I’ll be honest: I was a little leery about last week’s trip to St. Maarten/St. Martin. The dual-culture island — one side Dutch, the other French — seemed to become too popular for its own good, with up to seven ships in port at a time. Would the Caribbean stalwart have a soul under all those Diamonds International outlets?
I needn’t have worried. Even with the constant ebb and flow of cruise passengers, the island didn’t feel too crowded, and we never fought for a taxi or a beach chair. More affordable than neighbors St. Barths and Anguilla, St. Maarten proved dollar friendly, with many cafes and stores on the French side offering 1:1 conversions to the Euro. And I found so many activities and excursions that I’m already hoping I can make a trip back.
Here are 6 things I loved about the several days I spent on the island:
Melting Pot. Everyone plays up the fact that you’re getting two cultures on one small island. But what they don’t mention is how many other nationalities you might meet. The tourism industry draws expats from all over the Caribbean — and you’re as likely to hear Creole patois, as you are French or Dutch. Best of all? Almost everyone, even on the French side, speaks English. It all makes it very easy to get around (we rented a Jeep).
Aviation Antics. I had seen the YouTube videos. But I still got a thrill out of watching the prop planes and jumbo 747s touch down so close that we could practically wave to the pilots. Besides providing a perfect vantage point for the planes, Sunset Beach Bar & Grill also gave us a front-seat view of sunbathers chasing their belongings through the Maho Beach surf. We ended up going twice.
A Beach For Everyone. Tour vans and taxis drop off the gawkers at St. Martin’s most famous beach, Orient Bay, where a naturist resort comprises a portion of the beach (the view isn’t as exciting as you might think). But if you’re seeking more clothes, less hype, no worries; with 36 other beaches scattered around the island, it’s not hard to find a replacement. I fell in love with Mullet Bay, a white sand beauty on the Dutch side that had reasonably priced chairs, free parking and a vendor selling barbecue right there. What else do you need?
Shopaholics, unite! Duty-free shopping leaves me cold; I would rather stay home than be forced into another Caribbean watch store. But I found my shopping bliss far from Front Street in lovely Marigot, where the Le West Indies Shopping Mall contained straight-from-Paris purses and shoes, as well as elegant swim cover-ups that would be perfect for a day on the yachts moored nearby. All that was lacking was an invite (hey, a girl can dream).
Foodie Frenzy. No one does food like the French, and Grand Case in St. Martin proves it. On one small strand, restaurants serving lobster Thermidor and foie gras stand next to “lolos,” locally owned open-air stands where chicken, ribs and seafood is barbecued right in front of you. Picnickers will find great values on cheeses and French wine, even in small grocery stores. And don’t miss the fresh baguettes and pastries at Sarafina’s, a Marigot bakery that draws customers from around the island. Bon appetit!
Island hopping. While St. Maarten has plenty to do, I couldn’t help eyeing the plethora of options that would take me elsewhere. Saba, Anguilla and St. Barths are all an easy ferry ride away. Or treat yourself with a daylong catamaran excursion that includes snorkeling, rum punch and the bragging rights of having another island under your belt. St. Maarten puts it all within your reach.