side, enjoying the beach, food and some shopping. This time we decided to spend a whole week on the island and explore it in full.
Where is it located?
St. Martin is a tiny island located in the northeast part of the Caribbean not far from Puerto Rico. Several airlines fly directly to the island from Europe, US, and Canada. The Princess Juliana International Airport is considered one of the busiest airports in the Caribbean.
It’s also a favorite port of call for many Caribbean cruises and a popular base for island hopping.
We flew to St. Martin from Boston Logan airport with Jet Blue airlines to spend a week exploring.
As a tourist, I got the feeling that this 34 sq. miles island may offer many things to see and to do compared to similar size Caribbean islands.
Our list of places to visit and things to do in St. Martin
The Dutch side of the island:
Philipsburg is the Dutch capital of the island and it is located within the stunning view of Great Bay blue waters. It’s easy to walk around a few streets of this town sandwiched between the Salt Pond and Great Bay.
There are many beach front restaurants serving up the fresh catch of the day, Caribbean lobster and conch fritters. The Boardwalk is the most popular place and has many options for lunch and dinner. You can go for a swim in the pristine waters of Great Bay, lounge on the beach and then come back to the Boardwalk for a tropical cocktail.
If you like to shop, Philipsburg is the ideal location. Front Street is lined with high-end boutiques and jewelry stores. You’ll find plenty of fine jewelry, watches, designer clothes and more. It’s duty-free heaven for shoppers!
Maho Beach and Airplanes
Maho beach is world famous for low-flying airplanes. There is a community of people who try to capture the “rush” of jets flying right over their heads. Many “plane spotters” and tourists try to capture the thrilling experience as the planes land or take-off at Princess Juliana International Airport.
We went to Maho beach, but unfortunately never spotted any airplanes. We did enjoy a couple of cocktails at the beach bar and heard stories about people being blown into the water the jet blast of large planes.
The French side of the island:
Orient Bay (Baie Orientale) Beach
St. Martin island is blessed with 37 gorgeous beaches. But Orient Bay beach is probably the most famous in the entire Caribbean. But be warned! Parts of this beach is famous for its nudity.
This 2-mile-long, white powdered sand beach is beautiful and protected from the Atlantic waves by a reef. So, the snorkeling here is just incredible.
Orient Bay is the only beach on St. Martin with many bars and restaurants directly located on the beach.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma left a trail of devastation on Orient Bay. All beach bars were wiped out. All vegetation and many coconut trees were swept away. However, the beach still consists of a large curve of white sand and the colors of the sea are still spectacular. The vegetation is growing back quickly, and the beach bars are reopening.
We had a wonderful lunch at Kontiki Bar. After that, we spent the rest of the day swimming in clear tropical waters and lounging on the beach chairs with matching umbrellas. No wonder this beach is called the “St. Tropez of the Caribbean”.
Grand Case – Fishing Village
St. Martin has a reputation of a culinary melting pot of cultures and flavors. The small beach town of Grand Case on the French side is often called a “Culinary Capital of the Caribbean”. Many top chefs of the world opened their restaurants here. You will find an interesting mix of French Caribbean and Creole cuisines. If you want to get a taste of less expensive food, try to eat at the local “Lolo”.
The open-air barbecue stands are called “Lolo” by locals. They are a good place for a well-seasoned rack of ribs, chicken or grilled red snapper served with rice, beans, and coleslaw. The full platter costs from $10 to $20, and a real bargain on pricey St. Martin.
I would highly recommend dining here at least once. The Grand Case Boulevard and the beach are lined up with restaurants and Lolos. So, there are plenty of options to choose from.
Grand Case’s Street Festival
The colorful “Mardis de Grand Case” festival starts on the second Tuesday of January. It held every Tuesday evening for 12 weeks.
We were lucky to see the last parade of the year. We drove to Grand Case with friends. There were many tourists and locals sitting at Lolo’s or just walking around. The street was lined up with vendor’s tables and stalls selling art, crafts, and food.
We had dinner at one of Lolos and watched the parade. The dancers in colorful, tropical costumes walked the street under the rhythms of Caribbean music.
I would recommend visiting the event if you happen to be on the island during these months.
Pinel Island (Ile de Pinel)
Pinel Island is located at the North East side of St. Martin and set in the heart of the French Marine Park. The place is popular with locals and tourists.
One day we decided to visit this little treasure in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. We drove to the Cul de Sac on the French side and took a small boat/ ferry for a five-minute ride.
The first thing you see is a picture-perfect scenery – the turquoise water and the white sand of the beach surrounded by coconut trees.
There are two cute French restaurants and a souvenir shack at the back of the main beach. The island is a perfect place for a relaxing day of swimming, snorkeling or sunbathing with a glass of cold rum punch.
Hike to Pic Paradis
Pic Paradis is the highest point of the island at a height of 1,391 feet. It rises from the center of St. Martin on the French side not far from the village Colombier.
One day we decided to go hiking with friends who stay on the island every year for a few weeks. We were lucky that they know this area well. We followed the trails all way up and come to one of the two observation decks. The view from the deck over the island and lush rain forest below was spectacular. On our way down we saw a group of wild monkeys eating peacefully within the shade of big trees.
We never stopped at Loterie Farm which is located at the foot of the mountain. But we passed it on our way back from Pic Paradis. I had a feeling that I would love to spend some time at this secret hideaway.
A former sugar plantation, this private nature sanctuary is very popular with tourists. Loterie Farm is well-known as a place for great food and drinks in the lush green surroundings, and swimming pools with cascades and tropical cabanas.
Marigot is a capital of the French side of St. Martin. Before going on this trip, I read a lot about this town. It was described as a pleasant place with brightly colored Creole-style houses, chic boutiques, and delicious restaurants.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma brought a lot of damage to this charming place. We saw many houses in ruins without roofs, doors, and windows. The whole island suffered huge devastation after September 2017. The town is slowly recovering from the hurricane, but it will take time before the traces of the disaster will be removed from the island.
Where to stay in St. Martin?
When it comes where to stay, it can depend on what you’re looking for. The island offers a wide range of accommodation, from five-star resorts to charming boutique hotels. There are many timeshare or condo rental options. Most hotels and resorts are located on the island’s beaches. Regardless of whether you choose to stay on the Dutch or French side, everything is relatively close and easy to access with a rental car.
We stayed at Divi Little Bay Beach Resort. Divi is part of large chain resorts.
St. Martin’s Divi resort is located on a peninsula within walking distance of Philipsburg on the Dutch side of the island. It is a timeshare resort with 235 rooms, three pools, four restaurants, a mini-mart, and a gift shop. You can choose from an all-inclusive package (rare option on the island) or room only.
Hotel location: located on its own private beach facing Little Bay waters. It is a perfect location for a relaxing stay on a tropical island. You’ll need to rent a car if planning to explore other sides of the island.
Hotel room: our room was spacious and comfortable with a scenic view of Little Bay beach. The room had an open concept of sleeping and sitting areas with a kitchenette and a bathroom with a Jacuzzi and large-size shower room.
Hotel amenities: the hotel has a full-service spa, gym, water-sports center, and several shops. There are two swimming pools located at Seabreeze bar and new infinity pool on the hilly side of the resort. The bars and restaurants provide a great mix of fine dining and casual poolside snack options.
Hotel value: we paid $2,600 per person for all-inclusive air and hotel package. I believe that on this island where hotels are quite expensive, this was a good value for our money. We stayed at the resort for seven days and enjoyed a good service, great amenities, food, and a beautiful beach.
There are so many reasons to visit the island: history, culture, beaches, food, fun, and shopping. We didn’t have time to take in all the sights of this beautiful island.
But we were happy to explore and experience a small piece of this paradise that is a little Dutch and a little French.
Have you ever visited St. Martin?
Roy Brown says
Wonderful presentation. I am packing my bags!