For an island with a big reputation for restaurants, hotels, and energetic nightlife, St. Maarten/St. Martin is small -- only 96 sq. km (37 sq. miles), about half the area of Washington, D.C. It's the smallest territory in the world shared by two sovereign states: the Netherlands and France. St. Maarten (Sint Maarten) is the Dutch half, and St. Martin is the French half.
The island was officially split in 1648, but the two nations have coexisted so peacefully since then that if you're not paying attention, you won't even know you've crossed over from one side to the next. Still, the differences are there. Returning visitors who haven't been to the island for a while are often shocked when they see today's St. Maarten. No longer a sleepy Caribbean backwater, it's now a boomtown. The Dutch capital, Philipsburg, is often bustling with cruise ship hordes: Some 1.7 million cruise-ship passengers arrive here annually. Traffic congestion, caused in large part by the 6-times-daily drawbridge openings and closings in Simpson Bay, has become a major irritant.
Despite these problems, St. Maarten continues to attract massive numbers of visitors who want a sunny Caribbean island vacation with a splash of Vegas. The old girl still has charm to spare: The landscape of undulating green hills is magical, and the island's 39 sun-splashed, white-sand beaches remain unspoiled.
St. Maarten also has what many other Caribbean nations do not: a real cosmopolitanism. The island isn't known as the "crossroads of the Caribbean" for nothing. As one expat from Surinam told me: "St. Maarten is much more accepting of outsiders than on some other Caribbean islands. Here, nearly everyone is from somewhere else."
The Dutch capital, Philipsburg, curves like a toy village along Great Bay. The town lies on a narrow sand isthmus separating Great Bay and the Great Salt Pond. Commander John Philips, a Scot in Dutch employ, founded the capital in 1763. To protect Great Bay, Fort Amsterdam was built in 1737. Philipsburg is one of the Caribbean's busiest duty-free stopping shops (especially when the cruise ships are in port), although a handsome beachside boardwalk has made strolling the town a real pleasure.
The French side of the island has a quieter, less frenetic pace. It's sleepier than the Dutch side and much less Americanized. Most hotels tend to be smaller and more secluded than their Dutch counterparts, and you won't be overwhelmed with cruise-ship crowds. Most people come to St. Martin to relax on its lovely (clothing-optional) beaches and experience "France in the Tropics." That's because St. Martin has a distinctly French air. The towns have names like Colombier and Orléans, the streets are rues, and the French flag flies over the gendarmerie in Marigot, the capital. An extraordinary number of atmospheric restaurants serve authentic French cuisine with sassy Creole inflections.
About 15 minutes by car beyond Marigot is Grand Case, a tiny outpost of French civilization, with an inordinate number of excellent restaurants and a couple of top-notch boutique hotels. Grand Case is a French/Creole small town with dogs roaming the streets, kids doing wheelies on bikes, and bougainvillea spilling over picket fences. Top that off with a lovely beachside setting, a main street lined with seriously good restaurants, and oh, an airport where commuter-size airplanes buzz Main Street at regular intervals daily. It's like a French Mayberry, except here Aunt Bea is a 5-star chef.
In 2010, both Dutch St. Maarten and French St. Martin underwent major administrative changes. No longer governed from Guadeloupe, French St. Martin is now an overseas collectivity (COM) of France. And at press time, the deadline for the dissolution of the Netherland (or Dutch) Antilles -- an autonomous territory comprised of two groups of Caribbean islands administered by the Kingdom of the Netherlands -- was fast-approaching. If it comes to pass, St. Maarten will be a self-governing country within the Netherlands for the first time since 1815.
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.