St. Martin and St. Maarten Travel Guide
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Your Side of Paradise: How to Decide Between Saint Martin and Sint Maarten

When it comes to offering up a variety of vibes, this Caribbean island pulls double duty.

The world is full of bucket-list destinations, which makes trying to narrow your next trip down to just one feel impossible. Luckily, with St. Martin and Sint Maarten, allows you to hit two birds with one island. The small 37-square-mile island is split in two. Legend has it that long ago, a Frenchman and Dutchmen raced along the coast in opposite directions. When they met, the governments of France and the Netherlands split the island on that line down the middle. Today, that means visitors get treated to a unique experience: two nationalities, two different vibes—one unbeatable vacation.

Though the gateless border makes it easy to cross from side to side, you’ll ultimately have to choose where you want to stay: the quieter, culinarily captivating French St. Martin, or the bustling Dutch Sint Maarten. Let’s be clear, the island is fantastic. You can’t make a wrong choice when picking which side to stay on—but you can pick the side that’s better for you.

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PHOTO: Steve Heap/Shutterstock
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For Natural Beaches

WHERE: St. Martin

There’s no shortage of luxuriously catered beaches across the island. You have your pick of sandy shores where you can plop down in an umbrella-shaded lounge chair and have a Caribe in your hand in five minutes. But if you’re looking for something a little more secluded, a little more off-the-beaten-track, start your search on the French side. There, you’ll find hidden beaches like Happy Bay. Fifteen minutes of walking along a narrow, slightly hilly path (avoiding an occasional cow pie or two) and you’ll find yourself in a gorgeous half-moon bay, with just a few other families or semi-nude sunbathers sharing the palm trees’ shade.

INSIDER TIPPack a lunch or be prepared to make the short trek back to the beach bars at Friar’s Bay for a midday snack—there aren’t any facilities at Happy.

 

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PHOTO: Multiverse/Shutterstock
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For Hurricane Recovery

WHERE: Sint Maarten

Walk through any town in Sint Maarten, and you’ll hear a new sound mingled in with the crashing waves of the ocean: the clank of construction equipment. After Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island in 2017, the Friendly Island is nearly back to its pre-storm capacity, but it’s undeniable that the Dutch side is recovering faster than the French. (There are mutterings on the island that the French government holds some of the blame, with locals saying it’s been reluctant to disperse aid money and slow to grant permits to rebuild waterfront shops and restaurants that were destroyed.)

The island will be ready to welcome you, no matter which side you stay on. But if you’re at all concerned, stay in Sint Maarten, where every other day another old-favorite restaurant reopens its doors.

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PHOTO: Elijah Lovkoff/Shutterstock
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For World-Class Shopping

WHERE: Sint Maarten

On an island renowned for its (duty-free) jewelry shopping, Philipsburg’s Front Street really shines above the rest. The Dutch capital is home to a number of high-class jewelry stores, as well as a charming boardwalk. When cruises are in port, the shopping areas can get crowded—all the more reason to lodge somewhere close by and pop in at your convenience!

INSIDER TIPFor more eclectic boutique-style jewelry, check out Marigot’s semi-weekly morning markets on the French side.

 

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PHOTO: thierry dehove/Shutterstock
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For Foodies

WHERE: St. Martin

There’s an adage that repeat visitors to Dutch side use to sum up their decision: Stay on the Dutch side; eat on the French. That’s all well and good, but why stay farther from the food than you need to? Stay on the French side and have beach-picnic brunches of fresh-baked baguettes and cheese, afternoon treats of Parisian-quality tarts, and the most sumptuous French Caribbean seafood for dinner. Book yourself a room in Grand Case, the island’s culinary capital, and make reservations one night at Bistrot Caraïbes, then wander into one of the tiny Creole eateries called lolos the next.

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PHOTO: mffoto/Shutterstock
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For Nude Beaches

WHERE: St. Martin

Is there anything more French than nude sunbathing? Okay, perhaps cheese, wine, and sex appeal. But part of that last one comes from the suave self-confidence that seems innate to the French—and what could be more self-confident than baring it all? Many beaches on the French side of the island welcome nude sunbathers; some, like the ever-popular Baie Orientale, offer great happy hours if you need an extra shot of confidence to join them.

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PHOTO: Uladzik Kryhin/Shutterstock
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For Boating Culture

WHERE: Sint Maarten

The annual Heineken Regatta in the Port de Plaisance and Simpson Bay area brings crews of enthusiastic amateurs, charters, and serious sailors alike to the largest warm-water regatta in the world. It’s hard to tell what the bigger draw is: the races or revelry that follows, with DJs spinning into the early hours of morning for locals and the thousands of visitors that arrive on the island each March. Any other time of the year, Simpson Bay’s is still a sailor’s delight. The Dutch harbor is home to more than a few luxury yachts, and the Sint Maarten Yacht Club organizes social and competitive sailing year-round.

INSIDER TIPSome of us have the means to enjoy a day—or even an entire vacation—on a yacht. For the rest of us, there’s the Soggy Dollar and other Simpson Bay bars that open up onto the marina. Gaze on the nautical opulence while sipping a (much more affordable) cocktail.

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PHOTO: naturepics.li/Shutterstock
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For the Best Diving

WHERE: Sint Maarten

There are plenty of chances to go scuba diving off the Friendly Island’s shores. And while it’s hard to have a bad dive in the Caribbean, the sites in St. Martin or Sint Maarten don’t hold a candle to some of the region’s best dive spots. Nearby Saba, on the other hand! The dormant volcanic island, visible from Sint Maarten’s Sunset Beach on clear days, offers some of the best hidden gems for diving in the Caribbean. Ferries leave almost daily for Saba from Philipsburg or Simpson Bay, but the incomparably shorter and less-nauseating flights departing from Princess Juliana International Airport are probably a better bet—even if the landing’s a bit nerve-wracking!

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PHOTO: Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock
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For Boho-Chic Culture

WHERE: St. Martin

The Dutch side’s almost over-developed infrastructure is admittedly convenient, but it also leaves some travelers feeling like that’s all there is, right up until you get to the beach’s edge.  St. Martin’s vibe, on the other hand, is half-boho, half-chic southern France. Think villas nestled into shady hills, colorful little rues in Marigot, and cafés with pastries so good you’ll eat them even on a vacation where you spend 80 percent of your day in a swimsuit. On Tuesdays, check out Harmony Night in Grand Case, a festival that’s equal parts open-air market and street party, with drink vendors, silversmith artisans and crêpe-makers selling their wares as a Carnival-esque parade dances past.

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PHOTO: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
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For the Best Time

WHERE: St. Martin/Sint Maarten

Whatever you do, don’t stress about where you stay. American visitors might feel slightly more at home on the Dutch side, where the dollar is the de facto currency and English is the lingua franca, but you’ll find that many vendors on the French half also speak English and will offer you a competitive dollar-to-euro exchange rate, too. And commitment-phobes need not worry: Crossing from one side to the other is just a matter of minutes, depending on where you are. Sleep at the little beachfront hotel nestled into the cove at Anse Marcel, then hop in your rental car for a day trip to Sunset Beach to marvel at the airport’s infamously low landings. No matter which side you choose, you’re making a good choice.