Saint-Martin and St Maarten: Two Countries, One Island, Lots of Fun
Part of the Leeward Islands, Saint Martin/St Maarten is one island made up of two countries, the French-controlled northern side and the southern Dutch portion overseen by The Netherlands. While the island is dually governed, they desire to live harmoniously and residents and visitors are free to come and go from side to side as they please. Further evidence of their unique collaboration is that all schools throughout the island instruct students to be trilingual in Dutch, English, and French.
After many years of disputes over who would control the island of St. Martin, it was peacefully divided between the French and the Dutch by the Treaty of Concordia in 1648. While both countries share similar histories, there are distinct influences from the governing countries on each side. Therefore, you can experience two unique cultures by visiting both sides of the island.
With two different countries compressed on a thirty-seven square mile island, there are many attractions available, so in order to enjoy the best of both worlds, you should be aware of what makes each side special. And although you may find many places to relax along a tranquil beach or lay back and take in a stunning sunset, Saint Martin and St Maarten are both lively vibrant places known for excellent cuisine, superb duty-free shopping, and exciting nightlife.
The northern French-controlled Saint Martin is where you can find the best restaurants and party beaches. It is also the site of towns and villages that showcase local Caribbean customs flavored with a distinctly French heritage. Marigot is the capital of Saint Martin and its colorful Creole-style buildings along Republic Street are evidence of its storied past. Also notable is Fort St. Louis overlooking Marigot Bay, built in the late eighteenth century to protect the important trading town from invaders. After a short hike to the ruins, visitors have a panoramic view of the entire island and across the Caribbean waters to the island of Anguilla in the distance. Touring the remnants of the fort will give you a brief insight into the history of this remarkable destination. Another typically French attraction is the Tijon Perfumerie located in Grand-Case, where you can take a perfume-making class and bring home your custom scent that will take you back to your Caribbean holiday with every sniff.
The French side is also home to the highest point on the island at just under 1400 feet above sea level. In addition to beautiful scenery, excellent hiking, and interesting wildlife, the area is home to Loterie Farm, an old sugar factory that has been transformed into a remarkable nature sanctuary nestled among more than one hundred acres of tropical foliage. Adventurous visitors can zip line over the mahogany and mango trees or hike along the magnificent trails. For those that wish to be pampered, there is a glamorous beach club encompassing beautiful tropical landscapes, pools, and streams. There is also an interesting “tree-house” cocktail lounge located in the palm-frond treetops.
As you might imagine, there are many superb dining locales in Saint Martin including Barranco in Grand-Case, known for its sophisticated style and creative cuisine paired with amazing ocean views. The charming village of Grand-Case has become a hub of culinary excellence with numerous exceptional restaurants along with Boulevard de Grand Case. Another notable culinary establishment includes Anse Marcel Beach Resort, nestled in a private cove along the northern coast. Additionally, you will find many fabulous cafes lining the waterfront at Marina Port La Royale in Simpson Bay Lagoon including La Petite Auberge, a delightful spot to enjoy excellent French and Creole cuisine.
Hopefully, after taking in so many distinguished activities on the northern side of the island, you still have the energy and time to enjoy the southern side of St. Maarten, overseen by the Dutch. Home to exciting casinos, bars and nightclubs, there are also several cultural sites revealing the blended influences of the original inhabitants and the Dutch. Beginning in the capital of St. Maarten, Philipsburg, the historic courthouse is still standing in its original form. Next door, is the Historical Museum exhibiting the diverse history of this friendly island. Fort Amsterdam is another interesting site and one of the oldest forts in the Caribbean, built by the Dutch in 1631. Although it has deteriorated over the years, it is still a nice hike and the area has been designated an “Important Bird Area” by BirdLife International so bird lovers will especially enjoy a visit to the Fort.
Thrill-seekers can zoom along the world’s steepest zip line while taking in dazzling views of the island as they descend along the 2800 feet of The Flying Dutchman. This exciting attraction is located in the Rockland Estate eco-adventure park along with an inner tube run, chair-lifts, and a museum that educates visitors about the conditions of plantation life, along with the customs, traditions, and history of St. Maarten.
Still exciting but a little more sedate, visitors to St. Maarten should stop by the Topper’s Rhum Distillery and sample some of the fifty different flavors of the Caribbean staple. With concoctions like Banana Vanilla Cinnamon, Bacon and Maple Syrup, and Jalapeño Lime, this is quite a tasting experience. In addition to the tastings, you can take a tour to observe the rum-making process, most of which is still done by hand.
The Dutch capital of Philipsburg is also famous for duty-free shopping, so stores selling watches, jewelry, and spirits are prevalent, particularly along Front Street. Other vendors offer china, crystal, cigars, and souvenirs adjacent to a lovely beach boardwalk. While most of the larger shops accept credit cards, some of the local artisans only take cash so it is important to understand the currency. The island with two separate governments has three main currencies. The official currency of St. Maarten is the Netherland Antilles Guilder, while French Saint Martin is the Euro. Most shoppes also accept US Dollars. It is usually best to use your dollars on the Dutch side and for stores on the French side that equate one dollar to one euro to get the most for your money.
After a day of zipping through the trees and shopping until you drop, the nightlife of St. Maarten is spectacular. There are many exciting casinos for those risk-taking travelers including Jump Up Casino, Beach Plaza Casino, Casino Royale, Coliseum Princess, Diamond Casino, Golden Casino, Paradise Plaza Casino, Port De Plaisance Princess Resort and Casino, the Tropicana Princess Casino, and The Westin Dawn Beach Casino. If you are looking for cocktails, dancing, and music there are many fun options. Dance on a piano while listening to live music at The Red Piano or enjoy a cocktail in the more relaxed We Lounge. For those who like to party all night, the Lotus Nightclub is known as the best dance club and is in the heart of the party district. Other choices include the Q Lounge and the more elegant Ocean Lounge.
The dually governed island of Saint Martin/St. Maarten is an international island, a welcoming island, and a resilient island. After Hurricane Irma devastated the island in 2017, they have rebuilt and restored it better than before. And after the restrictions during the height of the COVID pandemic, the island has reopened and is ready for action. So pack your bags and head to this varied and vibrant island in the northern Leeward chain for double the sun, fun, and reveling in the remarkable blue Caribbean Sea.
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