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St. Maarten or St. Martin - Island With a Split Personality

     The island of Saint Maarten (Dutch)/Saint Martin (French) is the smallest land mass in the world to be shared by two different nations in a spirit of neighborly cooperation and mutual friendship for almost 350 years. A miniscule 37 square miles are jointly owned by France and the Netherlands Antilles. The border is almost imperceptible and people cross back and forth without ever realizing they are entering a new country.

     All the same, each side has managed to retain much of the distinctiveness of its own national culture. The French tend to emphasize comfort and elegance. The beaches are secluded, the luxury resorts provide lavish accommodations, and the restaurants offer the finest dining experiences anywhere in the Caribbean. The latest French fashions can be found in many of the shops, and the smell of fresh croissants and pastries mixes everywhere with the spicy aromas of West Indian cooking. Small cafés and charming bistros add a decidedly Gaelic and cosmopolitan flair to the place. On the whole, the atmosphere remains very relaxed.

     On the other hand, St. Maarten with its busy cruise port and bustling commercial district, has long been an active center for trade and tourism. More developed and at the same time more informal, it is very Dutch in flavor and still has strong ties with fellow compatriots in the other Netherlands Antilles. Between the two different cultures in St. Martin and St. Maarten, vacationers will be able to find just about every kind of activity they might want for a perfect holiday in the sun.

     Some noticeable differences though: there are casinos on the Dutch side (not allowed in the French) and topless beaches on the French side (not allowed in the Dutch).

Currency
     In St. Martin, Euro is the legal currency, and in St. Maarten it is the Antillean florin or guilder, but U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere. Banks are open Monday to Friday 8:00 am to 1:00 pm, with an additional hour on the French side Monday to Thursday 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm and on the Dutch side, Friday 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm.

Cruise Dock in Philipsburg

               

The  A.C. Wathey Pier at Great Bay where Cruise Ships Dock near Philipsburg, St. Maarten

     Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch side of St. Maarten. A large cruise ship pier juts out into Great Bay about a mile from Philipsburg.  A small shopping mall sits at the end of the pier, so if you don't have time to go all the way into town, it is convenient. It has a welcome center, some souvenir shops, and a bar/restaurant. St. Maarten has a very nice large pier that can accommodate four large ships at once. The new "Genesis" size pier next to the current one that will berth the new Royal Caribbean International Oasis of the Seas of  is ready.

  

St. Maarten is ready for the Oasis and Allure--the port is prepared to welcome the ships at the new pier which was specifically designed for ships of this size. Dredging around the new pier to acquire the necessary draft has been going on for several months now.

     You can walk into town from the pier, but there is also an inexpensive water shuttle that crosses the Bay and stops at either end of the capital city.  The realistic plan is to use the water taxi back to the dock area since your $6 entitles you to ride it back and forth for a whole day.  One way costs $4. The one problem being, as we depart from the ship, the lines waiting to get on the water taxi are very long--so we choose, usually, to do the 15-minute walk into town and back.  It is a very pleasant walk with new palm shaded sidewalks.

       Taxis are readily available at the pier. Although they are not metered, fares are required to be posted on the Dutch side. Fare to Philipsburg is $4 and $15  to Marigot on the French side.

         

At the end of the long cruise pier, across from the shops, you come to the small boat marina named Dock Maarten. Here a water taxi is prepared to take you across the Bay to Philipsburg's downtown area.

     Your water taxi arrives at the renovated pier (Captain Hodge Wharf) in the heart of Philipsburg called Wathey Square. The pier, with its gingerbread detailing, is where cruise passengers disembark to spend the day on the island.  Wathey Square is a bustling center of activity filled with taxis, vans, peddlers and pedestrians.

Captain Hodge Wharf in Wathey Square

                                                                                                                                    

      Philipsburg Boardwalk -- which didn't even exist a few years ago -- is by far the biggest attraction in town. Nearly 50 feet wide and running nearly the entire length of the city's Great Bay waterfront, the Boardwalk serves as a lively "back porch" for the hotels and restaurants on the south side of Front Street. You'll find strollers, skaters, and even Segway tours cruising along the half-mile-plus ribbon of concrete. Within sight of the cruise-ship dock, the Boardwalk is a great place to grab an inexpensive cold Carib or Heineken from one of the many beach bars and linger while street musicians perform, or duck inside one of the many restaurants lining the strip for some local Dutch/Indonesian influenced cuisine or just a burger or hot dog. Other attractions include a sun-drenched Catholic Church that looks out over the bay, an arcade with pinball and video games, and a beachfront playground. Speaking of the beach, you can rent beach chairs and an umbrella -- with a half-dozen cold beers thrown in -- for about $20.

      Philipsburg, is just a few blocks wide but packed with interesting sights and shops, from jewelry stores and 12 gambling casinos to the historic Courthouse on Wathey Square. Built in 1793 as the home of Commander John Philips, the town's founder, the building has served as a fire station, jail and post office over its long history and is one of St. Marten's most prominent landmarks. It's hard to get lost in Philipsburg -- there are only two main downtown streets between Great Bay and the Salt Pond -- but the Courthouse is a good place to start and end your walking tour of the town. If you're driving into town, there's a municipal parking lot a block away.

GETTING AROUND

     Car rental agencies are located at both airports and at the major hotels. Driving is on the right side of the road, and most of the roads are in fairly good repair. Motorcycles and mopeds are also available for hire. Tips on taxis: Most of the time, on the Dutch side, your tip is already added to your bill. It is listed as a SERVICE FEE. You do not need to add a tip to this. Rarely it is added to the bill on the French side, so you would add a tip to this. We generally tip 15- 20 % depending on the service; the same as you would tip in the United states.
    
An inexpensive way to get around the island is hopping aboard the little vans that are the usual mode of transportation for the islanders. The "jitneys" have signs that indicate where they are going and you can hail them to pick you up. Your colorful ride will be to the accompaniment of native zouk and soca music.

Segway Personal Movers

     Or take the water taxi to Phillipsburg and walk about 150 yards to the right of the pier. Segways were available for rent for a few dollars cheaper than what the cruise ships charge ($79). Jeffrey, the owner, and a terrific guide, Michael, will instruct you as they take you for a great ride on the boardwalk and beach.  Highly recommended for great fun!

WHEELCHAIR AND SCOOTER USERS: St. Maarten is fairly accessible with island tours in lift-equipped vans. Although not all of the shops and restaurants are wheelchair accessible there are many that have street level entrances.  Generally, restrooms in shops and restaurants are not accessible to wheelchairs..

Taxis: there are approximately 100 taxis at the Cruise Ship dock in Philipsburg whose drivers will carry or help the client into the taxi and put the wheelchair in the trunk.

Tour Companies for Handicapped:  A maximum of 2 wheelchairs allowed per tour. The van is equipped with a wheelchair lift.

For a list of handicapped-accessible accommodations, restaurants, transportations companies with wheelchair assistance and/or are lift-equipped,  contact Ida Zin-Ka-Ieu, President of the Tourism Office of Saint Martin, St. Martin Tourist Office.

SHOPPING

     Philipsburg's very walkable downtown is a definite duty-free shopping destination; great buys can be found on electronics, liquor and jewelry. There's also a small beach where you can rent chairs and umbrellas and several restaurants and bars if you are looking for a place nearby to hang for the day.

               

     This mile long main street, as well as the numerous alleyways and flower laden courtyards run between Front Street and Back Street and are a shopper’s paradise.

     Towards the east end of Front Street (closest to the cruise pier, connected to downtown by a walkway) are a pair of casinos, the Rouge et Noir and the Coliseum Casino. Back Street, parallel to Front Street on the Salt Pond side of town, is a bit less touristy and where more locals tend to congregate.

              

                               The Guavaberry Emporium                                                                   Casinos and Shops

     The Guavaberry Emporium is the most popular tourist attraction in Philipsburg and well worth a visit. Located in a former governor's home -- not much more than a rough cedar building, actually -- the store sells all manner of products derived from the native guavaberry, notably a tasty folk liqueur blended with rum and cane sugar. (Even today native St. Maarten/St. Martin residents make their own guavaberry liquor at home.) The shop offers visitors samples of the liquor as well as guavaberry coladas (excellent) at a walk-up bar; also offered for sale are barbecue sauces, hot sauce, and even honey blended with guavaberry juice. 

     Connecting Back Street, Front Street, and the Boardwalk are a series of short side streets, typically jammed with small souvenir shops and a few hidden cafes and restaurants. Many of the shops sell a similar assortment of tropical shirts and bric-a-brac, but you also can find mom-and-pop shops selling smooth flavored rums and Indian crafts.     

            

DINING
     The Black Pearl is just one of your drinking and dining choices on the Philipsburg waterfront. Beach bars like this are the most casual (other than the stands selling take-away beers for $2), and you usually can get a snack to cushion the drinks. There are many other menu choices if you want to experience Caribbean cuisine within walking distance from the ship. Click HERE for more dining places within walking distances in Philipsburg.

           

     Between the Boardwalk and beach, there are many bright spaces like the Islan Flavia, where you can have  lunch or a snack while overlooking the azure blue waters of Great Bay.  It's a great place to spend a few hours shopping, dining, gambling, or just hanging out on the beach, whether you're staying on the island or taking the short walk from the cruise pier. You can even mix a bit more history into your visit by exploring the nearby Fort Amsterdam, built in 1631, or Fort Willem, both designed to protect Philipsburg from seaborne invaders.

PLACES OF INTEREST


 
  Fort Amsterdam

      At the far west end of Front Street (passing  through Divi Beach Resort) is Little Bay. Still standing on the narrow sliver of land between Little Bay and Great Bay are the remains of Fort Amsterdam. Dating back more than 300 years, the fort was built by the Dutch and stands on the foundation of an earlier Spanish fort. From here, you can also see what was once the site of Fort Willem, directly north atop Fort Hill. From 1801 to 1848, this fort changed hands 16 times between Dutch, British and French powers; soon thereafter it was abandoned.  A few walls of the original bastion remain but unfortunately, unlike the French fort, Fort St. Louis, which is well maintained,  this historical property has not been kept up--however it offers a spectacular view of the Bay and an outstanding view of modern Philipsburg.

The Pasanggrahan Royal Guest House

     The Pasanggrahan (which means 'guesthouse' in Indonesian) Royal Guest House is St. Maarten's oldest and most charming inn. Formerly the Governor's home, a V.I.P. guest house, and Dutch royal residence, it is ideally located in Philipsburg on a white sand beach amidst enchanting tropical gardens. Secluded and offbeat near the heart of St. Maarten's capital, it is yet only a minute's stroll to shops, restaurants, casinos, water sports and other activities.

     This authentic, colonial style inn has all the special features of a larger hotel including 30 rooms, personal service, the Sidney Greenstreet Bar, seaside dining, manager's cocktails, complementary chaise lounges, beach towels, and afternoon tea. "A special place for special people."

AERIAL VIEW OF PHILIPSBURG (Cruise ships are off to the right)

PIC PARADISE (Peak Paradise): St. Martin's highest peak (about 1400 ft) and a wonderful place to take pictures of the entire island.  There is a road most of the way to the top but it is pretty rough.  You can walk up the dirt track where there are two observation decks.  But be aware of the theft that goes on in the car you left below.  Avoid this experience and this heartache!

The beach boardwalk opposite the cruise ship dock in the harbor.

Across from Captain Hodge Wharf in the square is the courthouse. Originally built in 1793, the beige-and-green structure has been renovated several times, most recently in 1995.

This website has been converted to EBook form for: Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Blackberry, Android devices, PC and Mac.  This is one page for this country.  See complete information and the table of contents for ST. MAARTEN/ST. MARTIN at www.amazon.com in all languages. Type in Title: Caribbean - Carol's Worldwide Cruise Port Itineraries and download the app.  (Includes all 17 island/countries). You can pre-purchase tickets on line and take your itineraries and maps with you on your next cruise!  See all of my EBooks at www.amazon.com: Carol's Worldwide Cruise Port Itineraries.