Saint Martin is an island split between the French collectivity of Saint-Martin and the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten (formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, but now a constituent state of the Kingdom of the Netherlands). It is one of the smallest land masses divided between two countries.
The northern, French side of the island is known as Saint-Martin, and is 54km² (21 square miles) in area. The southern, "Dutch side" of the island is known as Sint Maarten, and is 41km² (16 square miles). The Dutch side has recently formed its own government and legal system, with its relations with the "French side" to remain unchanged. To avoid confusion between the three variations on the name, the two regions are commonly referred to as "the French side" and "the Dutch side".
Although this island is controlled by two different countries, there is no real border. There are only monuments and signs that delineate the border. Over 350 years ago the two countries decided that residents of either country could travel across both sides of the border without worrying about any trouble. Local legend says that two men representing the two respective countries met on the island to define the border. Both men wanted the majority of the land for their nation, so they decided to have a contest. They would both start at the same point and walk along the coast in separate directions. When they both met on the other side of the island, they would draw a line from point to point, and that would serve as the border. However, the Dutchman was a drunk and was hammered when they started the contest. He was stumbling and kept falling down, which is why the Netherlands has less of the land. The two countries now live peacefully without difficulties, which helps tourism considerably. Any separation is more from separate and dissimilar utilities systems, e.g., power on French side is 250V, 50Hz, while the Dutch side is 110/120V, 60Hz. In addition, one must take special care when dialling from the French to Dutch or Dutch to French side as it is, in effect, an international call and requires special dialling instructions. These instructions are typically posted at hotels and tourist locations.
The Dutch side, Sint Maarten, has become a leading destination in the property market with more and more developments being constructed. There are high-rise flats and waterfront communities, all of which are popular to buyers, especially American. Tourists on the streets are frequently approached by time-share offers for them. The language on this side of the island is Dutch, but almost everyone speaks English.
On the Dutch side, grocery stores and other businesses may have prices expressed in Netherlands Antilles Florins (NAF) which is the local currency also called Guilders, but the US dollar and the euro will be gladly accepted at these establishments as well. The florin is officially pegged to the USD, with a fixed rate of USD1 = NAF1.79. Many large resorts have been built and on many days cruise ships flood Philipsburg with their passengers. Philipsburg is one of the Caribbean's best shopping towns. If shopping's not your thing, you can sit out back on Philipsburg's harbour beach and have a drink. Or play at one of the casinos just down the street. There are nine on this side. When it all gets too mellow, go rip it up with a 4x4 excursion around the island. Visit the Maho and Cupecoy area for some of the best nightlife on the island and some of the best beaches.
The French side, Saint Martin, consists of the Northern two-thirds of the island. It is governed by the neighbouring island of Guadeloupe, and is more European than the Dutch. The native language is French and has the same guiding laws as France. There are no casinos on the French side. It is less developed than the Dutch side, but contains more of the island's natural wonders. The French side is popularly known for clothing-optional Orient Beach and the adjacent nudist resort, Club Orient (the clothing optional portion of the beach lies at the far southern end, and can be easily recognised by the large bright yellow beach umbrellas; while the Club Orient does own its beach area, it is open to the public, so you will see both clothed and unclothed people on this particular stretch; if you are with small children, and you don't want them to see unclothed people, it is probably best to not bring them to this part of the beach). However the towns of Marigot and Grand Case provide some of the best gourmet meals anywhere and plenty of interesting shops. Beauty abounds on the island, with bluffs overlooking pretty harbours, sandy-cliffed beaches and tranquil rocky coves where fish provide the beauty.
Dutch and French are the official languages on their respective sides of the island. The EU variety of English is an official language of the Dutch side as well and is widely spoken on both sides, especially in tourist areas. Children on both sides of the island are educated in French, Dutch, English and Spanish so language is typically not a barrier when visiting the island.
When leaving St. Martin by plane, travellers pay an exit tax at the Phillipsburg airport. Travellers departing on international flights pay USD36. Exempt are passengers flying with certain airlines, transit passengers and children under two. This tax is included in some airfares but for others travellers must pay at the airport. The exit tax to the other Netherlands Antilles Islands such as Saba and St. Eustatius is only USD10. The exit tax does not apply to in transit travellers.
Last year, over 1.3 million people visited the island by cruise ship, landing mostly in Philipsburg on what used to be the "Dutch side".
Those ships make the city of Philipsburg the busiest city on the island. In "high season", you may see 6 or so ships, offloading perhaps 18,000 or more passengers. In low season, one occasional ship is more common. You can find usually-accurate schedules for this and many ports and dates online.
The main cruise docks for Philipsburg are approximately a one mile walk to the east end of Front Street leading into the main shopping area. However, a short walk from the cruise ship docks you'll find:
Marigot port on the "French side" is limited to hosting one small-sized cruise ship at a time, but is also served by attractive marinas supporting many yachts of all sizes. Most inter-island ferry service also arrives/departs at Marigot.
Rental cars are available at Princess Juliana International Airport at a dedicated area outside of the airport. You'll find most of the major rental car companies such as Avis , Budget , Hertz , Unity Cars , EasyTerra , and E-Z Rent-A-Car  available at the airport. The roads are narrow, sometimes quite bad on both sides of the island, and often very crowded between Philipsburg and Marigot. See also "Stay Safe" below.
Note: At least one car hire/rental operator (Rhino Car Hire) insists that its cars can only be used on the Dutch side. This seems nuts, but when questioned they confirmed it (email January 2014). Since several operators include a standard phrase such as "All cross-border travel disallowed" it's worth getting a specific ruling from the operator before parting with any money. (Two brokers took the same stance, without saying which operator was involved.)
Motorcycles, quads and scooters are also available for rent, however it is advisable that you have some experience on these vehicles before venturing into St. Maarten's sometimes very hectic traffic.
Taxi cabs are usually vans, which are geared towards servicing the cruise ship traffic. To go completely around the island will cost about USD25 per person. Most drivers are quite willing and able to hire-out as tour guides. Most charge USD45-50 per hour, and can offer a custom experience for 3-4 people that can be less expensive and more versatile and satisfying than large bus tours offered by cruise ships or hotels.
Saint Martin has a bus system using small minivans. You can recognize the vans because in the front window they will have a sign stating their direction and their license plate says bus. You can get most anywhere on the island for USD2 and the airport for USD3 (most locals pay for their bus fare using USD). They run frequently between Philipsburg and Marigot. Ask a local where the bus stops are, and look for license plates that say (oddly enough) "bus". They aren't exactly efficient or timely but are a great way to get a leisurely tour for next to nothing and to get from the Dutch side to the French side.
If you are driving (especially on the French side) expect a lot of scooters and motorcycles to speed around you on both sides of the road. This can be startling to drivers not used to two wheeled traffic as it can create a dangerous situation. If you stay in your lane and don't waver you can trust most of the time that the cyclists will pass you safely. It's better to just let them pass you at a steady pace then try and slow down, pull to the side, etc.
Once you reach Philipsburg, Marigot or Grand Case, you can get around nicely on foot. The distances in each are not long. Take some care in Philipsburg and Marigot with heavy traffic, narrow, sometimes missing pavements, and the midday sun.
Beaches are a main attraction on the island of Saint Martin. It has 37 beaches total, with hotels holding property on most of them. Beach Bars and Cafés are very popular attractions on the island. Many offer unusually good dishes with European and Caribbean inspiration. Frozen cocktails are also a trendy treat to keep down the heat.
All beaches of Saint Martin are fine for swimming and sun bathing, though the west half of the good beach at Philipsburg has better water. The island caters to all, with beaches of fun things to do as well as secluded and more private ones.
Clothing optional beaches. As a European island, topless sun bathing is frequently seen. Some tourists come to Sint Maarten / Saint-Martin because there are clothing optional beaches & resorts on the island. Not every beach is clothing optional.
One particularly famous beach is Maho Bay beach on the "Dutch side". The beach is situated at the end of the airport's runway, so landing large aircraft fly just feet over the beach. Some people (attempt to) hold on to the fence on airport premises as aircraft depart...not recommended due to flying gravel and debris. People have been injured doing this. However, the spectacular view of aircraft landing so close is one that you might find stunning. The greatest number of large aircraft arrivals and departures takes place in the early-mid-morning and mid-late afternoon.
Just beyond Maho Bay is Mullet Bay; some say it has the nicest beach on the island, with food and drink vendors and beach lounger rentals but few facilities. Virtually all beaches are described in web sites for the island. A full complement of tours and excursions are also available as well as watersports and parasailing.
Casinos are also a popular attraction on the island...only on the Dutch side. Some of them are in the Cupecoy, Maho, Cole Bay areas, while in Phillipsburg you'll find five.
Loterie Farm, Rte. de Pic du Paradis, Phone: 590/87-86-16 or 590/57-28-55; . Location features an excellent restaurant, a Lounge with Tapas, Hikes and Ecotours on a 150 acre preserve, and "The Fly Zone" a fun Zip Line experience with rope zips and an obstacle course high up in the trees. Also has a "Ti' Tarzan" zip course for the kids and "The Fly Zone Extreme" a new Zip that goes up over 100ft. On the "French side" but patronized by many American tourists, prices are shown in euros and dollars. You should call in advance for prices and to check whether a cruise ship shore tour is visiting, as it is pretty packed on those days. If you're going on the Zips, wear closed shoes, flip flops are a no-no. The Activities are open only during the day, but the Restaurant and Lounge are open in the evenings as well...try the Curry Chicken.
The island has a deserved reputation as an excellent place to shop, rivalling Saint Thomas in the US Virgin Islands for price, but with somewhat fewer stores. Some shoppers report better prices for some items than the USVI. Both "sides" offer a wide range of quality. Shopping is duty free on both sides of the island, with no tax or duty paid directly by buyers. Merchants on the "Dutch" side" do pay a five percent "turnover tax" on all items they sell...recently (February 11, 2011) increased from 3% by the new government. A few sellers may try to add it as a separate cost item on sales slips, despite instructions from the tax authority not to do so.Euros and US dollars are commonly accepted on both sides of the island, as are credit cards. However there are many places that do not accept cards, so you should ask beforehand. Always have some cash on you in small denominations for small purchases and for transport. Expect change in local currency for lesser cash transactions.
French side. Items are often priced in euros on the French side, so some items are or appear to be more expensive (after currency conversion) than on the Dutch side or elsewhere in the Caribbean. Many stores on the French side close between 12 and 3PM. That side has a smaller number of retailers, and their goods (e.g., clothing, perfumes, wine) tend to be premium, European brand-name or designer items at fairly competitive prices.
Dutch side. Front Street in Philipsburg is the centre of shopping on the Dutch side. Numerous stores offer jewellery, liquor, cosmetics, cameras, electronics and tobacco, with souvenirs everywhere; you'll find a small open-air bazaar behind the courthouse.
Warranties: Any electronics (including cameras, lenses) purchased here will have an international warranty...or grey-market or none. You should clearly understand what any warranty covers and what's necessary to obtain service at home.
Store recommendations by cruise ship port shopping "advisers" are usually reliable, but the stores pay very large fees for those "endorsements"...virtually all for stores on the Dutch side. Recommended by advisers or not, large or small, most stores (e.g., Kay's Jewellery) are reliable, and will rectify any problem truly their responsibility. You're wise to thoroughly examine an item before purchase & obtain a warranty, or formal appraisal for pricey gems/jewellery.
AVOID World of Electronics, they have history of falsely describing items such as an Apple iPhone 4S which Apple have confirmed is not an Apple iPhone 4S.
Most merchants touted by those "advisers" are near or east of the courthouse on Front Street. Those stores and others offer excellent selections. The centre and easterly parts were recently renovated for pleasant walking despite heavy vehicle traffic and sometimes crowded pavements. Many liquor stores there box bottles and may deliver to your hotel or ship if purchased early enough. West of the courthouse, and on "Old Street", you'll find smaller stores, e.g., for aggressively discounted liquor...often cash-only, boxes only for multi-bottle purchases, usually no delivery (so you'll need a sturdy bag and padding to safely carry bottles). (See Saint_Thomas#Returning_home for tips on going home with purchases.)
Whenever considering a significant purchase, negotiate amiably; you may well save a bit.
Anyone on the streets touting "freebies" or "cash" will likely lead you incrementally and smoothly to a distant, on-site sales pitch for resort condos or time-shares. Once there, you'll encounter high-pressure tactics over an extended time, with "freebies" governed by willingness to buy. If you have only limited time for your visit, it may be totally consumed at the sales pitch.
The island has some 300 restaurants with a wide variety of offerings available to both tourists and locals. The French cuisine and local fare is an exciting experience to most, but if you are apprehensive about trying new things, there are other restaurants. The island has restaurants that are American, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, vegetarian and more. If self-catering, you'll large modern supermarkets with excellent selections of American, European and other products as well...all imported.
If you are not feeling adventurous, the Dutch Side has several American fast food franchises including McDonalds(3), Burger King(3), Subway(4), Pizza Hut(2), Dominoes(2), KFC(3) and Bubble Tea(1). In Philipsburg, you'll find a "Macs" a block west on Front Street...at least convenient for a cold soft drink during your "hot" shopping and Bubble Tea is also in the Philipsburg area.
If you want to save some cash, eat where the locals eat on the cheap, both the french and Dutch sides of the island feature many Chinese restaurants, but the Dutch Side is the hands down winner with over 40 of them. In addition to the regular far eastern fare, these inexpensive eateries feature many local dishes, and "Caribbeanized" (no,that's not really a word, but you catch my drift) Chinese food.
Want to try something really different, stop at one the roadside food trucks for some take-away, one of these trucks located in Phillipsburg serves some of the best Suriname food on the island. Try the Chicken Sate with Bami or go light with a Soato Soup.
Enjoy lunch, swim on a beautiful beach and watch aircraft land at Tortuga at Maho.
Saving Money, etc.
When making an international phone call: Be sure to investigate pre-paid phone cards. The most expensive type of international phone call is to use a credit card. Companies like International Satellite Communications, which handle credit card calls, charge exorbitant connection fees and per-minute rates.
As of October 2009 the drinking age in town is 18, but in tourist areas they are not so strict about it. St. Martin's nightlife consists of many bars, nightclubs and casinos where drinking is prevalent. Start out with a happy hour at "Bamboo Bernies" where drinking is free for a half an hour and continues until seven with the highest drink price of a dollar! Many of the clubs have ladies' nights as well as other nightly drink specials. The Dutch side of the island has more night clubs than the French, so if you're up for the party scene, this side is the one where you should stay.
Large wine menus are also usually available at most restaurants.
Oualichi Club. The only club in Philipsburg. Easy acces on the Boardwalk. Easy private parking. Indoor and outdoor dance floors with views of great bay and the cruise ships. Open every Friday and Saterday night 10PM -3AM.
Privé. Trendy sky Bar and lounge, indoor with an open terrace on the top of the Mega Yacht Building and views of Simpson Bay strip and lagoon. Open 6PM - 3AM everyday. On the Simpson Bay strip at the top of the Market Garden Supermarket
Bliss Night Club. At Caravanserai Beach Resort. Not far from the Princess Juliana International Airport Has restaurant, 2 bars, cabana seating around a pool and ocean views.
St. Martin's hotel rooms, almost without exception, rent for US$100+ per night and often much more, and generous taxes and service charges are then also applied. High season is from December through April. Accommodations are considerably less the rest of the year. If you are doing last minute travel when you call ahead ask for the "local rate" rather than what you will normally get which is the "walk-in rate", it can save you a considerable amount of money in some situations.
Locate some common sense and bring it with you when vacationing anywhere in the Caribbean. Here...
Generally, you'll find no dress codes for most places on St. Martin. Some high-end restaurants and night clubs do have some, though, so find out beforehand to avoid any disappointment.
St. Martin has a great deal of cultural diversity, and true locals are far outnumbered by immigrants from poorer and less urbane areas. Dressing too in too risqué a fashion can give the impression that you are looking for a "good time" and attract unwanted attention.
You may also offend some locals if you wander around in places other than the beaches and pools in your swimsuit: e.g., in your local supermarket as well as here, it's disrespectful and you may be treated accordingly.
Short-hop flights, and ferryboats from Marigot, are available to nearby islands such as Saint-Barthélemy, Anguilla, and Saba. Water crossings can can be quite rough, but take only 30 minutes or so to St Barts and Anguilla.