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 TWO / Hit the road early for the 20-minute drive to Philipsburg, capital of the Dutch side. Park at Clem Labega Square and stroll toward Cyrus Wathey Square, dominated by the courthouse, a landmark that dates back to 1792. Have breakfast at Kangaroo Court. The distinctive red-brick façade was built from the ballast bricks of ships that sailed to the island for salt. Owners Norman and Sue Wathey have turned the historic salt-weighing station into the quaintest place in St. Maarten. Take a seat in the open courtyard under the almond trees, and have homemade croissants and brioches or the full American breakfast. Kangaroo Court has been ranked the No. 1 coffeehouse in St. Maarten.
After breakfast, cross Cyrus Wathey Square and turn left onto the boardwalk. Follow the red bricks that line Great Bay beach toward Bobby’s Marina, home of the St. Maarten 12-Metre Challenge. An expert crew gives you the thrill of racing along on America’s Cup yachts, the winning sailboats Stars and Stripes, Canada II, and True North. Here’s your chance to do what crew members do, or just sit back and juggle the refreshments.
By now, your appetite is sailing along, too. Cross the little bridge from the marina to The Greenhouse for a light, early lunch. Try the grilled seafood platter, with scallops, lobster, mahi-mahi, and shrimp.
Philipsburg, meantime, has come to life; the recently beautified main thoroughfare of Front Street is pulsating. Duty-free shopping beckons. Step into Diamonds International for high-end watches and uniquely cut diamonds, and check out Caribbean Gems jewelers, as well. Browse at Shipwreck Shop for Caribbean art and maps. Little Switzerland has pretty crystal mementos.
Pick up a bottle of guavaberry liqueur at the Guavaberry Emporium, a colorful gingerbread house that was a synagogue two centuries ago. Then visit the museum of the St. Maarten National Heritage Foundation, located on Speetjens Arcade, a shaded alley off Front Street. It features artifacts such as spears and pottery to tell the story of St. Maarten’s pre-Columbus inhabitation by roaming Arawaks. At Greenwith Galleries, you’ll find the largest selection of Caribbean paintings, pottery, and ceramics on the island. Also visit Ikemba African art gallery, yet another indication that St. Maarten is cosmopolitan Caribbean. Owner Michael Maghiro, a native of Nigeria, has a heart for his art and a shop full of Nigerian cultural and art items.
La Casa Del Habano sells only genuine Cuban cigars. The owner, Ellis Belilos, will handpick one for you. There’s a smoker’s lounge with comfortable leather chairs hidden behind a soothing waterfall.
A little farther down on Front Street, on your right, is Old Street, the most beautiful lane in Philipsburg. Buildings sport 19th-century Dutch façades, and the sense of “old” is accentuated by a yellow pre-WWII auto parked in the middle of the street. Old Street’s surprise: the Belgian Chocolate Shop for handmade chocolate in all forms. If you visit around Valentine’s Day, the shop is off-limits to children—for this romantic holiday, the chocolate makers take their art to a naughty extreme.
After all this shopping, it’s time for something different. Hop back into your ride, and drive from the parking lot to the end of Cannegieter Street. Turn right onto Longwall Road and right again onto Link One. At the roundabout halfway up Cole Bay Hill, go downhill and turn right onto Welfare Road toward Simpson Bay.
Headquartered in the little cluster of buildings on the banks of Simpson Bay Lagoon, Rhino Safari has 10-foot watercraft for guided shore excursions. Arrange a tour of the lagoon, and marvel at the megayachts that anchor here. Head to Marina Royale. Of the many restaurants, choose Tropicana and have a drink. Enjoy the atmosphere before heading back toward the hotel.
Dine elegantly in Grand Case tonight at Fish Pot Restaurant. Though Fish Pot’s main dish, as the 4,000-liter lobster tank in front suggests, is lobster, there is a wide-ranging menu and wine list.
After dinner, enjoy a night on the town near your hotel. Every evening after 9 p.m., Maho Plaza hosts a Carnival parade with Cuban dancers. Pop in at Sopranos, where a pianist serves up tunes six nights a week. The ambiance is perfect for tapas, a glass of wine, and a cigar after a busy day.