The island of St. Maarten offers visitors a perfect blend: the legacy of the two European cultures that once shared it –France and the Netherlands – and all the beauty of a Caribbean paradise.
The history of this island is intriguing. Legend has it that Christopher Columbus discovered it in 1493, on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, although historians now believe that the island he spotted from afar was actually Nevis. In the 140 years that followed its discovery, St Maarten changed allegiance many times as the warring Spanish, French, Dutch, and English all claimed possession. In 1648, a treaty divided the island in two: the Dutch received 16 square miles and the French, due to a superior naval presence at the time, received 21. The French half of the island is called St. Martin. Today the cosmopolitan inhabitants of this friendly island are proud of their history of peaceful coexistence and, as if to prove a point, never raised an official border between their territories. For a glimpse of the island’s past, explore the historic forts that still guard the approaches to Philipsburg and Marigot, the capitals of the old Dutch and French quarters. A visit to the St. Maarten and St. Martin museums is also recommended. There are exhibitions on the ancient Amerindian tribes that were the first settlers on the island, colonial history, sugar and the plantation economy. Naval heroes, pirates and smugglers, merchants, estate owners and slaves have all left their mark here. Collections of sketches and paintings and old photos also reveal what life was like in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And rumors of buried treasure still persist! The island is certainly a historical gem.
A visit to Philipsburg and Marigot, the island’s twin towns should be an important part of your stay. In the northern half of the island and dating from the 18th century, Marigot is a picturesque waterfront town is a blend of Caribbean color and Mediterranean chic. French sidewalk cafes, bistros, boutiques, art galleries, gift shops and gourmet delicatessens line the streets. The bustling Marigot Market is worth a visit on Wednesday and Saturday to sample fresh seafood and purchase locally grown fruit, vegetables and spices, or carved wooden figures, paintings and other crafts. Founded on the shores of Great Bay in 1763 by John Philips, a Scotsman serving in the Dutch Navy, Philipsburg soon became an important port, a role that it maintains to this day. A major cruise ship and duty free shopping haven, this waterfront town boasts a variety of stores, restaurants, bars, casinos and clubs. The waterfront Boardwalk is popular with locals and visitors alike at sunset.
When it comes to water activities in this picturesque paradise, the recipe for fun is this: simply add water. In fact, the wetter and wilder the water sport, the better. And there’s double the fun: the turquoise Caribbean and several sheltered coastal lagoons such as Simpson Bay that are ideal for sailing.
Water babies can snorkel, dive, windsurf, water ski, sail, ride a jet ski, navigate a kayak along the coast and try parasailing and kite surfing. Fishing charters for marlin, kingfish, tuna and wahoo are available and there are ferries and cruises to the neighboring islands of St. Barts, Saba, Statia and Anguilla.
The island offers several excellent diving and snorkeling locations that are havens for a variety of multicolored tropical fish and other marine life. Underwater visibility runs from 75-200 feet depending on ocean conditions.
For those who prefer not to get their feet wet, island activities include horseback riding, tennis, and golf. Most hotels have tennis courts or access to them, and arrangements can be made for you to play golf on the island’s 18-hole championship course.
See more of the island’s hills and coast by hiking, biking or horseback riding along lush scenic trails. You can even try your hand at zip lining through the forest canopy and visits to an old plantation house, nature reserves and a butterfly farm.
Shoppers will enjoy island shopping; the luxury goods on offer range from jewelry and electronics to designer wear, perfumes and fine wines.
St Maarten is also famous as a gourmet capital and tempting dining choices abound in Simpson Bay, Philipsburg, Marigot and the tiny village of Grande Case.
Vacation on St. Maarten and the sand will always be between your toes, as the island is encircled by 37 magnificent beaches. While some invite you to endless stretches of powder white sands shaded by swaying palms, others lure you to enchanting coves protected by offshore coral reefs. They are never crowded, not even in high season. Try out picture-perfect Cupecoy Beach, Mullet Bay, Maho Bay, Simpson Bay and Great Bay on the Dutch side. French St. Martin is famous for Orient Beach, Baie Rouge, Grand Case and Anse Marcel.
Internationally renowned for hosting the famed Heineken Regatta in early March and the 12-metre Sailing Challenge, St. Maarten is a popular port of call for the yacht community, which loves its crystal-blue-waters, brisk trade winds, secluded beaches, and first-rate sailing services. Visitors who would like a taste of the seafaring lifestyle can charter a yacht for day trips to neighboring islands or longer voyages, learn how to sail or enjoy a sunset dinner cruise.