St. Martin Shoreline
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St. Martin Overview
Perhaps the most oft-quoted bit of Caribbean cruise port trivia is that the island of St. Maarten/St. Martin is the smallest occupied by two sovereign nations. Though snuggled together in a scant 37 square miles of mountainous terrain, these two countries maintain distinct identities.
The Dutch side (St. Maarten) is home to large resorts/casinos, bustling beaches and tons of get-it-cheap, duty-free shopping, while the French side (St. Martin) features quaint bed and breakfasts and luxurious resorts, laid-back beaches and the charm of local artisans at the waterfront market. Although St. Martin is the larger hunk of the island, it draws far fewer visitors.
Some smaller ships call on Marigot, St. Martin's capital, but the majority of lines dock on the busier side of the island in Philipsburg. It's simple and economical to make a cab trip from the Dutch side to St. Martin, especially for those who wish only to spend some time in Marigot.
One major draw is the shopping. There are bargains to be found, and St. Martin is duty-free for the most part, but Marigot attracts those who seek couture and upscale imports from France. Boutiques there fit the bill, reminding many of a more down-to-earth version of St. Barts.
St. Martin also offers cafes, bistros and brasseries ... most serving up tasty creations with Gallic flavors and panache. St. Martin has some of the prettiest beaches in the Caribbean, with assets to please everyone: families, snorkelers, romantics and those who like to catch some rays wearing nothing but SPF 50.
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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
Enjoy a glass or bottle of French wine or Champagne pretty much anywhere in St. Martin. You'll never see a better selection outside of France.
Upscale and designer fashions from the many luxury shops and malls sprinkled throughout Marigot make nice mementos. Whether you're looking for perfume, crystal or the latest fashion trend, the duty-free shops in St. Martin make taking home a souvenir for yourself a decadent exploration. You can also pick up some original artwork from one of many local artisans.
On this side of the island, the locals speak French as their main language, although most people in the tourist industry are fluent in English. (As in most French Caribbean islands, a friendly "bon jour" goes a long way.)
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The euro is the main currency on St. Martin and is the only one dispensed by ATM machines on this side of the island. This is one stop where it pays to keep your dollars, however, as many vendors and restaurants offer a 1:1 conversion ratio for U.S. cash. (The banks in St. Maarten, the Dutch side, will give you a choice of dollars or Netherland Antilles guilders.)
Where You're Docked
The Port of Marigot is right in the heart of Marigot, so the terminal contains few services. This is also where ferries to Anguilla depart, so there is a place to stash your luggage, if you are on one of the few cruises that embark/debark in Marigot. Most larger cruise ships call in Philipsburg, on the Dutch side.
If you're debarking in Marigot, you'll be within a few steps of the Marigot Market, restaurants and several attractions. Serious shoppers could spend a half day just poking around the downtown.
By Taxi: Cabs wait at the port to take you where you'd like to go.
On Two Wheels: For the visitor who has been to St. Martin before and wants to explore at a slower, more in-depth pace, consider a bicycle or moped (although you need to watch out for Marigot's sometimes heavy traffic). You can rent one from Eugene Moto in Sandy Ground (Route de Sandy, Marigot; 590-87-13-97). Be sure to ask for maps and suggested routes.
On Foot: Everything you could possibly want is within a few feet of the terminal, including shopping, a market, dining, ATMs and Internet services.
Renting a Car: The Port of Marigot features several rental car agencies, including Lucky's Car Rental (firstname.lastname@example.org), Keith's Car Rental (email@example.com), United with Claude Car Rental (firstname.lastname@example.org), A&K Car Rental (email@example.com) and other local companies.
Watch Out For
Tourists tend to be robbery targets, so don't flash valuables or cash, and don't leave anything of value in a car or on the beach.
Shopping in Marigot: The city, an intriguing blend of small French town and Caribbean city, houses chic boutiques with fashions ranging from trendy to couture, as well as stores selling duty-free perfumes, crystal and jewelry. Don't miss the stunning architecture and interior design of Le West Indies Shopping Mall across from the terminal. It features bars, restaurants, a spa and 23 designer shops in the three-level facility. Other highlights include L'Occitane for Provencal soaps and lotions, Goldfinger for Rolex and Cartier jewelry, and Christian Lacroix, Lacoste and Diesel fashions throughout. Marina Port La Royale, a five-minute walk from the harbor, is a boutique shopping mecca for tourists and locals alike.
Marigot Waterfront Market: This daily event along the harbor features a craft market, souvenir stalls and, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, a Caribbean food market where West Indian women in batik dresses and big straw hats sell spices, fruits and other produce. You can also watch fishermen scale their catches (mostly red snapper) using a broomstick lined with beer bottle caps.
Fort Louis: With so many colonial powers involved, the islands in this region experienced more than their share of conflict. The French built this fort overlooking Marigot Bay in 1789 but didn't use it for battle until the 19th century, when English from nearby Anguilla came over to raid harbor warehouses. From the ruins at the top, enjoy unrestricted views of Marigot, Anguilla and Simpson Bay on the Dutch side. (Be warned, it's a steep walk from town.) For more history, check out the Musee de Saint Martin , which outlines the history and culture of the island going back 1,500 years. (7 Fichot Street; open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday)
The Butterfly Farm: Not only does the farm house hundreds of species of butterflies -- a narrated tour will teach you about them -- but the landscaping is as dramatic and photogenic as it gets. Pose your family for pictures in front of waterfalls and forest grottos. (Le Galion Beach Road; open 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily year-round, with the last tour starting at 3 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
Grand Case: If you have enough time in port and don't mind renting a car and exploring independently, take a short drive up the coast to Grand Case for some fine cuisine. Once a fishing village, it's now an attraction to those who enjoy eating fish more than catching them. At the far end of town, you can get beach privileges at Grand Case Beach Club, and, if a casual lunch on the beach is more appealing than a fancy sit-down meal, try one of the lolos, little kiosks that serve barbecue and local seafood. For a more elaborate meal, Grand Case has a short main street where all 27 of the town's excellent restaurants can be found.
Loterie Farm: For those who have had their fill of tropical marine ecology, Loterie Farm, near Friar's Bay, is an eco-preserve that focuses on Caribbean forests and mountains. Though cruise ships offer zip-line tours there (see below), independent explorers will find plenty of enticing activities, including horseback-riding, hiking, mountain-biking, ecotours and even meditation and yoga. (Pic Paradis 103; open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday)
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. At the ferry terminal, you can catch a taxi to take you around the island. Most folks head straight to Shoal Bay East, full of activity and barbecue shacks that front tranquil waters. Another option, especially for foodies, is to ask a 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.) Just 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 at 6:15 p.m. The $15 ferry fee each way is paid in cash onboard. Both St. Martin and Anguilla charge small "departure" fees. It's critical that you bring your passport, or you'll be denied entry.
Philipsburg, St. Maarten: If shopping is your thing, then the main routes (Front and Back Streets), side streets, alleys and boardwalk of the Dutch side of the island are for you. These areas are filled with duty-free stores. Highlights include jewelry, electronics and liquor. (Be sure to check out the Guavaberry Emporium for a true taste-of-the-island souvenir.) If gambling is your thing, and you haven't gotten enough on your ship, you can try your luck at a host of casinos throughout St. Maarten.
Most Popular: Almost every island tour includes a stop at Orient Bay, one of the Caribbean's more famous beaches. The curious can visit 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.
Best for Seclusion: With its nearly two miles of extra-wide sand beaches, Baie Lounge is gorgeous, never crowded and well-suited for the sun-worshipper who prefers privacy and quiet. Visitors can also take in million-dollar views of stunning villas or check out the ultra-chic La Samanna hotel.
Best for Naturists: Laid-back Baie Rouge offers up a deserted pink-sand beach with calm waters perfect for swimming. The eastern end, near the entrance, is more popular, and bathing suits are the norm. The farther west you go, the fewer people (and suits) you'll see.
Most Unique: French Cul de Sac is a little gem on the east (Atlantic) coast of St. Martin, perfect for a couple looking for a romantic getaway or a family looking for a kid-friendly beach experience. But the real draw there is Ilet Pinel, an uninhabited tiny island. (Some cruise lines offer shore excursions there.) Shuttle boats regularly make 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.
Marigot offers many fine choices, but Grand Case, a scant five miles or so north, features 27 fine restaurants packed in a one-mile stretch, earning it the nickname "restaurant capital of the Caribbean." Traditional French cuisine, local seafood and Caribbean favorites are the calling cards.
Casual, In-Town joints: With lovely views of Marigot harbor, L'Oizeau Rare serves excellent French bistro cuisine in an open verandah setting surrounding a fountain. (Marigot Waterfront; open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday and dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily) For a casual meal right in town, you can't miss the blue-and-white striped awnings of Enoch's Place . It serves Caribbean classics like saltfish and fried johnnycakes for breakfast and garlic shrimp, fresh lobster, and rice and beans for lunch. (Marigot Waterfront Market; open early to late afternoon Monday to Saturday) And pastry lovers won't want to miss a croissant or napoleon from Sarafina's Patisserie, although there can be lines when several cruise ships are in port. (Boulevard de France; open for breakfast, lunch and dinner)
In Marina Royale: At the marina, you've got several great options, from the Mediterranean-leaning La Belle Epoch and the Creole and Caribbean flavors of La Petite Auberge des Iles , to the fine French creations of uber-chef Cecile Briaud-Richard at Le Chanteclair .
Gourmet Lunching: Try Le Tastevin in Grand Case for a creative blend of traditional French cuisine with the flavors of the Caribbean, all with attentive service. (86 Boulevard de Grand Case; open noon to 2 p.m. daily for lunch and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner)
Staying in Touch
Many restaurants and cafes offer free Wi-Fi to their patrons.
Best for First-Timers: An island tour will give you the opportunity to experience the charm and romance of both the French and Dutch sides of the island. From the picturesque countryside and clothing-optional Orient Beach to the duty-free shops of Philipsburg and the historic salt ponds, the three-hour tour will give you the highlights of this unique two-flags island and still give you plenty of time to explore Marigot on your own.
Best for Adventurers: Take a bus ride up to St. Martin's highest point, Pic Paradis, around 1,400 feet above sea level, and hike your way down through the lush rain forest and mountainous terrain of this Mountain Top Hike Adventure. During your two-hour hike, enjoy the views of St. Martin and the flora and fauna of the unique landscape. Also, keep your eyes open for wildlife. End up at Loterie Farm's 135-acre nature reserve, and enjoy a rum or fruit punch before your return to the ship.
Best for Eco-Lovers: Experience a scenic horseback safari that crosses a deserted beach, giving you an opportunity to ride and swim along with your horse. View the plant life along the winding trails that lead to a deserted lagoon. Take a refreshing swim, and then enjoy a drink back at the stables at the end of this three-hour tour.
For More Information
On the Web: St. Martin Tourist Office
Cruise Critic Message Boards: St. Martin
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
--by Steve Faber; updated by Lynn and Cele Seldon, Cruise Critic contributors, and Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor