We explored the island of St. Maarten as part of the #ChoiceCaribbean campaign. The following article is sponsored by Choice Hotels in conjunction with the campaign, and we were provided our hotel stay and airfare stay in connection to this. The experiences, stories and opinions are entirely our own.
At the end of last year as winter days grew shorter and the holidays approached, we set our sights on checking in with each other before we found ourselves immersed in the uptake of a new year. Taking off to the Caribbean to spend some time together away from our laptops, reflect on the past year and take a deep breath before a busy year ahead was just what we needed.
It was with this frame of mind that we left our home base in Berlin mid-December for St. Maarten, the Dutch side of an island in the Caribbean divided in two with its French counterpart St. Martin.
While we weren’t fully disconnected from the internet and the world during our time on St. Maarten, we found that removing ourselves from all that was familiar and routine — and giving ourselves a dose of sunshine and warmth — helped us to relax, gain some perspective, and enjoy time together as an ordinary married couple (i.e., not as business partners). Not to mention, a sort of decompression seems to occur naturally when staring out over water to the horizon for long periods of time.
In this way, pressing the pause button from time to time in one’s life creates space to disconnect, reconnect and to clarify what matters most.
Going Beyond the Beach and Beaten Path in St. Maarten / St. Martin
The idea of this trip, as with most of our travels, was to go beyond the obvious — in this case, the beaches. This involved exploring both sides of the island — Dutch St. Maarten in the south and French St. Martin to the north – and following suggestions, on and off the tourist trail, to experiences that would move us.
The cliché of white sand Caribbean beaches stretching along dazzling, turquoise water is far too accurate. We were tempted to park ourselves on one of the several we sampled, and never leave. But we also knew there was more to discover on St. Maarten than appears on the surface.
Next, we would be fibbing if we told you that St. Maarten is not heavily touristy. It would be very easy to visit and only see the developed and trafficked areas of the island and draw your experience and conclusions from there, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find a dimension to the island that few others see. On several occasions we found ourselves surrounded by rugged natural beauty, without a soul around.
We enabled our experience of St. Maarten in full by talking with as many people as we could. Our goal: to connect with and better understand this island of 80,000 inhabitants that welcomes an astonishing 3.7 million travelers a year, and to uncover a diversity of experiences that speak to both adventure and relaxation.
That’s where this guide comes in. Pick and choose from the experiences below to piece together a St. Maarten trip itinerary that best suits your travel goals.
Skip Ahead to What Interests You Most:
- Where We Stayed in St. Maarten
- What to Do in St. Maarten / St. Martin
- Where to Eat in St. Maarten
- St. Maarten / St. Martin Practical Details
- When to go to St. Maarten
Experiential Travel Guide to St. Maarten/St. Martin
Some of the following experiences were provided to us (as indicated below); some we paid for ourselves. Some we learned about by talking with locals or long-time residents, and others we discovered on our own.
A note on costs: Prices for experiences vary slightly depending upon season (high or low), number of people in the group, and other factors. Legend: $ = up to $50, $$ = $50-$100, $$$ = $100-$150, $$$$ = $150+
1. Wake up early and go for a run (or stroll) at Cupecoy Bay and enjoy a Caribbean beach all to yourself.
If running isn’t your thing, then swap it with walking or cycling. Whatever you do, get up early and head to the cliffs. You’ll be rewarded not only with the soft glow of early morning light, but also with a Caribbean beach to yourself.
2. Race and take the controls of Stars & Stripes, the winning racing yacht of the 1987 American Cup.
Yes, this experience can take you on THE winning boat from the 1987 America’s Cup. This alone is kind of exciting. Board the boat, and each of your group is assigned a crew position. From there, you get a quick lesson, you practice a bit, the helmsman issues the commands and with a traditional 6-minute start, it’s off to the races. You witness and participate firsthand in the teamwork required to make a craft like this take flight on the water. This became even more evident – and dramatic — as we sailed right into a brief tropical storm with the wind whipping the sails and our boat carving slightly terrifying angles.
What really set this experience apart, however, was the competition. We raced against another America’s Cup boat (True North, from Canada) under standard regatta regulations, giving us a wee taste of the adrenaline of an actual race.
The only danger with this experience is that it may make you want to take sailing lessons and rent your own sailboat to go around the Caribbean. Not that we speak from experience or anything…
How to do it: The 12-Metre Challenge is located at Bobby’s Marina, Philipsburg. You can book through their site or by email. Note: Cruise ship passengers must book through their cruise line. Cost: $$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
3. Get away from it all with a hike in Guana Bay.
It’s easy to get caught up in St. Maarten tourist trail areas and question, “Is this all there is to the island?” However, a short drive over the hill to the southeastern corner of the island and Guana Bay served as our first glance at a different sort of St. Maarten / St. Martin.
The trek from Guana Bay to Pointe Blanche is one of the areas on the island where you’ll find yourself surrounded by rugged natural beauty without a soul around, save perhaps for a few goats.
How to do it: This trek is organized by Tri Sport. They offer a couple of departures each day during high season. We recommend choosing the morning departure (9AM) as you’ll avoid the strong heat and sunshine. Joost, our guide, provided terrific historical and environmental context. Not to mention, he’s a font of useful information and recommendations for other treks. Cost: $ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
4. Marvel at the planes landing over Maho Bay beach.
Never have we been to a destination where the airport is such a tourist attraction. But sit on or near the beach at Maho Bay and you’ll quickly understand why. The photo below pretty much says it all. It looks Photoshopped, but it’s not. Some planes are bigger still and fly even lower, if you can imagine.
How to do it: While you can stand on the beach to watch the planes land overhead, we recommend Sunset Bar as an ideal spot to capture a photo without the jet blast. The surfboard outside the bar is updated daily with the flight schedule. Good looks can also be had from Driftwood Bar on the other side of the beach. Air France and KLM fly the largest jets (i.e., most dramatic landings and photos). Update: As of October 31, 2016 the huge KLM 747s are no longer landing at Maho Bay.
5. Day trip to Shoal Bay, Anguilla to relax on the #1 ranked beach in the Caribbean.
On our first day in St. Maarten we heard Shoal Bay beach described to us as “heaven on earth.” That the recommendation came from a long-time resident with experience throughout the Caribbean told us we must go. But we’ve been to plenty of “best beaches,” so we managed our expectations.
Shoal Bay Beach over-delivered. Not only was the beach a carpet of soft, pristine white sand, but the light and water played a range of blue shades of the likes we’d never before seen, except for glaciers in Antarctica. The blue glow can appear almost artificial and HDR’d, but it’s not. It’s simply the way Mother Nature worked out in this part of the world. Now we understand why this beach is ranked #1 in the Caribbean and #5 worldwide.
The other notable feature of this beach during our visit: it was almost empty. The restaurant where our tour went was a simple, local family-run establishment, which lent a fitting and traditional laid-back Caribbean feel.
How to do it: We took a day trip package that included a speedboat from St. Maarten (dock near the airport) to Anguilla + bus transfer to/from Shoal Bay + lunch + free use of beach equipment such as snorkel gear and paddle boards. Cost: $$$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
6. Get above it all at Pic Paradis.
There is something about making your way to the highest point to get some perspective. Having an aerial view of St. Maarten (and St. Martin) from the lookout at Pic Paradis, the highest point on the island at 1,391ft / 424m, helps you see the contours of the land and how all of the places you’ve visited fit together.
How to do it: We followed the Pic Paradis signs from the main road between Marigot and Grand Case and parked on the side of the road up the hill from Loterie Farm (it was closed the day we visited, Monday). From there it was a relatively short, but steep, walk to the top. Alternatively, if you have a 4-wheel-drive car you can drive virtually the entire way to the peak and lookout.
7. Drive a Rhino along the western coast of St. Martin.
“I designed this myself and it’s impossible to tip. That’s why we call it a Rhino,” Oliver, the owner of Rhino Safaris explained when we first arrived. He did this so that everyone – from children to 90+ year olds – could enjoy the experience.
I had memories of tipping a jet ski on a college break many years ago, so I was of relieved to find out this hybrid Jet Ski/zodiac could not be flipped. It took a few minutes to get used to the Rhino and what it could do in terms of speed, turns, and tricks, but once we did, it was fun and addictive.
Additionally, having spent time sitting in traffic driving the western part of the island, it was a pleasant change to enjoy the same areas from the freedom of the water.
How to do it: Our “Rhino Safari” depart from Cole Bay just behind Pineapple Pete’s restaurant. The tour includes not only driving your own Rhino up the western coast, but also snorkeling at Creole Rock at the northern end of the island. Cost: $$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
8. Cross the border and practice your French.
One of the things that attracted us to St. Maarten/St. Martin was that the island has been divided between the French and the Dutch for over 350 years. Today, the Dutch side is an independent country, while the French side remains a territory of France. We wondered what that would look and feel like.
While there are no border controls between the sides and countries, you’ll still see signs posted across the island welcoming you each time you cross. Cross from the Dutch side north and you’ll have a chance to practice your French. You’ll also see a different style of architecture and town planning. Not to mention, the bread and pastries are unsurprisingly better on the French side of the border.
9. Chill out at Mullet Bay beach.
There is no shortage of postcard-like beaches to choose from on the island. One of our favorites for relaxing, swimming and sunning was Mullet Bay. Since there’s a golf course on one side of the beach, it is somewhat protected from development and the shadow of any large buildings.
Of course, we aren’t the only ones to have discovered this beach. But, we noticed that if we went before noon or after 3PM it emptied as day passengers returned to the cruise ships. Ideal for a morning read or late afternoon nap.
A note on St. Maarten / St. Martin beaches: All beaches on the island are public, meaning that you have access to try any one you’d like. Some beaches have sun chairs and umbrellas for hire, usually organized by restaurants or bars, but you have the right to plunk your beach towel at random and enjoy the beach for free.
10. Bicycle to Fort Amsterdam.
With so much of St. Maarten covered in new buildings and developments (something like 90% of the island was destroyed by Hurricane Luis in 1995), I was curious to learn more about its history and the strategic role the island played in the colonial wrangling between the Spanish, Dutch and French empires over the centuries. This is where the historical bicycle tour of Philipsburg with Barend, our guide, helped fill in the gaps.
One of the focal points of the bicycle tour is 17th century Fort Amsterdam, originally built by the Dutch, then lost to the Spanish and successfully defended to ward off a return Dutch invasion. The Dutch leader from that lost the fight (and his right leg), Peter Stuyvesant, went on to become mayor of New Amsterdam. Eventually he traded New Amsterdam (now, New York) to the British for the wee island of Curacao, in perhaps the very first of the worst of Wall Street deals. This story reinforces how the islands are historically more connected to our present day circumstances than we realize.
Additionally, the bicycle tour takes you through Back Street, Philipsburg. While the souvenir shops and tourist restaurants in Philipsburg harbor and Front Street may feel overwhelming, this residential area just a few blocks away will give you a sense of what the island might have looked like before the rebuilding and tourism boom. Many traditional homes have remained in the hands of the same family for multiple generations.
How to do it: The historical bicycle tour with TriSport leaves from the cruise ship harbor in Philipsburg. There’s a choice of several departures, but we recommend taking the early one (8:30 AM) to beat the heat and the crowds. If you would like a more challenging ride, check out the other bicycle tours offered. Cost: $-$$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
11. Scuba dive at Saba island and swim with sea turtles in coral gardens.
“I’m sorry. It looks like visibility isn’t as great as it usually is,” Bob, our dive master, apologized to us before we descended to the dive site known as Tent Reef.
A few minutes later we swam over coral gardens bursting with colorful coral and fish. We encountered sea turtles noshing on jelly fish, and saw puffer, parrot and lion fish dart in and around the reef. I thought: “Hmm, if this is considered ‘bad’ visibility, I can’t imagine what ‘good’ must look like.”
Diving in Saba was a top priority for us as we’d heard that the dive sites there are considered some of the best in the Caribbean. It took a little logistical juggling, but we did find a way to combine two dives there within a day trip from St. Maarten. The only downside of this plan is that you don’t have time to explore the island itself. There are supposed to be some gorgeous coastal treks, so consider extending your Saba trip to several days.
How to do it: There are ferries that offer day trips from St. Maarten to Saba (on the Edge or Dawn II) that run most days in high season. The ride takes 1.5 hours and can get rough. If you get seasick easily, consider taking some motion sickness medicine or carry Sea Bands. We arranged our dive in advance with Saba Divers. They meet you at the ferry, gear you up, manage two dives, and get you back to the ferry for the late afternoon return to St. Maarten. Fun and experienced dive masters.Cost: $$$$
12. Taste rum at a local distillery.
“I used to experiment with flavored rums in my kitchen to make gifts for friends or for guests at my husband’s restaurant. After I decided to do this professionally, I taught myself enough Mandarin to navigate the factories in China to get the bottle design exactly as I wanted it. I’ve always been hands-on,” Melanie, co-founder of Topper’s Rhum, laughed as she explained the genesis of her rum business.
Teaching yourself “enough” Mandarin is no easy feat, but this focus on detail fit with what we saw and tasted during our visit to the distillery.
Melanie has been successful with her current lineup of white, spiced, coconut and flavored rums like white chocolate raspberry. Her experiences continue with new flavors in her office-cum-laboratory. The coconut rum was our favorite for drinking straight, but we later sampled the Mocha Mama (think Kahlua without the cream) over vanilla ice cream. Nice!
How to do it: We’ve heard that Topper’s Rhum now offers distillery tours for the public that you can book directly by sending an email. Otherwise, you can sample (and buy) any of the rums at one of the two Topper’s restaurants.
13. Practice Your Tanning Skills at Orient Bay.
On our first night in St. Maarten we asked our waitress, Samantha, which beach on the island was her favorite. Her quick response: “Orient Bay. I didn’t realize how lucky we are to have this beach until I left the island and visited other places. I love it.”
Located on the French side of the island east, the beach at Orient Bay is long, wide and lined with restaurants and cafes that offer beach chairs and umbrellas. It’s more of a place to “be seen” than Mullet Bay, but it’s not too over-the-top. It also features beach segments that are clothing optional, so if nude bathing is your thing, this is the place to be…or to be seen.
14. Watch local school kids learn to swim in Grand Case.
In the late afternoon light, school kids head to the beach at Grand Case to play in the water and jump off the pier. There is something so light and innocent about the scene. Listen to the giggles and feel the energy. An inimitable local sight and memory.
How to do it: Park your car in the public parking lot on the north end of the main street in Grand Case. Walk out by the pier behind the cluster of outdoor grill restaurants. Plenty of food options here, too, from the informal grills at the beach side to more formal options along what is known as “Restaurant Row.”
15. Kayak through the mega yacht harbor to the mangroves.
St. Maarten is one of THE places in the Caribbean for yachts and boats of the “mega” variety to be docked. So it’s a fun juxtaposition – not to mention great perspective — to paddle through the nautical playground of the rich and famous before coming back down to earth with the jellyfish and sea cucumbers in the mangroves.
How to do it: Tri-Sport usually offers a lagoon kayak tour a couple of times a day. We recommend choosing either the early morning or late afternoon option to avoid the heat of the midday sun. Chris, one of the guides, is a St. Maarten local so he can advise you on anything you might want to know about the island, including local food. Cost: $-$$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
16. Enjoy the sunset and a rum punch on a catamaran.
There’s something naturally calming about staring out over the sea at a sunset as the glow of the sun melts into the water. Now, do that same thing with from the webbed deck of a catamaran with a rum punch in your hand and you’ll find yourself exhaling – literally and figuratively — even deeper.
How to do it: Aquamania offers sunset and dinner catamaran trips on Wednesday and Friday evenings, departing from Simpson Bay Resort marina. Cost: $$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
17. Get a massage to work out the kinks, just before you board the plane.
Truth is, a massage is good any time – beginning, middle, end (or all three) of your vacation. We chose to get a couples’ Swedish massage (55 minutes) just before heading to the airport — to allow the hands of the masseurs to work it all out of our muscles as the oils of a Swedish massage locked in all the goodness of our tanning efforts from the previous week.
How to do it: Good Life Spa is located in Maho Plaza under La Terasse. Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time as it’s possible to use the spa’s pool and sauna facilities after the massage.Cost: $$$$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
18. Grab a Johnny Cake at Hilma’s and ask her about Anthony Bourdain and her 40+ years on the island.
Although a separate section below is devoted to recommended dining and island eats, we include Hilma’s (technically, Hilma’s Windsor Castle) because eating at one of the four stools is an experience well beyond the food. Hilma has been operating from a converted trailer on the same spot in Simpson Bay for 22 years, and she’s lived on the island for more than 40. She purposely keeps operations deliberately small and personal for manageability. She has so many stories to tell, so plan some time for a conversation or two.
“I was all by myself when I first started here. None of this was here,” Hilma told us as she looked out over the road now filled to the brim on both sides with restaurants and shops. When we asked her about Anthony Bourdain, she confirmed, “Yes, he used to come here often. He vacationed here before he became really famous. He’s eaten everything here. The advice he gave me was to not change, that I should stay true to my roots.”
How to do it: You can find Hilma’s Windsor Castle on the lot between the RBC Bank and Jerusalem / The Palms restaurants on Airport Road in Simpson Bay. Hilma is open Monday to Saturday from 7:30AM – 2:00PM.
19. Hike the northern coastline at Sentier des Froussards.
This falls under the “hidden” and “I had no idea something like this existed on the island” categories. We woke up early to do this trek — Sentier de Froussards, from Anse Marcel to Eastern Point and back — during our last morning on the island. The hike consists of a surprisingly beautiful and secluded 3-mile footpath out along the northern coast of the island and features a couple of bathing-worthy beaches, rugged coastline and fabulous windswept landscape.
How to do it: Big thanks to Joost from TriSport for recommending this trek to us. Drive towards Anse Marcel and after coming over the big hill (and before entering the marina and resort area) turn to the right where you see a small trekking sign and parking lot. You’ll walk a ways on a dirt road before reaching the trailhead on the right. Here’s a screenshot of area map from the PocketEarth app. Go very early (arrive around 7:30AM) to avoid the traffic and heat. En route to Anse Marcel from the south, fetch yourself a pain au chocolat or croissant from the boulangerie on the right side of the N7 main road in Grand Case.
20. Throw open the curtains at sunrise…and realize how fortunate you are.
This began my morning routine. I noticed it most on that final day, perhaps because it marked the final time I would feel it this trip.
It was the combination of the sound of the curtains moving on their track along with the reveal of the morning, the water, the horizon, the sun, a new day. The sensory combination of sight and sound of our morning routine foreshadowed the day to come and offered a moment to reflect on what we have, here and now.
This is a lesson for life. One reaffirmed on the island.
Where (and What) to Eat in St. Maarten
As we stayed in St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island, we took all of our meals there. Much of the food in this part of the island is international, a reflection of both the people who now call this island home and the demographic of the tourists that visit it.
If you are interested in traditional French cuisine, however, then head up to “Restaurant Row” in Grand Case on the northwestern side of the island. We didn’t have the opportunity to eat there during this trip as were often there too early for dinner, but the menus posted outside were very similar to what you might see in France. Long-time European residents confirmed the quality is also top notch. Auberge Gourmande, Bistro Caribe, Sol e Luna, Ocean 82 and Tastevin were recommended. Our quick look at the Auberge Gourmande menu told us this is the place we’d likely visit, but we might be swayed by what is fresh and the plat du jour elsewhere.
Vegetarians and vegans delight. If salads, vegetables, juices and healthy eating are your thing then this is your place. The focus at Top Carrot: fresh ingredients, either grown on the island (when possible) or just off the boat from nearby Dominica. Specials change daily. After each meal, not only were we truly satisfied, but we also left feeling as though we’d done our bodies a favor. The French co-owner, Lydia, is usually there and has some great stories from living on the island for 20+ years. She’s exceedingly kind, too.
Recommended dishes: Baked goat cheese (St Marcellin) salad, veggie wrap and mahi mahi with passion fruit sauce and caramelized onions (daily special, was terrific). Where to find it: 3200 W South Airport Rd (near Simpson Bay Marina), Simpson Bay.
What happens when a Canadian Trinidadian opens restaurant in St Maarten? You get Caribbean favorites like drunken ribs and Trinidadian bites served in a Canadian (and Torontonian) paraphernalia flair. Greg, the owner, and his mother change the menu daily based on what’s fresh. He’s also a great resource for other restaurant recommendations. Recommended dishes: Drunken ribs and pholourie, spiced split pea flour puff fritters with house special cumin-tamarind sauce. Rib portions are large, so consider splitting one between two people or pair with an appetizer instead of a 2nd main dish. Where to find it: 25 Airport Road in Simpson Bay (near RBC Bank).
The feel of this place is like a tropical garden. Peaceful. Jimbo, the owner, has been on the island for the better part of 27 years and is a great storyteller, including what it was like losing everything in the 1995 hurricane. He might drop by your table so take the opportunity to say hello and ask him anything about the island.
Recommended dishes: Calamari starter and shrimp fajitas. Jim makes his own roasted habanero hot sauce, so be sure to ask for it if it doesn’t show up on its own. The margaritas were also tasty, chock with freshly squeezed lime. Where to find it: Simpson Bay Marina. Disclosure: Our meal was provided to us as media.
When we first eyed the sign for this place on the road to Cupecoy Bay, we misjudged it by virtue of the fact that it’s in a casino complex. The Italian food here is the real deal, prepared by a talented Sicilian chef in the kitchen. Recommended dishes: Dentice Alla Griglia Con Sicilia Dressing (red snapper covered in with fresh herbs, lemon juice and garlic) and proper al dente Linguine Frutti Di Mare (seafood linguine). Drawn in by the wood-fired oven, we returned days later and ordered the happy hour pizza ($10/pizza). Where to find it: Next to STARZ Casino parking in Cupecoy. Disclosure: Our first meal here was provided to us.
Hilma’s Windsor Castle
Local food is actually pretty hard to find in St. Maarten, so we were heartened to find johnny cakes, a traditional cornmeal flatbread. Although the breakfast sandwich with sausage and egg is formidable, our favorite was the salt fish, dashed with cumin and other spices. Perfect with Hilma’s homemade pickled red onions and hot sauces.
Where to find it: On Airport Road in Simpson Bay, in the lot left of RBC Bank. Look for this trailer-cum-restaurant.
This place features a prime location next to Maho Bay beach, making it the viewing lounge of choice for oglers of airplanes landing at SXM airport (see #4 above). It’s also good for sunset gazing with a drink in hand. Recommended dishes: Most people come here to drink rather than eat, but we found the seared tuna atop salad greens to be really abundant, nicely-cooked and fresh. Consider asking for the dressing on the side. Where to find it: Maho Bay, just behind the runway for the airport. Disclosure: Our first meal here was provided to us.
Note: there are two locations for this St. Maarten institution, each with similar menus. Toppers by the Sea is great place to start the day as breakfast served here is hearty, reasonably priced and features a nice view of the beach. Keep a look out for Topper, the owner of both restaurants, who has endless stories to tell of his time on the island and elsewhere. Recommended dishes: For breakfast, the poached eggs are nicely done. At night, the seared ahi tuna is fresh and (barely) cooked perfectly, as is the mahi mahi. Where to find it: Toppers by the Sea is located by Flamingo Beach Resort at Pelican Bay while Toppers Restaurant is on Welfare Road in Simpson Bay. Disclosure: Breakfast and lunch were provided to us as media, dinner was not.
If you’re looking for a tasty, cheap eats on St. Maarten, we can vouch for the chicken schwarma sandwich. A healthy chunk of grilled, spiced chicken covered with lots of vegetables and dressing. The location also offers another venue to watch the planes land at the airport in case the Sunset Bar on the other end of Maho Bay is packed. Where to find it: Maho Bay, west side, just behind the runway.
Beautiful setting right on the lagoon at Simpson Bay. This seafood-focused venue offers a vast menu, including Caribbean lobster. While we didn’t dive into the lobster, they come big and seem to make for a group event. Both Maine lobster and Caribbean lobster are on offer. According to staff, Maine lobster features more of its own flavor, while Caribbean lobster depends on and takes on the flavor of whatever sauce it happens to be served with.
Recommended dishes: The crab cakes are excellent, meat-heavy (that is, bread-light) and well seasoned; they pair nicely with a glass of the French rosé. Asian-style seared tuna – be sure to order it rare as we did – is also a fine choice. Disclosure: Our meal was provided to us as media.
Where We Stayed in St. Maarten
For the nine days we visited St. Maarten, our home was the Alegria Hotel, a member of Choice Hotels’ Ascend Collection of boutique hotels in Maho Bay, just walking distance from the famous beach where airplanes fly overhead to land at the Princess Juliana airport (See #4 above). Rooms are outfitted to facilitate comfortable longer stays (e.g., full kitchen, washing machine). Many are laid out like residence apartments with a dining table, living room, balcony and separate bedroom so as to provide a feeling of “coming home” at the end of the day.
This is why, during our visit, we referred to Ascend Collection Alegria Hotel as our “home base.” When we returned to the hotel after a full day of experiences, we unwound in comfort and space to reflect on the day and plot our path for the next. Although, what was very different from home is that we did all this with a balcony view over the Caribbean Sea, often with a sailboat or catamaran tracking across the horizon at sunset. Or, there was always the option to relax in the saltwater pool.
St. Maarten/St. Martin Practical Details
One island, two countries, no border
While the island is divided into two countries, there are no border controls between them. The Dutch side is home to the major international airport (SXM, Princess Juliana) and cruise ship port, so it services most of the visitors coming to the island. However, there is a smaller airport, SFG (L’Esperance Airport Grand-Case) on the French side. To understand one difference, as residents tell us, “The Dutch side takes more influence from the United States. Anything goes here.”
The French side is technically part of France, so it adheres to E.U. requirements. This means that building and development is more regulated; you’ll often find fewer crowds.
Renting a car in St. Maarten
St. Maarten is a relatively small island (34 square miles), but if you’re interested in doing a variety of activities as we did, a rental car is essential. There’s plenty of rental car competition on the island, so prices are decent, starting from around $30-$40/day for the economy cars. Gas/petrol prices are currently pretty reasonable, particularly by European standards.
One caveat: traffic on the island can be very stressful, and parking can be equally challenging. Ask locals about traffic patterns, timing and rush hours up front so you can plan your route and schedule your outings to minimize irritation.
Disclosure: Our rental car was provided by Empress Rental Car just near the Princess Juliana airport.
Public Transportation and Taxis on St. Maarten
If you don’t plan to explore the island much (i.e., you’re focused on a nearby beach), then consider taking the occasional taxi or flagging down one of the public transport minivans making their way around the island. There are plenty of both.
The official currency of the French side is the Euro(€) while on the Dutch side it’s the Netherlands Antillean Florin (NAF). Don’t bother taking out NAF from the ATM as all prices on the Dutch side are posted in $USD and every place accepts dollars. Most places on the French side will also accept $USD (often on a 1:1 basis with the Euro).
SIM card and mobile data on St. Maarten
We purchased a TelCell SIM card on the Dutch side for $15 and bought 500MB of data for an additional $10. However, mobile data does not work when you cross over to the French side. Although we have no experience with the UTS/Chippie, they are another option for SIM cards, calls and mobile data on the island.
When to go to St. Maarten
Our visit to St. Maarten/St. Martin was in mid-December. We found it just about perfect, as our timing was right before high season, which runs from just before Christmas (Dec. 22-ish) to the beginning of April. The weather during our visit was excellent – sunny and warm during the day, beautiful water temperatures, and breezy and temperate at night – and came with the added bonus of fewer crowds and reduced traffic.
We were told that August-October us usually incredibly hot and at the tail end of the hurricane season, so probably best to avoid that period. One long-time resident told us that his favorite season is April to June as it’s not too hot and high season crowds have begun to dissipate.
We would also like to thank Karen Hana, General Manager of the hotel, for sharing with us her 20+ years of experience living on the island and for her suggestions on experiences across the island. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.