That may be hard to believe, since St. Maarten runs neck and neck with St. Thomas and San Juan for the honor of most oft-visited port of call in the Caribbean, and is usually included as a port call for Eastern Caribbean sailings, arguably the least exotic of the Caribbean's three sailing regions. But despite the large number of cruisers ashore, it's not difficult to get off the beaten track, as most of that track is actually quite narrow, running from the streets in and around Philipsburg to the nearby waters offshore to legendary Orient Beach to the boutiques and bistros of Marigot, capital of French St. Martin.
There are an abundance of activity choices further afield for the cruiser who doesn't mind doing his homework and exerting a minimum of effort independently booking on his own. Here are a few of our favorites:
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Go Sailing or Go About Learning to Sail: If you know how to sail, why not rent a small sailboat and explore the secluded bays and beaches along the coastline between French and Dutch sides? Lagoon Sailboat Rental (Airport Rd., Simpson Bay, 599-557-0714) will rent you a 20-foot sloop for $150/per day ($110/half day). Don't know how to sail? No problem! They'll provide a skipper (contact Lagoon regarding cost).
Or perhaps you've seen all those sailing yachts anchored around you or smoothly passing along your ship's flank, and thought, "Gee, someday I'd love to give up all these long buffet lines and sail the islands like that." If the idea has traction with you, take an hour or so out of your time in port to visit one of the top yacht charter companies in the world, The Moorings (Captain Oliver's Marina, Oyster Pond, 590-87-32-54 or 800-521-1126). Chartering a yacht is not something you can actually do on a one-day visit, but if you really want to try something offbeat, get the skinny on how to book a one-week private crewed yacht charter for future travels. It's more affordable than you might think; rates start as low as $700 (plus provisioning) per person for three couples.
Breaking the Marigot Habit: Marigot is, as is the French side in general, a breath of fresh air for those burned out on the frenetic shop-and-stroll of Philipsburg's Front Street. However, many cruise ship visitors never leave the downtown grid of shopping and dining establishments on Marigot's main streets. Within a couple of blocks, however, is the growing complex of docks, shops and bistros called Marina Royale. A scant three years ago this was a thinly visited resource known primarily by yachties tied up at the Marina's slips. Now one can find tourists of every stripe chowing down on waterfront outdoor terraces. We're particularly partial to Tropicana (590-87-79-07) for its excellent selection of large, tasty salads.
Another thing to do near -- while not actually in -- Marigot is to investigate getting day privileges at Hotel Beach Plaza (Baie de Marigot, 97150, 590-87-87-00 -- contact them before leaving the States). The hotel has a tiny narrow beach right on the coast of Marigot Bay, about the only beach in the area. There is a restaurant and bar next to a freshwater pool. Best of all it is but a 10-minute walk to either downtown Marigot or Marina Royale.
Making a (Grand) Case Out of It: No question, there are great restaurants in Marigot -- but the unanimous vote for best dining in St. Martin goes to the fishing village of Grand Case, better known for its sauteing than catching of fish. And Grand Case is only about 20 minutes further along the road from Philipsburg, so it should be a minor increase in taxi fare. Plunk down your ship-issued beach towel on the beach off Grand Case Beach Club at the far end of town and enjoy soaking up some rays. If you want to snack rather than dine, the beach has a number of lolos, little kiosks that serve barbecue and local seafood. If you want to don your cover-ups and have a French lunch to remember, wander into the town. There is only one main street, but all 27 of Grand Case's terrific restaurants are found here.
The Other Side of the French Side: The border between the Dutch and French sides of the island runs east and west, with St. Martin to the north and St. Maarten to the south. Most Americans equate the French side with the west coast, the Marigot/Grand Case side of the French territory; however, there is one little gem on the east (Atlantic) coast of St. Martin, just perfect for a couple looking for a romantic getaway, or a family looking for a kid-friendly beach experience. Grab your snorkel, towel and cover-up and taxi to French Cul de Sac, only about a mile or so north of Orient Beach (and the location of the mayor of St. Martin's mansion on a hillside above a delightful little beach).
You can stay here or choose to hike the hillside trails, but the real draw here is Ilet Pinel, an uninhabited tiny island. Some cruise lines offer a shore excursion here, but there are regular shuttle boats making the five-minute crossing throughout the day. You can kick back on the beach, enjoy snorkeling on the near-shore reefs on either end of the island and enjoy lunch in one of the island's two restaurants. Better yet, get your food to go and take it out on the beach for an impromptu picnic.
Stuff for Eco-Geeks: St. Maarten also has its share of eco-reserves, parks and zoos. Loterie Farm, near Friar's Bay (Rte de Pic du Paradis, 590-87-86-16, admission $5) is a recently opened preserve protecting Caribbean forest and mountain land in its pristine state. Though cruise ships offer zipline tours here (see below), there is much for the independent explorer, including horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, eco-tours -- even meditation and yoga. St. Maarten Park (Madame Estate, Arch Rd., 599-543-2030, admission $10) includes a botanical garden, aviary, bat cave and zoo.
Stuff for Culture Vultures: Not everything to do in St. Maarten is beach-, dining- and shopping-intensive. The Sint Maarten Museum (599-542-4917, free admission), at 7 Front St. in Wathey Square at the heart of the village, has displays on the history, battles and culture of the island. Displays run the gamut from shards of pre-Columbian Arawak pottery to treasure salvaged from shipwrecks. Its equivalent in Marigot is Musee de Saint-Martin (Terres-Basses Rd., 590-29-48-36, admission $5), which includes displays of the history and culture of the island going back 1,500 years. For those wanting a gander at -- and perhaps a purchase of -- quality Caribbean art, there's Galerie Lynn (83 Blvd. de Grand Case, 590-87-77-24), Gingerbread Galerie (for Haitian art, Marina Royale, 590-87-73-21) and Greenwith Galleries (33 Front St., Philipsburg, 599-542-3842, multi-island).
Get Off the Bus: Not all ship tours are bus tours, and even those who prefer an organized excursion to forging out on their own can explore St. Maarten's exotic side. A number of cruise lines, for example, offer a Mountain Bike Adventure out of Marigot. Royal Caribbean has an excursion called Lotterie Farm Treetop Adventure Tour, which is a zipline canopy tour similar to those developed in Costa Rica. Lastly, for those seeking the truly exotic and who are certified scuba divers, NCL offers a shark feed dive called Shark Awareness Dive.
--Photos appear courtesy of St-Maarten.com.