Sint Maarten (Saint Martin) Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Located in the eastern Caribbean, Sint Maarten island is famous for its friendly locals, beautiful beaches, shopping and gambling opportunities. Whatever your tropical vacation desires, you are bound to find lots to do on the diverse island of Sint Maarten.
Sint Maarten Travel Guide
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The island of Sint Maarten is the smallest territory in the world that is shared by 2 sovereign states. At only 37 square miles, the island has been a colony of France and the Netherlands for more than 300 years. A single island and dual destination, Sint Maarten offers visitors a wholesome Caribbean vacation, with Dutch influences on the St. Maarten side of the island and a French touch on the St. Martin side.

Spend a sunny day on Orient Bay beach, on the French side of Sint Maarten. This is a great spot for indulging in water sports, or simply relaxing on beach chairs. You can also patronize the numerous restaurants and bars dotting the beach. Nudists will find refuge at the far end of this beach where clothing is optional.

Eat some lunch at the lolos in Grand Case. What’s a lolo, you ask? Well, it’s a small roadside restaurant that serves tasty Creole BBQ cooked by locals. Treat your taste buds to some BBQ ribs, fish, lobster, chicken, plantain and local-style rice and beans. Here you can enjoy affordable tasty meals within the typical Sint Maarten ambiance.

Next, head over to Marigot for a stroll through its outdoor market, right next to the ferry docks. Here you will find all sorts of local artifacts, Caribbean spices, as well as local produce. A good day to visit is when the fishermen come to the market to sell their fresh catch. If you plan on buying a live goat or chicken during your vacation, this is just the place to do it.

Then chill out on sunny Maho Beach at its famous Sunset Beach Bar & Grill, where you can watch planes land just a couple of feet above your head onto the airport runway. Get up close and personal with the jumbo jets as they take off – if you dare.

Any visit to Sint Maarten should include a walk on the Boardwalk in Philipsburg. The Boardwalk comprises a long stretch of bars, restaurants and shops lining the Great Bay Beach. This is the best spot to shop for jewelry so be prepared to bargain.

Go sailing around Sint Maarten. This is a great way of seeing the entire island from the ocean, so as to pick out beaches that you want to later explore. Your tour will include stops at various reefs and beaches. Go snorkeling at Creole Rock, a little rock formation situated on top of a reef that is located just outside the Grand Case Bay. This is a great spot to snorkel as fish tend to swim right up to you.

The more active traveler will enjoy hiking through the forest to Pic du Paradis, the highest point in Sint Maarten. Here you can enjoy spectacular views of Sint Maarten and the neighboring islands. If hiking is not your thing, you can also drive up to the top on the steep road.

Tourists from all around the world come to Sint Maarten, a tropical paradise in the Caribbean for its beautiful beaches and friendly people. A vibrant island with numerous wonderful activities to enjoy, Sint Maarten has something for just about everyone. So come and seek the heart of Sint Maarten and leave with memories that will make you smile.

1. Marigot

The quaint Gallic town of Marigot is the principal town on the French side of Sint Maarten. Marigot resembles a small French village at which you can experience the French atmosphere. Both Caribbean and French/ European cultures are represented here to create a unique blend of French Caribbean.

French Sint Maarten has never shown the eagerness to attract large cruise ships in a practice that has transformed many Caribbean ports into shopping malls without much civic activity going on. Marigot has been spared this fate and is today lined with charming restaurants and boutiques on both sides of its streets.

On Marigot you will find a beautiful fusion of West Indian and French culture and foods, with an assortment of bakeries, cafés and wine stores. Take a stroll through the streets of the town and shop at local boutiques nestled among splendid Creole houses.

On Marigot, visitors can explore the markets, shops and sidewalk cafés as you soak up the French ambiance. Go exploring on your own. Wander around the streets of Marigot which has some good shops and an interesting flea market. Marigot hosts a lively morning market at which vendors sell all sorts of interesting local items, including jewelry, clothing, perfume, crystal and china.

Enjoy beachside barbecues with folk dancing and steel bands. Many bistros and bars also have live music performances, primarily by reggae musicians or piano players. At the Marina Royale, you will find a large selection of restaurants that frame the waterfront, while offering splendid views of moored yachts. And then there’s Fort Louis castle which overlooks the town to create a permanent sense of history.

Marigot is also famous for hosting the Sint Maarten French-side Carnival. Take loud drums, calypso beats, glittering feathered costumes, mouthwatering food, plenty of drinks and thousands of happy people. Mix them all together and what do you have? Well, the most cultural festivity on the Sint Maarten Island – the Caribbean Carnival.

Like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and the Rio Carnival, the Caribbean Carnival is traditionally a huge blowout party that leads up to the solemn season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Carnival is a major moment of the year during which the island inhabitants go out masked and made up and gather in the streets to sing, dance, make music and throw confetti in a colorful parade.

If you are in the mood for a unique island experience, don’t miss out on the Sint Maarten Carnival. This fete is St. Maarten’s biggest annual event, as well as its longest and oldest; at which island locals proudly put on display the multi-faceted aspects and cultures of St. Maarten. The most popular annual event in Sint Maarten, the Carnival also features pageants, parties and a village cook-up.

The French-side carnival fever takes hold during Lent when massive parades color the streets of Grand Case and Marigot. Reggae and Zouk music can be heard from every corner with performances from popular local and international bands. From late April to early May, a larger celebration takes place on the Dutch side of Sint Maarten as the island comes to a standstill for more than 17 days and 17 nights.

For months before carnival, the locals of Sint Maarten put their all into sewing up carnival costumes and writing songs for the wildest celebration on the island. Some of the most beautiful creations of the previous carnival seasons are on display at the Jump Up Casino in Philipsburg.

Each year of carnival inspires a marvelous and fresh batch of calypso that is often politically charged and satirical. Watch as Calypsonians compete for the title of Calypso King or Queen, in a contest that attracts hundreds of musicians and dancers from neighboring islands. Partygoers can also be found jamming at Carnival Village, situated right on the edge of Philipsburg.

Over a hundred booths are set up to serve food during the carnival extravaganza. Here you can sample traditional Johnny cakes, fungi, Indian curry and roti that will make your taste buds go wild.

2. La Ferme des Papillons

Stroll through a lush tropical rainforest past beautiful flowers, trees, ponds and a waterfall, and watch as beautiful butterflies fly overhead and all around you within their own natural paradise. This is a dream that comes alive at La Ferme des Papillons, Sint Maarten’s first butterfly farm.

Of all the marvelous adventures you are sure to have during your trip to Sint Maarten, a visit to La Ferme des Papillons is likely to rank high. Situated in Quartier d’Orleans, La Ferme des Papillons opened its doors in 1994.

Visitors to the butterfly farm can wander through the lush tropical gardens among hundreds of exotic butterflies that fly freely. Over 40 butterfly species from around the world are represented here, including rarities such as the Malaysian malachite, Brazilian Blue Morpho, and the Central American Postman. Watch them as they flit and flutter through the miniature bamboo rainforest replica.

An essential part of a visit to La Ferme des Papillons is the famous guided tour. Here, visitors are shown the evolutionary cycle from microscopic eggs, to exotic caterpillars and pupae that resemble exquisite designer jewelry. You can also witness all the stages in the butterfly’s life cycle, from a tiny egg to the curious caterpillar and the jewel-like pupae.

You should find of interest the lengths that butterflies will go to ensure survival of the species: some will lay eggs that resemble bird poop, while others will grow camouflaged wings. Most butterflies have a short yet vivid life span, with the spectacularly beautiful Blue Morpho living for just two weeks.

For the best tropical adventure, plan your visit early in the morning as this is the best time to witness the spectacle of butterflies emerging from their pupae, as well as watch newborn butterflies take their first flight. The guides will show you how to handle the butterflies and caterpillars without damaging the fragile creatures.

You will definitely want to bring your camera along with you for this beautiful butterfly display. Oh, and wear bright colors and a citrus perfume if you want the butterflies to land on you! Visitors will also enjoy the hypnotically calming atmosphere created by the tinkling waterfalls, ponds full of splashing koi, wandering chickens and soft classical music.

But do you remember when you were young and butterflies were everywhere? No? Well, a visit to La Ferme des Papillons is just what you need to take you back to that time when we had respect for nature, a time when nature was an important part of us.

Over the decades, the natural habitats of butterflies have slowly been destroyed. La Ferme des Papillons is seeking to reverse this – with the help of visitors. The butterfly farm seeks to inspire its visitors to recreate a butterfly habitat in their own backyards and become butterfly farmers, by providing information on how to set up your own farm, what plants to grow and where to position them.

After your tour, you can visit the small shop on site that sells a wide selection of butterfly-related souvenirs and gift items. At the café outside you can sit, enjoy refreshments and watch humming birds and sugar birds as they go about their business.

3. Museum of Sint Maarten

Sint Maarten traces its origins to 1630 when the French and Dutch established small settlements on the island. Shortly after, they united to repel attacks from the Spaniards. Upon achieving this goal, in 1644 they agreed to divide the island which is today a mix of diverse European cultures, as well as those of enslaved Africans who brought their traditions and languages.

A great place to learn more about the history of Sint Maarten is at the Museum of Sint Maarten. A real treat for history buffs, the Museum of Sint Maarten is the first and only museum on Dutch Sint Maarten, which was opened in 1989. Filled with historical artifacts and information, the museum is home to displays of a rich era of island culture.

Situated in a little alley at the head of Front Street in Philipsburg, the Museum features an impressive display of the history, geology and the natural environment of St. Maarten. Take a self-guided tour of the Museum for a fascinating trip into ancient island culture.

Here you can have a glimpse into the life of the Arawak Indians, study the industrial period, as well as look at original engravings from Fort Amsterdam. The Museum also houses a special collection of artifacts from the Proselyte wreck, a Dutch frigate that was built in 1770.

Among the exhibits you will find on display are pottery from the original inhabitants of the island, the Arawak Indians, and cargo salvaged from a British ship that sank off the coast of Sint Maarten in 1801. If nature is more your thing, you can look at the exhibition of shells and dried herbs as you learn how Sint Maarten was formed.

Complete your tour by browsing the impressive collection of photographs and articles of the major hurricanes that have struck the island. Visitors can experience for themselves how Sint Maarten was before and after the destructive storms, as well as the rapid speed at which the island was able to get back on its feet.

There is a Museum Shop on site which sells souvenirs for those who wish to take a piece of Sint Maarten away with them. But if you still haven’t had your fill of Sint Maarten history, visit the archaeological site near Hope Estate on a tour that traces the island’s history from the arrival of the Arawak Indians from South America more than 2,500 years ago.

4. Mullet Bay

As you fly into Sint Maarten, be sure to look out your window. The first thing you will notice are the beaches and the gorgeous one to the left of the runway is Mullet Bay Beach.

Mullet Bay has a large casino surrounded by a selection of first rate restaurants. There are also a number of pleasant bars and eateries in the neighborhood. However, the main attraction in Mullet Bay is its gorgeous beach.

Situated south of Cupecoy on Mullet Bay, the lovely beach features tall shady palms, clear turquoise waters, pearly white sands lined with sea grape trees and great surfing waves that make this idyllic coastal hamlet a favorite among locals, especially on the weekends. This is a great spot to mingle with the locals who like to go there on Sundays to relax and have some fun in the sun.

Many believe that the mile-long powdery white sand beach of Mullet Bay on the western side of Dutch Sint Maarten is the best on the island. Swimmers like it for its calm waters, which are also a favorite among surfers when they swell up. Snorkelers will find an abundance of marine life on a reef situated to the left of the beach.

Lay back in a hammock and listen to the waves wash up and the pebbles whisper. Go here in the late afternoon for a picturesque view of the sunset. Also walk the entire length of the beach to work a bit of exercise into your vacation or simply work up an appetite.

A plethora or shops and restaurants dot the bare yet beautiful beach landscape. A relatively quiet beach, Mullet Bay has food shacks that sell ribs, chicken, salads, fries and drinks. You can also get some beer, soft drinks and frozen drinks here, as well as rent a beach umbrella and chair.

5. Orient Bay

If shopping isn’t really your thing, Sint Maarten has plenty of white sandy beaches to satisfy your craving for sun and sand. Situated on the northeastern coast of the island, Orient Bay boasts some of the loveliest beaches on this part of the Caribbean. The Bay has two beaches – Orient Beach and Waikiki Beach.

Waikiki Beach has a number of bars, cafes and rental facilities for umbrellas, beach chairs and water sports equipment. The northern end of Orient Beach is popular with windsurfers, while visitors to the southern side will get a good idea of what a Mediterranean nude beach looks like.

Whenever someone talks about nude beaches in the Caribbean, Orient Beach is often the first to be mentioned. One of the most famous “clothing-optional” beaches, Orient Beach is dotted with many colorful beach umbrellas that give it a European atmosphere.

Visitors to Orient Bay can also take the ferry to Pinel Island and spend a relaxing day there. Pinel is a wonderful little island that boasts white sands, shallow waters and great snorkeling opportunities. Pinel also has a handful of bars, restaurants, beaches and kayak rentals.

6. Maho Bay

A great destination in its own right, Sint Maarten is one of the most accessible islands in the Caribbean thanks to a number of airline services to Princess Juliana International Airport on Dutch Sint Maarten. And tourists can witness this service firsthand from Maho Bay.

The most famous attraction on Maho Bay is the Sunset Bar & Grill. Voted as one of the top 3 beach bars in the world, Sunset Bar & Grill is an institution on Sint Maarten, if not a destination in itself. This is because nowhere else in the world are you able to witness the taking off and landing of Jumbo Jets as closely as you can from Sunset Bar & Grill – all the while sipping on a tropical cocktail.

And no, the photos you’ve seen of this spectacle have not been photoshopped, but in fact give a true impression of what happens here. It’s no wonder then that aviation fans from across the globe rate Sunset Bar & Grill, the Sint Maarten airport and the small Maho Bay beach strip as their number one destination for plane-spotting.

Tasty comfort food is another hallmark of Sunset, along with regular entertainment. The bar and grill is one of the island’s most prominent live entertainment venues at night and during daytime on weekends, with a great variety of performances by both Caribbean and international artists.

Maho Village is another attraction on Maho Bay. A destination within a destination, Maho Village is one of Sint Maarten’s entertainment centers. Popular with both locals and tourists, Maho Village has the huge Casino Royale as its main attraction, in addition to several other casinos. Of the over a dozen casinos found on Dutch St. Maarten, Casino Royale is the largest.

The Village also has plenty of shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs, all within short walking distance. In fact, Maho Bay has all you need to create the perfect island vacation experience. From exquisite restaurants and beautiful beaches, to casino gambling and a thriving club scene, Maho Bay offers plenty to keep you entertained and happy during your stay.

7. Philipsburg

Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch side of Sint Maarten. Founded in 1763, Philipsburg quickly became the island’s bustling center of international trade. Today, the town is as bustling as ever with lively shopping streets and cafés.

Just a couple of blocks wide, Philipsburg is filled with interesting attractions, shops including jewelry stores, casinos and a historic Courthouse situated. Go on a tour of the island to experience the European cultures, while stopping for photos along the way.

Built in 1793 as the residence of the town’s founder, the Courthouse building has over its long history served as a jail, post office and fire station. A grand white wooden structure, the Courthouse is the most prominent landmark on Front Street, and one of the most prominent landmarks in Sint Maarten. The Courthouse also makes for a great spot from which to begin and end your walking tour of the town.

Narrow alleyways lead in either direction to courtyards and arcades filled with flowers. During your stroll, you can have a peek at examples of traditional West Indian architecture, including the typical pastel-colored houses with second-story verandas that look out over the street.

It’s difficult to get lost in Philipsburg, seeing as there are only 2 main downtown streets which are situated between the Salt Pond and Great Bay: Front Street is the main street which is closest to the bay, and Back Street is the other main street situated one block inland.

Front Street is the main street in Philipsburg, and this is where you will encounter most jewelry stores, perfumeries, electronics boutiques and other shops. There are dozens of jewelers here selling diamond and gold jewelry, as well as high-end watches. When cruise ships are in port in Sint Maarten, these narrow streets tend to get rather crowded. Two casinos are situated towards the eastern end of Front Street.

Parallel to Front Street, on the Salt Pond side of town is Back Street which is less touristy and it’s where locals like to gather.

Almost everyone who visits Philipsburg will take home a photo of its famous crossroads sign. Situated next to the Guavaberry Emporium on Front Street, the sight is situated within a small plaza that is a tourist magnet, as well as a pleasant spot to take a break from wandering the Philipsburg streets.

The Guavaberry Emporium is also well worth a visit. Situated in the home of a former governor, inside a rough cedar building, the store stocks all sorts of products that are derived from the native guavaberry, notably, a rather tasty folk liqueur that is blended with cane sugar and rum.

Even today, the locals of Sint Maarten continue to make their very own guavaberry liqueur at home, and the shop offers samples of its famous liqueur, as well as tasty guavaberry coladas at a walk-up bar. Also available for sale are hot sauces, barbecue sauces, as well as honey blended that’s with guavaberry juice.

The Boardwalk in Philipsburg measures about fifty feet wide and runs almost the entire length of the town’s Great Bay waterfront. This Boardwalk serves as the lively back porch of sorts for the restaurants and hotels that line the southern side of Front Street. Here you will find people strolling, skating and even cruising along the half-mile-plus ribbon of concrete.

Situated within sight of the cruise-ship dock, the Boardwalk is a great place to grab a cold beer from one of the numerous beach bars, and linger as you listen to street musicians perform. Or duck inside one of the many restaurants that line the strip for some local Indonesian-influenced cuisine. Other attractions include the Catholic Church that overlooks the bay and a beach at which you can sunbathe and relax.

A series of short side streets connect Front Street, Back Street and the Boardwalk. These side streets are typically jammed with tiny souvenir shops, a number of hidden cafés, bars and restaurants. Be sure to visit the shops that sell Indian crafts and other items made by locals, as well as smooth flavored rums.

Philipsburg combines 20th century entertainment with its historical legacy to offer a bustling waterfront spot full of things to see and do. The Philipsburg waterfront is a great place to spend a couple of hours dining, gambling, shopping or simply hanging out by the beach.

You can even add a bit of history to your visit by exploring Fort Amsterdam which is situated close by. Fort Amsterdam was built in 1631 as the first Dutch military outpost in the Caribbean. Today only a few walls of the original bastion remain, although the site offers outstanding views of modern Philipsburg.

Along with Fort Willem, Fort Amsterdam was designed to protect Philipsburg from seaborne attacks. The remains of the two historic forts today bear witness to the strategic importance of Philipsburg in the history of Sint Maarten.

Fort Willem is situated west of downtown Philipsburg and was built by the British in 1801. Visitors can hike up to the top of the Fort for a lovely panoramic view of Philipsburg and the neighboring islands.

8. Grand Case

Grand Case is a small fishing village situated on the northwestern coast of French Sint Maarten. The village boasts a crescent of white sand on its northwestern tip, as well as two of the best beaches in Sint Maarten. The second largest town on Sint Maarten island, Grand Case offers breathtaking views of Anguilla, along with a unique glimpse of Caribbean culture.

Grand Case offers a secluded location that provides a serene oasis for couples out for a romantic getaway, weddings, honeymoons or even families seeking a sophisticated yet kid-friendly vacation spot. There are a handful of guest accommodations in Grand Case that offer either oceanfront or lush tropical garden views, both of which are splendid.

You can snorkel, hire a kayak or pedal boat or simply lounge in a hammock under an umbrella. Other water sports activities you can get into include kite surfing, windsurfing and hiking. You can also get a massage from within an open-air cabana.

You can also get on a semi-submarine that will take you on a 45-minute narrated tour of the coral reefs close by. The semi-submarine goes down 5 feet underwater to provide you with a good view of a diver feeding the fish while you sit back in air conditioned comfort.

It’s for good reason that Grand Case is regarded as the culinary capital of the Caribbean. The charming village situated on the northern coast of Sint Maarten is home to a great number of restaurants that range from basic local eateries to temples of haute cuisine from almost every nationality in the world.

Foodies need look no farther than Grand Case for some of the best and most varied fare in the Caribbean. The main road in Grand Case follows the beach and is lined with restaurants on both sides. Here you will find a great variety of French, West Indian, Vietnamese and Italian restaurants. These beachside establishments also offer breathtaking sea views with you meal.

To sample local dishes, head over to the Lolos in the center of town. Lolos are simple beachside restaurants which are popular with both locals and tourists for their Caribbean ambiance and excellent freshly grilled seafood. Lolos are truly essential to the Caribbean dining experience.

If you are unable to make a decision from the wide collection of palate paradises, simply take a pre-dinner walk through the rich aromas of Grand Case. You are guaranteed to find something delicious that way.

Mixed in with Restaurant Row are a number of art galleries and boutiques that offer a colorful site for an interesting after-dinner stroll along the Grand Case Boulevard.

Visitors can also head over to the eclectic bars and tiny nightclubs on Grand Case for some evening entertainment. Feel the sand between your toes as you sip on a tropical cocktail and listen to live music, while you enjoy views of sail boats swaying at anchor as the sun sets over the Caribbean sea.

Watch as the locals bump and grind to a rhythm that is so pervasive, you won’t be able to escape the beat, try as hard as you may.

9. Creole Rock

Once you’re on Sint Maarten, you will want to spend at least a couple of days exploring the island’s unique mix of French and Dutch influences. But when you get the itch to explore, there are many day-tripping options on Sint Maarten. You can go sailing around the entire island or enjoy some diving and snorkeling.

Over 30 beaches surround the island, offering plenty of opportunities for sun, sand and surf. Some are ringed by limestone cliffs and indented with caves to explore, while others feature isolated coves ideal for a romantic getaway.

The island of Sint Maarten also boasts approximately 40 dive sites that offer some great snorkeling opportunities. Creole Rock is one of the best dive spots on French Sint Maarten.

A large rock formation with a reef that extends towards the mainland, Creole Rock is famous for its calm shallow waters that make it ideal for snorkeling. Here you can enjoy an abundance of reef life including the rare frogfish, puffer fish and barracuda. From Creole Rock you can also enjoy great views of Anguilla island.

The quiet Tintamarre is a flat French island near Sint Maarten, which is famous for its secluded beaches and natural spa whose mud is believed to have healing powers. A catamaran can get you to Tintamarre from Creole Rock on a thrilling sail as you munch on pastries and sip champagne. You will then beach on a beautiful sandy beach at which you can swim, snorkel or explore the caverns close by.

10. Pic Paradis

Situated between the towns of Marigot and Grand Case, Pic Paradis is the highest elevation on Sint Maarten island. Visitors can hike or drive up to Pic Paradis, the highest point on St. Maarten for great views of the island and the surrounding islands. Amazing panoramas of Orleans, Philipsburg and Orient Bay can all be enjoyed here.

From the 1,391 foot or 424 meter summit, you will be able to see the whole of Sint Maarten and the surrounding sea laid out like a map. Here you will see the open, rolling countryside of the French part, the two large salt ponds that dominate the Dutch side, as well as the rugged coastline and spots at which the land rises out of and slopes into the sea.

The lush green summit plateau overlooks the Dutch Quarter, the French Quarter, Oyster Pond as well as the neighboring island of Saint Barths. On the opposite side, you can look upon Marigot Bay at the front of Simpson Bay Lagoon and Terres Basses, with the island of Anguilla in the background.

Visit Pic Paradis if you have a great interest in the unspoilt nature of the Caribbean islands. With its cooler temperatures, the Pic Paradis slopes also boast having the only slice of rain forest in Sint Maarten. The cool air towards the top makes Pic Paradis a nice and desired place to live, so expect to see some beautiful homes on your way up.

Situated at the base of Pic Paradise is Colombier, a village hidden in the island’s mountainous center. The narrow road that leads to the Colombier settlement opens up to green pastures with grazing cattle and striking, colorful foliage. The tropical lush region, its local colorful flora and the little Creole Village of Colombier are so different from the rest of the island that they are worth a detour.