A 37-square-mile spot in the Lesser Antilles, with hills shaped like coolie hats, has been in a tug-of-war between France and the Netherlands for more than 350 years. In fact, it’s the smallest ocean island that belongs to two nations. This split personality may seem odd, but look at it this way: You get to visit two countries in one trip. And you’ll hardly notice a sign as you cross from the buzzing casinos, seaside promenades and raucous party scene of Dutch Sint Maarten to the tranquil beaches, bistros and sidewalk cafés of French St. Martin.
If your idea of the perfect Caribbean getaway involves extended happy hours, plenty of casinos, long stretches of shop-lined boardwalks and exquisite sugary-sand beaches, look no farther than Sint Maarten. The European influence is barely noticeable here—most hotels are of the you-could-be-anywhere-in-the-Caribbean variety, burger joints are plentiful and the U.S. dollar is the preferred currency. But if you know where to look, you’ll find some of the island’s hidden treasures right under your nose.
The Dutch capital is situated on the island’s south end, along an isthmus that runs between the harbor and a saltwater pond. Front Street, overlooking enormous cruise ships harbored in azure waters, is where the action is. Plan on spending an afternoon people-watching along this waterfront promenade. Those ships bring daytrippers for some of the best duty-free shopping in the Caribbean.
Just beyond Front Street, don’t miss Beatrix Detroy’s handmade chocolates (go for the dark-chocolate rum) at the Belgian Chocolate Box. For real local flavor, stop by the Guavaberry Emporium, where the namesake native berry is steeped in rum and sugar, producing a woody, bittersweet liqueur. If you’re in the market for something a little more precious, check out Pearl Gems for one of the Caribbean’s largest selections of pearls. The shop also sells watches, emeralds and even diamonds.
Beyond Philipsburg, there are no real towns, but rather stretches of beachfront resorts, casinos and first-rate shopping. In the area known as Maho Village, stop for dinner—creative sushi made with Caribbean ingredients—at Bamboo Bernies (Sonesta Maho Beach Resort. And you can’t come to this part of the island without putting a quarter in one of the ubiquitous slot machines. For a slightly lower-key experience, go to the Princess Casino at Port de Plaisance, which offers the usual blackjack and slots as well as campy shows with dancers in enormous headdresses.
Many would say that you have to try a tourist ritual on Sint Maarten: standing on the beach by the end of the runway at Princess Juliana International Airport and getting blown down by the air coming off the jets as they land. Sound stupid? It is. It’s best to watch those crazy enough to try this from the nearby Sunset Bar and Grill.
Many people say you should “sleep on the Dutch side and eat on the French side” and there is something to that, though it’s an oversimplification. St. Martin, in the island’s northern half, has seaside hamlets, tiny harbors and villas built into the cliffs—reminiscent of the Mediterranean, complete with a slower pace of life.
Tucked along a lovely beach in the northwestern corner of St. Martin, this little village is definitely the island’s food capital. Here, dozens of sophisticated restaurants serve some of the best French food in the Caribbean—from escargots to bouillabaisse and frog legs. Simplicity is the name of the game here. Everything’s on one main street, Boulevard de Grand Case, where you’ll find whatever a traveler could want: intriguing boutiques, tiny hotels and breezy bars full of hip young French expats.
The Love Hotel makes a perfect base for exploring the area. A charming French couple, Muriel and William Demy, opened the cozy seven-room inn just over a year ago. Muriel, who studied photography in New York City, speaks impeccable English and is a fount of knowledge about the island. William, meanwhile, makes you feel right at home with a house-infused banana-vanilla rum welcome drink (or three) at the beachfront bar, which has sweeping views of neighboring Anguilla.
The next morning, start your day with a ham-and-cheese crêpe on the bougainvillea-draped patio at L’Ile Flottante. Some of the best snorkeling is around Creole Rock, a protected marine park just off Grand Case Beach. To get there, head to the Grand Case Beach Club, where the jovial Sebastien Alexandre will take you on the three-minute boat ride to the rock. Here, you’re likely to spot brilliant parrotfish, sergeant majors, rays, barracuda, fan coral and more.
Back in town, watch the sun go down from Calmos Café with a Ti-punch, a stiff drink made with light rum, lime juice and cane sugar. You can’t go wrong in this town for dinner, but a favorite is Au Coin des Amis. This place is a “lolo,” as the Creole restaurants here are called, with a menu that includes ribs, grilled lobster, curried rice and friendly service. Down the street at Le Ti Provençal, the catch of the day is presented to you uncooked on a platter so you can select your meal. That triggerfish you saw while you snorkeled around Creole Rock is fabulous with a meunière sauce.
The French capital, on the western side of St. Martin, is overshadowed by 18th-century Fort Louis. Set high on a hill, the stone fortress was built to protect French interests from invading Dutch and British sailors. These days, Marigot is a center of commerce and a great place to stock up on provisions for your vacation. In the open-air market, the dreadlocked young Miguel Lilia sells his hot sauces (in flavors like pineapple and tamarind) in tiny, hand-painted bottles, a perfect souvenir for about $5. Nearby stalls are piled high with spices from Guadeloupe, such as black and white peppercorns, star anise, sea salt and cinnamon. At Sarafina’s, just across the street, you’ll find the island’s best baguettes, as well as stellar pastries like an open-face pineapple tart.
Around the corner, at Le Goût du Vin, cellarmaster and sommelier Martial Jammes will help you select from the Caribbean’s best rums, and wines from all over the world. For a taste of local art, stop by Escale des Îles, where works by more than 20 native painters and craftspeople are on display.
This tiny island, just a few hundred yards off the northeastern coast, makes for a perfect day trip. To get here, drive to the end of the road in French Cul-de-Sac and catch a small boat that leaves about every half hour. The islet is a nature preserve, but it’s not uninhabited: There are three beachfront restaurants, the best of which is Karibuni. If you order a spiny lobster, you can follow your server to the dock, see him pull your lunch out of a mesh bag kept in the shallow water—then watch it being expertly grilled. For sweeping views of St. Martin, follow a little unmarked hiking trail up a grassy hill behind Karibuni. On the other side is a perfect secluded beach—and if you’re lucky, you can have it all to yourself.