I should offer a disclaimer. My wife and I have been to Saint Martin / Sint Maarten at least fifty times. It was our home away from home when we lived on the East coast. We owned a comedy club there for ten years until Hurricane Luis blew it into the Caribbean. So my comments may be more like writing about a lovable, deranged relative.
The unbiased facts about the island are that it’s the world’s smallest landmass to be shared by two countries. The northern half of the island is part of the French West Indies; the south is part of the Netherland Antilles. The unguarded border has been little more than two lines on the circular coast road since the mid-1600’s but the cultural differences are significant.
On the French side, there’s no fast food, no clothing chain stores, no casinos and no English words on signs anywhere in sight. The locals, who all proudly remain citizens of France, DO speak English without disdain and are more than happy to take American dollars.
Marigot is a beautiful harbor town on the French side. Most of the cafes and boutiques are upscale, family owned enterprises. There are a few typical island t-shirt stands near the lightly used tender dock, but they are below the town’s dignity. This is French territory; there are few things as important as a two-hour lunch and a decent wine. Shopping is more about browsing than buying, especially because the stores stock the finest threads from Armani, Gucci and, for mistresses, Versace. Marigot has been called the little Nice of the Caribbean; that’s because so many of the yachtsmen there are accompanied by a little “niece.”
The French fort St. Louis towers over the harbor and provides a commanding view of the town. Marigot’s Port La Royale is inside the island’s large, interior lagoon where boats have, for years, found safe mooring.
Marigot is also the port of departure for ferries to nearby but exclusive, Anguilla and St. Barth. Each island is worth a day-trip if you are dying to be ignored and to see what a twenty-five dollar cheeseburger tastes like (just like a five dollar cheeseburger on St. Maarten).
More fun is to be found further north up the coast road at Grand Case. This little beach town has roadside stands serving the best barbecue ribs in the Caribbean. The insanely hot sauce from Dominica will kill you or make you a better person. Or try civilized fare and have your two-hour lunch at Le Testavin or any of the other fantastic, oceanfront cafes.
As great as the food is in Marigot, for true gourmands, the Grand Case restaurants may be even a little better. The drive to Grand Case at night without road lighting can be a fright. Take a cab or have a friend who knows his way do the driving the first time.
There’s nothing unique about a beautiful beach on St. Marten. There are over forty of them. What IS unique, is that on the French side, some of the beaches are clothing optional. That’s not always a beautiful thing; think Grandma. Orient Beach is the best of these beaches, offering lots of attractive accommodations, cafes and water sports (for the Americans). The French approach to holidays is to do as little as possible but to look good doing nothing.
Most Americans feel more at home on the Dutch side of the island. The resorts and condo developments are huge. Casinos are on every corner and open 24 hours a day. There are great restaurants, but many American visitors make do with fast food and pizzas. The large resorts have every modern convenience and most are located in the Simpson Bay area, which is equidistant between Marigot and the Dutch capital of Philipsburg.
Philipsburg is the port every cruise ship in the Caribbean visits. It’s what most cruisers think Sint Maarten is all about. No, it’s what every cruise ship port is about: palm trees, cabbies with ‘great’ deals and little places selling a lot of junk. There are exceptions, mostly holdouts from the old days when Sint Maarten was still on the jet-set map. If you have been waiting for the Rolex you have long deserved, buy it at Little Switzerland and save at least 30%. Emeralds and gold jewelry are readily available but it’s harder to know whether you’re getting a good deal. On the good side, the cruise business has transformed Philipsburg from a typical funky island capital into a stroller’s delight with a wide beachfront walkway. The whole town is now kept very clean.
The best reason to come into Philipsburg is to dine at L’Escargot. This cheerful, converted French beach cottage serves the best and widest variety of snails we’ve ever encountered. The salads and entrees are classic French and fantastic. Most Americans have no idea how much they love fish, duck or snails until they take a chance and try L’Escargot. If there’s one thing the cruisers should do while in Philipsburg its skip one shipboard all-you-can-eat buffet and have a memorable lunch. Take two hours and have wine; the French and the Dutch agree on some things.
On either side of the island, the daytime is about recovering from the night before, baking on a beach and listening to the ocean or your iPod. There’s a beach for your every mood. If you want to be alone, Long Beach near the border is vast and nearly empty except for the ritzy hotel La Samana. If you bump into anyone there, it’ll probably be a celebrity or rich guys trying to hide out without roughing it. Rouge Beach nearby IS roughing it, totally beautiful, empty and no facilities of any kind.
Other than the exuberant exhibitionists on Orient Beach (mostly the Americans), the beach crowds gather primarily on the Dutch side. Maho Beach is a favorite because there are so many beach bars, a beautiful white sand beach and all of the jets landing on the island fly in about 10 feet overhead. The end of the runway is directly across the road. Some tourists who are not thinking straight (some even sober) stand directly behind the jets and use their camcorders to record takeoffs. Once the engines blast, those filming fools find themselves blown twenty yards, on the fly, into the surf. They get footage of their feet leaving the island.
Mullet Beach is another popular beach and a favorite for swimming and snorkeling though most of the reef fish are gone. For dedicated snorkelers or scuba enthusiasts, the best diving is off island. Joining a charter day-trip to Anguilla or Prickly Pear Island is the way to go.
At night, the entertainment is dinner, which should be lengthy and savored and then choose a casino. Casino Royale at Maho Beach Resort may be the most like Vegas; the rest tend to be small, intimate places with a few blackjack tables, a roulette wheel and a craps table. All have slot machines, which used to be set really loose when the timeshare craze was in full bloom (like ragweed) back in the eighties. Now, they’re pretty tight.
Those who remember the old Sint Maarten / Saint Martin are often distressed to see what has become of the exclusive hideaway they used to know. The beautiful little ingenue has grown up to be a loud, gaudy broad, but most Americas like her better that way. As for the French, it’s hard to tell what they think of the changes. They shrug and project ennui whether they like something or not.