Sint Maarten (and Saint Martin) is known as a sunny Caribbean beach destination. Not only Americans but also more and more Europeans know how to find this wonderful, windward island. The many beautiful white sandy beaches and the turquoise sea water are not only interesting for the beach and sun worshipper. Water sports enthusiasts such as divers, sailors and windsurfers will also find it hard to get bored on the island.
In addition to the nightlife and more than 300, often fantastic, eateries, the island has also been known since September 2017 for its devastating hurricane Irma. Fortunately, there were relatively few fatalities, but the material damage was enormous. Although reconstruction is still in progress, the island is again completely ready for tourism, according to the Sint Maarten Tourist Office.
We were there for the last time in 2015 but hope to visit the fantastic island again soon. Not only to contribute to the reconstruction of the island but also because St. Maarten is the perfect hub for ‘island hopping’ to Saba and St. Eustatius, among others.
The Netherlands and France on one island
The island of Sint Maarten is only 95 km2 in size. It consists of a Dutch and a French part. The northern, French part of the island is 54 km2 larger than the southern, Dutch part.
There is a nice legend about why the French side of Sint Maarten is bigger than the Dutch side. The two representatives of France and the Dutch Republic who came together to define the border could not agree. They therefore decided to hold a competition by walking in the opposite direction from the same starting point along the coast. As soon as they met on the other side of the island, a line would be drawn from that end point to the starting point. This line would then become the border. Due to drunkenness, however, the staggering Dutchman covered much less distance and the Dutch part therefore became smaller than the French part.
In the 17th century, the Netherlands and France decided that residents of both countries could easily travel from one part of the island to the other. This is still the case. Only signs on the side of the road still indicate the physical boundary. However, the landscape between the two parts is visibly different and the French part is significantly quieter than the Dutch.
The cosy Sint Maarten and the culinary Saint Martin
The last time we stayed on the island we were able to see a lot of the island and do a lot. Between day trips to the surrounding islands we enjoyed the wonderful weather and the Caribbean atmosphere, as well as the sometimes-culinary pearls that you will find in the French part of the island. But what makes this island so pleasant to stay for at least a week? We will highlight some of the highlights.
The beautiful sandy beaches of Sint Maarten
One of the island’s main attractions is its pearly white sandy beaches on the crystal clear, turquoise sea. Although we’re not big beach lovers ourselves, we could enjoy the many beach bars and cafés on the beaches. And you might not expect it, but the quality of the food at such beach bars is surprisingly good!
The island has 37 beaches, some even more beautiful than others. Some of them certainly won us over, such as the long beach at Great Bay in Philipsburg, the Orient Bay in the northeast and the beach at Anse Marcel in the far north.
If you have a rental car, you should definitely visit Maho Beach. The beach is not so well known for the warm, clear waters of the sea, but rather for the runway of Princess Juliana International Airport. There a lot of comings and goings of large commercial planes flying over the coastal road and the beach. For airplane spotters, this beach is the Valhalla at one of the busiest airports in the Caribbean.
Don’t go there like many daredevils to cling to the fence to experience the thrust of a departing plane. Such an airplane throws sand, water and – even worse – jet fuel against your face and possibly in your windpipe. It’s better to check out the air traffic from the nearby Sunset Beach Bar while enjoying a nice, chilled drink.
At many beaches you can not only relax on the beach but also do various forms of water sports, diving for instance. Although the 17 dive sites may be of inferior quality than the sites on Saba and St. Eustatius, the novice diver is particularly well catered for here.
Thanks to the ever-present trade winds, Sint Maarten is also known as the Mecca for sailors. There are several opportunities to rent a sailboat or to book a sailing trip. You can sail around the island or to one of the neighbouring islands. It is also possible to do some flotilla sailing on the more distant islands. And as a real sailor, you can’t help but visit Sint Maarten if the annual Heineken Regatta is being held there!
Sint Maarten is also an ideal location for (learning to) kitesurf. There are several schools and surf centres where you can go. We haven’t done it ourselves yet but are considering taking a trial lesson on Sint Maarten or on Bonaire the next time.
Hiking tours at the Pic Paradis
At 427 metres, Pic Paradis is the highest point on the island. On top of the hill you have a beautiful view over the whole island and the nearby islands. Apart from the hilltop climb, Pic Paradis offers you several beautiful walks, ranging from 3.5 kilometres (Eden Well) to 6.5 kilometres in length (Central Ridges). Most walks end in a different location than Pic Paradis. Keep in mind that Pic Paradis can only be reached by a 4×4 or by walking!
At the foot of the Pic Paradis you still have the Loterie Farm, a former sugar plantation from the end of the 18th century that closed its doors in the middle of the 19th century. Nowadays it is a fantastic small eco-resort far from civilisation where you can relax, swim and eat. But you can also walk and zipline. Highly recommended if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Philipsburg or Simpson Bay.
Sint Maarten is not really made for cyclists, but in the wooded hills you can enjoy fantastic mountain biking! There are 18 trails for mountain bikers. On the island there are a number of mountain bike rental companies, including Tri Sport. However, mountain biking is not entirely without risk. For this reason, it is advisable to go on a mountain bike tour. The use of a helmet is necessary in any case. Not only to protect your head in case of falls but also to prevent you from swiftly getting sunstroke due to the tropical sun.
Golfing at the Mullet Bay Golf Course
On Sint Maarten you can play golf on the challenging 18-hole, par 70 golf course at Mullet Bay. The 18-hole course meanders along the picturesque lagoon and then turns towards the sea. You can hardly start the morning on the island in a more beautiful way. Take a golf cart because even in the morning the temperature can rise considerably. For 30 American dollars you can rent a complete golf set in the golf shop.
Fort Amsterdam, situated on a promontory between Great Bay and Little Bay, was built by the Dutch in 1631, but was soon taken over by the Spaniards. After the island was officially divided into a Dutch and a French part in 1648, the fort came back into Dutch hands. In the many years that followed, the fort has often changed hands.
Nowadays the fort is small and not well maintained. There are still some rusty cannons from the 19th century. Still, the fort is definitely worth a visit because of the view of the sea and the bays. Birdwatchers will also get their money’s worth at the fort. The spot of land is also a breeding colony for brown pelicans.
Sint Maarten: Practical matters
Practical differences between the Dutch and French parts
The fact that the northern part is clearly different from the southern part is evident from things like the electricity supply. For example, on the French side you have 230 Volt at 50Hz and European plugs are used. On the Dutch side you have 110/120 Volt at 60Hz. You’ll find American sockets here.
Another difference is the currency. On the Dutch side you pay with Antillean guilders or American dollars, in the French part with Euros. In addition, people in St. Maarten generally speak English, although the official language is Dutch. In St. Martin they speak French, but fortunately we could also make ourselves understood in English.
Accommodation in Sint Maarten
More than two years after the devastating hurricane Irma, there is again a lot of good quality accommodation to be found on St. Maarten! On the Dutch side you’ll find most of the apartments, hotels, villas and resorts near Simpson Bay or in the capital Philipsburg. We stayed in a spacious apartment within the Simpson Bay Beach Resort and Marina where we had a fantastic view and ample parking for our rental car.
Transportation to and on the island
Most tourists arrive on the island via Princess Juliana International Airport in the west of the Dutch side, or on one of the many cruise ships that visit the island at Philipsburg every week. On the French side there is also a smaller airport and a number of marinas where large sailing yachts moor regularly.
On the island you can use taxis and buses (minivans) to get around. The minivans are the cheapest but offer the least flexibility. Taxis are more convenient and affordable over short distances. As they don’t have a meter, you have to agree on the rate in advance.
We prefer to make use of a rental car. We use Zest car rental where possible because we will never be faced with (unpleasant) surprises. But you can also go directly to one of the many (international) rental companies, such as Avis, Budget and Hertz. Before you make your final booking, check whether you are allowed to drive your rental car in both the Dutch and the French part of the country!
Another fun way to get around is with a Harley Davidson. This can be done at Harley St Maarten Motorcycle Tours. At this club of enthusiastic bikers, there are several trips to do where you get to see the unique spots of the island.