Saint-Martin / Sint-Maarten
The island of St. Martin belongs to the Lesser Antilles in northeastern Caribbean. Despite its small size, sovereignty over the island is divided between two countries: Sint-Maarten, the southern section of the island, is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while the Collectivity of Saint-Martin, the northern section of the island, is an overseas collectivity of France.
Chances are that your first contact with St. Martin will be with the Dutch part of the island. The main airport, one of the busiest in the Caribbean, is located here as is the main port, also one of the busiest in the region and that may welcome up to six large cruise ships in a single day. The Dutch side of St. Martin occupies about 40% of the island’s 87km² (34mi²), but is inhabited by slightly more than half of the total population. Its capital, Philipsburg, is located on the shores of the Great Bay and is usually a very busy place during the day, thanks mainly to its proximity with the port (only 15 minutes on foot). This is a pretty town, particularly along the main commercial street, Voorstraat (Front Street), paved with cobblestones, and the Boardwalk, by the sea front. Philipsburg is a commercial heaven, with dozens of duty-free shops selling jewelry, watches, cosmetics, electronics and much more.
11km (7mi) west of Philipsburg lies one of the busiest beaches in the entire island. Maho beach, despite its small size, is probably the most famous beach in the Caribbean. The scenery here is pretty beautiful, indeed, and the sea is quite pleasant for a quick swim, but the main magnet of this beach is its extreme proximity to the threshold of Princess Juliana International Airport. People flock here daily to watch, with the closest view possible, the arrival and departure of dozens of airplanes of all sizes – nowadays the main shows are delivered by KLM’s Boeing 747 and Air France’s Airbus A340.
Marigot, the capital of the French side, is only 7km (4.3mi) away from Maho Beach and is one of the most beautiful towns in the Caribbean. Being a small town, this is an excellent place to relax away from the crowds that disembark in Philipsburg. While lacking the commercial advantages present on the Dutch side, Marigot features some of the best restaurants and cafes of the island, besides boutiques, a marina and a small harbour, from where it is possible to leave on a day-trip (or a longer one) to the neighboring island of Anguila. Those willing to exercise while in town will enjoy taking the trails leading to Fort-Louis, a fortress built by the French in 1789. The hill where it is located offers panoramic views over Marigot and a major part of the French coast, besides allowing to spot Anguila in the background.
Continuing 6km (3.7mi) north of the capital of the French side, the village of Grand-Case has a more laid back atmosphere while also offering excellent restaurants. Just about 5km (3mi) from Grand-Case, now on the island’s east coast, Orient Beach is another particularly famous place in the region. Despite being very touristy, it is a great place to practice water sports, like jet-ski and snorkel, or simply swim and sun bath. Club Orient, located in the southern end of Orient Beach is, at least officially, the only nudist beach in St. Martin. Topless, however, is also tolerated on the other beaches of the French side.
In general terms, the Dutch section of the island seems to have been more developed than the French. The northern half, however, has a more European feel and features the best natural scenery. While the whole island accepts the US Dollar, the official currency of the south is the Florin, while the Euro commands in the north. The island is considered to be safe by most standards and ranting a car to explore it is a convenient decision, considering that it can be time consuming to rely on public transportation to move between areas distant from the main urban centers (there isn’t a schedule and not even bus stops – people simply take a transport heading on the direction they need to go).
Whenever your adventure here is over, there is a possibility to continue your trip through several Caribbean islands directly connected to St. Martin. Antigua, Barbados, Puerto Rico, the British and American Virgin Islands are a few of the possibilities. Besides, it is very easy to take a ferry to the neighboring islands of Anguila and St. Barths.