Saint Martin/Sint Maarten: Energetic and Laid Back Vacations on One Island

by Warren Jervey

As one comes in for a landing at Princess Julianna airport (rated by some as the fourth most dangerous airport in the world) in the Simpson Bay area of Saint Martin, where you are sitting and what you are watching pretty much conveys which part of the island you will be staying on. If you are sitting away from the window seat or have the shade down and are not watching the landing, you are probably looking forward to a quiet and relaxing vacation and will be heading for St. Martin when you leave the airport. If instead you are looking intently out the window trying to guess by how much the plane’s tail missed the fence at the end of the unway and you long to be one of the people at the seaside bar hanging onto the same fence to be buffeted by the, jet blast you will be staying on the Dutch side of the island.

Sint Maarten/St. Martin, in one island package, offers activity filled days of fun and sun on the beach and evenings spent trolling the numerous music venues and casinos of the Dutch side or enjoying an elegant meal that rivals any that one can find in Paris in the town of Grand Case on the French side. Each side of the island offers excellent beaches for all tastes from secluded to nude from crashing waves to calm, kid friendly waters. Shopping is abundant from the harbor side stands in Marigot on the French Side to the well-advertised cruise ship destination shops in Phillipsburg on the Dutch side. Daily boat trips for snorkeling, fishing or visits to nearby islands are an attractive day activity.

The island offers a wide variety of accommodations. For the economically minded there are numerous time share properties for rent on the Dutch side. For the cost of a 2 or 3 night stay in a high end hotel one can enjoy an ocean view one bedroom suite equipped with a kitchen to reduce the eating out budget. Most of the properties have resort style amenities from beach access, swimming pools, water sports and tour desks to restaurants and casinos. The same situation can be found at the numerous hotels around the island, but usually at a much higher price point. Many individual properties are also available for rent catering to all tastes from ocean front to high up on a mountain with an expansive view of the sea and neighboring islands.

Getting around the island is best accomplished by renting a car. Bus lines do run to many locations on the island, but transfers and incomplete routes make their use cumbersome. Cabs are plentiful, but are pricey as the distance between points of interest or around the island is considerable. Car rentals are one of the best ways to go. Small two person size cars are available from a variety of companies for about $20-$25 a day (assuming you are relying on credit card benefit rental insurance) for a 4 or more day rental. Costs go up considerably if you purchase the optional CDW or other liability insurance. Gas is expensive, but the small cars get great gas mileage and the overall distances from one end of the island to the other is not that great. The author rented a car for 5 days, made several trips around the island and to Grande Case from Simpsons Bay and only used one tank of gas.

Having a car also greatly opens up the variety of activities that one has access to. There are numerous beaches around the island (see accompanying article) but lack bus transportation alternatives. If one is staying in a resort area then transportation will be needed for shopping in Marigot or Phillipsburg (special busses do run from some resorts, but are limited as to days and times-the intrepid could try the public bus). Getting to Grand Case to enjoy its gourmet offerings is best done by car as travelling late at night can be a formidable task or an expensive cab ride that could have been used for a delicious desert and after dinner drink. Do not be deterred by worries of getting lost or having to go through customs each time you cross from one side of the island to the other. There is no frontier check at the border and all roads are well marked and fairly easy to find and follow (the exception may be the part of the island east of Phillipsburg, but it is an area tourists are unlikely to venture into).

Sint Maarten/St. Martin can also be a jumping off point to a day or longer trips to neighboring islands. Anguilla is just a few miles off from Marigot and public ferries run daily. Numerous snorkeling and day cruises are also offered to Anguilla from other parts of the island. These may include morning snorkeling or beach time with lunch (and maybe booze) thrown in. Daily trips are also available to St. Bart’s (playground of the rich and famous), St. Eustache and Bonaire (rated one of the best diving destinations in the world).

In all, a vacation on either side of the island is a great choice for a week long getaway. Due to the lack of border crossing red tape and the short distances one has to travel one can choose the side of the island that best suits one desire-quiet relaxation or an activity filled stay-but still have easy access to the other lifestyle.

Some helpful links:
Sint Maarten Official Tourism Website
St. Martin Official Tourism Website