One island. Two countries. Two vibes. One extraordinary vacation. That’s Saint Martin.
This half-French, half-Dutch island lies 190 miles east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea. It’s only 37 square miles, but it packs a wallop when it comes to a dreamy getaway.
We recently got back from spending nearly a month there.
We’d visited before and couldn’t get enough, so we returned to ensure we left no stone unturned. And let’s be real, also to chill and pamper ourselves in this pretty little melting pot.
When planning your trip to Saint Martin, you’ll need to know a lot about this unique place.
Like… The north part of this dual island nation is French St. Martin, and the south is Dutch Sint Maarten.
And there’s a big difference. So it’s only fitting that we write a Saint Martin vs. Sint Maarten smackdown and explain it all.
Okay, let’s get cracking!
Saint Martin vs. Sint Maarten in a nutshell
What’s in a name?
A lot when it comes to this island of many names.
Let’s start with the Dutch side, also known as Sint Maarten, St. Maarten and Saint Maarten.
The French side of St. Martin is also known as Saint Martin.
And then, to muddy things even more, it’s also dubbed the Friendly Island.
So, as you can imagine, a name can cause a lot of confusion.
Now that we’ve clarified that, how do you get here?
It doesn’t matter if you’re staying in Sint Maarten or Saint Martin, you still fly into Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) on the Dutch side.
But don’t worry, crossing the border is kind of like walking across the street.
There are no officials to show your passport, and no stamps are needed. You just cross. As often as you want.
That’s why some people stay on the Dutch side of the island and eat on the French side. Or stay on the French side and play on the Dutch side.
It’s easy to cross whenever you feel like it.
One thing to note: Hurricane season is from June through November. So, plan your vacation outside of those months.
About St Martin:
The French side of the island is quieter and more laid back.
The Euro is the local currency, but U.S. dollars are accepted.
French is the official language. English is spoken, although it’s less accepted than on the Dutch side. They’re still French!
The food is divine, as you’d expect from French cuisine. The French restaurants in Grand Case (the Caribbean’s “culinary capital”) will make you think you’re in a tropical version of Paris!
This side has a European feel and exudes that French je ne sais quoi.
Think France, laced with spicy Caribbean flavors – that blend is St. Martin.
It’s where you’ll happily devour another buttery croissant no matter that you’ll be living in a bathing suit for most of your vacation.
It’s where your body composition could easily turn to 80% butter and 20% wine, and you’ll j’adore every second of it.
Even though the French side (21 square miles) is larger than its Dutch counterpart, it’s less commercially developed.
Marigot, the capital of the French side, has about 6,000 residents living amongst the colorful rues, boutique hotels and chic cafes.
The beaches are pristine. Sometimes secluded. Occasionally nude.
About Sint Maarten:
This duty-free side is where the party happens. Think Vegas, Cabo and Cancun, but on a much smaller scale.
About 40,000 people live in Sint Maarten.
But while it’s smaller (16 square miles) than St. Martin, it’s more commercially developed, culturally diverse and densely populated. It’s where the cruise ships dock and large hotels and casinos are located.
Dutch is the official language, but English is widely spoken and happily so. Virgin Islands Creole is also spoken, as this side has an authentic Caribbean vibe.
Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side, is the only big city on the island and where most boat excursions leave from.
The Netherlands Antillean Guilder (ANG) is the official currency. But, as on the French side, the U.S. dollar is widely accepted.
Unlike the French side, the food here is more diverse, with any type of cuisine your stomach desires.
And now, the Saint Martin or Sint Maarten battle begins!
Which has the best beaches: St. Martin or St. Maarten?
There’s no shortage of beautiful beaches with crystal clear waters on the island of St. Maarten and St. Martin.
Choose a beach on either side, and you’ll be lounging with a guavaberry rum or French rosé in minutes.
You really can’t lose.
Beaches in St. Martin:
If you’re a lover of secluded beaches, French Saint Martin is where you’ll find your Caribbean paradise. There is more unspoiled coastline with pristine beaches on this side.
Additionally, it’s where you’ll find topless and even some nude beaches to let it all hang out.
The most popular beach is Orient Bay (Baie Orientale). It has several bars to steel up that liquid courage before dropping your drawers at the end of the beach.
Our favorite beach to chill on is perhaps Grand Case.
It’s where the hottest beach clubs are on the island.
Rainbow Café is one of our favorites. It has a rooftop café and is a beach club with a little for everyone.
Ok, it could also be the aquamarine water and fluffy golden sand that gets us excited about Grand Case Beach.
But we love watching the beautiful people as we sip champagne and eat exquisite food in a picture-perfect location. Who wouldn’t, right?
Beaches in St. Maarten:
Maho Beach is one of the most popular beaches in St. Maarten.
And it’s diametrically opposed to the calm waters and secluded beaches of St. Martin.
It’s more of a tourist destination and something to check off your bucket list than a place to sit all day and lounge.
That’s because it’s right in front of the international airport, and massive planes land just overhead, kicking up sand and anything else that isn’t nailed down.
But besides that tourist attraction, the white sandy beaches on the Dutch side give the Frenchie’s a run for their money.
Mullet Bay is known for its expanse of white sand and bright turquoise sea, with plenty of water activities on offer. Kalatua is a trendy new beach club there.
If you go ga-ga over sunsets, like us, head to Cupecoy Beach on the eastern side for a cliffside cocktail and a dramatic end to the daylight.
St. Martin or St. Maarten: Which is better for activities?
Remember we said this small island packs a wallop?
We’ve actually written a whole post on all the fun things to do in St. Martin and St. Maarten.
Here they are in a nutshell:
Things to do in St. Martin (French side):
- Make your own signature scent at Tijon perfumery.
- Sail away to Tintamarre Island and snorkel with the turtles.
- Visit Loterie Farm, which isn’t a farm at all. It’s more like a beach club without a beach and in the middle of the jungle.
- Sip champagne and chill at a beach club in Grand Case – worth mentioning again!
- Do a rum tasting at La Part des Anges.
- Spend a quiet day at Friar’s Bay Beach.
- Beach hop (or walk for 15 minutes) from Friar’s Bay to Happy Bay.
- Stuff your face with French food – gracefully, of course – in Grand Case.
- Take an excursion to uninhabited Pinel Island.
- Watch the windsurfers at Orient Beach.
- Enjoy a Friday night lobster feast at L’Astrolabe feast in the Esmeralda Resort.
- Lounge on secluded Anse Marcel Beach.
- Hike to the highest point on the island, Pic Paradis.
- Take in the sunset at the aptly named Sunset Café.
- Eat at a lolo – a super casual open-air eatery serving local fare.
Things to do in St. Maarten (Dutch side):
- Watch the planes land at Maho Beach. (Here’s a tour with transportation from the cruise port.)
- Head to Saba for incredible scuba diving.
- Get lucky at the Casino Royale.
- Go duty-free shopping in the capital, Philipsburg.
- Kayak amongst the mega-yachts in Simpson Bay.
- Take a ferry and day trip to the ever-glamourous St. Barts. (See our St. Barts travel guide on why you should go.)
- Hike up the Fort Willem Hill trail and get a bird’s eye view of Fort Amsterdam, Oyster Bay and the harbor.
- Crew and race an actual America’s Cup Sailboat.
- Get your adrenaline pumping on the steepest zipline in the world.
- Snorkel offshore at the reef at Mullet Bay Beach.
- Hop onboard a sailboat or catamaran for a snorkeling and lunch cruise or dinner cruise around the island.
Hotels and resorts: Saint Martin vs. Sint Maarten
What about the best places to stay in St. Martin and Sint Maarten?
Is there a difference between Sint Maarten vs. St. Martin?
Hotels in St. Martin:
One thing to note about staying on this side is you can choose from the Caribbean or Atlantic coast.
The two most popular areas to stay are Grande Case on the Caribbean coast and Orient Bay on the Atlantic coast.
They are only about 15-minutes away from each other, but they are worlds apart in terms of accommodation and vibe.
The Caribbean is more protected from the wind, so the water is calmer. Additionally, some of the best French restaurants on this side are in Grand Case.
Alternately, Orient Bay has cool boutique hotels and beach clubs serving various food options on a powdery white sand beach. It’s windier here, so waves are the norm, as are kite surfers.
Boutique and luxury hotels are what the French side does best.
We’ve stayed at several of them and personally inspected others.
Here are some of the top hotels:
- Hotel L’Esplanade: Sophisticated suites with ocean views and full kitchens, just a short walk from Grand Case Beach. (See our Hotel L’Esplanade review.)
- Le Petit Hotel: Romantic boutique hotel right on Grand Case beach, where suites also have kitchens.
- Belmond La Samanna: The most exclusive luxury hotel in St. Martin, where you can hobnob with the rich and famous.
- Esmeralda Resort: Affordable Caribbean luxury on Orient Bay, with a fine-dining French restaurant on site. (See our review of Esmeralda.)
- Grand Case Beach Club: Beachfront resort ideal for families and couples. (See our Grand Case Beach Club review.)
- La Playa Orient Bay: 4-star beachfront property with 56 recently renovated rooms.
- Orient Beach Hotel: New boho-chic hotel with ocean views and private patios or terraces.
- LTC Hotel Partner Le Temps des Cerises Jeans: Small boutique hotel in Grand Case, with eight shabby-chic rooms and a party vibe.
- Secrets St. Martin Resort & Spa: Adults-only all-inclusive resort on the calm waters of Anse Marcel Beach.
Hotels and resorts in St. Maarten:
The southern part of the island (Dutch side) sees more tourists than the French side. As well, it’s more developed and commercial than its sister side.
As a result, there are more accommodation options.
You can pretty much find something for all tastes and budgets, regardless of whether you’re a solo traveler, couple or family.
This side has a lot of large resorts, super family-friendly options and all-inclusives.
It’s a little friendlier on the wallet, as you’d expect from the Dutch.
Here are our recommendations for the Dutch side:
- Sonesta Ocean Point Resort: Best adults-only, all-inclusive resort on the Dutch side.
- Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, Casino & Spa: Massive all-inclusive resort catering to families.
- The Morgan Resort & Spa: Flashy modern hotel near the Dutch capital. There isn’t a beach, but the mind-blowing infinity pool is all you’ll need.
- Oyster Bay Beach Resort: Affordable luxury nestled between the Oyster Pond and the Atlantic. All 180 suites have water views.
- Coral Beach Club Villas & Marina: 5-star luxury villas and condos, some with private pools.
- Oceans at Divi Little Bay: Family-friendly resort with all-inclusive options and watersports galore.
- Holland House Beach Hotel: Beachfront hotel with all the action of downtown Philipsburg on its doorstep.
- Simpson Bay Resort: Family-friendly resort with full kitchens and six swimming pools.
St. Maarten vs. St. Martin: Which is better for dining?
Caribbean seafood? Check. French haute cuisine? Check. Vegan fare? Check. Creole? Check. Italian? Check. Asian? Check.
The list goes on.
There’s a reason why the food on this split-identity island is epic. Just thinking about the dining options in Sint Maarten vs. St. Martin makes us salivate!
Best restaurants in St. Martin:
Grand Case was known as the culinary capital of the Caribbean before Hurricane Irma devastated the island in 2017.
It’s been clawing its way back to that title, and rightfully so, with restaurant after bistro of luscious cuisine.
We love the food in Grand Case. Here’s a summary of the best restos in this village:
- Le Pressoir: Make a reservation and order the egg parfait. You’re welcome.
- L’Auberge Gourmande: Order the frog’s legs and choose a libation from one of the biggest wine cellars on the island.
- Spiga: Grand Case institution serving homemade Italian fare.
- La Villa Restaurant: Family-friendly upscale dining.
- Ocean 82: Locally sourced menu that changes every week.
- Bistrot Caraibes: One of the best French restaurants on the island.
- Le Cottage: Chic bistro with unique offerings like a lobster tasting menu. Pair it with wine chosen by the sommelier.
- Sunset Café: All-day dining with views for days. Part of the Grand Case Beach Club.
- Lolos: Simple outdoor joints offering local fare at affordable prices. There are a few on Grand Case’s main street.
Over in Orient Bay, L’Astrolabe teases the tastebuds with French specialties like lobster and cognac bisque with fois gras ravioli; escargots; and veal sweetbreads.
And we’ve already mentioned their special Friday lobster feasts!
Best restaurants in St. Maarten:
Although it hasn’t reached title status, there are some tasty options to choose from here as well:
- Moulin Fou: Best French on the Dutch St. Maarten side.
- Mario Bistro: Upscale dining overlooking the Caribbean.
- Top Carrot: Vegetarian-friendly health food in Simpson Bay.
- Bamboo House: Sushi and cocktails and a great vibe.
- Jax Steakhouse: Premium and Prime grade steakhouse near Maho Beach.
- Tortuga Maho: Beach club and restaurant in Maho Beach for all-day food and cocktails.
- The Capitan’s Rib Shack: When the menu says, “Orgasmic Ribs,” you just gotta try them.
- Original Fat Boy BBQ: All BBQ all the time since the early ’90s.
The Dutch territory of Sint Maarten is not to be left behind in the food category!
Nightlife: St. Maarten vs. St. Martin
The nightlife scene on this island is just as divergent as the two different countries that govern it.
The French side: Sipping wine with a friend. Pinkies up!
The Dutch side: Casinos, bars, clubs, distilleries, live music, DJs, dancing. Hair down!
Nightlife in St. Martin:
If you count drinking wine at a lavish French restaurant as nightlife, then St. Martin is perfect for you. (And some beach clubs party late into the night.)
But if you need more spice, go Dutch.
Nightlife in St. Maarten:
The nightlife here is electric. You can find every kind of party on this side.
Want to dance barefoot in the sand to a live steel drum band? You can.
Go hard at a nightclub until the sun comes up? It’s here.
As is everything in between. It’s one of the most exciting Caribbean islands for nightlife!
Here are a few of the best nightlife options:
- Mykonos: A recent addition to the party scene in Maho Beach. It’s an outdoor space with a pool at its center and an ocean view. Professional mixologists create signature cocktails while you dance to the hottest DJs until 3:00 am.
- Bar Bamboo: Same location as the Bamboo House sushi restaurant we mentioned above. They have live DJs or bands every day from 6:00 pm to 2:00 am and host tons of fun events, like disco and Latin-themed nights.
- The Red Piano Lounge: Voted the best live music venue on the island. Seven days a week. All sorts of music. Floor-to-ceiling liquor shelf with more than 300 types of liquor to try (not all in one night!).
- Lotus Nightclub: Asian-themed Zen palace serving up bottle service and famous DJs.
- Soggy Dollar Bar: Open-air tropical bar in Palapa Marina with views of all the mega-yachts.
Cost: Is St. Maarten or St. Martin cheaper?
As you’d expect from the French, St. Martin is known for its luxurious ooh la la lifestyle. Would you have it any other way?
Rarely can you buy anything French that is easy on the wallet. Think about it. French wine? French food? French clothing? All expensive. St. Martin is no different.
If you’re looking for a sophisticated holiday at any cost, go to the northern part of the island (French side). You won’t be sorry.
(If you’re savvy about where to stay, you don’t have to blow a bundle on your accommodations. But the French dinners will still cost you.)
However, if you’re on a smaller budget, the Dutch side of St. Maarten awaits.
Enjoy the beaches and free things on both sides, splurge on a few things or a big fancy dinner and then retreat to the Dutch side for your hotel.
It’s a good balance. And you won’t be missing out on anything.
Last words on St. Martin vs. St. Maarten
As you can see, this small island is very diverse.
Yet, despite the differences between Saint Martin vs. Sint Maarten, both sides have their beauty and charm. And without a doubt, you should explore them both.
It’s such an appealing destination, there’s no way to make a wrong choice when planning where to stay. But now, you can decide which is better for your vacation.
We love both sides for their unique vibes.
Plus, it’s like having two vacations in one! And who doesn’t love that?
Photo credits: 13, 19 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase