A local’s ultimate guide to visiting St. Martin, an island in the Caribbean

A local’s ultimate guide to visiting St. Martin, an island in the Caribbean

  • I’ve lived on St. Martin/St. Maarten for 20 years, and I’m sharing the best things on the island.
  • Tourists should visit Rainforest Adventures, Seaside Nature Park, and Tintamarre island. 
  • They should eat and drink at Emilio’s, Come y Calla, Freedom Fighters Ital Shack, and Sunset Café.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

St. Martin/St. Maarten is often referred to as “one island, two nations” because it’s separated by its French and Dutch sides. But to me, it’s simply home. 

I wasn’t born on the island, but I adopted St. Maarten as my home 20 years ago, and sharing it with the world has become one of my favorite hobbies. 

To take you beyond the beautiful beaches and near-perfect weather the island is known for, I’ve compiled a list of must-see sites and identified some of the best places to stay, visit, and eat.

Things to know before you go

shot of the sign at the border of the french side of st. martin

The French side of the border in St. Martin.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


  • COVID-19 PROTOCOL FOR ST. MAARTEN (DUTCH SIDE): As of Monday, an RT-PCR COVID-19 test is required within 72 hours of departure if you’re traveling from a high-risk country or the US and Canada. Alternatively, an antigen test taken within 48 hours of departure is also accepted. Travelers arriving from a changing list of low-risk countries are exempted from the tests. All travelers arriving by air must purchase mandatory COVID-19 health insurance and complete the online health form. 
  • COVID-19 PROTOCOL FOR ST. MARTIN (FRENCH SIDE): As of Wednesday, travelers coming from a changing list of countries deemed “green” and “orange” must provide a PCR test within 72 hours of departure or an antigen test within 48 hours of departure. People coming from “red” countries must provide a PCR or antigen test within 48 hours.
  • CURRENCY: The Dutch side’s official currency is the Netherlands Antilles florin, and the euro is the official currency on the French side. The US dollar is also accepted islandwide. Credit cards are accepted in most businesses, but some smaller places take only cash. Most businesses don’t accept American Express.
  • WEATHER: Conditions change with the seasons. December, January, and February are known to have a little chill in the air, especially at night, and the rainy season runs from the end of May to the end of November with the highest rainfalls in July and August. The official hurricane season also starts on June 1 and ends on November 30, with the peak month being September.
  • WALKABILITY: The island is not walkable, and it’s best explored by car. You can get a rental for as little as $40 per day. There is also some public transportation available.
  • BORDERS: The border between the Dutch and French sides of the island is open with no passport checks. 

Where to stay

The exterior of L'Esplanade Hotel.

L’Esplanade Hotel.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Le Petit Hotel is perfect for tourists looking for ocean views

If you’re staying in the charming fishing village of Grand Case, I’d recommend booking at Le Petit Hotel.

Each one of the beachfront boutique hotel’s 10 rooms faces the sea and has a balcony where guests can view planes landing and magical sunsets.

The hotel offers a free shuttle service to the village center and the famous restaurant row of Grand Case. Guests staying at Le Petit can also use the amenities available at its sister hotel, L’Esplanade.

Nightly rates range from about $305 to $755 a night depending on the type of room and the time of year. 

Tip: Le Petit Hotel is offering a 20% discount on all room types until December 19. Breakfast is complimentary, and you can get a free 30-minute massage with reservations of three nights or more.

The exterior of Le Petit Hotel.

Le Petit Hotel.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Hotel L’Esplanade is the sister property of Le Petit Hotel

Hotel L’Esplanade, another beautiful boutique hotel in Grand Case, just happens to be the sister property of Le Petit.

Set in the hills overlooking the bay of Grand Case, L’Esplanade offers 24 beautiful suites, each with its own large balcony.

There’s a pool with a swim-up bar (ask Alan the bartender to make you his famous TGV cocktail) and an on-site spa offering massages and treatments. The hotel’s temple, located next to the pool, also offers complimentary yoga classes

The average nightly rate here is $400, but prices range from $265 to $625 a night depending on the room type and time of year. 

Tip: L’Esplanade is closed due to the pandemic, but it is set to reopen in November. 

A swim-up bar at the pool at L'Esplanade.

L’Esplanade Hotel.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Be close to all the action at the Atrium Beach Resort

On the Dutch side, within walking distance of some of the island’s most popular hangouts and restaurants, is the Atrium Beach Resort and Spa.

It might not be as large or popular as some of the other hotels in Pelican Key, but it’s certainly a great spot for those who want to be near the action of the popular Simpson Bay strip and Kimsha Beach.

Rates range from about $109 to $379 a night depending on the type of room and time of year. 

Tip: Book a hair appointment with Miguel and a spa appointment with John at the hotel’s spa and hair salon.

The Beach House St. Maarten is an Airbnb right on the water 

For a more private experience on the beach, the one-bedroom Beach House St. Maarten is the ideal Airbnb for couples or solo travelers.

It’s right on the Simpson Bay beach, which means it’s close to grocery stores and the restaurants and bars on the Simpson Bay strip 

The average rate for the rental is $231 a night. 

Tip: Book early. This beachside lodging is very popular, and it’s often booked months in advance.

Two chairs under a palm tree on the patio of the beach house.

The Beach House.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Get the full St. Maarten tourist experience at Pasture Piece

For a truly local experience and unique stay, Pasture Piece bed and breakfast is the best choice.

Located in the valley of the St. Peters area, not too far from Rainforest Adventures, the century-old island house was converted into a bed and breakfast by the granddaughter of its original owners.

It comes with a list of modern-day amenities — like a stocked fridge, Wi-Fi, and a smart TV — all in an old-world atmosphere. 

The price per night at Pasture Piece starts at about $100, and there’s a two-night minimum.

Tip: Don’t skip out on the traditional St. Maarten breakfast in the morning. You should also ask Natasha (the owner) to give you a tour of the on-site museum.

The exterior of Pasture Piece.

Pasture Piece.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Things to do and see  

Grand Case Bay in St. Martin.

Grand Case Bay.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Watch the planes land over the Maho Beach

No visit to St. Maarten is complete without a stop at the famous Maho Beach to experience the low-landing planes — and, of course, to snap an iconic photo.

Visit the airport’s website before going to the beach, and check the arrivals of the day to find out when the bigger planes are scheduled to land.

Tip: Standing behind the planes at takeoff can be dangerous, especially if you’re right at the airport fence. Stay alert and safe.

Onlookers reach up toward airplanes flying low over Maho Beach in St. Martin.

Planes landing over Maho Beach.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Take a day trip to a neighboring island

St. Martin/St. Maarten has some beautiful neighbors, three of which you can reach easily by ferry: Anguilla, St. Barth, and Saba.

Each island is so different and unique, and the public ferries leave from both the Dutch and French sides of the island.

Check the entry requirement for the island you want to visit before booking your day trip. Some of these islands are open only to those who are fully vaccinated. 

Tip: A day trip to any of these three islands is still international travel, so don’t forget to bring your passport. 

Discover the island’s colorful and expressive street art

Ever since the last big hurricane in 2017, there’s been an explosion of new street art by local artists all over the island.

Colorful and expressive, each mural is more artistic than the next.

The art has covered the capitals on both sides of the island, Marigot and Philipsburg, as well as the fishing village of Grand Case.

Tip: Download the Philipsburg art-walk map via the Be the Change Foundation’s “Color Me SXM” project, which contains the stories behind different murals and information on the artists.

A woman taking a selfie points toward a mural on the street in Philipsburg.

Street art in Philipsburg.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


For an active day, hike to some lesser-known spots

Hiking has become quite popular in recent years. Wherever you’re staying, there are equally beautiful hiking trails on both sides of the island.

There are plenty of spots to venture to, including a natural pool, the peaks of Pic Paradis, and even hidden beaches.

Tip: Check out Seagrape Tours for the best guided hikes.

Fly down the steepest zip line in the world

Rainforest Adventures is known for having the steepest zip line in the world.

Its Flying Dutchman attraction flings brave tourists down a 2,800-foot zip line with a 1,050-foot elevation change past stunning views. 

After you’re done with the adrenaline-pumping activities, take the chair lift to the observation deck on Sentry Hill and enjoy 360-degree views of the island while you sip on a beverage from the bar. 

Tip: The park hosts Sunset Views (weather permitting), which are must-try happy hours on the top deck with a DJ and cocktails. 

A woman stands on deck at Rainforest Adventure in St. Martin.

Rainforest Adventures.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Meet some new furry friends and take a beachfront horseback ride at Seaside Nature Park

For animal lovers, Seaside Nature Park is a must-visit.

Besides the Discovery Farm, where young and old can see animals like minigoats, pigs, and donkeys, the park also offers horseback-riding lessons, trails, beach rides, and private rides.

Tip: Ask about the romantic Sunset Champagne Ride.

Book a ‘gourmet’ sailing experience

There are several boating and snorkel cruises on St. Maarten, but the Pyratz gourmet sailing tour stands out.

You can opt for a sunset cruise or a full-day cruise, complete with water-sport gear, an open bar, a four-course lunch, snacks, and top-notch service.

The boat offers a variety of itineraries, but you can also customize your own. 

Tip: Let Allison and Max know of your dietary preferences ahead of your cruise, and make sure to try Allison’s famous cocktails.

Spend the day on an uninhabited island

Just about 2 miles off the shore of French St. Martin is the uninhabited island of Tintamarre, also known as Flat Island.

It’s less than half a square mile and has one of the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen. Tintamarre is particularly popular for snorkeling and turtle sightings.

Hop on the private ferry leaving from Cul de Sac in French St. Martin, any time from 8 a.m and 6 p.m., weather permitting. The ferry ride is about 20 minutes and costs €18 (about $22) per person.

Tip: Bring your walking shoes and explore the island’s diverse landscape and unspoiled nature.

Where to eat and drink

A bartender handing a drink to a customer at 978 Sanctorum.

978 Sanctorum.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Stop by Emilio’s after you’re done zip-lining for the day

Located at the bottom of the Rainforest Adventures is Emilio’s, one of the island’s best fine-dining restaurants.

Its slogan is “Dine With History,” and that’s exactly the kind of experience you can expect here. The restaurant was built in an old sugar-cane boiler house from the 17th century.

The food is an exquisite Caribbean fusion, and the owners, Su and Norman, have done a marvelous job capturing the essence of the island’s history in the decor.

Emilio’s is open for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday and for brunch on Sundays.

Tip: If you are looking for a more intimate setting, ask to dine in the wine cellar. It holds up to 12 people and has its own bar. 

The wine cellar at Emilio's Restaurant.

Emilio’s restaurant.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Stop in for tapas and a drink at Balls & Wine

In Cole Bay, not far from the Simpson Bay strip, you’ll find the best tapas and wine bar on the island.

Balls & Wine may have a bit of an unusual name, but it serves delicious entrees, tapas, martinis, and wines. It’s particularly known for its tacos and tuna pizetta.

Tip: Bottles of wine are half off on Wednesdays. But it’s a popular night, so it’s best to make a reservation. 

Interior of table at Balls and Wine restaurant St. Martin.

Balls & Wine.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Eat at Taloula Mango’s and make sure to check out the Blue Bitch Bar upstairs

Easily one of the best-known lunch spots on the boardwalk in Philipsburg, Taloula Mango’s Caribbean Café and its Blue Bitch Bar are run by the same owners as Emilio’s.

The restaurant just debuted a new lunch menu and reintroduced some of its all-time bestsellers, like the Gouda stick.

The Blue Bitch Bar upstairs has a great happy hour on Fridays, featuring well-known cocktails like the Guavaberry Colada. 

Tip: Blue Bitch Bar sells merchandise, like shirts and hats, with its logo. 

Exterior of Taloula Mango's in St. Martin.

Taloula Mango’s.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Check out the French dining at Le P’tit Bistro

The Orient Bay Village is a fun spot filled with many inviting restaurants. One of my personal favorites is Le P’tit Bistro.

Not only does it offer great cocktails and phenomenal service, but its mostly French menu is also beyond delicious. 

Tip: The restaurant is well known for its fresh fish. Try the tuna tartar served with homemade potatoes. 

L’Auberge Gourmande serves up French-Caribbean fusion

One of the best spots on the famous restaurant row in Grand Case is L’Auberge Gourmande.

It’s one of the most well-known restaurants in an area, serves sublime French cuisine with a Caribbean twist, and is located inside an old Creole house.

Tip: The restaurant is quite popular, so reservations are definitely recommended. 

A sign reading L'Auberge Gourmande above a small table.

L’Auberge Gourmande.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


For a quicker meal, track down the Come y Calla food truck

This food truck’s name basically translates to “eat and shut up” and it’s located on the corner of Union Road in Cole Bay next to the Causeway Bridge. 

Come y Calla is well known for its unique Caribbean-Mexican fusion food, especially its famous plantain nachos and oxtail burritos.

Tip: Ask the chef about the made-to-order tarts.

Freedom Fighters Ital Shack provides the ultimate Rastafarian dining experience

Freedom Fighters Ital Shack is a colorful place near Philipsburg.

Ital food is typically associated with the Jamaican Rastafarian movement, and all the organic and vegan foods and fresh juices at the shack are made by the owners, Ras Bushman and his wife.

Freedom Fighters is open for breakfast and lunch Sunday through Friday, and its menu uses only ingredients found on the island. 

Tip: Ask Bushman about the herbs he grows in his organic farm on the hills behind the shack. 

Get a delicious meal with even better views at Sunset Café

The best way to describe eating a meal at Sunset Café is “views for days.”

Located in the Grand Case Beach Club on Petite Plage, a small enclave next to Grand Case beach, the restaurant is a phenomenal spot for a long French lunch.

While you enjoy the food and rosé, you can also take in all the views of the beach below. 

It’s best to pop in on Thursday through Sunday when the restaurant is open until 9 p.m. instead of 3 p.m.

Tip: Ask to have lunch on the beach. The hotel’s guests have the first pick of the lounge chairs, but if available, diners can rent one with an umbrella and get service from the restaurant straight to their spot in the sand. 

A plate of lunch on a seaside table at Sunset Cafe in St. Martin.

Sunset Café.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Experience some local flair at Yvette’s Kitchen

Located in an authentic island house in the French Quarter, Yvette’s Kitchen is one of the best local restaurants on the island.

You can eat in the converted dining room, which apparently used to be the living room of the house Yvette herself used to live in.

The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner and is closed on Wednesdays.

Tip: Order the Conch Yvette as an appetizer and get it with a side order of mini johnnycakes. 

Server bringing meals at Yvette's Kitchen in St. Martin.

Yvette’s Kitchen.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Stop in for dinner and live entertainment at 978 Sanctorum

One of the most distinctive experiences you can have in St. Martin is at 978 Sanctorum in Rambaud.

The villa’s owners, Angèle and Fritz, make their home public from Wednesday nights to Sunday and host themed nights like Jazzy Fridays and Caribbean Saturdays. But nothing beats their Creole brunch on Sundays. 

Tip: Ask about the flavored cigars and the beach parties on Friar’s Bay.

Interior of 978 Sanctorum in St. Martin.

978 Sanctorum.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


Final tips before your trip

Sun setting over Le Petit Hotel in St. Martin.

Sunset at Le Petit Hotel.

Riselle Celestina for Insider


  • Do an island tour the first full day before making all your plans. You might find new restaurants or activities to add to your list. Most taxis offer half-day or full-day island tours.
  • Consider visiting in May or June. The island is less crowded during these so-called “shoulder season” months. The weather is still relatively mild, and prices begin to drop in anticipation of the low season.
  • Prices are typically lowest in the summer. But make sure you get travel insurance in case you find yourself canceling your trip last minute because of a storm or hurricane. Keep in mind that some hotels and restaurants close for a month or two in the low season.
  • The island is quite safe, but crime does happen. Never keep your valuables in the car, and as romantic as a night stroll on the beach sounds, it might not be a good idea. 
  • Don’t forget to pack reef-safe sunscreen and mosquito repellents. Mosquitoes are an unavoidable nuisance in the Caribbean, especially in the rainy season. 
  • Alcohol and cigarettes are cheaper here because of the island’s duty-free status. If you are thinking of purchasing liquor to take home with you, note that only two bottles per checked bag are allowed on the plane. 
  • The island’s supermarkets are very well stocked with products from the Netherlands, France, and the US. Even if you’re following a special diet, you’ll likely find what you need.
  • Marijuana is not legal on Dutch St. Maarten. It’s part of the Dutch kingdom, but legalized marijuana doesn’t extend to the island.
  • Double-check the schedule for bridge openings to avoid traffic jams. They’re especially prevalent during yachting season (November to April), and you can find the exact times on the Port of St. Maarten website.

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