St-Martin & Sint Maarten
The world's smallest area of land divided into two nations, this half-French, half-Dutch island's fascinating cultural mix incorporates a rich African heritage and 120 different nationalities speaking 80-plus languages, giving rise to some of the finest cuisine in the Caribbean.
Spread out around the island are 37 white-sand beaches, from busy stretches lined with pumping bars to tranquil hidden bays and coves. Water sports from snorkeling and diving to Jet Skiing abound, along with land-based adventures like hiking and zip lining.
Calamity struck in September 2017 when monster-hurricane Irma unleashed eight hours of fury over St-Martin/Sint Maarten. Devastation was thorough and wide-spread with some 90% of all buildings damaged or destroyed. Although recovery is still ongoing, the island is well on its way back. A reliable indicator was the return of the cruise-ship industry with up to seven vessels docking at Philipsburg port at once.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout St-Martin & Sint Maarten.
This petite offshore islet is fab for a sun-soaked afternoon. Refreshingly undeveloped (it’s part of the Reserve Naturelle Saint Martin or St-Martin Nature Reserve), Pinel’s calm west-facing beach has excellent swimming and decent snorkeling. Rent gear from Caribbean Paddling by the ferry pier in French Cul-de-Sac from where boats head to the island roughly every 30 minutes (five-minute trip, cash only). Casual Yellow Beach and more upscale Karibuni provide sustenance and sun loungers (€20 for two, including umbrella).
Loterie Farm is the brainchild of former actor Bill 'BJ' Welch who left the Hollywood rat race to turn a former plantation into a private nature reserve. You can explore the lush grounds on an easy 45-minute tropical forest hike (maps provided) or a one-hour treetop canopy tour with a high-ropes course, zip lines and elevated bridges. Many people, though, just come to relax by the spring-fed amoeba-shaped swimming pool ringed by cabanas or for lunch at the on-site restaurant.
If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-track beach, head to the northernmost point of Friar's Bay beach and look for the dirt path that twists for 450m over a bumpy headland with great views of Anguilla to perfectly deserted Happy Bay. This serene strip of powdery sand is completely bare (as are many of those who hang out here), so bring whatever you need to make you even more happy.
This 1st-floor museum is the brainchild of makeup artist Nick Maley, whose role in creating Yoda of Star Wars fame garnered him the nickname 'That Yoda Guy'. It winds though a whirlwind of rotating movie memorabilia that may include Han Solo frozen in carbonite, celebrity lifecasts from Marlon Brando to Michael Jackson, and a robotic Yoda puppet alongside photos, props, scripts, vintage posters, storyboards, and items from other films Maley has worked on including Men in Black, Alien, Terminator and Hellraiser.
One of the island’s top hidden beaches, Petites Cayes is accessible via the Sentier des Froussards (Froussards Trail), a narrow, steep and rocky trail that traverses St-Martin's last unspoilt forest. Wear close-toed shoes for the 2.5km trek to the beach that begins on the road leading into Anse Marcel (there should be a sign marked 'beach'). It’s a bit of a challenge, but worth the effort if you like privacy and don't mind bringing all you need with you.
It's a short but steep climb up to what's left of this once mighty fort, completed in 1789 under St-Martin's then-governor Jean Sebastian de Durat to protect the settlement of Marigot and its harbor warehouses storing rum, salt, coffee and sugarcane from British and Dutch pirates. It’s been abandoned for centuries but English and French interpretive panels detail its history and the view alone is worth the effort.
Pretty and protected, this west-facing cove has two beach bars, chic Friar's Bay Beach Café and funky Kali’s Beach Bar, which hosts famous full-moon parties. Both rent sun chairs and umbrellas. The beach is popular with locals and rarely deluged by cruise-ship passengers.
Although there are fewer vendors after Hurricane Irma, this colorful waterfront market is still worth a spin to browse for art, crafts and trinkets, pick up a bottle of local rum like the bark-infused Mauby or Shrub (infused with crushed orange peel) or simply sip freshly prepared coconut juice. Locals swing by for fresh meat on Saturdays and just-off-the-boat fish sold on Wednesdays and also on Saturdays.
Protected by two large headlands, this gorgeous and wide white-sand beach with clear sapphire waters is calm and popular with families. Snorkeling is particularly good (and safe) here, especially around the headlands. Enjoy views out to Anguilla from the sand or the posh Anse Marcel Beach restaurant. Caraïbes Watersports rents gear.