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St. Maarten

St. Maarten Beach Vacation Tips

Great Bay Beach runs beside the boardwalk and shopping district of Philipsburg. © 2020 Scott S. Bateman
St. Maarten travel tips start with an understanding that two countries control this southeastern Caribbean island.

The Dutch side is Sint Maarten and the French side is Saint Martin. The difference is important to know for anyone planning a beach vacation there.

The French side covers two thirds of the landmass even though it attracts far fewer vacationers. The Dutch side, which includes both the airport and cruise port, covers the rest. Places to stay on the French side are mostly villas, while the Dutch side has most of the hotels. So despite its smaller size, the Dutch side is where most hotel and resort visitors go for a beach vacation.

St. Maarten is the ninth most popular island for hotel and resort visitors to the Caribbean, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. It is more popular as a cruise destination and attracts more than three times as many people by cruise than by overnight visits.

The island is a popular cruise destination because of the Philipsburg cruise port on the Dutch side. It offers a great shopping and dining district with Great Bay Beach right by the city.

We have visited the island multiple times as both hotel and cruise visitors. We found more than enough fun to fill one full day or an entire week.

Use the following St. Maarten travel tips based on our personal experiences to help plan your trip.

Where is St. Maarten?


St. Maarten is due east of San Juan, Puerto Rico, as well as the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.

Hotel and Resort Tips


Hotel and resort visitors usually fly into Princess Juliana International Airport on the southwest coast of the island at Simpson Bay. The airport is somewhat famous because airliners fly right over Maho Beach and blast beach visitors with jet exhaust. It knocks some of them over and has even caused a few deaths.

The airport is conveniently close to many of the hotels. The majority of them are clustered in two beach locations within about five to six miles of the airport. One is along the southeastern shore of Simpson Bay and the other is farther east at Philipsburg. Many prices stay within a range of about $150 to $250 a night, although a handful cost more or less than that range.

The island has no international hotel brands and fewer hotels in total than other Caribbean islands such as St. Lucia. It may not attract as many hotel visitors as other islands because of its small size, but we had a full week during our visit there.

Attractions and Shore Excursions


St. Maarten is much more a things-to-do island rather than a things-to-see island. It is stronger on recreational activities than on historical and cultural attractions.

Two of the most popular attractions on the island are the capitals -- the cruise port of Philipsburg on the Dutch side and Marigot on the French side.

Like the nearby St. Kitts, the island is busy around the cruise port in Philipsburg and quiet on most of the 35 beaches and around the resorts and hotels.


Fort St. Louis, Marigot
The ruins at Fort St. Louis in Marigot offer great views of the island. © 2020 Scott S. Bateman
Philipsburg is a popular attraction with both cruise and hotel visitors because of the many duty-free shops that line Front Street. It runs parallel to the boardwalk along Great Bay. Cruise and hotel visitors also will find a nice beach on Great Bay that sits right beside the city.

Unlike the busy Philipsburg, Marigot is a quiet and very French town on the other side of the island. It also has some nice shops plus a local craft market that shows up in the town center a few times a week.

While in Marigot, visitors may climb up to Fort St. Louise, which has panoramic views of Marigot and Marigot Bay. The French built the fort in 1765 to protect Marigot from the English.

More adventurous souls can take a quick ferry from Marigot over to the even quieter Anguilla for a day of snorkeling or relaxing on that island's beautiful white sand beaches.

Two other attractions on the French side are worth mentioning. The town of Grand Case is known for the best restaurants on the island. The clothing-optional Orient Beach is one of the most famous -- and expensive -- beaches in the Caribbean.

Transportation / Getting Around


Getting from one place to another isn't always easy, even though the island is small.

Plenty of car rental agencies reside in Philipsburg and the Simpson Bay area near the airport. But roads often become congested and lack traffic signs. We found driving was much easier and less congested on the French side.

During our hotel vacation on St. Maarten, we rented a car at Simpson Bay for only one day to visit the best attractions on the island. They included Marigot, Orient Beach and Philipsburg.

Taxis operate on fixed fees but do not have meters. Be sure to ask for the rate before getting into the taxi.

Minibuses that act something like a combination of taxis and public buses cover most of the island. They are inexpensive, do not have fixed schedules and stop at fixed locations. They usually accept Euros and U.S. dollars. Visitors should simply raise their hands at a stop when a minibus approaches.

Tourism / When to Go


St. Maarten lies within the hurricane belt. The most popular months to visit are December through April.

The least popular are September and then October during the height of the Caribbean hurricane season.

Vacation Weather


Island weather has average temperatures in the 80s degree Fahrenheit all year long. It also has low humidity, gentle trade winds and brief but sometimes intense rain showers.

The average annual temperature varies by only seven degrees from month to month. The average daytime temperature drops to 83 degrees Fahrenheit in January and increases until it average 89 Fahrenheit from June through August, according to historical data from the Meteorological Department of St. Maarten.

St. Maarten monthly rainfall
St. Maarten average monthly rainfall. © 2020 Scott S. Bateman
July through November is the official island hurricane season. Rainfall reaches a high point from August through November with November having the highest amount of any month.

Annual rainfall of 45 inches gives the island moderate vegetation in the same category as St. Kitts and others. In other words, don't necessarily go there for lush tropical rainforests.

Beach lovers will find that the best time to visit is late spring to early summer.

Currency / Tipping / Taxes


Official currency is the Euro on the French side and Netherlands Antilles florin (guilder) on the Dutch side. But U.S. currency and major credit cards are widely accepted on both sides of the island.

Hotels usually add a 15 percent service charge on the Dutch side and 10-15 percent on the French side. Taxes typically are 5 percent on the Dutch side and a variable rate averaging 5 percent on the French side.

Culture / Geography


The official languages are French and Dutch on the respective two sides, although English and even Spanish are commonly spoken.

The economy is entirely dominated by tourism, which employs 85 percent of the workforce.

The island, which is only one-third the size of Washington D.C., is the smallest landmass in the world that is shared by two nations.
Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.

St. Maarten Hotel Map

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August 08, 2020
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