St. Maarten/St. Martin – a local’s guide to the friendly island – The Traveling Island Girl
If you are planning a trip to or you are about to travel or move to St. Maarten/Saint Martin, this article will prove quite useful to you.
You most probably already researched Instagram extensively for cool spots to visit, you may have even Googled the island for fun facts and must-sees and do’s. By now you know the island is known for its famous “airport beach” and that it is part Dutch and part French.
But I am here to give you the local scoop (in an as honestly as possible way) on my beloved St. Maarten/St. Martin.
St. Maarten has been and continues to be my home for 18 years. I may have not been born here but I am damn well proud to be a part of it and love that I have chosen this little paradise to be my forever home (and that the community has completely accepted me as their own).
So, let’s get the important facts out of the way. These are the most important things you need to know to better prepare yourself for your trip to St. Maarten/St. Martin and I have even added a few things to avoid doing or saying while you’re here.
The island is the smallest landmass in the world to be shared by two different nations, Dutch and French. St. Maarten/St. Martin is only 37 square miles. The Dutch part is 16 square miles and the French side 21 but the largest part of the population lives on the Dutch side (about 55%). The island enjoys an open border so there are no border controls and thus no need to show your passport anywhere other than the airport.
Although quite close in proximity, St. Maarten/St.Martin is NOT part of the Virgin islands, a common mistake made by many, undoubtedly because of the name starting with “Saint”.
Sint Maarten (St. Maarten) is the Dutch name for the island while the French call it Saint Martin (St. Martin). There is no “s” at the end of the name and there is no other way of spelling it.
Honestly, it is a little annoying when we hear or see the island being called St. Maartens, St. Marteen, Saint Marteen, or any other variation of the name. Please just stick to either Sint Maarten or Saint Martin.
The official currency of Dutch St. Maarten is the Antillean Guilder also known as the Naf.(Netherlands Antilles Florins), while the Euro is the official currency of French St. Martin. But before you run to the exchange kiosk, the US Dollar or “American Money” as I heard visitors call it, is accepted everywhere on the island. So, there is no need to walk with three different currencies in your wallet.
Because the Antillean guilder is the official currency on the Dutch side, it is mandatory for all grocery stores, etc. to have their prices listed in this currency. In the supermarkets you will see the amounts in Guilders first, followed by the amount in USD in small print underneath. The exchange rate has been holding steady for years at 1.8 Naf to 1 USD. On a side note, most restaurants and bars and other activities will have their prices listed in USD only but must accept the Naf.
On the French side the Euro is king and although the US Dollar is accepted here, I do suggest you ask what exchange rate is used at the restaurants and shops you visit before purchasing. I always check my Currency Converter App prior to visiting the French side, to make sure I am not taken advantage of. It is not unheard of for shop owners to throw an extra 10 to 15 percent on top of the current exchange rate, but definitely make sure it is not more than that.
Tipping here is not mandatory but is definitely encouraged and is the usual 15% to 20%. Some restaurants include it in the bill but I have found that most of these restaurants do not actually give it to the staff, at least not the entire amount.
Tipping is less popular on the French side but because of tourism even the French have come to look forward to a little extra change at the end of their service to you.
Since we are on the topic of tipping, locals, the French and the Dutch are known in general to be amongst the worse tippers. In case you’re here to work in the hospitality industry.
Ask any local and they will tell you that there are barely any true St. Maarteners left on the island. St. Maarten/St. Martin is a melting pot of over 100 different nationalities. From South Africans and Australians to Dominicans and Jamaicans, there are so many different nationalities here that have made St. Maarten/St. Martin home, and have mixed with “true” St. Maarteners thus diluting the original islanders. This is also why it is very hard to tell you what the true culture of the island is.
So, when someone tells you they are local, take that with grain of salt. Most “locals” are not born here, yours truly included. At the same time just because they are black does not make them local. There are quite some white families, whose ancestries date back to over 150 years.
Here is a bit of really good news: St. Maarten is a duty-free port, which means that no duty is paid on any items coming in, making St. Maarten a shopping haven, especially when it comes to liquor, tobacco and jewelry.
Obviously French is the official language on the French side (English and French Creole is spoken by the French side locals) but when it comes to the Dutch side things are a bit more complicated. The official language (at least on official papers) is Dutch, but the majority of the population does not speak it. English is the spoken language on Dutch St. Maarten.
Since we are on the topic, here are some things you should know. I cannot tell you how many times we are approached by visitors who tell us “oh goodness, your accent is so cute”. Remember that when you’re here, YOU are the one with the funny accent.
Our English is the so called St. Maarten English, not to be confused with the Trinidadian English or the Jamaican English. So, definitely do not use it here. This is St. Maarten/St. Martin, not Jamaica. We have our own common phrases here.
This of course is on everyone’s mind when traveling to any Caribbean island. Yes, there is crime here, just like anywhere else in the world. Keep your valuables safe by not leaving them in your rental car, avoid going off the beaten path by yourself, don’t go for long walks on the beach at night and above all else trust your gut and be smart.
Now that you are properly informed on the island’s most important facts, let me give you the inside scoop to some other, not so popular facts about St. Maarten/St. Martin.
The power of Hello
We are called the friendly island for a reason. St. Maarteners are very hospitable people and understand the importance of tourism. BUT, should you encounter a rude local person, it may have more to do with the fact that you did not say hello when you entered their shop or asked them a question.
Not saying good morning, good afternoon or good evening when you enter a shop or before you address a person here (as well as in the rest of the Caribbean) is considered extremely rude. We understand that in the US and Canada this is not common practice, but to use the popular quote from the Wizard of Oz, “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore”.
Beware of the “Wannabe Local”
If you want to know about which local restaurant to eat at, or which bar to visit, it is best to ask someone who has been living here for at least a few years. There are a lot of so called “wannabe locals”, people who are here just a few months each year and that think they know everything there is to know about the island. The majority of these “pretty much locals” have been visiting year after year but also tend to go to the same places every time they visit. The usual “tourists traps” are their preferred hangouts and the most local places they’ll frequent is usually owned by expats. Fact is that if you want a true local experience, which more and more travelers are going for nowadays, ask someone who has been actually living here for some years. Unless of course you enjoy the “tourist traps”. Hey, I’m not judging.
Best time to visit
One more thing a lot of potential visitors want to know is when the best time is to visit St. Maarten/St. Martin. I personally like the months of May and June best. Things have began to settle down a little by then and the island is a less busy, the weather is not too hot yet, hotel and car rental prices are lower and you are two months away from the height of the hurricane season. Please note though that the official hurricane season starts in June.
The famous Maho Beach
We, locals try to avoid this place like the plague. Although beautiful, the beach is often rough and because of this the stretch of sand may sometimes be quite small or not there at all. It is also the most crowded beach on the island, especially around the times when the larger planes are arriving and departing.
The jet blast is strong and causes sand to fly everywhere. I don’t know about you but I do not exactly enjoy a sandy drink.
There are signs everywhere cautioning you to not hang onto the fence behind a departing plane. There is a reason for this. You can lose your grip and fall backwards and hit your head, which happened to an unlucky visitor who died a few years back or you can irreparably damage your camera and other valuables when you are pushed backwards into the water.
No more Irma talk, please
Hurricane Irma is so last season and we locals are tired of talking about it. We are done relating our horror stories again and again about how we survived the storm and what the immediate aftermath was like. Most of us are still suffering from PTSD due to the big bad bitch called Irma. There are still some destroyed buildings and overturned boats here and there, but there is more beauty than destruction. So please try to focus on the positive rather than the negative when you’re here, and for F’s sake stop asking if the island is ready for visitors. September of 2019 (at the time of writing) makes it two years ago. TWO YEARS! Isn’t it about time we all focus on something else?
Speaking of hurricanes, you might make a note that hurricane season is from June to November, with September and October counting as the months with the most storm activity. It is common in these two months for some restaurants, hotels and other businesses to close, while the owners take a much needed break.
The infamous St. Maarten traffic
As much as I would love to focus only on the good about the island there is one thing I just cannot fail to mention and that is the traffic.
St. Maarten’s traffic can be bad. Unfortunately this is one truth I just cannot omit. I wish I could. It can take you a while to travel from the airport to town for instance .
A major cause for the traffic is the two bridges that open to accommodate the yachts and sailboats from entering and exiting the lagoon. Get your hands on the bridge schedule so you know what time to avoid being on the road. I can tell you that in season the traffic is at its worse between 8:30am and 10 am and between 3pm and 6:30pm but it is much less in the summer months. Events such as the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta in March and Carnival in April can cause the traffic to worsen.
St. Maarten/St. Martin offers 37 beaches to enjoy. The most famous is of course the Maho beach where one can see the planes land, but equally popular is the Mullet Bay beach on the Dutch side and Orient Beach on the French side. This is where the Nudist resort used to be, by the way, but it is considerably less crowded nowadays after the hurricane.
If you are like me and you want a less crowded beach, check out the beach at Grand Case, Baie Rouge, Plum Bay, Long Bay and Happy Bay. Sunday is a popular beach day, which will make any beach more visited than usual. Mullet bay beach is a must. Go during the week when it tends to be less crowded.
Click here for my favorite 5 beaches on the island.
This island I call home is foodie heaven. Because of the many nationalities here, we have restaurants from a wide variety of nations like Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, French, Korean, Lebanese to name a few. Check out the Grand Case Boulevard for some truly amazing dining experiences. Other gourmet spots are located in Marigot, the Simpson Bay strip and the Cupecoy area. There is something for everyone and every budget.
I think I have touched on most of the important facts of my little island paradise. If you are planning to visit, we cannot wait to welcome you. If you are considering St. Maarten/St. Martin, what are you waiting for? Stop procrastinating and just come on down already. There are so many flights directly from Paris, Amsterdam, Charlotte, New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Panama City and more. Getting here is relatively easy and from what I understand, not too expensive. It costs more for us to leave than it is for you to visit, honestly.
Just remember once you’re here that things run differently than in your home country. Although there is always room for improvement, it would be unfair to compare things or to make fun of or disrespect our ways.
If you are planning to visit, you can now hire me as your personal island tour guide or island concierge. This offer is only available for a limited time. Just complete the below form if you’re interested.
As always I hope you continue to Live. Love and Travel.
The Traveling Island Girl
*The above is based on my personal opinions and experiences and is not meant to insult or offend anyone.