Saint Martin Island Smackdown: French Side vs. Dutch Side

saint martin vs sint maarten
saint martin vs sint maarten

Each week, Yahoo Travel pits rival cities against each other to determine once and for all which destination is the best. This week, the challengers are two halves of the same island: Saint Martin. 

Saint Martin is known as “the friendly island,” a Caribbean paradise amiably split between the French side (Saint Martin) and the Dutch side (Sint Maarten) since 1648. There’s no border patrol, customs, or fences between the two independently governed territories. The two sides say they’re friends, but after 366 years of being neighbors, don’t doubt for a minute that each part of the island has a few things it would like to say about the other one. Both the French and the Dutch are convinced that their portion of the island is really the best place to visit, live, and play. So here’s a smackdown of what each side of Saint Martin would say about each other if they weren’t quite so friendly.

The Case for Saint Martin — The French Side

The French side of Saint Martin is what island life is all about: a laid-back attitude, fine food, pristine beaches, unspoiled nature, and an appreciation for the finer things in life. There’s no need for the cruise ships, casinos, and nightclubs of the Vegas-meets-Caribbean Dutch side of the island. We have culture, nature, French and local cuisine, outdoor fun, and, oh yes, topless beaches. Want McDonald’s and soulless time shares? Go to St. Maarten, or just stay home. If you want to experience a unique taste of France flavored with some hot Caribbean spice, come to Saint Martin.   

Vital statistics: Population: about 36,000. Size: 20 square miles. Status: “Overseas Collectivity” of France. Language: French. Currency: Euro.

saint martin
saint martin

(Photo: Susan Smith/Flickr)

Food: Saint Martin is a French colony, and as such, it has a dedication to quality cuisine. The laid-back area of Grand Case features fine French dining at L’Auberge Gourmande and the French-Caribbean fusion of Bistrot Caraïbes, while larger Marigot is lined with restaurants along the waterfront, featuring their own versions of a bouillabaisse with fresh fish. But it’s not just about French cooking: Saint Martin is full of lolos, the open air eateries in the style of neighborhood barbecues where you can chomp on grilled spare ribs and Caribbean specialties on paper plates on communal tables — so throw out your misconceptions that the French side is all about snobbery and unapproachable haute cuisine.

Ti Punch
Ti Punch

All the ingredients for Ti Punch (Photo: Rocky Dogg Dog/Flickr)

Drink: You ever hear of French wine? We have it here, stored carefully in underground cellars. And don’t forget about tasting some Ti Punch, a powerful cocktail made with rum, cane sugar, and lime. For best results, try some while listening to live reggae music at a full-moon party and bonfire at Kali’s Beach Bar.

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loterie farm
loterie farm

Loterie Farm tours offer zip-lining and more (Photo: Loterie Farm/Facebook)

Fun: While Saint Martin has a slower pace of life compared with the frantic Dutch across the border, there’s plenty of fun to be had: zip-lining through the trees in the Loterie Farm nature reserve adventure park, boating out to Pinel and Tintamarre Islands for a day of snorkeling, kite surfing, kayaking, and many more water activities. On shore, the French side of the island has more territory than that of the Dutch, and it isn’t overrun by condo developments, so you have much more room to hike and explore. The French side not only hosts its own Mardi Gras Carnival but also extended the music, food, and dance party in its Harmony Nights celebration every Tuesday night from January to April in Grand Case. Over on the Dutch side, their idea of fun is to join a thousand people waddling off a cruise ship and into the first tourist bar.

Shopping the local market (Photo: Gobucks2/Flickr)

Shopping: Saint Martin has a good waterfront market, unique art galleries, quirky little stores, and even a parfumerie where you can blend your own scents. Sint Maarten, on the other hand, gives the feeling that it’s just one large airport duty-free shop. Saint Martin may not be as built up as the Dutch side, but after stopping at their Cartier or Hugo Boss, you’ll realize it’s no howling wilderness either. 

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Fort Louis
Fort Louis

Fort Louis (Steve Krause/Flickr)

Historical icon: The ruins of 18th-century Fort Louis dominate the hilltop over Marigot, providing panoramic views as a reward to those who hike to the top. The substantial walls and columns make it a much more interesting destination than the handful of rocks left at Fort Amsterdam on the Dutch side.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Kissing policy: The French style of one peck on each cheek as a greeting, a vast improvement over shaking hands.

Nudity policy: Wear what you want on the beaches. Toplessness is tolerated on the sands, with several sections of beaches being completely nude, although the typical rule applies: Most of the people going au naturel are those you’d rather see with their clothes on.

saint martin
saint martin

(Photo: Getty Images)

Beaches: With much more unspoiled shoreline than Sint Maarten, the French side definitely has the advantage for beaches, with popular Orient Bay Beach drawing crowds, and the peaceful Friar’s Bay and appropriately named Happy Bay providing all the white sands and blue waters you’d expect on a Caribbean visit. Over on the Dutch side, go to the beach, and you have a chance of getting sandblasted by a low-flying jet.

The Case for Sint Maarten — The Dutch Side

Sint Maarten’s main city of Philipsburg is unique on the island because it’s the only real city. In Saint Martin, in the words of Gertrude Stein, “there’s no there there.” The French side has just a few hotels and occasional blocks of houses and shops, but no place you could really call a town. Philipsburg has a main street, cruise ships, cosmopolitan restaurants, casinos, and clubs, and people there practice a concept alien to the French: courtesy. When people on the French side want to have fun, they come here, and you should too. Sint Maarten has a cruise port, the airport, and the majority of buildings and businesses on the island. And of course the number one reason to skip the French side of the island is that the place is positively infested by French people, with their “Je ne parle pas anglais” snobbery and their delusion that they’re living on the Champs-Élysées. Guess what, Frenchies, you’re not in Paris anymore. Stop your whining, put down your wine, grab a guavaberry liqueur like us in Sint Maarten, and enjoy island life like it was meant to be. 

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Vital statistics: Population: About 40,000. Size: 13 square miles. Status: “Constituent Country” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Language: Officially Dutch, but essentially it’s English. Currency: Netherlands Antillean guilder (or florin), which is pretty obscure, so the U.S. dollar is used widely.

Rogoku Roll
Rogoku Roll

Rogoku Roll (Bamboo Sint Maarten/Facebook)

Food: A cosmopolitan variety of cuisines, from European to Asian and American. Freedom of choice! There’s a reason why they call Sint Maarten “The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean.” You’ll see many people from the French side coming over to dine out of desperation, as there’s only so many baguettes and snails a person can handle. Try some fresh fish kebabs at the Mediterranean-influenced Crave or some local barbecue at Lee’s Roadside Grill; the sushi (and cocktails) at Bamboo Bernies are excellent.

sint maarten
sint maarten

Some guavaberry is not to be missed. (Photo: Corbis Images)

Drink: The French boast about their wines, but guess what? You’re on a Caribbean island — it’s too hot to store or drink wine. Have some rum or guavaberry liqueur, mon! Local product is made at the famous Sint Maarten Guavaberry Co. in Philipsburg. And with the cruise ship visitors, there’s a large supply of duty-free alcohol that one would need for a beachside happy hour or to take to your rental property to pre-party for a night out at the dance clubs. The Philipsburg Boardwalk is lined with tropical-themed bars where you can grab an umbrella drink and properly appreciate a Caribbean sunset.   

sint maarten
sint maarten

The fun begins at night (Photo: Corbis Images)

Fun: They criticize Sint Maarten for having casinos, as if that’s a bad thing. It’s simply that the option is there, and that’s what Sint Maarten offers — variety — unlike the French side, where you can basically just go to the beach, then have a long dinner and stare at the beach, which isn’t a bad thing, but it does get old. For active fun, go for a hike up Mount Concordia, scuba-dive on the reefs, bike the streets, rent a Jet Ski or a fishing charter. After the sun sets, the fun kicks into another gear in Sint Maarten, where nightlife options abound.  

sint maarten
sint maarten

Island crafts (Photo: Peter Lee/Flickr)

Shopping: There’s a reason why cruise ships dock here: Sint Maarten is tax free and duty free, and prices are quoted in dollars. It couldn’t be easier. Come on a non-cruise ship day and get some deals. Stroll along the Boardwalk or Front Street for jewelry stores, boutiques, souvenir shops, art galleries, and adventure gear; visit the Craft Market — this is the place where you can find whatever you need to properly enjoy island life and take a bit home with you.

Fort Amsterdam
Fort Amsterdam

Fort Amsterdam (Photo: Marc AuMarc/Flickr)

Historical icon: Despite what the French would have you believe, there’s plenty of culture and history in Sint Maarten. The scenic ruins of Fort Amsterdam, with its 17th-century walls and cannons overlooking the Caribbean, provide some historical context with your view, and Philipsburg’s centrally located Courthouse was built in 1793 by John Philips, who did such a good job that they named the town after him.

Kissing policy: Three times for a greeting, alternating cheeks. One more than the French! Who says the Dutch aren’t passionate?

Nudity policy: Keep your clothes on, please — we’re not savages. Although adults do have the option of visiting some nightclubs where performers may be displaying more than their dance moves.

sint maarten
sint maarten

Mullet Bay (Photo: Richie Diesterheft/Flickr)

Beaches: Sint Maarten’s Mullet Bay is the top-rated beach on the island, with expansive white sands and calm waters. Cupecoy Beach is a prime spot for viewing sunsets, with towering limestone cliffs, and Dawn Beach, as you’d expect, offers up some excellent sunrises. Hit the surf at Mullet Bay, or escape the crowds at secluded Guana Bay Beach. Like its food, fun, and shopping, Sint Maarten’s beaches offer variety and quality you won’t find on the French side. 

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