St. Maarten: The iconic image of planes flying in to land over sunbathers’ heads has already put this Caribbean island on the map. But beyond that photo, what else does this corner of paradise have to offer?
Close to millionaires’ playground St Barts, Saint Martin is home to some of the Caribbean’s best beaches, rugged mountains and a deliciously warm tropical climate – average temperature 26 degrees.
At 37 square miles and with a population of around 75,000, it’s smaller than well-trodden holiday destinations such as Barbados and Saint Lucia, but is rich in history, culture and food.
Holidaymakers may be surprised to find the island is part French and part Dutch and locals were keen to share the legend behind the country’s borders.
Allegedly, a representative from each side attempted to define their land by starting at Oysterpond on the east coast, and walking in opposite directions around the island.
Wherever they met, a line would be drawn, defining the border.
However, the Dutch representative enjoyed a few beverages and kept falling over – so as a result the Dutch area is smaller!
Named originally by Christopher Columbus, who sighted it on St. Martin’s day, French signage calls the island Saint Martin, while the Dutch call it Sint Maarten… but as I travelled around the nickname that united the two was SXM, with the slogan ‘the friendly island’.
The two European cultures are really evident, but there’s a strong Caribbean vibe too – plenty of reggae and BBQ chicken! In fact, what sets Saint Martin apart from its neighbours is its gourmet food culture.
It’s not just thanks to the French influence – over 110 different nationalities call the island home, so if you’re looking for Indian, Asian, Italian or something more obscure, you’re likely to find it here.
As if you weren’t keen already, there’s a brand new reason to visit Saint Martin.
SXMusic Festival, the Caribbean’s newest dance music festival launched earlier this month with an all-star line up of 75 DJs and 2,000 partygoers.
I enjoyed daytime beach parties on Palm Beach, with its tropically decorated stage, booming sound system, impressive visuals and the faint murmer of waves lapping the shore.
Guy Gerber, Jamie Jones, Maceo Plex, Danny Daze and Lee Burridge all drew in massive crowds, but you could also check out plenty of new talent – mostly hailing from Canada and the US.
For many, this was an extravagant break from stressful jobs and a chance to let their hair down… for five days straight.
More than once I heard it described as a ‘cooler version of Burning Man.
The week’s most exclusive event – the VIP jungle party at the secluded Loterie Farm.
Along with 400 others, I spent the afternoon sipping rum, dancing in the infinity pool and chilling out by the waterfall, while DJs mixed overhead in a tree house.
Being in its infancy, the festival offered an intimate experience – where you saw the same people more than once and gradually made friends throughout the week.
Many stayed in expensive villas in the hills and held chic after parties until the early hours.
Even the top names on the bill invited their friends along, enjoying the island’s charm during the day, then partying until sunrise. If that isn’t a compliment to Saint Martin, I don’t know what is.
While dance music lovers will definitely want to schedule their visit to coincide with SXMusic Festival 2017, there are plenty of reasons to visit Saint Martin all year around.
What to do
Hit the beach – Perfect soft white sand and bright turquoise water make trips to the beach pretty special.
From the moon-shaped Mullet Bay to the ‘clothing optional’ Orient Bay, you’ll definitely want to get out and about to find your favourite.
Plane spotting on Maho Beach – Who would have thought it would be so popular? Princess Juliana Airport is metres from Maho Beach, meaning jets skim over your head as they come into land.
Grab a seat at Sunset Bar (which posts the daily landing schedule on a surfboard outside) and enjoy the view as daredevils stand directly in the flight path.
Boat trip – One of the best ways to experience Saint Martin is out on the water.
Coconut Reef offers one of the island’s best trips, jetting off on a powerboat, snorkelling with colourful tropical fish and turtles before relaxing on stunning Pinel Island – home to tortoises and iguanas.
It was one of the highlights of my visit, not least because of captain Richard’s hilarious commentary.
Marigot – The French capital oozes charm.
There’s a daily market where you can buy everything from spices and jewellery to loud shirts. After shopping, climb up to Fort Louis for one of the best views of the island.
Shop – Head to the Dutch capital Philipsburg and check out duty free designer stores on Front Street. With everything from Mac to Tiffany, you’re bound to pick up a bargain.
The Dutch side is also home to several glitzy casinos if you want to splash the cash in other ways.
Anguilla – Frequently voted as having the world’s best beaches, Anguilla is only 25 minutes by ferry. It’s a British territory, so if you’re missing home you can nip over and drive on the left!
Watersports – Plenty of companies offer jet ski and stand up paddleboard rental. If you’re feeling adventurous, have a go at flyboarding.
Where to eat
Calmos Café in Grand Case is one of the island’s best beachside restaurants.
The menu of freshly caught fish, live reggae band and rum punch felt unmistakably Caribbean.
For the best pizza in Saint Martin we headed to Mezza Luna right on the beach in Nettle Bay.
For a special lunch, I enjoyed Ocean 82’s high-end French cuisine with a Caribbean twist.
Think grilled prawns in rich garlic butter and crème brulee with a hint of ginger.
The Dutch capital, Philipsburg has plenty of colourful restaurants across from the beach. Lizzy’s Bar and Grill served some of the best sticky BBQ chicken I had on the island.
Oh and don’t go home without trying the island’s tipple – Guavaberry Rum!
Where to stay
I stayed at Mercure Saint Martin Marina and Spa – an upmarket hotel on the French side.
Located on a picturesque bay in the marina, with quirky artworks dotted around the grounds, its marina-view restaurant served a selection of gourmet dishes from locally caught Mahi Mahi to ribeye steak.
During daylight hours there are public buses between Marigot and Philipsburg, and Maho Beach and Philipsburg.
A great way to see the island at only $2 per journey.
Taxis are readily available at the airport, hotels and in the main towns.
Most journeys will cost a maximum of $30 and drivers are usually very friendly and keen to tell you stories about island life.
During SXMusic Festival, organisers put on a fleet of shuttle buses, moving partygoers from beach clubs to nightclubs.
Everyday, several flights connect Saint Martin with other Caribbean islands, including St Kitts, St Barts and Curacao.
Good to know
The island has three currencies in circulation: US dollars, Euros and Dutch gilders.
Often US dollars and Euros are exchanged 1:1 (which isn’t necessarily a good thing!) To keep things simple, I stuck to dollars, which were widely accepted and tended to offer better rates.
Dutch and French are both official languages on the island, but nearly everyone speaks perfect English.
Saint Martin is on the route for several cruise ships. They dock in Philipsburg so the city may be particularly crowded (and best avoided) on certain days.