By a treaty signed in 1648, the small 14 mile long island of St. Maarten/St. Martin was divided in half, one side Dutch (St. Maarten) and one side French (St. Martin). The two sides reflect the countries of their origin with French being the language of St. Martin and Dutch the language of St. Maarten. Although both sides of the island use English, it is more predominate on the Dutch side. St. Maarten/St. Martin is part of the chain of islands that comprise the Leeward Islands and are also known as part of the French/Dutch West Indies.
French St. Martin
The capital of the French side (St. Martin) is Marigot which is located on the northern side of the island near a large, man made circular harbor. It boasts lovely French shops and restaurants along with an open air market offering souvenirs and handmade arts and crafts. I bought a lovely, hand painted sarong there. The monetary standard is the Euro, although many places accept US Dollars in kind. Markets offer the finest in French wines, cheeses and the always popular fresh baguettes. Patisseries feature delectable and tempting sweets, savories, croissants and fine espresso drinks; they are crowded throughout the day. Fine dining featuring French cuisine is readily available as are more casual restaurants, many of which offer Creole and Caribbean dishes. I ate at one of these near the harbor and the food was delicious.
The French side of the island tends more toward quiet resorts and beaches which were, in my opinion, more upscale and prettier than those on the Dutch side. I spent a wonderful, relaxing evening at the bar of the Mercure resort in Nettles Bay enjoying music by a singer/trumpeter. The music was mellow and the bar fronts the beach where the stars sparkle above the lights of the anchored boats in the water.
Dutch St. Maarten
The Dutch side of the island has its capitol in Philipsburg where large cruise ships come to dock. The downtown area is the main shopping district for the island and contains many fine jewelry shops, electronics stores, perfumeries and other luxury stores. Here you will find name brand clothing, handbags and shoes. The entire island of St. Maarten/St. Martin is duty free so visitors often take advantage of this to purchase large ticket items to take home.
There is a large bay, Grand Bay, at Philipsburg which includes a wide sandy beach where you can spend an afternoon on a lounge chair under the shade of an umbrella enjoying the sun and surf.
The Dutch side is the place to go for exciting nightlife with music going till the wee hours of the morning. You will often find the younger members of the mega yachts staff enjoying an evening off at the nightclubs. There are casinos for those wishing to try their luck but don’t expect the opulence of Vegas on this island as the casinos are basically just gambling parlors. As it is in Holland, prostitution is legal and controlled in St. Maarten and ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs offer adult entertainment for those desiring or daring such. There were no obvious signs of prostitution around the island as discretion is enforced by the local officials.
The monetary standard on the Dutch side is also the Euro, but prices are usually printed in both Euros and the US Dollar, which is widely accepted everywhere.
Planning your trip
The main airport on the island is Princess Julianna on the Dutch side, where international flights arrive. There is a small airport on the French side offering air service to nearby islands. Ferry service is available to both Anguilla and St. Barthelemy (St. Bart’s) from the harbor in Marigot (French side) and also from Philipsburg on the Dutch side.
High season runs from November through April so for best value, book a trip in either late fall (after hurricane season) or early spring (before hurricane season). April through June can be just as nice and prices for those months for both air fare and accommodations should reflect off season rates. Crowds are fewer during those months, although the main ports in Philipsburg and Marigot are busy whenever the cruise ships come in.
The island consists of one main road, so by rental car you can spend a day seeing the entire island. Rental cars are available at the airport and also throughout the business districts. Bus service runs from both the French and Dutch sides and is one of the best values to be had with fares averaging $2.00 per person each way. The trip over the high point of the island on the way to Philipsburg is worth it just for the fantastic views along the way.
Taxis abound, however I found that fares can vary widely, so ask before you go. We were shocked one evening when it cost us $25.00 to go about 2 miles to eat out. Beware the ‘gypsy’ cabs that are unlicensed and can be unscrupulous. Licensed taxis carry a special ‘taxi’ license which is required to be displayed.
St. Martin/St. Martin is a preferred destination for every type of boat from the large mega yachts to small sail boats. On the south side of St. Maarten at Simpson Bay and in Sandy Ground in St. Martin, lift bridges allow water access to the very large Simpson Bay Lagoon which offers anchorages as well as numerous marinas for boaters. Sailors come for many reasons, including repairs, as St. Maarten is known for its yacht services. Early March each year the harbors and Lagoon get busy with the racing crowd as Heineken sponsors a series of races. If you aren’t a boater or sailor, you can enjoy the parties that occur during race week and watch the boats as they set sail to test their skill around the island. The St. Martin Yacht Club is positioned next to the lift bridge on the Dutch side and is an excellent place to watch the yachts come and go, enjoy a tropical drink and some island music.
If you enjoy water sports, this is a great place to do everything from an afternoon excursion on the Lagoon to zipping about on jet skis. Boat rentals along with instruction are available to the novice. Basic sailing lessons are available through the St. Martin Yacht Club which also offers a special program for kids on small sailing dinghies.
I highly recommend a trip to this island of two countries – relax on the beach, shop in Philipsburg and Marigot, get out on the water and enjoy the unique character and flavor of the French and Dutch West Indies.