St. Maarten has shared a 37-square-mile island with French nation St. Martin for hundreds of years but the two are quite different from each other. The Dutch side feels distinctly Caribbean with its casinos, bars, 37 beaches and just about every water sport you can think of. The French side has a calmer, more European feel to it, from its nude beaches to French-speaking people and even the eateries. Both sides of the island pack in lots activities for all ages and interests. The only downside to this port of call is you’ll have to take a cab, a water taxi or book an excursion to get to almost all of the attractions. But the good news is you won’t have to go through border patrol or customs.
Here are a few favorite activities and things to do when you cruise to St. Maarten. We’ve broken the activities down based on your traveling companions, from things to do when you have kids in tow to things to do when it’s just you and your friends.
For Families With Young Kids
Feed the Animals (It’s OK!)
St. Maarten Zoological Park & Botanical Garden is a short cab ride from the pier ($5 to $10 taxi ride, depending on the number of passengers) and is the largest zoological park in the Caribbean. More than 300 birds, reptiles, fish and mammals (including the most adorable monkeys) call this space home. Children will get a kick out of Captain Hodges Playground with its interactive pirate ship replica, swings and slides. The zoo is also a great place to teach kids about nature and wildlife. Admission is $5 for kids and $10 for adults, and the entire zoo is wheelchair accessible.
For Families With Older Kids
Play at a Water Wonderland
Teens and tweens will love the options at Aqua Mania Adventures, a tour operator at nearby Simpson Bay Resort. Guided snorkel tours, wave runners and even parasailing guarantee boredom isn’t an option. The Calypso catamaran provides a gentle cruise for those who like to see the sea in slow motion.
Go on an Amazing Race-Style Treasure Hunt
Adventure-seeking duos will find adrenaline-fueled activities through TriSport, with locations at Simpson Bay in St. Maarten and Marigot in French St. Martin. Not only are kayaking, boogie boarding and bike rentals available, the company hosts an Amazing Race-style treasure hunt in downtown Philipsburg that’s both exciting and educational.
Explore the Sea (Without Getting Wet)
Those who aren’t beachy-keen can get close-ups of creatures of the deep in Atlantis Adventure’s SeaWorld Explorer. The semi-submarine is a fascinating way to have an underwater experience without getting wet. The company transfers guests from the cruise pier to the vessel docked at Grand Case Beach in St. Martin. It’s about half the price if you book through the company versus booking through the cruise line.
Get Blown Away
One of the most dramatic strands of beach in the Caribbean is Maho Beach. It’s just steps from Princess Juliana International Airport, which is a 10-minute cab ride from the ship and next to the Sonesta Resort. Jumbo jets fly mere feet above the sea and make exhilarating tarmac landings. The planes roar and blast, creating knock-’em-down-winds and waves for daredevils waiting in the water.
Swim in Your Birthday Suit
Orient Beach, on French St. Martin, is a popular place to catch some rays free of tan lines. Why? This 1.5-mile sandy spot is clothing optional, European-style. A 30-minute taxi ride from the port is $20 for two-people (less per person with more passengers), although most cruise lines offer a decent-priced (around $60) four-hour package including a welcome drink, lunch, beach chair and umbrella. There’s a nudist resort to the far right side of the beach, so expect to see free-spirited folks in the buff.
For Solo Cruisers
Search for Sea Life
There are plenty of beaches around the island, but those hoping to avoid a large, cruise-line-sponsored snorkel excursion should take a $15 cab ride to Dawn Beach, on St. Maarten’s eastern coast. There, you can mingle up close with wrasse, parrotfish and sergeant majors darting around Technicolor coral. The water, though sparkling clear, can be wavy depending on the day, so use a life preserver (snorkel equipment is available from beach vendors) if you’re not a strong swimmer.
Laze on the Beach
Mullet Bay Beach is near the airport, a five-minute walk from boisterous Maho Beach, and a 10-minute cab ride from the cruise terminal. Here, the vibe is more chill and better for those seeking sunning by the palm trees and swimming in the clear, sandy-bottomed sea. Rent chairs and umbrellas from the vendors ($15 for two chairs and an umbrella) and bask in this tranquil treat that locals visit on weekends.
For the Mature Crowd
Try Your Luck
St. Maarten is known for its casinos, and the chance to dance with Lady Luck is available at Maho Bay’s glitzy Casino Royale, the largest casino on the island. This place has more than 400 slot machines, 21 gaming tables, bingo and even gambling lessons for the novice player.
Join the Culture Club
The St. Maarten Museum, on busy Front Street, is a wonderful way to learn that history matters. Items from the Arawak people and naval history offer a glimpse of the island beyond the beach. Artifacts from pottery to pirate memorabilia are only a few of the cultural and archeological exhibits on display.