"All Caribbean islands are alike" is a complaint that we hear all the time here at Cruise Critic. Not only is the statement blatantly untrue, it fails to take into account the historic character of each island.
This is particularly true with St. Maarten and St. Thomas, both popular ports on Eastern Caribbean itineraries. In St. Maarten, you get two nationalities for the price of one, as the physical island is split between the Dutch (St. Maarten) and the French (St. Martin). St. Thomas is the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands and is, as such, more American than most Caribbean islands.
Many Eastern Caribbean cruises include stops at both St. Maarten and St. Thomas, which means you won't have to make a choice. But if your itinerary stops at only one of the islands, here is our breakdown of St. Maarten vs. St. Thomas.
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Similarities Between St. Thomas and St. Maarten
Both St. Thomas and St. Maarten are paradise for beach lovers. You could return time and again to both ports -- as many frequent cruisers do -- and find a different sandy spot each time.
Both islands also have plenty of water sports if you want to do more than work on your tan. Catamaran excursions are popular on both islands, and you can also kayak, snorkel, jet ski and try other water sports.
In addition, St. Thomas and St. Maarten also have reputations for great duty-free shopping. So if you have your eye on a designer watch or something sparkly, these islands are both good stops.
Differences Between St. Maarten and St. Thomas
Because of its French counterpart St. Martin, St. Maarten has a more cosmopolitan vibe than St. Thomas. On the French side of the island in Grand Case, you'll find fantastic food, served at small kiosks known as lolos. St. Martin also has several beaches that cater to those who prefer to sunbathe sans tan lines.
While both islands have their share of drinking establishments, St. Maarten has the famous Sunset Bar, where patrons down beers as they wait for jumbo jets to fly dizzyingly close. Meanwhile, St. Thomas has nearby St. John, for those who want to escape the crowds on the more heavily populated Virgin Island.
Because St. Thomas receives the most cruise ships of perhaps any Caribbean island, you'll find that it's often the test ground for the latest and greatest excursion ideas. On our last visit, flyboarding and jet packing were the current rage; the island also has zip lines, an ice sculpture museum, a marine park, a mountain tram and golf. It's impossible to get bored.
And finally, one of the biggest differences you'll notice is the currency. While St. Thomas uses the U.S. dollar, St. Maarten uses the Netherland Antilles guilder, and St. Martin is on the euro. (But don't worry; many merchants use a 1:1 exchange rate, so you won't be penalized by using the higher currency). Also, many merchants on both sides of the island will accept dollars.
St. Maarten vs. St. Thomas: Bottom Line
Choose St. Maarten if you're a foodie who likes a more international mix of cuisine, you're an aviation geek who loves seeing the big planes up close or you're a beach bum who wants to take it all off.
Choose St. Thomas if you like feeling like you're in America, yet still in the Caribbean; you don't mind crowds either in the stores or on the beach; you want a choice of many different activities.