At once French and Dutch, lively and laid-back, graced with pretty beaches and rising to palm-studded hilltops, famed for its shopping and sweet guavaberry rums, seaside beach bars and casino-lead nightlife, there are many sides to little St. Martin.
It’s hardly a wonder that so many cruise ships opt to drift into the harbours of Marigot and Philipsburg on their way through the currents of the region.
It means a whole host of things to do and see for travelers, from lofty lookout points with sweeping views across to Anguilla to beautiful sands on Orient Bay.
There are also opportunities to hit the jet skis and see multi-coloured butterflies, to sail across to untrodden islands and unravel the history of colonial conflicts between The Netherlands and Spanish sailors, to talk to macaws and see bearded monkeys, finishing off with a medley of tasty rums and haute foods courtesy of the Parisian influence.
Here are the best things to do in St. Martin:
1. Enjoy the views from Fort Louis
While there’s not much left of the historic bulwarks and towers of the French colonists who once commanded the ports and straits over Marigot Bay, it’s still worth making the trek up the winding paths that start at the end of Rue du Fort Saint Louis to see this crumbling historic site.
One of the largest forts on the island, Louis was once the site of armed battles between the major European powers of the Caribbean, and today some rusting cannons can still be seen peppering the lookouts.
But it’s the panoramas that really draw the crowds, sweeping out for 180-degrees across Marigot harbour and the hills above Bellevue, encompassing the deep-blue ocean and even the silhouette of Anguilla Island in the distance when the skies are clear!
2. Macaws and iguanas at the St. Maarten Zoo
For a fine introduction to the colourful array of endemic species common on St. Martin and throughout the Caribbean tropics, be sure to make a beeline for the island’s zoological gardens.
They can be found on the northern edge of the Great Salt Pond that surrounds Philipsburg on the Dutch half, guarded by marauding peacocks and set to the sounds of stalking ocelots and swinging green vervet monkeys.
Some of the most fascinating creatures on the line-up here include the cotton-topped tamarin, marmosets and the curious (not-so-)little capybara: the world’s largest rodent!
3. Hike to the summit of Pic Paradis
Glowering down on the whitewashed homes and sparkling beaches of Orient Bay, the pretty French Quarter of Orleans and the brackish lagoons that encompass Philipsburg to the south, Pics Paradis is home to unquestionably some of the best views on the island.
It’s also the endgame of many a wonderful hike through the St. Martin backcountry.
Some of the best trails to the top go via the Careta Ravine and the banks of pretty Hope Lake, while others range over the Northeast Ridges to the ghost village of Petit-Fond.
Don’t forget the camera!
4. Conquer the ziplines of Loterie Farm
Built on the land of an historic plantation, Loterie Farm is now an all-round resort that hugs the green and pretty edges of Pic Paradis hill.
It’s got sparkling pools and treehouse-style cabanas peppering its well-manicured gardens, and offers a series of eateries on-site, from the earthy Bamboo Room to the Hidden Forest Café.
However, most travelers head here to get the heart thumping and adrenaline flowing; to try their hand on the series of Tarzan-esque ziplines and swinging rope bridges that the folk of Loterie have installed through the surrounding jungle canopies.
Just roll up and ask for entry to the appropriately-named Fly Zone!
5. Watch KLM fly in on Maho Beach
Okay, so there are certainly oodles of much prettier beaches lining the shores of St. Martin, both on the Dutch and French sides of the island.
But people don’t flock to the sands of Maho for sun and sand (although it has to be said that the sun and sand aren’t at all bad here!). Most come to gawp upwards into the sky when the colossal aircrafts of KLM and other airlines begin to descend.
Why? Well, because the runways of the Princess Juliana International Airport are just a few meters behind, meaning the landings here bring those Boeings and Airbuses within an arm’s length from the ground, rumbling every coconut cocktail and sandcastle in sight!
6. Sample potent drinks at the Sint Maarten Guavaberry Company
St. Martin’s local take on the Caribbean’s favourite liquor (that’s rum, just in case anyone was in doubt) is a potent infusion of sugarcane and the curious little guavaberries that grow like wildfire amidst the central hills of the island.
And there’s surely nowhere better for tasting this curious tipple than at the Sint Maarten Guavaberry Company, where rack upon rack and barrel upon barrel of the schnapps-style drink are touted by perennially-smiling local staff.
Expect plenty of free samples of guava berry colada and straight shooters too, so don’t think you can leave with a totally clear head!
7. Enjoy the tropical beauty of Mullet Bay
Once you’re done gawping at the colossal airliners that descend over Maho Beach, be sure to make a beeline for the picture-perfect reaches of Mullet Bay.
Nestled in its own little cove just around the headland from the Princess Juliana Airport, this seaside strip has it all: scintillating sands of alabaster white; lapping Carib waves shining in a Greek-blue hue; splashing rollers for the body boarders.
Despite having felt the brunt of a destructive hurricane in the 90s, some infrastructure does remain here, popping up with the lively little beach bars between the swaying palms at the back of the sands.
8. Meet the local fliers at The Butterfly Farm
The St. Martin outlet of The Butterfly Farm is a great place to get a close-up glimpse of some of the Caribbean’s most majestic flying creatures.
The institution is set over a series of gorgeous gardens, bursting with ferns and verdant tropical flora and punctuated with the occasional babbling water feature.
The butterflies guarantee a grand show too, with the likes of everything from mimic-whites to majestic checkered swallowtails to see.
Patrons can also attend regular tutorials on butterfly-friendly gardening techniques and horticulture.
9. Orient Bay Beach: one of the world’s best
There are plenty of reasons why so many travelers hail the sloping yellow-white sands and turquoise shallows of Orient Bay, running in an arc of Caribbean colour around the north-eastern side of the island, as one of the top seaside locations on the globe.
Shared by naturists and others, the strip here is well-developed, with oodles of deck-chairs and loungers on offer.
And if you don’t fancy just kicking-back and watching the clouds flit over the mountains that line the headlands of French St. Martin, there’s plenty more on the menu: Expect jet skis, beach volleyball and inflatables out at sea.
10. Stroll the Philipsburg Boardwalk
Arching its way along the length of Great Bay Beach, where the city of Philipsburg meets the Caribbean Sea, the town’s Boardwalk is a lively affair.
Hot dog concession stands and conch-touting holes-in-the-wall spill out onto the paving, while the smells of Jamaican jerk drift from the countless eateries and their palm-shaded terraces.
Shopaholics can enjoy a sprawling bazaar at one end of the promenade, laden with arts and crafts, Reggae-coloured bracelets and the like.
And there are also plenty of places to settle down and grab a cold one just meters from the sand, which means some seriously good people watching opportunities to boot!
11. Sail across to Tintamarre Island
A stone’s throw across the Caribbean straits from the iconic beaches of Cul-de-Sac and Orient is where the speck of Tintamarre rises from the sea.
A dry spot of scrub that’s held aloft from the waves by a rugged coastline of sandy walls and craggy cliffs, it comes completely undeveloped and untouched (except for the remains of one historic cotton plantation from centuries gone by!).
The small crowds that do head here enjoy a level of seclusion that’s simply not possible on the rest of St. Martin, with attractions like the inlet of Blanche Bay offering up shallow swimming waters and the protected coral gardens of the Saint Martin Nature Reserve booming with parrotfish and sea creatures aplenty.
12. Hit the craps at Casino Royale
Looming in bright colours over the runways of the Princess Juliana Airport and the beaches of Maho Bay, Casino Royale is one of the largest and most popular places to hit the poker tables and craps on St. Martin – an island famed as the Las Vegas of the Caribbean.
The reputation is apparently deserved, because this sprawling games hall in the Maho Village Resort covers a whopping 21,000 square feet and offers seemingly endless rows of one-armed bandits and betting machines, all on top of its 20-plus card tables.
There are also regular nightly entertainments, like Carib samba bands and mega cocktail parties in the Dejavu Lounge!
13. Enjoy refined regional cuisine at Bistrot Caraibes
Carrying the baton for haute Francophone cuisine this far from the homeland can’t be easy.
But uber-romantic and forever highly-rated Bistrot Caraibes hits the nail on the head.
The menu, a medley of Lobster thermidor, braised red snappers, honeyed duck breasts, mushroom risotto, veal in gratin of blue cheese, sea scallops, and duck liver and mango ceviche, is a proven favorite with the island’s gourmands, while the low-key interior of whitewashed walls and cosy little tables is surely one of the most romantic places to settle in for a meal in the area of Grand Case.
14. See historic coins and cannons atop Fort Amsterdam
Fort Amsterdam marks the spot where St. Martin’s onetime Dutch settlers (the first Europeans to have ever set foot on land here) initially marked their territory.
The aged walls and cannon turrets that date way back to the middle of the 17th century can still be seen jutting into the waters between Great Bay and Little Bay on the southern fringes of Philipsburg today.
They’re all wrapped up in a long history that starts with the Spanish-Dutch conflicts of the 1600s, which was when Fort Amsterdam first switched hands, leading eventually to the complete Iberian conquest of the southern side of the island.
15. Hit the shops of Old Street
Lined with pretty rows of 19th-century townhouses painted in ice-cream hues, Old Street has grown and grown to become one of the retail epicentres of this shopping-mad enclave of the Caribbean.
Duty-free for much of its length, the emporiums here burst with potential bargains for the budding souvenir hunter.
Away from the mega shopping malls of Marigot, this strip is home to some of the island’s best craft stores, with local fabrics and bespoke clothing gracing the shelves next to handmade jewellery and – of course – platters of Carib foods from the holes-in-the-wall (check out nearby Back Street for some of the best).