St. Martin’s Inexpensive Must-See Attractions for Families
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My family and I arrived at the Caribbean island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten with a collective sigh of relief. Not only were we exhausted from a salty overnight passage aboard Roam, our Moody 47 yacht, but we also had to contend with four massive cruise ships, all jousting for position in the harbor. (Learn more about how our middle-class family is traveling the world by yacht.) We were excited to make landfall on the island that so many vacationers think is special.
This Caribbean outpost is the smallest island in the world that accommodates the interests of two separate countries: Sint Maarten, a colony of the Netherlands, and St. Martin, a colony of France. With an international airport that also serves as the main gateway to the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, St. Maarten/St. Martin is an ideal destination to visit either on its own or as part of a multi-island holiday.
Visiting one island with the colonies of two separate countries offers a spicy mix of Caribbean, French and Dutch cultural experiences. It also provides plenty to keep you entertained and best of all, you don’t need to spend a fortune to enjoy it all.
Flying to SXM
Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) is on the Dutch side of the island, and airlines like American, Delta, JetBlue and United offer flights to and from New York, Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Philadelphia. When pricing awards, expect to add in the cost of taxes that are around $85/round-trip.
Delta and JetBlue both offer dynamic pricing, so your best bet is to keep an eye out for a sale. When I checked for award flights from a few cities on Delta, I found results from a reasonable 34,000 miles round-trip in economy to more than 200,000 round-trip in first.
American Airlines shows good availability into next year from a number of US gateways at 15,000 miles each way in economy and 25,000 each way in business. Space on the PHL–SXM flight looks especially open. Here are some our favorite cards for stocking up on American AAdvantage miles.
United shows award availability from 17,500 miles each way in economy and 30,000 miles each way in business. However, there is a big caveat: much of the space is on Copa Airlines via Panama City and requires 36+ hours transit. That said, it could be a fun way to add a stopover to your trip. United is a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner and offers a plethora of its own card options.
Arriving by Cruise Ship
Dozens of cruise lines call on the island. Most ships dock at Dr. A.C. Wathey Cruise Pier in Philipsburg on the St. Maarten side. Smaller luxury and sailing ships may anchor in Marigot Bay and passengers then take a tender to get ashore.
Currency and Language
Three currencies are accepted on St. Martin. The euro is the primary currency on the French half of the island, but US dollars are widely accepted. The Dutch side accepts: the US dollar, the euro and the Netherlands Antillean guilder. It’s not necessary to carry all three; US dollars alone will suffice. You also don’t need to carry your passport or pass through any sort of border control to travel back and forth between the two colonies.
The national language in St. Martin is French and most locals and hospitality staff will greet you in this language. English is widely spoken and understood, and as long as you know the basics (please, thank you, hello and goodbye) in their tongue, the French will happily converse with you in English. Dutch is the national language in Sint Maarten. However, English is even more widely spoken on this side, and it is unlikely you will need to know any Dutch, although it is always appreciated if you do.
When to Go?
The climate is pleasant year-round with an average temperature of 79° F, but the best time to visit the island is between the months of November and June for the best weather and the least rain. Hurricane season is June 1–Nov. 30. If you’re traveling then — especially in August, September or October when storms can be severe — consider travel insurance with a “cancel for any reason” clause. Or find out if your credit card travel insurance is sufficient on its own.
What to See
Despite what you may have heard about prices on the island, there are plenty of activities for families that won’t break the bank. Here are some of our favorites.
A visit to Maho Beach is not only fun but it’s also free. (Beach chairs and umbrellas cost about $15 USD to rent.) There are bars at both ends of the beach so there is no shortage of refreshments or snacks.
Located on the Dutch side, this small stretch of sand looks like something out of a travel brochure: Turquoise water laps the shore with an enormous airport directly behind the powdery white sand. Wait, what? How can an unsightly airport improve a Caribbean beach? Well, because of the airport’s unusually short runway, aircraft — including Airbus A330s and Boeing 737s — make a particularly low approach when coming in to land. The planes fly directly over the beach and the young and young at heart line up on the beach to see the spectacle.
The planes feel only feet away, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself running from the water like a child to get the perfect photo each time a plane comes in for touchdown. Takeoff is perhaps even more exciting, with the jet wash often blowing unsuspecting onlookers into the water and blasting sand all over the beach. This activity can be dangerous, so onlookers must stay on the beach and not cross the busy road or hang onto the fence surrounding the airport.
This unusual activity will have the family in stitches (especially when mom gets blown into the water). There are plenty of videos of the experience online, including this one.
Philipsburg and That Yoda Guy Museum
A visit to the Dutch side of Sint Maarten would not be complete without spending a day in the capital, Philipsburg. Eat gelato while walking along the town’s one-mile boardwalk, and sip piña coladas while the children play at gorgeous Great Bay Beach. With many terrific deals to be found along this happening stretch of sand — such as five drinks and two sun beds for $20 — families can easily waste away an afternoon in the sun. Don’t forget to visit some of the many high-end duty-free shops located along the cobbled stone paths of Old Street and Front Street, including Michael Kors, Armani Jeans and Tiffany & Co, even if it’s just to browse.
There’s even something for the “Star Wars” buff. That Yoda Guy Museum is at 19A Front Street and is the only place in the world where fans can easily interact with an original “Star Wars” personality. (There is an entrance fee; see below.) Weave through the first-floor exhibit, complete with memorabilia from Nick Maley’s work as a special-effects makeup artist on 54 movies. There are close to six decades of moviemaking relics, including storyboards, scripts and behind-the-scenes photos on a range of blockbuster movies.
Also on display is an extensive collection of face casts made from the faces of actual celebrities, including Michael Jackson, Angelina Jolie and Robert De Niro, along with the original Han Solo frozen in carbonite, a functioning robotic Yoda puppet and a genuine Darth Vader costume. Maley is often on-site for photos and autographs, and is happy to answer children’s questions. My kids gave this a big thumbs-up and talked about their experience for days.
Entrance is $12 for adults and $7 for children aged 5–14, with those under 5 free. The museum is open Monday–Saturday, 9:30am–5pm, and Sunday if a cruise ship is in port.
Marigot Bay and Seaside Markets
Marigot Market is on the French side of the island and offers locally handcrafted items, such as jewelry, clothing and souvenirs, as well as Caribbean spices and rum. Stop by the local French patisserie across the road and grab a croissant or macaron to enjoy while you stroll around these charming markets. With a backdrop of hundreds of yachts floating gently on the turquoise water in the bay, Marigot has a distinctly European feel. You’ll hear people speaking French all around you.
Exploring the markets (open from Monday to Saturday, 9am–4pm) in the Marigot Bay area will entertain the family without costing a cent unless, of course, you buy something. However, if the markets are not quite exciting enough for the kids, check out Fort Louis. Built in 1789, these impressive ruins are sure to pique their interest and with 100 stairs to climb, it’s great exercise for the entire family. Access to the fort is from the stairs located across the road from La Sucriere bakery and entry is free. The fort is the perfect viewpoint over Marigot Bay. Marigot Bay is also the jumping-off point for ferries to Anguilla and St. Bart’s.
Loterie Farm Nature Reserve and Sanctuary
Loterie Farm is a 135-acre nature reserve and secret hideaway nestled in the hillside of Pic Paradis on French St. Martin, where you can wine, dine, climb, hike and glide over the treetop canopy. Learn about the flora and fauna of the island while hiking around the beautiful tropical forest on a two-mile, self-guided tour that reaches an altitude of 4,593 feet. The hike costs 5 euros per person and is the most affordable thing to do at Loterie Farm. Private guided tours are also available for 26 euros per person.
If extreme sports are more your thing, adults and children alike can get their adrenaline pumping in the Treetop Canopy Adventure Park, as they zip through the Fly Zone 35+ feet above the ground. The Fly Zone costs 40 euros per person and there is no age limit; however, flyers must be at least 48 inches tall and weigh a maximum of 250 pounds.
Access to the pool is 20 euros for those over the age of 4. If you can arrange up to 10 people to share your visit, pay 190 euros for a cabana, which includes both the use of the pool and hiking for all 10 visitors. Loterie Farm is open daily from 9am to 5pm.
Parotte Ville is a bird park located on the Dutch side of the island. Both young and old will enjoy this open-air aviary and the 170 colorful and exotic birds from 25 species that live within it. The birds roam freely through lush tropical gardens, and if you look carefully, you may even spot an iguana or two wandering the grounds. The birds are so tame, you will be sure to have a parrot land on your arm or head — an absolute highlight for the kids. There is also a playground for the children and a small cafe selling smoothies and ice cream. George can take you on a tour of the small adjoining museum, where you and your children can learn about the history of Sint Maarten through stories handed down from his grandparents. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children aged 3–12, with children under 2 free. The bird park is open daily from 9:30am to 4pm.
But What About the Hurricane Damage?
While the island was devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017, great efforts have been made to recover from this devastation. It seems that the Dutch side of the island has been more successful, with the main streets in Philipsburg showing little damage. Marigot Bay still bears scars in the form of tarpaulin-covered roofs and damaged buildings. Many of the beach bars that I am told once lined the shores have gone, as have the Butterfly Farm and St. Martin Zoo.
However, as someone who hadn’t visited St. Martin prior to the hurricane, it doesn’t seem to be lacking in tourist facilities or activities. Most important, all infrastructure — roads, hospitals, businesses and the international airport — has recovered and the tourism industry is in full swing. As long as you are aware of the troubled times the island has weathered, the hurricane damage will not have any impact on your visit.
The tiny island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten will impress you with a fusion of three cultures melded into one. Teeming with natural beauty, there is plenty of fun to be had at prices that won’t leave you screaming. I’ve outlined a number of activities and attractions but don’t forget about the more obvious free activities. These include swimming at the stunning beaches, such as Orient Bay Beach on the northeast coast and Mullet Bay in the southwest; snorkeling in the warm, clear waters of Cupecoy Beach or Dawn Beach (be sure to take your own gear); and hiking the many trails that weave throughout the island. Transport around the island also doesn’t have to be expensive, with a comprehensive bus network that can get you to most attractions. So, if you want to bask in the warm Caribbean sun, float on tranquil waters, experience unique foods and appreciate the bi-national local way of life, be sure to check out this unparalleled island paradise.
Are you planning a Caribbean getaway for your family? Here are some more ideas:
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