Local experts weigh in on how to explore the Caribbean island.
Known as "The Friendly Island," beachy and beautiful Saint Martin is comprised of two countries: Dutch Sint Maarten to the south, and French Saint-Martin in the north. As neighbors, the two countries offer a unique mix of cultural and historical influences in one effusively hospitable destination. Long a favorite with sun-seekers, St. Martin is among the most accessible Caribbean islands for travelers from North America. Numerous daily flights from across the region also make St. Martin a stopover for people headed to popular Anguilla and hidden gems like Saba and Sint Eustatius.
Whether you're staying at a villa or all-inclusive resort on St. Martin, or the island is just one stop on a larger Caribbean adventure, this destination has plenty to offer. We tapped local experts like Marla Chemont of the St. Maarten Tourism Bureau, Sylvie Baron of Dream Yacht Worldwide, and Jamie Lee of Sonesta St. Maarten Resorts to craft a list of experiences not to be missed in St. Martin.
Related: T+L's Guide to St. Martin
Visit Maho Beach.
Dubbed "the most extreme beach in the world," Maho Beach offers white sands and breathtaking views of jets coming and going from the island's Princess Juliana International Airport, which is set just beyond the beachfront. Jamie Lee, vice president of resort operations at Sonesta St. Maarten Resorts, calls the beach a must for island visitors. Guests at the family-centric Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, Casino & Spa and the adults-only Sonesta Ocean Point Resort have access to the beloved beach.
Philipsburg is the capital of the island's Dutch side, and it's a charming town worthy of exploration. "Stroll the scenic boardwalk while enjoying views of the stunning blue sea, shop along the main street and indulge in fresh Caribbean cooking at one of the many eateries, and explore the town's luxury jewelry boutiques," says Michele Bayens of onefinestay. The company offers more than 100 villas on both the French and Dutch sides of the island, and the rentals are an increasingly popular accommodation option for travelers.
Visit a few more of St. Martin’s beaches.
If plane spotting on Maho Beach isn't quite your speed, you can visit any of the island's other 36 beaches for a more tranquil day by the waves. Bayens recommends the golden sands of Cupecoy Beach for both snorkeling and relaxing on the shore, while Marla Chemont of the St. Maarten Tourism Bureau recommends Happy Bay Beach for a slightly less crowded experience. To visit all of the islands beaches, you'll need to sail around it, as some are accessible only by boat or hiking trail.
Related: 18 of the Best Beaches in the Caribbean and The Bahamas
Sip rum at Topper's Rhum Distillery.
What would a trip to the Caribbean be without sampling local rum? Bayens recommends visiting Topper's Rhum Distillery near Simpson Bay Beach to sample unique flavors and learn about the blending process. Tour the distillery and mixing labs, or drop by the showroom to pick up a bottle to take home.
Sail to neighboring islands.
"If you come to St. Martin, don't miss out on going to Anguilla, St. Barts, and Saba," says Sylvie Baron of Dream Yacht Worldwide, an outfit that offers charters and cabin cruises from their base on St. Martin's French side. The white-sand beaches of Anguilla are accessible on half-day sailings. For luxe shopping on St. Barts or rainforest hikes on Saba, considering booking a day trip.
Baron also recommends sailing to the deserted island of Tintamarre. "In the natural reserve on Tintamarre island, people can go snorkeling directly from the beach," Baron says. Visitors can also scuba dive here, or "hike on the island and discover traces of its past."
Learn to sail.
For a more hands-on sailing experience in St. Martin, Chemont recommends connecting with 12 Metre Racing. The outfitter offers "sailing experiences on vintage sailing yachts that are past America's Cup winners and participants. Guests can learn the basics of sailing firsthand as they enjoy time on the water."
Dance to live music at 978 Sanctorum.
Located in Rambaud on St. Martin's French side, 978 Sanctorum is "one of the best parties on the island," according to long-time local Riselle Roidis-Celestina. Jazzy Fridays and Caribbean Saturdays are popular poolside gatherings with live music, while the Sunday Creole Brunch provides a little hair of the dog alongside locally-inspired bites.
Hike to Pic Paradis.
At nearly 1,400 feet in elevation, Pic Paradis is St. Martin's highest point, and as such it offers expansive vistas of the island. The 3.1-mile, out-and-back hike to the summit is surprisingly challenging, especially in the heat of a Caribbean afternoon, but it usually takes most trekkers less than three hours to complete. Or, opt to hang out at La Villa Hibiscus instead, located in the peak's shadow but still a great place to take in the view. French-trained chef and owner Bastien Schenk offers "a daily tasting menu worthy of the finest cosmopolitan comparisons," reports Brad Japhe for T+L.
Explore St. Martin's cuisine at The Flavor Academy.
An impressive array of influences has made St. Martin a Caribbean culinary capital, and The Flavor Academy is a top place to experience this for yourself. Set in the home of local and award-winning culinary duo Kristin Joseph and Paul Peterson, The Flavor Academy offers cooking and mixology workshops and dining experiences that highlight the best flavors of the island. Travelers should be sure to book their visit ahead of time.
Dive with sharks at Big Mama's Reef.
Caribbean reef sharks naturally congregate around Big Mama's Reef, which you'll find off the coast of the island's Dutch side. This is a prime destination for adventure-minded travelers looking for a thrilling wildlife encounter. While shark diving adventures elsewhere tend to be reserved for more experienced divers, even beginners can enjoy this one.
Enjoy watersports on Orient Bay.
Baron recommends Orient Bay on the island's French side as the perfect beach destination for those looking to enjoy almost any watersport imaginable. Expect jet-ski rentals, as well as parasailing, snorkeling, windsurfing, kayaking, and kitesurfing opportunities. Bikini Watersport, located on the beachfront, offers all kinds of rentals, plus fishing charters and catamaran excursions.
Take the ferry to Pinel Island.
Just a five-minute jaunt from St. Martin, "Pinel Island is a small desert island, with two restaurants where you can taste delicious lobster fresh from the grill," says Baron. The island is a popular stop with private sailing charters and group excursions, but it's also accessible by ferry from Cul-de-Sac on the French side of the island, and they depart every 30 minutes during high season.
Eat authentic French cuisine.
St. Martin's French influence makes the island one of the best spots in the Caribbean to sample French cuisine. Local experts recommend venues like Le Cottage, L'Atelier Bar à Viande et Poisson, and L'Astrolabe. Or, try a Caribbean take on French favorites; for that, Bayens suggests Mario Bistrot, "a fine-dining spot in Cupecoy Bay which offers a delectable menu of traditional French cuisine with a Caribbean and Asian twist."
Visit David's Hole.
David's Hole is ideal for travelers looking for a more off-the-beaten-path destination on the island. Over thousands of years, this collapsed sea cave has been eroded into two arches by the force of ocean swells. When the sea is rough, it looks like a boiling cauldron, inspiring its alternative name: Devil's Hole.
Zip line through the rainforest at Loterie Farm.
Private nature reserve Loterie Farm is one of the best places on St. Martin to enjoy the island's rich, forested interior. The reserve has its own zip-lining course amidst a canopy of mango and mahogany trees and is the starting point for the trek to the summit of Pic Paradis. For a more relaxing experience, opt for drinks at the location’s "jungle pool" or a snack at the onsite restaurant.
Take a cultural heritage tour.
Chemont recommends exploring St. Martin with the experts at Seagrape Tours, noting that the operator's cultural heritage tours cross St. Martin's international border to offer an in-depth introduction to the historical sites on the entire island. There are also specialized foodie tours, street art tours, and even cheese tours, if you're looking to experience the island's culinary and cultural riches.
Visit Parotte Ville.
With around 25 species of tropical birds in residence, Parotte Ville is a family-friendly destination on the island's Dutch side. Parotte Ville founder George Parotte is himself a colorful character, passionate about introducing visitors to the 170 birds found at the sanctuary.
Sample local island fare.
St. Martin is a melting pot of culinary traditions, but "visitors have to try the truly local dishes from food trucks or roadside rib shacks that exemplify the island," says Chemont. "Stop at a roadside spot for delicious barbecue, like barbequed chicken, lobster, or ribs with a fried Johnny Cake." Lee also recommends trying the "local, island-made national drink, guava berry liquor, made from a tiny red berry that is indigenous to the islands."
Dive at a shipwreck site.
There are a number of shipwrecks that make for impressive dive sites around the island, though the Carib Cargo wreck is perhaps the island’s best known. Steeped in local lore and alternatively known as the Carib Ghost, this wreck site is home to stingrays, green turtles, and lobsters. Or, dive directly off the beachfront at Little Bay Beach, where a sunken helicopter, cannons, and a submarine are accessible even for snorkelers.
Ride a chairlift to Sentry Hill.
Known as the Soualiga Sky Explorer, this chairlift carries passengers up to one of the island's highest peaks. Unbeatable ocean views (without the strenuous trek) await, as do zip lines and more. Select packages include a ride on the Flying Dutchman, a 2,800-foot-long zip line that drops you 1,050 feet in elevation — it's the steepest zip line in the world.
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