Half Dutch, half French and totally alluring, St. Maarten (in Dutch) a.k.a St. Martin (French) is one of the most perennially popular mainstays on the Caribbean cruise circuit. Your first view of the place is a pointer as to why. St. Maarten is a stunningly lush smorgasbord of sight, sounds and vibrant colours, and they all combine to give this sun splashed little sliver of paradise a real feel good, funky vibe that is irresistible.
The islands of the Caribbean were coveted and fought over by the big European colonial powers- England, Spain, France, and Holland especially- for centuries. But St. Maarten was almost uniquely spared real violence, as the result of an amicable agreement between France and Holland to share the island. Today, St. Maarten is classed as a part of the French West Indies, along with nearby St. Barts, Mustique and Guadeloupe.
Like many islands in the eastern Caribbean, St. Maarten has a spine of low, rolling hills, carpeted in deep, rich shades of green, that dominate it from most angles. The beaches are the stuff of legend; blinding white expanses of dreamy, spun sugar sand edging gently into the electric blue hue of the Caribbean.
There’s the smell of fresh cooked jerk chicken, and the subtle lilt of reggae. Water taxis and slowly waving, impossibly tall palm trees. Screeching parrots and soaring para gliders. Jet skis and jewellers’ shops.
The Dutch side of the 37 mile island is busier, and dominated by its capital, the pretty town of Philipsburg, where most of the big cruise ships dock. The shopping here is among the most comprehensive in the Caribbean now, with great bargains especially on electrical goods, leather and.the aforementioned diamond and tanzanite shops There are scores of restaurants lining the sand here, and numerous bars offering up cold beer and glorious, glacially frosty margaritas.
The most famous of all the island’s chill out spots is still Orient Beach, with its big hotels and separate nudist area. More high octane is Mako Beach, right on the edge of the airport runway. If you like the idea of the landing wheels of an inbound 757 almost kissing your hair, then this is definitely your kind of place.
Over on the French side, the pretty capital of Marigot is quieter, more chic, with lots of elegant little sidewalk cafes and a less frantic vibe. For lovers of good restaurants, the area around Grand Case will offer you the best of what is available locally, and in a quite spectacular setting.
If you’re here for the day, it’s worth checking out the famous salt flats, not far from the centre of Phillipsburg. And if you want to try something really different, the chance to crew and sail a real, live America’s Cup yacht is a very definite adrenaline surge, and comes highly recommended.
Of course, you could just chill in a hammock, drink daiquiris, and listen to reggae, too. Peachy….