Not many islands this small offer visitors the opportunity to visit two very distinct cultures on the one island. Settled by the Dutch and the French, each side has its own personality, culture, and language. Saint Martin/Sint Maarten is one such unique island and was the first stop on a 10 day Caribbean cruise with Princess Cruises.
The easiest way to maximise your St Maarten cruise day is to hire a car. Hertz and a few others smaller operators have offices there and you can pre book. But if you don’t, just be prepared to have a Plan B incase they are sold out.
Our cruise gave us a total of 8 hours on shore; from docking at 8:30 to all aboard at 4:30, which was almost enough time to see almost all that we wanted to, but it was a little tighter than we’d have liked. Nonetheless, here is how to do a DIY highlights tour of Saint Martin and Sint Maarten.
You will arrive in the Dutch capital of Philipsburg, but it will likely be too early for anything to be open so save your time there until the after on your way back to the ship.
Assuming you’ve picked up a car, start by driving counter-clockwise towards Maho Beach. Maho Beach is famous as being plotted at the end of the runway of the St Martin Juliana International Airport. From this small strip of sand you are seated in prime position to witness small passenger planes and jumbos come into landing.
The first thing to note is that it is a small beach. If not for the airport this beach would never rate a mention. But, the brilliant turquoise sea is an excellent place to take in the action.
And if the sand blasts from the jet engine power becomes too much (and if you are directly behind it, it will) you can just duck under the water. But I preferred to stand off to the side to get the dramatic over-sand plane photo.
The Sunset Beach Bar right next to the beach posts the landing times of the major aircraft, which are the exciting ones, but you’ll find planes of all sizes coming in to landing every 10 or so minutes.
I was pretty disappointed that I didn’t get to see any jumbos come in (we’d been there an hour and others wanted to move on) so your best bet is to work out prior when they’ll be coming in. They started for us around 11am, which was, sadly, just as we were leaving.
If you couldn’t tell by the name, Marigot will be your first stop on the larger French side.
We didn’t give Marigot a lot of time, however, it is worth noting we also happened to visit on New Year’s Day, which was also a Sunday, so most things were closed anyway. The Sarafina Bakery was open though and it was pumping.
What actually made us stop in Marigot was Fort Louis, an old fortress ruin from the 18th Century that the French used to defend their territory against the Dutch and the British. From the main street it is no more than a 10 minute walk up an obvious path of steps and pavement (flip flops are sufficient).
For such a small walk it’s a magnificent view, giving a 360 degree panorama of Marigot to the east and Simpson bay to the west. It’s well worth the stop and you can be up and down in 30 minutes, easily.
Because we’re on the French side still, it is pronounced Gron Kaz. Grand Case was not what I expected it to be. I generally read guides and blogs before going to a place and I expected little shacks dotting the beach with locals selling food and beers to visitors. If you’ve read any other guides you might have this same assumption.
The town was more low key than I expected, and actually felt quite residential, save for a handful of local eateries and accommodations along the beach and main road. These places were all raised above the beach, with stairs down for easy access.
The beach at Grand Case is still a nice beach, in fact it was definitely more spacious and less crowded than Maho Beach, but keep your pants dry for now because I think there are better beaches for swimming and relaxing if you aren’t tied here.
I’m getting sidetracked. the reason to go to Grand Case is actually to have lunch. Of the handful of eateries along the shore a few are referred to as lolos. I’m not sure what the translation is, but essentially they are small diners serving local delicacies such as Grilled Lobster, Conch sausage, Ribs, fish, and jimmy cakes.
All this while sipping a few $2 Carib beers with the local steel drum band, nay orchestra, serenaded you with unique melodies, backed by bass guitar and drums. It was quite something. In the video below, the last 20 seconds are of the band and you’ll understand what I mean.
Lunch was served and was incredible. I mean, it was no luxury resort seafood buffet (that was Christmas Day!), but it was barbecued to perfection. Even though the day was only half over this was already the highlight.
Pic du Paradis
Pic du Paradis was one thing we missed, but even if we had have planned the day differently, it still would have been a stretch. You see, around St Maarten is a ring road. It’s not a big island, but most of the attractions are on the coast.
…Except for Pic du Paradise, which translates to Paradise Peak. I.e. a big ol’ mountain in the middle. There’s a road that goes up, but to get the view that’s worth seeing it was going to be a 1km walk from the car park and back, which was time we at the time could not spare.
If eating the local food is not important to you, you might choose Pic du Paradis over lunch at Grand Case, because they are quite close. Or if both sound like non-negotiables, think about what else on this list you could forego.
Already you are starting to feel like 1 day on this magnificent island is not enough!
If you wanted to come to St Maarten for a day and just spend a day at the beach, this is where you’d come. The beach is long, it’s wide, and it’s bursting with water sports.
For these reasons the beach is very popular with visitors and there are a great number of resorts that back onto the beach. The resorts all have a plethora of beach chairs and umbrellas that you can hire and park yourself for the day.
Orient Beach is perfect for the family, couple or group who want to get off the ship, and just want to relax on a beach with a book, absorbing the idyllic surroundings.
About 10 minutes from Orient Beach is Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side and landing point for all cruise ships. It is perfectly setup to receive tourists with no shortage of beach bars, cafes, clothes and souvenir shops, and of course places to buy the famed guavaberry liqueur.
The beach is pretty big, also with plenty of umbrellas and beach chairs, and it is right in front of the ship so it’s very easy to setup camp here for the day. However, I found the beach at Orient Bay to be much nicer. The sand was softer, and there were more opportunities for activities.
Other Notes about St Maarten
Gambling is oddly legal here, we saw casinos everywhere. In fact, the first building we saw when we disembarked was a casino. It made me wonder how many people don’t actually make it any further.
The beer on St Maarten is mostly $1.50. This was the cheapest beer I found in the Caribbean so I made sure to bring some back onto the ship (which was really easy).
St Maarten was one of my favourite islands I visited on the cruise, and one that I would happily return to. If you’ve been to St Maarten, what was your favourite place?
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