Some say there are two sides to every story, and so it is with this tale. It's the story of a Caribbean island — St. Maarten/St. Martin — with two distinct personalities, but one common theme: If you want to have fun, and boatloads of it, come here, where the excitement is nonstop year-round.
At 37 square miles, it is the smallest island to be shared by two nations – Holland and France -- but it can serve a huge appetite for pleasure.
St. Maarten is decidedly Dutch, while St. Martin is most assuredly French. The Dutch territory is slightly smaller (16 square miles), but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in excitement -- especially if you're looking for glittering nightlife, gaming, dancing, outstanding resorts, native shows and special events.
But its attractions don't stop there. Philipsburg is the capital of St. Maarten and is noted for its duty-free shopping. Stores along Front Street, adjacent to the placid waters of Great Bay, and Back Street one block away, sell everything from fine jewelry to locally made handicrafts and clothing. Cruise ships call here in great numbers, docking at one of the most modern piers in the Caribbean, and give their guests an opportunity to soak up some vibrant Caribbean atmosphere -- with a little European touch -- as the island likes to boast.
The problem is, the cruise ships usually don't stay overnight, depriving their passengers of an opportunity to take part in an exceptional island vacation experience. There are more than enough hotels on both sides of the island for visitors who want to soak up the flavors of this Leeward Island. They range from lavish resorts, such as the Sonesta Maho Beach in Maho Bay, to small boutique hotels, such as Holland House on Front Street in downtown. In between there are family oriented hotels, such as Oyster Bay Resort, on the border between the Dutch and French side, and Great Bay, a newly remodeled resort right in Philipsburg.
The exciting news for travelers who like luxury at a reasonable price is that Sonesta Maho Beach is now an all-inclusive resort where one price nets you all the sparkling amenities. And it's in the center of activity, just near the airport. There's a great casino, disco and specialty shops and restaurants.
For many visitors, it seems more sensible to stay on the Dutch end of the island and sample the French-owned territory on day trips, though French hotels such as Grand Case, Le Meredien and L'Esplanade are very highly regarded.
In Marigot, the capital of St. Martin, you'll find boutiques filled with the latest fashions from Paris, the finest in French perfumes, exquisite jewelry and, of course, many restaurants majoring in delectable French cuisine. Grand Case, just a few miles north of Marigot, is famed for its street of restaurants specializing in every kind of fare imaginable and prepared in a variety of ways.
On the Dutch side, there's no better barbecue than Johnny's Under the Tree. This open-air eatery sits under a giant tree, and the ribs, chicken and lobster are slow-cooked over a monster-sized grill by Johnny himself. Parking is at a premium, but find a spot no matter what it takes. You'll understand why after you eat there.
Saturday is an especially good day to saunter over to Marigot. When the market along the waterfront opens, it is jammed with vendors hawking everything from fruit to wooden carvings to island music. Scattered among all the trappings of booths and tables are locals cooking tempting barbecued chicken, fish and beef on outdoor grills the size of small Volkswagens. But even with all the activity on market day, French St. Martin is considered more laidback than St. Maarten.
There is a time, however, when both sides come together for one big party — the annual Heineken Regatta, held the first weekend in March. The sailing event, which recently celebrated its 29th anniversary, began with a few local sailors competing in an around-the-island race just for the fun of it. At the end of the race, a few Heineken beers were thrown at them to make the tropical sun bearable. From that small beginning with no more than 12 boats began a tradition that's a signature event in the Caribbean and a regatta second only to Antigua Sailing Week. The difference, however, remains the same: the regatta's dominant theme — and motto — is still "Serious Fun."
There are still races held every day, with more than 260 boats in several classes competing in the three-day affair; but at the end of every day and into the wee hours, there is that commitment to serious fun!
"In the States and elsewhere, a lot of regattas are very serious," said Robbie Ferron of the St. Maarten Yacht Club. "Here it is very simple: You get up in the morning and go race. Then you go party. Then you go to sleep. Then you do it all over again."
The other themed event that draws raves from tourists and locals is The Netherlands Queen Beatrix birthday celebration that takes place every April 30. The festivities feature a massive parade with costumed characters similar to Rio's Carnaval, a battle of the bands competition and a huge carnival at the local park near Philipsburg. Get there early to find a spot along the parade route, which winds it way through the very narrow streets of the town.
If you find yourself in need of a few hours of relaxation, don't fret. There are several outstanding beaches around the island where you can kick back and work on your tan. Two of the best are Cupecoy and Orient Bay. Orient Bay is a clothing optional beach that is extremely popular with Europeans.
No matter which side you decide to visit, St. Maarten/St. Martin gives you two memorable ways to vacation for the price of one.