Saint Martin is a unique gem amongst picturesque Caribbean destinations: one wondrous island split between two separate countries. Dutch Sint Maarten and French Saint-Martin have coexisted peacefully here since the Partition Treaty of 1648. (No wonder they call it the “Friendly Island.”) Nearly all of its 2 million annual visitors fly into the Dutch side, home of Princess Juliana International Airport (and its world-famous beachfront runway).
Though most of the main tourist attractions are within French borders, wherever you end up on the island you won’t be far from pristine surf, boutique beachfront hotels and colourful cafes and bars teeming with local flavour. Here’s how to map out your ideal St. Martin getaway.
The best times to visit St. Martin
With its positioning along the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea, St. Martin enjoys tropical weather all year long. There are actually only two seasons here: dry season and wet season. The former lasts from December to April and is also the peak time for tourists who crave nonstop sunshine. Still, if you arrive along the shoulder months — November or May — you might just catch the best of both worlds; the rain is still minimal, and so are the crowds. Total flying time is just under four hours from New York airports, which offer several direct flights daily across multiple airlines.
The best hotels in St. Martin
The Caribbean island has no shortage of luxury hotels. But La Samanna, A Belmond Hotel, is the undisputed winner for well-heeled jet-setters. Hugging the cliffside above its own private beach, this luxury property features stand-alone suites and a top-notch food and beverage program including the island’s oldest wine cellar. It all comes at a premium, of course: rates here usually start above USD 1,000 (INR 82,807 approx) per night.
If you’re OK with dialling down the opulence a notch or two, consider Paradise Peak Bed and Breakfast. These cosy cottages are tucked into the high rainforests of the island, suspended 1,300 feet above sea level, with unrivalled views of the surrounding landscape. Sure, you’re not by the beach, but you can easily admire it in the distance from the serenity of your heated pool.
For those who crave something closer to the action, consider booking your stay at Divi Little Bay Beach Resort. It overlooks Great Bay on a spit of land within striking distance of Philipsburg’s famed nightlife.
The best St. Martin beaches
When it comes to world-class sandy shores, this Caribbean island is an embarrassment of riches. Singling out the best is something of a fool’s errand since the entire island is pretty much enveloped by one big, beautiful, beach. So pick your personal slice of paradise based upon what, precisely, you’re after. For example, if you want to avoid other people entirely, Mullet Bay is for you. It’s on the western side of Sint Marteen, not far from the French border. In fact, the entire peninsula here boasts secluded gems like Long Beach, which abuts La Samanna resort. In between sits, Cupecoy Beach, which is notable for its limestone cliff formations rising gracefully from the sands.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Maho Beach, which some have dubbed “the most extreme beach in the world.” Why? Because jumbo jets take off and land directly overhead on account of the unusually short landing strip at Princess Juliana International Airport. It is teeming with crowds and anything but serene, but it certainly makes for a good Instagram story.
If it’s the aquatic activity you’re craving, the bustling strand of Orient Beach is where you want to be. But with a slew of clubs, bars, and restaurants right alongside it, you have to be comfortable with crowds. Farther down the eastern shore, Dawn Beach is another popular destination, prized for its talc sands and unobstructed views of St. Barts across the channel. Hedge your bets between beauty and boisterousness with an afternoon at Anse Marcel Beach. Perched at the foot of a narrow cove, overlooking Anguilla, with its own namesake resort, this place has a little bit of everything.
Things to do on this Caribbean Island
You’ll want to allow ample time for simply laying on the beach and soaking up the sun, of course. But if that ever gets old, there’s an abundance of activities both on and offshore to keep you busy. Start off by snapping selfies in front of the iconic murals of Marigot. The vibrant Wall of Art was created, in part, by local street artists in the wake of Hurricane Irma — an inspired testament to resiliency. If you want to increase your heart rate, head over to Loterie Farm, where you can tour the rainforest by zip line. The area is also a good launching spot for ambitious hikers looking to amble their way up to Pic Paradis, the island’s tallest point. Start from the trailhead near Colombier, and it’ll be a 3.1-mile (5 km) out-and-back journey to the pinnacle.
If you prefer to stay over water, the options are equally as robust. Up along the northern end of the island is Orient Beach. Its calm, cerulean surf sets it apart as a prime location for marine activities. At Bikini Watersport, based right on the beach, you can rent Jet Ski or go parasailing above the waves, with views of neighbouring St. Barts hovering over the distant horizon.
Just north of the beach is a Cul-de-Sac Bay, where you’ll find the ferry to Pinel Island. The five-minute ride spirits you to this idyllic iguana-guarded getaway. It’s a Natural Reserve with some short walks to be enjoyed amongst the native flora or fauna. Or you can stay near the dock and enjoy piña coladas and cod fritters from a tables and stools literally seated in the water. For those favouring a more private experience, charter a catamaran with Pyratz Gourmet Sailing and you can combine a full-day cruise with chef-prepared cuisine and craft cocktails.
What to eat and drink in St. Martin
Just make sure to save room for dinner, because St. Martin is proud home to some of the finest cuisine in all of the Caribbean. In Marigot you can embark on an evening crawl through the many Creole-centric restaurants crowding the centre of town. Le Petite Auberge is a standout here — a cosy affair specialising in local seafoods bathed in rich, buttery sauces and curries.
Up the road is Grand Case, another quaint village overrun with fine flavour. Check out Ocean 82, one of the island’s most famous dining destinations. Grilled lobster and creamy pasta dishes are on heavy rotation as diners enjoy seaside sunsets.
For more of a French Bistro vibe, head to L’Atelier Bar à Viande et Poisson in Orient Bay. The steak frites are as savoury as any you’ll find in Paris. And the wine — as well as rum — options are plentiful. If you’re really like to elevate your dining experience to another level, however, you have to reserve a table at La Villa Hibiscus, just under the shadow of Pic Paradis. It is owned and managed by chef Bastien Schenk and his wife, Sabine. Schenk trained under Joêl Robuchon back in France, before bringing those Michelin-informed sensibilities back to this pristine part of the island. The daily, French nouvelle-style tasting menu is conceived based on whatever’s fresh and seasonal at the moment.
Down in Philipsburg, the Dutch are doing things slightly less precious, but they’re having a great time while doing so. Check out the Greenhouse for a prime example. Signature items include the Jamaican jerk chicken salad, as well as the manageably spicy bang bang shrimp. The boisterous beachside dining hall features live music on most nights of the week. If you’re strolling through town during the day, stop in at the Amsterdam Cheese And Liquor Store — recognisable by its bright yellow façade. It’s a great place to stock up on authentic gouda, or simply pair a wedge with wine during their daily tastings. However you play it, do not leave without sampling a sip of the guavaberry liquor, a local delicacy.
This story first appeared on www.travelandleisure.com
Main and Feature Image Credit: Margaret Pattillo