My recent trip to the French and Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten/Martin served as a celebration for my 22nd birthday and college graduation. I was accompanied by two childhood friends, Haley and Coco, and we spent a total of 5 nights on the island using, of course, Airbnb.
The island is unique due to its horizontal bisection that separates the Dutch side and the French side and the fact that these two factions have co-existed peacefully for decades (not that we’d expect anything different from the Dutch and French). Each side has its merits. From our observations and research the Dutch is decidedly more touristy than the French, with well-populated resorts, casinos, and beaches. The French side is less densely populated and has more Mom-and-Pop style establishments.
So the question is: Which side to choose? My answer is unequivocally French. I chose the French side for our lodging simply because I love French people, culture, the language, and most importantly, French cuisine. One thing we agreed upon before taking our holiday was that we wanted to dine well and drink well, and the French gastronomical aptitude that stretches from Paris to Lyon to Bordeaux to our chosen island of St. Martin allows for just that. Our Airbnb was situated above a little French bakery run by a lovely couple, and we had a cluster of upscale bars and restaurants across the street. Additionally, we didn’t have to maneuver through throngs of tourists coming off the cruise ships or wait in line for tables at restaurants. Orient Beach became our home base for the next five wine, sun, and baguette filled days.
Day (1) : Our first day was uneventful as we scoped out our beach and stocked up on supplies at the grocery store steps away from our front doors. The supplies: three bottles of Bordeaux, a package of Roquefort and Camembert, pasta, tomatoes, and two baguettes. Later we headed to a small French restaurant across the street for a balmy night of red wine, seafood risotto, and good company (friendly French tourists and one super weird Russian dude whose grandfather was apparently a huge fan of Mao… :/ ).
Day (2) : One of the travel guide recommendations we didn’t take was to rent a car to get around the island – this wasn’t an option for us as we would be drinking at most of our destinations. So this left taxis which are abundant and operate on a flat rate for all destinations. We decided to visit Marigot, the capital of the French side, for their Saturday morning market. After picking up some trinkets and souvenirs at the harbor market, we stopped at Enoch’s Place, a corner restaurant right across from the Marigot port. Barely 24 hours into our trip and we were ready to dig into a traditional Caribbean meal, and this was the place to do so. I ordered the Fried Fish Creole, which was served with sweet plantains, avocado, slaw, and red beans and rice – unbelievable. This was probably the best way to get a truly authentic taste of the French Antilles, and provided a cool-down after a morning of Marigot heat.
After catching a cab back to Orient Beach, we decided to take a little leap of faith and get dropped off at Club Orient, a notorious clothing-optional resort at the far end of Orient Beach. We snuck onto the beach, dodging the security guard collecting money for beach chairs and immediately averted our eyes from the free-birding older patrons of the beach. Get a cocktail at the beach bar and as the nude 85+ year old gentleman on the beach chair next to us says, “they’ll blow your bottoms right off.” Nothing like starting off the trip seeing a bunch of older people (seriously they were all older) lounging in their birthday suits. Do it to say you’ve done it, and soak in the all-inclusive, no shame, body-loving atmosphere.
Most of the clubs and bars are located on the Dutch side, in the town of Philipsburg. That night we made dinner and headed across the street to La Table d’Antoine for some pre-club drinks. Fantastic cocktails and superb bartenders (who later kindly called us a cab for our night out). We decided against Tantra, the most popular club in St. Maarten, after reading some mildly terrifying TripAdvisor reviews about aggressive bouncers. Sky Beach, a dimly-lit, über-trendy rooftop bar, was the perfect spot for us – not too expensive, not too loud, and no bouncers throwing punches (Tantra, get it together). After meeting a group of friendly Bostonians on a rowdy bachelor party, we ended up bar-hopping and heading home at 4:30 am – word of wisdom: cab fares go up exponentially and doling out $75 for a cab at that point is brutal. There’s really no way around it if you want to stay on the French side and party on the Dutch. Worth it for experiencing a raucous night on St. Maarten.
Day (3) : Morning was rough but we took in a late breakfast at Good Morning cafe, right below our Airbnb apartment. We headed down to Bikini Beach, a touristy stretch of beach in the heart of Orient Bay and lounged, trying to regain our strength for dinner and drinks. Haley and I took a walk around the residential area of Orient Bay, soaking in the Caribbean colors and old-school vibes of the beach bungalows. Beautiful architecture and lush vegetation abound on St. Martin, and it was evident in the homes and gardens around our apartment.
Part II to follow xx
For dinner, we headed to Grand Case, the true culinary heart of St. Martin. We decided on a little Italian restaurant Il Nettuno, which served up lobster ravioli, creamy tomato soup, and sautéed shrimp on it’s open-aired dining area overlooking the moonlit bay of Grand Case.