The Caribbean island of St Maarten and St Martin: two nations on one tiny island…
I don’t know what it is about St Maarten but for some reason out of all the different places I once called home, it’s one of the rare ones I keep traveling back to…
Sint Maarten (French: Saint Martin; Dutch: Sint Maarten) is an island in the northeast Caribbean, east of Puerto Rico.
This tiny 87-square-kilometer (34 sq mi) island is divided roughly 60/40 between France and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This makes it the smallest inhabited island in the world divided between two nations.
Sint Maarten’s Dutch side (often misspelled as St Marteen) is known for its festive nightlife, beaches, jewelry, drinks made with native rum-based guavaberry liquors, and casinos. The island’s French side is known for its nude beaches, clothes, shopping (including outdoor markets), and French and Indian Caribbean cuisine.
All in all, St Maarten has a lot to offer tourists and compared to similar size Caribbean islands there is a lot going on here…
I could talk about this island for days but here I’ll limit myself to my recommendations for things to do in Sint Maarten and things to do in St.Martin.
10 Things to Do in St Maarten & St Martin
1. Front Street & The Boardwalk
Whether arriving by cruise ship or spending time on the island of St. Maarten/St. Martin, Philipsburg, the capital of Dutch St. Maarten, offers some fun things to see and do, most within view of the gorgeous blue water of Great Bay.
Philipsburg is an area of only a few streets sandwiched between the Salt Pond and Great Bay. Do you like to shop? You can find a lot of items in Front street: from inexpensive souvenirs to diamonds and watches.
Want to find something to eat? Go to the Boardwalk for a variety of options ranging from very casual to elegant. Go for a swim in the Caribbean sea off Great Bay, lounge around on the beach and return to the Boardwalk for a tropical cocktail.
Philipsburg quiets down quickly in the evenings but it’s a great place to spend a day!
2. The Sint Maarten “America’s Cup” 12 Metre Challenge
Ever dreamed of sailing a real racing yacht?
The 12 Metre Challenge gives you the opportunity to be part of the crew sailing a real America’s Cup yacht. This is a truly unique experience and even better, you don’t need any sailing experience to join! It’s one of my favorite things to do in St Maarten!
The 12 Metre staff is absolutely great and will make sure you have an amazing time.
Go to 12Metre.com for more information
3. Sea Trek St Maarten – Walking Underwater!
My personal favorite: I once spent a season working with Sea Trek as a safety diver and highly recommend this trip!
Sea Trek allows anyone from the age of 8 to walk underwater. Even if you can’t swim!
It’s a great way for non-divers to experience the underwater world: you will walk past shipwrecks and coral reefs while being surrounded by tropical fish…
My description doesn’t do it justice but if you love seeing the underwater world in a safe, fun and easy way, I’d really recommend this!
For more information: Seatrekstmaarten.com
4. Crazy Airplane Landings and Take-Offs at Maho Beach
Maho Beach on the Dutch side of the island, right next to the airport, is world-famous for all the low-flying airplanes.
People can actually be blown into the water because of the jet blast of larger planes taking off!
It’s definitely one of the most touristy things to do in St Maarten but it’s a must-see when on the island! Plus there is a fun bar, Sunset Bar and Grill, to have drinks while watching the planes come in.
Or go to the smaller and slightly less touristy Driftwood Boat Bar on the other side of the beach for a more relaxed plane spotting experience.
Tip: If you aren’t renting a car it will be a relatively expensive taxi ride to get to Maho Beach. Alternatively though you can book a half-day tour to Maho Beach and a beautiful viewpoint. Drinks are included so it’s a good thing you don’t have to worry about driving home after enjoying a few local rum punches on the beach!
5. Grand Case & Its Festival
The small beach town of Grand Case, in St. Martin, the French side of the island, is often referred to as the Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean. With its high-quality restaurants and interesting mix of French, Caribbean and Creole cuisine I believe this title is well deserved and I highly recommend dining here at least once.
The Grand Case Boulevard and the beach are lined with restaurants so there are plenty of options to choose from!
Grand Case’s Street Festival
This is one of my favorite things to do in St.Martin.
The “Mardis de Grand Case” start on the second Tuesday of January and are held every Tuesday evening for 12 weeks.
A large craft market invades each side of Grand Case’s main street and you’ll find entertainment such as music bands, dancers, acrobats, carnival parades and a lively, multi-cultural vibe.
Well worth a visit if you happen to be on the island during these months!
6. Pinel Island
This is a perfect half-day trip from St Maarten and a place I often went to on a day off while I lived in St Maarten.
Pinel Island is a cute little island set in the heart of St Martin’s Marine Reserve.
The island is just a 5-minute ferry ride from French Cul de Sac. It is considered one of the better places for snorkeling and loved by kayakers and stand up paddling enthusiasts.
The main beach is lined with sun loungers and umbrellas and a great way to spend a few hours on the beach. But behind this main beach there’s an untouched part of St Maarten. Follow the tiny trail to get to the Northern side of Pinel Island where you will find a wild beach protected by a reef and with a completely different feel than the other, more crowded side of this tiny island.
Pinel island is the place where residents of St. Martin/St. Maarten go to relax, especially on weekends.
The island offers a few cute little restaurants and makes for a perfect relaxing day of swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing.
How to Get to Pinel Island
The end of the road at French Cul de Sac opens onto a wide sandy area where you will find the ferry that takes you to the island.
Or you can rent a kayak or paddleboard to make your way to Pinel Island. I rented a paddleboard once, on a very windy day, and I can tell you, Pinel is further away than you might think! But it’s good exercise and a lot of fun.
7. Orient Bay
Orient Bay, or in French “Baie Orientale”, is a 2 mile long, white powdered sand beach, protected from the Atlantic waves by a reef.
Orient Bay is the only beach on St. Martin with a large number of beach bars and restaurants directly located on the beach. Water sport facilities are available such as jet skis, sail boats, paragliding, and some kids activities.
The beach is reputed as much for its natural beauty and setting as it is for being the island’s main clothing optional beach. Although clothing is optional everywhere on the beach, only a small section on the south end is used as a real nude beach.
The trendy beach bars with great cocktail menus and frequent beach parties give this beach a cool vibe and I love spending the afternoon or evening here.
8. Loterie Farm
This is one of my favorite places to visit in St Martin. If you need a change from all those white sandy beaches and the crystal clear water, move inland to the Loterie Farm, on the French side of the island.
Loterie Farm is a secret hideaway nestled in the hillside of Pic Paradis where you can wine, dine, climb, hike and zipline over the treetop canopy.
The bar/restaurant looks like a luxury treehouse and the pool area with its comfortable cabanas and tropical vegetation is truly lush.
It’s not the cheapest option but at least stop by for a drink or a hike through the unspoilt, green hills.
For more information check out Loteriefarm’s Facebook page
Tip: if you love ziplining, St Maarten now has the world’s steepest zipline with amazing views of the island! It’s operated by Rainforest Adventures.
9. Boat Trips
Spend a day, or half a day, on a boat exploring the waters around St Maarten / St Martin.
There are many different tours available but most offer a number of stops to give you the opportunity to swim and snorkel at some great reefs or to just relax.
Some boat trips include a Caribbean lunch and there are several tours that will allow you to explore a different island.
Several companies throughout the island offer these boat trips. I can highly recommend this full-day boat tour that takes you to 3 different islands. Or, if you have less time or prefer being on a catamaran, I have very fond memories of the Lambada Sunset Cruises…
Fun Tip: Want to drive your own boat without any previous experience? There is this fun tour in St Maarten called the Rhino Safari Excursion where you get to drive your own, small motorboat!
10. Fort Louis, Marigot
Marigot is the capital of the French side, St. Martin. And the town’s old fort, Fort Louis, offers some incredible views of the island!
A relatively short walk on a well-maintained path with steps takes you up to the fort. It’s not a difficult walk but in the summer it can get quite hot!
But, it’s well worth it for the incredible view of the island.
Hotel Review: The Westin Dawn Beach Resort & Spa St. Maarten
NOTE: Unfortunately the Westin Resort got severely damaged during Hurricane Irma and now, in 2020, still remains closed.
During one of my many visits to St Maarten I stayed at The Westin Dawn Beach Resort, a hotel known as one of the better ones on the island and I will, therefore, add my review.
Hotel Rooms: the rooms are spacious and comfortable and many come with a great sea view. Some are in need of minor maintenance and it is a shame that the ground floor rooms don’t offer access to the pool area or beach.
Hotel Facilities: the hotel has a gym, a spa and a nice lobby plus a casino. The bars and restaurants provide a great mix of fine dining and poolside snack options with the bar seats inside the swimming pool being a very nice addition! I highly recommend the Sunday brunch, even if you are not staying in the hotel.
Hotel Location: quietly located on its own private beach. Perfect if you are looking for a relaxing stay on a tropical island and are not planning on leaving the resort much. But if you do want to explore the island the hotel’s location is a bit remote and everything you want to see or do requires driving.
Hotel Value: Rooms start at $199 per night. On an island where hotels are quite expensive this is good value for money. The resort offers good quality service, great facilities, a lovely pool area, a beautiful beach and all the comfort you can expect from this type of resort.
Overall rating: 8/10
Of course there are plenty of other hotel options in St Maarten. From cute boutique hotels to large resorts. I recommend checking Booking.com for an overview of hotels in St. Maarten.
About Sint Maarten
Ok, let’s start with the names of this island. St Maarteen, St Marten, Saint Maarten, St Marten, Sint Maartan… They are all incorrect spellings I have seen.
I know, it is confusing!
The island has two names, or two spellings of the same name really; one for the Dutch side and one for the French side.
The Dutch side is called Sint Maarten, which is shortened to St. Maarten. The French side is called Saint Martin, which is shortened to St. Martin.
Sint Maarten, being the Dutch side, receives more worldwide visitors than Saint Martin so often the whole island is referred to as St. Maarten.
And then there is SXM, which you will see a lot when you are on the island. It’s the airport code for St Maarten’s Princess Juliana Airport but locally it’s often used to refer to the whole island and you will see it on lots of souvenirs.
What is St Maarten Known For?
As I briefly mentioned before, St Maarten, being the Dutch side of the island, is known for its lively nightlife scene, cheap alcohol, casinos, and tax-free shopping.
It’s definitely the party side of the island but it also has lovely beaches, great water sports and a wider range of hotels than the French side.
Saint Martin, the French side, is known for its high-quality restaurants, nude beaches, lively markets, and typical French Caribbean vibe.
If you come to St Maarten I highly recommend visiting both sides of the island because they are distinctly different!
For More Information About St Maarten / St Martin:
- VacationStMaarten.com – The official website of the tourist office of St. Maarten.
- St-Martin.org – The official website of the St. Martin tourist office.
- Interview With an Expat About Life in St Maarten
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