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 37 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, bars with music, and hotels.
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 good 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. There is a good beach here with lots of restaurants just off the sand. The water here has good protection.
St. Martin’s French side is a bit more laid back. The hotels and towns are spread out and nightlife is quieter. Orient Beach and Grand Case 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. Euros are used on the French side.
St. Martin Beaches
St. Martin has 37 beaches on its 37 square miles. Getting to them is easy with a reasonably priced Sixt Rental Car (sixt.com) and your GPS cell phone app leading the way.
Before heading to the beach, see where the wind is blowing. There were days that the beaches on the Dutch side were rough so we went north to the French side and vice–versa. By paying attention to the wind, you may be able to avoid beaches that have accumulated Sargassum Seaweed.
Topless is Ok
If you are into tanning, going topless on the island is acceptable. There are also designated beaches on both sides to go “au natural”
Mullet 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 $12 and $3 beers.
Orient Beach is St. Martin’s longest stretch of fine sand on the Atlantic side that is perfect for strolling and floating in if the winds are not strong. The south end is reserved for “buff beaching” only. On the north end, Avenue de Plages has a few shops, deli, a market, and restaurants. Le String Beach on the south side of Orient Beach is my go-to place. John here will set you up with loungers in return for buying their reasonably priced and well-made drinks or lunch. Using U.S. dollars instead of a credit card gets a one-for-one match on the Euro.
Long Beach is a beautiful section of soft sand that is about 1.5 miles long. To get there drive to Rue de la Falaise and tell the guards you are going to Long or Rouge Beach. St. Martin requires all beaches to be publicly accessible. The beach parking lot is marked on your cell phone map. During our visits, there were never more than 25 people on the beach.
Rouge Beach, around the corner from Long Beach, is another good place to bring your beach chairs. Swim out 50 feet and look north to see an arch in the water. Both Long and Rouge Beach offer no services. Be mindful of currents when swimming here.
Anse Marcel is one of St. Martin’s most protected beaches from the wind and surf. You can park near the Secrets Hotel and bring your beach stuff down the narrow easement. The restaurant Le Domaine offers a pricy lunch with pricy lounge chairs near the end of the beach.
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 a small island to the north of St. Martin. It requires a five-minute boat ride to access it. The island is in its natural state with the exception of the dock and the two beach club restaurants.
When visiting Pinel Island my choice is to make a reservation for lounge chairs and lunch at Le Karibuni Restaurant. (www.lekaribuni.com/restaurant) The beach here is shallow and calm making it perfect for floating around on a raft. For lunch order the fresh fish or lobsters that are plucked out of the trap by the dock. On busy days, have lunch delivered to your lounge chair. New this year to Le Karibuni is their solar cells that power 70% of their electricity.
St. Martin Fun
Sail Around St. Martin Island
For a perfect day on the water, we sailed around St. Martin aboard the Spellbound. This is a 45-foot catamaran operated by St. Maarten Charters.
Boarding was in Simpson Bay and after a safety briefing, the 15 guests aboard spaced out and started enjoying their custom-ordered drinks, beer, rum punches, and wine. We cruised by a dozen beaches on our starboard side viewing the mountains above them.
Spellbound’s first stop was Creole Rock to snorkel and swim. While the snorkeling is not great here, we did enjoy following a two-foot octopus that changed colors.
The second stop was off the uninhabited Tintemarre Island. Here guests had a white sandy beach to themselves followed by lunch aboard of grilled chicken and ribs with salads. The captain does troll for fish when underway and if they get lucky, the catch is added to the menu. Our day ended shortly after passing the large cruise ships docked in Phillipsburg. https://www.stmaartencharters.com
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 will stop at 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 is the happiest place in St. Maarten to spend $10. Everyone here just smiles as they walk through the Caribbean’s largest aviary having 30 species of the prettiest birds. Your fee includes a hand cup with feed that will have the birds come to you. www.facebook.com/parotteville/
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.
Rainforest Adventures goes from mild to wild. For the mild, you can take the slow chair lift to St. Martin’s highest peak for 80-mile views of nearby islands. For the more adventurous you can take their four zip lines that go between the smaller peaks for the fun and the views.
For thrills, you can ride the longest zip line in the Caribbean. This drops 1050 feet down in 2800 feet of length hitting speeds of 45 mph. It looks scarier than it is. It is also the world’s steepest zip line.
The Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit is one of the most unique museums in St. Martin located in Phillipsburg. It is run by Nick Maley, the artist who help create Yoda and other Star Wars movie characters.
Here you will learn how things were done behind the camera as well as see dozens of movie and non-movie artifacts. This is a well-spent 40 minutes for any fan. http://netdwellers.com/mo/ygme/index.html
The Rusty Parrot Pirate Experience in Phillipsburg is located in a ship-like structure near the water. Visitors walk through several rooms set up like a ship’s interior while watching screens and listening to the tale of Captain Jack Rackam and Anne Bonny. Once through the exhibit go top-side where they have a nautical theme bar with views of the harbor and a very good rum punch. https://stmaartenpirates.com/
Sint Maarten Yacht Club is the place to be if you like happy hour and large yachts. Here the bridge goes up at 4 PM and 5 PM which allows you to sip on your discounted cocktails while watching yachts worth tens of millions of dollars slip through the narrow channel just 20 feet from you.
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.
Fort St. Louis sits majestically above Marigot. To get to the fort’s ruins it takes about 3 minutes to climb the stairs. Once there you be rewarded with a view of the harbor as well as much of the Dutch side.
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).
The tour continues on the brewery floor where you draw yourself the freshest beer from the large steel barrels. www.sanmartinbeer.com
Toppers Rhum Distillery has a rum experience that includes a tasting of their flavored rums. There is no distilling here and this is not the place to visit if you are a serious sipper of better rums. I do recommend their gelatos. www.toppersrhumtours.com
Governors 1648 near Orient Beach is the place to try aged rums and high-quality flavored rums. Presently the distilling is done off-island but they blend and barrel-age up to ten years in St. Martin. We were impressed with the complexity and taste of their products. Their banana vanilla rum is the real deal complete with banana and vanilla stick in the bottle. www.rhumisland.com
Oh That St Martin Food!
The old saying “stay and play on the Dutch side but dine on the French side” is passé. You will dine well over the island whether it be on seafood, Creole, French, BBQ, gourmet continental or sushi to name just a few types of restaurants.
The Dutch Side:
Le Moulin Fou in Maho is fine French fare. We dined here a few times and found each visit excellent and consistent. During one dinner they cooked on an early request their Beef Bourguinon and chocolate mousse that nailed it. Their lobster Thermidor is worth a trip back. https://moulinfou.com/
Emilios located in a historic stone building is the place for brunch. It has an excellent buffet serving every breakfast item you can think of. There is also the lunch side if you prefer with grilled meats, fish, and shrimp surrounded by different salads and sides. Take the add-on unlimited mimosas and choose between orange, guava, or passion fruit in your Champaign. https://emilios-sxm.com/
Beirut was a nice change up from the French and Caribbean meals we were having. Their hummus, salads, and meats are as close to the Middle East as they come. http://www.beirutsxm.com/
Julie’s (very) French Bakery in Cupe Coy is worth a morning visit if you are staying in this area. We enjoyed their crescents, baguettes, mini-French toast, pastries, chocolate mousse and fresh juices. They also have baguette sandwiches to go.
Café Atlantico in Simpson Bay has the best breakfast menu. This includes skillets, specialty French Toast, savory crepes and eggs cooked all different ways. http://cafeatlantico.restaurantwebexperts.com/
Three Amigos in Maho serves up the perfect $2 taco Tuesday that can be washed down with $3 beers or $9 Patron Margaritas. It has a fun bar atmosphere where tourists start-up friendly conversations.
Dutch Blonde Beer Restaurant on the beach is one of the few places that serves authentic Dutch pancakes. They offer sweet and savory pancakes or ones filled with chicken, shrimp, vegetables, and eggs. This is owned by the Dutch Blonde Brewery. New this year are wine, beer, and cheese-tasting experiences.
Mario Bistrot at The Cliff is fine dining. Here we enjoyed his unusual take on French onion soup, the pistachio-crusted mahi-mahi, the chicken split and grilled as well as their fresh pasta dishes. Save room for desert! https://www.mariobistrot.sx/
Marigot’s “Container” Restaurants are very authentic Caribbean-style places to eat. They are located between Blvd de France and the water. Here you will find several restaurants back to back. The kitchens are made from old shipping containers. The food here is cooked by local moms and grandmas. Prices are usually no more than $20 per person including a beer or rum punch. These restaurants are very casual, tasty, and frequented by both locals and tourists.
After dinner drive south a quarter-mile and pull off on the right by the bay to look at the dozens of sailing mast lights looking like stars over the water.
Fine Food in Gran Case
L’Auberge Gourmand has been in Gran Case for over 40 years. When you think classic French, this is your place. For starters, they have the richest French onion soup on St. Martin and escargot with just the right amount of garlic. For main courses, you will not go wrong with their veal chop or rack of land. Each dessert is better than the next. https://www.laubergegourmande.com/
Le Villa is a fun and tasty place. They check all the boxes when it comes to good French cuisine with a little humor thrown in by the servers. The foie gras and its accompanying sauces were the island’s best. Main courses enjoyed included their take on Mahi-Mahi with baby clams, chorizo, creamy saffron sauce, and the rack of lamb. At the end of the meal, they ply you with their homemade infused rums complimentary. www.lavillasxm.com
Le Cottage has a three-course option with two matched wines for $95E. Winners were the mushroom risotto, almond-crusted roasted mahi-mahi, and the vodka-infused amuse-bouche between courses. Do not miss their “interactive” chocolate fondant dessert that unfolds before your eyes. Yum! The 15-second video shows it all. https://photos.app.goo.gl/WXiwuAsXCXRwoiPK9)
Lolo pots of Gran Case is St. Martin casual. Lolos are BBQ pits where everything is grilled over the fire. There are three open-air restaurants next to each other. I had a very large Caribbean lobster split and grilled for two at $60. Ribs and chicken average about $15. I have found the food here good, never great.
For those staying in condominiums, I recommend the Carrefour in Cole Bay for groceries. This place is very large, clean and has everything you will need. To add to St. Martin’s Euro feel, you will find ten different styles of pate, a dozen European cured or smoked meats and 25 different brands of rose wine. For fish, go to Marigot’s market on Wednesday mornings no later than 7:30 AM to get the best picks.
St Martin Accommodations:
The Cliff House in Cupe Coy is an 11-story modern condominium. It has the newest and largest infinity pool in St. Martin. Our two-bedroom unit (4F) was 2000 square feet complete with balconies in every room and a complete kitchen. Staying in a condo was convenient for breakfast and lunch and for a few dinners we cooked. There is a full gym, indoor lap pool, and spa. Reservation inquiries can be had at email@example.com or go through VRBO / Airbnb for The Cliff.
For an upscale resort, La Sammana (a Belmond property) is the queen of the island. Located at the end of Long Beach, this beautiful resort reopened in 2021 after a major refurbishment. Accommodations run from spacious suites to multi-bedroom independent villas with private pools. The property has a full spa and two pools overlooking the beach. (One is an infinity pool) The restaurant offers fine food and craft cocktails. Reservations are mandatory for non-hotel guests. Look at all the nice art on the walls. website
Sonesta Maho Beach Resort is an all-inclusive hotel situated on 10 acres extending out to the ocean. The property has two buildings. One is designated as adults-only having their own restaurants and pools. The other is for adults or families. Accommodations run from spacious rooms to my favorite being their duplexes having nice views. The center of the property has a large pool with water slides and a swim-up bar. Sonesta Maho has five restaurants, the island’s best casino, and entertainment on most nights. There is a full spa and kids club. website
The St. Maarten Heineken Regatta
Each March about 100 sailboats and crews from around the world converge on one of St. Martin’s biggest events. The St. Maarten Heineken Regatta is four days of racing and the island is abuzz with the action. For sailing fans, it is an opportunity to see the best racers in different heats and size boats compete. For those not so much into sailing, a good reason to be here is for the parties and concerts that take place after dark. The regatta festivities end with one final farewell concert in Heineken Village in Cole Bay. https://www.heinekenregatta.com/
For getting around I recommend Sixt car rental www.sixt.com They were efficient in getting us from the airport and quick to do the paperwork. firstname.lastname@example.org