St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island, is still somewhat more developed for tourism than the French side, with large hotels, villas, condos, resorts, time-share developments, casinos and an amazing variety of nightlife. Its capital, Philipsburg, is a favorite destination of cruise ships and plays host to thousands of tourists when ships are in port.
The French and Dutch sides of the island, although culturally distinct, have a shared history dating back to the early 17th century. Early settlers banded together to ward off the Spanish, then divided the 37-sq-mi/96-sq-km island between themselves. The hilly, southern Dutch side is the smaller half, covering 16 sq mi/41 sq km. The French side is often called "the north" by locals.
The Arawak Indians named the island Soualiga, or Land of Salt, and the Great Salt Pond, near Philipsburg, remains a prominent geological feature protected by local environmentalists. The capital's sheltering Great Bay has attracted international traders for centuries, and St. Maarten is still known as a duty-free shopper's paradise. With its sheltered harbors, trade winds and proximity to other islands, St. Maarten is also a yachting hub.
The Dutch side changed its status in October 2010 from an island territory of the Netherlands Antilles to an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands remains head of state, while The Hague continues to be in charge of overseeing foreign affairs and defense. The people of St. Maarten remain Dutch nationals and carry Dutch passports.
St. Maarten sustained widespread damage during Hurricane Irma in September 2017, though many historic buildings weathered the storms beautifully. Nature quickly reasserted itself, returning tropical foliage and stunning beaches to their original beauty.
Infrastructure is a little slower to replace, but it's well on its way, with most tourist attractions, shops, restaurants and casinos open for business. Major hotels and resorts are taking longer to restore, as several required extensive reconstructions.
Must See or Do
Sights—Sunrise at Dawn Beach; sunset and maybe even the "green flash" at Cupecoy or Mullet Bay beach; Wathey Square; the views from Fort Willem and Fort Amsterdam; the thrill of big planes landing right over your head at Sunset Bar & Grill on Maho Beach.
Museums—Island history at the St. Maarten Museum.
Memorable Meals—A romantic dinner overlooking the harbor at Ocean Lounge on Front Street; grilled lobster at one of the popular waterside restaurants on the Simpson Bay strip.
Late Night—Playing roulette at Casino Royale or Princess Casino; bar hopping along the Simpson Bay strip, including Red Piano Bar.
Walks—A hike with Seagrape Tours; a leisurely stroll along Front Street or Maho Plaza for shopping and a cappuccino overlooking the sea.
Especially for Kids—Watersports off Great Bay Beach; Carousel Gelateria for super sundaes and a ride on a beautiful custom-made Venetian merry-go-round.
With 37 beaches on a 37-sq-mi/96-sq-km island, St. Maarten boasts one beach for every 1 sq mi/2.6 sq km.
The panoramic view from The Lookout on Cole Bay Hill is St. Maarten's most photographed spot.
Sand dredged from the harbor for construction of the cruise ship piers was used to replenish Great Bay Beach, now one of the island's widest and longest stretches of beach.
The island of St. Martin/St. Maarten is the world's smallest land mass shared by two sovereign nations.
Simpson Bay Lagoon is the largest lagoon in the Caribbean.
The Pasanggrahan Royal Guest House hotel was once the summer home of the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina.
The French side of the island is part of the European Union; the Dutch side is not.
No border formalities exist between the two sides of the island, just two quite easy-to-miss signs: Bienvenue dans la partie Francaise (Welcome to the French side) and Welcome to Sint Maarten.
The numbers 10-10-10 are considered lucky, as this is the date when the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved and St. Maarten achieved full country status within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Philipsburg has a large port facility—the Dr. A.C. Wathey Cruise Pier in the Pointe Blanche area of town—just a short walk or taxi ride from downtown. At the pier, there's also a Welcome Terminal with information booths, ATMs, and—built in old St. Maarten style—Harbour Point Village, housing 12 branches of the best Front Street jewelry shops and several market stalls. As many as six cruise ships may be in town in a day, either tying up at the facility or anchoring in Great Bay and tendering passengers to Bobby's Marina or the Captain Hodge Wharf.
There are also information booths stocked with brochures and maps near the pier at Wathey Square and along Front Street. Wi-Fi hot spots and Internet cafes are widespread.
Shore excursions—and their prices—vary from cruise line to cruise line. Check with your ship's activity director or your travel agent for additional information.
Excursions are likely to include sailing and other watersports; a trip to the tiny islets of Tintamarre, famous for its magic mud, or Pinel; biking; the Loterie Farm at Pic Paradis for its nature and soft-adventure activities; or island tours. Tour information is available at all the hotels and resorts, at the tourist offices and from cab drivers who are often also tour guides.
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