We fell in love with this tiny dual-nation island in the Caribbean over a decade ago. St. Maarten / St. Martin is just 37 square miles and we’ve regularly circumnavigated multiple times on our annual week-long trips there. But despite its small size, we’ve never been bored or had to look too hard for something to do. We’ve had countless conversations with cruise ship passengers who only get a teeny glimpse into all the adventures that are to be had and ask why we stay an entire week and return again and again, so we’ve put together our favorite things to do in Sint Maarten in this guide.
Best Things to Do in St. Maarten if You’re Staying on the Island
1. Go diving without being certified
Neither Tim or I were scuba dive certified when we visited Saint Maarten (we have since completed our dive certification in The Bahamas). But we wanted to give diving a try and SNUBA lets wanna-be divers get a taste of St. Maarten diving. Instead of wearing your dive tank, the tanks float in a little raft and you are tethered to the raft and your dive buddy with a 20-foot air line. SNUBA allowed us to dive an old shipwreck up to a depth of 20 feet and get a feel for what it would be like to dive.
SNUBA lasts about 2 hours total and is great for both cruise passengers and travelers to St. Maarten.
2. Get a zip line driven adrenaline rush
Loterie Farm, close to the top of St. Maarten’s highest point Pic Paradis, is home to the Fly Zone Xtreme St Maarten zip line. How can we not do something with extreme in the name? In fact, we love the rush we get from this zip line and obstacle course so much, we’ve done the course on three of our four St. Maarten vacations and it’s one of our very favorite things to do in St Martin.
It starts out with a bus ride up the mountain and immediately sends you sailing over the treetops to get your heart immediately racing. The course is a combination of zip lines and obstacle course like crossing rope and plank bridges. You have to work a bit for the thrill of soaring over the rain forest, but this St Martin zip line is one of our favorites in the world.
The Fly Zone Xtreme tour leaves Tuesday – Sunday at 10am, 12pm, and 2pm. Closed Mondays. Reservations are not accepted and the course is on a first come first serve basis, so get there early to guarantee your spot. The cost is €60 per person and you must be 18 years or older. The tours lasts 2 hours and you must wear close toed shoes.
3. Zoom down the world’s steepest zip-line
Rainforest Adventures at St. Maarten’s Rockland Estate opened the world’s steepest zip-line in November 2017. Dubbed The Flying Dutchman, the zip-line drops 1050 feet over 2800 feet of cable and is a pure adrenaline rush at 56 miles per hour.
You’re taken up to the top of the mountain on the Souliga Sky Explorer, a tranquil 4-person chairlift ride delivering guests to the Crow’s Nest atop Sentry Hill for a 360° panoramic view over all of St. Maarten and stretching to St. Barth’s, Anguilla and Saba.
Don’t worry. If zooming back down the mountain on the zip-line at 56 miles per hour isn’t your thing, you don’t have to miss out on the spectacular views. You can still experience the Souliga Sky Explorer with a gentle round-trip ride.
4. Get an amazing view of the island from Fort Louis
St. Maarten’s largest historical monument is located above Marigot on the leeward side of the island. Originally built in 1767 to defend Marigot and named after France’s crusading king, it now offers visitors that make the steep climb to the top a panoramic view of the island. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Anguilla.
To get to Fort Louis, take the steps from the “sous préfecture” car park.
5. Get kissed by a butterfly
Butterflies fluttered above and all around us as we walked through the lush tropical rain forest at The Butterfly Farm. If I was very still, the tropical butterflies would even land on me!
Tours of The Butterfly Farm last 15 – 20 minutes and the knowledgable keepers told us all about evolutionary cycle from eggs to caterpillar to eventually becoming a butterfly.
The St Maarten Butterfly Farm is open daily from 9am – 3:30pm. Admission is $15 per person and includes a return visit during your stay on the island. Cruise ship passengers receive a small discount. It’s best to go early in the morning when new born butterflies emerge and flutter around.
*Note that the St Maarten Butterfly Farm has been closed since Hurricane Irma. Check their website before you go for information on when and if they will re-open.
6. Discover local species
The St. Maarten Zoological Park is the largest in the Caribbean and has a variety of animals, birds, and some local species. Macaws, parrots, and other birds fly freely about and if you pick up some food at the entrance, you might even make a few new friends that will follow you about.
The zoo is open daily from 9am – 5pm. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 3 – 11.
*Note that the St. Maarten Zoological Park was severely damaged in Hurricane Irma, and dozens of rare animals were stolen when the zoo was looted after the hurricane. The St. Maarten Zoo is currently closed and it is uncertain if it will re-open.
7. Hike to St. Maarten’s highest point
Pic Paradis rises from the center of St. Maarten and is the highest point on the whole island. You can follow the trails from just above Loterie Farm to two observation decks that provide spectacular views over the lush rain forest and the entire island. You might spot some of the wild monkeys that live in the coconut palms.
A free hiking map is available from the tourist office. The road to Pic Paradis is just past the turnoff for Columbier.
8. Learn to be a sailor
A day sail to Prickly Pear Cay is one of our favorite things to do in St. Maarten. We’ve done the trip out to Prickly Pear Cay four times and we never get tired of it.
The boys hoist the sail in the morning; their hard work is rewarded with shots. And we sail the blue waters of the Caribbean as flying fish launch themselves out of the water toward the deserted Prickly Pear Cay off the coast of Anguilla.
Some of the best St. Maarten snorkeling is found in the waters around Prickly Pear Cay and a barbecue on the beach hits the spot after a few hours of snorkeling or swimming. The last chore is for the girls to hoist the sail back up before heading back to St. Maarten.
Sail to Prickly Pear for the day on Wednesdays and book online. Check-in time is 9am and returns to Simpson Bay around 5pm, so this is not suitable for cruise ship passengers. Passport is required to bring on this St. Maarten day tour.
9. Get your motor running, head out for adventure
There are plenty of beaches where we found nary another soul in St. Maarten. But Orient Bay isn’t one of them. The island’s busiest – and clothing optional – beach plays host to just about every activity you can imagine.
You’ll see people windsurfing, parasailing, snorkeling, riding banana boats, and jet skiing all along the 2-mile stretch of sand. No need to book ahead. Just ask around for the best price to the many vendors along the beach. But if you want to book a jet ski ahead, you can do that here.
10. Go Guavaberry tasting
The legendary liquor of St. Maarten was first made in people’s homes centuries ago and is so cherished that there are even songs and stories about it. Guavaberry liquor is made from oak aged rum, cane sugar, and wild, rare St. Maarten guavaberries only found in the center of the island.
The guavaberry world head quarters are located in an old cedar townhouse on Front Street in Philipsburg, which was once the governor’s home. These days the Guavaberry Emporium plays host to tourists looking to sample the sweet and fruity liquor and bring some home.
11. Kayak to Pinel Island
Pinel Island is a little slice of paradise with fantastic snorkeling just a short kayak ride away from the Cul de Sac on the French side of St. Martin. Little ferry boats take people across the small channel, but even with the small amount of tourists that visit, Pinel Island is usually pretty deserted. With your own kayak rental, you can paddle around the island and explore the most secluded beaches on it.
Kayaks can be rented for $15 per kayak. Book online and pick up daily at 9:30am.
12. Take a day trip to Anguilla
Island hopping to several other islands is easy from St. Maarten. In just 20 minutes, you can reach the nearby island of Anguilla on the ferry from Marigot on the French side.
Here you’ll find pristine beaches and far fewer tourists than on St. Maarten since the only way to reach Anguilla is by boat. It’s easy enough to rent a car for the day and go exploring on your own to the many white sand beaches. Check out this guide to Anguilla for more things to do.
Best Things to Do in St Maarten on a Cruise
Saint Maarten is also a popular cruise port of call on many Caribbean cruises. We’ve visited the dual island nation multiple times and have always spent 8-days staying right on Sint Maarten. But we get enough questions from cruise passengers about what they can squeeze in with about eight hours in port. Quite a lot, actually!
Saint Maarten/Saint Martin is small enough that you can easily see some of the best beaches, have a little adventure and sample some of the island’s delicious cuisine while you’re in the St Maarten port on your cruise. Here’s our our top recommendations for five things you should definitely do if you’re headed to Saint Maarten on a cruise:
1. Fly High at Loterie Farm
St. Maarten’s highest point is Pic Paradis and located high in the treetops of the island mountain is Loterie Farm and the Fly Zone Xtreme. It’s a combination zip-line and obstacle course and not for the faint of heart. You’ll get a work out on crossing the cables and bridges and a heart pumping adrenaline rush as your soar through the jungle from treetop to treetop.
The Fly Zone Xtreme tour leaves Tuesday – Sunday at 10am, 12pm, and 2pm. Closed Mondays. Reservations are not accepted and the course is on a first come first serve basis, so get there early to guarantee your spot. The cost is €60 per person and you must be 18 years or older. The tours lasts 2 hours and you must wear close toed shoes. You can hire a taxi for a few hours and cool off at one of the nearby beaches, like Friar’s Bay, before returning for a bit of exploring in Philipsburg.
2. Do an ATV Tour of St Maarten
Saint Maarten/Saint Martin is small enough that we typically circumnavigated the entire island several times over the course of our week-long stays. That means that you can cover quite a bit of ground and visit several of the island’s most famous beaches while on your cruise. This half day ATV tour leaves from Philipsburgh, where your ship ports, and you’ll have time to enjoy Orient Beach and Grand Case on the French side.
Grand Case is the culinary capital of the Caribbean, where French meets Caribbean cuisine. We promise you’ll never eat so well as in this tiny village. After lunch, you’ll have some time for a little St Maarten shopping in Marigot where you’ll no doubt find the perfect souvenir from the island. Finish off the tour at one of our favorite spots: Maho Beach. Grab a guavaberry colada and watch the planes land. But we don’t recommend standing in the jet blast unless you want to head back to the ship very, very sandy.
3. Explore Philipsburg
If you want to hang out closer to the ship, Philipsburg has many shops to explore as well as a beach (it’s the beach closest to the St. Maarten cruise terminal). Don’t miss this opportunity to visit the Guavaberry Emporium on Front Street and taste Saint Maarten’s legendary liqueur. Just be sure to check with the ship and know the rules about what quantities of liqueur you can bring back on board if you’re purchasing some as a souvenir.
There are a lot of great beach front restaurants in Philipsburg serving up the fresh catch, Caribbean lobster and conch fritters. We particularly like The Greenhouse, which has a lively environment with crab races and live music.
4. Kayak to Pinel Island
Pinel Island is a little slice of heaven just off the Cul de Sac on the French side. There’s a beautiful shallow reef surrounding the island, making it a great spot for snorkeling right from the beach. You can hire a taxi to take you out to the Cul de Sac and rent your kayaks. If you don’t have your own snorkel gear, you can rent that too.
The Yellow Beach Bar on Pinel Islands serves up an incredible lobster lunch from freshly caught Caribbean spiny lobsters. You’ll probably even see the lobster traps set up when you snorkel around the island.
5. Shop, Eat and Hike in Marigot
Marigot is the French capital of Saint Martin and its streets are lined with chic boutiques and delicious restaurants. We highly recommend stopping at Le Galion for lunch and asking for a table with a view of the port.
Don’t miss climbing up to the top of Fort Louis, the island’s largest historical monument. It was built in 1767 and provides a stunning panoramic view over the leeward side of the island.
Best Beaches in St. Maarten
The island of St. Maarten is blessed with over 36 white sandy beaches and we’ve checked nearly all of them our. Here are a few of the ones we think are the best beaches in St. Martin and we never miss going to.
Located right at the end of Princess Juliana International Airport, Maho Beach is one of the most popular Sint Maarten beaches because there’s not a beach like it anywhere else in the world. We enjoy the thrill of watching the jumbo jets soar in over our heads. And when the jets get ready to take off, real thrill seekers line up against the fence of the runway to be blasted with a sandstorm from the thrusters.
We recommend not getting too close to the fence. Dare devils in recent years have been seriously hurt from the strong jet blast.
Happy Bay is still a fairly unknown beach because it is not easily accessible. From the end of Friar’s Bay on the French side of Saint Martin, you take a footpath through the underbrush and walk 15 – 20 minutes to find Happy Bay.
Once there, you can’t help but be taken by the beauty of this tropical, intimate bay. It has gorgeous views, a beautiful white, sandy beach and palm trees to provide shade.
Take your snorkel gear with you. Happy Bay is one of the best snorkel spots on St. Maarten.
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Pinel Island is a tiny island located just 5 minutes from the French Cul de Sac. The end of the road at the French Cul de Sac opens onto a wide sandy area where you find a “ferry station”, a dock and a shack that rents out kayaks and snorkel equipment. Small ferry boats are waiting there to run you over to Pinel Island for a round trip fee of just a couple of dollars.
There is a small restaurant that serves up fresh grilled lobsters caught in the traps right in the shallow waters of the beach. There is also a snorkel trail you can follow to the reefs, so be sure to bring your snorkel gear with you.
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Orient Bay is the party-loving, clothing-be-damned beach of SXM. Located on the French side of the island, the world famous nudist resort, Club Orient (currently rebuilding after Hurricane Irma), sits at the far end of the beach.
Water sports are plentiful here with jet skiing, parasailing, windfurging, banana boats, and even kid’s activities. There is also no shortage of beach shack restaurants serving up fresh fish and tropical drinks.
Located on the southern tip of the Dutch side of the island, Cupecoy is a set of three beaches surrounded by limestone cliffs and caves. You can access Cupecoy Beach from the Cliffhanger Bar built right into the cliffs.
There are stunning views of the island of Saba from the Cliffhanger. There is a lot of development going on around this area as this side of the island was hit hardest with hurricanes in 1995.
Where to Stay in St Maarten
When it comes to where to stay and the best hotels in St. Maarten / St. Martin, it can depend on what you’re looking for. Most hotels are located on or very near to St. Maarten beaches. Some beaches, like Orient Beach, are always buzzing with loads of activities, restaurants and nightlife. Others, like Grand Case Beach, are more relaxed and quiet. And regardless of whether you choose to stay on the Dutch or French side of the island, everything is relatively close and very easy to access with a rental car.
Some of our favorite hotels that we’ve recommended and stayed at are still undergoing rebuilding efforts post Hurricane Irma. We’ve selected some recommendations and will add more back as more hotels re-open in the future.
Belmond La Samanna
Belmond La Samanna is one of the best hotels in St Martin, and the 5-star beach resort is regularly ranked as one of the top 10 hotels in the Caribbean. It’s located on the exclusive Baie Longue (Long Beach) just over the French border and a couple of miles from Princess Juliana Airport.
The hotel just recently reopened after sustaining quite a bit of damage in Hurricane Irma, but the white-washed villas and buildings reminiscent of the French Mediterranean are back. There’s a total of 83 rooms and suites, in addition to eight 3-bedroom and 4-bedroom villas.
You can enjoy fine French cuisine at the resort’s restaurant, Trellis. Wine lovers will also enjoy the resort’s La Cave Wine Cellar, which is the largest private wine cellar in the Caribbean. And the completely renovated beach bar is a top spot for enjoying a St. Maarten sunset.
The resort has a spa, tennis courts and a resident tennis pro who offers lessons, and a fitness center offering yoga and pilates. Belmond La Samanna also offers guests complimentary use of non-motorized water sport equipment such as double kayaks, hobby cats and snorkel gear.
The concierge can also help guests arrange activities like a champagne sunset cruise, which is definitely one of the most romantic things to do in St. Maarten.
Divi Little Bay Resort
Divi Little Bay Resort is nestled between two bays, Little Bay and Great Bay, on the Dutch side of Sint Maarten not too far from Philipsburg. Also severly damaged in Hurricane Irma, the St. Maarten resort resort rebuilt and re-opened in 2018 with quite a few upgrades. You can choose from an all-inclusive package or you can choose room only.
The resort’s guest rooms and suites all got a freshening up. All suites have fully equipped kitchens, though the all-inclusive packages include all meals in the resort’s three restaurants.
New amenities on the resort include a brand new pool, a brand new pool bar, and a new restaurant called The Shack. The Shack features barbecue and jerk dishes. The main restaurant, Seabreeze, also got an entirely new menu during the renovations.
In addition, the resort added an all-new full service spa and a water sports center. There’s also an on-resort dive center and some of the most popular St. Maarten diving sites are located just off of Little Bay Beach and in Great Bay just in front of the resort.
With all-inclusive non-motorized water sports like kayaks and catamarans, three pools and family plans where kids under 5 years of age stay and eat free, Divi Little Bary Resort is one of the best places to stay in St. Maarten for families.
Esmeralda Resort is one of the St Martin island hotels located on Orient Beach on the French side. The resort has a total of 65 rooms that are spread out in 18 luxurious villas, each with it’s own pool.
Right on Orient Beach, every activity you could possibly want is practically outside your door. There’s jet-skiing, parasailing, water skiing, wind surfing and boat hire all right on the beach.
The resort has their own on-site restaurant, Astrolabe, which specializes in French cuisine with a Caribbean flair. And there are at least six other restaurants all within walking distance strung along Orient Beach. The island’s gastronomic capital, Grand Case, is just a short drive or taxi ride away.
Grand Case Beach Club
Grand Case Beach Club is one of the SXM hotels located on Grand Case Beach in the island’s gastronomic capital on the French side. Unlike the previously mention Belmond and Divi, which are part of larger chains, Grand Case Beach Club is independently owned by locals. The resort was greatly damaged in Hurricane Irma, but has been rebuilding and partially re-opened as of November 2018. They still have ongoing construction currently.
The rooms are all spacious apartment-style with fully equipped kitchens from studios to two bedrooms. There’s a pool that overlooks Grand Case Bay and guests have complimentary use of the non-motorized water sports. There’s also a fitness center and spa and massage services are available.
There is an onsite restaurant, as well as many excellent restaurants located nearby in Grand Case.
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The Best Restaurants in St. Maarten
Pineapple Pete, named for the restaurant’s proprietor, is a staple on St. Maarten. It’s located in Simpson Bay, just a couple of minutes from the airport and about a 10-minute drive from Marigot. With a fun and lively atmosphere, Pineapple Pete is casual. Come to eat, come to drink or even come to shoot some pool on one of the eight pool tables, throw some darts or play the arcade games in the pool room. Once evening rolls around, you can always expect live music, earning Pineapple Pete’s the award for best live music on the island.
The food is excellent with a varied American-Caribbean menu. You’ll find everything from burgers to barbecue. It’s the lobster thermidor that we come for though, and Pineapple Pete is famous all over the island for it.
Pineapple Pete is open Tuesday – Sunday from 11am.
The Greenhouse Restaurant
The original The Greenhouse Restaurant, located in Bobby’s Marina in Philipsburg, has weathered many storms (literally) and been a fixture of the island’s capital since 1986. It’s another restaurant with a more casual atmosphere and lively scene with crab races. There’s also a second location in Simpson Bay.
Both locations have the same menu and The Greenhouse Restaurant is famous for two things: their extended happy hour that runs from 4:30 – 7pm and their lobster mania nights.
We always plan to go for lobster mania night, which is on Tuesdays and Fridays, when live Caribbean spiny lobsters are sold starting at $19.99 and are the cheapest on the island. Get there early for a lobster dinner, because the lobsters go fast.
Not only do we head there for the lobster – some weighing in at more than 5 pounds! – but also the fun atmosphere. The Greenhouse is the place to be with crab races, happy hour specials, and live music on Friday nights.
The Greenhouse Restaurant is open daily from 11am – 9pm (until 10pm on Fridays).
Bamboo Bernie’s, which has moved to Simpson Bay post Hurricane Irma, has been part of the Sint Maarten scene since 2001. Known for their cocktails and sushi, it’s an upscale sushi bar meets club scene with a DJ spinning.
Don’t worry if you’re not in to sushi. Tim isn’t either and there’s also a grill with other Asian-inspired selections. Some of the sushi rolls aren’t traditional either, and you’ll find specialty rolls with things like braised pork belly.
Bamboo Bernie’s is open daily from 12pm – 10pm (until 11pm Friday – Sunday).
Skip Jack’s Seafood Grill, Bar & Fish Market
Skip Jack’s Seafood Grill, Bar & Fish Market is known as the best seafood restaurant in St. Maarten. It’s located in Simpson Bay, it’s right on the water and a local favorite. Skip Jack’s was completely wiped out in Hurricane Irma, but it finally re-opens in January 2019.
The menu regularly changes here with the fresh catch and a blackened fish of the day. But Skip Jack’s has always been known for its fish & chips, mahi mahi is a staple, they almost always have fresh oysters available and landlubbers will love their famous giant steak.
You can also purchase fresh fish and seafood in their fish market. What’s available for sale changes day to day. If you’re staying in an accommodation equipped with a kitchen and want to enjoy a night in, check out the selection at Skip Jack’s.
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