St Martin (St Maarten) is a super friendly Easter Caribbean island that is shared by two countries, France and the Netherlands Antilles. Out of all the Caribbean islands we visited, St Martin definitely won the “tourist-friendly” award hands down. We only had two days here, but ended up enjoying all that St Martin had to offer. Some of our highlights included taking in the stunning view and getting lost in the shrubbery up at Pic Paradis, scuba diving with reef sharks in Philipsburg, chowing on delicious lolo fare in Grand Case, partying like rock stars at Club Bliss, buying bargain duty-free rum, and strolling down Orient Beach’s long white sand. We had a blast on this inexpensive, fun island and would not hesitate to come back. We’ve heard others complain that St Martin is too touristy, but it suited us just fine.
We visited St. Martin twice on an EasyCruise Caribbean itinerary. Our daily cruise bulletin had this to say about the island, “Like Siamese twins the Dutch and French halves of this island share certain characteristics whilst retaining their own personalities. The Dutch side is all ‘go, go, go’, vendors haggle in the streets and tourists race around looking for the best bargains – the Duty Free Shopping is the best in the Caribbean. The French side is more, well, French. It has a certain style and grace: Windsurfers fly by, people take time to eat, people watching is allowed. What both sides have in common are Caribbean sunshine, great white sand beaches, and great restaurants to suit every taste.”
Our cruise pulled into Philipsburg’s Great Bay Marina. St Martin is a hugely popular tourist destination, and the marina was packed with plenty of other cruises. And all of them dwarfed our tiny Easycruise! In fact, we joked that our Easycruise vessel looked like the tender for the larger cruises. We had no strict agenda for the day, but hoped to utilize the highly touted public transportation to visit Orient Beach, dine at Grand Case, and duck under planes landing at Juliana International airport at Maho Beach. Unfortunately, we visited St Martin the Friday before Easter. As a result, the tourist information office advised us that the public buses would not be running. Instead, we were strongly urged to use the officially sanctioned taxis. Taxi rates are posted everywhere, and we quickly calculated that it’d be far cheaper to rent a vehicle rather than use a taxi.
So we wandered out towards the main road in our quest to find a decent deal. The best one we could find was a minivan for $70/day including a late return and full coverage insurance (caution: most rental agencies want you to return the vehicle back at 5 or 6 pm, but like most things in life, this is negotiable). Once we were ready to commit, the hustler told us that the van had already been rented out and there were no other vans available. The next best deal he could offer our group of 7 were two jeeps for $90. After debating this briefly and agreeing to a late return (9 pm), we agreed. With our tops down, we zoomed off through Philipsburg and headed west to skirt the entire Dutch coast. Thankfully, driving in St Martin is easy, with nice wide roads and the same road rules as in the US (i.e. right hand side of the road). The views from Cole Bay Hill were quite scenic, so we pulled off to take a few photos before continuing on towards Maho Bay.
The Sunset Beach Bar/Juliana Airport “duck as the planes land” scene is absolutely unforgettable and a definite “don’t miss” for St Martin. The fact that Maho Bay’s waters are a tantalizing hue of turquoise was a bonus. We watched in amazement as planes soared in and touched down, seemingly way to close for comfort. Signs are posted everywhere that warn visitors that low flying aircraft blasts can cause physical injury…and its even listed in Ripley’s “Believe it or Not!”. Sunset Beach Bar has a deal that all topless women drink for free, so take note if you don’t mind flaunting it!
We circled around Simpson Bay Lagoon and passed through Marigot on our way to Grand Case where we wanted to stop for a bite to eat. After reading in our LP guide that this small beachside town had been dubbed the “Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean”, we simply had to stop by. And we were rewarded with delicious lolos smells beckoning us to join in the midday feast. The bonus about eating up in the French St Martin? The lolos stands accepted a 1 Euro = 1 $ exchange rate. With a weak dollar and prices listed in Euros, we were thrilled to save some dough on the exchange rate. After stuffing ourselves silly, our group broke into two, with one group deciding to check out Orient Beach and the other deciding to drive up to Pic Paradis for some vistas from the island’s highest point.
Pic Paradis has a series of hiking trails, and the obvious ones are clearly defined. We took some photos of the panorama, before deciding to explore an obscure hiking trail that we assumed would lead us to views of the other side of the island. However, one bee sting and several thorns later, we decided to give up this Alice in wonderland “down the rabbit hole” adventure and retraced our steps back to the communications tower and our rental car. After getting hot and sweaty, we figured a nice dip at Orient Bay would hit the spot.
Orient Bay is a nice, white sand, touristy beach. It was perfect for what we were looking for, and we hopped in the sea to cool down. There were a ton of water sports on offer (from banana boat rides, water-trampolines, snorkeling, jet skis, snorkeling, etc), but we just wanted to relax and enjoy the last rays of sunlight for the day. Once the sun dipped over the horizon, we decided it was time to dry off and get ready for the rest of the evening. We headed back down towards Philipsburg to return the rental and get dressed for clubbing tonight.
Easycruise was sponsoring a dance competition on the 4th deck. The dance was called the “one dollar dance” and the lyrics/hip motions were hilarious! Even though Frances was the clear winner with her Marilyn Monroe inspired skirt blowing incident, Luke ended up winning the dance off with his vigorous hip thrust, cowboy bucking motion. This earned him a free drink at the bar. After the dance off, we decided to head out towards Maho Bay for some night entertainment at Bliss. Club Bliss is a super ritzy dance club, with an open-air dance floor. At 11 pm, it was still dead so we headed back over to Sunset Beach Bar where ladies could drink for $1/drink all night long. Too bad the Sunset Beach Bar DJ didn’t know how to spin the tunes….it could have been a super happening place!
When we returned back to Bliss just after midnight, a sizable crowd had gathered and was dancing the night away. We followed suit with everyone else, and had a blast jamming beneath the stars. 4 am came too soon, and we had a cruise to catch so we hopped into Uncle Bubba’s rental (yes, all 7 of us were crammed into the tiny car) and made friends with the security guard who let us park the car in the marina. To our amazement, we were not the last ones to board Easycruise (there were still 4 hard core partiers who were still enjoying St Martin’s activities).
St Martin did not disappoint! We had a great time exploring the island, and have to agree that the nightlife is second to none. We were happy to know that in 3 short days, we’d be back in St Martin again. (Our Easycruise was continuing on to St Barths, Anguilla and back to St Martin).
On our return trip to St Martin, we decided to check out the duty free shopping as well as the scuba diving. For the shopping, we bought Caribbean rum at bargain prices at the duty free store on the Philipsburg broadwalk (average price is around $5 – 7 a bottle). As for diving, we opted for a two tank dive with Dive Safaris (www.divestmaarten.com), located at Bobby’s Marina in Philipsburg. With seven of us diving, we were able to negotiate a slight discount. The dive spot included Proselyte Reef, which is only a few miles south of Philipsburg. In 1802, the British vessel HMS Proselyte sank in 50 feet of water. The cannons are still visible even today. But our first dive was a shark dive, where we were circled by reef sharks who kept a respectful distance. Hawksbill turtles, lots of lobster, and a few white spotted eels made for a scenic dive. We enjoyed both dives with the super friendly crew, and pulled back into Philipsburg just in time for happy hour at the wonderful Greenhouse.
Happy hour at the Greenhouse is a wonderful institution. Not only are drinks 2 for 1, but appetizers are discounted. Needless to say, we ordered several rounds of margaritas, pina coladas, and finger food. Several hours later, we were all feeling pretty good and tipped our waiter well for keeping the alcohol and snacks free flowing. Thankfully, the Greenhouse was a short walk away from the Great Marina where our Easycruise was awaiting. The party continued on board the cruise, where we danced up a storm to DJ Justin’s tunes. We had planned on a trek out to Club Bliss but found out to our dismay that it was closed on Mondays. Oh well, St Martin still wins hands down for the best party island in the Caribbean. We loved all that it had to offer and would love a return visit.