Photo courtesy Rainforest Adventures
Contributor Sue Kelly shares her favourite things to do in St Martin St Maarten, a Caribbean paradise
Saint Martin / Sint Maarten – often shortened to St Martin St Maarten, or simply SXM… or, better still, ‘the friendly island’ – is an exquisite Caribbean gem in the Eastern Antilles of the Leeward Islands. It is one island, divided into two countries – France to the north and the Netherlands in the south – and boasts 37 gorgeous beaches.
This beautiful island is a record holder for being the smallest island in the world to host two nations. One gets to enjoy the cultures and traditions of the Dutch and the French while freely crossing the borders between the two countries. Basked by warm luxurious trade winds, it is easy to understand why tourism is its principal industry.
To help you find the very best things to do in St Martin St Maarten, here is a sampling of the many fabulous places to visit and points of interest for you to enjoy, to feast, to roam, and to play. Using the ‘boot’ analogy, these attractions go around the boot like a clock, starting at the bottom of the boot.
The Top Things To Do in St Martin St Maarten
1. Catch a Flight at Maho Beach and Sunset Beach Bar
The Sunset Beach Bar on Maho Beach is must-visit to watch planes come in to land (Photo courtesy Sunset Beach Bar)
Boasting one of the lowest airplane approaches on the globe, it is no surprise that the SXM airport, Princess Juliana International Airport, is one of the most videoed landing strips world-wide. There is just something exhilarating about being up close and personal with the great shiny birds of the sky.
Watching Jumbo Jets slowly descend from the sky – first as a mere dot on the horizon, then gradually morphing into an illustrious spectacle – is an inimitable thrill. Rumour has it, if you look close enough, you can see the colour of the pilot’s eyes.
The beautiful sandy beach at Maho – one of the most popular St Maarten beaches – is jam-packed with aviation enthusiasts, anticipating the next arrival. The thunderous roar of the jets on landing and especially on take-off is so loud that an orchestra of car security alarms can be heard nearby. Time your visit for sunset for a photographer’s dream come true.
Although Hurricane Irma destroyed the old Sunset Beach Bar, it has bounced back at twice its size with a well-constructed foundation, new entertainment stage facing the beach, two open bars and a thirst-quenching ‘Bikini Bar’ with a slushy-ice-cream-milkshake machine.
Enjoy refreshing concoctions at the Sunset Beach Bar such as ‘Jet Ski, ‘Lose Your Panties’, ‘Pure Energy’, ‘Liquid Viagra’, ‘Purple Nurple’, or ‘Drop Your Top’ – it all sounds a little bit naughty and a whole lotta nice.
2. Visit Marigot Market and Marina Royale
Just 15 minutes west of the airport is the French capital city of Marigot St Martin. The lively open-air market is accessible every day, but the prime vendor days are Wednesdays and Saturdays. The allure of the indoor mall and maze of laneways of upscale shops takes on a European feel, tempting you to explore.
Numerous restaurants and bars are located along the beautiful Port de Marigot satisfying weary and thirsty visitors. Marigot Harbour is stunning as a plethora of sunny sail boats whitewash the bay. At night, the marina sparkles with flickering lights as boats gently bob, truly a magical sight to behold.
A note about the Marina Royale shopping concourse. The results of Irma are abundantly obvious as the locals struggle to restore the shops and marina along the lagoon. The ever-popular Le Tropicana Restaurant has reopened, as have a few shops including Marion’s Swimsuits which offers the very latest beach attire and accessories. Marion opened her shop one month after Irma hit; she says it was mainly to preserve her mental health and to give hope to other shopkeepers and tourists.
3. Enjoy an After-dinner Liqueur on Secluded Friar’s Beach
Between Marigot and Grand Case is this difficult-to-find hideaway. It’s worth the bumpy, pot-holed ride down a narrow side road to reach this less-travelled oasis. If you’re travelling from Marigot, look for a left-hand turn at Dupage de Friar’s Bay, which is at the bottom of a hill and comes up quickly.
Watch for the clusters of fragrant red, raspberry-pink and sunburst-yellow bougainvillea tumbling over the remnants of roadside structures, exposing tiny white trumpet-shaped florets. Even amid the crumbling infrastructure, the beauty of Mother Nature prevails.
A meandering, long stone fence signals that you’re nearly there. Veer past the first parking lot (where the entrance is extremely pot-holed) for a safer place to park. There are two restaurants here: the rustic food hut with yellow umbrellas, and Friar’s Bay Beach Café which has cheery red beach umbrellas that dot the sand all the way down the beach.
If you purchase food or drinks, the loungers and umbrellas are complimentary. Try some delicious French cuisine under a cool awning-topped picnic table that’s partially sunken in the sand. The different sized ‘cabanas’ seat from 2 to 12 people – you have to experience it to believe it.
Many restaurants offer an after-dinner shot of liqueur – limoncello or spiced rum. But at Friar’s Bay the bartender brings a delicious mango-passion digestif poured from the long spout of a red gas tank– very novel indeed! (Don’t worry, it was never used for gasoline!)
4. Clothing-optional Sunbathing at Happy Bay
A fifteen-minute walk from Friar’s Bay will bring you to the pristine and secluded beach of Happy Bay. At the north end of Friar’s Bay is a rickety trail leading up a rocky hill, through a farmer’s field to a private, silky beach, known by only a few. Although it’s a public beach, it has a secretive feel, because few are willing to make the effort to get there. Be sure to keep your head down while on the path because wee geckos and larger iguanas might scurry across the trail, but they are harmless.
Sadly, Irma clipped the tops of a luscious row of palm trees, so shade is at a premium – be sure to bring lots of sunscreen and a beach umbrella. This secluded beach provides a perfect spot for those who enjoy a clothing-optional experience. If you’re fortunate a pop-up beach hut will have beer, water and the barbecue-special-of-the-day, but timing is everything. Regardless, this cloistered little bit of heaven is sure to be your new happy place in life.
5. Fun, Frivolity, Food, and Friendship at Orient Bay
Orient Bay is one of the best-known beaches in St Martin (Photo courtesy Club Orient Nudist Resort)
The world-famous Orient Bay has been a popular destination for decades. Known as the ‘Caribbean Saint Tropez’, its oceanic hues dazzle the eyes as sea-mist greens blend with tropical turquoise, segueing to Bahamian aquamarine and emerald. Located at the top right of the boot and facing the Atlantic, the water is usually rougher with lots of whitecaps.
The tag line for Orient Bay is ‘the beach is just the beginning’ – and post-Irma it is beginning all over again. The Club Orient Nudist Resort is in recovery mode, and sun-seekers still gather at the far south end of the beach under iconic yellow umbrellas neatly ordered in rows of three. This beach crowd includes people of all shapes and sizes – couples, families, retirees, kids, young and old. Cameras are not allowed. And those wearing bathing suits try to avert their eyes (or not) as they slowly strut the strand.
Upscale restaurants have been redesigned to ensure flexibility when the next hurricane occurs – because sadly, it will. Open-air seating areas are set further back from the water’s edge, widening the beach area and allowing for quick teardowns; the kitchen facilities are encased in stone and concrete ensuring resilience from tropical storms.
The apple-green umbrellas denote the Bikini Restaurant, red umbrellas signify the Kontiki Bar Restaurant, and a mix of orange, yellow, and brown indicate The Wai (Why) – plenty of jaunty tiki cabanas here provide cool respite for parties up to six. Check your bills because some restaurants include a 15% gratuity with the total. And oh, the washrooms are refreshingly clean.
6. Explore Fantastic Philipsburg
Philipsburg is the main town and capital city of Sint Maarten. The town is situated on a narrow stretch of land between Great Bay and the Great Salt Pond.
Philipsburg was founded in 1763 by John Philips, a Scottish captain in the Dutch navy. The settlement soon became a bustling centre of international trade. Two historic forts bear witness to Philipsburg’s strategic importance in St. Maarten’s history: Fort Amsterdam and Fort Willem. Today, exploring these ruins is one of the best things to do in St Maarten, and provide stunning vistas of the island.
One of the busiest cruise line ports in the Caribbean is at Philipsburg. Although the piers can accommodate up to seven ships, there are usually no more than four in port at a time. If exploring the island is not your thing, an array of fun and relaxation awaits just a short 10 – 15-minute walk from your ship.
Just four streets deep and one mile long, the shopping concourse along Philipsburg’s Great Bay boardwalk will keep you smiling. You can fill your shopping bag with duty-free items of every description, fulfill your stomach’s need for world-renowned culinary treats, and fill your senses with a blend of many cultures, sights and sounds. Here you can peruse island art, crafts imported from The Netherlands, exquisite jewelry, fashion and much more. Don’t forget to check out the Guavaberry Emporium in the heart of historical Philipsburg.
7. Sail With Random Wind Charters – The Spirit of St. Maarten
Having watery fun while on a Random Wind cruise (Photo courtesy Random Wind Charters)
Random Wind (RW) is a 52ft luxury catamaran that sails out of Philipsburg for a five -hour adventure or sunset cruise. This new vessel offers plenty of space, tons of cushioned chill areas ( both in the shade and sun), and Bluetooth speakers play most anything you bring.
The tour includes two stops in quiet bays along the south shore of Sint Maarten. The first allows time to try out paddle boards, kayaks, noodling, as well as snorkelling (there’s plenty of marine life to enjoy). Lunch, dessert, and beverages are provided. The second stop includes a chance to try the ‘Tarzan Swing’, an entertaining rope swing that’s pure unadulterated fun.
You can learn more about this must-do cruise at www.randomwind.com.
8. Zip Down Mountains With Rainforest Adventures (Rockland Estates)
Rainforest Adventures offer zip lining and other fun experiences in St Maarten (Photo courtesy Rainforest Adventures)
Although this attraction is number eight on our list, it should be your first choice if you’re a virgin visitor to SXM. What better way to orientate yourself to the incomparable views and specific locations of key places on the island? Even if you’re a veteran visitor to the island, the 360-degree vistas at the top of Green Mountain will astound you.
Rainforest Adventures, located just outside Philipsburg on the historic Emilio Wilson Plantation Estate, offers three options for fun adventures, all of them including riding the Soualiga Sky Explorer chairlift. The Schooner Ride is the first stop up the chairlift, where you’ll surf down the mountain in an inner tube through the curves and straightaways of a specially designed track.
The Sentry Hill Zipline is the second stop and consists of a circuit of four short, separate ziplines from one platform to another. And the Flying Dutchman, the main attraction, is the steepest zip line in the world, and includes a flight line dropping 1050ft from an elevation of over 2800ft.
A bar, restaurant, and museum are also part of what is definitely one of the best St Maarten things to do. For further details, visit www.rainforestadventure.com.
9. Have a Tipple (or Two) at Topper’s Rhum Distillery
One thing the Caribbean is known for – next to its beaches – is its rum. The spirit was first distilled on the islands during the 17th century when sugar plantation slaves discovered molasses. A by-product of the refining process, this was fermented into alcohol. Topper’s Rhum Distillery has perfected the distillation, aging, and blending processes and now produces award-winning rhum.
Topper and his wife enjoyed making flavored rhums for their friends at home so when they opened their landmark restaurant in St. Maarten (called Topper’s, of course), on the main street in Simpson Bay, they began giving complimentary after dinner drinks to their restaurant guests, who fell in love with it. They quickly went from fulfilling individual requests to producing a supply for local restaurants and stores.
In 2008 they commercialized the brand, which gained a lot of attention. In 2012 they moved from their home kitchen to a 6,000 sq ft facility. Their vision was to share their products throughout the world.
Plan an excursion to the distillery and sample a variety of distinctive flavoured rhums. A popular rhum is Topper’s Banana Vanilla Cinnamon Rhum – it’s not only delicious to drink but is sensational over ice cream, pancakes and French toast.
Visit their website at www.toppersrhum.com for more details.
10. Sail the Seas Aboard NO1 SXM
The best way to elevate your body, mind, and spirit is a trip on board this tri-maran (triple hull) sailing vessel. You are in excellent hands with mariners Pieter and Mirian who deliver expert sailing skills on a seven-hour trip around the entire island. This dynamic couple originally are from the Netherlands but have called SXM home for over 25 years. Ask them anything about St Maarten and they will definitely have the answers and more.
The NO1 SXM is the best way to understand and experience SXM’s geography and its numerous nooks, bays, rockheads, islets, and more. Whether you want a private sail, a sunset sail or for groups up to 12, the delectable cuisine, beverages of all types, and history of the island will keep your memories of SXM alive. She sets sail out of Simpson Bay.
Whether you’re looking for a sailing adventure or lazy cruise, the comfy cushions on two wide mesh trampolines will comfort the journey. When the sails catch the wind and change direction you can sit on one side or the other to get as much or as little sun as desired. Be sure to bring a hat, shirt, and sunscreen. If you think sea sickness might be a problem, take an anti-nauseant before your departure.
The seven-hour trip includes a stop at Tintamarre Island, at the top of the boot. Guests have the option of floating into shore on noodles, snorkeling, or paddle boarding. Walk the powdery sand while admiring the lush flora and fauna: seagrapes, elephant ears, azaleas and rhododendrons; bird watching is recommended, too. Fabulous lunch cuisine awaits upon your return along with beverages and drinks of your choice. Two appetizing snacks are also offered mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
Familiarize yourself with the tropical intercoastal greens and blues of land, sea and sky by booking a trip on this spectacular excursion at www.no1sxm.com.
11. Sint Maarten Yacht Club Bar and Restaurant
A wonderful way to experience the lagoon and its many yachts and sailing vessels is enjoying a drink or meal at the Sint Maarten Yacht Club. It’s perfectly located at the Simpson Bay Bridge where the open-air restaurant provides a superb vantage point to view boats sailing in or out of the lagoon.
The drawbridge covering the channel connects the lagoon to the open sea. At different scheduled hours the bridge opens for yachts to transit and so the car traffic is stopped. Whether you’re a boat enthusiast or not, it’s an opportunity to experience the boating lifestyle in a delicious setting. Time your meal to coincide with the opening of the bridge and boat traffic. For bridge schedules visit www.marinafortlouis.com.
Visit the yacht club’s website at www.smyc.com.
12. The St Maarten Heineken Regatta
This world-famous sailing festival takes place near the beginning of March, and in 2020 celebrated its 40th anniversary. Seasoned veterans and enthusiastic newcomers from over 35 countries sail in the event, now the largest regatta in the Caribbean.
With spinnakers in full sail, onlookers are dazzled by the 150-plus boats zigzagging around the island. All the action takes place in the Simson Bay area, including the Regatta Village (Thursday to Sunday) which is set up under numerous tents on the far side of the lagoon. Here visitors can enjoy a cool Heineken or other refreshing beverages while mingling among the artists, food stands, craft vendors, and retail shops. Live music will get your feet stomping as you revel in the Caribbean feel of this renowned regatta. There’s lots of parking.
For more information visit www.heinekenregatta.com.
Contributor Sue Kelly is a frequent visitor to the island paradise of St Martin and St Maarten. She’s also a radio host, educator and author of Still Sexy After Sixty (www.stillsexyafter60.com)