A favorite destination for visitors worldwide, St Maarten / St Martin is the smallest land space in the world shared by two countries.
Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on Nov 11, St. Martin Day, Columbus named the island Isla de San Martín. During a time of frequent battles over colonial holdings by European nations, both the French and the Dutch found themselves occupying St Maarten / St Martin by the middle of the 1600s. How did the two countries end up sharing the 37 square mile island?
The Legend of the St Maarten / St Martin Border
According to legend, about 350 years ago, the French and the Dutch decided to draw a border between the two countries on the island they had chosen to share. To do so, they would hold a race by two men to determine where the border would be drawn.
Starting at the same point on the island, the French would walk north along the coastline and the Dutch would follow the coast to the south. When they met again after walking around the island, the two countries would draw a line across the island from the starting and end points, which would become the border.
Before departing, each group selected a beverage symbolic with their culture, with the French selecting wine and the Dutch selecting gin. Apparently the wine had less of an effect on the performance of the French as the gin did on the Dutch, with the French ending up with 2/3 of the territory when the land grab race was finished.
The Treaty of Concordia, the oldest international treaty still in existence, made it official, with both sides agreeing to coexistence and the ability to move freely between the two sides. While the border survives to this day, it is only noted by a sign when crossing, with people moving freely between the two sides with no immigration or customs check points.
St Maarten: The Dutch side
The most Caribbean of the two sides, and definitely the more American-influenced, Sint Maarten, or St Maarten, became an independent country on 10/10/2010, but is still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
St Maarten’s capital of Philipsburg is a bustling city located on the Great Bay, a huge harbor that is also a point of call for many of the cruise ships sailing in the Caribbean. Home to many duty-free shops along Front Street, Philipsburg is also situated on one of the longest beaches on the island, Great Bay Beach. With numerous bars, restaurants, and beach facilities, Great Bay Beach is a popular choice for visitors arriving via cruise ship.
Also located within walking distance of Philipsburg and the cruise ship port is Bobby’s Marina.
A busy marina with a mini-mart, restaurants and shops, Bobby’s Marina is a departure point for boat charters and several day excursions, including the Great Express ferry to St Barths and the popular 12 Metre Sailing Regatta.
For evening entertainment, numerous casinos and night clubs can be found throughout the Dutch side of the island, keeping the Caribbean beat and the party going into the wee hours of the morning.
The island’s interior is a mix of small towns, shopping areas, fast food restaurants, and businesses, networked together by good roads that wind through the hilly, green countryside. Although easy to navigate by car, allow extra time for traffic – at times it can take a good while to get a short distance on the busy, little island.
The main airport for St Maarten / St Martin, Princess Juliana Airport, is located north of Philipsburg near the popular Maho Beach area. The airport is known for its low-flying jet landings just above the on-looking beachgoers.
Simpson Bay, the Caribbean’s largest lagoon, is a major port for mega-yachts and sailboat charters. Landlocked, the Simpson Bay Bridge, Simpson Bay Causeway Bridge and Sandy Ground Bridge provide access to Simpson Bay with drawbridge openings up to six times per day.
On the eastern side of the island, Oyster Pond is a marina situated directly on the Dutch-French border and was the starting point of the walk establishing the borders over three years go. A laid-back area with restaurants, hotels, and charters leaving from the Oyster Pond Marina, Oyster Pond is a great place for a lunch or afternoon break while exploring the island.
St Martin: The French side
In 2007, St Martin was separated from the the overseas department of Guadeloupe and established as one of France’s overseas collectivities. St Martin is a part of the European Union.
Sitting on a hill above the capital city of Marigot, Fort Louis was built in 1789 to guard the stores of goods, such as salt and rum, that were traded from the Marigot Bay harbor.
Marigot’s harbor, which was the location of the finale of the 1997 Sandra Bullock movie, Speed II Cruise Control, is now a busy port with yachts, boats, and charters and ferries to Anguilla and other nearby islands – but, no cruise ship traffic.
The absence of the daily influx of cruise ship tourists gives Marigot its slightly quieter atmosphere than Philipsburg, although it is still a lively city filled with shops, a market, restaurants, and businesses.
With a French-Mediterranean slant to its Caribbean culture, Marigot and the French side of the island has a more reserved feel than its neighbor’s Caribbean party vibe.
To the east of Marigot is Grand Case, the culinary nucleus of the island. Referred to as the “Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean,” Grand Case’s row of restaurants are located steps from the sea, where the freshest of gourmet seafood can be enjoyed.
A quiet gem on the northeast tip of the island, Anse Marcel is home to a resort and marina. On a day spent roaming around the island, Anse Marcel is an excellent lunch spot with a fabulous view across the waters to the island of Anguilla.
Two beautiful spots for photographs are located near Anse Marcel. The first is at the top of the hill near Anse Marcel (there’s a place to turn off and park).
The second photo opportunity is to the south of Orient Beach, north of Oyster Pond, at the Mambo Snack Bar, where there’s an elevated platform for shots to both the north and south.
Where to stay in St Maarten / St Martin
With accommodation options including hotels of all sizes and styles, large resorts, and private villas, finding the right place for your St Maarten / St Martin stay can be a bit overwhelming. Finding a good resort in a good location can add hours of enjoyable time to your vacation, allowing for day trip adventures around the island, but not requiring you to leave the resort every day.
An all-inclusive resort also allows for unlimited food and drink, making vacation budget planning a much easier activity. The key to a good all-inclusive hotel is to find a resort with plenty of food and bar options. The Sonesta hotels on St Maarten are an excellent solution for a St Maarten / St Martin stay.
The Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort is located on the beautiful Great Bay, just a short walk to Philipsburg. With four bars, four restaurants and the ability to visit the sister all-inclusive resort, Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, and utilize the pools, restaurants and bars there as well. Learn more about Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort »
St Maarten / St Martin beaches
Containing 37 beaches on its 37 square miles, there’s a beach or two or three on the island for any mood.
Want to take a long walk on the beach? Orient Beach on the French side is two miles long and Great Bay Beach is over a mile of white sand luxury on the Dutch side.
Not feeling like donning swimwear for the day? Orient has its very famous nude section and the cave and rock formations at the small, secluded Cupecoy Beach are also frequented by those seeking a full tan, however, topless sunbathing can be found on many of the island’s beaches (although not at most resorts).
Looking for a great beach bar? Stop by Sunset Bar and Grill at Maho Beach and watch the planes land at the airport while sipping a daiquiri or beer.
Want to play in the water? Many beaches have water sports providers offering snorkeling, scuba diving, kitesurfing, jet skiing, body boarding, windsurfing, water skiing, stand up paddleboarding and more.
St Maarten / St Martin land activities
In addition to beach activities throughout the island, St Maarten / St Martin has numerous land activities as well.
Shop for fruits, vegetables, spices, crafts and local goods everyday except Sunday at the Marigot Market.
A hike or drive up St Martin’s highest point, Pic Paradis, provides panoramic views of the island. At the foot of Pic Paradis, stop by Loterie Farm, a nature reserve with a cafe, bars, swimming pools, hiking and zip-lining.
Take a tropical walk through a rain forest as butterflies from around the world fly about freely at the Butterfly Farm.
For some off-road fun, take an ATV quad tour to explore the island in the open air. Be sure to bring sunscreen and, with St Maarten / St Martin’s traffic, an ATV tour will provide a safer, more enjoyabe adventure than renting on your own.
Know before you go
Languages: English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Papiemento
Currency: US Dollar, Netherlands Antilles Guilder or Florin (NAF), and the Euro
Driving: On the right. Use caution, as goats, iguanas and other animals roam freely on the island.
Airports: Princess Juliana Airport (Dutch side) and L’Esperance Airport, Grand Case which is mostly used for inter-island destinations
Electricity: Dutch Side: 110 Volt / 60 Hz, French Side: 220 Volt / 60 Hz