If you’re thinking Caribbean this year, don’t want to book a cruise, can’t afford a yacht, and don’t know where to begin, think St-Martin/Sint Maarten. This 33-square-mile island is split in half into a Dutch (aka the jammin’ side) and French (the traditional European) side.
It’s not exactly a secret (cruises do come, and it’s quite the condo scene), but it’s lined with great beaches, cheap to reach (Jet Blue’s direct flights from New York run about $350 return in peak season) and is a perfect hub to being a DIY island-hopping trip to nearby islands like Anguilla, St-Barts or Saba.
Classic island experiences
Good news: the bulk of day trip visitors coming by cruise cling to the souvenir/eating strips of Philipsburg and Marigot – leaving much of the island’s highlights to overnighter guests and locals.
For starters, beaches. Friar’s Bay, just north of Marigot on the French side, is a popular local swimming spot with beach bars and full-moon parties. Quieter is nearby Happy Bay, a powdery bare stretch of beach reached by a dirt path that twists over a bumpy headland.
The goofiest beach experience – and a perfect dot to the exclamation point if you arrive for your departing flight early – is set just below the Juliana airport runway at Maho on the Dutch side. Revelers laze and drink, then rush to the sand to pose whenever arriving jets zoom by just beyond reach to pose for photos that look seriously faked. The jet-beach hub is the festive Sunset Beach Bar – a $6 taxi ride to/from the airport terminal.
Don’t leave the island without splurging on a meal at Grand Case on the French side, the self-dubbed ‘gourmet capital of the Caribbean.’ Its beachfront road is linked with open-air restaurants that emulate a Parisian experience, but with a sea breeze. If that’s too fussy, there are lolos, Creole barbecue shacks clustered by a seaside picnic area.
Where to stay
Because the island’s so small, you can set yourself up anywhere. Taxi costs will add up, but local car-rental agencies offer cars for about US$35 a day.
Lonely Planet author Brandon Presser’s favorite spot, calling it easily one of the best deals in all the Caribbean, is Les Balcons d’Oyster Pond, a collection of hillside villas…
Read more: Robert Reid, Lonely Planet