It's become incredibly easy to get to these islands from North America. A number of major carriers fly direct routes from North American hubs into Dutch St. Maarten's Princess Juliana International Airport, just minutes from several of the Dutch side's top beaches. If you're heading on to another island, you won't even have to bother with a taxi. You can leave straight from the airport on a 10-minute puddle-jumper to St. Barts or hop on a private shuttle boat (30 min.) to Anguilla. If your time is limited, St. Maarten/St. Martin is a great long-weekend getaway, ideal for a quick break from the winter doldrums: You can take a direct flight out of New York City, for example, and be at the St. Maarten airport in under 4 hours. The islands are also perfect for longer stays, where you really get under the skin of a place -- and as close as these islands are to one another (so near that from certain vantage points the lights of another island glitter across the sea), there's a world of difference among them, both culturally and physically. I say experience them all: These are three of the Caribbean's real gems.
Seeing all three islands in one trip is easy to do and highly recommended, especially if you have the time to spend at least 3 nights on each. The following itinerary does just that.
Days 1-2: St. Maarten/St. Martin
Fly into Princess Juliana International Airport in Dutch St. Maarten. You can pick up a rental car at the airport, but I suggest a 2-night stay at the Radisson Blu, in Anse Marcel, French St. Martin. It's a beautiful spot and the perfect place to ease into a tropical holiday -- but it also has something the other resorts don't: a water taxi ride straight from the airport. Talk about instant immersion! It's a lovely 30-minute trip tracing the curves of the island's northwest coast on the catamaran ScoobiToo. Once you're at the resort, relax by the huge infinity pool or on the half-moon beach of this picturesque cove. On Day 2, plan a day trip to nearby Pinel Island or head to Orient Beach.
Days 3-5: St. Barts
Take a taxi to tiny L'Esperance Airport in nearby Grand Case and fly a little 6-seater on St. Barth Commuter for a 3-night stay on St. Barts. The flight is just under 10 minutes, but it's a scintillating one, with sweeping views of the volcanic rocks that pepper the sea and a daredevil landing on an abbreviated strip of asphalt that ends within a hair of St. Jean beach. Whew! If you're staying at a resort, most provide airport pickup, but if you're staying at a villa, you'll probably want to rent a car at the airport. Tip: Drive slowly and carefully on these rollercoaster roads. You can get supplies at the Super-U supermarket across from the airport or hit Maya's To Go, also across from the airport, which sells delicious takeout specialties. (And keep in mind that even though everyone accepts dollars, the euro is the main currency on St. Barts and French St. Martin -- and at press time gives better bang for the buck.)
If you arrive early enough, this is a good day to hit a couple of St. Barts' justly famous beaches. Head to Grand Salines Beach and have lunch at Grain de Sel or go to Gouverneur Beach and follow with a cocktail at Santa Fe, high above the beach. On the second day, head to the charming little port of Gustavia for a morning of shopping (shops close at lunch); have the daily plat du jour at the Wall House, and if it's high season, stroll the waterfront quay for an eye-popping primer in Yachts, Mega.
You can spend your third day taking a snorkeling trip with Marine Service to gorgeous Colombier Beach (which is only reached by boat or by climbing one of two old goat paths) or windsurfing/shopping along St. Jean beach.
Day 6: Marigot, St. Martin
Fly back into Grand Case on St. Barth Commuter and take a 15-minute taxi to the Port de Saint-Martin in Marigot, the waterfront ferry depot where the Anguilla public ferry arrives and departs on a regular basis. The small ferry terminal has a luggage storage area, where you can secure your bags ($5 plus tip) while you spend a few hours sightseeing and shopping in Marigot. The village of Marigot is a colorful slice of France in the tropics. It has a rich cache of duty-free shops and tony international brands (Chanel, Cartier, Hermes) as well as French and Creole restaurants clustered around the waterfront and marina. It's a charming place to poke about -- and the spot to do your shopping; Anguilla has very few shops, and what's there is exorbitant. Marigot has a number of excellent wine shops, including Le Goût du Vin, where you can find fine French wines at decent prices. Along Marigot's harbor side, a lively morning market on Wednesday and Saturday hosts vendors selling clothing, spices, and handicrafts. Have a late lunch at one of the lolos alongside the waterfront; I like Enoch's Place for its delicious and reasonably priced platter of garlicky shrimp, rice and peas, and salad.
Days 6-8: Anguilla
After your exploration of Marigot, pick up your luggage at the ferry terminal and buy your ticket for a ride on the public ferry to Anguilla. It's a 30-minute trip to this long, sandy, relatively flat island, a radical topographical departure from the mossy volcanic hills of St. Martin and St. Barts. (The last ferry leaves around 6:15pm.) It's a departure of a cultural kind, too; you're no longer in France but on English-speaking turf, and the dollar is the currency of choice at this self-governing British overseas territory. Once you've arrived at Blowing Point and passed through immigration, either your resort will pick you up or you can take a taxi to your hotel or villa. (Most car-rental agencies are happy to drop off rental cars wherever you're staying.) If you arrive before the sun sets, head to Sandy Ground or one of the resorts or restaurants on the West End to drink in the sunset. You can't go wrong anywhere on Meads Bay, but the Sunset Bar terrace at Malliouhana, overlooking the sweep of the sea and the pelicans roosting below, is pretty spectacular.
Anguilla is all about breathtaking beaches: On your second day in Anguilla, do a little beach hopping. Head to Meads Bay or Shoal Bay East and enjoy some of the barbecue grub at beach shacks like Gwen's. Or grab your snorkeling equipment and drive the winding, bumpy road to the beautiful beach at Junk's Hole, where you can dine in barefoot splendor on grilled lobster, local crayfish, or ribs at Nat Richardson's Palm Grove Bar & Grill on the beach.
On your third day in Anguilla, plan a snorkeling trip to an idyllic offshore island such as Prickly Pear or Sandy Island. Here you can snorkel, look for shells, and generally putter about a spit of sand in the castaway spirit. A couple have ramshackle beach shacks where fresh lobster and fish are always on the grill and a stiff rum drink is de rigueur.
Day 9: Grand Case, St. Martin
Head back on an afternoon ferry to Marigot. Take a taxi to the little French village of Grand Case. I highly recommend a stay at the Hotel L'Esplanade, which is nestled into a cliff overlooking Grand Case beach. Grand Case is the culinary heart of St. Martin (some say it has the best assemblage of top restaurants in the Caribbean). This sleepy little town comes alive in the evening, when folks head to the Calmos Café or neighbor Zen It to watch the sunset. It's a favored culinary destination for visitors from all over the island, who arrive in waves of shuttle vans to descend on the narrow two-lane Boulevard de Grand Case to pick a place to dine. The food is largely French/Creole, with most places offering local lobster and fish. The restaurants overlooking the beach are hard to resist, but the ones without a seaside setting may try harder. Bon appétit!
Day 10: Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Maarten
Fly home out of Princess Juliana International Airport -- but before you leave, have the taxi driver take you to Hilma's Windsor Castle, a little trailer on Airport Road in Simpson Bay that serves some of the best johnnycakes on the island. Two dollars will get you a johnnycake filled with saltfish simmered with onions, peppers, and seasonings. It's greasy; it's great.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.