One minute, it’s all Holland, a bustling port city named for a Dutch naval captain, restaurants serving delicacies like “bitterballen” and gouda cheese patties and “stroopwafels” and “pannenkoeken,” shops with big, red wooden shoes and shelves lined with “speculaas” and “jenever,” all of it feeling a little out of place under palm trees, amidst sultry breezes.
And then, a short drive later—weaving through the green center of the island, across a picturesque line of mountains—I’m in France, rolling with Peugeots and Renaults, in Grand Case. Here, streets are lined with galleries, as well as bistros and patios where diners sip good French wine and dive into plates heaped with frog legs, the blue of the Caribbean, just beyond, illuminating everything.
I’m on Sint Maarten/St. Martin, the smallest island in the world shared by two nations, about 20 square miles in total. Located in the West Indies, and open to North American travelers, it just might be the closest we get to Europe, anytime soon. Devastated first by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and deeply affected by the pandemic, it’s a resilient place, rising to welcome tourists to its beaches and attractions.
Each side—separated by just a sign and an invisible borderline, no passport required to cross—has its own distinct feel and flair. Here are some of the best places to eat, and sleep, and play, and relax, whether you’re feeling French, or decide to go Dutch.
Home to the island’s major hub (Princess Juliana International Airport), where planes famously descend very close to Maho Beach, this will likely be the place you land and begin your adventures. The Dutch capital, Philipsburg, is a busy place set on a thin strip of land between the sea and the Great Salt Pond, with a beach boardwalk that stretches across the breadth of its downtown, tracing a thick line of sugary, white sand.
A pedestrian-only zone running through downtown Philipsburg, a couple of blocks from the sea and shaded by swaying palm trees, Front Street was built for shoppers. Deals are easy to find along this string of small, specialized shops, given the island’s duty-free status—find everything from premium cigars and excellent Caribbean rum, to higher-end buys like diamond and emerald jewelry. Just make sure you have room in your luggage to take it all home.
Housed in a candy-striped building, this shop in the heart of the capital celebrates a rare, humble berry grown at high elevations in the center of the island. Come here to pick up an astonishing number of products made from it, from hot sauces to rums to the national liqueur of Sint Maarten.
The Amsterdam Cheese and Liquor Store
Home to that giant pair of wooden shoes, this little hole-in-the-wall shop offers all the best of the Netherlands. Browse big, 10-pound wheels of Gouda (which every Dutch person will tell you is actually pronounced “how-da,” not “goo-da”), plus Edam, Dutch gins, Amstel beer, and other treats from across the pond. Then slip your feet into those shoes for a very Dutch photo opportunity.
Half a mile of the finest sand in the Caribbean, this is Sint Maarten’s best swimming beach. Pack your suit and spend the day, splashing around in the bathtub-warm, electric-blue water, or bring a boogie board to ride the waves. Locals set up for barbecues on the weekends, tropical beats sounding out and delicious aromas floating from portable grills. Make sure to stay long enough to take in the sunset, that fiery orb dropping below the horizon and promising another ray-bathed day ahead.
Chesterfield’s Waterfront Restaurant and Bar
An institution for some three decades, Chesterfield’s sits on a big bend of Great Bay, just beyond the end of the boardwalk, overlooking Philipsburg and its beach. The view is excellent, and the food matches it, with local seafood like conch (chowder, fritters, cocktail), mahimahi, Caribbean lobster, and, always, the catch of the day, charbroiled or grilled and bathed in either creole sauce or velvety garlic butter.
Indulgence by the Sea
After all that shopping (and tasting), you’ll probably be ready for some relaxation. Part of Divi Little Bay Beach Resort, a hotel with multiple pools strung along the coast just outside Philipsburg, this spa offers treatments using a variety of local products—including seaweed harvested right here. Relax and enjoy in a treatment room, or in an outdoor cabana, caressed by salty sea breezes.
The French Side
Separated from Philipsburg by just 10 miles—about 20 minutes, by car—Marigot, the capital of the “Partie Française,” feels like a world away. Coming across, you’ll pass a happy little sign: “Welcome to the French Side.” Five minutes after arriving, everything around you evokes the Côte D’Azur, plunked down here, right in the middle of the West Indies.
Like Martinique and St. Barth, St. Martin is still technically a part of France. And you’ll bump into Gallic transplants everywhere you turn, folks from the old country looking for a little more sun, chefs and artists and shopkeepers from Paris and Lyon and Nantes. It’s all very chill, a place to tarry over a glass of rosé, and maybe a little bit of shrimp sautéed in butter, before stripping down to your swimsuit and heading to the beach—10 steps away.
Rue de Général de Gaulle
Named for France’s greatest president, this “pieton”—again, foot traffic, only—features some of the country’s top brands. Bring your euros and browse at perfumeries, cosmetics shops, designer sunglasses stores, and high-end fashion at Hermès, Longchamps, and Cartier, close to docks lined with yachts. (If you’re looking for something a little more Caribbean, a waterfront market with local handicrafts is close by.)
A mix of glam and outdoorsy charms, this 135-acre green spot is nestled on the flanks of Pic Paradis, St. Martin’s highest point. Pick your pleasure. On one hand, you can hike into the forest of mahogany, gum, and mango trees, or zipline through the treetops. But if you’re looking for a more supine afternoon, they also offer a spring-fed pool, lined with cabanas, available for rent, and relaxation and cocktails delivered right to your cushy side.
Small, but notably so, this beach can only accommodate two sunbathers at a time. The “smallest beach on St. Martin,” it’s wedged into an incomparable stretch of coastline, wedged between rocky buttresses.
A crescent (or, if you will, croissant)-shaped town, this just may be St. Martin’s culinary capital. It’s the best of both worlds—French-trained chefs, cooking up their finest delicacies with the freshest ingredients, drawn from the sea, right here. Dine with a view at L’Effet Mer or Calmos Café, or at one of the very informal “lolos,” a series of open-air grills, which serve up local chicken, ribs, and seafood, the aromas wafting everywhere, and the temptation, irresistible.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.