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Saint Martin: One Very Friendly Island

Sonesta Maho Beach Resort and Casino

Would you like to have breakfast in the Netherlands, lunch on a Caribbean beach and dinner in France—all in the same day? That night, you can even go casino and club hopping, pub-crawling, duty-free shopping or night diving—all on the same tropical island.

The “Friendly Island” is also known as Saint-Martin (French), Sint Maarten (Dutch) and SXM (the airport code). It’s made up of 34 square miles and has been magnifying the advantages of its multiple personalities since the 17th century, when the Dutch and French first divided the spectacular isle southeast of Puerto Rico, south of Anguilla and north of St. Kitts and St. Barths and other tropical hot spots.

SXM now boasts more than 400 eateries on an island of about 90,000 inhabitants, who represent more than 140 nationalities of European, African, Indian, Asian and Amer-Indian descent. The island’s French side with its Grand Case district is often considered the gourmet capital of the Caribbean. You also can eat at outdoor eateries called lolos. On the Dutch side, say “cheers” or proost with locally made, rum-based guavaberry rums and liqueurs.

Each side has different currencies, languages and electrical voltages as well as great vacation lures. So vive la difference! Why not say ja, oui and yes to the friendly people of both? 

Ooh la la, Saint-Martin

The northern French realm enjoys Atlantic and Caribbean beaches, secluded coves and a reputation for being more laid-back, outdoor loving and ecofriendly. You can consort with nature and butterflies at the Butterfly Farm or sunbathe au naturel at several beaches—including a part of the sands at popular Orient Bay, called the “St. Tropez of the Caribbean.” Orient is also the place for parasailing, while Friar’s Bay is a favorite with swimmers.

For a spectacular overview, hop on a flight with Corail Helicopteres for some sky-high selfies and fantastic vistas. Then zipline through the tropical forest for thrilling highs and Zen out among nature at Loterie Farm. You can also tap your feet to the music while tasting creative tapas in its TreeLounge.

Worthwhile and whimsical, The Amuseum Naturalis museum is free and promises “new wonders every week.” For the wonders of people-watching, the city of Marigot is the best for shopping, strolling and café-sitting outside, French-style.

Seagrape Tours takes participants on hikes away from the crowds, from the highest peak to underwater. How many of the 100-plus species of the island’s birds will you find? For even more quiet, take a day trip by water taxi to the uninhabited little Pinel Island, with a marked trail for snorkeling, standup paddleboarding and kayaking fun. You can toast the good life at beach bars run by generators.


Dutch Treats on Sint Maarten

The southern Dutch side buzzes with casinos, high rises, shopping malls and parties. Maho Beach is regularly buzzed by low-flying planes about to land—a thrilling photo op for some. Beach-goers who want to watch cruise ship crowds come and go spread their towels at Great Bay Beach, while Maho Village vibrates at night with a European-style casino, live music and dining. Celebrities and VIPs often head to the Tantra Nightclub and Sanctuary for the latest nightlife.

Downtown Philipsburg is renowned for its duty-free shopping, with great discounts on fashion and jewelry. If you want the Force to be with you, don’t leave without going to the very popular and unusual Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit, where you can meet the designer who helped create Yoda and other movie creatures. You can get a drink and T-shirt souvenir at Blue Bitch Bar—named after the shiny “blue bitch” rocks that are part of the island’s history.

For some outdoor adventure, hop on a two-person, 10-foot inflatable Rhino Rider to zoom your way on a guided tour to Creole Rock, one of the best snorkeling reefs around. Or for unforgettable sailing, jump on an American Cup yacht for the 12 Metre Challenge and help crew a real race, held daily.

If you like to plan trips around events and festivals, SMX offers the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta in March and the SXM Festival of electronic music (usually in March). Big party Carnival is in February and/or March on the French side and in April on the Dutch side. In June, the island hosts the St. Martin Book Fair and one of the premier sport fishing tournaments in the Caribbean: the Saint Martin Billfish Tournament.

Whatever you do, have fun, relax and bon appétit—or eet smakelijk, as the Dutch say.

Where to Stay in Saint-Martin

On the French side, the Mercure St. Martin Marina and Spa is an artistic haven with a great location. Art lover-owner Baki Arbia commissioned copies of pieces by Picasso, Basquiat and Miró to be painted around the hotel. For more luxe accommodations, there’s Belmond La Samanna. Or try Marquis Boutique Hotel and spa, one of many smaller hotels offering local flavor.

Where to Stay in Sint Maarten

La Vista Resort blends Carribbean and European comforts with tropical beaches and gardens, close to the vitality of the Simpson Bay strip, while the three all-inclusive Sonesta resorts—two adult-only and the other family-friendly—are all within walking distance of all the hot spots.

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