Though St. Maarten/St. Martin is most celebrated for beaches, shops, restaurants, and nightlife, it also packs a number of natural and man-made attractions into its compact terrain. From zoos to ziplines and working farms to forts, the array of diversions here suits history buffs, eco-geeks, and active types alike -- and despite the island's reputation as an adult playground, it's a very family-friendly place.
Philipsburg, capital of the Dutch side, is named, perhaps surprisingly, for an 18th-century Scottish governor. The town has always enjoyed an uncommonly lovely setting at the headlands of Great Bay, on a spit of land separating the Caribbean from the Great Salt Pond. Its superb, deep natural harbor can accommodate such enormous cruise ships as the Queen Mary II. They disgorge passengers, who descend eagerly if not rapaciously on the casinos and duty-free stores lining the main drag, Front Street. The hordes tend to obscure the many handsome colonial buildings, including the ornate white 1792 Courthouse (still in use) replete with cupola at Wathey Square, which roughly bisects Front Street. A series of hurricanes left Philipsburg somewhat dilapidated: one part lower-rent New Orleans, one part Reno.
Over the last several years, Philipsburg has undergone a beautification project. The face-lift added a delightful beachfront red brick boardwalk (Great Bay Beach Promenade), with newly planted royal palm trees, clock towers, and old-fashioned cast-iron street lamps and benches. The beach side of Front Street is now a pedestrian-friendly place to stroll, goggle at the cruise ships and mega-yachts, walk in the sand, or enjoy the sunset over an umbrella-shaded concoction in one of the many inviting cafes.
The continuing makeover includes a revamped tourist office, marinas, and expanded ferry and cruise dock, and the rejuvenation of Back Street, which now has improved pavement and sidewalks, the underground placement of electrical cables, newly planted trees and shrubs, and new streetlights. Eventually, the beautification will extend to the Great Salt Pond (where locals still fish for mullet), with paving and planting all the way north to the French border.
Marigot, capital of the French side, is one of the Caribbean's more charming towns: gas lamps, sidewalk cafes, and traditional Creole gingerbread-trimmed wood houses ring the harbor, as well as a separate marina, Port la Royale. The marina area is filled with boutiques and shops. The waterfront Market is a hub nearly every day for vendors and farmers. It's busiest early mornings as islanders converge to buy fresh-caught fish, fruits, vegetables, and herbs. A crafts market is there on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but vendors tend to offer many of the same goods: colorful dolls, spices, drums, trinkets, clothing.
A steep trail runs from the harbor-side Sous-Préfecture (by the splashy West Indies Mall) to Fort-Louis. Better preserved than its Dutch-side counterparts (forts Willem and Amsterdam), the bastion was erected to repel English incursions and completed in 1789. Its hilltop situation rewards hikers with sensational 180-degree vistas of Marigot, Simpson Bay lagoon, and most of the French coast, with Anguilla shimmering in the background.
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