Highlights of St. Maarten/St. Martin

On the last day of 2011, we arrived into Philipsburg, the capital of St. Maarten in the Dutch Windward Islands.   Most visitors stroll along the Front and Back Streets, where there are pastel colored houses decorated with intricate carvings and wrought iron balconies.  One of the historic sites on the island is Fort Amsterdam, located at Philipsburg’s Great Bay.

highlights st. maarten st. martin

The History of St. Maarten/St. Martin

The Arawaks were the first to settle on this island, but today the French and Dutch share it.  Although they have their significant differences, together these two cultures make this island more interesting and diverse.  According to our guide, “There is no obvious boundary between the Dutch side and the French side, other than a welcoming sign along the road in the native language.  The island was inhabited by Carbi Indians before Columnbus arrived in 1493 and cliamed it for Spain.  Possession of the island passed back and forth between the Dutch, French and Spanish for over a hundred years.  Since then, the French and Dutch have co-existed peacefully.  According to legend, the boundaries of the two governments were set in 1648 when, instead of dueling, a Frenchman and a Dutchman decided to walk in opposite directions along the coast until they met each other again. The Frenchman gave the Dutchman a bottle of “water” but, in reality, it was gin which explains why the French have a greater land mass of 21 square miles versus only 17 sq. miles for the Dutch.”  Both the Dutch side, St. Maarten, and the French side have a total of about 75,000+ residents, many who are employed in the tourism industry.

How to get around St. Maarten/St. Martin

We became familiar with the island by driving around it.  This is a great way to discover the towns and see the highlights of the island – we recommend the rental car services of Prestige Value Car Rental.  From Philipsburg, we headed west towards Simpson Bay, and noted some beaches we wanted to check out like Maho Beach, Mullet Bay Beach, Simpson Beach (on the Dutch side).

highlights st. maarten st. martin

As we entered the French side, we noticed boulangeries and patisseries along the main road and stopped for an apple tart and picked up a baguette at La Sucriere, on the Boulevard de France in Marigot.

highlights st. maarten st. martin

What to Eat in St. Martin

St. Martin is famous for its French and Creole cuisines and a reservation.  On both sides of the island, you find a local barbeques along the roadside where you can pick up a tasty grilled meal.  French and Dutch alike, also enjoy their national liqueur, guavaberry made from rum and local berries.  It was New Year’s Eve day, so as we drove the island we  heard traditional Caribbean music – reggae and calypso, and found ourselves swaying to the beat of the early celebrations.

As we neared Marigot, the French capital, it was Market Day and we stopped to buy some fruit at some of the vendor stalls, and watched some of the activity at the port along the waterfront.

highlights st. maarten st. martinhighlights st. maarten st. martinhighlights st. maarten st. martinhighlights st. maarten st. martin  There were a number of art galleries such as Alexandre Minguet’s art studio, located on Rambaud Hill between Marigot and Grand Case.  La Samanna’s Art Gallery has a nice collection of local artist Roland Richardson’s colorful paintings. Camaïeu and Galerie Valentin represent well known artists as well.

For a view of both sides of the island, we drove up to Pic Paradis, and hiked up the top point for stunning views stretching to the northeast of Orient Bay, and to the southwest, you can see the ruins of Fort St. Louis, and Marigot, Simpson Bay and the lagoon behind it.

highlights st. maarten st. martinhighlights st. maarten st. martinhighlights st. maarten st. martin

Our last stop to the northwest side of the island was Grand Case where we bought some souvenirs at the shops along the small road next to the beach.highlights st. maarten st. martin

After our morning drive around the west side of the island, we agreed that this Caribbean paradise offers a unique blend of the Dutch playful spirit with some French sophistication.

Where to Stay

We spent the afternoon at La Samanna, an Orient Express Hotel located on the French side of the island on Baie Longue, near Simpson Bay.  This resort is only a 10 minute ride from the international airport, and provides a remote, secluded environment to relax and soak in the Caribbean warmth.

highlights st. maarten st. martinhighlights st. maarten st. martin

La Samanna, PO Box 4077, 97064 St Martin CEDEX, French West Indies
Tel: + 590 590 87 64 00 or 800-957-6128 (US Toll Free),  Fax: + 590 590 87 87 86
Email: reservations@lasamanna.com


This luxury resort and spa is described perfectly from their site:  “Set beside St. Martin’s finest beach, lapped by the Caribbean Sea, La Samanna Resort and Spa is the ultimate luxury resort. Constantly ranked among the Caribbean’s top ten hotel retreats, it is a garden paradise in which to enjoy an al fresco massage, or lie in a hammock, lulled by the waves.  As at all Orient-Express hotels, dining out is a real occasion, with wines from the state-of-the-art cellar. Take a sunset cruise around the island or head into town to enjoy the vibrant local scene. There’s always a touch of romance and gaiety in the air: La Samanna is a natural host to weddings and other celebrations.”

highlights st. maarten st. martin

After a relaxing, fun-filled day, we headed back to Philipsburg where the crowds were gathering to watch the midnight fireworks show and bring in the New Year!highlights st. maarten st. martin

There are several things things to do on St. Maarten/St. Martin, and if you have a few extra days you can explore the neighboring islands of St. Barthelemy, Anguilla, Saba.  If you can, plan your trip so you are on St. Martin for the annual carnival (mid-April).

Top Attractions in St. Martin

Here’s our short list of attractions/highlights:

  • Beaches:

    There are 37 pretty beaches on the island, many with rental facilities and nearby restaurants.  On the Dutch side – Mullet Bay Beach, Maho Beach, Simpson Beach, and Little Bay.  On the French side – Baie Longue (our favorite!), Orient Bay, Coconut Grove, Baie Rouge, and Grand Case.highlights st. maarten st. martin

  • Museums:

    Philipsburg Simart’n Museum and/or Marigot’s Museum “On the Trail of the Arawaks” – be sure to look at the rare collections of Arawak pottery.

  • Art Galleries:

    see notes in above article

  • Pic Paradis:

    Make sure to drive up to the final peak, and climb up for amazing almost 360 views of the island!

  • Lottery Farm:

    A late 1700s sugar estate, now dairy farm.

  • Parrot Jungle, Cupecoy:

    Housing 80 adult birds, and representing 40 different species. Definitely a highlight of St. Martin.

  • Butterfly Farm:

    Check with the local tourist office for details.

  • Marigot:

    Visit the French capital on market day and stroll along the promenade.