The tiny, 37-square-mile island of St. Martin/St. Maarten, a picture of civility, has been operating as two wholly separate countries for more than 350 years without so much as a skirmish.
The two sides couldn't be more different. To the north is St. Martin, the French side, while the Dutch side (St. Maarten) occupies the southern half of the island. Like any two countries, each has its own area code, hospital and capital: Philipsburg, St. Maarten, and Marigot, St. Martin. And though they are dissimilar in both lifestyle and culture, they both share attractive elements for visitors.
Tourism is bolstered greatly by the cruise industry, whose ships frequently pencil in the island as a stop on eastern Caribbean itineraries. The Dutch side is home to the A.C. Wathey Pier and Port facility, where most cruise ships berth. Consequently, that side becomes congested with tourists once the ships arrive in the morning.
Duty-free shops are a big draw in St. Maarten. Front Street and Old Street are packed with duty-free jewelry, alcohol and electronic shops and—though bargains already abound—you can often barter with proprietors to bring prices down even more.
Philipsburg is about 20 minutes on foot from the cruise terminal, so there are a bevy of government-regulated taxis awaiting at both the cruise terminal as well as Princess Juliana International Airport, which has direct flights from many U.S. cities such as New York and Miami, on many of the biggest carriers. The airport is located on the Dutch side.
While the Dutch side pops with commercialism, the French side is much more subdued and provincial. It is less frenetic than the Dutch side, with its bucolic resorts, white sandy beaches and quaint cafés and storefronts. Because it is farther from the airport and cruise terminal, it takes longer to get there by taxi. Traffic is often a problem on the island, especially when the cruise ships are in port. Make sure to always give yourself enough time, especially if you need to make it back to your cruise ship by embarkation. Some cruise lines, such as Windstar, anchor off the French side's coastline, with passengers tendering into Marigot.
In Marigot you'll find narrow streets teeming with jewelry-hungry tourists and cozy cafés and bistros teeming with just plain hungry tourists. Boutiques line les rues, while restaurants serving up French and Creole fare are ubiquitous along the streets adjacent to the harbor and around the marina.
Though shopping and eating are very much an integral part of the St. Martin experience, do yourself a favor and spend some time sunning on one of the countless beaches. Do be warned: Orient Beach, perhaps St. Martin's biggest tourist attraction, is a nude beach.
While in Marigot, make it a point to ascend Fort St. Louis. The climb is not all that strenuous, and when you get to the top you'll be glad you made it. The former 18th century garrison offers sweeping views of the capital and the myriad ships anchored in the ocean below.