St. Maarten is one of the few Caribbean islands where you can truly disconnect from the everyday world (here’s looking at you, work email). The Dutch country shares its 37 square miles with its French sister, St. Martin, making exploring a double-dose of fun while you’re in port.
But with only eight to ten hours available for exploring, you have to choose wisely. Here are our top 10 things to do (shore excursions and on your own) when you cruise to St. Maarten.
St. Maarten’s claim to fame is Maho Beach, just steps from the runway of Princess Juliana International Airport. Grab an outdoor table at Sunset Bar & Grill and watch jumbo jets fly unbelievably close to land. The adventurous hop into the water, waiting for huge waves courtesy of after blasts.
This is the closest beach to the pier, and you can walk or take the water taxi or a regular cab. Even if the cruise line offers this as an excursion, it’s worth saving money and doing it on your own. The boardwalk along Great Bay fronts a long beach. Rent chairs and umbrellas or take advantage of the free picnic tables. Everything you need is at your fingertips, from casual restaurants (think feet-in-the-sand burger joints) to snorkeling, diving and other water-sports operators. There are plenty of vendors in this area to choose from.
Technically, Marigot is on the St. Martin side. However, visitors shouldn’t pass up the chance to see a different side of the island, only a 30-minute drive from the pier. While we typically recommend cabs or water taxis, you’ll want to take the bus for this one. Look for the bus along that says “Marigot” on it. It’ll only cost you $2 both ways. There’s not a bus stop so you just stand on the main street and wait for one to arrive, and when you see it, flag it down.
The vibe in this capital “city” is distinctly French, but with a quiet, relaxed aura best taken in while sitting outside in a tiny cafe on Rue de la République. Euros are the local currency, but dollars are accepted, too. And if taking the bus sounds a little too adventurous for you, you can always book a shore excursion through the cruise line.
Once only made in the privacy of local homes, guavaberry liqueur has become one of the top souvenirs of St. Maarten. Aged rum is infused with the purple guavaberry fruit for a potent but tasty ingredient often used in cocktails. The Guavaberry Shop on Front Street gives samples of the liqueur at their tasting bar. And this is actually the shop where Guavaberry liqueur was originally made.
Don a special helmet and descend 20 feet into the sea to discover the denizens of the deep. SeaTrek, St. Maarten’s underwater adventure, is great for non-swimmers and those who want to go beyond snorkeling but aren’t scuba certified. If you book directly through SeaTrek’s website, it’ll cost $89.99. We suggest that visitors pay a little more and book directly with the cruise line ($99 on Royal Caribbean and $114 on Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line). That way if there are any issues, you won’t get left behind or you would get a full refund if the ship skipped the port. This tour typically takes 2.5 hours, so you’ll have plenty of time to explore more of St. Maarten afterwards.
Both children and adults have a hard time resisting a ride on the carousel located near popular Simpson Bay, a 15-minute taxi ride from the pier. After a few merry go ’rounds, head to the on-site restaurant for freshly-made Italian gelato, fruit sorbet, and savory or sweet crêpes. Then take a five-minute walk with your goodies to the picturesque white sand on Simpson Bay Beach for a picnic.
Enjoy a panoramic view of island neighbors Saba and St. Barth’s while riding a stallion. Tours at Lucky Stables begin in a nature reserve with a guided trail ride uphill and downhill, and then end at the beach where you and your horse can cool off in the Caribbean Sea. Be prepared to get wet! You can always book this on your own, but it’s easier to book through the cruise line. The excursion lasts three hours and will cost about $89 per person.
St. Maarten is known for its gambling establishments. Diamond Casino, near Front Street, has an impressive variety of 140 slot machines, as well as tables for roulette, poker and blackjack.
Immerse yourself in tales of the island’s Arawak Indian history and its pirate playground at the St. Maarten Museum on Front Street. The collection of original pottery, naval memorabilia and other artifacts make for an interesting excursion beyond the beach. You can either walk or take the water taxi. If it’s at the end of the day, we recommend taking the water taxi to give your feet a rest.
St. Maarten is a shopping mecca, and Front Street is a 20-minute walk or short water-taxi ride from the port. It’s $3 for a one-way ticket, or for $7 you can ride all day from various stops. The popular street is lined with more than 500 stores selling nearly everything, from exquisite jewelry to authentic island-made jams. Many duty-free goods can be 15 percent to 25 percent cheaper than U.S. stores. Know that bargaining isn’t frowned upon, especially in smaller, market-style stalls.