Are you dreaming of a Caribbean island vacation any time soon?
St. Maarten and St. Martin (spoiler – it’s the same island) is waiting for you! Think white-sand beaches, turquoise ocean waters and lovely boutique hotels offering the ultimate in R&R.
But that’s not all that this dual-nation island offers.
St. Maarten is a Dutch colony, while St. Martin is French, so the two sides of the island have their own distinctive vibe and flavor.
Sip rosé while soaking up the sun at glam French beach clubs in St. Martin. Then head over to St. Maarten to hit up the casinos and snag duty-free bling!
Planning a trip to St. Maarten and St. Martin can be a bit of a headscratcher, thanks to its unique status as an island of two countries.
Planning a trip to St. Maarten and St. Martin
Where is St. Maarten and St. Martin?
Now the first question you might have is – where exactly is it?
The island of St. Maarten and St. Martin lies in the northeastern Caribbean Sea, at the corner of the chain of islands leading from Florida to the coast of Colombia.
It’s around 1,219 miles from Miami as the crow flies.
Dutch St. Maarten is also called Sint Maarten and Saint Maarten. French St. Martin is also called Saint Martin.
Best time to visit St. Maarten and St. Martin
When planning a trip to Saint Martin, keep in mind that the rainy hurricane season runs from June through November. July and August are the rainiest, and September is the worst for hurricanes.
So basically, travel to this Caribbean island anytime from November to June, and you should have great weather.
If you’re visiting in high season (December to March), locals say January is calm (no wind), February is a tad rainy and March is breezy.
It was quite windy during our March visit.
While that wasn’t great for stand-up paddleboarding, it was ideal for windsurfing and kitesurfing. And the breeze took the edge off the heat; relaxing by the beach was very comfortable.
The skies alternated between sunny and cloudy. Only a couple of brief rain squalls caused us to seek shelter for a few minutes until the sun shone again.
Is St. Maarten safe for tourists?
And what about the island’s French side? Is St. Martin safe to visit?
Yes, both St. Maarten and St. Martin are quite safe for tourists – it’s even called the Friendly Island!
As can be expected in most places around the world, there’s a bit of street crime and petty theft.
But take appropriate precautions (such as avoiding walking around at night in sketchy areas and not flashing valuables outside of the tourist areas), and you shouldn’t be affected by any trouble on your trip to St. Martin.
We felt perfectly safe on both of our stays.
How to get to St. Maarten
International travel to St. Maarten is easy.
Direct flights on Delta, American Airlines, West Jet, Air France and other major airlines bring in plane loads of happy vacationers from the United States, Canada and Europe.
Winair, based in St. Maarten, also flies within the Caribbean. So if you’re island-hopping, you can fly to St. Maarten from 15 Caribbean destinations like St. Barts, Barbados, Antigua and San Juan (Puerto Rico).
The international airport – the Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) – is on the Dutch side of St. Maarten in Simpson Bay, near the St. Maarten capital of Philipsburg.
Badly damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017, the airport operated out of tents until late 2018.
Now there are new air-conditioned arrival and departure halls, complete with decent washrooms, bars, food kiosks and restaurants.
Work is still ongoing (it’s a large airport), but you don’t have to worry about melting in the heat when flying to and from the island.
Getting around St. Maarten and St. Martin – no border!
One of the most interesting aspects about this island is that even though it’s basically two countries in one, there’s no actual border between the two.
Unlike most borders between different countries, no one is checking your passport. You don’t have to go through immigration every time you cross from one side to the next.
That means you could stand with one leg on each side, and the authorities wouldn’t care.
Renting a car in St. Martin
Do you need a car in Saint Maarten? Do you need a car in St. Martin?
This is something you’ll definitely want to consider when planning a trip to St. Maarten.
Even though it’s only 37 square miles in size (and you can drive all around the small island in a mere 2 hours), it’s not very walkable.
Of course, you can walk around the capital cities and villages. And there are some incredible hikes.
But outside of that, it’s best to rent a car.
If you just want to lie on the beach (no judgment here) and stay in places like Grand Case or Orient Bay on the island’s French side, you won’t need a car.
However, if you want to explore the entire island, there are a lot of unique experiences to be had (see below: “Things to do in St. Maarten/St. Martin”).
Depending on when you go, you can rent a car in St. Maarten (and in St. Martin) for as little as $30 USD a day.
After researching reviews online, we booked a small automatic from Discount Car Rental in advance of our trip and were really impressed with the service we received.
We were met right at the airport’s arrivals hall and escorted to our parked rental vehicle, where we were given the keys.
And then toward the end of our trip, we wanted to stay put in Grand Case the last few days (and didn’t need the car anymore).
So the owner Claude Meinrad picked up the rental car from our hotel (no extra charge).
The cost was very reasonable and included full insurance (CDW, LDW and theft) and unlimited mileage. There were no hidden extras. All we had to do was top up the fuel before returning the car.
What’s the driving in St. Martin/St. Maarten like?
Well… It’s a bit of a learning curve if you’re a visitor renting a car.
The streets are narrow, with no shoulders, winding and up and down hills outside the towns and villages.
There’s surprisingly quite a bit of traffic congestion.
Sometimes vehicles barely inch along, equating to long driving times for short distances if you hit a bad stretch or travel during rush hour. (It may be a Caribbean island, but there’s still a rush hour.)
On the road, the French method of driving prevails. Cars butt into traffic in front of you willy-nilly and the roundabouts are a complete free-for-all.
And forget about parking. Side streets are often fully taken over by parked vehicles.
So driving on the island is a bit stressful until you get the hang of it. We survived. Other visitors do too.
The good news if you’re coming from North America is that at least you drive on the right-hand side of the road on the island.
Other practical things to know before you travel to St. Martin
On the Dutch side, the Netherlands Antilles Florin is the legal tender. On the French side of St. Martin, it’s the Euro.
But to make life easier, both sides of the island accept U.S. dollars and credit cards.
Some local places only accept cash.
So one of our St. Maarten travel tips is: Make sure you have some reserve USD in cash to pay for beach chair rentals, drinks, tips and the like at smaller beach clubs and local businesses where credit cards aren’t accepted.
As you’d expect, French and Dutch are the official languages of the island. But due to the island’s location (i.e., in the Caribbean) and huge tourism industry, English is widely spoken.
As you explore, you may also hear snippets of Spanish, Creole and Papiamento, a native tongue.
St. Martin and St. Maarten entry requirements
Do you need a passport for St. Maarten and St. Martin?
Yes. You need a valid passport and a return ticket to visit.
What are the visa requirements?
U.S., Canadian, Australian, British and EU citizens don’t need a visa to holiday in St. Maarten/St. Martin.
U.S. and Dutch nationals can stay up to 180 days in a year without a visa. Canadians, Australians, British and non-Dutch nationals can stay for up to 90 days.
There are no special vaccinations required to visit St. Maarten.
St. Martin/St. Maarten after Hurricane Irma
Many of the buildings on the French side of the island still haven’t been repaired after the devastating hurricane of 2017.
It’s a bit unsettling at first to see the dilapidated and uninhabited remains of houses and buildings, with roofs torn off and concrete rubble on the ground.
For example, the church in the village of Grand Case has a ripped tarpaulin flapping in the wind for a roof.
Then again, many buildings have been totally rebuilt.
You quickly get accustomed to the sight of “damaged” and “repaired” standing side by side. It doesn’t take long before your eyes interpret the ramshackle mix of graffiti-splattered ruins and brand-new hotels and restaurants as a charming melee.
The Dutch side of the island is more advanced. Little evidence of Hurricane Irma remains in today’s St. Maarten.
Things to do in St. Maarten/St. Martin
There are lots of fun things to do in St. Maarten (and St. Martin.)
As a Caribbean Island, part of the Leeward Islands, it’ll come as no surprise that it’s blessed with 37 great beaches and brilliantly blue sea water, warm enough for swimming all year long.
But it’s St. Maarten’s unique culture that makes it stand out from other tropical paradises.
You can literally have two different vacations by enjoying the fabulous French food and luxury boutique hotels on the French side, before crossing the non-existent border for duty-free shopping and partying until dawn on the Dutch side.
Here are just some of the activities you’ll want to include in your St. Martin and St. Maarten itinerary:
- Visit Pinel Island: A tiny uninhabited island just a 7-minute boat ride from the shore, Pinel Island looks as if it belongs on a postcard, with calm water, golden sand and swaying palms. The island also has two beach clubs.
- Chill (and dine) at Grand Case Beach: One of the best beaches on the island, Grand Case Beach gently curls over a mile around the coastline. It’s ideal for chilling out on during the day, and there are plenty of beach bars to enjoy a fruity cocktail in the afternoon. At night, the town’s superb French restaurants will lure you in with escargot, foie gras, grilled lobster and other delectable specialties.
- Go plane spotting at Maho Bay: If you know St. Maarten for anything, it’s this airport beach! Thanks to the international airport’s short runway and proximity to Maho Beach, planes fly mere feet overhead before landing at the airport.
- Take a day trip to St. Barts: St. Barts – famous for its super yachts, beaches, designer boutiques and chic French air – is only a 45-minute high-speed ferry ride from Philipsburg, so it’s very popular as a day trip.
- Watch the action at Orient Bay Beach: Orient Beach is a bustling stretch of powder white sand (almost 1½ miles long), where windsurfers and kitesurfers fly over the waves. The beach clubs are cool, and there’s even a nudist beach for getting an all-over tan.
- Sail to Tintamarre Island: Day tripping to Tintamarre Island is a great way to snorkel with sea turtles on your Caribbean vacay. Sail the seas on a catamaran and dive into the water to swim with marine life.
- Hang out at Simpson Bay Lagoon: The placid waters here are ideal for water sports like kayaking.
And in case you missed it, be sure to hop on over to our post on the best things to do in Saint Martin and St. Maarten for all the details!
Where to stay on St. Maarten/St. Martin
As it’s an island of many contrasts, you’re probably wondering about the best places to stay in St. Maarten and St. Martin. Here’s our take on the top resort areas and their atmosphere.
Dutch St. Maarten vs. French St. Martin
The Dutch side of St. Maarten generally sees more tourists, thanks to being home to the airport and the place where cruise ships dock. It also has more of a Caribbean culture.
The French side is arguably more European.
It also has more smaller boutique hotels (as opposed to larger resorts and hotels found on the Dutch half). So for a European atmosphere (but with Caribbean weather!), opt to stay in St. Martin.
Of course, wherever you choose to stay, you can easily hop from one side of the island to the other – remember, there isn’t a border.
The capital of the Dutch part of the island, Philipsburg is a bright cheery town.
You’ll find lots of shops, restaurants and casinos here, and most sailing tours depart from Philipsburg.
Philipsburg is a great place on St. Maarten for families, with nearby attractions like the Parrot Ville Bird Sanctuary.
But it’s also perfect if you’d like to revel in the local nightlife.
Boasting one of the best beaches in St. Maarten, Simpson Bay is the ideal place to stay to get a full taste of the Dutch side of the island.
Step outside your resort and feel the sand beneath your toes, paddle a kayak in deliciously warm water and enjoy a buzzing tourist-focused center with all the amenities you could desire.
Grand Case is the most populous settlement on the French side of the island (although it’s still pretty small).
It’s a fairly popular tourist spot. But it’s much quieter than the Dutch resorts on the south of the island.
Grand Case Beach is awesome, with golden sand stretching almost as far as the eye can see.
The town is famous for its incredible restaurants offering French gastronomy; it’s often thought to be the culinary capital of the Caribbean.
With the largest beach on the island, Orient Bay is the most popular place to stay on the French side. (We stayed at Esmeralda Resort.)
You’ll delight in an unmistakably French vibe when vacationing here, with classy beach clubs and bountiful gastronomic options.
If it wasn’t for the tropical weather, you could almost believe you’re in St. Tropez!
As it’s on the windward side of the island, Orient Bay is also the best place to stay in St. Martin for windsurfing and kitesurfing.
That wraps up our St. Maarten and Saint Martin travel guide!
If you’re looking for a sun-soaked Caribbean island with a European flavor, you’ll be enamored with St. Martin and St. Maarten.
It has everything you could want from a Caribbean holiday – culture, nature, adventure, haute cuisine, nightlife and beautiful hotels and resorts.
Hopefully you’ve found this St. Maarten travel guide useful in planning your Caribbean vacation.