The island of St. Martin/St. Maarten is split between French Guadeloupe and the Dutch Netherlands Antilles, located in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean Sea. The island is one of the smallest land masses in the world divided between two countries. The northern, French side of the island is known as Saint-Martin, and measures 21 square miles. The southern, Dutch side of the island is known as Sint Maarten, and measures 16 square miles. To avoid confusion between the variations on the name, the two regions are commonly referred to as “the French side” and “the Dutch side.” Although the island is controlled by two different countries, there’s no real border, only delineating monuments and signs. Over 350 years ago the two countries agreed to allow residents of either country to travel across the border without difficulties.
Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch side, and includes the cruise ship dock. In 2009, more than 1.3 million people visited the island via popular cruise lines, and construction of a second nearby wharf to accommodate a new generation of even larger cruise ships continues. The dredging has generated huge piles of sand on shore being used to rebuild Philipsburg’s main beach, previously eroded by storms. Marigot is the capital of the French side. Grand Case, also on the French side, features several excellent restaurants.
Attractions worth visiting include the Butterfly Farm, which features hundreds of colorful butterflies under a tented mesh; the farm is a great attraction for families. At 1,400 feet, Pic du Paradis is the island’s highest point and features two viewing areas. Otherwise, beaches are the main attraction. The island has 37 beaches, most attached to hotels, and all are fine for swimming and sun bathing. Beachside bars and cafes are very popular attractions on the island, and offer exquisite European and Caribbean cuisine. The character of the beaches varies widely, with family oriented beaches and, as befits an island with strong European influences, topless sun bathing. Nude sun bathing is also accepted but for the most part is limited to a section of Orient Beach on the French side and Cupecoy Beach on the Dutch side. Orient Bay also features an underwater marine reserve where snorkeling and other water sports are available.
Perhaps the most famous beach here is Maho Bay, situated at the end of the airport’s runway, meaning large aircraft fly just feet over sunbathers’ heads. Some people actually engage in the practice of attempting to hold onto the airport fence as aircraft depart, although there have been injuries and deaths doing this. In any event, the view of the airplanes landing so close to the beach is a must-see. Just beyond Maho Bay is Mullet Bay, considered by some the nicest beach on the island, which offers food and drink vendors and beach lounger rentals, although few facilities. A full complement of tours and excursions are available, as well as water sports and parasailing.
Casinos are also a popular attraction on the island, with St. Maarten offering several casinos, including Atlantis World in the Cupecoy area, Casino Royale located in the Maho area, and Paradise Plaza and Tropicana located in the Cole Bay area. Phillipsburg has at least five casinos.