By Victoria Boster –
Saint Martin is a tiny paradise hidden away in the Caribbean sea. It is a place where every beach has something to say — a story to whisper in your ear. An island of flawless harmony, St. Martin hosts a symbolic border between France and the Netherlands. The island of St. Martin – St. Marteen (often simply called St. Martin) manages to pack a lot into just 87 sq. km., including 37 beaches, two distinct cultures and some of the Caribbean’s best dining and duty-free shopping.
St. Martin, which makes up the island’s northern half, is part of France. Small, low-rise hotels overlook serene beaches and candlelit restaurants are run by Paris-trained chefs. It’s the perfect setting for a romantic dinner for two. St. Martin, the island’s southern half, is an autonomous country within the kingdom of the Netherlands. Livelier than the French side of the island, it’s the sort of spot where high-rises, casinos, nightclubs and glittering boutiques compete for your attention.
On both sides of the island (which most locals simply call St. Martin, for convenience) there are narrow roads that twist up and around dormant volcanic peaks. Keep your camera handy to capture the views of turquoise waters lapping against endless sandy beaches. At the most scenic viewpoints, there are small rest stops and even parking lots for travelers to stop and take pictures. One of the reasons that we love this island so much is that driving on St. Martin is just as it is here in the US – they drive on the “right” side of the road.
This island has something for everybody– If you’re the outdoorsy type, choose from just about every warm-weather sport imaginable, including snorkeling, scuba diving, hiking, mountain biking, sailing, golf, tennis, kayaking, zip lining and sailing. If you prefer to relax, St. Martin has plenty of beautiful beaches. It’s easy to find a lounge chair or hammock where you can spend days reading a book as the surf rolls in at your feet.
The island has some of the prettiest beaches in the Caribbean, with assets to please everyone: including those who like to catch some rays wearing nothing but SPF 30. Orient Beach is St. Martin’s biggest tourist attraction. Here on this gorgeous, sprawling white sand beach you will find stands that rent snorkeling and para sailing equipment, bars and cafes, resort wear shopping boutiques located directly on the beach, first class restaurants with views of the ocean that you would die for, and — a mile long clothing optional beach.
The capital of St. Martin is Marigot, a city bursting with quaint European style cafes and bistros. Over 50 restaurants serve international and local cuisine. There is an abundance of the breads and pastries for which France is so well known. (Trust me when I say that I literally ate my way through the pastry shops in Marigot!)
Marigot attracts a different type of shopper from those who gravitate to the touristy bargain hunting shoppers of Philipsburg (the capitol of Dutch St. Martin). Shoppers come to Marigot to seek couture and upscale imports from France. The city, an intriguing blend of a small French town and a Caribbean city, houses chic boutiques with fashions ranging from trendy to couture. Marigot hosts the largest and most diverse Market in the Caribbean.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays you will find a craft and food market selling everything from local produce to locally made arts, crafts, and clothing. You will find West Indian women in batik dresses and big straw hats selling their spices, fruit and other produce. Along the waterfront you will see the local fishermen scale their catches.
While in Marigot – you can climb the hill to the Fort St. Louis – a huge historical monument that is located on this side of the island and overlooks the Marigot Bay. From your vantage point high atop the hill you can get a great panoramic view of the island. We spend an incredible afternoon walking around the Fort — the picturesque views alone are worth the climb!
For an entirely different experience – you can take a short drive up the coast to Grand Case for some of the finest cuisine in the Caribbean. Once a fishing village, it is now more of an attraction to those who enjoy eating fish rather than catching them. If a casual lunch along the waterfront is more appealing than a fancy sit-down meal, try out one of the Lolos: little kiosks that serve barbecue and local seafood. We had some wonderful seafood, fresh lobster, and grilled vegetables when we ate at the Lolos.
Part of the fun of the Lolo experience is walking around to the different cooking stations to see what everyone is serving. You can pick and choose as you wish — then you eat at picnic tables that are located next to the water. It’s not fancy — but it’s good — really, really good! The food at the Lolo restaurants are some of the most inexpensive on the island. For a more elaborate meal, Grand Case has a short main street where all of the town’s excellent restaurants can be found. Once you park your car – you can walk the entire 4 block city easily. These restaurants serve world class cuisine — you need only walk along these narrow little streets to experience some of the best food in the world.
For an entirely unique experience you can visit the French Cul de Sac. This little gem on the east (Atlantic) coast of St. Martin, is just perfect for a couple looking for a romantic getaway, or a family looking for a kid-friendly beach experience. Here, only about a mile or so north of the famous Orient Beach is the location of the mayor of St. Martin’s mansion on a hillside above a delightful little beach. You can stay on the beach here or choose to hike the hillside trails. But the real draw here is Islet Pinel, an uninhabited tiny island with a beautiful beach. There are regular shuttle boats making the five-minute crossing throughout the day. If you want – you can rent a kayak and paddle yourself right over to the island.
You can kick back on the beach, enjoy snorkeling on the near-shore reefs that surround the island, and enjoy lunch in one of the island’s two restaurants. We had one of the best lobster dinners we have ever had on this little island. If shopping is your thing — you will find a trendy boutique here that offers beautiful and inexpensive choices in handmade beach wraps and jewelry. This boutique is actually one of my favorite places to shop when we visit the island of St. Martin.
A seashell away from the hustle and bustle of St. Martin/St. Maarten is the petite sliver of soft talc sand know as the island of Anguilla. Here you will find the clearest water, whitest sand, most beautiful beaches and some of the most eclectic and trendy beachfront hotels in the world. Anguilla is expensive — plan to spend a minimum of $500 per night if you plan to stay in one of the gorgeous hotels, but it costs nothing to visit for a day and take in the beautiful beaches and crystal clear water.
We caught a ferry over to Anguilla that left from the port in Marigot. The 20 minute ride costs about $40 round trip. Once there — we hired a taxi to take us to Shoal Bay – one of the most beautiful and idyllic beaches on the island. Our day on the island of Anguilla was one of the highlights of our trip.
This beautiful island of St. Martin is like home to us. We truly love it there and try to visit at least once a year. Most people will visit the island by way of cruise ships that dock in Phillipsburg. While we certainly love having a day here on our cruise travels, we always long for the days when we are here to stay — usually for 10 days or so. Once you have experienced this very special place you will understand why those who go there — always return Under the constantly soothing caress of the breeze and the water, a trip to beautiful St. Martin will unlock the door to dreaming, idleness, and to magical days of ease.
With her bags always in a state of readiness, Vicki yearns to travel to places she has never been. She and her husband have traveled around the world; her photo essays beautifully detailing the amazing places that she has visited. When she is not on the go, you can find Vicki at her blog www.Vicki-2BagsFull.blogspot.com.