St. Maarten is an island of dualities — the root of that being its dual sovereignty. A little more than half the island is under French government, while a little less than half is Dutch-governed. The French side has good restaurants and boutique shopping; the Dutch side offers cut-rate electronics, gaming, and nightlife. Both have lovely beaches, bad traffic, and good duty-free selections — and, fortunately, you can move between the two easily.
Splurge: La Samanna – Just because a hotel has a fancy brand affiliation shouldn’t be sufficient reason to break your piggy bank. A top-to-bottom renovation to a five-star landmark is a different story, though, and La Samanna by Orient-Express is in the final stages of a full makeover that will modernize it and bring it back to full swoon-inducing potential. Doubles from $445.
Steal: Holland House – One of the nicer boutique properties on St. Martin, this one earns spendthrift street credibility by including breakfast in the room rate. You’ll also save on transportation costs by staying in downtown Philipsburg, which is on the Dutch side and just a mile from the cruise terminal. The hotel itself is a European chic urban retreat, with a busy commercial scene conveniently right outside. Want quiet? Ask for a harbor-facing room. Doubles from $195.
Tip: Plagued by crime in recent years, the island still feels safe in most of the tourist hot spots. Get out and explore this colorful, attitude-free isle, but don’t let the innocent look lull you into a false sense of security. We don’t suggest wandering around at night, or taking your eyes off your belongings.
Breakfast: Zee Best – Locals agree that this is indeed “zee best” place for a memorable breakfast, and we credit one simple thing: house-made pastries. A simple croissant or piece of quiche can be sheer bliss when made properly with plenty of butter … and here, it will be. The breakfast menu is lengthy, with eggs Benedict, banana almond French toast, and more than a dozen crepe variations.
Lunch: Freedom Fighters Ital Shack – This authentic Rasta eatery is a great place to cut calories that can be stored up for your cruise. The menu is vegan and organic, with fresh-pressed juices and veggies from the garden. The décor is in red, gold, and green, and the music is enough to make you think you’re in Negril.
Dinner: Le Tastevin – Consider yourself warned — in this Grand Case gem in a candlelit seaside cottage with flower-filled window boxes, you’ll want to snuggle the person across from you, even if that person is not your significant other. The views of sailboats bobbing in the sea provide a fantasy of life cut loose from all moorings. Best of all, Le Tastevin doesn’t rely on rich French recipes, instead serving global fare with a Caribbean influence, such as scallops with tropical fruit.
Dessert: Piece of Cake – This simple little patisserie in Simpson Bay delivers exactly what the name promises, plus the ultimate companion dish: small-batch authentic Italian gelato. The digs may be modest, but the in-house pastry chef offers authentic French fare, including fruit-topped crepes and delicate lemon tarts.
Tip: Wanna pretend you’re Anthony Bourdain? Head to a lolo, a roadside food shack specializing in barbecue and island dishes. These St. Martin establishments — featuring a makeshift roof, an order counter, a grill, and picnic-style seating (if you’re lucky) — are all over the island. The easiest to find are on the main boulevard in Grand Case.
For Everyone: Maho has the most peculiar tourist appeal of any beach ever: It is mere feet from the airport tarmac, and the main attraction is watching planes take off immediately overhead. Diehards go so far as to position themselves right where the jet blast will threaten to push them into the ocean.
If 747 exhaust isn’t your idea of a beachy vibe, drive up to Orient Beach, home of beach clubs, dance parties day and night, topless sunbathing havens, and enough European flavor to be fun.
For Couples: Caribbean Concierge Services – Don’t want to follow the crowds on an all-ages snorkel extravaganza? Rent a “boom boom” boat for two. Then join the caravan of like-minded couples and jet across the Caribbean, following the leader to Creole Rock nature reserve area, where you can find a patch of sand to call your own.
For Families: The Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit – This quirky St. Martin attraction is a labor of love for Nick Maley, a Hollywood special effects artist. Relics, life-sized costume figures, monster casts, and oddities from “Star Wars,” “Thriller,” “Alien,” “Terminator,” and many other classic films are crammed together in a Philipsburg storefront. Sure, it’s touristy, but when else will you ever be able to tell your kids, “Hey, let’s go meet the guy who invented Yoda!”
For the Adventurous: Loterie Farm – Out of the way and as eco-adventurous as the island gets, this farm has hiking trails, a swimming area, and an exhilarating “FlyZone Extreme” adventure that consists of 12 zip lines, bridges, and rope swings — starting at the highest point on the island and swinging down at extreme angles.
Tip: Cabs in St. Martin aren’t going to save you significant money, and public transit is … oh come on, you’re on a Caribbean island. You know better than that. If you want to explore, rent a car. At 15 miles an hour, the driver will never have to puzzle over British driving rules at high speed.
There’s no passport control on the border between the two sides of the isle. Tourists can cross at will and may not even realize they’ve done so, as the only indicator is a simple roadside sign. American dollars are accepted on both sides, but the Euro is the preferred currency here — and things are more expensive due to the exchange rate.