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Sint Maarten vs Saint Martin: Vive la difference!

By Nina Done   29 March 2022

Famous for being the smallest landmass in the world shared by two sovereign states, the Caribbean island of St Martin is renowned for its split personalities; at once lively and laid-back, decadent and idyllic, and is a popular destination for superyachts. We take a closer look at some of the celebrated traits that make up both the Dutch and French side of this rather unique tropical isle.

Part of the Caribbean's popular Leeward archipelago in the Lesser Antilles, St Martin has long been a perennial favorite haunt for superyachts, attracted by its swathes of bleach-blonde sands, relaxed vibe, scenic charm and dual culture.

However, there are distinct differences between the two island territories which may influence where you and your guests wish to visit on your luxury yacht charter itinerary. Read on to discover more.

St Maarten or St Martin?

Landings with Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean

According to legend, the island was originally named after the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours by Christopher Columbus when anchored off her shores in 1493. This is why the Francophone spelling of St Martin is mainly used when referring to the island in general.

One island, two nations

Philipsburg in Sint Maarten, Caribbean
Marigot Bay in St Martin

Only approximately 12 miles from top to bottom, the island was later roughly divided between the Dutch nation of Sint Maarten in the south and the French principality of Saint Martin in the north. 

There is an enduring tale behind the division of the island in the 17th Century, where two representatives from each country, a beer-drinking Dutchman and a wine-drinking Frenchman, were made to start from the same point and walk in opposite directions.

Upon meeting each other at the opposite end, a line was purportedly drawn across from the start point to mark the two boundaries. The French side is said to be bigger as the 'restorative' effects of the wine enabled the Frenchman to walk faster!

The Dutch side – Sint Maarten

Although the island was officially split in 1648, Sint Maarten in the south changed hands 16 times before it became officially Dutch. Since then there has been a peaceful coexistence between the two island nations, making navigating around the island infinitely easier for locals and tourists alike.

Today, this tiny Netherlands outpost offers a lively nightlife culture laced with exotic guavaberry-based cocktails, where bustling restaurants, hip nightclubs and glittering casinos with a notably US flavor add to its heady multicultural charm.

Sint Maarten’s capital Philipsburg lies in the south on a curved sand isthmus along Great Bay, and is home to colorful colonial architecture and the island's major port, renowned as a shoppers paradise where tourists can purchase duty-free goods from the likes of high-end electronic gadgets, jewelry, designer wear, liquor and tobacco. 

These items can be up to 40% cheaper than in the US, making this a prime stop off for visitors keen on grabbing a bargain. Although Philipsburg is often bustling with cruise-ship hordes, this is a great place to indulge in some retail therapy – ideally when there are no cruise ships in the harbor! There is also a vast array of coffee shops, bars and restaurants offering a veritable medley of cuisines from Carib to Asian, Indo to European, where you can immmerse yourself in the vibrant culture of this dynamic city.

Old Street sign in Sint Maarten, Caribbean
Designer store fronts in Philipsburg on St Martin Island in the CaribbeanSint Maarten beach in the Caribbean

Although Sint Maarten boasts its fair share of sun-kissed, turquoise-lapped beaches and paradiscal beauty, most visitors are drawn here by the promise of a Caribbean island vacation with a splash of Las Vegas, with Maho and Simpson Bay being the most prime after-hours hotspots for those who wish to party and stay out late.

Simpson Bay Marina is also the Caribbean’s largest lagoon, a landlocked mass connected by a drawbridge that is only a few miles from the Princess Juliana International Airport.

Simpson Bay Marina resort, St Martin, Caribbean

Here you’ll find an upscale luxury marina village, incorporating villas, shops, restaurants, swimming pool and tennis courts, among others things, perfect for an afternoon spent browsing shops followed by a sundowner at one of the waterfront bars before heading back to the yacht for the evening festivities. 

The French side – Saint Martin

The French side of the island, on the other hand, has a markedly different character with a distinctly continental air. Stylish, cosmopolitan and elegant; these words perfectly encapsulate the north of the island. Add to these words; serene, relaxed and picturesque, and you pretty much have French Saint Martin summed up.

Known for its emphasis on elegance and luxury, you’ll find plenty of secluded beaches lined with upscale luxury resorts and the very latest in French couture.

St Martin in the Caribbean

Also known as the Gastronomic Capital of the Caribbean, it boasts some of the finest cuisine to rival even its Mediterranean cousins, offering a vast array of bistros and restaurants that line its picture-perfect capital of Marigot. Most serve authentic dishes such as snails, cassoulet and foie gras, perfect for anyone who appreciates French cuisine at its best.

Although fifty per cent larger, the French side is much less developed than its Dutch counterpart, offering more mountainous views, plenty of stunning anchorages and idyllic beaches to while away a lazy afternoon in the sun. 

Just a word of warning, they have very liberal attitudes towards nudity on their beaches. The only official nude beach is Orient Beach, which is where you’ll find the highest concentration.

If you’re traveling with children, ask the captain beforehand where the kid-friendly beaches are, of which there are plenty.

For those who don't mind the odd bare bottom or two, Orient Beach also happens to be one of the lovliest spots on the island, with an array of luxury beach clubs and fine dining options offering a distinctly St Tropez vibe that acts as a siren call for A-listers and VIPs alike. It is also large enough to accommodate numerous visitors without ever feeling crowded.

This is also a great spot to drop anchor and enjoy the yacht's water toys, especially its snorkeling and diving gear as the clear waters here yield a bounty of tropical marine flora and fauna.

For anyone feeling energetic, there is a short hike from Marigot to Fort St Louis, where you’ll find the remains of an 18th-century French military garrison that overlooks Marigot Bay. The climb is well-worth it for the spectacular views over the bay and out to the glittering Caribbean Sea.

View from St Louis Fort in St Martin, Caribbean

For those looking for something more exclusive, head to Belmonde La Samanna on the western point of the Saint Martin. This refined resort embodies laid-back island lifestyle and is the perfect venue for yacht-goers seeking an A-list-approved sanctuary in the heart of the Caribbean. 

Luxury Belmonde la Sammana resort on the French side of St Martin, Caribbean
Luxury Belmonde la Sammana resort on the French side of St Martin, Caribbean

It's easy to drop anchor in the bay and take a tender straight up to the resort's private beach; but you'd be remiss not to dive in and enjoy a spot of snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters first. If you plan on making a stop here for lunch or dinner, there is a choice of three resort restaurants, each boasting a signature ambience and accompanying menu. 

Practicalities

Although the official languages of Sint Maarten and Saint Martin is Dutch and French respectively, English is widely spoken on both sides of the island. 

In terms of currency there is a similar picture, with both sides operating their own countries' currency (Netherlands Antillean Guilder (ANG) being the official currency for Sint Maarten and Euros (EUR) the prevailing currency for Saint Martin), yet both still widely accept US dollars.

How to get there

There are plenty of direct flights into Princess Juliana International Airport from the US, Canada and Europe, as well as easy connecting flights from JFK and Miami.

Princess Juliana International Airport

For yacht charterers and their guests arriving into Princess Juliana International Airport – located on the Dutch side – transfers are pretty straightforward.

Often there will simply be a tender waiting at the dock next to the aiport ready to whisk guests off to their yacht, usually sitting on anchor in Marigot Bay on the French side or Simpson Bay on the Dutch side. This is especially true for larger superyachts where few slips are available. 

Top attractions on the island

The Flying Dutchman

Boasting the accolade as the world’s steepest zip line, dropping more than one thousand feet scooting over the forest canopy along 2,800 feet of cable, this ride certainly offers a more exhilarating and unique way to view the island. 

Located in the Rockland Estate eco-adventure park in Sint Maarten’s lush central forest, adventurous spirits can also opt to do the Schooner inner tube luge down the mountain or equally-thrilling canopy tour, either on their own or as part of a package.

The zipline itself is accessed via a chairlift that takes you all the way up Sentry Hill, where breathtaking panoramic views across to neighboring islands of Anguilla, St. Barts and Saba greet you at the top.

Butterfly Farm

Set over a series of lush tropical garden enclosures on the east coast of Saint Martin near Orient beach, visitors can stroll under the mesh through thousands of colorful Caribbean butterfly species, fluttering above heads or feasting on the kaleidoscopic flora, offering visitors the full spectrum of their majestic nature-painted wings.

Butterfly Farm in St Martin, CaribbeanButterfly Farm in St Martin, Caribbean
Butterfly Farm in St Martin, Caribbean

The farm also hosts live butterfly releases, tutorials, exhibitions and tours. Garnering thousands of visitors every year – even A-listers from the likes of Mariah Carey – this quaint farm is a truly magical experience for all ages, big and small. 

Mullet bay

Ranked as one of Sint Maarten’s most beautiful beaches thanks to its vast swathes of soft white sand, turquoise blue water and idyllic sheltered bay, Mullet Bay is the perfect place to spend a sunny day. 

Mullet Bay Sint Maarten, Caribbean

Nestled in a cove around the headland from the airport, it’s a popular swimming and snorkeling spot thanks to the crystal-clear, calm waters. Beach bars and swaying palms round off the picture-perfect scenery. 

Plane spotting

For something a little different, head over to Maho beach – just around the corner from Mullet Bay – to catch the 4.45pm KLM flight. This may sounds strange, but we promise this is an experience like no other.

Watch in awe as the jumbo jet descends precariously close over beach-goers heads before landing inside the international airport’s fence, mere meters from the beach. There are planes landing every 15 mins, so don't worry if you miss one – there'll be plenty more.

Although it can get quite busy, especially when the jumbo jets are due in, this is certainly an extraordinary spectacle that shouldn't be missed on your yacht vacation to the island.

Loterie Farm

A 150-acre serene nature reserve at the base of Pic du Paradis – the highest point on the island – offering hike trails, eco-tours and obstacle courses, with zip lines and rope zones available in the canopies of mango and mahogany trees above. 

Loterie Farm St Martin
Loterie Farm St Martin

For those who prefer a day of R&R over adrenaline, there is a chic beach club, where sumptuous loungers, day beds and cabanas wind around sparkling plunge pools framed by trickling streams and groves of tropical blooms.

Sundowners on Grand Case

Finish up on this beautiful scalloped bay on the west coast of the French side, boasting bone white sands and aqua-marine waters, alongside boutiques, bars and delectable restaurants. Here you can kick back and enjoy a perfectly prepared guavaberry cocktail as you marvel at the spectrum of colors that create a lightshow in the sky marking the end of another day in paradise. 

Sundowners at Grand Case beach in St Martin, Caribbean

Whichever side of the island you find yourself on, St. Martin’s two distinct personalities, multicultural milieu and near year-round sunshine serve to create an oasis of pure escapism and hedonistic joy for an unforgettable yacht charter experience.

Need more information?

Caribbean island of St Martin at night

To find out more about chartering in the region, please see our Leeward Islands yacht charter guide. For some inspiration, check out our sample itineraries handpicked by experts with in-depth knowledge of the region.

For help planning your next tropical luxury adventure, please contact a recommended yacht charter broker.

Alternatively, feel free to compare and contrast the entire fleet of superyachts available for charter in the Caribbean.

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