A Euro Caribbean Feel on St. Martin
Two Cultures, Great Beaches, and That Food on St. Martin
By Tab Hauser
St. Martin is a Caribbean island where two nations, with two different vibes, share an open border of 34 square miles of fun in the sun.
The Dutch side, known as Sint Maarten, has a more festive atmosphere in my view. The neighboring areas of Maho and Simpson Bay are where you will find most of the restaurants, waterside bars, and hotel rooms.
Nightly entertainment and happy hour hopping are always happening here.
Phillipsburg, the Dutch capital, can be mobbed (and avoided) when the cruise ships are in. Front Street is full of tourist shops.
One block away is the waterfront promenade where you will find a beach and restaurants. Due to St. Martin’s duty-free status, Phillipsburg has a large concentration of jewelry stores. The U.S. dollar is the main currency.
St. Martin’s French side is a bit more laid back. The tourist hotels and towns are spread out and nightlife is quieter. Orient Beach and Grand Case beaches are very popular. The capital of St. Martin is Marigot.
It has pretty colored buildings with narrow streets lined with shops. The waterside has sidewalk cafes and restaurants. It is a French village in the tropics. Fort St. Louis sits majestically above and is worth a quick visit to see the ruins and the view. Euros are used on the French side.
St. Martin Beaches
People flock to St. Martin for its beaches. Getting to them is easy with a reasonably priced rental car and your GPS cell phone app leading the way.
Mullets Beach was our regular go-to place near the condo we rented in Cupe Coy. It is a perfect 1200 feet of soft sand and gentle surf.
Loungers can be rented for $15 (they ask $20). Rosie’s Grill was our food choice having a plate of ribs or chicken for $10 and $3 beers.
Orient Beach is a must-visit (except perhaps when five cruise ships are in port). This is the longest stretch of fine sand on the Atlantic side perfect for strolling. The south end is reserved for nude beaching only.
Avenue de Plages has a few shops, deli, market and restaurants. At the end of the street, you can rent loungers for $20 and have an upscale lunch at the String Bikini.
On a second and third visits, we opted for the free loungers at both Orange Fever and Sun Beach Clubber. Orange Fever has a more standard beach menu for less money. Sun Beach Clubber has pads on their chairs with the food scaled up a little. Both accept U.S. dollars on par with the Euro when paying cash. Here we enjoyed a beautiful rainbow over the Atlantic.
Friar’s and Happy Bays
Friars Bay has a small beach that is never crowded. A set of lounge chairs are $10 if you buy lunch. The Croque monsieur sandwich with crispy fries should be shared. Happy Bay, a pretty beach a ten-minute walk north has few people, no services, and you may have some here go “au naturel.”
Rouge Plage is a long soft sandy beach to lay out a blanket or bring chairs. Swim out 25 feet and look north to see an unusual arch in the water.
Grand Case: Avoid the beach behind the restaurants and go to the Grand Case Resort. Drive past the resort and look for public access. The hotel has beachside restaurant loungers to rent.
Simpson Bay has Karakter and Mary’s Boon beach bars complete with lounge chairs, food, and weekend music. The downside here is that you are near the runaway.
Sunset Beach is where the soft sand meets the runway and the jets fly 150 feet overhead. It makes a good photo opp but I would not want to spend the day there. The Sunset Bar posts the landing times.
An Island Off an Island
Pinel Island is located to the north and requires a five-minute boat ride to access it. The island is in its natural state with the exception of the dock where there are a sandy beach and two restaurants.
We preferred the swankier styled Le Karibuni Restaurant side where we spent the day on loungers, soaking in the calm waters and having an order of tasty tuna tartare for lunch.
Beach Services at Le Karubini are provided by beach boys who get your drinks and reposition your umbrella as the sun moves. Hiking around the entire island is an easy 45 minutes and is worth the views. Ask for some lettuce to feed the iguanas near the beach.
The old saying “stay and play on the Dutch side but dine on the French side” is passé. We found the food very good on both sides.
Sint Maarten Dining on the Dutch Side:
Le Moulin Fou in Maho is fine French fare. We dined here twice and for our second visit we requested (an off the menu item) Beef Bourguinon and chocolate mousse. Their lobster thermidor is worth a trip back.
Chesterfield in Phillipsburg offers seafood and Caribbean fare. The stuffed Mahi, Conch, and creole dishes were all excellent and priced well.
Beirut was a nice change-up from the French and Caribbean food. Their hummus, salads, and meats are as close to the Middle East as they come.
Julie’s (very) French Bakery in Cupe Coy is worth a morning visit (again and again). There crescents and baguettes come regular and multigrain. They also make fresh juices to order and have baguette sandwiches to go.
Three Amigos in Maho serves up the perfect $2 taco Tuesday that can be washed down with $3 beers or $6 Margaritas. It has a fun bar atmosphere where tourists start up friendly conversations.
Mario’s in Cupe Coy is fine dining. Here we enjoyed his snapper encrusted in crab meat sitting on two sauces. The duo of lamb served as a chop and Sheppard’s pie was a hit.
Le Villa Hibiscus was our big splurge dinner. Here Chef Bastian uses his many years as a two-star Michelin chef to serve up five, six, or seven-course dinners priced from 100E to 200E.
They take only 12 guests per night so reservations should be made before flying in. Once confirmed they will ask you for your dislikes and allergies and create an experience in a family-friendly setting at their mountain home.
Lolo pots of Grand Case is as Caribbean casual as it gets. Lolos are BBQ pits where everything is grilled over the fire. Look for Talk of the Town on the waterside where you will see three similar open-air restaurants next to each other. I had a very large Caribbean lobster split and grilled for $50. Ribs and chicken average about $15.
L’Auberge Gourmand has been in Grand Case for over 40 years. When you think classic French, this is your place. The service, portions, and food were perfect.
Get Off the Beach
Rhino Tours (www.rhinotours.com) lets you be the captain. The adventure has you follow a guide while you pilot a zippy little motorboat.
Your guide points out the wrecks in the basin, the beaches and points of interest along the coast. There is a stop at Creole Rock for snorkeling. It is a fun way to zoom around for 2 ½ hours.
Parrot Ville Bird Park (www.facebook.com/parotteville/) is a place to put a smile on anyone’s face. It is the Caribbean’s largest aviary having 30 species of the prettiest birds you will ever get up close to.
The $10 admission includes a hand cup with feed to get the birds to you.
Lotaire Farm (http://loteriefarm.com) is up in the hills. They have a pretty pool where they rent chairs and cabinitas in what appears to a “clubby” atmosphere.
My preference here was the rainforest hike verse the zip line.
Natural Pool in Back Bay requires a 20-minute walk from Turnstone Rd. Follow the unmarked path while admiring the rugged coastline.
Eventually, you will get to a spot where you will be required to carefully hike down to the pool. The pool is a protected area from the surf by rocks that on most days is accessible.
Aquamania Adventures (www.stmaarten-activities.com) for diving runs a crew that is very professional, safety-oriented and had enough humor to enjoy our two-morning dives. Both sights had us visit wrecks from Hurricane Irma and the fish that live around them. They also offer sailing and snorkeling tours.
If you like beer, take a tour of the Caribbean Brewing Company (www.sanmartinbeer.com). For $25 you get to sit at the bar while you learn about the brewery and drink (not taste) their four different beers along with a beer cocktail. (Non-beer drinkers are taken care of too).
You then move from the bar to see the brewery where you draw yourself the freshest beer direct from a tap the vat. If you are still thirsty, feel free to ask for another and another. They also have a beer garden with a view in Phillipsburg.
Toppers Rhum Distillery (www.toppersrhumtours.com) tours are $25 which includes a brief history of rum while tasting several of their flavored ones.
Guests then move on to paring of rum with house-made gelato and rum cake. The tour finishes with additional tastings from their rum taps.
The Nowhere Special Bar plays the best reggae music on St. Martin every Friday night with a drink many to match
St Martin Accommodations:
We stayed at a high-rise Cliff House in Cupe Coy. Being here allowed us to cook meals, have plenty of room, and had friends join us for a week. The Carrefour supermarkets have everything you need including the best selection of European pates, cheeses, and cured meats. They have 30 kinds of rum and you can “rose all day” from its two aisles of bottles.
For the Cliff House email firstname.lastname@example.org. Condominium units islandwide can be best found on www.vrbo.com.
On the Dutch side, most hotel rooms are in Maho and Simpson Bay where you can walk to the area beaches. The French side has hotels more spread out. For up north consider the Grand Case Resort (www.grandcasebeachclub.com) which has nicely appointed condo units.
Also in the north is the six-room Le Karibuni Hotel (www.lekaribuni.com ). These units have small kitchens and nice views. The advantage here is the free boat ride to Pinel Island and the use of their loungers at the beach. La Semana, the island’s premier hotel will be opening after a massive restoration in the spring of 2021.
About 2 million cruise passengers stop in St. Martin a year. Too many repeat and perhaps “jaded” cruisers I have come across have told me all the islands look alike. I hear, “been there, done that”. After spending three weeks on this multicultural island I can tell you I was just getting to know it and look forward to a return visit when two renovated and new hotels open up.
[A word on pandemic era flying to St. Martin or anywhere: I don’t consider myself a high person of risk. Risk is a personal thing we all must deal with on our own level. When I fly I wear safety goggles to protect my eyes from anything airborne. I also wear an N-95 mask to filter the air I breathe and don’t remove it during the flight. If I need to eat, I rip a piece of a protein bar and put in under my mask and chew. I also splurge for comfort class seating or if price reduced, first-class to be in the front of the plane where I board last and get off first]