Lush, mountainous and filled with the colors of the Caribbean, St. Maarten is a traveler’s delight. Although it measures just 12 miles from north to south and approximately the same across its breadth, this small landmass nevertheless is divided between two nations and has been this way since the 1600s. The Dutch-governed southern part of the island is a tapestry of salt pans and salt-water lagoons while the larger French territory in the north is full of tropical greenery-cloaked hills and spectacular beaches.
Each of these territories offers its very own special and decidedly different collection of influences, traditions and cultural traits while into this already colorful mix you can also add strong elements of African heritage. The result, overall, is that St Marten presents a tropical island experience which will feel more like exploring several countries rather than just a single destination.
You can come to St. Maarten and spend your hours simply sunbathing, snorkeling, swimming or otherwise enjoying the idyllic sands and coconut palm-fringed beaches. But St. Maarten is much more than just a beach destination for those who want to explore its many delights. If you happen to be a shopaholic or bargain-hunter the island is a shopper’s heaven with its duty-free status and markets while foodies are going to think they have arrived in wonderland in this destination known as the gourmet capital of the Caribbean.
Additionally, for those who want to get out and about this island is packed with things to see and do which range from the wonderful, beautiful or the historically interesting (and sometimes all three at the same time) to the once-in-a-lifetime variety. This latter includes such things as the opportunity to take part in a racing regatta or whizz down the one of the steepest zipline in the world.
Simply put St. Maarten is a destination for all whether your own personal definition of ideal is dancing until dawn, kayaking surrounded by the crystal waters of the Caribbean or cooling down on guavaberry cocktails in between visiting historic forts.
A Morning on St. Maarten
Your Caribbean morning begins exploring the bustle of Philipsburg, the Dutch capital of the island, to which you can add visits to two historic forts if you choose. After a short pause for morning coffee you can bring out your adventurous side with a scenic chairlift ride to a hill top followed by an incredible zipline experience….if you dare!
The downtown area of Philipsburg may be just a small collection of streets squeezed in between the Caribbean and its big salt pond but it manages to pack an enormous amount of interest into such a relatively confined space. The main arteries are Back Street, the coconut palm-filled Front Street and the lovely hotel- and restaurant-packed Boardwalk which lets you stroll for half a mile with the sparkling blues of the Caribbean as a constant companion. Connecting them all are any number of narrow side-streets with smaller shops and cozy cafes.
For many this duty-free haven is all about the shopping and if so there is enough to keep you happy all day if you have the time and inclination. Establishments such as Captain’s present you with a general wealth of duty-free products but you will also find electronics and high-end clothing options with jewelers and gem stores numbering more than 80. Dotted in between such recurring themes are more unusual gems such Magic Hands for hand-crafted gifts and Caribbean souvenirs and Cariloha. This latter specializes in clothes, home linens and housewares all made from eco-friendly bamboo fibers.
The most famous and arguably the most-visited of all the Dutch capital’s shops is the Guavaberry Emporium on Front Street. Occurring naturally on the island, the guavaberry is used as an ingredient in some wonderful sauces and drinks while the liqueur produced from a berry and rum combo is an essential part of the island’s culture. For centuries guavaberry liqueur was made in even the humblest of St. Maarten homes, a practice which continues to this day, and so intrinsically woven into the island´s story is this drink that there are various folklore stories and traditional songs written around the theme.
Located in a beautiful wooden building which was once the governor’s residence, the highly colorful and characterful Guavaberry Emporium is worth a visit even if you’re not interested in buying one of its many guavaberry products. If you want to try before you buy the shop has a walk-up bar where both the iconic liqueur can be sampled along with other guavaberry-based drinks.
If you are more interested in history than a retail fix then Philipsburg can deliver that too. 400M from the Guavaberry Emporium on Front Street is the town’s most famous and perhaps most-photographed historical building – the Courthouse. Constructed in 1793 as a private residence for the Scottish slave-trader Commander John Philips (the man after which the town is named), this wooden-pineapple topped building has also known uses as a jail, town hall and post office.
Older still and a little removed from the center are a handful of leftovers from the original days of colonization. The practice of salt harvesting is written into the St. Maarten story from the very beginning of its European colonization history and something which only came to an end in the 1960s.
To Europeans during the 17th and 18th centuries salt was a rare commodity – often referred to as white gold – and was the main reason the island was fought over by not just the Dutch and French but also the British and the Spanish. The Salt Pickers Monument in town – a collection of sculptured figures carrying out various salt-collecting tasks – pays tribute to this industry and the typically hard life of those involved in it including slaves and children.
One and a half miles north of town can be found another atmospheric leftover from this bygone era.
In 1862 an experimental salt-refining plant called the Foga was built but the venture quickly failed and was all but abandoned a handful of years later. The ruins of the Sucker Garden-located factory are a collection of overgrown rusting metal relics and crumbling walls which you can wander without seeing another soul.
Philipsburg can also boast two forts. The early 19th century Fort Willem less than a mile west of town and perched atop Bel Air Hill was built by the British and was originally called Fort Trigge until the Dutch seized it. Although all is in an advanced state of ruin here there are interpretation panels scattered around to fill you in on what you are looking at while the magnificent views of bay, islands and the Great Salt Pond are worth the visit here alone.
Far older and a little further away but still easily accessible is Fort Amsterdam which, dating from 1631, is one of the first permanent military defensive sites ever built in the Caribbean and Americas by the Dutch. Over the centuries this fort located one mile from the center was to swing between Spanish, British, French and Dutch ownership depending on who was at war with whom at the time. Although not as all-encompassing as at Fort Willem the views here are also stunning and there are several old cannons still in place. Just below the fort can be found a huge pelican breeding colony which is another attraction of this historical site.
The St. Maarten Museum
For all those who would like to explore the heritage of this Caribbean island in greater depth the town has a very small but incredibly well-curated museum – the St. Maarten Museum. Located on Front Street, this exceptional little second-floor place which feels very intimate has a highly diverse range of exhibits – many donated by islanders themselves – which includes everything from pre-Columbian artifacts to an exhibit focused on the story of the 1995 hurricane which left the island in such a state of devastation.
The first floor shop is a great place to browse for souvenirs and you can feel happy knowing that any purchase you make goes towards the upkeep of this museum which will help you understand not simply the historical but also the cultural elements of the island.
Of course if Caribbean lazing appeals more than either shopping or history you have a beach right here in town where you can rent loungers and shade umbrellas and simply gaze at the tropical sea.
Morning Coffee in St. Maarten
Philipsburg has any number of choices for when you are ready to take a pause in your morning. If Caribbean Sea views are your aim check out the Boardwalk while the smaller side streets are the perfect places to uncover the little hidden and quainter cafe choices.
One such in this category is the lovely Au Petite Cafe which like so much on the island disappeared for a while after Hurricane Irma in 2017 but is now back in business. The street tables shaded by umbrellas in this narrow little passageway cafe offer a great atmosphere and both outside and in Au Petite is full of bright Caribbean colors and simple charm.
Old Street 120
If you would prefer some of those Caribbean views to accompany your coffee head to Chesterfields on the east side of the bay. Located right on the Great Bay waterfront and open-sided to take full advantage of that fact, Chesterfields is primarily a restaurant and bar but popping in for a coffee is also possible. The décor is nautical, the breezes refreshing and the coffee decent while the views are of course the star of the show.
SXM Coffee Loung
For a complete break from the tropical heat, friendly staff and some quality coffee you can ensconce yourself inside SXM Coffee Lounge – the only establishment of this kind with air-con on Front Street. The hot and iced coffee choices here are diverse and there is a great variety of delicious pastries, cakes and croissants to keep you fueled up until lunch too.
The Soualiga Sky Explorer and Flying Dutchman Zipline
There are many different ways around the world to grab some stunning views of your surroundings but St. Maarten offers an unusual and wonderful combo for those with a spirit of adventure. The St. Maarten’s Rockland Estate, a half an hour ride from Philipsburg, is home to Rainforest Adventures and its Sky Explorer and Flying Dutchman. One is a peaceful ride to the top of one of the island’s highest points – Sentry Hill – while the other offers a very different and rather more thrilling way of coming down again via a spectacular zipline.
The Soualiga Sky Explorer is a chairlift which can take four passengers side by side. Completely safe and secured by a bar, you are otherwise completely open to your surroundings so those sensational views of sparkling Caribbean, green-cloaked hills and island towns can all be enjoyed to the full during your ride along almost 3,000 of cable.
Once at the top you can spend as much time as you like enjoying your high elevation views from a series of walkways and platforms from which the neighboring islands are clearly visible. Once you have had your fill you can then decide how you want to come back down the hill again. You can simply hop back aboard one of the chairlifts or for an adrenaline rush you aren’t likely to forget in a hurry you can descend via the Flying Dutchman – one of the steepest ziplines on the planet.
Dropping you more than 1,000ft at speeds which can reach as much as 56 mph, the Flying Dutchman has been thrilling island visitors since 2017 and has instantly become one of St. Maarten’s most popular attractions.
The Rockland Estate is part of the Emilio Wilson Park which was in bygone days a sugar plantation. While you are here you can also explore historical elements of this area with a visit to the 18th century plantation dwelling and the Emilio Wilson Museum now housed here. This wonderful little gem focuses on the story of Trace Wilson who was a plantation slave born in the early 1800s and of the purchase of the property almost 150 years later by Emilio Wilson – a direct descendant. Emilio’s aim was to honor those former slaves and show certain elements of plantation living as well as to keep the stories and legacies of St Maarten’s traditions and history alive.
There are also reconstructed slave quarters along with other buildings for you to explore and immerse yourself in this powerful and emotional story.
Lunch on St. Maarten
Once you have your feet firmly planted on solid ground again after either ziplining or a rather more sedate chairlift ride back down from Sentry Hill your easiest option for lunch is right there at the end of either option, at the bottom of Rainforest Adventure Park. Emilio’s Restaurant offers both an historic venue and quality food all in one and is named for Emilio Wilson. A well-loved character on the island and something of a hero who symbolized the spirit of his Afro-Caribbean ancestry, this man was the grandson of a former plantation slave who was to purchase the plantation for himself in the 1950s.
After losing his home to the 1995 hurricane, Emilio moved into the 17th century building which was once the estate’s sugar cane processing house. Following Emilio’s death this stone structure became a simple but elegant and atmospheric restaurant with exposed brick walls and roof beams.
The lunch menu offers a diversity of choices from ceviche to pizza with the flavors of the Caribbean not surprisingly something of a theme. There is also a great wine list which is respectable enough for even highly discerning wine drinkers and which offers some great pairings.
For an alternative lunch where you can feel like a VIP and which puts you at absolute beach-front head back to the Boardwalk in town and the lovely Ocean Lounge. Stylish and modern, this open-air venue offers top-end cuisine beautifully presented within an elegant lounge environment complete with large comfortable sofas strewn with cushions.
If you are a light-luncher there are plenty of snack-type plates while those who have worked up a considerable appetite after a morning exploring can feast on innovative seafood platters, burgers, steaks and much more from a menu prepared by highly-respected expert chefs from Holland. The wine menu is considered one of the best around too.
An Afternoon on St. Maarten
There are hundreds of ways to fill your St. Maarten afternoon. You can explore this fascinating and beautiful island under two flags in a wide variety of ways including by tram, bus, water taxi, 4X4 jeep, off-road ATV or even on foot as St. Maarten has some wonderful hikes. For water babies there is the chance to kayak to off-shore islands, snorkel crystal waters or have a go at SNUBA – an experience which allows the total novice to experience something of the underwater world normally only accessible to qualified divers. Or you can hop on-board a catamaran and visit some of the other neighboring tropical islands such as St. Barthelemey or Nevis which sit like little green gems amid a sea of turquoise blue.
Among the many other options there is also the opportunity to do something which you will almost certainly never have done before and are unlikely to ever do again – take part in a sailing regatta.
America’s Cup Sailboat Racing
Of all the extra-special things you can do in St. Maarten there is perhaps none which ranks quite so bucket-list worthy as the opportunity to take part in a race in a genuine America’s Cup sailboat.
Every three or four years two racing yachts go head-to-head to decide the winner of the America’s Cup – a competition so long-standing it dates back to the 1850s. The vessels which take part in these highly prestigious competitions are the Ferraris of the oceans – some of the sleekest, most high-tech and fastest boats in the world. Their design, build and maintenance set their owners back to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
As newer and even more high-tech vessels take their place these former racing legends and champions arrive in St. Maarten to be used to allow all who are game enough to have their own racing experience.
With the island’s 12 Metre Regatta – and regardless of whether you are a complete novice or something of a pro – you can take part in a head-to-head regatta which will skim you over the azure-blue waters of Great Bay. Quite how active you get is entirely up to you. You can simply sit back, watch the experts at work and enjoy the thrill of the chase. However, you can also play a highly active roll if you so choose trimming sails, grinding winches or taking on some other essential on-board task.
12 Metre Clubhouse and Boutique
Your experience begins with a 10 minute tender ride to get you out to your racing yacht awaiting you in the bay. If you have elected to be an active crew member this is where your task will be assigned to you and you will be taken through a brief of the various voice commands you will receive during the race and how you will need to react and respond. As your yacht makes its way to the start line you can practice these skills before being plunged into the race itself.
While slicing through the waters at speeds which are a complete surprise to most, it is impossible for all those on-board not to get caught up in the very real excitement and air of competition which pervades. While there will of course be only one boat which is technically the winner it is hard to feel like any kind of loser after such an exhilarating once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Once back on dry land at the 12 Metre Clubhouse and Boutique you can toast your incredible sailing afternoon with a complimentary drink and browse for a souvenir of your unforgettable adventure.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner on St. Maarten
Gorgeous beach-front decks with views directly over the Caribbean Sea, tucked away gems in lovingly-restored Creole houses and tables scattered on pavements awash with culture and history. This and so much more is what awaits among the choices of St. Maarten’s drinking and dining venues.
Wherever you go on this beautiful island you will find tropical cocktails galore, fine wines and the ubiquitous guavaberry rum to have to hand as you watch glorious sunsets splashing the sky with a palette of mauve, tangerine, and fire-red. When it comes time to dine you are simply spoiled for choice on an island that proudly claims the title of the culinary capital of the Caribbean.
Most would agree that there is no better combination for the perfect sundowner than that of tropical cocktails and Caribbean views. This is exactly what you will get almost anywhere you care to choose to have a pre-dinner drink on the island but one venue offers something incredibly different to add into the mix too.
Sunset Bar and Grill
If you make your way to the Sunset Bar and Grill located on Maho Beach about 13km west of Philipsburg you will have a front row seat for the awe-inspiring sight of watching jets landing at the island’s airport. Because of the approach to the Princess Juliana International Airport, when planes come in over the sea here they appear to pass just feet overhead and give you the sensation of being close enough to touch. These giants dwarf anyone on the beach and offer a sight of the truly spectacular kind. So iconic is this event that people gather specifically to watch the planes coming and going and the Sunset Bar and Grill offers the best views you can have while you enjoy a glass of wine or cocktail at the same time.
Should you be imagining a sunset session filled constantly with the roaring of planes don’t worry. Even at the busiest of times there will only be two planes an hour with the restaurant displaying the flight timetables so you can coincide your visit with the main event.
The incredible sight of the planes aside this is a truly lovely spot with different sections including a beach bar, a sofa-strewn lounge and a pool area just perfect for enjoying one of the many cocktails on offer.
Red Piano Bar
For those who prefer the sound of music to the roar of jet engines the Red Piano Bar which lies on the way to the Sunset Bar and Grill on Pelican Key is one choice. Not simply a name but a venue which really does have a red grand piano and international pianists playing it for the customers six nights a week, this iconic spot doesn’t open its doors until 7pm so is ideal for those who like dining later. With a decor and lighting which present a really atmospheric place to enjoy pre-dinner drinks, the Red Piano Bar’s boast is that it offers choices you won’t find anywhere else on the island which includes an incredible range of spirits, some creative cocktails, beers and wines.
Thanks to diverse cultural elements and heritage along with island residents who come from all over the world St. Maarten’s restaurants offers an incredible array of cuisine types and typically an exceptionally high standard.
There is really something for everyone here whether you are on the Dutch or French side and whether your idea of dream-like dining is at sophisticated venues offering haute cuisine prepared by industry-famous chefs or a simple beach shack which allows you to feast with your feet in the sand. St. Maarten despite its relative compact size has literally hundreds of options and there is a good reason why the island is known as the gastronomic capital of the Caribbean.
Your explorations of the day so far have mainly concentrated on the Dutch half of the island but it is the French north which is home to the settlement of Grand Case. This tiny town is considered the culinary capital of all St. Maarten which is truly saying something on an island known in general as a destination for passionate foodies.
Many of the old buildings here have been converted into restaurants with several options set along the village’s beach on Boulevard de Grand Case where the Caribbean-blue waters are just a stone’s throw away. Any choice you make is going to offer something exceptional with direct boat-to-table seafood and top-notch French Caribbean cuisine the norm so it is really a matter of personal preference.
One option which offers simple elegance in a restored Creole house – one of St. Maarten´s oldest – is the charming Auberge Gourmand. Take a table on the lovely little plant-filled patio which sits at the restaurant’s sunshine-yellow front or head inside to be surrounded by old wood and stone for an intimate dining space. Especially well-known for its lobster dishes and well-stocked wine cellar, this fine French cuisine restaurant’s past patrons – both tourists and established food-industry critics – frequently say the Auberge Gourmand provided one of the best meals they had ever eaten.
Grand Case may be foodie heaven but incredibly for such a destination known for its high-end cuisine there are some amazing budget-friendly options which will especially appeal to those who enjoy a touch of the authentic and enjoy great food but don’t need frills. Known as lolas, the Grand Case waterfront is lined with these open-sided shacks which each tend to carry the mouth-watering aroma of barbecued ribs, crab, fish or chicken on the sea breeze. You may get plastic cutlery and have to share your picnic table with other diners but your sea views are unrivalled and you will be amazed at being able to eat such high-quality food at such low-level prices. And don’t be fooled – some of these places which look so basic are run by highly qualified chefs who have swapped high-pressure restaurant kitchen posts for a more simple and decidedly island-life way of doing things.
An Evening in St. Maarten
St. Maarten’s combination of plentiful beach bars and warm tropical nights means the favorite way for many to spend their after-dark hours is to simply find their ideal spot and enjoy a few nightcaps. The island’s night-life is legendary and comes in every guise from sophisticated piano bars to nightclubs which keep the lively action going until dawn so no matter what your taste you will almost certainly be able to find it here.
There are however other options for those who want to spend their evening in a different way.
Amazingly the island is home to twelve casinos – an element which often sees it given the title of ‘Las Vegas of the Caribbean’. One of the highest rated with a wide variety of games is the Hollywood Casino at the Pelican Resort. Here you can have a fun night trying your luck at blackjack, poker or any of the other classic casino games along with a few you may never have heard of before while enjoying complimentary drinks.
Sunset Bar and Grill
If you didn’t have a chance to check out the Sunset Bar and Grill on Maho Beach for sundowners (or even if you did) you may choose to make this the focus of your evening. Besides simply being a lovely spot in its own right it also gives you prime viewing for watching the amazing spectacle of huge jumbo jets coming in over the sea and beach to land at the island’s airport. This amazing sight is incredibly popular and features on the must-do list for many who visit St. Maarten. This waterfront bar and restaurant understandably makes quite a thing of being the closest to the action and posts live flight schedules so you won’t miss out.
If you prefer to swap the blast of jet engines for tranquil hush you can head out on-board one of the island’s night boats which serenely ferry you along beneath a brilliant canopy of stars. Some of the operators focus their after-dark trips on peace and quiet with a few drinks while others are more akin to party boats so be sure to choose according to what you had in mind.
If you’re ready to experience the beauty of St. Maarten in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!