It is the smallest piece of land anywhere to be shared by two governments. Dutch St. Maarten is part of the Netherlands Antilles and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while French St. Martin is a commune of Guadeloupe, an overseas department of France. English is spoken island-wide, but you will also hear Papiamento, a blend of French, Creole, African, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch, reflecting the island's "visitors." On the French side, you'll hear a great deal of Creole.
Your ship docks in Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side. That's where you'll find 12 gambling casinos and great shopping. The French side is home to wonderful restaurants, popular beaches (including Orient Beach, which is clothing optional -- a traditional hit with day-tripping cruise passengers) and more duty-free goods including the ever-popular French perfume, leather goods, and more. Phone prefixes are 599 for the Dutch side, 0590 for the French. Marigot is the capital of the French portion of the island.
Very few of the approximately 800,000 cruise ship visitors who call at St. Martin each year leave unhappy. There's something for everyone here.
Shore excursions? Ships offer dozens of options, but you can easily do your own thing, from renting a motorbike (make sure you are insured) to touring an art gallery.
Car rentals include Chicky's Car Rental (www.chickyscarrental.com); Kenny's Car Rental (www.kennyscarrental.com), 888-686-1689; or Budget (www.budget.com, 599- 545-4030). Scooter and motorcycle rentals are available from Go Scoot (599-544-3233) and Harley Davidson (599-544-2704).
Sample taxi fares from Front Street in Philipsburg for two persons are approximately $20 each way to Orient Beach, Grand Case or Marigot on the French side of the island. It's still a good idea to get the price from the driver before you get in. Some drivers will arrange to pick you up when you're ready to return to the ship.
Take time out for lunch at any of the fine restaurants lining Front Street, or cab over to Marigot for a more French-accented meal. The island specializes in seafood, but also offers Chinese, Italian and Indonesian. On the Dutch side of St. Maarten, consider Mary's Boon, a seaside restaurant with local specialties, (599-545-4235); or the more exotic Bliss (599-545-3996, www.blissexperience.com). In Marigot, try Le Balaou, on the beach in Grande Case (0590-87-17-84); or Le Fish Bar (0590-52-97-57).
Minguet Gallery is always a treat. Original art and prints are the order of the day at this shop, located between Grand Case and Marigot (everyone knows the gallery; www.minguet.com or 0590-87-76-06).
There's only one golf course on the island, Mullet Bay, but it's a beaut! A web site is currently under construction, but your ship may be able to book a tee time.
La Ferme des Papillons, or The Butterfly Farm, is a delightful outing that will enchant the whole family. Located in Marigot, the farm also offers an educational experience. The St. Maarten Museum on Front Street in Philipsburg shows off the island's history with maps and relics of long-ago civilizations.
Spend the day at one of the island's heavenly (and find one that's also secluded) beaches. My recommendation? Try Orient Beach -- head to the far side for privacy. Maybe you'd rather have a leisurely romantic lunch at one of the many delightful French restaurants in Marigot. La Vie En Rose in Marigot is a charming choice, at the port (0590 87 54 42); then stroll around the charming port area and Marigot's main streets, which are lined with shops bearing the latest lovely French goods. Too tame? Consider a horseback ride through the countryside, or go para-sailing. For water sports information, call 599-544-2557. TaylorMade Charters charges $125 per person for a half-day trip (four hours) whether it's for fishing, sightseeing, or visiting a secluded beach on an uninhabited island (www.stmartinstmaarten.com/TaylorMade). Trisports offers a variety of water sports, bike tours and rentals, and kayak tours (599-545-4384).
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Dutch St. Maarten Tourist Bureau can be reached at www.st-maarten.com, or at 800-786-2278; information on the French side is available at www.st-martin.org. In addition, there is a tourist office near the pier in Philipsburg and at the taxi stand in Marigot. An informative site is www.stmartinstmaarten.com, with links to both St. Martin and St. Maarten.