The island teems with duty-free bargains in just about everything from linen to liquor, china to cameras, with prices as much as 20% to 40% lower than those in the U.S. and Canada. There's an energizing hubbub in Philipsburg every morning as cruise-ship passengers scatter eagerly in search of latter-day treasure: The goods displayed in the windows along Front Street are a mind-boggling display of conspicuous consumption, with an emphasis on high-end (gold, diamond, and platinum) jewelry and designer watches. Philipsburg's inviting French counterpart Marigot boasts smart boutiques with striped awnings and wrought-iron balconies that recall the Riviera, and galleries showcasing local artists' work. Philipsburg encourages you to "shop till you drop." Marigot murmurs seductively, "relax, the shops will still be open in an hour or two": It's the perfect place to savor the salt air, watch the ferries load for Anguilla, and enjoy a steaming cup of café au lait.
Not only is Dutch St. Maarten a free port, but it has no local sales taxes. Prices are sometimes lower here than anywhere else in the Caribbean, except possibly St. Thomas. Many well-known shops from Curaçao have branches here. Except for the boutiques at resort hotels, the main shopping area is in the center of Philipsburg. Maho Plaza (surrounding the glitzy Sonesta Maho Beach Resort) is another area for name-brand offerings (and outlets), including branches of Philipsburg's Front Street stalwarts.
In general, the prices marked on merchandise are firm, though at some small, personally run shops, where the owner is on-site, some bargaining might be in order.
Philipsburg -- Most of the leading shops -- from Tiffany to Tommy Hilfiger -- line Voorstraat (Front Street), which stretches for about 2km (1 1/4 miles). The Sint Rose Shopping Mall, on the beachside boardwalk off Front Street, has such big names as Cartier, Lalique, and Façonnable. The best buys are in electronics, jewelry, watches, and cameras.
Just off Front Street, Old Street lives up to its name, with 19th-century houses that today contain specialty stores. More shops and souvenir kiosks sit along the little lanes, known as steegjes, that connect Front Street with Achterstraat (Back Street), another shoppers' haven.
In general, Dutch side shops stay open from 9am to 6pm.
French St. Martin
Marigot -- Many day-trippers head to Marigot from the Dutch side just to browse the French-inspired boutiques and shopping arcades. Since St. Martin is also a duty-free port, you'll find some good buys here as well, even at the ultraluxe boutiques along rue de la République, rue du Général de Gaulle, and rue de la Liberté, where French luxury items such as Christofle tableware, Vuitton bags, Cartier accessories, and Chanel perfume are sold as well as well-priced prêt-a-porter.
The waterfront Le West Indies Mall (tel. 590/51-04-19) is a marbled stone-wood-and-concrete structure with arches, skylights, curved staircases, and gazebos galore -- a hushed, icily ornate contrast to the steamy, ramshackle market across the street. But it does concentrate 22 big-name boutiques, from Escada to Lacoste. You'll also find a branch of the venerable gourmet shop Hédiard (established in Paris in 1854), where you can purchase champagne, caviar, and foie gras; its aromatic tea room is a delightful stop for fresh pastries. Smaller complexes include Galerie Périgourdine and Plaza Caraïbes, which houses Cartier, Longchamp, and Hermès outposts.
At Marigot's harbor side, a lively morning market on Wednesday and Saturday hosts vendors selling clothing, spices, and handicrafts. There's a cookie-cutter quality to the crafts, with many of the vendors offering the same (imported) goods, but it's a good spot to pick up spices, colorful and inexpensive children's clothes, and the occasional good-quality craft.
At Marina Port la Royale, mornings are bustling: Boats board guests for picnics on deserted beaches, and a dozen little restaurants ready for the lunch crowd. Marina Royale is peppered with narrow warrens and alleyways where boutiques sell everything from designer clothes to jewelry.
Prices are quoted in euros or U.S. dollars, and most salespeople speak English. Credit cards and traveler's checks are generally accepted.
Tip: Keep in mind that although most French St. Martin stores open around 9am and close around 7pm, most shopkeepers close to take an extended lunch break from around 12:30 to 2pm, or later.
Grand Case -- Several clothing boutiques and galleries fight for scraps of space between the bistros along the main drag of St. Martin's "second" city, Grand Case, nicknamed "Caribbean Restaurant Row." They keep unusual hours: Most are shuttered during the day, but fling their doors open come evening for pre- and post-dinner strollers.
Off-Season Bargains -- I've found big discounts at clothing and shoe stores (including designer boutiques) on the French side during the off-season, with prices slashed by half by the mid-May doldrums.
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.