St Martin Overview
Perhaps the most oft-quoted bit of Caribbean trivia is that the island of St. Maarten/St. Martin is the smallest occupied by two sovereign nations. Though snuggled together in a scant 37 square miles of mountainous terrain, these two countries could not be more different.
The Dutch side has large resorts/casinos (though occupying much of the area are cruise ships), while the French side has none. As a larger hunk of the island, the French side draws far fewer visitors. Until recently the flow of tourist traffic on day visits from Philipsburg to St. Martin was a trickle, owing to taxi drivers refusing to make the run in favor of seeking cruisers looking for lengthy island tours. Since the government has regulated the cabbies, however, it has become simple and economical to make the trip, especially for those who wish only to spend some time in Marigot, St. Martin's capital.
One major draw: the shopping. Though there are bargains to be found, and the French side is duty-free for the most part, Marigot attracts a different type of shopper from those who gravitate to the frenetic discounting deal-making emporia of Philipsburg. Those, however, who seek couture and upscale imports from France, Marigot's boutiques fit the bill, reminding many of a more down-to-earth version of St. Barth's.
Also like St. Barth's, St. Martin offers cafes, bistros and brasseries ... most serving up tasty creations with Gallic flavors and panache. St. Martin also has some of the prettiest beaches in the Caribbean, with assets to please everyone: families, snorkelers, romantics and those who like to catch some rays wearing nothing but SPF 30.
St Martin Quick Facts
Shopping in Marigot for duty-free perfumes, crystal and jewelry. The city, an intriguing blend of a small French town and a Caribbean city, also houses chic boutiques with fashions ranging from trendy to couture. Cool shops include If The Shoe Fits (12 Rue de la Liberte) for great handbags, Lipstick (Rue de la Republique) for duty-free perfume and cosmetics, and Island Outfitters (Rue Felix Eboue) for Caribbean-wear. And don't miss Marina Port La Royale, a five-minute walk from the harbor. Just three years ago this was a thinly visited resource known primarily by yachties tied up at the marina's slips. Now one can find tourists of every stripe chowing down on waterfront outdoor terraces or enjoying the great boutique-esque French shopping scene. Highlights include L'Occitane for Provencal soaps and lotions, Hediard for chocolates, and La Casa del Habono for Cuban cigars.
Orient Beach is St. Martin's biggest tourist attraction. It's got something for everyone: stands that rent snorkeling and parasailing equipment, bars and cafes, and a sprawling nude beach.
Best Secluded Beach: Baie Longue is gorgeous and quiet and fronts the ultra-chic La Samanna Hotel.
Best for Naturists: Laid-back Baie Rouge.
Unique Beach: French Cul de Sac. This little gem on the east (Atlantic) coast of St. Martin, is just perfect for a couple looking for a romantic getaway, or a family looking for a kid-friendly beach experience. Here, only about a mile or so north of Orient Beach is the location of the mayor of St. Martin's mansion on a hillside above a delightful little beach. You can stay on the beach here or choose to hike the hillside trails. But the real draw here is Ilet Pinel, an uninhabited tiny island (some cruise lines offer a shore excursion here). There are regular shuttle boats making the five-minute crossing throughout the day. You can kick back on the beach, enjoy snorkeling on the near-shore reefs on either end of the island, and enjoy lunch in one of the island's two restaurants. Better yet, get your food to go and take it out on the beach for an impromptu picnic.
Taxis: Waiting at the tender drop-off.
On Two Wheels: For the visitor who has been here before and wants to explore a smaller zone at a slower, more in-depth pace, consider a bicycle or moped. You can rent one from Eugene Moto in Sandy Ground (590-87-13-97). Prices run anywhere from 22 to 37 euros per day, and they will provide you with maps and suggested routes.
There are many fine choices in Marigot, but Grand Case, a scant five miles or so north has 27 fine restaurants packed in a one-mile stretch, earning it the sobriquet "restaurant capital of the Caribbean."
Casual, in-town joints: In Marigot, with lovely views of Marigot harbor, l'Oiseau Rare (formerly La Maison sur La Port) serves excellent French bistro cuisine in an open veranda setting surrounding a fountain, specializing in seafood and lighter fare. Le Mini Club (aka Claude Mini-Club) has been serving French and Creole cuisine since the 1970's in a seaside treehouse ambiance. (Palm trees grow right through the two stories of the restaurant, and out through the roof). The must-order here is vivaneau (red snapper) with sauce Creole.
In Marina Royale: The spot on our A-List here is Tropicana, which keeps us coming back with huge salad creations; our favorite is the pergordine (duck breast, sauteed potatoes and brie baked in puff pastry). But there are plenty of other choices, including the excellent Au Bouchon. In Grand Case, check out its "Lo Lo's." These shack-like places cook up great (and reasonably priced) grilled fish and jerk chicken.
Gourmet Lunching: Le Tastevin (86 bd. de Grand Case, Grand Case) for classic French fare with a great ocean view. The Restaurant at La Samanna (Baie Longue, 12:30 - 2:30 p.m.), St. Martin's most upscale hotel.
For Active Families: Mountain Bike Adventure out of Marigot. Though an off-road bicycle tour might seem to be as physically demanding as shore excursions get, a good deal of the route is downhill coasting along St.Martin's picturesque seacoast. The ride finishes at Friar's Bay Beach, where there's time for a complimentary beverage and swim. This excursion is appropriate for moderately active families including children over the age of 11.
Full Island Tour: For those who like a bit of adventure, but without much physical exertion, there are four-wheel drive excursions which cover the whole island from Phillipsburg to Marigot via off-road and less-traveled routes. Carnival's offering, called the "Mild and Wild Pinzagauer Tour," travels by large, military-style jeep-type vehicles, and includes both Marigot and Grand Case, with ample beach time included. Though not dangerous or too adventurous, the ride is rough enough that those with back problems and children under 12 are excluded.
For Adventure Seekers: Lotterie Farm Treetop Adventure Tour is a zipline canopy tour similar to those developed in Costa Rica, and rewards those able to handle a fair amount of physical exertion (and are over 48 inches in height), with exhilarating glides from treetop to treetop.
And for those who like their two-wheel travel with a bit of vroom, "Harley in Paradise" gives would-be Easy Riders a chance to see both St. Martin and St. Maarten from Mullet Bay to Marigot, and from Grand Case to Orient Beach on either a Fat Boy or Heritage Harley.
Tenders drop you right into the heart of Marigot, close to shopping downtown or at La Royale, both described below. There are also a number of great restaurants -- also described below -- within a few steps.
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