Steve Bennett, co-founder and editorial director of UncommonCaribbean.com // © 2016 Steve Bennett/ UncommonCaribbean.com
Feature image (above): The Dutch side of the island (St. Maarten) and the French side of the island (St. Martin) have two distinct personalities. // © 2016 Laurent Benoit
“Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don’t.” — the jingle from Almond Joy’s famous ’70s ad campaign — can also be applied to St. Maarten/St. Martin. Sometimes a traveler feels like the Dutch side of the island (St. Maarten), and sometimes they feel like the French side (St. Martin).
Whether clients choose St. Martin or St. Maarten for a vacation depends on what kind of Caribbean vacation they’re looking for. St. Martin is slower paced and has more traditional Caribbean traces, which are getting harder and harder to find. It will also feel more foreign to U.S. travelers, as the French side has more European features, including that French is widely spoken and the euro is the currency of choice.
St. Martin insider Steve Bennett, co-founder and editorial director of UncommonCaribbean.com, highlights some of the obvious differences between St. Martin and St. Maarten.
“For me, it all boils down to the vibe — the imminently authentic French-Creole sensibilities in French St. Martin is juxtaposed with the busier, more mass-tourism-focused Dutch side,” Bennett said. “In and around Philipsburg, Simpson Bay and other parts of the Dutch Side, I find the lean to be very much toward catering to tourists; the whole place seems to exist expressly for the enjoyment of visitors. On the French Side, things are more organic, with visitor attractions and hotels existing in concert with the local scene, not in spite of it.”
If clients are the self-drive type, they’ll find driving easier on the French side, as it has less traffic. This makes it easy for travelers to explore St. Martin’s countryside, as well as Marigot, its capital city, and smaller towns such as the former fishing village of Grand Case and the village of Colombier, which still has an abundance of Creole charm.
It’s often observed that European travelers are more accepting of hotels lacking in services and amenities. Some would-be visitors from the U.S. may wonder if hotels in St. Martin can deliver the level of services they’ve come to expect.
“Larger properties such as Hotel Riu Palace St. Martin are as full-service as any major all-inclusive in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic or Mexico,” Bennett said. “Some smaller boutique hotels, such as L’Esplanade and Le Petit Hotel, are owned by Americans who obviously know how to satisfy U.S. standards, as well.”
Visitors to St. Martin can also experience authentic Caribbean history. Heritage sites in Marigot include Fort Louis, commanding a strategic vantage point in Marigot Bay, and the stone Durat Bridge, both built in 1789. Aspects of St. Martin’s colonial past can be seen at the 18th-century Spring Sugar Mill and Saint Jean Plantation, where travelers can view the ruins of a sugar mill and refinery. History buffs can get an overview of the destination by touring Museum of Saint Martin in Marigot, which has exhibits chronicling the island’s history from its earliest settlers — South American nomads dating back to 3200 B.C. — up to present day.
“To get an immediate sense of the local scene on the French Side, such as nightlife, parties and upcoming events, have breakfast at Enoch’s Place on the waterfront in Marigot,” Bennett said. “The local gossip here is as hot as the bush tea, which I highly recommend with a breakfast saltfish Johnny cake.”
If clients are dedicated foodies, St. Martin’s Gallic-inspired Caribbean cuisine is sure to excite them.
“There are lots of great dining options on Restaurant Row in Grand Case, but you won’t enjoy a better meal than at Le Piment in Orient Bay,” Bennett said. “You’ll almost always find a line out the door there, and with good reason.”
For local food, Bennett recommends stopping at a “lolo” in Grand Case. Lolos are simple roadside or beachfront eateries serving traditional fare, much of it grilled or barbecued.
“The best of the lolos is undeniably Scooby’s,” Bennett said. “All lolos serve great food, but Scooby’s dishes carry rich, robust flavors the others simply can’t match.”
According to Bennett, the best Friday night party on the French Side goes down at Stachey’s Hut, a ramshackle roadside bar on the way to Cul-de-Sac. Originally from Dominica, the owner stocks his bar with a variety of wild bush rums infused with all manner of West Indian herbs, spices and, in some cases, insects.
“The experience is as wild as the drinks,” Bennett said. “And the smoky dance floor stays packed till the wee hours.”