St. Maarten, an island with a split personality

By By Christina Rollyson
WV Travel Team
Photo courtesy of CARLOS PEREZ
A jetliner lands over Maho Beach.
Photo courtesy of CARLOS PEREZ
Danger sign at Maho Beach.
Christina Rollyson at the Philipsburg pier.
Photo courtesy of AAA Travel
Overlooking Philipsburg, St. Maarten.

Are visions of crystal-clear water, cool trade winds and sugary sand spinning in your head? If so, then maybe it’s time to answer the call to the Caribbean.

Every island has its own unique vibe, but St. Maarten offers two!

Whether referring to the Dutch St. Maarten or the French St. Martin, the island is the smallest territory to occupy two sovereign nations, and tourists are never too far from a new and different experience.

St. Maarten has a split personality, and rest assured that both sides are vibrant and unique.

Only over the past couple of years has the island gained so much attention by tourists. It is no surprise why, as it offers literally something for everyone — from luxury, duty-free shopping to the finest cuisine in the Caribbean, and beaches ranging from family-oriented to the Travel Channel’s third-sexiest beach spot in the world.

The accessibility is a big reason why our clients continually visit this popular destination. It is a frequent cruise port and one island that you should definitely get out to explore.

Most eastern Caribbean cruise itineraries port there. Notable cruise lines include Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America and Princess, just to name new a few. If you’re arriving to the island from a cruise ship, you will most likely dock at Philipsburg, which is the Dutch capital.

A short and inexpensive water taxi ride is the best way to get right into the heart of Philipsburg. There is a variety of colorful shops and oceanfront cafés right off the dock.

As with most cruise ports, the transportation and goods are typically more expensive near the pier. On my visit, I opted to walk two streets back to catch a local bus to Maho Bay for $2. For me, it was an opportunity to meet and get some advice from a few locals.

It was also a far less expensive commute; however, I would not recommend it for someone who is not comfortable with a shared transfer, and a tight one at that. Their local buses and vans make frequent stops for local residents. If time is an issue, opt for a direct route with a taxi in which the fares are regulated.

As the daughter of a food connoisseur with an extensive family lineage of “foodies,” I of course was thrilled to be visiting what many refer to as the culinary capital of the Caribbean. Not for an inhibited palate, there are arguably more restaurants per square mile than any other Caribbean island.

The French food on the St. Martin side is truly unbelievable. Grand Case is known for their gourmet cuisine and the best French and West Indian restaurants.

If you’re looking for a laid-back, authentic experience, try a “lolo” — an outdoor open-air barbecue-style restaurant. Expect to eat with plastic cutlery, and expect to feel tranquil beside your spectacular views of the ocean and small fishing boats.

Of course, fantastic French cafés are abundant, and the desserts will leave you craving more.

One place you’ll be sure to find tourists and locals alike is Captain Oliver’s restaurant, situated right on the border of both sides.

It offers both a beautiful atmosphere with views overlooking the yachts at the marina and all that you would expect of a favorite restaurant to a gourmet capital with French and Creole cuisine as well as fresh seafood.

Live entertainment adds a nice touch to the atmosphere without being overwhelming, and a little romantic dancing is encouraged.

But don’t get the idea that the Dutch aren’t doing their part to keep up with the title.

Philipsburg, Simpson Bay and Maho Bay all have an assortment of world-renowned restaurants.

A little bit of research and following the locals has always been my rule of thumb — and St. Maarten/St. Martin doesn’t deviate.

Be sure to stop at the Philipsburg pier for a piña colada. A simple pleasure, but that piña colada has been the best drink of my life. Wow, do fresh ingredients make all the difference!

St. Maarten has gained the attention of many of our Charleston-area clients who love the array of entertainment options.

French boutiques with the latest European apparel entertain the fashionistas. If lady luck is on your side, then head over to the Dutch side where you’ll find several independent casinos and 13 hotel casinos.

The Dutch side also offers some lively nightlife choices with Caribbean and Latin dancing.

The Heineken Regatta, featuring yacht races, takes place in March, followed by a Carnival event in April.

As far as entertainment goes, I was enticed to check out the scene at Maho Beach. This was an incredible adventure, and not your typical relaxing beach oasis.

Maho Beach is at the end of the runway at Princess Juliana Airport. It is ranked as one of the Weather Channel’s scariest runways.

I cannot be sure how the people in the jets felt when they were landing, but it felt to us that they might land right on top of us!

The energy is high as everyone starts getting together to cheer and wave the planes in for landing. That was the first time I have ever physically cheered for a plane.

The warning signs of danger posted along the beach lure the thrillseekers. The real apex of energy is when a jet it gearing up for takeoff.

The rear of the jet engines aim toward the beach, and everyone lines up behind them to start cheering. When the pilots start the engines, there is such a blast that it gives their beach audience a rush of adrenaline from the force of the air. Hang on to your towels and anything else you might not want flying away in the wind.

If that’s not enough excitement for an afternoon, walk over to the Sunset Beach Bar, which was voted the third-sexiest beach bar in the world by the Travel Channel.

They host several well-known entertainers and bands, and it transforms from a beach party during the day to oceanfront dining for the evening.

I found this to be the perfect place to unwind from all of the jet excitement with a signature cocktail made by their national liqueur, guavaberry rum.

The French side has several secluded beach areas, such as Anse Marcel, a family beach with shallow waters. You may spot a celebrity or two at Baie Longue, which is a secluded beach on the French side.

Orient Bay is one of the more popular beaches on the French side, and most of the cruise lines offer excursions with transfers there. Be aware that Orient Bay is a clothing-optional beach. They have more watersport activities than some of the more private French beaches.

St. Maarten is a very attainable destination for West Virginia residents. For those who would like to see the island on a budget, an Eastern Caribbean cruise would certainly entertain you for the day.

For a longer stay, a three-star hotel such as the Hotel La Plantation on the French side starts at about $566 per person for seven nights.

Air transportation is also relatively easy, with only one connection with US Airways through Charlotte. Although dates and advance planning have everything to do with the rates, we were able to find fares for roughly $500 per person from Charleston. Those who prefer the luxury of vacationing like (or even with) celebrities could expect to pay anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 per person for a week, depending on dates and availability.

Christina Rollyson is the district office supervisor of the Charleston branch of AAA Travel. For more information about St. Maarten or other travel-related questioins, contact Christina at or 304-925-1136.

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