Sint Maarten (left) and Saint Martin (right)
At just 87 square kilometres, the Caribbean island of Saint Martin is one of the smallest islands in the world to be shared by two nations—French Saint Martin on the north side and Dutch Sint Maarten to the south.
Saint Martin lies between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, flanked by Anguilla and Saint Kitts. After Columbus first claimed it for Spain in 1493, the French, Dutch and English also ruled the island at various times, with the French and Dutch finally dividing the destination between them in 1648.
There are no physical borders on this friendly island, which boasts spectacular beaches, world-class cuisine, and tax- and duty-free shopping. And, while the entire place dances to an unmistakable, irrepressible Caribbean beat, each side has its own distinct cultural feel. Fortunately, as the island is only 15 km long and 13 km wide, immersing yourself in the best of both sides is a breeze.
Going Dutch in Sint Maarten
Mullet Bay beach, photo by Morgan Tiphagne
Start your island adventure by experiencing the unique Miami-meets-Amsterdam vibe in the dynamic Dutch capital of Philipsburg. The small, but tightly packed town has a mix of bright, gingerbread-style houses and modern architecture, and its often bustling streets are hemmed in by the sea in front, the Great Salt Pond (once the source of the island’s flourishing salt trade) behind and green mountains on both sides.
Head to Philipsburg’s Front Street (signposted, in Dutch, as Voorstraat) and join the crowds browsing and buying their way along this mile-long shopping area packed with top brands and amazing tax- and duty-free bargains. Find electronics, jewelry, souvenirs, china and more. Make sure to pop into the bright, candy-striped Guavaberry Emporium. The shelves here are lined with all sorts of seasonings and hot sauces (steak, barbecue and jerk, to name a few), but the main attraction is the guava berry rum. Juicy and pungent, with a bittersweet taste, guavaberries are rare and grow wild in the hills in the middle of the island. For centuries, locals have used these berries as a main ingredient for making liquor, and today, guavaberry rum is the national drink on both sides of the island. Try a sample of the original wild guavaberry rum at the emporium. Made from oak-aged rum, cane sugar and hand-picked berries, it goes down easy and has a rich, full flavour, with hints of fruit and spice.
Later, head toward the water and amble along the Great Bay beach promenade (commonly referred to as the boardwalk), which thumps day and night with steel drums and reggae music. Stop in for some Caribbean fare at the Lazy Lizard Beach Bar & Grill, which attracts both locals and tourists. Try the Johnny cakes—hot, deep-fried bread—as well as jerk and curried chicken, and specials like fresh snapper, brought in from nearby waters. For a sweet follow-up, stroll down to the yellow-roofed Candy Store at the end of the boardwalk, where the Candy Man, a Canadian who came to the island seven years ago for work and never left, sells everything from Dutch-style salty licorice to Canadian treats like Coffee Crisp.
When the sun goes down, Maho Village, on the west side of Sint Maarten, offers some of the island’s best nightlife. Known as the mini-Vegas of the Caribbean, and situated next to the international airport, Maho has restaurants, a casino, bars and clubs with DJs and live music. After you’ve spun the roulette wheel and rolled the dice, head to Sopranos Piano Bar for a cocktail and a few lively numbers.
Fringed by white sand on all sides, Sint Maarten boasts plenty of options for beach-goers, too. A short drive from Maho Village, Cupecoy Beach offers a series of small, protected coves that are perfect for sunbathers wishing to take advantage of the beach’s clothing-optional policy. Beach-hop south to Mullet Bay for a swim in the warm, shallow waters, or learn how to pop up and perfect your surf stance on its long, low waves, then head to Simpson Bay, which was once the home of a Danish fishing community. Sink your toes into the soft sand along the mile-long Simpson Bay beach and pitch your sun umbrella for a lazy afternoon before grabbing a late dinner on the patio of The Palms Restaurant. Try the legendary whisky and herb-spiced drunken ribs or the shrimp curry served with roti.
Finding France in Saint Martin
Calmos Café in Grand Case, photo by Morgan Tiphagne
When you feel like visiting a different nation, simply cross the recently built causeway over Simpson Bay Lagoon—one of the largest inland lagoons in the West Indies—and practice your Français with a tour around the Gallic north. The halfway point of the lagoon serves as an invisible line dividing the island, and a happy sign reads, “Welcome to the French Side” as you arrive in Saint Martin. First stop: Marigot, the capital of the partie Française. Walk down General de Gaulle, a pedestrian area that feels as if it was picked up in Provence and dropped down here. The difference from the Dutch side is truly remarkable; Marigot is French to the core.
Along General de Gaulle and the adjacent streets, you’ll pass high-end boutiques housing notable French brands. Shop for the latest designer sunglasses and haute couture at the iconic West Indies Mall, overlooking Marigot Bay, and browse the well-stocked perfumeries and cosmetics stores. If you’re looking for more budget-friendly finds, head to the Marigot waterfront market, where you can pick up spices, beaded necklaces and other affordable Caribbean handicrafts. Sailboats and yachts—the pride of locals, visitors and the odd celebrity—line the nearby docks.
North of Marigot, at the base of Pic Paradis—the highest point of Saint Martin—spend a day hiking, navigating the tree-top obstacle course by ropes, cables and suspended bridges and relaxing in the plunge pools at Loterie Farm nature reserve, a hidden, 135-acre forest of tamarind, gum, mango and mahogany trees. After your adrenaline-filled day, refuel with some tapas at the Loterie Farm’s tree lounge surrounded by treetops, then laze by the spring-fed pool at l’eaulounge with a cocktail in hand.
Further north is Grand Case, a crescent-shaped town where the main street, tracing the arc of the coast, is lined with a long, tightly packed row of fine restaurants. Here, you’ll discover why Saint Martin is often called the culinary capital of the Caribbean. The entire island is home to more than 400 eateries (influenced by Creole, European and West Indian cuisine), and many of the best are situated in Grand Case. Dine on beef filet with vanilla sauce and scallops with mango juice at L’Effet Mer, a little restaurant with views out onto the blue. For something less formal, head to Calmos Café for fresh seafood or give in to the mouth-watering aromas radiating from the nearby lolos (small, simple outdoor grills) and tuck into some juicy chicken or a sizzling side of ribs.
If you can tear yourself away from the food scene, head to the beach for some serious sunbathing. There are roughly 20 beaches to choose from on the French side of the island alone, so finding the perfect sandy spot is easy. On a day with calm surf, under-the-radar Lover’s Beach is a perfect couple’s retreat—it’s so small, it can only accommodate two people at a time. Or, if you’re looking for a beach with a little more action, Orient Bay—an almost two-kilometre, crooked smile of a beach on the east side of Saint Martin—feels very Côte d’Azur, Cannes, maybe, or perhaps Nice. Sip rosé on sweeping beachside patios, windsurf the waves, soak in the rays and then dine at one of the many restaurants lining the beach’s fringe and gaze out over the myriad shades of blue as you plan your next adventure on this friendly island.
Getting there: WestJet flies to Saint Martin twice a week from Toronto.