Most Caribbean islands have changed hands a few times in their history between the French, the English, the Dutch and the Spanish, leading to a vibrant mix of cultures distinct to each island.
The island of St. Maarten is actually still governed by not just one country, but two. It’s split almost down the middle between France’s St. Martin in the north, and the Netherland Antilles’ St. Maarten in the south. The split dates back to 1648, and no one today seems to see any reason to change.
Cruise ships dock on the Dutch side, about a mile from its capital of Philipsburg, but the entire island is easily accessible for you to explore.
Experience the Best of Both Worlds
The Dutch side of the island is known for fantastic nightlife, beaches, and jewelry. The French side is known for clothing, and its beaches, some of them famous for their “European” approach to sun-bathing (meaning, in the nude).
The best of the island’s beaches is Orient Beach, known as the “French Riviera of the Caribbean”, with more than a mile of pristine white sand beaches. Don’t worry if you want to keep your clothes on, just the southern part of the beach is reserved for naturists.
Both sides of the island are famous excellent restaurants. So much so that St. Maarten is also known as the gourmet of the Caribbean. The island only covers 37 square miles, but Fodor’s Travel Guide lists more than 400 restaurants.
St. Maarten’s other claim to fame is that the entire island is duty-free. There are two currencies – the euro on the French side, the Netherlands Antillean guilder on the Dutch side, but everyone takes American money, albeit often at a more expensive exchange rate.
Philipsburg is the largest town on the island, found on the Dutch side. The courtyards and alleyways along Front Street feature some of the best deals in the Caribbean. The area is lined with shop after shop, selling alcohol, jewelry, linens, perfumes and more.
On the French side, the capital is Marigot, a much quieter and more secluded town, and only four streets wide. It has all the romance of a French village, with excellent shopping along the harbor, including a wonderful outdoor market right on the water’s edge.
Several cruise lines offer shore excursions that tour the highlights of both sides of the island. You can book a tour of local art galleries and studios, or book an excursion to see all the highlights of this tiny, multicultural island.
Some of the best shore excursions in St. Maarten involve heading back out to the water. You can sail aboard Captain Morgan 65 foot Schooner, or in the St. Maarten America’s Cup Regatta, which gives you the only opportunity you’ll likely have to race on a multi-million dollar America’s Cup racing boat. In either case, your experienced crew gives you lessons on how to winch, trim or drive the boat.
Whether you spend your time in lively Dutch St. Maarten, or in romantic French St. Martin, or if you dabble in a little bit of both, you are guaranteed to come away with some incredible memories and fantastic deals after your visit to the enchanting and truly unique Caribbean island with a lot of European flair.