Things to Do in St. Martin/Maarten
||The island's dependable trade winds free the island from oppressive heat or prolonged leaden skies, and its temperate climate is consistently graced by the sun. The average temperature is 81° F, the average water temperature is 78° F.
It's not quite as cosmopolitan as Martinique, nor is it the royalty and rock star magnet that is chic St Barts - nevertheless, with its fine French restaurants, the best duty-free shops in the Eastern Caribbean and glorious beaches, St Martin easily slips into the 'Tropez of the tropics' category.
More than a major gateway to the rest of the Eastern Caribbean, St Martin also offers visitors two countries for the price of one: St Martin takes up half the land on its island home, and the Netherlands' Sint Maarten takes up the other half, with no border controls in between.When to Go
St Martin, along with the rest of the Eastern Caribbean, is the land of perpetual summer, and there is really no time when you can't comfortably laze around on the beach. There are a bunch of factors that might sway you towards one season or another, however. 'Snow birds' escaping cold European and North American winters make mid-December to mid-April the busiest season. If you don't mind a few crowds and paying a premium for just about everything, this is a great time to visit St Martin.
A cheaper and less crowded proposition is to travel in the low season (summer) - mid-April to mid-December. Tradewinds aren't so prevalent at this time though, so while your pockets might be heavier and the beaches emptier, you may find yourself a little hotter and sweatier. Summer is also the hurricane season, although the odds of encountering one are not much higher than they would be along the east coast of the USA.
As always, the shoulder season offers a good compromise, with November and early December a pleasant time to visit. Many hotels will have taken a late-summer break to spruce up, so their rooms will be at their pre-season finest, the crowds will be just beginning to show and the prices will still be agreeably low.Events
The French pre-Lenten Carnival, although not as large as Dutch Sint Maarten's, is held with gusto and ceremony. Taking place in the five days before Ash Wednesday in Feb/March, the festivities feature the crowning of a Carnival Queen, costume parades, dancing and music. Naturally, July's Bastille Day is celebrated with typical Gallic fervour, and features a parade, sporting events and fireworks. November's Concordia Day, named 'Sint Maarten Day' by the more proprietary Dutch, marks the amicable coexistence of the two countries, but the sombre ceremony has less appeal to travellers than Carnival. Come March, the annual Heineken Regatta sees a multitude of boats out on the water, while in June fishers fall hook, line and sinker for the Marlin Open de St Martin invitational tournament.
St Martin is less developed than Dutch Sint Maarten, and this is reflected in its capital, the prettily named Marigot. Like its Dutch counterpart, it's a duty-free paradise, chock-full of chic perfume, jewellery and fashion shops, but fortunately has fewer of the cruise ship daytrippers who flood St Philipsburg. Even so, the town is starting to lose some of its historic West Indian buildings to modern structures and car parks geared to the tourist trade.
The town boasts two commercial centres. One, around the harbourfront, has a public market selling food and souvenirs, and is where boats to St Barts and Anguilla dock. The other centre encompasses the Port La Royale Marina, which is surrounded by a cluster of restaurants and boutiques that spill out onto bustling Rue du Général de Gaulle. Although at first glance Marigot, with all its boutiques and cafés, seems très French, it also has a rich Caribbean side that becomes more apparent the further away from the harbour you go.
Aside from shopping and fine French food, Marigot has a couple of key tourist attractions. Fort Louis (also called Fort de Marigot) was built in 1789 to protect Marigot's warehouses against the British. Today it consists of little more than some partially intact stone walls and a couple of cannons, but its hilltop locale offers fine views of Marigot and Simpson Bay. You can find the other main attraction, St Martin Archaeological Museum, on the road to Sandy Ground. The nicely presented museum focuses on the Arawak Period, with shell amulets, bone artefacts, arrow points and pottery pieces illustrating the culture of the island's early Amerindian inhabitants. There are also displays on the town's more recent history.
Marigot is so small you can easily stagger from boat to bar to bed without losing your way. Places to eat can be found either at the marina or in downtown Marigot. Port La Royale Marina, at the southern end of town, is lined with fiercely competitive restaurants offering everything from pizza to seafood and nouvelle cuisine. Downtown at the harbourfront public market you'll find a mix of bars, lolos (sidewalk barbecues) and French restaurants. There's also a waterfront produce market and a modern supermarket on the north side of town. Marigot itself has only a few accommodation places and they lie in the centre of town and just south of the marina.Grand Case
Eat yourself silly in Grand Case. This small beachside town has been dubbed the 'gourmet capital of St Martin'. Its beachfront road is lined with loads of top-notch places to eat, from local lolos to fancy French restaurants. Some places open for lunch, but you should head on over in the evening, when this melting pot of Caribbean cuisines is at its liveliest. The town is easy to reach by bus or car from Marigot.Orient Beach
If you have a yen to get back to nature, head to the clothing-optional Orient Beach. Just below French Cul-de-Sac, a short drive from Marigot, the beach is a splendid, gently curving sweep of white sand and bright turquoise water. Famous for its naturist resort, Club Orient, the beach is also a great place for watersports - with or without a bathing suit. The bay is an underwater nature reserve, and the generally calm waters make for good swimming. Windsurfing, Hobie Cat sailing and jet-skiing are also available.Oyster Pond
For a bi-cultural experience, taste the water at Oyster Pond. This bay, unsurprisingly oyster-like in shape, straddles both French and Dutch territory on the east side of the island. The French half of the bay is home to most of the accommodation as well as a marina. The best beach, Dawn Beach, falls on the (easily accessible) Dutch side. For a good vantage of the Pond, take the short path leading up the cactus-studded hill on the northeast (French) side of the bay.Îlet Pinel
Just a 1km (.5mi) offshore, pristine Îlet Pinel is a popular day trip from French Cul-de-Sac, a small seaside community on the northeast tip of St Martin. The calm waters of the west-facing beach offer good swimming and there is even a specially marked-out snorkelling area - you can hire gear from a water-sports hut. If you get hungry there are a couple of lolos on hand selling barbecued chicken. With its picture-postcard white sand, this islet understandably attracts hordes of people; don't come hoping for solitude.Colombier
Leave the world behind and take a drive to the hamlet of Colombier. This short, pleasant side trip offers a glimpse of a rural lifestyle that has long since disappeared elsewhere on the island. The scenery along the way is bucolic, with stone fences, big mango trees, an old coconut-palm plantation and hillside pastures with grazing cattle. The road to Colombier begins just north of the turn-off to Friar's Bay.Pic Paradis (Paradise Peak)
The 424m (1390ft) Paradise Peak, crowned by a communications tower, is the highest point in St Martin. It offers woods thick with vine-covered trees, colourful forest birds, good hiking and expansive vistas of both sides of the island. A network of trails also leads from the Pic Paradis area to Orient Bay, Orleans and the Dutch side of the island - check at the tourist office for a map. The road to Pic Paradise is just north of the road to Colombier.