St. Maarten is an island with a lot to offer, and is as different from chartering in the Virgin Islands as visiting New York City is different from visiting Boston.
The 37-square-mile island of Sint Maarten/St. Martin is (as the dual name implies) a territory governed on one side by France, and the other by the Netherlands. It’s close to Saint Barthelemy, Anguilla, St. Kitts, Nevis, and many other terrific destinations. Since many locals use SXM, the island’s airport designator, to describe the island instead of the cumbersome Sint Maarten/St. Martin, we’ll do the same as we describe this fascinating, complicated destination.
SXM’s Euro-flavored cosmopolitan nature is enhanced by near daily flights from Europe via KLM and Air France, and the fact that, while English is the language predominantly used on the slightly larger Dutch side, French rules on the other. Because Princess Juliana Airport can handle the very large aircraft used to cross the Atlantic, it is one of the primary airports in the Caribbean, with many flights available to most major airports in the U.S.
Crossing between the Dutch and French sides is an invisible process for tourists. When arriving or departing by air or boat customs and immigration is more formal, and passports are required. The airport terminal is brand new and quite efficient, as are most Dutch-run public facilities, even in the Caribbean. With over 1.5 million visitors a year visiting SXM, buses and taxis abound.
Whether you’re staying on the French or Dutch side, lock the boat when you’re not aboard. If you decide to spend time at a marina, look for the ones with locked access gates and visible security guards.
For cruisers SXM is a mecca of major harbors, marinas, supplies, and repair facilities, with the Dutch side having a slight advantage. The main port is Simpson Bay, on the outside, and Simpson Bay Lagoon, which is accessed via a scheduled-opening drawbridge. The outside Bay is large, with plenty of room for anchoring visitors, but it can be subjected to a swell, and there have been several well-reported incidents of robberies and beatings on boats in the anchorage. Inside the lagoon are many large marinas catering to large yachts, but there is usually room for smaller boats—especially those whose crews have planned ahead and made reservations.
American 50 and 100-amp power is the norm on the Dutch side and in the major French marina on the lagoon, Marina Port de Plaisance. There are two large marine stores, Budget Marine and Water World, which are dinghy accessible. Riggers, sailmakers, refrigerator and electronics repair facilities are also easy to find, but they are invariably busy during the high season.
Simpson Bay Lagoon is a great anchorage if you can find a spot to drop your hook, but it’s very, very busy. It’s more of a beginning or ending destination, rather than a “this is nice, let’s spend a few days here” destination. Automobile traffic is a huge problem on SXM, and many liveaboards and people who live near the water use dinghies as their main mode of transportation. Dinghy theft is a problem, as many who don’t use cables and locks discover to their chagrin. So is dinghy speed, as there seems to be no officially enforced rule about maximum speed or wake. Dinghies and smaller boats can easily passage between the Lagoon and Marigot, the main port on the French side of the island.
On the French side, the town of Marigot has a large (but rolly) bay, Baie de Marigot, which faces the nearby island of Anguilla. The marina, Marina Fort Louis, is surrounded by a breakwater and caters to smaller yachts. The power on the docks is mostly European style, which is compatible with most charter boats. There are some slips with 50-amp power. A smaller drawbridge allows access from the Lagoon to Baie de Marigot.
Further up the coast is Baie de Grand Case, a decently protected but rolly anchorage with a small dinghy dock that gives you access to the sleepy village of Grand Case, a great place for an exquisitely long, lazy French lunch. It’s also home to the French airport, a small inter-island strip.
If you need to dine, go to the French side; if you need to shop, go to the Dutch side. While there’s OK shopping on the French side, and OK dining on the Dutch, the very best of each is where you’d assume it would be. The best baguettes available outside of France itself are found on the French side of SXM, or on nearby St. Barthelemy (St. Barths). And because thousands upon thousands of tourists descend on the Dutch town of Phillipsburg from the enormous cruise ship docks on nearly every day during the high season, there are many duty free shops, especially jewelry and electronics stores.
Bartering skills are a plus here, as are crowd-negotiating skills. If you’re parched from bartering and excuse-meing your way through the shopping district, head for the beach, where there is a seemingly endless strip of beach bars and restaurants with a spectacular view of the beach and the Caribbean.
Philipsburg is a spot best visited by day, preferably before 4 pm, when shops start to close up and a surlier element begins to take over the streets. Even during the day you’ll be offered drugs; sometimes in subtle ways, other times not. The Dutch have a more relaxed attitude about many things, including drugs and prostitution (which is legal on the Dutch side of SXM), but any tourist who thinks that these relaxed rules apply to them as well is seriously mistaken. Violent crime, including murder, against yachties has been well documented in the past couple of years both in Philipsburg and in Simpson Bay.
Bars, restaurants, and casinos surround Simpson Bay, and the nightlife is a huge part of spending time in SXM. Rules for staying safe include traveling in groups, staying out of gypsy cabs, not walking the beach at night, staying where the crowds are, and not making yourself an inviting target by rendering yourself incapable of rational thought. Rental cars are broken into whether or not you lock them up, so leave nothing in them, even in the trunk.
For more information about charter destinations near St. Maarten, read Chartering from St. Maarten/St. Martin