When the travel agent who sold me a Caribbean cruise realized we were docking in St Maarten for a day, she perked right up.
“Ooh, I love St Maarten!” she enthused. “You can just jump right off the ship, and you’re on the beach!” She’d know, having worked on cruise ships all around the world for years, adding it was one of her favourite ports to dock in.
Turns out that if you’re trying to figure out what to do in St Maarten during a cruise, there are tons of great activities all around the island that can easily be enjoyed in just a few hours so you’ll make it back to the ship on time–and some don’t even cost a cent.
Here’s everything you need to know to maximize a day in port.
St Martin vs St Maarten
The colourful harbour in the capital Philipsburg is practically attached to bustling Great Bay Beach, a welcome sight considering that in many other parts of the world passengers arriving by boat typically have to book an organized tour or transportation just to get near the main sights.
It’s easy to see why cruises to the Dutch/French island of St Maarten/St Martin are so popular.
The logistics of this eastern Caribbean island can be a tad confusing, as it’s actually split into two parts: the French side called St. Martin, and the Dutch side referred to as St or Sint. Maarten.
As such, it has two main cities—Philipsburg (Dutch) and Marigot (French) with easy access to the Atlantic Ocean on the east side and the Caribbean side on the west.
Things to do in Philipsburg, St Maarten
Cruise ships dock in Philipsburg, so most guests spend the bulk of their time here relaxing on Great Bay Beach or browsing the duty free shops. Sure the beaches are great and the views spectacular, but who can say no to 40 per cent off?
Duty free shopping in Philipsburg
Philipsburg has dozens of duty-free shops where you can pick up clothes, cigars, jewellery and liquor at steep discounts. For example, a 750 ml bottle of coconut rum costs about $30+ in North America, but you can pick one up in St. Maarten for $11.
Keep in mind that most countries have a limit to how much liquor and tobacco you can bring home before paying duty—although even if you pay taxes on top of the island prices it will likely still be cheaper than anything you can get at home.
One thing to remember if you’re hoping to save money on a cruise is that you’re usually not allowed to bring any liquor into your room after you board. However, the ship will hold it for you until the night before you leave, so you’ll get to bring it back with you.
Best beach in Philipsburg, St Maarten
The island’s most popular stretch of sand is Great Bay, which is the beach that anyone arriving by boat first sees as they approach St. Maarten. The beach itself is huge, meaning you won’t be sharing a beach towel with strangers, and the area is lined by a massive boardwalk that leads into Philipsburg’s hotels, restaurants and shops.
There are great deals to be had for those who want to rent a beach chair and umbrella for the day, and some vendors even include a bucket of beer!
Go plane spotting at Maho Beach
Those who travel to St Maarten by air fly into Princess Juliana International Airport on the Dutch side, and boy does it ever make for a memorable landing. The airport is famous for its ridiculously short runway wedged between popular Maho Beach and a large hill.
People flock to the area to watch the gigantic jets navigate the strange flight path, as they roar just meters above sunbathers.
It takes about 30 minutes to drive to Maho Beach from Philipsburg, and costs $2 each way by public bus or about $20 for a taxi. You can also book this tour which stops at Maho Beach, Marigot and beautiful Orient Beach.
This spot is definitely worth a visit regardless of how little time you have on the island. Just be sure to bring earplugs and hold on to your hat!
Relax on the St Martin and St Maarten beaches
St Maarten has no shortage of beaches—including those who only like wearing their birthday suits. Yup, the island is home to a nudist beach on the French side, called Orient Beach. A large reef runs along the coast and clothing is optional on the southern end, making it a popular spot for nudists and lookie-loos.
If exposure isn’t your thing, you may want to stick to something more PG like Simpson Bay, which is considered one of the longest and nicest on the island. A number of cute little boats dot the turquoise water, and the beach is framed by green hills. This is the best spot to see neighbouring Caribbean islands, provided it’s a clear day.
One of my favourites is called Mullet Bay Beach, which is right beside Maho Beach. The water is so clear and calm it’s like swimming in an aquarium, and the sand is baking soda-soft. It’s also a popular snorkeling spot, and a great way to enjoy it is by booking this beach hopping tour on a luxury catamaran or one of these:
Day trips from St Maarten
St. Maarten is also in the middle of a cluster of gorgeous islands, and on a clear day you can see Saba, Nevis, St. Kitts, Anguilla and ritzy St. Barths.
If you’ve ever had a hankering to see one of these islands, you can easily hop on a ferry and head over for the day without the high price tag of staying overnight by booking one of these tours:
Keep in mind that most tours last about eight hours, so before booking double-check to ensure you’ll arrive back in port in time for cruise embarkation.
- Languages: French, English and Dutch
- Currency: US dollars and Euros are most commonly accepted
- How to get around: Renting a car is possible, but keep in mind there can be horrendous traffic jams (strange, for a country of about 80,000 people). Taxis and local buses are also everywhere; for the local buses, just keep an eye out for a van driving around with a sign in the window of the area you want to visit, wave for them to stop then hop in! It costs $1.50-$2 per person each way depending on the distance.
- Must try: Any drink with guavaberry in it. The fruity, rum-based liquor is a sweet, pink concoction that’s great as a margarita-type bevvy. Grab one at a bar along the beach for about $6 and enjoy! You can also pick up a bottle of guavaberry liqueur to take home with you at the duty-free shops.
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