This article is about the island of Saint Martin in the Caribbean. For other uses of Saint Martin see Saint Martin (disambiguation).
Although this island is controlled by two different countries, there is no real border. There are only monuments and signs that delineate the border. Over 350 years ago the two countries decided that residents of either country could travel across both sides of the border without worrying about any trouble. The two countries live peacefully without difficulties, which helps tourism considerably. Any separation is more from separate and dissimilar utilities systems, e.g., power on French side is 250V 50 Hz, while the Netherlands side is 110/120 60 Hz. In addition, one must take special care when dialing from the French to Dutch or Dutch to French side as it is, in effect, an international call and requires special dialing instructions. These instructions are typically posted at hotels and tourist locations.
The Dutch side, Sint Maarten, has become a leading destination in the real estate market with more and more developments being constructed. There are high rise condominiums and waterfront communities, all of which are popular to buyers, especially American. Tourists on the streets are frequently approached by timeshare offers for them. The language on this side of the island is Dutch, but almost everyone speaks English.
On the Dutch side, grocery stores and other businesses may have prices expressed in Netherlands Antilles Florins (NAF) which is the Local currency also called Guilders, but the US dollar and the Euro will be gladly accepted at these establishments as well. Many large resorts have been built and on many days cruise ships flood Philipsburg with their passengers. Philipsburg is one of the Caribbean's best shopping towns. If shopping's not your thing, you can sit out back on Philipsburg's harbor beach and have a drink. Or play at one of the casinos just down the street. There are nine on this side. When it all gets too mellow, go rip it up with a 4x4 excursion around the island. Visit the Maho and Cupecoy area for some of the best nightlife on the island and some of the best beaches.
The French side, Saint Martin, consists of the Northern two-thirds of the island. It is governed by the neighboring island of Guadaloupe, and is more European than the Dutch. The native language is French and has the same guiding laws as France. There are no casinos on the French side. It is less developed than the Dutch side, but contains more of the island's natural wonders. The French side is popularly known for clothing-optional Orient Beach and the adjacent nudist resort, Club Orient. However the towns of Marigot and Grand Case provide some of the best gourmet meals anywhere and plenty of interesting shops. Beauty abounds on the island, with bluffs overlooking pretty harbors, sandy-cliffed beaches or just tranquil rocky coves where fish provide the beauty.
The northern, French side of the island is known as Saint-Martin, and is 21 square miles. The southern, Dutch side of the island is known as Sint Maarten, and is 16 square miles. To avoid confusion between the three variations on the name, the two regions are commonly referred to as "the French side" and "the Dutch side".
Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch side. This is where most cruise ships dock.
Marigot is the capital of the French side.
Grand Case is on the French side and has excellent restaurants.
(see "Do" below)
Princess Juliana International Airport (IATA : SXM) (ICAO : TNCM), Tel: 599-545-2060, . This airport on the Dutch side is the larger airport on the island and one of the Caribbean's busiest. The runway was very short, but has been extended and the terminal rebuilt, opening in December 2006. Planes land and take off unusually close overhead to sunbathers at Maho Beach (see related item under "Stay Safe" below). Maho Beach itself is a tourist draw for die-hard aviation enthusiasts for this reason, and the airport is something of a holy grail for them. You don't want your hotel too near. There were over 1.6 million visitors that came through Princess Juliana Airport in 2005. It is not only a beautiful airport, but a very busy airport, especially on the weekends when many timeshare owners are coming and going.
The other airport is near Grand Case to the north, and primarly serves inter-island flights, commercial and private.
Last year, over 1.3 million people visited the island by Cruise ships, landing mostly in Philipsburg using an extended wharf from a 3-year project that ended in 2005. At times, four cruise ships visit at once; in high-season, more may be anchored off-shore. They make the city of Philipsburg the busiest city on the island. (As of December 2009, construction of a second nearby wharf has been finished to cater to next-generation super cruise ships that will soon visit. However, dredging continues to create enough depth for those ships, resulting in huge piles of sand on shore that may be used to re-build Philipsburg's main beach...eroded by storms.) In "high season", you may see 4-6 ships; in low season, one occasional ship is more common. You can find usually-accurate schedules for this and many ports and dates at .
The main cruise docks for Philipsburg are a substantial and currently (December 2009) dusty walk from downtown due to roadside construction, heat, missing sidewalks, and dust/dirt from passage of many large vehicles. However, a short walk from the cruise ship docks you'll find:
A fleet of taxis (and cars/guides) for hire as noted under "Get around" below.
A water taxi service. It continuously runs boats in a round-robin route to Philipsburg, to a dock near the east end of Front Street and another opposite the courthouse on Front Street, before returning to the cruise ship area. Both stops offer ready access to the beach and shopping. Several boats run while cruise ships are there. You can buy single-trip wristbands at modest cost, or bands for unlimited travel all day for slightly more. Be prepared for long lines when many cruise ships are docked, but the number of water taxis employed tends to rise to meet demand, so long waits are few.
Marigot port is limited to hosting one small-sized cruise ship at a time, but is also served by attractive marinas supporting yachts of all sizes. Most inter-island ferry service also arrives/departs at Marigot.
Rental cars are available at Princess Juliana International Airport at a dedicated area outside of the airport. You'll find most of the major rental car companies such as Avis , Budget , Hertz , Unity Cars and E-Z Rent-A-Car available at the airport. The roads are narrow, sometimes quite bad on both sides of the island, and often very crowded between Philipsburg and Marigot. See also "Stay Safe" below.
Motorcycles, quads and scooters are also available for rent, however it is advisable that you have some experience on these vehicles before venturing into St. Maarten's sometimes very hectic traffic.
Taxi cabs are usually vans, which are geared towards servicing the cruise ship traffic. To go completely around the island will cost about $25 USD per person. Most drivers are quite willing and able to hire-out as tour guides. Most charge $45-50 per hour, and can offer a custom experience for 3-4 people that's less expensive and far more versatile and satisfying than large bus tours offered by cruise ships or hotels.
Saint Martin has a bus system using small minivans. You can get most anywhere on the island for just a few dollars. They run frequently between Philipsburg and Marigot. Ask a local where the bus stops are, and look for license plates that say (oddly enough) "bus".
If you are driving (especially on the French side) expect a lot of scooters and motorcycles to speed around you on both sides of the road. This can be startling to drivers not used to two wheeled traffic as it can create a dangerous situation. If you stay in your lane and don't waver you can trust most of the time that the cyclists will pass you safely. It's better to just let them pass you at a steady pace then try and slow down, pull to the side, etc.
Once you reach Philipsburg, Marigot or Grand Case, you can get around nicely on foot. The distances in each are not long. Take some care in Philipsburg and Marigot with heavy traffic and narrow, sometimes missing sidewalks.
Butterfly Farm, Rte. de Le Galion, Quartier d'Orléans, Phone: 590/87-31-21, . Daily 9AM-3PM. Stroll through hundreds of colorful butterflies under a tented mesh. A fun outing. $12 (good for your stay on the island).
Pic du Paradis, Route de Pic du Paradis from Friars Bay Beach. Pic du Paradis is the highest point on the island (1400ft/427m) with two viewing areas that provide great views. The road is steep and isolated and four wheel drive is required. This is also an isolated area and is safest seen as part of an excursion or tour.
One particularly famous beach is Maho Bay beach. The beach is situated at the end of the airport's runway, meaning large aircraft fly just feet over your head. Some people hold on to (or attempt to hold on to) the fence on airport premises as aircraft depart, but this isn't recommended. People have been injured and killed doing this. However, the spectacular view of the airplanes landing so close is one that should definitely not be missed. Just beyond Maho Bay is Mullet Bay; some say it has the nicest beach on the island, with food and drink vendors and beach lounger rentals but few facilties. Virtually all beaches are described in web sites for the island. A full complement of tours and excursions are also available as well as watersports and parasailing.
Casinos are also a popular attraction on the island. St. Maarten offers plenty of casinos on the Dutch side of the island. Some of the casinos available are Atlantis World located in the Cupecoy area, Casino Royale located in the Maho area, Paradise Plaza and Tropicana located in the Cole Bay Area and if you are in Phillipsburg, you've hit the casino jackpot as there at least 5 in the area.
Kid Connect , (599)526-6152, An activity center for kids open daily form 9:00AM until 7:00PM and until 11:00PM on Friday and Saturday. Kid Connect is on the Dutch Side across the street from Caribbean Cinemas and not too for from both Paradise Plaza Casino and Tropicana Casino.
Loterie Farm, Rte. de Pic du Paradis, Phone: 590/87-86-16 or 590/57-28-55; . Location features an excellent restaurant, a super Lounge with Tapas, Hikes and Ecotours on a 150 acre preserve and "The Fly Zone" a fun Zip Line experience with rope zips and an obstacle course high up in the trees. Also has a "Ti' Tarzan" zip course for the kids and "The Fly Zone Extreme" a new Zip that goes up over 100ft. Prices are in euro's as Loterie Farm is on the French Side of the island, however because of the large number of American tourist, prices are also listed in dollars. I suggest you call in advance for prices and to check which day a cruise ship off-shore tour is not visiting there, as it is pretty packed on those days. If your going on the Zips, wear closed shoes, flip flops are a no-no. The Activities are open only during the day, but the Restaurant and Lounge are open in the evenings as well. It's a really romantic, out of the way spot, and not to be missed. Try the Curry Chicken.
Harley Davidson , 599-544-2704, Cole Bay , Don't hop on a bus and get herded around. Ride a hog and enjoy the views, the right way. Contact Super Bikes located in Cole Bay on the Dutch side of the island and rent a Harley Davidson Fat Boy (My Favorite), or any of the other super bikes for the day or for your whole trip. There are special Harley Cruises that let the riders travel with their bikes and then head out with locals for a ride that hits all the hot spots. Go to this link (http://www.h-dstmartin.com/) and view a short video that includes footage of one of the rides. The Caribbean Eagles have their monthly ride on the first Saturday of every month, or just climb onto one of the most famous of all motorcycles and go your own way. If interested, contact Neo at SuperBikes for more info. Phone: (599) 544-2704 (from the U.S 011-599-544-2704)
The island has some 300 restaurants with a wide variety of offerings available to both tourists and locals. The French cuisine and local flare is an exciting experience to most, but if you are apprehensive about trying new things, there are other restaurants to dine at. The island has restaurants that are American, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Vegetarian and more. Large modern supermarkets are available with American and European products as well, if you would rather not eat out.
If you are not feeling adventurous, the Dutch Side has several American fast food franchises including McDonalds(2), Burger King(3), Subway(5), Pizza Hut(3), Dominoes(6), KFC(4) and Bubble Tea(4). In Philipsburg, you'll even find a BK "in front" of the courthouse and a Macs a block west on Front Street...both at least convenient for a cold soft drink during your "hot" shopping.
If you want to save some cash, eat where the locals eat on the cheap, both the french and Dutch sides of the island feature many Chinese restaurants, but the Dutch Side is the hands down winner with over 40 of them. In addition to the regular far eastern fare, these inexpensive eateries feature many local dishes, and caribbeanized (no,that's not a word, but you catch my drift) Chinese food.
Want to try something really different, stop at one the roadside food trucks for some take-away, one of these trucks located in Phillipsburg serves some of the best Suriname food on the island. Try the Chicken Sate with Bami or go light with a Soato Soup.
Enjoy Lunch, swim on a beautiful Beach and watch the Airplanes land at Tortuga at Maho.
Some restaurants on the island will add 15% to your bill and it will be listed as Tax or SC (Service charge). The truth is, the island has no dining tax so the restaurant may be taking advantage of tourists used to paying tax. You can consider the 15% your tip, those who aren't aware may pay another 15% to 20% when the "Tax/SC" is really a tip already going to the server.
If you ask for water in any restaurant they will assume you mean bottled water which can be $4 to $5 USD per bottle depending on the restaurant. Surprisingly this is sometimes more expensive then beer or wine. If you don't want to pay the higher price make sure you specify very clearly that you want tap water.
In many countries it is illegal to print the full credit card number on any receipt, on many islands it is not. Therefore, when you are signing a receipt make sure to check if your CC# is on the merchant copy and scribble it out. It's not illegal to do so and it protects your card.
When making an international phone call: Be sure to investigate pre-paid phone cards. The most expensive type of international phone call is to use a credit card. Companies like International Satellite Communications, which handle credit card calls, charge exorbitant connection fees and per-minute rates.
As of October 2009 the drinking age in town is sixteen, but in tourist areas they are not so strict about it. St. Martin's nightlife consists of many bars, nightclubs and casinos where drinking is prevalent. Start out with a happy hour at "Bamboo Bernies" where drinking is free for a half an hour and continues until seven with the highest drink price of a dollar! Many of the clubs have ladies' nights as well as other nightly drink specials. The Dutch side of the island has more night clubs than the French, so if you're up for the party scene, this side is the one where you should stay. Large wine menus are also usually available at most restaurants.
Dance Bliss Night Club, at the Caravanserai Beach Resort. Night spot not far from the Princess Juliana International Airport, has a Restaurant, 2 Bars, Cabana seating around the pool and superb views of the ocean. Popular for locals and tourists.
St. Martin's hotel rooms, almost without exception, rent for US$100+ per night and often much more, and generous taxes and service charges are then also applied. High season is from December through April. Accommodations are considerably less the rest of the year. If you are doing last minute travel when you call ahead ask for the "local rate" rather than what you will normally get which is the "walk-in rate", it can save you a considerable amount of money in some situations.
Esmeralda, Caribbean Princess
Grand Case Beach Club, Grand Case, 1-800-344-3016, . Secluded beach resort in the city of Grand Case on Saint Martin (French). Each room includes a kitchen and the facilities include a swimming pool and onsite cafe, Sunset Cafe.
Orient Bay has many beautiful hotels and spas on site, and the most popular beach on the island is just steps away. All Orient Bay hotels are far from the main airport, so you will never hear or see an airplane. The ride is only about 15-20 minutes depending on traffic.
Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort & Casino, 19 Little Bay Rd., Great Bay, Phone: +599.542.2446 or 1.800.SONESTA , . Great location -- beachfront and a short walk from Phillipsburg. All-inclusive available. 3 restaurants, bars, pools, water sports, tennis court, gym, and children's programs. $$$.
Sonesta Maho Beach Resort & Casino, 1 Rhine Road, Maho Bay, Phone: +599.545.2115 or 1.800.SONESTA, . A "destination within a destination,” featuring a casino, two outdoor pools, a Sonesta Kids Club, three restaurants, a promenade of 40 boutiques and restaurants, four tennis courts, Good Life Spa, fitness center and more than 16,000 square feet of meeting space. $$$.
Divi Little Bay Beach Resort, Little Bay Rd., Phillipsburg. Phone: 011-599-542-2333, . A full-service resort close to downtown Phillipsburg. Some dining options, bars and shops are on-site. Dining may be considered mediocre. There is also a historical fort on the grounds. Rooms need some maintenance, but are safe and generally clean. Beach and watersports (snorkeling, jet skiing) on-site. $180-$280.
The island has a deserved reputation as an excellent place to shop, rivaling Saint Thomas in the US Virgin Islands for price, but with somewhat fewer stores. Some shoppers report better prices for some items than the USVI. Shopping is duty free on both sides of the island, with no tax or duty paid directly by buyers. Merchants do pay a three percent "turnover tax" on all items they sell. A few sellers may try to add it as a separate cost item on sales slips, despite instructions from the tax authority not to do so.
Euros and US dollars are commonly accepted on both sides of the island, as are Credit Cards. However there are many places that do not accept Cards, so you should ask beforehand. Always have some cash on you for smaller purchases and for transport. Expect change in local currency for small cash transactions.
Items are often priced in Euros on the French side, so some items are or appear to be more expensive (after currency conversion) than on the Dutch side or elsewhere in the Caribbean. Both "sides" offer a wide range of quality. Many stores on the French side close between 12 and 3 PM. That side has a smaller number of retailers, and their goods (e.g., clothing, perfumes, wine) tend to be premium, European brand-name or designer items. However, unique items (e.g., souvenirs, spices) particularly at the water-front open-air market in Marigot are more reasonable, and the banter among vendors is worth the visit...especially mornings on Wednesday and Saturday. French wine and delicacy lovers may find premium offerings on this "side" that are available perhaps nowhere else in the Caribbean. However, if you are shopping on Sunday, forget the French side...the only places open are restaurants and food stores. The same tends to be true for the Dutch side except when cruise ships are in port.
Front Street in Philipsburg is the center of shopping on the Dutch side. Numerous stores offer jewelry, liquor, cosmetics, cameras, electronics and tobacco, with souvenirs everywhere; you'll find a small open-air bazaar behind the courthouse. Those looking for well-priced beachwear and souvenirs should try Back Street...one block farther from the beach than Front Street and parallel to it. For cheese lovers, mild Dutch Gouda, in boxes or 5 and 10 kilogram "wheels", is a popular buy in supermarkets, e.g., Grand Marche and Sangs (beyond the east end of Front Street in Philipsburg); ensure each wheel is still sealed from the maker to avoid spoilage and questions or seizure by Customs. Shops are generally open from 8 or 9 am until noon, and then again from 2 until 6 p.m. If one or more cruise ships are visiting, many stores remain open during the "lunch" period and on Sundays.
Store recommendations by cruise ship "port shopping advisers" are usually reliable, but the stores pay very large fees for those "endorsements". Most stores are reliable, and will rectify any problem truly their responsibility. Best insurance is to thoroughly examine an item before purchase & always obtain a formal appraisal for pricey gems/jewelry. Ensure that any item (e.g., electronics, watch, camera) that needs a service warranty has one that's usable at home, and understand the consequences if it is a "grey market" or international warranty.
Most merchants touted by cruise lines are near or east of the courthouse on Front Street...in-part recently renovated for pleasant walking despite heavy vehicle traffic and sometimes crowded sidewalks. Those stores and others offer excellent selections. A few liquor stores there may box bottles and perhaps deliver to your hotel or ship if given enough time. West of the courthouse you'll find more independent stores, e.g., for jewelry and aggressively discounted liquor, e.g., Caribbean Paradise...but cash only, boxes only for major purchases, no delivery so bring a sturdy bag and padding to safely carry bottles.
While The state of the world economy can affect bargaining success more, in Philipsburg prices may fluctuate slightly based on the number and size of cruise ships in port (see "Get in" "By Boat" above). Fewer ships can mean slower sales for merchants, so you may have more bargaining power. Whenever considering a significant purchase, negotiate amiably.
Anyone on the streets touting "freebies" or "cash" will likely lead you to a distant, on-site sales pitch for resort condos or time-shares. Many involve high pressure tactics over an extended time, with "freebies" governed by willingness to buy. If you have only limited time for your visit, it may be totally consumed at the sales pitch.
Duty Issues: Though St Martin is a duty-free port, it offers no special customs duty advantages over other Caribbean islands, and for U.S. citizens a slight disadvantage compared to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Nonetheless, you may find well-priced items here that you won't find elsewhere, and prices on commodity items (e.g., some premium liquors, wines) may be better than the USVI. Take care when calculating cost per liter for purchases, and when declaring liters for Customs because bottle sizes vary. Don't allow yourself to be dissuaded from a purchase here just for fear of U.S. Customs duties, which may be modest. (See Saint Thomas for U.S. Customs details.)
Dutch and French are the official languages on their respective sides of the island. English is widely spoken, especially in tourist areas. Children on both sides of the island are educated in French, Dutch, English and Spanish so language is typically not a barrier when visiting the island.
There are in general no dress codes for most places on St. Martin, however some high-end Restaurants and Night Clubs do have some, find out before hand to avoid any disappointment.
Keep in mind that St. Martin has a great deal of cultural diversity and true locals are far outnumbered by immigrants from poorer and less urbane areas. Dressing too risque can give the impression that you are looking for "a good time" and attract unwanted attention. It can also be offensive to many locals if you wander around in places other than the beaches and pools in your swimsuit. You wouldn't walk around your local supermarket in your swimsuit, so don't do it in St. Martin either, it's disrespectful and you will be treated accordingly.
Locate some common sense and bring it with you when vacationing anywhere in the Caribbean. Here...
Sun You can burn within a remarkably short time; use sunscreen or block frequently depending on how long you're exposed. Do not fail to reapply it as recommended depending on where you are (e.g., swimming, on boat, beach walking), with special attention to feet and backs of knees and neck. Brimmed hats and umbrellas can offer further protection.
Crime Though the island is generally a safe place, like everywhere else in the world there is crime, and you should be aware of your surroundings at all times. Obviously you should lock your doors, avoid unpopulated areas and do not flash your money and jewelry around. Remember that this is a foreign country, and act accordingly. Tourists report many instances of parked rental cars being rifled. Organized teams can break in effortlessly. Best advice: Leave nothing of value in them at any time.
Drinking Be aware that drinking is practically a national pastime in St. Maarten, and it is relatively easy and inexpensive to obtain alcoholic beverages ($1.25 ice cold Heineken's are available almost everywhere including McDonalds and gas stations) and therefore extremely easy to over-do it. Driving while impaired on the island is very risky as there are many places where you could end up in the ocean or down the side of a cliff. When in doubt, call a cab.
Drugs Like most places, drugs are readily available for those interested, but despite what someone may tell you Marijuana is not legal and certainly is not regulated as in certain parts of the Netherlands.
Parking Take care in Philipsburg...there is very little parking and the tow zone areas are very poorly marked. If the spot is free and you think it shouldn't be then it is probably a tow area.
Jet blast If you're on Maho Bay or Sunset beach, watch out for approaching and departing planes. Get too close and a jet engine from a plane taking off can blast a lot of air, sand, or water into your face, or worse cause serious injury or death.
GLBT travelers If you are GLBT be careful of your surroundings, as with many Caribbean islands the local culture doesn't have the same level of acceptance found in other countries. While not a large problem, each year there are reports of attacks based on sexual orientation. If you are considerate of your environment you won't have a problem but it should be noted that public displays of affection by GLBT individuals (especially on the Dutch side) may not be well tolerated.
Pharmacies are denoted by a cross symbol, usually in neon and there are Hospitals with ambulance service on both sides of the island.
When leaving St. Martin by plane, travelers pay an exit tax at the Phillipsburg airport. Travellers departing on international flights pay US$30. Exempt are passengers flying with certain airlines, transit passengers and children under two. This tax is included in some airfares but for others travelers must pay at the airport. As of November 2007, US Airways does cover this tax. The exit tax to the other Netherlands Antilles Islands such as Saba and St. Eustatius is only $10. The exit tax does not apply to in transit travelers.
Short-hop flights, and ferryboats from Marigot, are available to nearby islands such as St Barthelemy, Anguilla, and Saba. Water crossings can can be quite rough, but take only 30 minutes or so to St Barts and Anguilla.
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