One Island, Different Countries, Different Vibes.

People preparing for their first visit to the Friendly Island have questions about how the two “countries” differ, or if they are basically the same.

The answer is yes to the former. Both sides of the island have a distinct vibe. As a frequent visitor who has explored several areas, I want to answer some common queries.

The Border:

No, you do not need a passport when crossing the French/Dutch border. In fact, the only way you will know that you crossed the border is by a sign on the side of the road.

The Look:

The Dutch side is decidedly more “Americanized” with high rises near all the beaches and bustling downtown areas. The French side could be aptly described as quaint. Think French countryside. You will see no high-rise hotels here. There is a three-story limit on buildings which allows scenic views and a different feel altogether when driving.

The Beaches:

The sheer variety of beaches is one of the reasons SXM is so popular. The Dutch side beaches (Great Bay and Simpson Bay come to mind) have mostly calm waters, suitablefor families. People watching is favored also, as cruise ships dock in Great Bay. Mullet Bay beach is the exception, with substantial waves, perfect for body surfing (on most days). 

The French side beaches are well known, not only for their beauty but also for variety. Orient Bay beach is popular with tourists and frequent visitors. Friars Bay beach (with adjacent Happy Bay) is another favored destination. Pinel Island is a pleasant day trip as well, only a short ferry ride away. Topless sunbathing is acceptable at all French side beaches (as it is in Europe), but not as common as years past with the advent of cell phone cameras.

The Food:

The entire island is well known for culinary delights, from roadside stands to Lolos to fine dining. Jax Steakhouse, Holland House, Vesna, and Chesterfields are some of the many top-class restaurants on the Dutch side. 

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Photo Credit : Jax Steakhouse & Cocktails Bar – Maho

The largest concentration of French upper-class restaurants can be found in Grand Case, a single boulevard lined with every imaginable type of cuisine choice. The Lolos are also extremely popular for affordable large plate meals.

Orient Village square also offers a myriad of choices. Menus are displayed outside to help make your dining selection. Most restaurants are open air, and formal dress is not required anywhere.

Pizza is inexpensive everywhere if you are on a tight budget. You can count the number of all-inclusive resorts on one hand since St. Martin is known worldwide for quality dining experiences.

The Nightlife:

Contrary to widespread belief, the French side does not roll up the sidewalks at night. There are fewer entertainment choices to be sure, but both Grand Case and Orient Village have entertainment of some sort, whether it be a solo artist, full band, or Karaoke. 
There are many more nightlife choices on the Dutch side. Casinos, sing-along bars and live entertainment is readily available, so whether you love gambling, disco dancing, or live classic rock you can find it there.

The Traffic:

As with any urban areas, traffic tends to be heavy near the major cities (Marigot, the French capital and Philipsburg, the Dutch capital). The volume of traffic is dependent on time of year and time of day, as it is anywhere else.

Tip: If heading to the Orient Bay area to Philipsburg and vice-versa the “back road” is much less congested. It is part of the major road the encircles the island and easy to find and navigate on a map. Drivers for the most part are extremely polite. If they see you waiting to turn, they will slow down and issue a short beep of the horn to let you know you can turn in front of them. 

And on the French side you may occasionally see a traffic stoppage when a cow decides to stand in the middle of the road for a spell (I did say quaint).

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Activities:

The French side boasts Pic Paradis and Fort Louis, both of which are worth the hike for spectacular views. Petite Cayes and Happy Bay are also popular with hikers that also enjoy a secluded beach. Water sports abound on Orient Bay and bring your snorkel gear to explore David’s Hole on Bay Rouge. The Dutch side offers bicycle tours, among other physical, motorized, and ocean activities.

Many day trips set sail from the Dutch side to Anguilla and St. Bart’s, as well as island tours. Ziplines are new attractions and both countries have them.

Transportation:

I highly recommend renting a car since there is so much to see for such a small island. But taxis are also available as well as public transportation.

Understanding English:

Yes, many of the service industry workers on the French side speak French, and some of them may have a hard time conversing in English. But getting your order or point across is far from impossible. I tend to joke around, and my humor is lost on the French as a primary language person. C’est la vie
This is less of a problem on the Dutch side but isn’t really a problem to begin with. I just thought it was worth mentioning. I love the French accent!

Accommodations:

Every imaginable type of accommodation is available throughout the island. I personally recommend BookStMartin.com for your island accommodation needs.

Of course, every traveler has their own vibe. Some enjoy the beach and pool at their resort and are content to spend each day right there. Others seek variety and adventure. You can find both anywhere in St. Martin. Either way, once you experience this slice of paradise you will want to return.

  • Author :  Tim Stelma. With his extensive experience as a frequent visitor to the island, Tim brings a unique and intimate perspective to his writing. As the author of the “SXM Trilogy,” which comprises “Sandy Ground,” “Happy Bay,” and “Cole Bay Band,” Stelma offers readers an immersive journey into the heart of the island’s culture, its hidden gems, and the vibrant life of its communities. His deep connection to the island, cultivated over years of exploration and interaction with locals, infuses his narratives with authenticity and a palpable sense of place.
    Discover his trilogy here : Sandy Ground, Happy Bay & Cole Bay Band

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