Being part of the Caribbean means sparkling turquoise beaches and golden sunsets melting over the ocean is as standard as electric windows on a sedan. But Saint Martin, “the island of music”, is unique for a few different reasons.
First, it makes up the two smallest island countries in the Caribbean The northern French side is called Saint-Martin and the southern Dutch side is called Sint Maarten, though they’re collectively referred to as Saint Martin.
In Saint Martin you will find a fusion of cultures, music, and cuisine like nowhere else on earth. The island is a melting pot of French, Dutch and Mediterranean lifestyles.
This Saint Martin travel guide will help you plan an amazing trip to these charming Caribbean island countries.
- Where is Saint Martin
- When to Travel to Saint Martin
- Things to Know Before You Visit Saint Martin
- Things to Do in Saint Martin
- Places to Visit in Saint Martin
- Getting Around Saint Martin
- Highlights of Traveling to Saint Martin
Where is Saint Martin
Saint Martin is in the northeastern Caribbean, about 300km (190 miles) east of Puerto Rico.
It lies at the northern end of the Leeward group of the Lesser Antilles.
The entire island is only 87 square kilometres (34 square miles) but is divided 60:40 between the northern French part and the southern Dutch part, although the two halves have almost the same population.
When to Travel to Saint Martin
With very consistent temperatures year round it would appear that any time is a good time to visit Saint Martin, but not quite.
Summer and early Autumn (June to about October) should be avoided as it’s the rainy season and hurricanes can be expected.
Many hotels and resorts close during this period, limiting your accommodation options. So, unlike what you would expect from a Caribbean destination, the best time to visit Saint Martin is during the winter.
Be aware, that from mid-December to April the weather is fine but prices are at its highest. In May-June though, you can get great deals; sometimes up to 50% less than normal!
Weather in Saint Martin
Saint Martin has very consistent temperatures all year round, averaging approximately 28°C (82°F) with fluctuations of only about 2 degrees up or down.
There is the possibility of hurricanes during Summer and early Autumn, which is its rainy season.
Things to Know Before You Visit Saint Martin
Before you head on your trip to this upscale destination, there are a few things you should be aware of.
Traveling to Saint Martin
Getting to either island in the Saint Martin duo is not difficult. Here's what you need to know.
Visa & Passport Requirements
Bearing in mind that Saint Martin is made up of two different countries, the visa requirements will differ based on which part you want to visit.
Since the island group is relatively small, you may want to explore the entirety of it, so may want to get visas for both sides.
Saint Martin (French)
As with entry into any country, there is always a list of visa exempt nations whose citizens can enter with just their passports. You will need to search for your country on the visa exempt list as we will be dealing with general visa applications in this article.
If you have a French passport you’re entitled to unlimited stay in Saint Martin. In addition, anyone with a EU passport also gets unlimited stay and visa free entry, along with citizens from these countries:
- San Marino
Although France is part of the Schengen agreement, Saint Martin is not, so a Schengen visa will not grant you entry into the island.
If none of the above applies to you, you will have to secure a visa the usual way, by applying through the French embassy. The visa requirements for Saint Martin are fairly relaxed though, so you should have no issues. Of course, your travel agent can get this done for you.
Sint Maarten (Dutch)
Anyone holding a USA, Canadian, British, Australian or EU passport does not need a visa and may stay for up to 90 days within a 180-day period.
You will however need to show proof of a return ticket. There is also a list of more than 80 countries who are visa exempt.
If your country falls outside this list, you may apply for a short-stay Caribbean visa at the Dutch embassy, which will allow you to stay for up to 90 days within a 180-day period. With this visa you can enter any of the Dutch Caribbean islands. As with the French side, Schengen visas do not grant entry.
Flights to Saint Martin
The main airport is Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM), on the Dutch side.
Most travellers enter through here even if they wish to stay in the northern French part.
Since the island is small you could drive up north from the airport or take another short flight to the French side.
The French part also has an international airport, Grand Case-Espérance Airport, but it is much smaller in size and very few airlines from an even shorter list of countries fly there. Your best option would be to fly to Juliana International Airport.
Is Saint Martin Safe to Travel To?
Saint Martin is very safe and considered by travellers as one of the safest places to visit outside the US.
No place in the world is 100% crime free though, so be aware of petty crime; keep jewelry to a minimum and avoid carrying around large amounts of cash. There are 2 main crimes you need to watch out for in Saint Martin:
- Passport theft is common on the island so it is recommended that you carry around your original driver’s licence and a copy of your passport; leave the original in your hotel safe.
- Rental cars being broken into, especially since they have the letter “R” on the licence plate which lets criminals know that a tourist is driving this car. Make sure not to leave your belongings and valuables in the car, especially since, wait for it… rental companies ask that you leave the car unlocked! There is a good reason for this however, as it costs a lot to repair the damage from break-ins.
What Language is Spoken in Saint Martin?
French is the official language of Saint-Martin (the north), while Dutch and English are the official languages of Sint Maarten (the south).
Both sides speak a Creole version of English though, which will be sufficient for any English speaker to understand and communicate back.
You will also hear Spanish and Papiamento spoken across the island.
Money in Saint Martin
Because you’ll want to know how to pay.
Saint Martin’s Currency
The Euro is used on the French side while the Dutch side uses the Netherlands Antilles Florin (NAF). The Dollar is accepted in both parts.
Is Saint Martin Expensive?
Since “expensive” is a relative term, we’ll let you decide if Saint Martin is expensive or not. Here’s what you can expect to pay on your visit:
- The price of a room for a single person or couple doesn’t change much, so you can expect to pay between $102 and $148 per night at a 3 star hotel, $159 to $370 at a 4 or 5 star hotel, and budget travellers can get 1 star accommodation for around $65-70 per night.
- A good dinner can cost around $31 per person, while an evening of fine dining with drinks for 2 can cost you up to $460 per person.
- You can eat inexpensively if you prefer; Chinese food is available everywhere for $11-16 per meal.
- Local foods are less costly; you can get breakfast for $3-9 and beer for $3-5.
As you can see, it all depends on whether you’re a luxury traveler or looking for the average family vacation.
Tipping Etiquette in Saint Martin
Tipping becomes a little tricky in Saint Martin, especially since there are two sides to the island.
- On the Dutch side, 10-15% is the norm for tipping at restaurants, cab drivers etc. At the hotel you should also tip the porter, bellman and chambermaids, which is usually around $2 a day.
- The French side is different; tipping is called “service” and it’s usually included in your hotel fees. At restaurants you won’t find the “tip” included on your bill, instead it will say “service compris” (which is essentially the tip) and is usually 15%.
This means if you ask the waiter if the tip is included in the bill, he will say no and technically be correct, which could result in you tipping an additional 15%, for a total of 30%! Unless you’re that generous, please remember to use the word “service” instead of “tip” when you’re on the French side of the island.
How to Pay for Things in Saint Martin
The dollar is widely accepted on both sides of the island so you should have no problems for cash.
ATMs on the Dutch side dispense Dollars while ATMs on the French side give out Euros only.
Both currencies are accepted anywhere in Saint Martin. While foreign cheques are not accepted at most establishments, credit cards are, so you can minimize the amount of cash you carry around. You will need cash at beach bars, for taxis, smaller local restaurants and for tipping.
Dress & What to Pack for Saint Martin
Shorts, light cotton clothing, t-shirts and sneakers are the order of the day; it is tropical weather after all.
Dress for the beach, but remember that beachwear around town is frowned upon.
There isn’t really a dress code at restaurants, even the high end ones, but you can still dress casual and smart at the same time. Shorts are perfectly fine at a restaurant, but try to wear a golf shirt or buttoned shirt.
While sandals are “allowed”, it’s not ideal for fine dining so we recommend closed shoes. You will rarely find anyone wearing a jacket and tie but if you feel like dressing up for a nice nice out, make sure it’s light cotton or else you may end up very uncomfortable.
Some things you should remember to pack, along with your other essentials, are mosquito repellants, sunblock, a hat that can protect your face from the sun and sunglasses.
Saint Martin Laws to Know
- The legal drinking age on the island is 18.
- You can bring in a limited amount of liquor and tobacco for personal use (should not exceed 40 ounces).
- All tourists are required to carry some form of identification on their person at all times. We recommend you carry your driver’s licence and a copy of your passport, but not the original, as passport theft is common in Saint Martin.
- You may drive in Saint Martin with a Canadian licence
- There is no physical border between the French and Dutch sides of the island, so you can move about freely between the two sides, with your goods.
- Possession of illegal drugs (including cannabis) can result in jail time, or heavy fines.
- If you use any medication that requires injection you must carry an original prescription from your doctor.
Things to Do in Saint Martin
Like all Caribbean islands, Saint Martin is famous for its beaches, snorkelling, diving and shopping. Its nightlife however is amongst the best and most famous in the Caribbean.
Our top pick for things to do in Saint Martin is experiencing the jet blast at Maho beach. What’s that you ask? Well,
Maho beach just happens to be directly opposite the Princess Juliana International Airport and tourists hold onto the fence as a plane is revving for take off to experience the powerful jet blast. If you’re not that daring, you can enjoy watching the planes fly 30m (100ft) overhead as they descend for landing.
Places to Visit in Saint Martin
Let’s start with the French island:
- Marigot is a cosmopolitan area where you can enjoy the best French restaurants and shopping. You can also catch a ferry from here to nearby islands.
- Colombier, a quiet village if you enjoy nature.
- Orient Bay has one of the most popular beaches on the island.
- Grand Case is the best place for fine dining.
- Cupecoy is where you’ll find golf courses and casinos.
On the Dutch island of Sint Maarten:
- Phillipsburg is the capital and has the best nightlife.
- Maho Village is where you go to party! If you want casinos, nightlife, music and noise, this is the place to be.
- Simpsons Bay is central to everything and the marina is there. Great restaurants too!
- Dawn Beach is on the border of the French half and ideal for a quiet beach experience.
Getting Around Saint Martin
The best way to get around is a rental car. They’re fairly cheap (around $35 a day) and will allow you to explore more of the island.
The traffic can get quite congested so renting a scooter might help with that, and they’re available for roughly the same price as a car.
Taxis are available but will cost significantly more, especially if you want to see most of the island during your stay. The taxis are unmetered so be sure to agree on a rate before getting in.
Buses are the cheapest way to get around, but in Saint Martin a bus may not necessarily be an actual bus. Mini vans also operate as buses, and you will recognize them from the number plate; it will say “bus”. They’re not very reliable however as they don’t run at set times, which will make planning your day very difficult.
We recommend car rental as the best way to travel around.
Highlights of Traveling to Saint Martin
Here’s a list of the must-do things and places in Saint Martin as well as some hidden gems awaiting you.
Under-rated Attraction: Enjoy a panoramic view of the bay from Fort Louis, is one of the highest points on the island.The site itself is a historical one where visitors can soak up the island's rich past.
Best Cup of Coffee: Croissant Royal was mentioned by travellers as having the best coffee and cappuccino. They also said the size of the cups is huge so you definitely get your money’s worth!
Best Hidden Gem: Loterie Farm is a secret hideaway on the French hillside of Saint Martin. You can hike, climb and zip-line over the treetops to get a stunning view as you glide down.
Local Favourite Restaurant: La Villa Restaurant is noted by travellers for having the best French and local Caribbean food.
Little-Known Fact: Although Saint Martin is half Dutch and half French owned, it was first discovered by Christopher Columbus on behalf of Spain in 1493.
Don’t Forget to Pack: Mosquito repellant.
And there you have it! Everything you need to know to plan your perfect Caribbean getaway to the melting pot of culture, Saint Martin.
With no physical border between the French and Dutch halves, there’s no need to pick a side; the entire island is your playground!