IF THERE’S ONE THING ST. Maarteners are proud of, it’s the endearing adage that our Caribbean homeland is “The Friendly Island.” We plaster it all over our number-plates, and it’s true. The 60,000-plus inhabitants come from no less than 103 different countries; all contribute to the emerging identity of this 37-square-mile landmass. Christopher Columbus sighted the island on November 11, 1493, and named it after St. Martin, Bishop of Tours. Initially regarded as unpromising, St. Maarten changed hands among the Dutch, the French, and the Spanish. The French and Dutch split the island in 1648—the French side is called Saint Martin, the Dutch side Sint Maarten. Gone are the days of battle for Queen and country. Now part of the semi-autonomous Dutch Caribbean territory of the Netherlands Antilles, St. Maarten is focused on fast-paced, duty-free tourism with a multinational friendliness that’s attractive to tourists and investors alike. On your three-day holiday, you’ll see why many a first-time visitor becomes a regular.
Author Marvin Hokstam Photography Joshua Paul
DAY ONE / You’re staying at Sonesta Maho Beach Resort & Casino, perched on white, sandy Maho Beach overlooking the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Each morning you’ll be awakened by tropical sunshine peeping through your windows. Executive chef Olivier has prepared an extensive breakfast at the resort’s Ocean Terrace Buffet Restaurant, including pancakes, bacon, and waffles. The sausage in Creole sauce is excellent. Sonesta Maho’s motto, “a destination within a destination,” reflects the diversity of attractions that could conspire to keep you from leaving the premises. But you have other plans. Rent an SUV and start exploring the island.
Drive north on Rhine Road through Terres Basses. Though it changes names, this road loops the island and will lead you to Marigot, the capital of the French side. Situated on the northern coast, Marigot has a romantic French feel. Take Rue de Hollande, and, at Cripple Gate, take a right onto the narrow road that leads to Colombier. The oldest village on the island, located in “the heart of St. Martin,” Colombier dates to the early 1700s. This is the perfect place to glimpse the island’s past.
Drive out of the town, onto La Savanne, and turn left into another sleepy village, Grand Case. Some of its historic dwellings have been converted into boutiques, eateries, and galleries. The Atlantic Ocean is steps away. As lunchtime closes in, the alluring smell of barbecued ribs and grilled red snapper will suggest why barbecue tents are popular in Grand Case. Add conch soup with rice and peas and the aroma may be difficult to ignore. But instead of digging in, drive back toward Colombier and turn left into Pic Paradis and Lotterie Farm, located at the foot of the island’s highest mountain.
This former sugar plantation (1721–1848) is now a nature retreat with hiking trails to the top of Pic Paradis. One of the most exciting places to dine in the Caribbean, Lotterie Farm serves a wonderful lunch on the covered terrace overlooking gardens with towering mango trees. Try chef Julie Purkis’ signature curry spinach chicken.
With lunch taken care of, a leg-stretching hike will get you moving again. This is the greenest spot on the island, and the less-than-an-hour roundtrip walk to the summit lays the entire island at your feet.
Now it’s time for relaxation. Continue back past Grand Case and turn left toward French Cul de Sac, where fishermen may still be bringing in their catch. Find a spot on one of the boats to Pinel, a little atoll off the coast. A waitress from Koklatuni bar will come by every so often to make sure you’re never short of guavaberry colada, the locally preferred beach beverage. Go snorkeling or bask in the sun.
Head back to the hotel around 5 p.m. and walk alongside Maho Bay to Sunset Beach Bar. St. Maarten’s airport is the second-busiest in the Caribbean, and this quirky bar makes the most of its location. The runway starts just 20 paces from the seashore, so the crowd sipping drinks at the bar is quite literally sitting just below the planes as they roar in and out.
Dine tonight at Temptation restaurant at Atlantis Casino, a five-minute drive from Maho, just beyond the ruins that once were the renowned Mullet Bay Resort. Temptation is St. Maarten’s hippest restaurant, owned by Dino Jagtiani. He was one of the winning team of St. Maarten chefs who nabbed the 2005 “Culinary Chefs of the Caribbean” title during the Taste of the Caribbean competition in Miami. Great décor, piano music, and wonderful food make this one of the top 10 restaurants in the Caribbean. Try the lump crabapple cake and wash it down with the signature St. Maartini.
The grind is on at Bamboo Bernie’s, behind Sunset Beach Bar at The Caravanserai Beach Hotel. This disco can get pretty wild, but keep the partying moderate—tomorrow is an early rise.