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.
Places to stay and things to do in St Maarten
Things to do in Philipsburg
- Take your kids to St. Maarten Zoo
- Check out the indigenous Arawak artifacts at St Maarten Museum
- Visit the Great Bay Beach
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).
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.
Things to do in Dawn Beach
- Swim in the turquoise water of Dawn Beach
- Get some adrenaline at Loteries Farm
- Go hiking in the Pic Paradis and enjoy stunning views
4. Orient Bay
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.
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!