Double your pleasure: Sint Maarten or Saint-Martin

Two islands in one? Sint Maarten or Saint-Martin, part Dutch, part French, is two nations, two cultures, two experiences

A good nook for a lazy nap along Long Bay. Photograph by Donald NausbaumCafé life and chic shopping along Rue de la Liberté in Marigot. Photograph by Donald NausbaumColourful fretwork in Philipsburg. Photograph by Donald NausbaumCustomers sample the goods at the Guavaberry Shop on Philipsburg’s Front Street. Photograph by Donald NausbaumFort Louis offers a wonderful view of Marigot. Photograph by Donald NausbaumLobsters caught off Pinel Island will have a starring role at dinner in Grand Case in just a few hours. Photograph by Donald NausbaumOrient Bay near Cul-de-Sac. Photograph by Donald NausbaumPhilipsburg sits on a sandspit between the Salt Pond and Great Bay. Photograph by Donald NausbaumThe stylised wine bottles and Champagne glasses depicted in the gingerbread fretwork of the Philipsburg Liquor Store. Photograph by Donald NausbaumThe view over Simpson’s Bay Lagoon, bisected by the Dutch-French border. Photograph by Donald Nausbaum

In or around March 1684, the story goes, on the island Columbus is supposed to have named for St Martin of Tours (the indigenous Amerindians called it Sualiga, “island of salt”), two men set off on a race. One was French, the other was Dutch; they started at Oyster Pond, on the east coast, and the race was meant to determine how they’d divide the island between them. The plan was that they’d walk in opposite directions round the shore, and the point where they met would be the border. They had a quick drink to prime themselves, then they were off, the Frenchman heading north, the Dutchman south. But the Frenchman, it’s said, having drunk only a glass of wine, managed to cover a much longer stretch of coast; the Dutchman was rather slowed down by the tumbler of gin he’d gulped. So the French got the bigger part of the island — about two thirds — and the Dutch were good sports about it.

Like so many good stories, this one probably isn’t true. What history does tell us is that since 1629 French colonists had settled on the northern side of what was nominally a Spanish island, and in 1631 Dutch colonists arrived on the southern side, drawn to the salt ponds where that valuable mineral could be harvested for sale. Spain reclaimed the island for fifteen years or so, but weren’t interested enough to stick around, so in 1648 the French and Dutch settlers decided to, as it were, make love, not war, and signed the Treaty of Mount Concordia to officially divide the island between them.

So it is that to this day the island has two names: Saint-Martin if you’re on the Partie Française, Sint Maarten if you’re a Dutch southerner. (But, to avoid the double-barrelled handle, let’s agree to call the whole island St Martin.) The two sides have long co-existed amicably, and the border is an open one — good thing for the French, since the international airport is on the Dutch side. It’s a good thing for visitors too, because it means that St Martin, in a sense, offers the experience of two islands in one: two cultures, two atmospheres, two languages.

Looking at St Martin today, it can be hard to believe that tourism was essentially non-existent here until the 1970s, and the now-bustling island was once considered one of the Caribbean’s undiscovered secrets. The first airstrip wasn’t built until 1943; before that, only a handful of visitors would arrive each year by boat, and the island’s main industry was salt production. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, only small airplanes could land, and St Martin was an off-the-beaten-track retreat for wealthy tourists. The first jet plane landed in 1973, after a runway extension, just as local and foreign investors began constructing the first large resorts. Fast-forward thirty years: it could almost be a different island, with some of the best-developed tourism infrastructure in the Caribbean and tens of thousands of visitors each year.

St Martin is probably not the place to come to if you want to escape from it all. Other Caribbean islands offer quiet, seclusion, untouched scenery, and if you try hard enough you can find those here too. But sometimes you don’t want to get away; sometimes you want to plunge right in, and if what you’re looking for is nightlife, chic shopping, and amazing cuisine in the setting of a tropical island surrounded by glorious beaches — well, bienvenue, and welkom.

Start with the south, since that’s where you’ll most likely arrive, at the Juliana Airport, where the runway skirts the Simpson Bay Lagoon. Maho Beach, at the end of the runway, is a bathing spot full of drama — as the planes swoop down right overhead, you may be tempted to duck. For many tourists, a St Martin visit isn’t complete until they experience one of those spectacular landings, with the jet engines roaring and stirring up a cloud of sand (hold on to your belongings if you don’t want them blown into the sea). You can steady your nerves afterwards with a drink at the Sunset Beach Bar.

The island’s best beaches may be here on the sheltered south coast. Mullet Bay, west of Maho, is certainly the most popular; Cupecoy, the next bay west and the last before the border, is your best bet for nude sunbathing on the Dutch side (the French side takes a more liberal view — many beaches there have a designated nude zone). Simpson Bay’s long curve follows the airport runway; this means there are few hotels built along its sands, so it offers relative quiet and calm, except of course when aircraft are landing or taking off.

Philipsburg, the capital of Sint Maarten, east of the airport, sits compactly on a narrow sandspit between Great Bay Salt Pond and the sea. Great Bay Beach itself, outfitted with a smart boardwalk, is literally on the town’s doorstep, and is kept scrupulously clean. Finding your way around Philipsburg is easy. There are two main streets, Front Street and Back Street (also known as Voorstraat and Achterstraat), running east to west along the sandspit; on the landward side, Pondfill Road is built on land reclaimed from the Salt Pond. A series of short alleys connect the three main thoroughfares, with white sand beaches and turquoise water on both sides.

The main pier is at the town’s eastern end, near Wathey Square and the historic Courthouse topped by a cupola with a clock and a pineapple-shaped finial. Many cruise ship passengers disembark here. The Sint Maarten Museum is nearby, on Front Street — a good spot to take in some local history and orient yourself. But Philipsburg’s biggest attraction may be its shopping. Crowded Front Street is lined with duty-free shops both large and small; best bargains are electronics and cameras, jewellery, and designer clothes. Don’t miss the Guavaberry Emporium, where you can sample, and of course buy, the famous Guavaberry Island Folk Liqueur, made from aged rum and the guavaberries that grow on the island’s central hills (tiny guavaberries are unrelated to guavas — they’re closer to cloves or eucalyptus — and they have rarely been successfully cultivated, so wild trees are almost the only source of the fruit).

Locals tend to head for Back Street, where the shop façades are less fancy and the goods less upscale, but this is where the real bargains are to be found, and a bit of friendly haggling is never amiss. Old Street, one of the narrow alleys connecting Front and Back, is a high-end pedestrian shopping area, gated at either end, that functions almost like an open-air shopping mall.

Serious shopping works up a thirst and an appetite. Luckily, Philipsburg has no shortage of oases where the over-shopped can recuperate. A tall, cool, alcoholic something has a way of seeming taller and cooler when it’s sipped on a verandah overlooking the Caribbean Sea. And when lunchtime comes around, Sint Maarten’s Dutch colonial heritage offers some interesting alternatives to standard international restaurant fare. Ask a local to direct you to a Back Street roti shop, and enjoy the Surinamese version of this Caribbean favourite; or, for something more elaborate, try the rijstaffel at the Pasanggrahan Royal Inn on Front Street. Once the governor’s house, and graced with the royal bedroom where the Dutch monarch used to stay on visits to the island, the Pasanggrahan is famous for its rijstaffel — Dutch for “rice table” — an Indonesian banquet consisting of numerous spicy stews, curries, and satays served with generous quantities of plain white rice.

You may need a quiet nap to recover from this culinary bounty. Pick your favourite beach and head for the shade of the nearest umbrella. Why not Little Bay, just west of Philipsburg, protected by a small peninsula, with good diving just offshore? As the day winds down, you can climb from here to Fort Amsterdam, the oldest Dutch fort in the Caribbean, built in 1631. The path runs through the property of a small resort, but the security guards are always happy to let you through and point the way. The fort is semi-ruined, though the thick outer walls are still partly standing, as well as a small hipped-roofed building. From here, on a clear day, you can see the neighbouring Dutch island of Saba, thirty miles away. And it’s not a bad spot to take in the sunset.

As the lights of Philipsburg begin to twinkle below, it’s time to ask yourself: feeling lucky? There are a dozen casinos on the Dutch side of the island where you can get your adrenaline pumping at the card table or the roulette wheel. Or don’t leave the night to chance: head out to one of the many nightspots on the south coast — bars, clubs — and dance till dawn.

Four miles north-west of Philipsburg, as the crow flies, a fifteen-minute drive on days with light traffic, but a whole country away, is Marigot, the capital of French Saint-Martin, with the Baie de la Potence on one side and the Simpson’s Bay Lagoon on the other. Some say Marigot is the most French of the French Antillean towns, though no doubt Fort-de-France and Pointe-à-Pitre would disagree. Certainly there’s no shortage here of very French chic, from the pastel-painted 19th-century houses on Rue de la République, with delicate gingerbread fretwork screening their verandahs, to the many cafés where you can while away hours sipping coffee, glancing at the newspapers, exchanging gossip, and scribbling your memoirs, to the sleek boutiques that carry the latest Paris fashions, perfumes, and cosmetics, to the expensive restaurants on Rue de le Liberté.

Like Philipsburg, Marigot is a town on a very manageable scale, with just four main streets, an easy morning’s exploration, perhaps starting at the market along the waterfront on the Boulevard de France, where the vendors’ stalls offer fruit and spices, fish just pulled from the sea, and local craft. At the southern end of Marigot is the Marina Port de la Royale, with little bistros and cafés and beautiful views of the sea and the boats in the bay. Not far away is an archaeological centre called “On the trail of the Arawaks”, the best place to learn about St Martin’s pre-Columbian past. The oldest objects here date to 1,800 BC; other exhibits cover the period of plantation slavery and the old salt industry. Many of the artifacts were discovered by the Hope Estate Archaeological Society, and tours are available to the dig site at Hope Estate.

It’s a steep ten-minute climb up to Fort-Louis, built in the late 18th century to protect Marigot from ocean-going marauders, but the panoramic view over the town is worth the exercise. The fort is the largest historic site on the island; the plans, it’s said, were sent direct from Versailles by Louis XVI. In the 1980s the building was carefully restored, and 18th-century cannon abandoned across the island were transported by helicopter to recreate the original battery.

As night falls, every gourmand in Marigot heads north, to the small village of Grand Case, about three miles away, a picturesque collection of wooden gingerbread houses sprawling along a curving bay that just happens to be home to an extraordinary collection of restaurants. (Some kind of cluster effect seems to be at work, with the presence of great restaurants attracting even more great restaurants.) Grand Case, in fact, has been called the culinary capital of the Caribbean. Strolling along its main street past one establishment after another, you’ll believe it’s certainly the Caribbean capital of French cuisine. There must be more restaurants here per capita than anywhere else in the islands; people joke there are more restaurants than inhabitants.

No one needs to be told that the French are very serious about their food, and in this the people of Grand Case may be more French than the French. The fruits de mer are of course superb; it seems that every lobster in a fifty-mile radius ends its life here. The best Grand Case chefs imaginatively deploy the classic techniques of French cuisine on excellent local ingredients. Some restaurants work in hints of the Mediterranean or of Italy; others nod to California or Japan. Delight ensues. It need hardly be added that the wine lists are superlative.

As you sip your aperitif contemplatively and gaze out at the moonlight glittering in the bay, with perhaps the lights of Anguilla in the distance, you may find yourself thinking, why Grand Case, of all places?

Some pleasures are best not questioned.

Virtual Tour

Many of St Martin’s attractions are concentrated in the two capitals and the village of Grand Case, but there’s lots more to do, and the island is compact enough to make getting around easy.

Terres Basses, sometimes called Lowlands, is the westernmost part of the island, past the Simpson Bay Lagoon, and on the French side of the border. This is where you’ll find some of St Martin’s poshest resorts and villas, lovely Baie Longue — Long Bay — and Plum Bay, popular with surfers.

Colombier, east of Marigot, is a gentle, lush valley, home to a watermelon plantation, lovely for relaxed walks, with views of the rolling hills. From here you can hike (you can also drive) to Pic Paradis, or Paradise Peak, the highest point on the island, rising to 1,400 feet. There are two observation decks, and on a clear day you can see six neighbouring islands: Anguilla, Saba, St Eustatius, St Kitts, Nevis, and St Barth.

Cul-de-Sac, on the east coast near the island’s northern end, is a small fishing village. From here you can drive to the beach at Grandes Cayes and hike to Petites Cayes at St Martin’s very north. Cul-de-Sac is also where you can take a boat to Pinel Island just offshore or the Île de Tintamarre further out. Many of the beaches on the French side have a clothing-optional area.

Quartier d’Orleans, a sleepy fishing village on Étang aux Poissons, just north of the border, is one of the oldest French settlements on the island, and some 17th-century houses still survive.

Proselyte Reef, south of the island, is home to “Wreck Alley”, a popular diving spot, with the 200-year-old frigate HMS Proselyte and a couple of modern ships deliberately sunk in 1989 to form artificial reefs.

Island Hospitality

Horny Toad

The Horny Toad Guesthouse is a deliberately small and distinctive oceanfront guesthouse known for its unpretentious atmosphere. The eight fully equipped apartments, each with air conditioning, fans, and daily maid service, are meticulously maintained, and each is delightfully different. Daily fresh flowers, free Internet access, and cable TV in the reception area, complimentary use of kayaks, floats, beach towels, chaise longues, and barbecue are also part of your stay. Located directly on Simpson Bay beach, it offers magnificent views, excellent service, caring management, and has been awarded “Fodor’s Choice” for many years. It has also been voted the island’s best value.

Joshua Rose

Located on picturesque Back Street in Philipsburg, the family-owned and -operated Joshua Rose Guesthouse offers guests an authentic West Indian holiday with a casual, homey atmosphere. Beautifully furnished apartments are equipped with private bath, hot and cold water, air-conditioning, telephone, satellite TV, refrigerator, balcony, and daily maid service. Joshua Rose is only two minutes away from Great Bay Beach and the boardwalk.

Summit From the sundeck surrounding the freshwater swimming pool, savour a panoramic view recognised as one of the best on Sint Maarten. Rooms at the Summit are set in cottages nestled along criss-crossing footpaths lush with tropical plants. All rooms are spacious air-conditioned studio suites, each with a private balcony or terrace, free cable television, clock radio, and direct dial telephone. Deluxe accommodations include full kitchen facilities, an in-room safe, and a sitting and dining area. Watersports are available on site at Two Flags Watersports Park. Two beautiful beaches with inviting blue waters, Cupecoy Beach and Mullet Bay Beach, are a brief stroll away.

Beachside Villas

A small resort, Beachside Villas is secluded and perfect for friends, families, and honeymoons. Accommodations are tasteful, spacious, and above all very complete. Each villa is directly on the beach. Luxurious bedrooms feature king-size beds and air-conditioning. In the middle of each villa, off the kitchen, is an open-air atrium for informal dining with grills for barbecuing. The dining areas and kitchens are spacious and fully equipped, including microwaves. Besides the manager, on-site personnel include maids, gardeners, and maintenance staff. Just five minutes to casinos, shopping, world-class restaurants, tennis, and golf. Ten minutes from both Marigot and Philipsburg.

Turquoise Shell Inn

Conveniently located one and a half miles from the airport, the Turquoise Shell Inn offers ten charming and comfortable one-bedroom suites. The living room-kitchen area has cable TV, ceiling fan, and fully equipped cooking facilities. The bedroom has air-conditioning for sleeping comfort. The property has a small freshwater pool and free wireless internet access. The long expanse of Simpson Bay beach is just steps out the back gate. Island hopping is available from nearby ferry terminals to Saba, Anguilla, and St Barth. Many activities are within walking distance. Walk to shopping, banking, many restaurants, bike rental, movies, and the Dolphin Casino.

Horizon View

Travellers who believe a hotel room is nothing more than a place to sleep are probably accustomed to tripping over their suitcases when the urge “to go” hits them at 3 a.m. At the Horizon View Beach Hotel, there’s not only plenty of space to properly store your belongings, but the price is right, too. Guests have a choice of air-conditioned studios or beachfront one-bedroom suites, deluxe one-bedroom suites or two-bedroom penthouses, with large bathrooms, fully equipped kitchens, brightly furnished living areas with colour cable television and balconies. A casual restaurant serves continental fare and island specialties in an intimate setting. Conveniently located in the heart of Philipsburg, near the capital’s many duty-free shops, restaurants, and nightspots.

Lama Guesthouse

A charming twelve-room guesthouse located in Philipsburg. Your hosts will welcome you with the warmth that you expect from the Caribbean. All rooms offer basic amenities, cable TV, air-conditioning, bathroom, and single or double-size beds. Daily maid service, Internet, and call centre are also available for your convenience.

Carl’s Unique Inn

Whether your visit is for business or pleasure, it’s comforting to know there’s a unique place to stay where you will feel luxuriously at home while staying within your budget. Carl’s Unique Inn is centrally located yet situated in a quiet residential neighbourhood nestled between green mountains.The Princess Juliana International Airport is less than a mile away. The inn features a small conference room with a seating capacity of fifty persons theatre-style, and a larger room with a seating capacity of two hundred persons theatre-style. These rooms can also be set up seminar- or banquet-style with round tables.

L’Esperance

A pretty little hotel located in the quiet neighborhood of Cay Hill, L’Esperance is five minutes by car from Phillipsburg and a ten-minute walk from Bel Air beach in one direction and a well-stocked supermarket in the other. Its 22 one- and two-bedroom suites are appointed in tropical rattan and are clean, comfortably laid out, and well equipped with kitchenette, air-conditioning, direct dial telephones, and cable TV, and overlook a peaceful garden and swimming pool. The staff are always accessible and ready to make sure that guests are well taken care of and treated with true Sint Maarten hospitality. Perfect for those looking for something cosy and intimate.

La Vista Beach Resort

In an age of sprawling hotel complexes, there is something indisputably appealing about smaller family-owned resorts. La Vista Beach Resort in Pelican Key epitomises the ideal of “home away from home”. La Vista regularly welcomes an extended family of about two thousand guests from all over the world. What ensures La Vista’s eighty per cent repeat guest list? Not merely the oversized pool and the fully equipped luxurious accommodation, with spectacular views over the Caribbean Sea, or the fantastic restaurant and Tiki Bar on the beach. One word sums it all up: family. All of the above smoothly comes together as the direct result of the teamwork of a dedicated, enthusiastic family.