One island, two different nations. The island of St. Martin is divided between the French side (Saint-Martin) and the Dutch side (Sint Maarten). Both are now home to people from over 90 countries around the globe and each have their own unique cultures, currencies, and languages. This, combined with its diverse terrain, makes St. Martin one of the most unique islands in the world.
Despite all the diversity, one of the most practical things to know about both sides of the island is that most everyone speaks English and US Dollars are accepted just about everywhere. So, if you’re coming from the States, you won’t have much to worry about in the way of language barriers or currency exchange. The similarities between the two sides of the island don’t end there: both feature stunning beaches and lagoons, breathtaking views, and some of the best restaurants and nightlife in the Caribbean. But the vibe and cultures on each side of the small island are surprisingly different.
The northern (French) side of the island, Saint-Martin, is a little less developed than the southern side. That’s not a bad thing; with a little exploring, you’ll discover patches of white sand beaches where the only views are of lush tropical foliage behind and the great blue expanse of the Caribbean beyond. The French side is also home to Pic Paradis, the highest point on the island. At its summit, you’ll be able to take in sweeping views of the terrain, the sea, and the nearby islands of Anguilla and St. Barth’s.
Stroll down Saint-Martin’s main street, Boulevard de Grand Case, to find some of the best food on the island, with restaurants that rival the best in Paris. Not surprisingly, most of these eateries feature classic French cuisine, but chefs also take advantage of local ingredients including tropical fruits, Caribbean lobster, and conch. Of course, there’s always French wine on the menus, but don’t miss the chance to try the local specialty: Ti Punch. It’s a blend of rum, cane sugar, and lime that does, in fact, pack a punch. At night, head to the Grand Case or Marigot neighborhoods where you’ll find everything from upscale wine bars to Tiki lounges where you can take in the sunset and stay out all night.
While culture on the French side of St. Martin might feel mostly French with a Caribbean flair, the Dutch side is definitely more Caribbean with a Dutch flair. In Philipsburg, the main center of activity on this side of the island, bright buildings line the colonial streets and the vibe is even more colorful. Luxury boutiques like Cartier stand next to mom-and-pop art galleries featuring Caribbean folk art and restaurants feature cuisines from around the globe. For local flavor, eat at one of the lolos, barbecue shacks that specialize in tender spare ribs with a deliciously sweet, spicy, and savory sauce. Pair them with a cocktail containing the fruity and sour guavaberry liqueur made at the local distillery for a true taste of Saint-Martin.
Sint Maarten also has one of the island’s biggest tourist attractions: Maho Beach. Though it’s not the biggest beach on the island, it’s one of the most visited. It sits directly across the street from the airport’s runway, and incoming jets drop startlingly close to the sand as they come in for a landing. Stop by to see this crazy spectacle then stay for a bit to swim or watch the sunset.
While Sint Maarten’s government is relatively new (they gained semi-autonomous status from The Netherlands and adopted their own Constitution in 2010), the French and Dutch sides have coexisted in their current state for over 350 years. The Concordia Agreement first established each nation’s boundaries in 1648, making it the oldest active, undisputed treaty on the planet. This may be one reason why St. Martin has earned the nickname “The Friendly Island.”
So, which side of St. Martin is better? The answer: don’t sweat it. Given how different they are from one another, Sint Maarten and Saint-Martin are both worth a visit. And, since the entire island is less than 35 square miles, you’ll be able to do so easily. While St. Martin may seem tiny, it’s incredible how many different cultures are represented within its shores. After a visit to the island, you’ll feel like you’ve gotten to experience the best aspects of Caribbean, French, and Dutch cultures all in one small place.