st maarten

St Maarten is an island in the North East of the Caribbean Sea, divided between its northern French side, called St. Martin, and its southern Dutch side, St Maarten, but the Dutch side is more populated than the French side. The island is approximately 300km (190ml) East of Puerto Rico.

The Dutch side of St Maarten is much more popular with tourists as it is not only home to the cruise terminal and airport but is also known for its festive nightlife, beaches, jewelry, drinks made with native rum-based guavaberry liquors, and casinos. Alternatively, if you prefer a more European vibe, the island’s French side is known for its nude beaches, clothes, shopping (including outdoor markets), and French and Indian Caribbean cuisine.

English is the most commonly spoken language along with a local dialect. The official languages are French for St Martin, and both Dutch and English for St Maarten. The official currency of St Martin is the Euro, while St Maarten uses Caribbean guilder. Although most stores will accept the US dollars, but at a much higher exchange rate. Public buses are the primary mode of transportation for visitors staying on the island. 

A wide variety of foods are commonly found on the island such as fresh seafood, French style cuisine, Creole-style dishes, Indian cuisine, and more. St Maarten’s cuisine is known for its intensely delicious flavors often made with creole spices, French herbs, or a modern blend of the two. Most meals are also paired with locally made rum, guavaberry liqueur, or fine French wine.

St Maarten is known for having a very festive and joyous culture and a bustling nightlife. This leads to a variety of alcoholic drinks being available on the island such as locally made rums, Dutch gins, and other island favorites such as piña coladas and daiquiris. The abundance of local fruits and vegetables on the island, also adds to the flavor and richness of the beverage culture in St Maarten. Guavaberry rum is the national liqueur of both French St Martin and Dutch St Maarten and is served in nearly all of the restaurants and bars on the island.

Neighboring islands include Saint Barthélemy (French), Anguilla (British), Saba (Dutch), Sint Eustatius “Statia” (Dutch), Saint Kitts and Nevis (independent, formerly British). With the exception of Nevis, all of these islands are easily visible on a clear day from St Maarten.

St Maarten encompasses several other parts, each part unique and different from the others, and it is important to know them in order to choose which is the best places to stay and things to do so as  to have a fine vacation if your planning of visiting the Island.

To help you with that, I created this guide with the best areas and accommodations on the island: from the touristic Simpson Bay to the laid-back Dawn Beach, the family-friendly Philipsburg, and the French Orient Bay, there is for sure the right area for your interests and budget.

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Places to stay and things to do in St Maarten

1. Philipsburg

Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch side of St Maarten, located in the southeast side of the island, right next to Dawn Beach. This lovely town is set on the Great Salt Pond, and offers an incredible number of attractions and activities for tourists. Despite being a mere four streets and a mile long, downtown Philipsburg has everything that a tourist looks for: great local flavor and international cuisine, sandy beaches and plenty of duty free shopping.
 
The town’s main streets – Front Street and Back Street are filled with Duty-Free shops, chic boutiques, casinos and restaurants, and as the cruise ships stop here, it’s lively all year round. There’s fascinating history to explore, with colorful Antillean architecture and the ruins of an old Dutch fortress nearby, and there’s a lively boardwalk lined with shops and restaurants along the edge of Great Bay Beach.
 
Philipsburg_st_maarten
Photo by scottnigel at Morguefile.com

Things to do in Philipsburg

  • Take your kids to St. Maarten Zoo
Just east of Philipsburg, this is the largest park of its kind in the Caribbean. More than 500 animals comprising 80 different species from the Caribbean basin and Amazon rainforest inhabit this safari reserve. There are no cages or bars of any kind. Rather, cannily erected, environmentally conscious “naturalistic” boundaries carefully protect both animals and visitors while duplicating typical habitats.
 
Monkeys, bats and mongooses are among the creatures in this zoo on the edge of the Great Salt Pond. Among the local fauna are the green iguana and red-footed tortoise, a large display of parrots and macaws and a dizzying number of tropical birds thanks to the zoo’s neighboring wetlands. There’s also a petting zoo and a pirate ship–shaped playground.
 
  • Check out the indigenous Arawak artifacts at St Maarten Museum
Housed in a traditional 19th-century house, St. Maarten’s only museum is devoted to the history of the Dutch side of the island. Exhibitions at the small museum focus on the island’s indigenous cultures, geology, and colonial history, while archaeological finds on display date back as early as 500 BC.
 
Visitors can explore the St. Maarten Museum on a self-guided tour and admire artifacts including old coins, model ships, and Arawak pottery. Exhibitions chronicle the island’s history, from the indigenous Arawak people through colonization by Spain, France, and the Netherlands to the island of today. Highlights include items from the 19th-century shipwreck HMS Proselyte, an exhibition on the 1995 Hurricane Luis, and an exhibit on the island’s salt industry.
 
  • Visit the Great Bay Beach
Great Bay Beach in Philipsburg offers a long stretch of gold sand, a mile-long boardwalk, and many amenities from shopping and dining to cocktails and relaxation. Shops just steps away from the beach allow you to find the ideal souvenir of your trip along with handmade arts and crafts by local artisans. You can head for one of the many seafood and barbecue restaurants along the shore, or of course, just spend the day swimming, splashing, or lying in the sand.
 
The boardwalk here is a mile long and offers tons of opportunities to soak up the local culture and atmosphere. You can also grab a relaxing seaside drink at a cocktail bar or café, and just recharge.
 
Check out this YouTube by Traveling Flamingo on  What to do in St. Maarten to have a Philipsburg Cruise Port Tour!
 

2. Simpson Bay

Simpson Bay, located in the southwest side of the island (the Dutch Side) is where to stay in St. Maarten if it’s your first time here. It’s the most popular area to stay on St Maarten and with several beach front locations perfect for setting foot right into the turquoise Caribbean Sea, it’s sure to make your stay in St Maarten the perfect Caribbean holiday.

When you stay in Simpson Bay you’ll be sure to enjoy the many water sports, restaurants, bars, casinos and shopping opportunities available here. St Maarten’s capital, Philipsburg, is a 10-minute drive and Marigot, the capital of St Martin is a only 20 minutes away by car.

If you want to spend a day reconnecting with nature, Seaside Nature Park is close by with horseback riding, hiking and snorkeling, and as the island’s ferry port is in Simpson Bay too, you can hop on a boat and explore neighboring Anguilla for the day. If you select Simpson Bay as your preferred area to stay in St Maarten, it has most of the islands’ 4 and 5-star luxury accommodations.

But one of the main things Simpson Bay is famous for is Maho Beach, where you can see the planes swoop into the land above your heads (Princess Juliana International Airport is literally just 5 minutes away).

 

simpson_bay_st_maarten
Image by 4045 on Freepik

Things to do in Simson Bay

  • Scuba & Snorkeling

A Simpson Bay scuba or snorkeling tour allows you to choose from a variety of marine vessels, including yachts, catamarans, self-drive inflatable boats, and a replica pirate ship, and glide on the ultramarine waters rich in tropical fish and sea turtles. Some tours combine snorkeling with hiking to the top of Pic Paradis, where you can get up close to the island’s prehistoric “monsters,” indigenous iguanas. Most excursions take either half or an entire day, but there are also 2-hour tours for those short on time.

  • Reconnect with nature at Seaside Nature Park 

Seaside Nature park, a unique place in Simson Bay, is a former plantation that brings back the feeling of the old days to its visitors. It encompasses 30 acres of unspoiled nature and it’s a few miles from the high development density that categorizes st marten. Surrounded on one side by the storage facilities for oil and water, the rustic facilities of the park will make you forget it all.

The Lucky Stables, the nature trails for horses and hikers, the beach and the beachside pavilion, a playground and pet farm offer a variety of activities for the whole family in a simple and unique set up. Horse ridding lessons are also carried out at the Lucky Stables.

Almost all animals at Seaside are open for an encounter. Hand-feeding the ducks, petting the miniature horses, nibbling goats, admiring the peacock or spotting the iguana, a joy for young and old. You also have the opportunity to do horseback riding with your horse and treat the animals to cool swim in the ocean. 

  • Do some plane spotting in Maho Beach

Feel the rumble at Maho Beach, one of the Caribbean’s most popular plane-spotting destinations. While other beaches draw visitors with their quiet setting, tourists flood this coastal spot to get exactly the opposite experience. Airplanes landing at an adjacent airport fly so low over this beach, the jet blasts can actually knock you over or blow you into the water. To spot the planes from a safe place, drop by one of the area’s beach bars, many of which feature arrival/departure timetables and broadcast real-time transmissions between the landing aircraft and the airport’s control tower.

  • Engage in cool water sports at Cupecoy Beach

Located on the island’s southwest tip, Cupecoy is a set of three beaches surrounded by limestone cliffs. It’s also the last beach on the Dutch side before crossing the northern French border. Travelers say the sunsets here have to be seen to be believed, with dramatic views of Saba in the distance. Consider enjoying the day’s end in one of the area’s beach bars, or by buying a cold beer from one of the local vendors walking along the shore.

  • Explore St. Maarten turquoise waters in this yacht excursion

Cruise on the ultramarine waters off St Maarten during this 5-hour yacht excursion from Simpson Bay. Step aboard the family-friendly yacht, the ‘Random Wind’, to meet your friendly captain and crew as the boat departs the pier. Find a comfortable spot on one of the boat’s cushioned seats in the shade or sun and get to know your group of 30 people or less as you watch the coastline fade into the distance.

Journey to both the French and Dutch sides of the island and admire several beaches on the way. Go snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding or try out the Tarzan swing. Eat a homemade lunch and sip drinks from the top shelf bar.

  • Enjoy the most beautiful sunsets at Mullet Bay

Many call calm and quiet Mullet a decent alternative to the noise and sand blasts of Maho Bay, or to the crowds of the French side’s Orient Bay. Along with its clear waters, travelers were pleased with Mullet Bay’s soft sand and surfer-ready waves.

Because of its proximity to the cruise terminal (about a 30-minute drive), you’ll likely encounter crowds when ships are docked. Mullet Bay sits near the airport, just south of scenic Cupecoy Beach and is free to visit.

Check out this YouTube by Diversified Diversions on things to do in Simpson Bay

3. Dawn Beach

Dawn Beach lies on the eastern shores of St Maarten, on the opposite side of Simpson Bay, and 30 minutes drive from the airport. If during your holiday all you want is relaxation, sun, and sand, this is the place for you. As this compact island is just 13 km in length and 16 km wide it’s really easy to explore by car. 

In Dawn Beach you can lay down on the white sands (like the one of Orient Bay beach), deep dive in the crystal clear waters and snorkel with colorful fishes during the day, and enjoy a tropical cocktail with a sunset view in the many beach bars as the sun goes down.

Keen photographers and outdoor adventurers can also hike the nearby peak of Pic Paradis which boasts incredible vistas of the island’s interior and coastline. Hotels in Dawn Beach are a combination of villas, apartments and luxury resorts to suit all tastes and budgets.

 
The town’s main streets – Front Street and Back Street are filled with Duty-Free shops, chic boutiques, casinos and restaurants, and as the cruise ships stop here, it’s lively all year round. There’s fascinating history to explore, with colorful Antillean architecture and the ruins of an old Dutch fortress nearby, and there’s a lively boardwalk lined with shops and restaurants along the edge of Great Bay Beach.
 
dwn_beach_st_maarten

Things to do in Dawn Beach

  • Swim in the turquoise water of Dawn Beach
Dawn Beach on the island’s east side offers some of the most spectacular sunrise vistas on the island, as well as amazing snorkeling opportunities to see native sea life. The beach sits right on the border of St Martin and St Maarten, offering the best of both worlds. Many people come here to take in a romantic sunrise view after a night of partying, while others seek to snap photos for their Instagram feed.
 
If you’re a snorkeling enthusiast, you’ll also find some of the most exciting views on the island. Not only will you see colorful tropical fish, but you might even see exotic sea life such as squid zipping through the water.
 
  • Get some adrenaline at Loteries Farm
Established in 1999 by an American expat, Loterie Farm is a private nature reserve where you can explore scenic nature trails lined by mango, mahogany, and gum trees, spot native wildlife like greenback monkeys, and soar through the treetops on the thrilling canopy zipline. Have a picnic by the freshwater stream, swim in the pool, or take a break from activities and have a delicious meal at the onsite restaurant.
 
  • Go hiking in the Pic Paradis and enjoy stunning views
Pic Paradis is the highest mountain in St Maarten as well as the highest mountain on the island of St Maarten. Head out on this 4.5-km out-and-back trail near Colombier, French St Martin. Generally considered a moderately challenging route, it takes an average of 2 h 4 min to complete. This is a very popular area for birding, hiking, and running, so you’ll likely encounter other people while exploring. The trail is open year-round and is beautiful to visit anytime.

4. Orient Bay

Located in the northeastern part of St. Martin, on the French side, the village of Orient Bay has become one of the most popular beaches on the Caribbean island. This area stands out with brightly colored roofs, friendly people and Mediterranean character. One of the best things you can do here is to simply relax on the beautiful Orient Bay Beach, nicknamed the “Saint-Tropez of the Caribbean”, the largest on the island. 
 
Even if super busy with tourists, this beach is definitely worth your attention, offering white sand, turquoise water, countless beach restaurants, hotels, and shopping options. What’s more, in true European style, the western end of the beach is for nudists if you want to hide from the crowds and take your tan to another level. On this side of the island, the Atlantic Ocean has stronger winds, so the ocean becomes the perfect base for a wide range of watersports as well as sailing, yachting, and boat tours.
 

Things to do in Orient Bay

  • Swim, splash and chill in the beautiful Orient Bay Beach.

Clothing remains optional at Orient Bay Beach, a lengthy stretch of powdery sand protected from the harsh Atlantic by a long reef. Located on the island’s eastern coastline, the beach provides plenty of space for parasailing, windsurfing, and partying the night away. Not everyone bares it all here, but a nearby nudist resort gives the beach a naturist bent. While access to the sand and surf is free, there’s a small charge for renting beach chairs and umbrellas.

  • Check out the historic Fort Amsterdam

Enjoy stunning views over the historic center of Philipsburg and the warm waters of the Caribbean when standing on top of Fort Amsterdam. This site is not only famous for its historical ruins, but also for its pelicans, which come here annually to breed. Climb the hill that overlooks Philipsburg to reach the fort. From the center of town, a trail will take you along the coast, offering stunning ocean views. Cycle tours are also available from within the town and follow a paved path to the fort.

The beautiful landscape is home to many creatures, including a large colony of brown pelicans. Look for one of the dozens of nests these birds build on the peninsula each year. The panoramic views from the fort are some of the best photo opportunities on the island. In one direction you can see across the roofs of the quaint town of Philipsburg, while in the other direction the Caribbean Sea stretches for miles. Visit the fort area at dawn or dusk for beautiful sunrise or sunset vistas.

Fort Amsterdam is just 2 miles (3 kilometers) from Philipsburg and can be reached on foot, by bike or by car. Parking is available within the grounds of the nearby Divi Bay Resort for a small fee. Access to the fort is free of charge.

Check out this YouTube video on other exciting things in St Maarten from IC Caribbean Tour
 

Traveling to St Maarten from New York

To visit St Maarten, you don’t need a visa for if you have a United States passport and there are no travel restrictions. 

Travelers don’t need a negative COVID-19 test result or proof of vaccination before traveling to St Maarten.

Travelers are recommended to wear masks in all public places where physical distancing is not possible.

Visit Caribbean latest travel requirements covid-19 update to get  more information on the covid-19 guidelines. 

Flying from New York to St Maarten

The flight time between New York JFK (JFK) and St Maarten (SXM) is around 6h 28m and covers a distance of around 2712 km. This includes an average layover time of around 1h 4m. Services are operated by JetBlue Airways, Delta and American Airlines. Typically 40 flights run weekly, although weekend and holiday schedules can vary so check in advance.

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Enjoy your vacation and stay safe!

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