It's been said that the French/Dutch border was established by an 18th-century drinking contest. How fitting, then, that St. Maarten/St. Martin arguably contains more bars per capita than any other Caribbean island. Or maybe it just seems that way, given the myriad sunset booze cruises to toast the elusive green flash (no, not a superhero but an atmospheric phenomenon caused by prismatic refraction of the sun's rays).
This is a friendly, good-time place, where after-dark activities begin early -- usually a sundowner on one of the Caribbean's most beautiful beaches. Nightlife choices range from barefoot beach bars to salvaged scows to glitzy discos and, of course, casinos -- all 14 of them located on the Dutch side of the island. In fact, the Dutch side at times resembles perpetual spring break, with rolling happy hours at sun-splashed beach bars. Free entertainment abounds. Most restaurants (notably at Simpson Bay) and beach bars (especially on Orient Bay) host live bands at least once a week, not to mention joyous happy hours. Hotels sponsor beachside barbecues with string bands.
Then there are the regular community jump-ups. Friday nights, the Philipsburg boardwalk along Front Street percolates with activity, as does Marigot's waterfront market Wednesdays and Sundays in season. Tuesdays from January to May, the "Mardi de Grand Case" (aka Harmony Night) explodes with color and sound: brass or steel drum bands, dancers, street performers, local crafts booths, and barbecue.
To find out what's on during your stay, get the Thursday edition of The Daily Herald, which runs an "Out and About" section and lists of upcoming events.
Look for appearances around the island by the "king of soca," T-Mo (full name: Timothy iKing T-Moi van Heyningen) -- a six-time winner of the title of "Soca Monarch." Another popular local musician, calypso king Beau Beau, can be seen most nights singing and dancing with the Beaubettes at his eponymous seafood restaurant at the Oyster Bay Beach Resort (tel. 599/543-6049; www.beaubeaus.com).
Clubs & Lounges
Both sides of the island provide the endorphin rush of dancing to a great DJ's mix. The action usually starts at 10pm (though the beachfront discos throw afternoon theme parties). Most of the clubs charge a small cover (around $10 per person) after 10pm or 11pm, but look for flyers or free-admission coupons in local events magazines.
Beach Bars & Shacks
For many people, the best hangs on the island are those barefoot beach shacks right on the beach, where you can sit under a palm tree or a shady awning, listening to music, sipping a drink, and dining on fresh grilled fish or ribs. Some, like the Sunset Bar, have gone on to semi-fame (or semi-notoriety), but others have remained blessedly low-tech and laidback. Here are a few I recommend.
Dutch Side -- At Dawn Beach, Mr. Busby's Beach Bar (tel. 599/543-6828), is a favorite place to kick back and even take a dip in the sea during the day; it turns into Daniel's by the Sea at night. Beau Beaus's at Oyster Bay (tel. 599/543-6040) is the Oyster Bay Beach Resort's beachfront bar, which offers tropical drinks, music, and food, and nightly cabarets starring local calypso King Beau Beau.
French Side -- At Baie Rouge (Red Beach) you have two beach bars to sample: Gus' (no phone) and Chez Raymond (tel. 690/30-70-49). The latter cooks up blistering barbecue and delivers a knockout punch with Raymond's Special, a blend of six rums; hear reggae on weekends. On Baie Nettlé (Nettle Bay), Laurent Maudert's Ma Ti Beach Bar (tel. 590/87-01-30) and Layla's (tel. 590/51-00-93) are lively beach bars with French and Creole specialties, respectively.
On isolated Anse des Pères (Friar's Bay Beach), Friar's Bay Beach Café (no phone) sells Laurent's sublime stuffed mussels. The competitor is Kali's Beach Bar (tel. 590/49-06-81), a thatched bamboo hut splashed in Rasta colors, where Kali serves some of the island's best barbecue. Kali hosts Full Moon parties, featuring reggae bands on the beach, a bonfire, and plenty of drinks.
Happening (and clothing-optional) Baie Orientale (Orient Beach) has full-service beach bars that offer not only food, but also beach chairs and umbrellas, live music, boutiques, massages, parasailing, jet ski rentals, kiteboard instruction, and more. Waïkiki Beach (tel. 590/87-43-19; www.waikikibeachsxm.com) has fabulous parties and beach lounges, plus a restaurant and snack bar -- on New Year's eve, it features one of the biggest fireworks displays in the Caribbean. Kontiki (tel. 590/87-43-27) has two sections: the main eatery and the Tiki Hut, serving a mix of dishes from jerk chicken to sushi; it's famous for its Sunday-night parties. Kakao beach bar (tel. 590/87-43-26; www.kakaobeachsxm.com) is an all-pupose beach bar that has watersports rentals, beach chairs and umbrellas, a boutique selling Kakao-labeled T-shirts, towels, and more, and a menu of grilled meats, pizzas, and fresh lobster. Bikini Beach (tel. 590/87-43-25; www.sxm-orientbeach.com/bikinibeach) is a beachside tapas bar and grill that also sells fresh fruit smoothies (along with more hardcore drinks). It has a full watersports facility, a boutique, and even a children's playground.
At Baie de l'Embouchure, embracing Le Galion and Coconut Grove beaches, tiki carvings and blue umbrellas mark the appealing Le Galion Restaurant (aka Chez Pat after owner Pat Turner; tel. 590/87-37-25; www.sxm-orientbeach.com/chezpat). Locals love this laidback spot; many families make charcoal pits in the sand for impromptu barbecues.
For Adults Only
Dutch St. Maarten has its share of adults-only entertainment, from topless lounges to gentlemen's clubs.
St. Maarten's Red-Lights -- The Dutch are notoriously liberal and have cultivated a permissive attitude regarding prostitution on St. Maarten. This review is neither endorsement nor encouragement; it merely offers some enlightenment on a major element of St. Maarten nightlife. Brothels operate around the island and must purchase a permit and supply affidavits on their employees (mostly Dominican, Venezuelan, Guyanese, and Jamaican immigrants who must submit to monthly medical checkups). Several brothels are situated just outside Philipsburg (if this is your thing, ask the security guards at your hotel for advice on where to go).
It all started with the Seaman's Club (79 Sucker Garden Rd.; tel. 599/542-2978), known to the locals as the "Japanese club." It was founded in the 1940s to service Japanese tuna fishermen who'd been to sea for months at a time. These single men needed a place to carouse, and the government didn't want them hassling local girls, so a tradition was born.
Note: One big difference from Amsterdam's red-light district is that possession of marijuana is not tolerated here. An infraction could lead to stiff fines or even imprisonment.
Gaming is currently only legal on the Dutch side. This is no Caribbean Vegas, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Think low-key, laidback gaming, played to a lilting calypso beat. The 14 casinos offer free live theater, with everyone from blue-haired fanny packers to dreadlocked Rastas robotically feeding the maw of the machines. If you indulge, just remember there's no such thing as a sure system (or, Lord help us, ESP) -- and the odds always favor the house, especially in games like Keno. Hours vary, but most casinos are open from 1pm to 6am. Here is a sampling.