The idea of stepping onto an island that is influenced by two European countries is exhilarating, to say the least. St. Maarten, with its capital Philipsburg, is the Dutch side while St. Martin with Marigot as the capital gives you a taste of France in the Caribbean.
With just the one day – technically not even that – on the island, it was not possible to experience what both sides had to offer, and thus as we had docked in Philipsburg, that was going to be our preferred capital for exploration.
Philipsburg came with a beautiful beach, a lively boardwalk, and side streets full of duty-free shops and small Dutch influenced eateries. However, it wasn’t until I got back to the cruise ship that I found out more about the French side being, how can I put this gently, a little bit more casual when it came to the clothing department on its beaches. A few of the co-passengers who had opted for a boat ride to the “other” side hadn’t been prepared for this, and thus for the rest of the evening, this became the hop-topic on the ship. Although, I must point out that the Dutch are quite liberal and it’s common for individuals to go topless on Dutch beaches back in the Netherlands.
Hopping across different beaches in the Caribbean, I realised that each came with a certain aura about them. The Mahogany Beach in Ocho Rios, Jamaica had a very cosy and fun vibe to it. The one in St. Maarten is right there, adjoining the city centre. Alongside a boardwalk filled with restaurants and shops, there was the hustle and bustle of tourists and shoppers mixed with singing and some dancing that added on to the holiday atmosphere.
A short walk inside and St. Maarten opens up its gates as a Tax-Free haven. Duty-Free shops selling jewellery, cigars, alcohol, electronics, and watches at pretty reasonable prices are everywhere. Cartier, Tiffany’s, Ralph Lauren and the likes all have their showrooms in place, ready to make your wallets a little lighter with attractive pricing. That is also another reason why St. Maarten is very popular with the American run cruise ships.
My day at St. Maarten was spent leisurely roaming around on cobbled streets, window shopping – and a little more – taking breaks sitting at small cafe’s – with the family – found in nooks and corners throughout the island.
There’s subtle beauty all around, and you just have to keep your eyes open to admire the simplicity of it; windowpanes decorated with island motifs, colonial architecture, walls so colourful that it takes you a minute to realise that they point towards a public bathroom, and alleyways full of shops selling local artefacts.
Even if like me you are in Philipsburg for only a day, a walk along the boardwalk is highly recommended. Have an ice cream under the shade of a palm tree, or listen to some calypso music being played live by the locals as the waves gently roll on to the beach. It’s what island life is all about, a perfect way to relax and take in the sights and sounds of what’s around you.
St. Maarten can get extremely touristy, but it does bring about a lovely change to the scenery after having visited secluded beaches elsewhere in the Caribbean. Its compact size adds to the charm, and the possibility of witnessing different cultural influences is a bonus. There’s a vibrancy in St. Maarten often found in cities, but its heart still remains true to being an island in the Caribbean.