Perhaps because it’s half Dutch (the south) and half French (where the spelling is “Saint-Martin”), this island has two, if not more, personalities. Maho Bay in St. Maarten, which has the airport, offers endless dining, gaming, shopping, and nightlife to the many cruise ship passengers who stop here as well as folks staying at the resorts. It’s one of the only places in the Caribbean where you can go shopping at 10 p.m. Philipsburg, the capital, doesn’t stay up quite so late, but it’s still an exciting place, especially for shoppers.
The 520-room Sonesta Maho Beach Resort & Casino features the largest casino on the island (you see it when you land at the airport); from the 257-room Sonesta Great Bay Beach Hotel & Casino guests can stroll right into Philipsburg. Built on a peninsula near the Dutch-French border—which has long been a non-event here—Oyster Bay Beach Resort is looking spiffy after extensive renovations in 2012.
Some visitors combine a stay in St. Maarten with day (or longer) trips to islands like Anguilla, Saba, and St. Barthelemy, for which Julianna Airport serves as a popular gateway. Others head north to the French side, which has three legendary beaches. One is Grand Case, famous not so much for the quality of the beach itself (although it’s certainly nice) than for the fact that it’s lined with scores of restaurants, each of which specializes in every imaginable cuisine, from local Creole to classic French and from Vienamese to California fusion. You might expect some of these places to cut corners or disintegrate into run-of-the-mill tourist traps, but they never, ever do. The intimate Grand Case Beach Club hotel is a favorite here. The other famous beach here is Orient Beach, a long, wide, powdery beauty with delightful beach bars, water toy vendors, and a clothing-optional section that, contrary to public opinion, is just one part of the beach.
One of the Caribbean’s most luxurious resorts, La Samanna Luxury Resort & Spa, occupies yet another exceptional beach on the French side of the island, and its spa and cuisine are as great as that white, ankle-deep sand. The recently refurbished Radisson Blu offers sleek and stylish decor as well as fine dining, spa enrichment courses, and scuba diving; the 145-unit Hotel Le Domaine de Lonvilliers occupies a lovely beach and is a bit less expensive; little Hotel L’Esplanade offers both the intimacy of a small hotel and walking access to the restaurants of Grand-Case; and folks who just don’t feel like packing a lot of resort wear can always opt for the Club Orient Naturist Resort.
BEST TIME TO GO: December through July
FUN FACT: This is the smallest island on earth to be shared by two separate governments (The Netherlands and France)
GETTING THERE: Delta flies from Atlanta and New York (JFK) to St. Maarten
ENTRY DOCUMENTS: Valid passport
CURRENCY: Dutch guilder and, on the French side, euros
MUST-TRY LOCAL FOOD: The Fisherman’s Platter (bouillabaise-style, in a lobster sauce) at Bistrot Caraibes in Grand Case, French St. Martin
BEST BUYS: Duty-free cameras and watches at Manek’s; and tropical garb at Hip Up in Philipsburg, St. Maarten