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St. Maarten Overview
St. Maarten is busier -- but better -- than ever, as cruise lines call on Philipsburg with their biggest ships. (Sometimes there are a half-dozen of them in port at one time.) There's also more than ever to do once you disembark, with shopping and beaches being the primary attractions.
That's obviously both good news (more shopping choices, better deals and more beach activities) and 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 may well 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 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 liqueur for free at the Guavaberry Emporium. (No. 8-10 Front Street, Philipsburg; open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; a smaller store is located on the cruise ship pier and is open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
Take home a taste of the islands with chocolates from The Belgian Chocolate Box. Their 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 Monday through Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.)
Although Dutch is the official language, virtually everyone speaks English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Netherlands Antilles Guilder on the Dutch side and the Euro on the French side, but U.S. dollars are widely accepted. Banks and ATM's are readily available, and credit cards are widely accepted.
Where You're Docked
The A.C. Wathey Pier & Port Facility, 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 still 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 a few shops, water taxi and boat tour operators, and popular waterfront bar and grill, Chesterfield's.
Slightly further, 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, there is a 20-minute walk into downtown Philipsburg that isn't very scenic. You're better off taking a brief water taxi ride from the port to Capt. Hodge Pier at the foot of the boardwalk and continuing 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 Dutch St. Maarten Taxi Association for more information.
Vehicles range from standard taxis to large vans and open safari-style vehicles, and rates improve based on the number in your party. 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, lest they 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.
Renting a 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 in Philipsburg, naturally, is first on the list; 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.) The stunning work of local artists is also not to be missed. Works in every medium can be found in at in-home studios, formal art shops and galleries, as well as on the streets.
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.
If you're looking to take a 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-riders, novices and experts alike, can enjoy horseback rides across St. Maarten's beaches or along 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.
Been There, Done That
For offbeat shopping finds in Philipsburg, consider Greenwith Gallery, St. Maarten's oldest art gallery, featuring the largest selection of Caribbean art on the island (33 Front Street). Don't miss Dutch Delft Gallery, the authentic source for hand-painted Delftware (37 Front Street), Ikemba Gallery for unique African contemporary and archaic art wares (125 Front Street) and, for your sweet tooth,The Belgian Chocolate Box (109 Old Street).
Visit 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.
Take a trip to the isle of Anguilla. This peaceful British-affiliated island, about a 25-minute ferry ride from Marigot, is known for its gorgeous white sand beaches and phenomenal gourmet restaurants. There are taxis available at the ferry terminal. Most folks head straight to Shoal Bay (east), full of activity and barbecue shacks, fronting tranquil waters. Another option, especially for foodies: Ask the taxi driver to take you to Trattoria Tramonto, a fabulous waterfront Italian restaurant on Shoal Bay West. (The restaurant offers free lounge chairs for lunch guests.) Make sure you arrange for the cabbie to pick you up again! Logistical note: Ferries operate between Marigot and Blowing Point (Anguilla) every 45 minutes with the first ferry leaving Marigot at 8:15 a.m. and the last ferry at 7 p.m. Returns to Marigot from Blowing Point start at 7:30 a.m., with the last ferry being 6:15 p.m. 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.
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. For a lively beach just steps away from the ship, rent chairs and umbrellas along Great Bay Beach. If you are looking for a quieter beach break, head slightly further afield to Little Bay Beach.
Great Bay is most convenient, as it parallels Front Street for swimming and sunning. The boardwalk stretches for a mile along Great Bay Beach.
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, it has water sports equipment rentals available for activities like jet-skiing, parasailing and paddleboating.
For more quiet, try Guana Bay, with access from the road behind Great Salt Pond. There are few people and even fewer amenities, so bring your own refreshments.
Lunch in St. Maarten can vary from an authentic Caribbean meal and casual beachfront fare on the boardwalk to an extravagant culinary sensation. Options abound on both the Dutch and French sides.
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 along with burgers, sandwiches, seafood, kebabs and more. It also has a happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. every night. (Great Bay Marina. Open early for breakfast and stays open late.)
For the thirsty adventure junkie (or aviation enthusiast), check out 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 huge jumbo jets graze your hair as they land at the airport. The venue is so unique that ABC's Nightline featured it on a newscast. (#2 Beacon Hill Road; open daily early for breakfast and late night until 2 a.m.)
The Greenhouse has 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 daily from 11 a.m.)
Get "one delicious slice of paradise" along the boardwalk at Taloula Mango's Caribbean Cafe. The restaurant serves salads, burgers, pizzas and tapas, and the vibe is relaxed and definitely Caribbean. (The Boardwalk at Great Bay Beach. Open daily from 11 a.m.)
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 different varieties of escargot, soups, salads and French classics like frog legs, duck and Coq Au Vin. (96 Front Street. Lunch is served Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner is served daily, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., except summers when the restaurant is closed on Sunday.)
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 daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Staying in Touch
CYBERLink (53 Front Street) 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.
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 crop in the late-1800's) 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, where 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 (where your hair doesn't even 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: www.st-maarten.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: St. Maarten
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: St. Maarten
--by Steve Faber; updated by Lynn and Cele Seldon, Cruise Critic Contributors
--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.