Port of St. Maarten
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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.
Top St. Maarten Itineraries
Wind Surf7 Night Caribbean CruiseSt. Maarten, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Lucia, Grenada, Mayreau, Bequia, St. MaartenNow
Star FlyerTreasure IslandsSt. Martin, St. Martin, Virgin Gorda, Virgin Gorda, Virgin Gorda, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, Jost Van Dyke, St. Kitts, St. Kitts, St. Kitts, St. Kitts, St. Barts, St. Barts, St. Martin, St. MartinNow
Wind Surf7 Night Caribbean CruiseSt. Maarten, St. Kitts, Iles des Saintes, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. MaartenNow
Star FlyerLeeward IslandsSt. Martin, St. Martin, Nevis, Nevis, Dominica, Dominica, Iles des Saintes, Iles des Saintes, Guadeloupe, Guadeloupe, Antigua, Antigua, St. Barts, St. Barts, St. Martin, St. MartinNow
Seabourn Odyssey7-day Yachtsman's CaribbeanSt. Maarten, St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, BarbadosNow
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.
Good to Know
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.
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).
Although the official language is Dutch for St. Maarten and French for St. Martin, virtually everyone speaks English.
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)
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)