Difference between revisions of "Saint Martin"
Revision as of 12:18, 20 October 2009
The northern, French side of the island is known as Saint-Martin, and is 21 square miles. The southern, Dutch side of the island is known as Sint Maarten, and is 16 square miles. 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. The two countries live peacefully without difficulties which increases tourism. Any separation is more from separate and dissimilar utilities systems, e.g., power on French side is 250V 50 Hz, while the Netherlands side is 110/120 60 Hz. In addition, one must take special care when dialing from the French to Dutch or Dutch to French side as it is, in effect, an international call and requires special dialing instructions. These instructions are typically posted at hotels and tourist locations.
The Dutch side, Sint Maarten, is much more heavily developed than the French. It has become a leading destination in the real estate market with more and more developments being constructed. There are high rise condominiums and waterfront communities, all of which are popular to buyers, especially American. Tourists on the streets are frequently approached by timeshare offers for them. The language on this side of the island is Dutch, but almost everyone speaks English. Note that 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. Many large resorts have been built and on many days cruise ships flood Phillipsburg with their passengers. Phillipsburg is one of the Caribbean's best shopping towns. If shopping's not your thing, you can sit out back on Phillipsburg's harbor 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 neighboring island of Guadaloupe, 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.  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 harbors, sandy-cliffed beaches or just tranquil rocky coves where fish provide the beauty.
Dutch and French are the official languages on their respective sides of the island. English is widely spoken, 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.
There are over 1,300,000 visitors to the island by Cruise ships, mostly in Philipsburg, using an extended wharf from a 3-year project that ended in 2005. There are at times four cruise ships at the wharf at once in high-season, more may be anchored off-shore. They make the city of Philipsburg the busiest city on the island. A second wharf is (as of Spring, 2009) well under construction to cater to next-generation super cruise ships that will soon visit. In "high season", you may well see 4-6 ships most days; in low season, one ship is common. You can find schedules at .
The main cruise docks for Philipsburg are a substantial and currently (Spring 2009) dicey walk from downtown due to roadside construction, heat, and dust/dirt from passage of many large vehicles. However, a short walk from the cruise ship docks you'll find a water taxi service. It continuously runs boats in a round-robin route to Philipsburg, to a dock near the east end of Front Street and another opposite the middle of Front Street, before returning to the cruise ship area. Both stops offer ready access to the beach and shopping. Several boats run while cruise ships are there. You can buy single-trip wristbands, or bands for unlimited travel all day for slightly more. Be prepared for long lines when many cruise ships are visiting, but the number of water taxis employed tends to rise to meet demand, so long waits are few.
The dock area is also served by a fleet of taxis noted under "Get around" below.
Marigot port is limited to one modest-sized cruise ship berth, but is also served by attractive marinas supporting 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  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 Marogot. See also "Stay Safe" below.
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 $25 USD with a taxi.
Saint Martin has a bus system using small minivans. You can get most anywhere on the island for just a few dollars. They run frequently between Philipsburg and Marigot. Ask a local where the bus stops are, and look for license plates that say "bus".
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.
The island is developing a reputation as an excellent place to shop, rivaling Saint Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Some shoppers report prices for commodity goods (e.g., premium liquor) as better than the USVI. Shopping is duty free on both sides of the island.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 for smaller purchases and for transport.
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. Both "sides" offer a wide range of quality. The French 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. However, unique items (e.g., souvenirs, spices) particularly at the water-front open-air market in Marigot are more reasonable, and the banter among vendors is worth the visit.
The US dollar is readily accepted on the Dutch side. Numerous stores (primarily in Philipsburg on Front Street) offer jewelry, liquor, cosmetics, and tobacco, with souvenirs everywhere and a small open-air bazaar behind the courthouse. Shops are generally open from 8 or 9 am until noon, and then again from 2 until 6 p.m. Depending on cruise ship traffic, some stores remain open during lunch.
Store recommendations by cruise ship "port shopping advisors" are usually accurate, but the stores pay very large fees for those "endorsements". Most other stores (e.g., Kay's Jewelers) are usually just as reliable, and will rectify any problem truly their responsibility. Best insurance is to thoroughly examine an item before purchase & obtain a formal appraisal if relevant.
Most merchants touted by cruise lines are east of the courthouse on Front Street. West of the courthouse you'll find more independent stores, e.g., for liquor at excellent prices (often cash only, boxes may not be offered or available, and few deliver). Take care calculating cost-per-liter, as well as liters of liquor for customs; many bottles sold here are 700-750 ML rather than full liters.
For cheese lovers, mild Dutch Gouda, in boxes or 5 and 10 kilogram wheels, is a popular buy e.g., at Grand Marche and Sangs (beyond the east end of Front Street in Philipsburg); ensure each piece is still totally sealed from the maker to avoid spoilage and questions/seizure by Customs. Those looking for well-priced beachwear and souvenirs should try Back Street...one block farther from the beach than Front Street and parallel to it.
In Philipsburg, prices may fluctuate slightly based on the number and size of cruise ships in port (see "Get in" "By Boat" above). (Note: The state of the world economy can affect sales as much, if not more.) The fewer the cruise ships, the slower sales may be for merchants, so you may have more bargaining power. Better prices may also be found shortly before cruise ships are scheduled to leave...if you're on one, don't miss it. Whenever considering a significant purchase, negotiate. You may get a lower price.
Anyone on the streets touting "freebies" or "cash" will likely lead you to a distant, on-site sales pitch for resort condos or time-shares. Many involve 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.
If you are planning on shopping on Sunday, forget the French side of the island. The only places open are restaurants and food stores. The same tends to be true for the Dutch side except when cruise ships are in port.
Purchases and Duty: St Martin offers no special customs duty advantages over other Caribbean islands, and for U.S. citizens a slight disadvantage compared to the U.S. Virgin Islands. However, you may find items here that you won't find elsewhere, and some prices on commodity items (e.g., especially premium liquors) may be better than the USVI. Don't allow yourself to be dissuaded from a purchase here just for fear of Customs duties, which may be modest. (See "Buy" under "Saint Thomas" for details about boxing/packing bottles and U.S. Customs.)
The island has some 300 restaurants with a wide variety of offerings available to both tourists and locals. The French cuisine and local flare is an exciting experience to most, but if you are apprehensive about trying new things, there are other restaurants to dine at. The island has restaurants that are American, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Vegetarian and more. Large modern supermarkets are available with American and European products as well, if you would rather not eat out.
If you are not feeling adventurous, the Dutch Side has several American fast food franchises including McDonalds(2), Burger King(3), Subway(5), Pizza Hut(3), Dominoes(6), KFC(4) and Bubble Tea(4). You'll find a BK & a Mac's near the courthouse in Philipsburg...at least good for a cold soft drink during hot times shopping.
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 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 the Airplanes 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.
The drinking age of the island is 18 years old. 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.
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 in the Caribbean.
There are in general no dress codes for most places on St.Maarten, however some high-end Restaurants and Night Clubs do have some, find out before hand to avoid any disappointment. Keep in mind that St. Maarten has a great deal of cultural diversity and true locals are far outnumbered by immigrants from poorer and less urbane areas, dressing too risque can give the immpression that you are looking for "a good time" and attract unwanted attention. It can also be offensive to many of the locals if you wander around in places other than the beaches and pools in your swimsuit. You can't walk around your local supermarket in your swimsuit, so don't do it in St.Maarten either, it's disrespectful and you will be treated accordingly.
When leaving St. Martin by plane, travelers pay an exit tax at the Phillipsburg airport. Travellers departing on international flights pay US$30. Exempt are passengers flying with certain airlines, transit passengers and children under two. This tax is included in some airfares but for others travelers must pay at the airport. As of November 2007, US Airways does cover this tax. The exit tax to the other Netherlands Antilles Islands such as Saba and St. Eustatius is only $10. The exit tax does not apply to in transit travelers.
Short-hop flights, and ferryboats from Marigot, are available to nearby islands such as St Barthelemy, Anguilla, and Saba. Comfort of water crossings can vary in disturbed weather; some have been reported as rough in the vicinity of storms or strong winds.