I realized if I don’t start writing about the latest trip soon, I’m going to forget everything I wanted to tell you about St. Maarten (major import: tourists, major export: guava berry rum). I’m going to break this down the way I did my Mardi Gras Packing and Survival Guide, so know up front this is written by a woman who is pretty low maintenance and kind of frugal. This is a mash-up of things to pack and tidbits to know, and I’ll add to it as I remember things.
St. Maarten is two countries on one Caribbean island: Dutch (Sint Maarten) and French (Saint Martin). If you are staying on the Dutch side do NOT bother to exchange any currency – dollars are accepted and expected everywhere. You’ll see prices listed in US dollars as well so don’t worry about doing conversions in your head. On the French side they take dollars as well but the euro is the main currency. I’m told there are some places where they advertise $1 = 1 euro so look for them on the French side for a deal, but I don’t know how prevalent they are. I was only in Marigot for an afternoon and I didn’t notice any; most of my time was spent in Dutch Maho, Philpsburg and in between. Know that if you are bargaining (and you should) you’ll get a better deal if you are paying in cash. Plus, you will probably have a transaction fee every time you charge something (Chase is 3%).
I hate taxis. HATE. So finding out about the public bus system made me very happy. “Bus system” is not what you are used to though – by “bus” I mean passenger van. Buses are plentiful and go many places that tourists want to go. In fact, most places tourists want to go. Buses come along just as frequently as taxis (which are also usually passenger vans) and are way cheaper. So you are riding the same type of vehicle and with all the congested traffic you are getting to where you are going in about the same amount of time, even with stops for people getting on and off. Which reminds me – please don’t rent a car. There are a ridiculous number of cars on the road and we don’t need to add any more. Especially if you get confused by roundabouts (they use them instead of traffic lights) and don’t have the balls to pull out into oncoming traffic constantly. Americans will just cause accidents or back up things and get a serious case of road rage. Nobody seems to get angry by what I consider to be crazy-ass driving. No anger, no apologies, no middle fingers, just normal everyday transportation to the locals. I read one web site that advised the number one thing you must do is rent a car. That was obviously written by an idiot or someone working for a rental company. If you have a special beach you really must see (like Orient beach which has a clothing optional section) then you might end up taking a taxi for a short ride or walking a bit but other than that, busses have you covered. There are 37 beaches on the island – you can get to several (Mullet, Maho, Simpson, Marigot, Philpsburg, Cole, Potence) easily without taxis. If you DO take a taxi, know that there are set prices, not meters. Find out ahead of time what the cost should be. For example, it is $7 for two people to go to Maho from Princess Juliana Airport by taxi, but only $1.50 per person to go by bus. (And btw, the airport is literally walking distance to the Maho hotels.) To go from Maho to Philpsburg is $20 for two people and $2 per person by bus. You get it; I’m in favor of the bus. Look for the sign on their dashboard in the window to tell you which direction they are going and wave them down. There are some actual bus stops but they’ll stop pretty much anywhere they have room to pull off the road. Some want to be paid up front and some wait until you are leaving. Trial and error. If you are only going about halfway, the fare is $1 or $1.50. I learned to give the driver a $5 for two people and wait for change rather than guess.
Philipsburg (Dutch side):
We spent two afternoons there wandering around and shopping. This is where the cruise ships come in and when any are in port you have more people bugging the shit out of you to buy things when you are walking along the beach boardwalk. I felt like “no thank you” was the only thing coming out of my mouth on Saturday, but on Tuesday it was much quieter with no ships. May is the start of the low season which is really nice when it comes to smaller crowds and also gets you bargaining power when buying things. I really suck at bargaining but I did get a good deal (I think) on some larimar jewelry because I was only willing to pay what I thought was fair and the lady in the store went with it – as long as I paid in cash. I didn’t do so well at the outdoor market because people just start talking so fast and pushing things in your hand and acting like you are robbing them with the good prices they are giving you and it’s just exhausting. I love shopping but hate the pressure of markets and trying to make a deal. Try to relax and don’t rush any purchases. Look at what everyone has to offer, what they are charging and really check the quality of what you have in your hand before handing over the money. I would even suggest that you don’t let them take the item from you to wrap it up in case they give you something of lesser quality. I know that sounds paranoid but many ladies were selling identical larimar necklaces – some were sterling and some were silver colored crap. Btw, larimar is a light blue colored gemstone found only in the Dominican Republic so it can be pricey and you’ll find it advertised as the “Stone of the Caribbean”. They also sell light blue colored amazonite and howlite (blue howlite is often sold as turquoise), so find out what larimar really looks like in a legit jewelry store or online so you know what you’re buying. Philipsburg also has a big souvenir store called Rima which is a lot like our Wings or other beach stores selling sundresses, shell jewelry, sandals and that kind of assorted stuff that seems like a good idea on vacation but you never use any other time. It’s a giant yellow building with yellow flags on top and you should stop in there first to see if they have something you want – you will get it cheaper there than anywhere else on the island. If you take the bus into town you’ll see it when you are coming in on Pondfill Road. Stop there and check it out – plus they have a bathroom! We found several places (one on Old Street, one on Front Street) with great prices on cartons of cigarettes in P-burg as well. Camel, Marlboro, Newport etc. for $17 and $18 a carton. I don’t usually support my husband’s smoking habit but we couldn’t pass up that deal. We tried looking for sneakers for him, but every shoe store we went into (there are lots) didn’t have anything cheaper than the US except for some total crap. Don’t expect to find a sneaker deal on Nikes, Converse, Pumas or other big brands unless you get someone willing to bargain with you.
Marigot (French side):
We spent a Sunday morning wandering around so many shops were closed, but they were the same kind of places that P-burg has, although there is also a mall. Since I’m not in the market for a Rolex or anything Cartier it was no great loss. To get there from Maho we had to change busses at “The Traffic Man” (statue) roundabout in the Cole Bay area and hop on another one. The island borders are open – no stopping for immigration checkpoints or anything like that, it’s just like going from one state to another. Marigot has a ferry to get to Anguilla and their marina is a good place to spot colorful fish along the rocks. Lots of fat lizards around too and we even saw one bright green iguana, but he was having none of us and our camera. You can climb up to the top of a hill by the marina and visit the remains of Fort St. Louis (free). It’s not a bad hike and you can do it in sandals. Marigot has a public market by the water that is pretty much the same stuff as P-Burg and across the street from the market we found restrooms! That’s always what I look for when travelling. Be prepared to tip the attendant, and this is one of those bathrooms where they remind you NOT to put the paper in the toilet, but in the trash can instead. Yes, not everyone’s plumbing is like the standard US toilets where you can flush anything you feel like. I really try to follow directions but when you’ve been doing it one way all your life, it’s easy to forget and drop the paper in. I probably have a 50% success rate.
Maho (Dutch Side):
This is where I stayed – at the Sonesta Maho (all-inclusive). Kind of a one horse town but I liked it. The main attraction in Maho is the beach because it butts up to the landing strip for Juliana airport. If you’ve ever seen pictures on a beach with a jumbo jet that looks like it’s about to land right on top of people, that’s Maho. The Sunset bar even lists major landing times if you want to stand out there and try to get pictures. The big fun is watching (notice I said watching) the people who like to stand directly behind the jet engines at take off. Some hang on to the airport fence, some plant their feet in the beach sand, and cars stop to enjoy a blast of jet fuel right in the face. That’s not my idea of fun, but watching it is. Sand flies and people generally fall over while hats and sunglasses get blown into the ocean. I never got tired of watching planes take off and land and I could see it from my room at the resort (I’ll write about the Sonesta for my next post). If you get tired of Maho beach (it is kind of small and steep) it’s a nice walk to either Mullet beach or Simpson Bay beach. Know that beach access is free all over the island – no one can put up fences to keep a person out. Even if you have to walk through a resort to get there, they are supposed to let you access the beach. In Simpson Bay we walked through the outdoor seating at a restaurant and I felt weird about it until I learned that rule later. Other excitement in Maho is the Casino Royale, which is your average casino with free drinks and popcorn, slot machines and table games. They have a cabaret show on Friday and Saturdays as well (free). There is the normal assortment of jewelry and souvenir shops, a small market/liquor store, a pharmacy and restaurants. Because I had an all-inclusive resort, I ate on the property all the time so I can’t tell you how anything else was, but Cheri’s café has a fun show every evening (I think @9pm).
Key Items to Have (besides the obvious Caribbean vacation stuff):
- The usual beach stuff (bathing suit, sunglasses, sunscreen, and hat) but check with your hotel and see if they provide pool/beach towels. If you are a light packer who hates to check luggage, not bringing a towel if you don’t have to is a big space saver (apologies to Douglas Adams).
- Insect repellant is pretty important if you get bit by things – some people never get bothered by mosquitoes but I’m not one of those people. You don’t need a lot, just a little spray tube of Off! For your legs at night if you are wandering around out of the ocean breeze. I learned this the hard way the first night and itched like craaaazy the rest of the trip. Plus, I looked like I had small pox. So sexy on vacation. If you forget you can buy it everywhere.
- Ear plugs. Wherever you are, there will most likely be a club nearby playing music until God Knows When. And if you don’t go to sleep until God Knows When this will not be an issue for you. There certainly was a club across the little bay where we were staying and ear plugs kept me very happy at night and I didn’t want to kill anyone.
- Dress clothes? You might be staying at a resort with a restaurant where “casual elegant” is the dress code. What that means is very subjective but in general the first rule is NO FLIP FLOPS. Men should pack a pair of khakis or dressier shorts and a shirt with buttons, as well as dressier mandals or boat shoes. Women can get away with most sundresses but not swimsuits or cover-ups and anything but flip flops pretty much. Or don’t eat at the fancy places. We could have, but were perfectly happy with our buffet where there was no waiting and a huge selection.
- Travel umbrella. Showers can pop up suddenly and drench you, so stick one of these in your bag when you are out and about. Funny cautionary tale (funny now, that is): If it starts to pour and you are walking on painted concrete, tile, or other materials that get slippery when wet DO NOT break into a sprint trying to run somewhere dry. Just accept the drenching; it’s warm out anyway. Otherwise, you’ll end up on your back with a possible concussion. And when your vision goes from double back to single and you’ve checked to see that you don’t have a bloody head wound, your next thought will be how many people may have seen you wipe out. That’s especially relevant if you are wearing a short sundress that ended up around your waist and you chose to go commando that evening. Just sayin’.
St. Maarten charges a departure tax of $30 per person but whenever I’ve gone to a country with that tax, it’s been built into by ticket price already. Check with your air carrier to make sure so you don’t save money you could have spent somewhere else – although, there is also plenty of shopping at the airport. Remember to take the usual precautions when out and about with your security – travel in well lit places at night, don’t leave your purse at a table and walk away, keep your most important things locked in the hotel safe and know where your wallet is on you at all times. I say this not because I think St. Maarten is an unsafe place (it’s perfectly safe), but people on vacation everywhere tend to be dumbasses and there are always those willing to take advantage of that. People are friendly but you should still have a healthy level of paranoia, and please don’t buy any drugs (you’ll probably be offered at least once). We’ve seen enough episodes of Locked Up Abroad, haven’t we?