The very popular port of call on an eastern Caribbean cruise itinerary is the culturally unique island of St. Maarten/Saint Martin. Half Dutch and half French, this small island of only 37 square miles is dominated by over 300 restaurants, 36 sugar-sand beaches, luxury hotels and resorts and a blending of four languages: Dutch, French, English and Papiamento.
St. Maarten has a history dating back to 550 BC. Tool and pottery artifacts belonging to the Amerindians have been unearthed at an archaeological dig on the Dutch side. Even though Columbus landed in St. Maarten in 1493 and claimed the island for Spain, due to the fierce and cannibalistic Caribs, the Spanish never developed the island.
In the early 1600s, the Dutch raised their flag, followed by the French. Legend has it that a Frenchman and a Dutchman finally settled an argument over territorial rights by pacing off their shares. The French got the bigger slice, but the Dutch ended up with the more valuable real estate; the Salt Pond and the Harbor.
If you like to shop, Phillipsburg in Dutch St. Maarten is fabulous for duty-free shopping. In fact, the prices in St. Maarten are as good if not better than in St. Thomas, long rumored to be the best place to shop for jewelry, cameras and electronics the Caribbean.
Upon disembarking in St. Maarten, you will be pleasantly surprised when you see the new vibrantly colored buildings at the port. It’s a mini-shopping destination. The prices at these shops are just as good as in Phillipsburg, the largest city in St. Maarten.
The bustling town of Phillipsburg is worth seeing and the water taxi to get there is right at the pier. Last time I visited St. Maarten, the water taxi charged $6 per person each way for the quick ride across the harbor. As it runs every 30 minutes, you can easily gauge your time in town to get you back to your ship before the gangway is raised.
Once in Phillipsburg, there are plenty of dining options all along Front Street; from standard fare to excellent curry and island cuisine. Of course, Heineken is the Dutch beer of choice and it is locally brewed.
To distinguish their half of the island, the French renamed their side St. Martin. Marigot is the capital and is the largest town on the island. Marigot is very charming and very French. Bistros and cafes line the walkway along the harbor. Trendy French boutiques with designer clothes are a bit pricier than the island style of dress in St. Maarten. Less hectic than Phillipsburg, Marigot is a lovely little town to walk around, stop in the art galleries to browse and have a cappuccino along the pier.
St. Martin is known for its beautiful beaches and warm, calm waters. As many of the beaches are more secluded, they attract visitors in search of quiet relaxation. The most popular beach is Orient Beach. Be warned…there are areas of Orient Beach that are clothing optional. However, no one really seems to care.
From the port, it’s a 15 minute cab ride to Orient Beach. I have the driver drop me off at the Bikini Beach area at Orient Beach. It is more family-friendly and there are water toys to rent. My favorite place is the French open-air, on-the-beach restaurant, Kakao. You can easily find Kakao as it is located in the area of blue beach umbrellas. My favorite dish is the steamed mussels in garlic and wine accompanied by a glass of cold, crisp Chardonnay.
This place is very popular with Europeans and French is commonly spoken. The seating is on rustic wood benches and the furnishings include artifacts from demolished or sunken yachts. If mussels aren’t your thing, there are other French dishes plus steaks, burgers and pizza. Kakao is very family-friendly and not as boisterous as Kon Tiki next door. After lunch, you can cut across the beach to a very small shopping area. Actually, the shops there are for the benefit of guests who are staying in one of the hundreds of vacation rentals. The little French grocery store has gorgeous French pastries and a variety of breads and croissants. A must-do for a really decadent walk-away dessert.
If you’re up for touring, take a taxi to Grand Case on the northwest corner of the island. Known as the Gastronomic Capital, Grand Case is a small fishing village with small wooden pastel-colored houses and over 30 sidewalk cafes, brasseries and bistros lining the main road. If you’ve brought your beach gear, after lunch you can stretch out and relax on Grand Case Beach.
Heading back to the ship means saying good-bye to a unique and special island. If you are taking a taxi back to the ship, be sure to allow extra time for traffic jams along the way. And don’t forget to buy a wheel of Gouda cheese. Yes, you can buy the same cheese at Winn-Dixie and Publix, but the fun is trying to cram a ten-pound wheel of cheese into the mini-fridge in your stateroom!
You’ll be amazed at how different the cultures are within only a 30-minute taxi ride. As you cross into the French side, you’ll see “Bienvenue en Partie Française” and coming back the border sign greets you with “Welcome to Dutch Sint Maarten, N.A.” So, the next time you choose a cruise with an eastern Caribbean itinerary, find one that includes St. Maarten. It’s an island worth visiting again and again.