Saint Martins Island is in the Chittagong Division of Bangladesh and lies about 10km south-west of the southern tip of the mainland.
Saint Martins is a tropical cliché and the only coral island in the country, with beaches fringed with coconut palms and laid-back locals. It's a clean and peaceful place with nothing more strenuous to do than soak up the rays — even mosquitoes are a rarity. There's a naval base near the center of the island, and the USA looked into setting up one of their own a few years back. The island was devastated by a cyclone in 1991 but has fully recovered, and was untouched by the 2004 tsunami.
It is possible to walk around Saint Martins in a day since it measures only 8 km2, shrinking to about 5 km2 during high tide. Most of the island's 7000 inhabitants live primarily from fishing, and between October and April fishermen from neighboring areas bring their catch to the island's temporary wholesale market. Rice and coconuts are the other staple crops, and algae is collected and dried from the sea rocks and sold for consumption to Myanmar.
Most things are concentrated around the far north of the island, with the center and south being mostly farmland and makeshift huts. There is no electricity on the island, though the larger hotels run generators in the evenings for a few hours.
November to February is the main tourist season with the best weather, though keep an eye on the forecast, as the occasional cyclone can strike during this time.
Getting to Saint Martins Island is a three-step process. First you'll need to fly or bus it down to Cox's Bazar, and then catch a bus to Teknaf, which is right on the very southern tip of Bangladesh, sandwiched up against Myanmar. From Teknaf, ferries run daily and take around 3 hours. The total distance from Dhaka to the island is 510 km.
Ferries leave the island around 3PM. For the regular Eagle ferries you don't need to prebook, but if you're taking the more reliable Keari Sindbad ferry and you don't have a roundtrip ticket you can book the return leg at the Keari Marzaan restaurant (+88 01727 266077, 0181 6820971, just before Saint Martin's Resort, off the main road). The restaurant itself only caters to daytrippers on tours arranged by Keari Tours. The one-way fare is Tk 225.
Arriving from the port you'll walk through a strip of basic restaurants and shops, and hit a t-junction. Left will take you to the eastern beaches (the cement ends shortly before the scuba dive center), while a right turn will take you along the main cement 'road' where most of the hotels and guesthouses are, ending at the north-west part of the island.
At one point a left turn leads around the newly built hospital and into the center of the island. It's an interesting walk and eventually leads out to the western beach just north of the Sea Turtle Hatchery, after a couple wrong turns.
Flatbed cycle-rickshaws are the only transport aside from walking. There are no motorized vehicles on the island, not even motorcycles (yay!).
Village life is slow paced — most work happens in the morning and evening, while midday is reserved for drying fish and rice and selling your coconuts. Or, more likely, sitting in the shade chewing paan.
There's a Sea Turtle Hatchery on the west side of the island south of Shemana Pereye Resort. It's not officially open to visitors, but it's usually empty and the gate unlocked. If it's the right season there will be several bamboo cages in the sand with eggs buried under them — not much to see, but it's nice to know that good work is being done.
Stars are amazingly plentiful on a moonless night, due to the lack of electricity on the island.
Oceanic Scuba Dive Center , +880 2 955 9751, +880 2 955 9751, turn left from the pier at the end of the strip of restaurants, it's a couple hundred meters down on the right, unsigned and well-hidden behind a bamboo gate, This is the only dive operation in the country, and is run by a friendly group of ex-navy divers. At the moment they only visit one site at the southeast of the island (off Chera Dwip), which is unspectacular but still makes for a nice boat ride and the most activity you could hope for during your stay on the island. They're working towards buying a 'German' boat which will allow them to explore sites further out to sea, which may yield some better diving and more sea life. Prices are a little high (and negotiable), but consider that you're contributing to these guys' livelihood and towards expanding the opportunity for future diving. They've also got one bamboo guest hut with two beds if you're diving with them, and they'll cook all your meals for you — an alternative to the lackluster budget accommodation on the island. Food and lodging are by donation. On a safety note, this is nothing like a PADI certified dive center, and beginners should take care, especially alone — a guide/buddy is not included (though there's a good chance one of the guys will still come down with you).
Walk the beach to the southern island of Chera Dwip, accessible on foot along a narrow strip of land at low tide, or via a boat shuttle (Tk 5/person) at high tide. Beware of sharp rocks if wading through the water; sandals are ideal. Walking the length of the island takes around 1.5 hours. Take some sunscreen and water (though there's an occasional shack selling drinks, coconuts and snacks).
Food is a little more expensive here than on the mainland.
The food shacks that line the road to the port all cook up similar fare: parothas (Tk 5), omelettes (dhim, Tk 10) and vegetable curry (Tk 15) for breakfast, and fish, dal, rice and veggies the rest of the day. Cha is Tk 5.
All of the hotels also have restaurants with basically the same typical Bangladeshi offerings, with higher prices and better quality than those near the port. Chicken is sometimes available but not very tasty, and lobster and crab may be available occasionally at very high prices. The restaurant at Blue Marine Resort and Appayan at Saint Martin's Resort are the best on the island.
The islanders also sell dried fish, which is a bit more expensive but fresher than those available upshore in Cox's Bazaar.
Early morning is the best time to get fresh fish from the fisherman near the market, you can often bring it to your hotel chef and ask him to fry it up the way you like, or some places may do a nice evening barbeque. Some places may even give you kitchen access to cook it yourself if you ask.
Coconuts are the drink of choice (Tk 20), and coconut pushers are to be found along the length of the island, getting slightly less aggressive as you move south.
Alcohol may be available at the larger hotels or if you ask discreetly near the port, though there is not even a hint of nightlife.
There are several budget guesthouses along the main road such as Hotel Sea Heart, Bay of Bengal Guesthouse, Coast Guesthouse, Hotel Sadek, Oceanview and Coral Reef Guesthouse, all similarly dark and characterless with dank attached bathrooms and no running water. Anywhere else these rooms would cost around Tk 500-700, but here you'll be lucky to pay Tk 1000 and be asked for as much as Tk 1500.
Most evenings will be candle-lit since there's no electricity on the island, but a few of the more expensive hotels have generators.
There's a government resthouse signed only in Bengali on the main road next to Bay of Bengal Guesthouse. Rooms are a little larger and cleaner than the surrounding guesthouses and have mosquito nets. It's not possible to prebook rooms and, even if they're available, whether you can stay will depend on the mood of the man on duty. Rooms ~Tk 600.
Shemana Pereye Resort, +880 01911 346427, on the west side of the island, walk south from Saint Martin's Resort, Budget-minders may want to splurge a little and stay at this super friendly and relaxed place with a nice garden environment, set just back from the beach in a quiet area yet still close enough to the village. It's not signed in English, but as you walk south look for a sign in Bangla next to a bamboo gate — if you reach the Sea Turtle Hatchery you've gone too far. They've also got a decent restaurant serving the usual fish and chicken.
Saint Martin's Resort, +880 01819 490129, Also known as Hotel Nijhum, it's run by the government owned Abakash Parjatan. Rooms are cleanish, staff are friendly, and it's very popular with Bangladeshi families on holiday. The beach in front of here is the most popular on the island, and where the day-trippers from Cox's Bazar hang out around during the middle of the day. It has running cold water, some sit and some squat toilets, and a generator running in the evening. Appayan restaurant is attached and good.
Blue Marine Resort, +880 01727 266077,, on the northeast corner of the island, visible from the port, The most upmarket option on the island, this place is set to lead the way in tacky, environmentally unfriendly Cox's Bazar-style development (though thankfully still on a smaller scale). It's impeccably clean with a blue and white Miami sailboat feel and crisp white sheets. Attached baths are clean and have cold running water, laundry and room service are available, and there's a generator. There's also a good restaurant here selling the usual, plus lobster and crab at a premium, when available. The beach is visible from the front and the back of each room on the upper floors, and both the sunrise and sunset can be enjoyed from the private veranda attached to the rooms. They've also got a couple of cottages (Tk 2000) on the remote southern point of the island with kitchens.
Riyad Guesthouse, +880 018 1856 255,, on the northwest corner of the island, Probably the best pick of the budget guesthouses. Basic facilities but clean with friendly owners and a relaxing location.
antora, 8010982, house-3,lane-18,block-C,section-10,mirpur,dhaka., Green coconuts are the drink of choice (20),it is fresh,lots of water in this green coconut.
There are a couple of small shops near the port and along the main road selling very basic necessities, and the odd souvenir t-shirts, hats (Tk 40) and sunglasses.
Sea shells and things made from them are sold by little children around the island, but it's illegal and leads to the depletion of sea life.
The island has seen a massive increase in tourism (mostly Bangladeshis) over the last few years, and the fragile ecosystem on the island is not well equipped to handle it. Do what you can to encourage eco-friendly practices, and definitely don't litter the island. It's also a good idea to avoid eating fish at every meal on an island where overfishing is a major problem and sea life is rapidly vanishing.
If you come across sea turtles or their eggs, keep a reasonable distance and don't disturb these fascinating but fragile creatures.
Westerners should be alert to the modest lifestyle of the islanders, especially women. It is not a good idea to swim in public places in western bathing suits, and modest dress is appropriate for both women and men.
There are no landlines, but cell phones work well, due to a few very imposing cell phone towers dotted around the island. GrameenPhone and Aktel are the service providers.
There is no internet on the island, the nearest is in Cox's Bazaar.
As tempting as it may be to cross into Myanmar, it is highly illegal and very unlikely that you could arrange a boat from here anyhow. Simply enjoy the views of the coast during the boat journey, and if you're intent on going, head up to Dhaka, get a visa, and fly from there.
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Cacahuate, Kamroon Nahar, Manik Ratan, Stefan Ertmann, Marc Heiden, Jani Patokallio and Markinbough, Huttite and PerryPlanet
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