The beach on the Dutch side of the island, St. Maarten // © 2010 St. Maarten Tourist Bureau
If your clients like variety, send them to the island of St. Maarten-St. Martin, where during a single getaway they will get equal measures of Dutch and French Caribbean culture. The 37-square-mile island is under both Dutch and French rule, and each side of the island has a distinct ambiance of its own.
The Dutch side, St. Maarten, has plenty of newbuilds and a thriving atmosphere for business. About 60 percent of the hotel inventory on the Dutch side of the island is timeshare. The Dutch side is also where clients will find the major venues for casino gaming and nightlife.
The Dutch capital of Philipsburg offers duty-free shopping in a cosmopolitan atmosphere, with many boutiques and stores staying open until 11 p.m. When the shops close, there are lots of options, since St. Maarten’s nightlife activities include 14 casinos and numerous nightclubs.
On the French side of the island, St. Martin, there are more traces of colonial-era architecture and a greater emphasis on cuisine and the fine art of relaxation. In Grand Case, the culinary center of the French side, visitors will find sophisticated boutiques and restaurants, but fans of local fare will enjoy the numerous outdoor barbecue grills overlooking the beach, where hearty island cooking costs about $10 a plate.
Marigot is the capital of the French side of the island, and it is easy to discover on foot, since most of it is concentrated in a handful of square blocks. Visitors will see lots of classic Caribbean architecture featuring tin roofs and decorative scroll woodwork. Al fresco restaurants lining the marina offer attractive options for lunch or dinner. The Marigot food market is a popular attraction — clients should time a visit on Wednesdays and Saturdays when the market is busiest. Adjacent to the market, clients can catch the ferry to the island of Anguilla and St. Barths.
During a recent visit, I found it to be a seamless transition between the Dutch and French sides of the island. There are no security checks or border crossings. U.S. dollars are accepted on both sides of the island and, often, I found stores that would accept dollars and Euros at equal value, which was a good deal for Americans. Both sides of the island have much in common, including outstanding shopping, brilliant beaches and lots of choices for accommodations.
“Tourism really began to take off in St. Maarten in the mid-1960s,” said Fabian Charbonnier, sales manager for the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau. “This had the benefit of curtailing the need for St. Maarten’s citizens to seek work on other islands, in particular, the Dominican Republic.”
According to Fabian, most visitors rent a car during their vacation, which averages to about $540 a week. Cars drive on the right side of the road, which makes it a less stressful experience for visitors from the U.S. As travelers explore the island by car, they will drive through a green, hilly landscape offering views of small islands off the coast.
If travelers have flexibility in their travel dates, they should book a visit to St. Maarten-St. Martin during the Carnival season. The festival is held on both sides of the island but on different dates. Carnival is celebrated as a pre-Lenten festival on the French side, culminating on Ash Wednesday each year. On the Dutch side, Carnival is held after Easter, offering visitors a second opportunity to enjoy the festivities. Carnival is celebrated with parades, colorful costumes and dancing in the streets. A center of activities is Festival Village, located on the outskirts of Philipsburg and constructed especially for Carnival.
Another advantage for travelers is the St. Maarten Bucks promotion. During the summer and winter months, it’s customary for hotels to offer discounted rates of up to 30 percent, while also adding up to a $100 in St. Maarten Bucks (vouchers) per room, per night. These vouchers can be used as cash at a long list of participating restaurants, spas, shops, casinos, attractions and car rental companies.