St. Martin: A scary landing, sunbathers in birthday suits and duty-free heaven

st martin st maarten


When the travel agent who sold me a cruise found out we were docking in St. Martin for a day, she perked up.

“Ooh, I LOVE St. Martin!” she enthused. “You can just jump right off the ship, and you’re on the beach!” The lady would know, having worked on cruise ships for years (she says). Not one to take things at face value I did some investigating, and soon figured out what all the fuss was about. St. Martin is in fact a fantastic place to visit, whether you’re there for the day, a week or a month.


Which is which?

The island is split into two parts: the French side and the Dutch side (Sint. Maarten). As such, it has two main cities—Philipsburg (Dutch) and Marigot (French). Most tourists spend the bulk of their time near Philipsburg as it is the island’s hub, boasts a great beach and is a mecca for shoppers (more on that later). St. Martin is also situated right in the middle of a number of islands, and on a clear day you can see Saba, Nevis, St. Kitts, Anguilla and ritzy St. Barths.

If you’ve ever had a hankering to see one of these islands, you can easily hop on a ferry and head over for the day, without the high price tag of staying overnight.


The craziest airport ever

Those arriving in St. Martin as part of an all-inclusive (a more economical way to visit, yet still significantly pricier than places like Mexico or Cuba) will fly into Princess Juliana International Airport, which is on the Dutch side.

The airport is world-famous for its ridiculously short runway wedged between popular Maho Beach and a large hill. People flock to the area to watch the gigantic jets navigate the strange flight path, as they roar just meters above sunbathers.

This spot is definitely worth a visit regardless of how little time you have on the island, to take in the strangeness of it all! Just be sure to bring earplugs.

st martin airplane st maarten

Ivan Cholakov /

Beach life

St. Martin truly has a beach for everyone—including those who only like wearing their birthday suits. Yup, the island is home to a nudist beach on the French side, called Orient Beach. A large reef runs along the coast and clothing is optional on the southern end, making it a popular spot for nudists and lookie-loos.

If exposure isn’t your thing, you may want to stick to something more PG like Simpson Bay, which is considered one of the longest and nicest on the island. A number of cute little boats dot the turquoise water, and the beach is framed by green hills. This is THE spot to see all the neighbouring Caribbean islands, provided it’s a clear day.


The most popular stretch of sand would have to be Great Bay, which is the beach that anyone arriving by boat first sees as they approach St. Martin. The beach itself is huge, meaning you won’t be sharing a beach towel with strangers, and the area is lined by a massive boardwalk that leads tourists into Philipsburg’s hotels, restaurants and shops. Great Bay is a big plus for cruisers, as you’re basically on the beach as soon as you disembark the ship, and won’t need to pay for a cab or book an excursion to get your tan on.


It’s safe to say that the most popular pastime for tourists in St. Martin is shopping. Sure the beaches are great and the views spectacular, but who can say no to 40 per cent off?!

Philipsburg has dozens of duty-free shops where you can pick up clothes, cigars, jewellery and liquor, at steep discounts.

For example, a 750 ml bottle of coconut rum costs about $30+ in North America, but you can pick one up in St. Martin for $11. Yup, $11. Keep in mind that most countries have a limit to how much liquor and tobacco you can bring home before paying duty—although even if you pay taxes on top of the St. Martin prices it will likely still be cheaper than anything you can get at home.


One thing to remember if you are travelling on a cruise ship is that you’re not allowed to bring any liquor into your room after you board. However, the ship will hold it for you until the night before you leave, so you’ll get to bring it back with you.


Languages: French, English and Dutch

Currency: US dollars, Euros most commonly accepted

How to get around: Rent a car, but keep in mind there can be horrendous traffic jams (strange, for a country of about 80,000 people). Taxis are also plentiful.

Where to stay: There are a number of options including all-inclusive resorts, hotels or vacation rentals. If you plan on staying for longer than a week, it may be worth renting a condo and grocery shopping to cut down on costs. Remember, booze is cheap here!

Must try: Any drink with guavaberry in it. The fruity, rum-based liquor is a sweet, pink concoction that’s great as a margarita-type bevvy. Grab one at a bar along the beach for about $6 and enjoy! You can also pick up a bottle of guavaberry liqueur to take home with you at the duty-free shops.


Gallery: St. Martin

How to save money on your cruise

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2 Responses

  1. July 15, 2013

    […] RELATED: St. Martin: A scary landing, sunbathers in birthday suits and duty-free heaven […]

  2. February 18, 2014

    […] after you set sail. But don’t let that deter you if you’re trying to take advantage of the duty-free offerings in St. Martin: you can still bring your booze home with you, but the ship won’t bring it to your room until the […]

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