The island of St. Maarten/St. Martin is situated in the Northeastern Caribbean Sea. Among other things, it’s known for its unique system of governance, with one side of the island (Sint Maarten) belonging to Dutch territory and the other side (Saint Martin) being French territory. It is the smallest landmass divided by two nations.
Set against the backdrop of the dazzling sun, gorgeous mountainous terrain, and turquoise waters of the Caribbean, St. Maarten/St. Martin makes for a unique and eclectic culture. Add some Caribbean flair to this Dutch-French island, and you have a unique spot to visit.
Planning a trip to the island of St. Maarten/St. Martin? Here are all the can’t miss attractions, things to do, see, eat, and explore during your visit to the “Friendly Island.”
Please keep in mind these details are subject to change. Due to COVID-19, social distancing and face coverings may be required. Be sure to check local health officials’ safety regulations and each establishment’s website for updated information before making final plans.
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St. Maarten vs St. Martin: A Guide For First Time Visitors
One Island, Two Countries
With no physical border between the two territories, residents and visitors are free to roam both sides of this bucket list destination all while enjoying the perks of two distinct cultures.
- Capitals: Marigot is the capital on the island’s French side, (St. Martin), while Philipsburg is the capital on the Dutch side (St. Maarten).
- Money: St. Martin uses the euro, while St. Maarten operates on the Netherlands Antilles guilder. The U.S. dollar is widely accepted.
- Atmosphere: St. Maarten is bustling with commercial activity from casinos to its busy Philipsburg cruise port, while St. Martin centers around pristine secluded beaches and its world-class gastronomy.
- Lifestyle: Dutch St. Maarten boasts a more energetic lifestyle, the quiet French St. Martin plays to its natural elements and gourmet food offerings.
Map of St. Maarten/ St. Martin Itinerary
Best Time to Visit the Island of St. Maarten/ St. Martin
- Best time to visit: mid-December to April
- Not-So-Good months to visit: June to October – hurricane season
The weather is excellent year-round with less rain during the winter and spring months, leaving more time to soak up the island’s sun and beauty. You also won’t want to miss the famous St. Maarten Carnival in the spring.
June through November is the off-season. You’ll find less congested roads and crowded beaches, favorable accommodation rates, all accompanied by the dreaded hurricane season.
Fun activities to add to your St. Maarten/ St. Martin itinerary
Island of St. Maarten/St. Martin Airports
The island of St. Maarten has two airports. The Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) located in St. Maarten serves as the primary airport for the entire island. Most major airlines fly there, including American Airlines and United.
The airport is famous for the low flying planes over Maho Beach, a site to be seen, but best watched from a distance to avoid the dangers of jet blast.
There is also a small airport on the French side called L’Espérance Airport, also referred to as Grand Case Airport, primarily for small charter flights.
What to Pack for St. Maarten/ St. Martin
A St. Maarten/ St. Martin vacation is all about sea, sand, and fun in the sun. There’s no such thing as enough swimsuits, beach cover-ups, light t-shirts, shorts, and sundresses. So leave the jeans at home, bring your summer best and make room for these items when packing for your St. Maarten/ St. Martin beach vacation:
- Light, breathable clothing
- Sunscreen (at least SPF 30), I prefer Sun Bum’s reef-safe sunscreen
- Aloe vera after-sun lotions for sunburns
- Tote or beach bag to carry your essentials
- Sunglasses and sun hat
- Sandals or flip flops
- Travel umbrella, lightweight poncho, or rain jacket/coat for unexpected showers
Where to Stay in St. Maarten/ St. Martin
As mentioned, both sides of the island have their own cultural vibe with the Dutch side generally considered the party zone, while the French side is more reserved. Where you stay will ultimately depend on budget and personal preference, here are a few recommendations to experience the island’s charm.
St. Maarten’s capital, Phillipsburg, has one of the best shopping experiences in the Caribbean and is a magnet for tourists with its duty-free shops, and buzzing restaurants.
The Dutch side has plenty of accommodation options after a long day of shopping and sightseeing, The Villas on Great Bay are simply exceptional.
However, Phillipsburg has some affordable hotels too including Holland House Beach Hotel, Sea Palace, and the Horizon View Beach Hotel. These are all beach-front properties located just minutes from the heart of the capital.
This corner of the island is the center of entertainment and nightlife. Top-notch marinas, restaurants, clubs, and bars are just a part of the big picture. If you’re feeling lucky, casinos are always open.
All that fun can be tiring, luckily hotels overlooking the Bay offer excellent relaxation. One of them is La Vista Beach Resort, a place where you can feel like a king, but still, stay on a budget.
Other popular accommodations include the Simpson Bay Resort Marina & Spa, a sprawling complex on the marina with spacious suites and villas, and my St. Maarten base, the Atrium Beach Resort, a newly-renovated resort and spa with luxury vibes.
The more extravagant part of the island, Orient Bay, is a popular area for luxury-seeking tourists. The island’s finest beach, excellent dining scene, and top-notch resorts are the highlights of this area.
There’s really no science behind choosing the right hotel in Orient Bay. Each one is excellent for its own reasons. However, Oyster Bay Beach Resort and Hotel La Plantation have, by far, some of the friendliest staff on the “Friendly Island.” A fan of boutique hotels will surely enjoy the stay at the Princess Heights; a royal accommodation with good value!
Plan Your Stay: Search more top-rated St. Maarten/ St. Martin hotels and accommodations – Read reviews, check rates, and availability here!
Getting Around St. Maarten/ St. Martin
Taxis are plentiful in the island of St. Maarten/St. Martin and operate between the two capitals. Unlike in North America, taxis here operate on a fixed fee, usually paid in cash; and those on the Dutch side only accept U.S. dollars. Always agree on the price before entering the car.
There is a privately-owned minibus (passenger vans) system that can connect you to Philipsburg and Marigot. The minibusses run through major areas of the island with fares between $1 or $3 USD, depending on the destination.
Although the minibus system is a great way to see the island, be aware the bus schedule can be unpredictable, so it’s best for those travelers without a time-sensitive itinerary.
There are several rental car companies at Princess Juliana Airport. Since the island is small, renting a car gives you the freedom to explore the whole island. But keep in mind the island is mountainous and most of St. Martin and St. Maarten roads are narrow, so if you’re renting, opt for a car on the smaller side.
Be ready to pack your patience; traffic on both sides of the island can be a nightmare.
Best Things to Do (and See) in St. Maarten/ St. Martin
St. Maarten/St. Martin has it all for a perfect getaway. From foodie havens to unique shops, here’s a list of what not to skip when visiting St. Maarten/ St. Martin.
Grand Case, the small, secluded town on the French side is a source of gourmet cuisine and a foodie’s paradise. High-quality restaurants define this part of the island. If you want to stay somewhere you’ll always be able to get a quick bite, Grand Case is for you.
With many restaurants sprinkled along the seashore, it will be tough to choose which one to try. Stroll the endless sandy beaches or stop for a bite at one of the town’s many luxe restaurants or seaside open grill barbecue-style joints known as the LoLo’s. The rustic locals spot Rib Shack lolo N°6 near the Grand Case Beach Pier is one of my favs.
Insider Tip: For a spectacular photo opportunity, be sure to scope out (under) the Grand Case Beach Pier.
For a unique day trip, take a ferry or water taxi over to Pinel Island, an uninhabited piece of land off the French coast that’s great for swimming, snorkeling or getting away from it all. You can rent a beach chair and umbrella and soak in the sun or explore the tranquil waters. It can be busy on weekends here, so if possible, aim for a weekday trip.
Want the opportunity to create your own personal fragrance? Schedule a class with Tijon Perfumerie in Gran Case, choose from their collection of 300 essentials oils, create and name your own unique perfume or cologne. Perfume-making classes ranging from one to three hours with a keepsake scent that’s uniquely yours. I promise this is one of the most unique tourist activities you’ll ever experience.
Pic Paradis (Paradise Peak)
The highest point on the island, this peak is part of a chain of hills. You can hike the entire thing in a few hours, or drive part way and hike the last few minutes to the top.
Either way, you’ll be greeted with breathtaking views of the beautiful, turquoise seas and the island’s lush topography. The hike is a bit steep, and the sun can be intense, but if you love the outdoors and want an unforgettable view, you’ve got to try it out!
This nature sanctuary is over 100 acres of zip lines, hiking trails, and lush hideaways. It’s also where you go to begin the hike among the mango and mahogany trees up Pic Paradis. Once you’ve exhausted yourself, enjoy the pool area or a food and wine experience at the restaurant.
The French capital is full of things to do, from shopping and dining to tropical walking tours and historical site seeing. Only four streets wide, it’s easy to explore the area’s beautiful colonial houses, quaint cafes, and handicrafts open market.
Marigot Market is a traditional souvenir market with local charm: haggle, explore the seaside, and eat yummy food. Shopping here gets you the opportunity to meet the local people, hear their stories, and help out the economy. It’s sustainable tourism at its finest.
Fort St. Louis
Overlooking the Marigot Bay stands a fortress dating back to 1789. The fort once served as the defensive point for the harbor warehouses. Rebuilt a few times over the centuries, Fort St. Louis is now a preserved landmark where you can learn a lot about the island history. You’ll come for the lovely building, but you’ll stay for the story behind it.
Rainforest Adventures St. Maarten – Rockland Estate
For the adrenaline seeker, check out Rockland Estate from one of St. Maarten’s highest point. The eco-adventure park features mountain surfing and gliding, explorer chairlift, and the world’s steepest zip line dubbed “The Flying Dutchman.” The zip line is over 1,000 feet in the air with 2,800 feet of cable going down the line in 45 seconds. You’ll forget about fear once you see the beautiful landscape underneath you.
Front Street & The Boardwalk
A major shopping and strolling destination, this beach-front stretch runs parallel to the sea in Philipsburg. It can get crowded, especially when the cruise ships are in port, but it’s a lively place perfect for purchasing duty-free goods (liquor, jewelry, etc.) at huge discounts.
Other top tours and activities to add to your St. Maarten/ St. Martin itinerary
Best St. Martin/ St. Maarten Beaches
With 37 beaches with spectacular coastline, St. Maarten/ St. Martin embodies the meaning of relaxation that comes to life and one of the best places to visit in the Caribbean!
- Maho Beach: You’ve already heard of the Maho Beach and its popularity for its plane landing at the end of the Princess Juliana Airport runway. Maho beach is especially popular when cruise ships are in port.
- Cupecoy Beach: Hidden between ochre-colored cliffs are Cupecoy beaches. This group of small beaches has the most romantic sunsets. Try catching at least one while on the Dutch side of the island.
- Great Bay Beach: Nestled in the center of it all, in the heart of Philipsburg, Great Bay beach is perfect for those who love an active vacation: beach, shopping, and dining all in one area.
- Mullet Bay Beach: A Caribbean paradise with powdery white sand and tall waves perfect for surfers.
- Dawn Beach: fine sea and sand, and interesting attraction
- Orient Bay Beach: Known as “St- Tropez of the Caribbean,” Orient Bay is large, popular, and offers sorts of fun activities.
- Friar’s Bay Beach: Among St. Maarten/ St. Martin’s finest family-friendly beaches.
Where to Eat & Drink
Foodies will love the fact island’s cuisine is a wonderful mixture including Creole, French, Dutch, German, and English. If you get tired of the typical tourist spots, I recommend you give some of these local favorites a try.
Cappuccino Bar Restaurant: Located on the Dutch side, this diner-style eatery is open 24 hours a day. Kick back with some classic comfort food and take advantage of the big-screen t.v.s in a tropical, open-air setting. One meal was not enough; we found ourselves going back several times during our week-long trip!
Pineapple Pete’s: is the perfect place to mix and mingle, play some pool, and enjoy mouth-watering delicacies.
Sunset Bar & Grill: Adjacent to the Princess Juliana Airport, this beach-front bar and grill was the perfect place for us to enjoy some local seafood, a few cocktails, and safely watch the famous SXM and Maho Beach plane landings and take-offs.
Buccaneer Bar: A lively, beach-front bar and restaurant, this casual spot was our perfect happy hour spot right along the waterfront!
Guavaberry: What trip to the Caribbean is complete without rum? Be sure to sample the island’s native liqueur, Guavaberry, made from rum, cane sugar, and local, wild guava berries. You can easily pick up a bottle at the Guavaberry Emporium or one of the duty-free shops.
I hope this helps you plan your perfect trip to St. Maarten/ St. Martin and provides a sound basis for your list of things to do and see while visiting this beautiful island.