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Tucked away in a small corner of the Caribbean lies the island of Sint Maarten and Saint Martin, the world's smallest area of land divided into two nations. The French and Dutch have shared this strip of paradise peacefully for more than 350 years, ever since a gin-drinking Dutchman and a wine-imbibing Frenchman allegedly walked around the island to see how much territory they could claim for their country in a day. The French won more land, but the Dutch lay claim to the most prized part.
The Dutch may well have a point. Sint Maarten is known for its beaches, casinos and rum-fuelled festive nightlife. Duty-free shopping is the order of the day for tourists filling the numerous condos and resorts. Those who find it overdeveloped and artificial can get a taste of a different side of the Caribbean on the quiet, picturesque beaches of Simpson Bay and Little Bay, while visitors looking for a more rugged holiday would do well to head north to the French side of the island.
Saint Martin is significantly quieter than its Dutch counterpart. The French side of the island is a lovely mix of white-sand beaches, small town centres and beautiful stretches of mountainside. Shopping is a more relaxed affair at the outdoor markets, offering up some of the finest Caribbean cuisine.
The island as a whole hosts 120 different nationalities, giving it a rich cultural heritage. Food, drink and friendly Caribbean hospitality are all on the agenda. Visitors enjoy snorkeling, diving and jet-skiing, or head inland to hike in the mountains or zip-line through the treetops.
Hordes of tourists flock each year to Sint Maarten and Saint Martin for the beaches. Long Bay offers peace, quiet and perfect sunsets from luxury resorts. Anse des Peres is a family friendly affair in the northwest, with legendary Full Moon parties at Kali's Beach Bar.
Known as the Saint-Tropez in the Caribbean, Orient Bay is the haunt of celebrities and jet-setters, but suffered large damage by Hurricane Irma in 2017. Galion Beach is the domain of surfers and windsurfers, while Little Bay is a haven for bird life. Visitors can also watch aeroplanes fly infamously close to holidaymakers as they come in to land over Maho Beach.
Marigot, the French capital, is a town home to trendy restaurants, traditional stalls and a lively market full of interesting colours and smells. Philipsburg, on the Dutch side, is the duty-free shopping capital, where jewellery and souvenir shops line the main street and weary travellers can recharge in the endless restaurants and bars. The village of Grand Case comes alive from January to April for the Harmony Nights Festival, a traditional Caribbean celebration of gastronomy, music and art.
Other attractions include treetop tours in the Loterie Farm, and the colourful, soothing atmosphere of the Butterfly Farm, the first of its kind in the Caribbean. Young families will also enjoy the Sint Maarten Zoo, with over 80 species of wildlife and dedicated play area for children.
2 miles (4km) off the coast of Saint Martin lies the wild, rocky and uninhabited Île Tintamarre. It offers some great swimming spots, with lucky snorkellers potentially glimpsing turtles and other curious creatures. Visitors are advised to take supplies for the day, as there are no shops.
The Voorstraat (Front Street) faces south onto the ocean and is the main tourist attraction in Philipsburg. At its eastern end is Wathey Square, just a minute's walk from the Great Bay Beach and two casinos: the Rouge et Noir and the Coliseum Casino. The impressive white wooden courthouse built in 1793 now serves as a post office, while just off the square is the quaint Methodist church built in 1851. Further along Voorstraat is a group of elegant colonial houses, as well as a small museum and two large marinas. Voorstraat is also known as the best shopping area in Philipsburg, boasting a number of jewellery stores and perfume boutiques taking advantage of the island's duty-free status.
The town of Philipsburg boasts the remains of two historic forts bearing witness to its one-time strategic importance to the Dutch. The first Dutch military establishment in the Caribbean, Fort Amsterdam was built in 1631 on a peninsula between Great Bay and Little Bay, but it was captured almost immediately by the Spanish. The other Dutch fortification, Fort Willem, bears the crown of a television transmission tower. Both are worth the walk to visit, particularly for the beautiful views. Fort St Louis was built according to plans sent from France by Louis XVI in 1767 to guard the settlement from invaders. It's Saint Martin's largest historical monument and looks out over Marigot, the hilltop ruins offering gorgeous island panoramas.
Sint Maarten's prime beach resorts extend from Philipsburg along the southwest coast of the island, reaching a grand finale at the great spread of Simpson Bay, site of the international airport. From the headland at the western end of Great Bay stretches the secluded Cay Bay. This quiet beach can only be reached by dirt road or horse trail. Simpson Bay Lagoon is surrounded by resort developments and enjoys a series of white sandy beaches. Maho Bay is Sint Maarten's largest resort, with well-developed facilities, a casino and its popular Sunset Bar. Mullet Bay is usually the most crowded, loved for its gentle surf and shady stretch of palm trees. Cupecoy is favoured by nudists, and has dramatic sandstone cliffs and caves.
Next to the Marina Port la Royale on the southern end of Marigot is an archaeological museum dedicated to preserving Saint Martin's history and culture. It houses numerous exhibits, such as a variety of pre-Columbian treasures and several interesting exhibitions on Arawak culture. There is also a reproduction of a 1,500-year-old burial mound and ceramics dating from 550 BC. The island's more recent history is encapsulated in evocative black and white photographs of quiet streets populated by a handful of children and donkeys, and of labourers toiling in the salt industry.
Fronted by a sweeping curve of beach, the little fishing village of Grand Case at the northern tip of Saint Martin is famed for its great cuisine and distinctive look of its architecture: the small wooden houses are painted pastel colours and decorated in gingerbread-style, with numerous elaborate embellishments. Many fine restaurateurs have chosen to congregate in the town's main street, which has become one of the best dining centres in the region and earned Grand Case the epithet 'Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean'. Tuesdays are dubbed Harmony Nights, with live music and entertainment spilling out into the streets, while the beaches are also lovely, with calm and safe waters ideal for refreshing dips.
Paradise Peak, Saint Martin's highest point, rises from the centre of the island to a height of 1,390 feet (424m), and is crowned with a communications tower. Visitors can climb through thick woods home to colourful birds and twisted vines, reaching a summit providing spectacular views of the island and nearby Anguilla.
The Loterie Farm Nature Reserve nestles on the slope of Paradise Peak. The reserve has many miles of groomed hiking trails through beautiful forest, where visitors can spot local flora and fauna. Guided tours provide fascinating historical, cultural and scientific insights regarding the area, but the most popular attraction at Loterie Farm is the zipline: divided into three zones for children, adults and thrill-seekers, visitors glide through the canopy between centuries-old mango and mahogany trees.
There are a number of good beaches on the French side of the island that are very popular with tourists. Orient Beach, the largest and most popular in Saint Martin, is known for watersports, and borders a number of restaurants, beach bars and a nudist resort. Plum Bay is frequented by surfers while Rouge Beach offers great snorkelling and is regarded as the island's most beautiful beach. Long Beach has little shade and barely any breeze, while Le Galion Beach is the island's best windsurfing spot with shallow, calm waters. Anse Marcel is usually quiet and favoured by French tourists. Just north of Marigot, Friars Bay is backed by a lagoon, while nearby Happy Bay is beautiful and peaceful because it's relatively difficult to reach.
A popular family attraction in Sint Maarten, the Butterfly Farm is a large greenhouse housing more than 40 different varieties of butterflies and moths. Guests can take a guided tour explaining the lifecycle of the butterfly and its place in the ecosystem, with guides helpful in advising which plants will attract butterflies to your garden. Guests are free to handle and interact with the butterflies, and morning is the best time to visit the Butterfly Farm as new butterflies emerge from their cocoons. The farm is wheelchair accessible, and there are snacks and drinks available.
The island is sunny and warm all year round, with average monthly temperatures varying little throughout the year. Temperatures in coastal areas range from 72ºF (22ºC) to 86ºF (30ºC) and inland areas range between 66ºF (19ºC) and 81ºF (27ºC). Cooling winds buffet the island throughout the year. Showers can be expected at any time of year but rainstorms generally pass quickly. Hurricane season in the Caribbean lasts from June to November, with the most storms occurring in September. December to May is considered the dry season (though rain can occur at any time of year), and is considered the best time to visit St Maarten and St Martin. Winter and the Christmas/New Year holidays are traditionally the most popular time to visit the island, but summer can also be a good time to visit because lodging rates are much lower and the beaches, roads and restaurants are not crowded.
On the Dutch side, the currency is the Netherlands Antilles Guilder (ANG), and one guilder is divided into 100 cents. But US dollars are also widely accepted and prices are usually quoted in dollars as well as guilders. There are plans to introduce the Caribbean guilder in the future.
On the French side of the island, the Euro (EUR) is the local currency, although establishments will also accept US dollars. There are numerous bureaux de change and banks on the island and ATMs in the main towns in both national sectors. Major credit cards are widely accepted.
Dutch and English are the official languages. Locals commonly use a language known as Papiamento, a mixture of Portuguese, African languages, Spanish, Dutch and English.
110/220 volts, 50/60Hz. Standard, flat, two- and three-pronged plugs, as found in the United States, are used.
US nationals: United States citizens require a valid passport. No visa is needed for a stay of up to 180 days.
UK nationals: British citizens require a valid passport, but do not require a visa for a stay of up to 90 days.
CA nationals: Canadians must have a valid passport. No visa is needed for a stay of up to 90 days.
AU nationals: Australians must have a valid passport. No visa is needed for a stay of up to 90 days.
ZA nationals: South Africans must have a passport valid for the period of intended stay, and a visa for entry.
IR nationals: Irish nationals must have a valid passport. No visa is needed.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a valid passport. No visa is needed for a stay of up to 90 days.
Travellers should note that for some nationalities visa and passport requirements might vary between St Maarten and St Martin - specific requirements should be checked for the desired destination. All tourists, regardless of which side of the island is being visited, must have return or onward tickets, all documents needed for next destination and proof of sufficient funds. Passports must be valid for at least the length of intended stay, but six months of passport validity is recommended. As part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travellers travelling between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean region are required to present a passport or other valid travel document to enter or re-enter the United States. If departing from the USA a valid passport will be required by immigration authorities. It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
The Manchineel tree that grows all over the island and mainly along the beaches is extremely poisonous; its sap and fruit, which look like small green apples, are caustic and burn the skin. The water is safe to drink and medical care on the island is good, but patients are likely to be transferred to the US for anything serious, so comprehensive travel insurance is strongly advised.
On the Dutch side of the island, hotel bills include a tax of five percent and often a service charge of 15 percent. Waiters and bar staff should be tipped 10 to 15 percent if a gratuity is not included in the bill.
On French Saint Martin, hotels usually add five percent occupancy tax per person, but a small gratuity is appreciated for good service. Restaurants and hotels usually add a service charge of 10 to 15 percent to the bill, and it's always best to check for this before adding a tip. Taxi drivers and porters expect to be tipped, particularly if they have handled luggage.
Most visits to the island are trouble-free, but petty crime is present and visitors shouldn't leave valuables unattended on beaches, in cars or in hotel lobbies. Care should be taken to keep rooms and cars locked, and visitors should refrain from carrying large amounts of cash. Burglaries and break-ins occur sometimes at resorts, beach houses and hotels, and there have been incidents of armed robbery. Precautions should also be taken against car theft, and insurance cover is advisable.
Island culture on Sint Maarten and Saint Martin is very relaxed, and there are few dress codes aside from high-end restaurants and clubs. Though many residents speak English, visitors should not assume this and a little effort to speak French or Dutch is greatly appreciated.
On Sint Maarten and Saint Martin things are fairly informal, but jackets and ties should be worn by men for meetings. English is spoken widely throughout both the French and Dutch regions and is often the language used in meetings. Business hours are generally 9am to 6pm from Monday to Friday, with a break from 12pm to 1.30pm.
The country code for Sint Maarten is +1 721 while the code for French Saint Martin is +590. Phoning from one side of the island to the other is considered an international call. Mobile network coverage extends across both parts of the island, as does internet and WiFi coverage, especially at cafes, bars and restaurants.
Arrivals in Sint Maarten and Saint Martin don't have to pay duty on any goods. Products such as tobacco, alcohol, cameras and perfume should be limited to an amount needed for personal use.
Office of Tourism for Saint Martin, Marigot, Saint Martin: +05 9087 5721 or St Martin: qww.stmartinisland.org
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 244 5300.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7590 3200.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 237 5031.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6220 9400.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 425 4500.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 269 3444
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 471 6390.
American Consulate-General, Willemstad, Curacao (also responsible for St Maarten/St Martin): +599 9 461 3066.
British Consulate,Willemstad, Curacao (also responsible for St Maarten/St Martin): +599 9 461 3900.
Canadian Consulate, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (also responsible for St Maarten): +868 622 6232.
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