An island divided since 1648, St Martin is a true cultural blend of European and Caribbean influences, and an idyllic vacation spot. Though home to just 75,000 residents, the island has two capitals and three official languages: English, French and Dutch, and a handful more of unofficial tongues. Visitors may also hear islanders speaking Spanish, Papiamentu, Italian, Hindi, Chinese or Creole Patois.
Approximately 60 percent of the island’s territory is French while the remainder is Dutch. The southern Dutch part Sint Maarten is one of the four countries that make up the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The northern French side Saint-Martin is an overseas collectivity belonging to France.
Each side has its own laws and its own government but a completely open border, so travel between the two sides is effortless.
The Two Capitals: Marigot and Philipsburg
Take a leisurely morning to visit the French capital Marigot. It’s home to a bustling open air market and friendly residents. Sample the wares from the local bakeries, buy some freshly-caught seafood and peruse the art and locally-made jewellery for sale.
In the afternoon stroll around the Dutch capital Philipsburg. It’s home to many international luxury brands for fashionistas and picturesque cafés when you need to rest your feet and enjoy a cold drink. While here, don’t forget to stop at Banane Vanille where you can find the local artisanal flavoured rums from Rhum Ma Doudou. Offered in painted plastic or glass bottles, they come in a multitude of delicious tropical flavours. Be sure to try their specialty guava berry rum.
Where to stay
Located in Anse Marcel on the quieter French side of the island, the beachfront all-inclusive Hotel Riu Palace St Martin offers gorgeous tropical views, pristine turquoise waters and first-class amenities. The Riu is a perfect oasis for vacationers looking for rest and relaxation, and an ideal base for the more active sight-seer.
With three bars and four restaurants onsite, not to mention in-room liquor dispensers, you may never want to leave the resort.
Where to eat
The French village of Grand Case is a must for those interested in enjoying the best of local cuisine. Visit the lolos, open-air stalls where chefs serve smoky ribs, chicken and other traditional dishes. Don’t be put off by the disposable styrofoam boxes and wooden picnic tables, the lolos offer delicious food at good prices. Make sure to try a johnny cake, a savoury Caribbean staple of fried or baked dough.
For some more traditionally French and European–inspired cooking, visit La Villa, also in Grand Case. Enjoy the pan seared scallops with asparagus, mango and curry sauce or the duck breast with five pepper sauce and sweet potato mousse.
Where to go out
While most of the island’s nightclubs are on the Dutch side, St Martin’s longest-running gay bar Eros Club is located in the quiet French capital Marigot. Only open on Saturdays after 11pm (and for private parties during the week by reservation), the club is presided over by regal owner Nanou, Saint-Martin’s self-declared queen of the gay night. Though the rest of Marigot is completely shut down by midnight, most don’t show up to party at Eros until after 1am. The crowd is a healthy mix of locals and tourists alike.
How to fly
What to see
Maho Beach is a small beach, but is world-famous for plane spotting and sunbathers jockeying in the white sands to get the ultimate selfie. What it lacks in quiet ambience, it makes up for in amazing views of landing planes fly alarmingly close over your head as they fly into Princess Juliana International Airport.
The island’s designated gay clothing optional beach is Cupecoy, though on our visit it was nearly deserted but for a few couples. Also of interest is the family-friendly nude beach at Orient Bay. Other clothing optional beaches include Coralita, Happy Bay and Long Bay.
To see some of St Martin’s natural beauty, try a Rhino Safari where guests drive their own two-person watercraft on a scenic guided tour of some the island’s most beautiful beaches followed by a snorkelling adventure.
(Inline photos: Matthew DiMera/Daily Xtra)