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St. Maarten Overview
St. Maarten is busier than ever, as cruise lines call on Philipsburg with their biggest ships. (Sometimes there are a half-dozen in port at one time.) There's also more to do once you disembark, with shopping and beaches serving as the primary attractions.
That can be viewed as either good news (more shopping choices, better deals and more beach activities) or bad news (more people) for this port of call, which, along with neighboring St. Martin, makes up the world's smallest island inhabited by two countries.
St. Maarten, like many other Caribbean islands, was spotted by Christopher Columbus in 1493. But the island's real history began with French and Dutch settlers who divided the island in 1648. They have lived side-by-side ever since. St. Maarten, governed by the Netherlands Antilles until 2010, is now a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (along with Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands), while St. Martin is part of the French West Indies. What's particularly fun is that you can easily swing back and forth from the Dutch to the French sides and enjoy the best of both.
On either side of the mountainous island, lovely beaches -- including the famed clothing-optional part of Orient Beach -- rival the best in the Caribbean. Plus, duty-free prices for electronics and liquor in Philipsburg might be the best deals around.
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Other Eastern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Freeport • Grand Turk • Jost Van Dyke • La Romana (Casa de Campo) • Labadee • Nassau • Princess Cays • San Juan • Santo Domingo • St. Croix • St. John (U.S.V.I.) • St. Maarten • St. Martin • St. Thomas • Tortola • Virgin Gorda
Try the fresh and tasty Guavaberry Sunrise. The liqueur-based drink is made from the tart berry of the local guavaberry fruit and has a woody, fruity, spicy, bittersweet flavor all its own. You can actually sample the drink for free at the Guavaberry Emporium. (No. 8-10 Front Street, Philipsburg; open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; a smaller store is located on the cruise ship pier and is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily)
Take home a taste of the islands with chocolates from The Belgian Chocolate Box. The truffles and bonbons make great souvenirs, with more than 75 chocolate flavors to choose from -- including Grand Marnier, guavaberry, raspberry, coffee bean and cognac. (109 Old Street, Philipsburg and Harbour Village in Point Blanch; open 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday)
Although the official language is Dutch for St. Maarten and French for St. Martin, virtually everyone speaks English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Netherlands Antillean guilder on the Dutch side and the euro on the French side, but U.S. dollars are widely accepted. Banks and ATMs are readily available, and most establishments take credit cards (although you'll have to pay cash at the smaller beach bars).
Where You're Docked
The Dr. A.C. Wathey Cruise & Cargo Facilities, St. Maarten's pier and cruise terminal, is a boon to cruise passengers, especially those who find tendering unpleasant, inconvenient or physically challenging. In most cases, ships will dock there, where it's less than one mile to the heart of Philipsburg. (Inexpensive water taxis are available for those who don't want to walk.) On busy days when lots of ships are in port, tendering to Little Pier, right in the center of Philipsburg, is a possibility.
A five-minute walk from the cruise terminal (going toward Philipsburg) takes you to the small boat marina named Dock Maarten -- pun intended. There, you'll find shops, water taxis and boat tour operators and a popular waterfront bar and grill, Chesterfield's.
Slightly farther, Philipsburg's pedestrian-friendly downtown is a definite duty-free shopping destination; great buys can be found on electronics, liquor and jewelry.
On Foot: The main on-foot attraction at the base of the pier is a set of duty-free shops. After that, it's a 20-minute walk into downtown Philipsburg. For a more scenic view, take a brief water taxi ride from the port to Captain Hodge Pier at the foot of the boardwalk. Then, continue your on-foot exploration from there.
Taxis: Taxi operators in St. Maarten are under government regulation. Passengers at the port facility queue up under signs designating per-person rates and destinations -- everything from one-way to Philipsburg to a full island tour. Charges are based on two passengers and destination. Additional passengers cost extra. Check out the Dutch St. Maarten Taxi Association for more information.
Vehicles range from standard taxis to large vans and open safari-style vehicles, and rates are per vehicle, so you'll pay less if you have more people. The per-person savings aren't that huge, so if you are on a tight schedule and don't know your taxi-mates well, it's probably best to go it alone (they might pipe up that they want to add an island tour or a detour to the beach).
Water Taxi: A water taxi operates between the cruise pier and the heart of downtown Philipsburg; the cost is reasonable, and a roundtrip discount is often available.
By Rental Car: This is a destination where renting a car can be a benefit (particularly if you have four or more people and want to see sights on both St. Maarten and St. Martin). There are a handful of agencies at the cruise pier.
Watch Out For
Tourists tend to be robbery targets, so don't flash valuables or cash, and do not leave anything valuable in a car or on the beach.
Shopping: First on many passengers' lists is shopping in Philipsburg; the main drags of Front and Back streets, as well as charming side streets and alleys, are crammed with duty-free jewelry shops, electronics (bargaining recommended) and liquor. (Most shops are generally open when cruise ships are in port, no matter the day of week.)
Great Bay Boardwalk: The boardwalk along Great Bay has an extensive beachfront where you can rent chairs and umbrellas; buy souvenirs from the locals selling island hats, jewelry and more; enjoy a picnic at the many thatched-roof picnic tables; frolic in the crystal blue water; or quench your thirst (or hunger) at the dozens of restaurants and bars. You can also find plenty of water sports operators to arrange snorkeling, scuba-diving and fishing excursions.
Sunset Bar & Grill: You've seen the YouTube videos. Now, catch the jumbo jets landing and taking off precariously close at Sunset Bar & Grill, which sits at the end of the runway at Princess Juliana International Airport. Enjoy a cool cocktail or a tasty meal with a serious Caribbean vibe while you watch swimmers and sunbathers at Maho Beach deal with the jet blasts. A surfboard out front keeps track of when the planes arrive; there's live music most nights and Sunday afternoons. (2 Beacon Hill Road; open early for breakfast and late night until 2 a.m.)
Orient Bay: It's on the French side, but almost every island tour includes a stop at Orient Bay, one of the Caribbean's more famous beaches. The curious can drop by Club Orient, the naturist side of the beach. The rest of the beach is more conventional, and you'll find it packed with beach bars, watersports providers and souvenir shops.
Been There, Done That
Casinos: If you're looking to gamble, check out the varied casinos of St. Maarten. From Casino Royale at Maho Village, the largest casino on St. Maarten, to the four locations of the Atlantis World Casino family and the resort casinos in Philipsburg, Lady Luck is waiting for you at the many roulette, baccarat, craps, blackjack and poker tables (and don't forget the slot machines) throughout the island.
Horseback Riding: Horseback-riders, novices and experts alike, can enjoy scoping out St. Maarten's beaches or nature trails leading to hidden coves and waterfalls. Lucky Stables offers one- to two-hour rides and an evening Champagne ride, and St. Maarten Horseback Beach Rides offers one- and two-hour group beach rides, as well as one-hour private rides.
Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit: Looking for something offbeat in Philipsburg? Consider a stop at the Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit, a memorabilia collection set up by Nick Maley, a former Hollywood prosthetic and animatronics designer. (Yes, he worked on the team that created the ultimate Jedi master, Yoda.) Now, Maley works on his art in St. Maarten and signs books for museum visitors. (19A Front Street; open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday)
Marigot, St. Martin: This hub (and capital) of the French St. Martin is filled with designer boutiques and fabulous restaurants, bistros and cafes. (Duty-free merchandise, while occasionally available, isn't as much a focus.) Don't miss Marigot Market, a daily open-air market along the waterfront that features morning-caught seafood right off the boat, fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, clothing, locally made jewelry and island souvenirs.
Nearby Islands: Take a day trip to one of St. Maarten's neighbors. One option is Anguilla, a peaceful British-affiliated island located about a 25-minute ferry ride from Marigot that's known for its gorgeous white-sand beaches (Shoal Bay is considered one of the best in the world) and phenomenal gourmet restaurants. There are taxis available at the ferry terminal; make sure you arrange for the cabbie to pick you up again! The cost each way is paid in cash onboard. Both St. Martin and Anguilla charge small "departure" fees. Critical: Make sure you bring your passport, or you'll be denied entry.
Or head over to St. Barts, the Caribbean's most famed celebrity hideaway. Private ferry operator Great Bay Express makes the 45-minute trip to Gustavia from Bobby's Marina, just between the cruise terminal and Philipsburg. Another company, Voyager, makes trips to St. Barts from Oyster Pond and Marigot.
Island collectors might want to make the 80-minute trip to Saba, another link in the Netherland Antilles. (Take your seasick meds ahead of time, as the water can get rough.) Volcanic and dominated by the aptly named Mount Scenery, Saba doesn't have beaches. But it does have outstanding hiking and a steep coastal wall that's perfect for diving. Day trips depart from Simpson Bay Resort (about 45 minutes from the cruise terminal) at 9 a.m. and return around 5 p.m., so this excursion is only good for passengers with a longer port stay.
If frolicking in the water or catching rays is your thing, you can't beat the beaches of St. Maarten. With 37 beaches on the island (one for every square mile), you are never far away from the fine white sand and turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean.
Best for Convenience: Swim within sight of your ship at Great Bay, which parallels Front Street. The boardwalk stretches for a mile along Great Bay Beach, and there are plenty of water activities, beach bars and restaurants -- and also crowds.
Best for Water Sports: Little Bay is around the bend to the south of Great Bay. It's a tiny beach, especially at high tide, but it's great for escaping the crowds at Great Bay. Also good for snorkeling, Little Bay offers water sports equipment rentals available for activities like jet-skiing, parasailing and paddleboating, as well as the resources of Divi Little Bay Beach Resort.
Best for Relaxation: It's about an hour from the cruise pier, but Mullet Bay has everything you need for a perfect beach day. You'll find chair and umbrella rentals, fine white sand and a restaurant serving beer and barbecue.
Lunch in St. Maarten can vary from an authentic Caribbean meal and casual beachfront fare on the boardwalk to an extravagant culinary sensation -- lobster thermidor is considered a specialty. Options abound on both the Dutch and French sides; the latter is a serious spot for foodies.
Chesterfield's: If you're just dying for a meal off the ship, you can't go wrong with one of the first restaurants you come to along Dock Maarten between the pier and the heart of Philipsburg. Chesterfield's has a great view to go along with burgers, sandwiches, seafood, kebabs and more. It also has a happy hour from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. (Great Bay Marina; open early for breakfast and stays open late.)
The Greenhouse: The Greenhouse features a big menu and sells more Angus beef than anywhere else on the island. Be sure to check out the conch fritters. (Bobby's Marina in Philipsburg and Kim Sha Beach in Simpson Bay; open from 11 a.m. daily)
Barefoot Terrace: If you're looking for Caribbean food, try the Barefoot Terrace, perhaps the most authentic of the restaurants that line the boardwalk. For those who go ashore early, you can order traditional saltfish for breakfast -- or get a sandwich made with "johnny cake," a Caribbean biscuit. Lunch options include roti, curry chicken, oxtail stew and jerk burgers. The restaurant's location on the boardwalk's square makes it a great place to people watch. (Cyrus Watthey Square Boardwalk; open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily)
L'Escargot Restaurant: For a true French experience (even though you are on the Dutch side), you can't go wrong with L'Escargot Restaurant. Serving traditional French food for almost 40 years, this restaurant offers seven varieties of escargot, soups, salads and French classics like frog legs, duck and coq au vin. (96 Front Street; lunch is served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, dinner 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, except summers when the restaurant is closed Sunday)
Antoine Restaurant: Another French culinary experience can be found at Antoine Restaurant. From light lunches to classics like seafood terrine and lobster thermidor, Antoine's offers outdoor dining at thatched-roof tables along Great Bay Beach. (119 Front Street; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily)
Dining in Grand Case: Those with serious palates will want to head up to Grand Case on the French side, where high-quality restaurants abound at prices that favor the American dollar. (Most venues accept an equal 1:1 euro-to-dollar conversion.) For authenticity, try the barbecue chicken, ribs and seafood at the lolos -- locally owned, open-air restaurants.
Staying in Touch
CYBERLink offers many terminals and fast connections. You can also find Wi-Fi available along the boardwalk at Great Bay Beach and in many of the restaurants. (53 Front Street)
Best for First-Timers: An island highlights tour will give you the opportunity to experience the charm and romance of both the Dutch and French sides of the island. From the history of the Great Salt Pond (which provided St. Maarten's primary trade resource in the late-1800s) and Fort Willem (which offered protection against enemy landings in St. Maarten's early years) to the scenic views of Orleans and Orient Beach, and from the gourmet capital of Grand Case to the charming waterfront market of Marigot, this two- to three-hour tour will give you the highlights of the unique two-flags island and still give you plenty of time to explore Philipsburg on your own.
Best for Adventurers: One of the best shore excursions in the Caribbean, the St. Maarten America's Cup 12-Metre Regatta gives passengers the thrill of America's Cup yacht racing; you actually race onboard a winning yacht and serve as part of the crew. The two-hour boat ride features refreshments and a rum punch party to celebrate. Although you don't need any sailing experience, this is a strenuous activity, and you should be in good physical condition and bring your sense of adventure.
Best for Underwater Explorers: Although diving is available on some lines, helmet diving is another underwater option available to those who aren't certified. Wearing a specially designed helmet (in which your hair doesn't get wet and you can wear your prescription glasses), you descend 20 feet to an underwater park featuring shipwrecks, historical cannons, a sunken submarine, and tons of fish and coral life. The excursion lasts 2.5 hours, giving you ample time back in Philipsburg to explore on your own.
For More Information
On the Web: St. Maarten Tourism Bureau
Cruise Critic Message Boards: St. Maarten
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
--by Steve Faber, Lynn Seldon and Cele Seldon, Cruise Critic contributors; updated by Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor
--Sunset Bar & Grill photo appears courtesy of Chalabala/Shutterstock. Front Street image appears courtesy of Cruise Critic reader Aplmac. Horseback riding and main beach image appear courtesy of St. Maarten Tourism.