Updated: Aug 24, 2019
First tip: make sure you have a valid passport. I know, that seems obvious, but for some of us...well, we need a reminder. You wouldn't want to have to send most of your family down without you, make an emergency appointment at the Regional Passport Agency for your daughter first thing in the morning, scramble to find a notary on a Sunday, and then buy a new (not cheap) red-eye flight the next evening. Or so I hear.
While the beginning of our trip was slightly horrendous, we had an incredible time once we all got there! The island is diverse and teeming with natural beauty and culture. I had a really difficult time finding specific information on some of the places we wanted to visit, hence this blog post. Quick second tip: download the island maps into google maps ahead of time. It will save you the hassle of getting stuck without cell service! Everything is basically 20 minutes away from everything else, so don't feel like you have to coordinate your stops too rigidly. The roads were very simple to navigate and everyone speaks English.
Since we travel with our kids, I really appreciate knowing what type of airport experience I can expect. We flew into Princess Julianna and it was fantastic. It is small and easy to navigate with customs being incredibly simple. Depending on arrival time and other flights, you can expect about thirty minutes to get through customs and they DO have an express line for passengers on connecting flights to other islands. The rental car companies are within a few minutes down the main road. We rented a van through Empress and they were very easy to deal with. I would not rent a fancy car there. The roads aren't great and it would stick out like a sore thumb. They are still rebuilding parts of the airport, so I would avoid flying home on a weekend. Saturdays, specifically, are really busy and crowded. If you do end up flying on a Saturday, get there much earlier than you think you need to.
We learned immediately that the island revolves around cruise ships. Prior to coming, we knew that it was likely a large part of their economy, but underestimated how much that would affect our experience there. We got lucky in that it was off-season (spring) when we were there. I don't know that I would want to travel there during the busy cruise season. Not because it would be terrible, but because it was just pretty darn amazing to have the place to ourselves! Since the island was destroyed two years ago in the hurricane, the hotel industry has not reached full capacity yet. That means that there are comparably few tourists there when the ships aren't coming in regularly. There was only one ship on two different days while we were there. On ship days, we took advantage and did some shopping while Front Street was hopping (they tend to close up shop when there aren't tourists around). Also important to note: many restaurants in Phillipsburg close as well, but there are a few that are open every evening. We stopped at Gelateria Milano on the boardwalk and Tim was an excellent source of information. And the gelato was fantastic. We were eating ridiculous amounts of gelato in Italy this past fall, so I feel like we were able to judge fairly!
Much of the information I read online stated that Phillipsburg was not a good place to stay. We stayed in a hotel right there on the boardwalk and had a great time. I did notice some unsavory behavior in the evening, but I didn't ever feel unsafe. The locals were helpful with everything from directions to finding us places to park (or telling us where not to park...there wasn't a lot of signage). Overall, the culture there was laid back and friendly. People were kind and we felt welcome there.
Places to Visit
Know that every single beach you visit will be more beautiful than almost any other beach you have seen in your life. The water is tourmaline, crystal clear, and warm and the sand is pristine. You really can't go wrong!
This is the beach where planes fly directly overhead. It is small and there isn't much parking, so plan to drive around for a while to find a spot (usually in the shops nearby, but there are a few spots right on the beach if you get lucky). Most large planes are landing and taking off first thing in the morning. If you go in the evening, you will see more prop planes and small inter-island flights.
This beach was formerly known as Cay Bay Beach. It is located in a new development and is private and secluded. It is rocky along the shore, which is beautiful, but not great for kids or ocean entry. There is a restaurant right on the beach. It is beautiful, but seemed overpriced. they charge $20 for a pair of chairs on the beach for the day. I think they waive the fee if you end up purchasing food from them. We originally stopped here to check out the snorkeling. It was mediocre (we saw sea urchins, tangs, rasts, etc.) and we did find better options, especially with our kids in tow.
This was one of my favorites. It's on the Dutch side, so you may see the occasional topless sunbather, but nothing extreme. I think it would be very crowded on cruise ship days, so try to go on a day where the influx of tourists is low. We read online that this beach is rough, but being there, we got the impression that it really depends on the weather. If it is calm and clear in general, this beach won't have big waves. We absolutely loved it. It's a long beach with a perfectly sandy entrance. Low, rocky cliffs edge both ends, meaning that there was great snorkeling. Keep in mind, St. Maartin is not an incredible snorkeling destination. If you have snorkeled in Hawaii, you won't be impressed, but it is definitely better than most places in Mexico. We saw a variety of colorful fish and it was perfect for snorkeling with kids!
This is the perfect spot if you are traveling with young kids. There is hardly any surf. The water is clear and gentle, beautiful soft sand, and it's relatively easy to get to. You drive over to Cul de Sac on the french side and follow the signs. Our google maps pulled it right up. The first ferry over is at 9:30 in the morning and they won't necessarily be on time. Plan to wait a few minutes. There was plenty of parking in the lot and I will warn you now: this lot and the ferry pick-up point was the ONLY place on the island that I was slightly grossed out by. The dock was filthy and smelled horribly of dead fish. So, plan to spend a few minutes breathing through your mouth and do not be dissuaded! The island is worth it! We had the BEST food of the trip here and some of the best snorkeling. The BBQ chicken at Yellow Beach bar was beyond earthly description. We saw some coral here, lots of fish, and sea grass, which makes me believe you may have a chance at seeing turtles if you're lucky. The island is also teeming with iguanas and we even saw a few tortoises scavenging for food around the restaurant.
Baie Rouge and Trou de David
To see the sink hole, follow Rue de David Foie on google maps, even though it looks like a private drive. The gates are open during the day. Follow the road to the dead end and park. You will be standing on a rocky cliff that is sometimes partially submerged with water. Just follow the private fence to your left up the rocks (hardly any incline) and you will arrive at the sink hole. It's maybe 100 feet from where you will park your car. It is gorgeous and definitely worth seeing! To get to Baie Rouge, go back up the lane and when you come to the main road, turn right and immediately right down another seemingly private lane where you will find a parking lot almost immediately. Park and walk down the stairs in front of you. Baie Rouge feels like something you would see on Pirates of the Caribbean. Imagine rocky cliffs, jungle foliage, and large, black rocks at the edge of the surf. There is one section of sandy entry and the undertow is quite strong on this beach. We took boogie boards and a life vest to take the kids out. Once you get past the initial pull, it's calm and relaxing. Since it is on the french side, you will find nudity, especially the further down the beach you go. You can swim around the rocks to the right a short ways to get to a completely secluded beach. The water was fairly murky, so snorkeling wasn't great. Much of the information I read about this beach made me feel like it wouldn't be a great option with kids. I completely disagree with that assessment! It was probably our kids' favorite beach and I wouldn't miss it!
We needed something to do for a few hours before we hit the airport and didn't want to get wet and sandy. This was it! It is a small bird sanctuary where you can feed parrots and see other exotic birds. Our kids loved it! They saw lizards, an iguana, a chinese pheasant, quail, and then got to hold brilliantly colored, very well behaved parrots. It's only $5 per person and is staffed by locals. We really enjoyed talking to them about life on the island and seeing some of the history in the small museum attached to the main exhibit.
Lolos - Great food on the french side for a great price. We fed our family of six for around $30. Again, google maps had our back and took us straight there. Cynthia's was yummy and there was another good gelato place nextdoor, though not quite as good as Gelateria Milano.
Chinese Buffet - On Front Street in Phillipsburg, there is a place that does a $10 buffet ($5 for kids) each night. They are open late and located across the street from the casino. Look for the LED sign above the restaurant. It was authentic and good. They even had pork buns!
La Sucriere - We picked up pastries, quiche, and pizza here twice! It was easy to pick up the food and head to the beach. This was some of my favorite food (next to the chicken at Pinel)
A few last notes:
- Many places are cash only and will take US cash (often giving you a straight exchange)
- Plan to barter on Front Street. The African store was particularly good and we heard from multiple people that the only place to buy jewelry is Royal Caribbean jewelers. We had a great experience there.
- There are full-service supermarkets
Put St. Maartin/Martin on your list!