If you’ve ever studied a map of Saint Martin, a 34-square-mile French-Dutch island in the Caribbean, you may have noticed that the French side is bigger—a lot bigger. According to legend, the border was determined by a Frenchman and a Dutchman who found themselves in Oyster Pond, on the east coast. Having agreed that the spot at which they met on the island’s other side would determine the dividing line from Oyster Pond, the two parted ways and raced around the perimeter. En route, the Frenchman drank wine. The Dutchman? He chose gin.
Because intrepid pioneers first explored this island on foot, it’s only appropriate that travelers today strap on their kicks and follow their example. And since Saint Martin’s hiking trails are largely undiscovered—they’re competing with diversions such as French restaurants, lively beach bars and casinos, after all—you’ll be rewarded with the same cliff-side views, quiet beach coves and untamed wildlife that probably lured the island’s European founders. Below we’ve outlined some favorite trails.
Boats (tickets, $10*) leave Saint Martin’s northeast coast every half hour to get to this small isle, uninhabited except for a few restaurants and bars. After disembarking, most travelers settle on yellow beach chairs, leaving the rest of Pinel for explorers. Paths cut through high grasses and purple-flowered sea potato vines, leading to a seaweed-covered beach that makes for great shelling. Farther along you’ll spot a scenic slope where the island’s iguanas—some quick and green, others ancient and gray—congregate, sunning themselves on warm stones.
A flat trail through blooming agaves and thick shrubs leads to another empty crescent of sugar-white sand on Pinel’s east coast. Look for marine life ranging from thumbnail-size crabs to dark red sea urchins. The beach is also a nesting ground for green and leatherback turtles, though sightings are rare.
If you’re hungry, grab a table at Karibuni, on the island’s main beach. Besides conch-filled pineapple salad and whole roasted snapper, there’s grilled spiny lobster with butter and garlic. Crustaceans can get pricey, though; for a less expensive lunch, try a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich at Snack Pinel back on the mainland.
While it’s just minutes from the town of Philipsburg, few people know that this scenic 1.5-mile hike exists, as its trailhead is at the end of a neighborhood street. The path itself is well kept, though, and travelers who take the time to find it will be rewarded with dramatic views of undeveloped cliffs and crashing turquoise waves.
Steep grassy hillsides are punctuated by black boulders, and stretches of tall grasses ripple in the Caribbean breezes. The hike is mostly flat with a few short inclines, but you may encounter low-lying native plants, some of which, such as endangered pope’s head cacti and acacia, have thorns, so wear pants and good walking shoes. Follow the trail for 50 minutes to a route that zigzags down to a natural pool at the ocean’s edge.
At 1,391 feet, Pic Paradis, or Paradise Peak, is the highest point on Saint Martin. To anyone who has hiked the Appalachians or Rockies, this trek may not look challenging, but don’t let the green hill fool you. Trailheads begin at Loterie Farm—the original owner acquired the land rights in a lottery—an adventure center with zip lines, a children’s play area and 3 restaurants. Stop at the reception desk for a hiking map ($7) and instructions; guided hikes are also available ($33; advance reservations required).
Moss-covered signs point you through the route’s lowlands, already dense with foliage. You can’t help but hum the theme from Indiana Jones as you swipe aside hanging tree roots or grab thick ropes to hoist yourself up steep inclines. Farther along the 2-mile trek, you’ll pass an abandoned sugar mill and rewarding overlooks of coastal towns Marigot and Philipsburg and may even spot mongoose and elusive wild monkeys. Nothing beats the peak, from whose 360-degree lookout point Saint Martin and other, distant Caribbean islands are unfurled below you.
Locals talk of a lengthy hike that begins and ends in Grand Case, a town on the French side. It’s a beautiful but confusing route, so we picked out our favorite portion, a 20-minute walk connecting Friar’s Bay and Happy Bay.
Fuel up with an espresso at Friar’s Bay Beach Café, then head north to a peninsula trail that rewards you with views of bobbing sailboats. Wildlife is pretty easy to spot: You may pass cows munching on sea greens as well as pelicans, brown boobies and migrating red-billed tropical birds.
The lesser-known Happy Bay, a ring of canvas-colored sand outlined in waxy beach plums and royal palms, is a great spot to watch the sunset, so before you make the trip, pack some provisions. Stalls at Marigot’s Farmer’s Market (Marigot Harbor), held Wednesday and Saturday, sell everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to spices and passion-fruit liqueurs. Close by, La Sucrière has baguettes and almond- and apricot-filled pastries. Round out the picnic basket with cured meats and fromage from Simply Market (Central Marigot), a French grocery store. You’ll also find a nice wine selection.
The Frenchman would be pleased.
Karibuni: Pinel Island; 011-590-690-39-67-00; karibunipinel.com
Snack Pinel: Embarcadère de Cul de Sac; 011-590-690-61-55-01
Loterie Farm: 103 Route Pic Paradis, Rambaud; 011-590-590-87-86-16; loteriefarm.com
Friar’s Bay Beach Café: Friar’s Bay Beach, La Savane; 011-590-690-49-16-87
La Sucrière: Front de Mer, Marigot; 011-590-590-51-13-30