Things to do in Sint Maarten
It’s 10 am, and after a leisurely breakfast, you’re soaking in the rays on a secluded Dutch beach. Feeling fully sun-kissed, from here you might hop over to the French hillsides for an invigorating hike through the rainforest. The end of the day promises a drool-worthy encounter with Michelin-star, Caribbean-inspired haute cuisine. How is this medley of rich cultural experiences possible? Say hello to Saint Martin / Sint Maarten—a tiny, verdant Caribbean island where two very diverse European nations coexist. The north is the French side (Saint Martin), a bastion of decadent cuisine and gay-popular nude beaches. The cosmopolitan south is Sint Maarten, a territory of Netherlands Antilles where you’ll discover the island’s most vibrant gay-friendly bars and clubs. An open border makes it easy to effortlessly hop back and forth to discover the best of it all. And while we would be remiss if we didn’t note the catastrophic destruction caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017, the always-alluring island has largely recovered and is ready to welcome travellers to her sparkling azure waters and blinding white sand beaches once more.
The best beaches on Saint Martin / Sint Maarten
With 37 distinct beaches, you don’t have to venture far on SXM to stumble upon a picture-perfect sandy spot. From secluded coves to lively bar-lined stretches, each of the island’s beaches has a palpable uniqueness to it. Start at Cupecoy Beach, a semi-private nude beach closed in by dramatic limestone cliffs and punctuated by small shady caves. Yes, the beach is rocky, and the waves can also be rough, but the middle of Cupecoy Beach doubles as a friendly, open-minded LGBT hangout spot made even better by the rum punches from Dany’s Beach Bar. Another institution for the gay Saint Martin / Sint Maarten community is Happy Bay (Anse Heureuse). Follow a 15-minute footpath from Friar’s Bay to arrive at this hidden gem, still unknown by many SXM tourists. Part of this beach’s charm is its lack of amenities, so bring your own food and drink. Then there’s Anse Marcel Beach with its panoramic views to Anguilla. Come here for gentle waves ideal for paddle boarding or kayaking; a nearby beach club rents chairs and umbrellas if you want to make a day of it.
With lively restaurants, powdery white sand, and calm, turquoise water, it’s easy to see why Orient Bay is a beloved spot for both tourists and locals alike
In stark contrast to the island’s hidden beaches, Orient Bay is a long-time fan favourite on French Saint Martin. With lively restaurants, powdery white sand, and calm, turquoise water, it’s easy to see why Orient Bay is a beloved spot for both tourists and locals alike. Head to the south side for the nude/LGBT-popular section. Over in Sint Maarten, Great Bay lies parallel to Philipsburg (the area’s main boardwalk and shopping street.) You’ll likely have to share Great Bay with cruise ship day-trippers, but the beach is still gorgeous (and just steps away from the riveting heart of the Dutch colonial downtown.) Of course, no mention of Saint Martin / Sint Maarten is complete without Maho Bay. This iconic beach is where Instagrammers flock to photograph planes flying low overhead on their way into the Princess Juliana International Airport. It’s undoubtedly touristy—and yet it remains an undeniable Saint Martin must-do.
What to see in Saint Martin / Sint Maarten
Part of the allure of Saint Martin / Sint Maarten is its paradisiacal Caribbean locale, and one of the best ways to appreciate the island’s shimmering cerulean waters and vibrant coral reefs is via a catamaran tour. There are many tours to choose from, but most involve an open bar, snorkelling, swimming with turtles, and all around laid-back vibes. Captain Alan’s boat tours depart from the French side and always come highly recommended. Another must-visit in the area is Saba, Sint Maarten’s sister-island that’s earned the moniker: “Unspoiled Queen.” This Queen might very well be the most fabulous island you’ve never heard of, with an openly gay commissioner and director of tourism lobbying for same-sex marriage legalisation. Come for first-rate diving in the Saba Marine Park and adrenaline-pumping hikes inland. Slightly easier to access is Pinel Island, a teeny-tiny nearby island accessible via kayak and popular for its al fresco restaurants serving freshly caught lobster and secluded, iguana-laden northern shore. If you’re not up for a kayaking expedition, ferries also run between the two islands.
This Queen might very well be the most fabulous island you’ve never heard of, with an openly gay commissioner and director of tourism lobbying for same-sex marriage legalisation
When you’ve had enough of the sand and sea, head inland to explore SXM’s lush rainforest at Loterie Farm. A 300-year-old plantation tucked away in the Pic Paradis hillside, expect a combination of chic treehouse cabins, posh pool parties, and extreme zip lining. Whether you come for one of Loterie Farm’s epic events or simply to seek solitude hiking along its many trails, the expansive nature preserve delivers a unique way to experience the island’s tropical forest.
The best hotels in Saint Martin / Sint Maarten
LTC Beach Hotel is a chic boutique with nine ultra-luxurious rooms—each of which boasts panoramic Caribbean sea views. The Creole design and architecture makes large use of natural materials with tasteful pops of colour to create a cosy yet elegant experience that’s perfectly befitting of its Caribbean home. LTC Beach Hotel has a delicious on-site restaurant, but its central home in Grand Case means you’ll only be a stone’s throw from the island’s top culinary experiences. Another SXM boutique hotel we can’t get enough of is Sol e Luna. Choose from one of six gorgeous Mediterranean-inspired suites, each uniquely decorated with local artistic touches and stocked with top-notch amenities. The Sol e Luna restaurant is highly popular both with guests and non-guests, claiming one of St Martin’s most extensive wine cellars. A serene tropical garden and private powdery white beach round out the experience. Finally, Villa Rainbow is St Martin’s only exclusively gay male guesthouse. Rooms are simple, but guests enjoy the sweeping sea views and ultra-hospitable hosts who go above and beyond to ensure a memorable gay Saint Martin / Sint Maarten vacation.
Shopping in Saint Martin / Sint Maarten
Travellers descend on Saint Martin / Sint Maarten in large part for its prized duty-free shopping. From high-couture fashion to jewellery, fragrances, and handicrafts, you’ll find a plethora of both independent boutiques and internationally renowned brands selling stylish essentials. Quaint and colourful Marigot is one of the best areas to explore, with a variety of beautiful shops and bistros conveniently located alongside one another. Keep an eye out for renowned brands like Jean Paul Gaultier, Gianfranco Ferre, and Vilebrequin. We also love 12 Kennedy Street, a wonderful concept store dedicated to promoting French brands that cultivate the art of living—and, even better, is curated exclusively for men.
There are plenty of cookie-cutter art shops around the island selling overpriced tourist kitsch. Skip these and head straight to Tropismes, a Fine Arts gallery run by artists Paul Elliott Thuleau, Nathalie Lepine and Patrick Poivre de La Freta. Tropismes exhibits original pieces and prints by the aforementioned artists, along with one-of-a-kind work by contemporary Caribbean talent. Another excellent spot is the Roland Richardson Gallery. An SXM native, Richardson’s 19th-century Creole home turned art gallery offers a mesmerizing look into his vast body of work that commemorates the raw beauty of Saint Martin / Sint Maarten.
Eating and drinking in Saint Martin / Sint Maarten
Dining in Saint Martin is a unique way to indulge in the best of French cuisine (without all the pretence of the mainland.) Many of the island’s most esteemed restaurants are part of Restaurant Row, located on famed foodie street Grand Case. Be sure to grab a seat at Le Pressoir for classical French cuisine in an intimate atmosphere. Named 2016’s Caribbean Restaurant of the Year, the extensive wine list is the best on the island, and the prix-fixe menu changes on a biweekly basis. Le Pressoir’s adjacent cigar and rum bar promise a foolproof nightcap to a decadent meal. Also on Restaurant Row is Ocean 82, a contemporary ocean-view establishment with lovely vistas of Creole Rock and nearby Anguilla. Book a table at sunset to fully enjoy the scenery; you can’t go wrong with the lobster risotto or succulent beef tenderloin. Finally, take a break from all the fine dining with a visit to a lola, a quintessentially local experience. These casual eateries serve up local favourites like barbecue chicken, grilled lobster, and the island’s most beloved dessert: jonnycakes. Sky’s the Limit and Talk of the Town are two popular lolas in Grand Case, but you’ll find a smattering of these no-frills eateries all around. Look for the ones with the longest lines of locals.
Saint Martin / Sint Maarten might be small, but it doesn’t want for lively nightlife. L’Escargot is an island institution, easily distinguished by the kaleidoscope of colours decorating the 170-year Creole cottage. Come on a Friday night for SXM’s best drag and cabaret shows, a riotous good time that attracts all fun-loving souls. For something a bit more low-key, Rhythm’n Booze Wine Bar and Lounge is a casual spot for good conversation with events most nights of the week, including jazz on Mondays and men’s night on Fridays. The award for most beautiful bar and restaurant goes to Palapa Grill + Lounge, with its lush herb gardens, tropical terrace, turquoise sofas and vibrant red walls. The innovative craft cocktails live up to the intimate ambience. When you want to imbibe in style, this is the obvious choice. For a gay club, Club Eros is your only option, open on Saturday evenings. It’s a worthwhile stop to find out where the action is the rest of the week.
Photo: Shane Stagner
Photo: Jakob Owens
Maho Beach | Photo: Ramon Kagie
Photo: Rajvinder Singh
Photo: Alex Knight
Bar Leather Apron
LTC boutique hotel | Photo: Thierry Dehove
LTC Boutique Hotel