For the lowdown on the key differences between these two destinations, which share an island half the size of Scarborough,
St. Martin/St. Maarten is a small island in the northeast of the Caribbean Archipelago. With an area of 88 square kilometres, it is the smallest inhabited island in the world to be under the sovereignty of two countries: the French (St. Martin) and the Dutch (St. Maarten). The French side is physically larger, but the international airport and cruise ship ports are both located on the Dutch side. It may seem hard to fathom how the two sides can maintain their identity while sharing an island half the size of Scarborough, but they do.
Dutch St. Maarten, bolstered by the airport and the port, is where you will find large-scale resorts, casinos, mega duty-free stores and burger-and-fries watering holes with blinking fluorescent signs. It feels almost like a hybrid of Florida and Las Vegas in the ’80s.
Philipsburg, its capital, is considered one of the Caribbean’s top duty-free shopping destinations. It is only four streets deep and very easy to navigate: Front St. for the jewelry and designer clothing, Back St. for local markets, and Old St. for gift stores and art galleries. The cruise port is located less than a kilometre away, making it a popular stop for seafaring day-trippers.
Maho Village near the airport is the local entertainment district. This is where you will find Casino Royale, the largest of the island’s 12 casinos, with 30 gaming tables, 400 slot machines and the brand new, upscale Déjà Vu Lounge. Most of the shops in this area are open till 11 p.m., while the many pubs, beach bars and nightclubs let you party till the wee hours. Maho Village is about 10 kilometres from Philipsburg.
There are 37 white sand beaches on the island. Cruise passengers have the three-kilometre-long Great Bay Beach within walking distance to the cruise terminals, and surfers can head out to Guana Bay. I am sorry to tell you there are no nude beaches in Dutch St. Maarten, though sometimes you will find sunbathers going au naturel at Cupecoy Beach.
Official language: Dutch (but English is widely spoken)
Currency: Locals use the Netherlands Antilles Florin (abbreviated as “NAF”), but U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere, from five-star resorts to street stalls. Credit card charges are in U.S. dollars as well.
Electricity: 110V, with flat-prong sockets, same as Canada.
The vibes change once you cross the border to French St. Martin. Pumping party tunes slow down to a more laid-back, Caribbean swing. Jewelry stores give way to roadside stalls, selling handmade crafts. Hotels shrink in size but rise in the luxury scale. Food-wise, American fare yields to French cuisine: instead of potato skins and fried chicken wings, you will find escargots and frog legs. The French influence extends to the beaches as well. While the Dutch side has the wild parties, the French side has the nude beaches, along Orient Bay.
Marigot is the capital of the French side. Gingerbread-esque houses and sidewalk bistros give it a charming, Gallic air, but it is in no way provincial. Ultraluxe boutiques line the three main roads, where you can buy French luxury designer brands at better-than-Canadian prices without sales tax.
The best restaurants are found in Grand Case, nicknamed “Caribbean’s Restaurant Row.” There are more than 30 restaurants in this former fishing village, all within walking distance. Le Shambala has a beautiful sunset bar and serves out-of-this-world seafood carpaccios, while Le Pressoir is famous for innovative French fare, such as foie gras five ways. The culinary adventure is not limited to the restaurants. One must try the streetside lolos — the word is said to have come from low-cost, local. Along the Boulevard de Grand Case, there are a cluster of them selling very tasty Creole dishes at wallet-friendly prices. A taxi-ride from Philipsburg to Marigot or Grand Case takes around 20 minutes and costs about $20 (U.S.).
Official language: French (but English is widely spoken)
Currency: Euros is the official currency, but U.S. dollars are always accepted. Some businesses would accept U.S. dollars to Euro at 1:1 exchange — always ask. Credit card charges are in Euros.
Electricity: 220V, with two round prongs, same as Europe. Some hotels may offer North American sockets. It is better to bring along an adapter, and depending on your electronics, a voltage transformer as well.