For a flavor of the Caribbean, fused with all the different cultures sailing to and from this island enveloped in emerald waters, visit St. Maarten.
The 37-square-mile island has a beach for each square mile, most framed by mountains, and they utilize their many waterfronts with bars plopped on the water and multiple marinas. St. Maarten fulfills cubicle fantasies: crisp white sailboats against emerald waters, fresh and flavorful seafood and imaginative rum drinks. But the island, which is half Dutch and half French, also has a bonanza of different cultures, shown by more than 360 restaurants in surprising variety. So whether you’re stopping over before sailing on to nearby St. Barths or St. Kitts or staying for a while, here’s where to shop, sip and sun:
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For filling your suitcase
Philipsburg, the capital on the Dutch side, is a must-visit for the island’s legendary duty-free shopping. Stroll along the winding narrow roads and pop into the numerous jewelry and watch stores. Also a must-see? The Guavaberry Emporium, built in an old cedar house, where you can sample not only the berry liqueur but also a guava colada. The fruit has a mild, unusual sweetness. This shop is also a great place to pick up gifts, like rum bottles with colorful hand-painted sunsets and parrots.
For practicing your French
Shop around the market at Marigot, the capital on the French side, browsing rows of wares like delicate seashell jewelry or bags of Caribbean spices. At night, it becomes a bustling spot to grab dinner with menus in French as boats bob in the marina, their masts glowing in neat rows.
For Caribbean blue skies and seas
Sailing aficionados should schedule their visit during the annual Heineken Regatta, where sailboats race around the island, creating picture-perfect views of colorful, billowing sails dotting royal-blue water. The event promises "serious fun" with parties every night, visitors and locals dancing the night away in flip flops on the sand. Even if you can’t sail, make sure to get out on the water – the ocean is so clear, if you jump in, you can see your toes. Even that doesn’t impress locals – clear to them means seeing the bottom. [embedgallery id=123373]
For Caribbean seafood and embarrassed Americans
Cheri's Cafe promises to make patrons laugh, and whether yours is a belly laugh or out of awkward nervousness, it's a promise they keep. The seafood spot has sequin-clad performers that try to get guests involved in saucy dancing contests -- the restaurant hosts lots of kids, but unless you are up for a parental talk, don't bring any old enough to understand the sexual insinuation of a banana.
For avoiding tan lines
Stop in at clothing-optional Orient Beach, filled mostly with tourists applying sunscreen in sensitive places. The nearbyPedro's Bar boasts pictures of naked patrons and sells icy drinks like a $7 mudslide you can sip (clothed) while watching parasailers glide over the turquoise sea.
For an East Coast fix
For the surreal experience of a Manhattan-ambiance restaurant steps away from Caribbean waters, stop in at Bamboo Bernies, which could have been transplanted from Midtown with its sleek low-lit design and high-end sushi, like the Sexy Salmon Roll, with eel. After, pop in to the nearby Sky Beach bar for rooftop sand and beach chairs.
Where to stay
The Sonesta Maho Beach Resort and Casino, undergoing a $3 million renovation, is ideal for travelers who want a sea breeze and tropical drink 10 minutes after landing. The hotel is within walking distance to multiple restaurants, although it is all-inclusive, covering all your meals and rum punches. The Sonesta has access to a small beach and plenty of spots to sit by the sea. Pack some patience, though - on a recent visit both power and water were out for a brief time. The hotel is offering 35 percent off for stays three nights or longer, plus $200 in resort credits for stays at least five nights, through Aug. 31. Book by April 30.
Considered one of the most unique runways in the world, pilots landing at the Princess Juliana International Airport fly directly over Maho Beach, where the landing gear seems to just barely avoid grazing beachgoer’s floppy hats. Take in the view at Sunset Bar and Grill, where you can sit at the wooden bar and watch planes descend, framed by the sunset.
Follow Alison Bowen on Twitter @reporteralison