Spanning 87 sq km (34 sq miles), this lush, mountainous Caribbean jewel is the world’s smallest landmass split into two nations: the French side, St-Martin, and Dutch side, Sint Maarten. Not only can you discover their twin influences here, but the island also has a strong African heritage and is home to residents from 120 different countries – lucky for foodies, this cultural melange leads to a dizzying array of culinary delights.
From feet-in-the-sand beach bars to white-tableclothed haute cuisine, here’s where to find the best of the island’s bounty.
Grand Case (French side)
Foodies will want to make a beeline for Grand Case. This St-Martin town is renowned as the island’s – and the Caribbean’s – ‘gourmet capital’.
Blvd de Grand Case is awash with exceptional restaurants. Seafood from the surrounding turquoise waters is a specialty: Ocean 82, with a live tank and covered terrace overlooking the ocean, excels for lobster in particular. Other standouts along this strip include romantic Le Tastevin for French fusion; beachfront Le Shambala, where innovative twists include black tiger shrimp carpaccio with olive oil ice cream; and enchanting Le Pressoir, housed in a traditional Creole wooden house and home to French culinary magic conjured up by award-winning chef Franck Mear.
At the other end of the budget scale, delicious options include open-sided lolos, where smoke wafts from half a dozen barbecue shacks grilling ribs, fish, chicken and crab along with flaky johnnycakes.
Tucked off the main drag are some buried Grand Case treasures. An inconspicuous boardwalk leads to candlelit Hidden Garden, where creative dishes like tender tuna mi cuit with lemon confit risotto are accompanied by craft cocktails. Another local secret is boutique hotel Le Temps des Cerises. In addition to chic rooms, it shelters a breezy bar and contemporary restaurant inside, serving dishes like duck breast and apple salad; it also hosts awesome lobster-barbecue beach parties on Saturdays.
Orient Beach (French side)
White-sand Orient Beach, 6km east of Grand Case along the translucent Baie Orientale (Oriental Bay), is a water sports playground and beach-party hotspot. Kontiki, with tables on the sand and swing seats at the bar, is great for burgers. The area’s gastronomic gem, though, Côté Plages, is in the resort’s village center, where artfully blended Caribbean and French delicacies include brown-butter triggerfish meunière.
To take in the panorama over the sweeping bay, head up to hilltop Tex-Mex restaurant Rancho del Sol, which opens to a lounge-strewn terrace.
Marigot (French side)
Fragrant tropical fruit, goat’s meat and still-flapping fish are among the foodstuffs piled high at the twice-weekly produce market in St-Martin’s capital, Marigot, 6km southwest of Grand Case, which sits beneath the ruined 18th-century Fort Louis.
Picnic fare aside, decent eating in Marigot is limited, but just 3km inland is one of the island’s diamond finds. Mango plantation Loterie Farm – with ziplines and a spring-fed swimming pool ringed by cabanas – has a sublime brasserie. Its adjoining treehouse-style bar, Tree Lounge, serves fabulous tapas. You could easily laze the day away here but Loterie is also the jumping-off point for a hike up 424m Pic Paradis, the island’s highest peak.
Oyster Pond (French and Dutch sides)
Named for its oyster-like shape, the pretty, boat-filled harbor Oyster Pond, 12km southeast of Grand Case, straddles both sides of the border. Amid the rollicking beach bars, even more rollicking dive bars and hotel restaurants, Canoa, in a colorful timber waterside shack on the Dutch side, is beloved by locals for Caribbean dishes. Don’t miss the buljawou(pickled saltfish and cinnamon-dusted fried plantains).
Philipsburg (Dutch side)
Sint Maarten’s capital, Philipsburg, in the island’s southeast, can see up to seven mammoth cruise ships dock per day at its enormous port. The resulting crowds mean many places here prioritize quantity over quality, but there are some stellar exceptions.
Along the busy beachfront, the pick of the bars is Ocean Lounge Restaurant & Bar for seafood platters and burgers. Most magical is L’Escargot, in a timber cottage painted with brightly colored belle époque murals and a classical repertoire that includes its namesake snails.
Philipsburg’s port traffic also makes it a major shopping hub. Stock up on Gouda, Edam and other Dutch cheeses at the Amsterdam Cheese & Liquor Store, which has free samples and also carries a range of jenevers(Dutch gins) and other Netherlands treats such as speculaas (spiced Christmas cookies). Try and buy the island’s signature guavaberry liqueur, made from wild local guavaberries, rum and cane sugar at the Guavaberry Emporium, in an atmospheric 18th-century Dutch West Indies town house.
Simpson Bay (Dutch side)
Some 13km northwest of Philipsburg, huge jets take off and land at the island’s main airport, Princess Juliana International Airport, in Simpson Bay. The iconic place to spot them up close (heed the safety signs) is the Sunset Bar & Grill in neighboring Maho. For an off-the-beaten-track treasure, seek out Karakter, located next to the runway in an old bus, which has a brilliant beach-side terrace – you won’t see the planes here but you’ll hear them! Other out-of-the-way beach bars nearby include secluded Kokomo; jerk-marinated chicken is a specialty as is its house cocktail, the Kokomo (Coco Lopez, dark rum and guava juice).
Although most places on the island have at least a couple of veggie options, Simpson Bay stalwart Top Carrot caters to vegetarians (almost) exclusively, with juices, salads, homemade Bulgarian yogurt and wholesome daily specials incorporating local ingredients.
Kids are also well catered for island-wide. For a real treat, take them to Carousel, which makes its own gelato. They can watch the process through glass windows and, better yet, ride its Italian-imported vintage merry-go-round.
For adults, a behind the scene tour of Topper’s Rhum distiller is a must. You can bottle your own rum for the ultimate souvenir of this epicurean island.
Need to Know
Payment: St-Martin uses the euro; Sint Maarten’s official currency is the Netherlands Antillean guilder (ANG), but most shops, bars and restaurants won’t accept them and post prices in US dollars. You can usually use euros and US dollars one-for-one on either side, but watch out for fluctuating exchange rates. Have cash handy, as many ATMs don’t accept foreign cards. Most (but not all) places accept credit cards, including foreign cards.
Tipping: A service charge of 15% is usually included (if it’s not, pay it on top of the bill), but it’s common to leave extra for outstanding service.
Dining times: During the low season, especially September and/or October, numerous establishments close. On both sides of the island, lunch is typically served from 11:30am to 2:30pm. Dutch-side restaurants usually open for dinner from 5pm to 10pm; on the French side (like its European counterpart), it’s invariably later, from around 7pm to 10pm.
Shopping: The island is a duty-free port with no border formalities of any sort between the two sides, making it a great place to bag bargains. Shops generally open from 8am to 8pm Monday to Saturday, and from 9am to 1pm Sunday.
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