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This Backpack and Snorkel Travel Guide (St. Maarten Purple Guide) provides information about the best things to do on a cruise to St. Maarten and ensures that you will be Making Memorable Moments on a relaxing vacation in St. Maarten.
The information on this page and much more (google maps locations, more reviews, website links, etc.) is available in our Cruising the Caribbean Guide.
The Caribbean island of Saint Martin is divided into a Dutch part called Sint Maarten (the Southern 40% of the island) and a French part called Saint-Martin (the Northern 60% of the island). The division goes back to 1648. Both parts share a green border without any border stations or passport control.
The name of the island comes from Christopher Columbus who named it after Saint Martin of Tours when he, on his second voyage to the New World, possibly anchored at the island on November 11, 1493, the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours.
The cruise port is located in Philipsburg on the Dutch side.
On September 6 and 7, 2017, the island was hit by Hurricane Irma (Category 5) which caused significant island-wide damage. Some reports claimed that 70% of the infrastructure on the Dutch side was destroyed; whereas the Red Cross estimated that nearly one third of the buildings on the Dutch side were destroyed and, island-wide, nearly 90% of all structures were damaged.
The island's economy is strongly dependent on tourism and, especially the Dutch side, has embraced tourism and caters to cruise ship passengers.
The official currency of St. Maarten is the Netherlands Antillean Guilder, but US Dollars are accepted at an exchange rate of 1US$= ƒ 1.79. On the French side, tourist businesses accept US Dollars, but some non-tourist businesses may want Euros. The exchange rate is 1:1.
Fun fact: In 2014, St. Maarten reportedly had more gaming machines per resident than any other country in the world.
Here is the climate that you can expect during your visit:
St. Martin has more than 43 miles (70km) of coastline and 37 beaches. Thanks to the European, and especially the French, influence some of the beaches are "clothing optional". Specifically: Orient Bay Beach (most popular), Long Bay, Rouge Bay, Cupecoy Bay, Petites Cayes (Anse Marcel), hidden beach on the northern side of Pinel island
Pinel Island is a small island North East of St.-Martin. It carries the name of the buccaneer Pinel, who unsuccessfully tried to conquer the island of Saba and, while retreating, ran aground on what is now Pinel Island.
Boats will bring you to the main beach which is facing St.-Martin. It has white sand and shallow turquoise water and two restaurants on the beach where you can eat.
There is also a second beach on the north side of the island. It is a 10 min. walk through a barren landscape - you will need shoes. The reward is a beautiful "clothes optional" beach that you may share with very few other people.
There is good snorkeling off-shore.
St. Maarten is a popular destination for cruise ships and for tourists that stay there for a few days or e.g. snowbirds that stay there all winter long. The list below is a general list of activities that cruise lines offer their customers. Local tour providers offer similar tours or, additionally, tours that are too long for cruise ship passengers.
As the island of Saint Martin is close to St. Barths and Anguilla, cruise ship passengers can visit these two uncrowded paradise-like islands for a few hours. If you stay longer on Saint Martin, then I can only encourage you to visit St. Barths and especially Anguilla for a few days.
•Airplane Watching Tour
•Surf & Turf: Jeep & Speed Boat Adventure
•St. Barths on Your Own
•America's Cup Regatta
•Horseback Riding: Scenic Trail & Sea Ride
•The Big 3: Zip, Slide & Fly
•Top 10 Best of St. Maarten
•Surf & Turf: Jeep & Speed Boat Adventure
•Old Town Philipsburg by Trolley Train
•Historical Philipsburg by Bicycle
•Scenic Coastal Hike
•Harley in Paradise
•4x4 Dune Buggy
•French Cooking Class & Marigot Shopping
•ATV Adventure & Maho Beach Getaway
•Explorer French & Dutch by Land & Sea
•Rum, Essence & Local Flavors
Snorkeling, Diving and other Water Activities that may get you wet
•3 Islands Snorkel Tour
Upon popular request, pinterest users, please repin these images:
This is a beautiful white sand beach, but it was heavily damaged by hurricane Irma and is still recovering. It has white sand and turquoise water and several restaurants.
Great Bay Beach is located right in Philipsburg and only a 1 mile (20min walk) or short taxi ride or <10min water taxi ride ($7pp) from the cruise port. You will find the promenade and many restaurants and shops here and you can explore historic Philipsburg.
For US$20-30 you can rent two beach chairs and get free wifi and 5 drinks.
As mentioned earlier, the European, and especially the French, influence has led to some of the beaches being "clothing optional". Most are found on the French side of the island but not all. I know about: Orient Bay Beach (most popular), Long Bay, Rouge Bay, Cupecoy Bay, Petites Cayes (Anse Marcel), hidden beach on the northern side of Pinel island.
Maho Beach's claim to fame is its location at the beginning of the landing strip of the Princess Juliana Airport, meaning that you will have landing airplanes fly directly above you. While this may sound like fun, please be reminded that those planes are LOUD and you better have hearing protection. Also, there is a chance that the jet turbine blast will hit you and whirl you through the air or shoot stones at you and both are likely to kill you or at least severely harm you. People have been killed there in the past.
For safety reasons, the government has marked a hazard zone that you should not infringe on. This safety zone covers the beach and water directly under the flight path.
If you get to Maho beach on an excursion, your tour will likely stay outside the hazard zone.
We then headed to our second snorkeling destination: Pinel Island (see more photos above). Snorkeling was good and fish were plentiful. The island has a beautiful beach, but we spend the most of the 30min snorkeling in the beautiful turquoise water.
Once outside the bay, we sped to our first snorkeling destination: Creole Rock. There were several sea turtles feeding on the sea floor and a good amount of fish. Someone even claimed they saw an octopus.
As it was too windy, we could not go to Tintamarre Island.
On the way back, we stopped at Maho beach (see above) and saw a couple of small planes flying over us landing and, yes, there was one big airplane. It is truly amazing to have a big jetliner fly only a few feet over your heads. Afterwards, we raced back to the dock against another boat in Capt. Bob’s fleet at real high speed. We were back at exactly 4pm, which gave us 30min to go back to our cruise ship.
The boat's restroom was used to store everyone's bags and could therefore not be used, but there were facilities at the islands.
Long story short: This was a very nice trip, where we saw lots of beautiful sites and had 2 great opportunities for snorkeling. Even though the itinerary was packed, the individual stops were still long enough to enjoy. I definitely recommend this trip.
Drive to the Marigot Ferry Terminal
On one of our cruise stops we decided to spend the day on Anguilla. To do that, we took a taxi from the cruise port to the ferry pier in Marigot on the French side for US$20. Even though there was quite a bit of traffic and we were stuck behind an extremely slow driver for quite a while, we made the trip in less than 40min. You can find more details in my Anguilla post.
Afterwards, we headed to Grand Case beach for lunch. This has changed in newer tours and lunch is now served near Pinel island as far as I know. As boats were not allowed to land on the beach, we had to swim for less than 100ft to get to the beach. The island has gorgeous beaches, turquoise water and we saw several iguanas. The lunch selection was chicken/spare ribs/fish with rice or fries and salad. Drinks had to be purchased at the restaurant. A bottle of local beer was $2; they were skilled in making margaritas etc. Beach chairs were available for free, but we preferred to walk on the beach and swim.
As we love beaches and snorkeling, we decided to do a speed boat tour with Capt. Bob from Soualiga destinations.
The boat(s) are docked at Great Bay Marina, Dock Maarten (Map) which is an easy 15min walk from the cruise port. Capt. Bob greeted us in the morning and assigned us and 14 others to the largest, fastest and newest boat in his fleet, but he stayed behind and left it to his son and his fiancée to navigate the speed boat for our wonderful tour. Both were nice and knowledgeable when asked about the island and animals we saw during the trip. Beer, pop and water were available on the boat for free. The boat was going on high speed much of the time and that means sitting in front of the boat will get you full exposure to the fun (rocking) and water spray of a high speed boat ride. Persons with a weak stomach can sit in the back (in the shade) where there is not too much movement but you may get the occasional splash of water.
At Simpson Bay Lagoon we passed by several million dollar yachts.