St. Maarten has become one of the most popular Caribbean destinations for land holidays and cruise lines for many reasons; pristine beaches, a dry climate (dry enough for cactus to flourish and tourists to smile), fabulous duty free shopping, casinos, a wide variety of hotel and condominium accommodations, and proximity to neighbouring islands such as St. Bart’s, Anguilla and Saba. Special events such as the Heineken Regatta in March have become yearly trips for sailing enthusiasts. However, it is the people of St. Maarten who have created a welcoming air of civility that makes visitors feel they are special guests.

“The St. Maarten population is made up of 140 nationalities,” commented William Bell from the Tourism Office. “We’re not a melting pot – we’re a salad bowl – where everyone adds to the ‘flavour’ of our St. Maarten society.”

Canadians represent a significant portion of visitors, so much so that holiday packages are available in the summer months as well as winter.

This past soggy Canadian summer Canadians travelled to St. Maarten in record numbers. Some hotels have as much as 60 – 70% ‘Canadian content’ with guests from Toronto, Montreal, the Maritimes and Western provinces.

The island has been officially shared by The Netherlands and France since 1648.

The Dutch took the southern portion of the island, while France maintains the northern half, St. Martin. Tourism, which includes a thriving cruise industry, is one of the main economic engines of St. Maarten. The governing body of the cruise industry cites the new St. Maarten pier facilities as a model for the industry. Even during our mid-August visit, we saw at least one ship every morning.

After a hiatus of three years, we returned to St. Maarten and were impressed with the improvements to the main tourism centres, new hotels, and renovations to existing properties. We stayed at two locations: Princess Heights Resort at Dawn Beach and Great Bay Beach Resort & Casino situated on the picturesque crescent Great Bay Beach. We visited several other hotels. We rented a car for the first time and found the driving easy; opening up many options for exploring the island. While weekly (and longer) rentals are available, you can also rent from your hotel lobby – a good idea if you’re planning just a day or two of exploring; as most holiday packages include airport transfers.

Major improvements have been made to the central area in Philipsburg, the main centre on St. Maarten. Towering Royal Palms line Front Street, considered to be one of the best duty free shopping areas in the Caribbean, especially for electronic items such as digital cameras, video recorders and the like. Philipsburg is built on the shores of Great Bay, a beautiful natural harbour with clear azure waters.

An expansive boardwalk has been built along the Great Bay Beach, making it a popular spot for beachside cafés and restaurants. The walkway has also made the beach area much more accessible, and lounge chairs and umbrellas are available for a modest rental.

The infrastructure improvements opened the way for a renaissance of restaurants and boutique hotels along Front Street and the boardwalk. Take a break from shopping and try one of the beach side restaurants such as Oualichi. You can watch the passing parade on the boardwalk with the white sand and sparkling waters of Great Bay as a backdrop.

For most, the main reasons for a Caribbean holiday are the beaches and warm water. St. Maarten has 31 beaches, one for every day of the month. All beaches are open to the public, even if there is an adjacent oceanfront resort. Dawn Beach and Little Bay Beach offer fine snorkelling waters. Just across the non-existent border on the French side, you’ll find the world famous and popular Orient Beach, (in part because of its topless option). And of course, there’s the beach in front of your resort.

St Maarten has nearby sister islands that are easily accessible by ferry. Saba, St. Barth’s and Anguilla are all close by; the latter famous for its “Rich & Famous” residents and beautiful beaches. Anguilla is just a 20 minute ferry trip from Marigot, the capitol of the French side of the island and known as St. Martin.

The most popular excursion in the Caribbean is participating in a re-creation of the America’s Cup sailing race. As a crew member, you’ll be sailing on either Canada’s True North or the American Stars & Stripes, two 27 metre racing yachts. A friendly rivalry develops, and the respective Captains are sailing for victory; with bragging rights to the winner – so the competition is real!

The European influence is prominent in the large number of fine restaurants on the island. One of the most unique is located on Dawn Beach. Open for breakfast and lunch by day, Mr. Busby’s becomes Daniel’s By-The-Sea for outstanding continental cuisine in the evening. The restaurant is comprised of one section built around a large horseshoe bar, without walls and open to the prevailing gentle breeze off Dawn Bay. This structure is surrounded by a rambling deck at beach level, tables and sun umbrellas set amongst palm trees decorated with fairy lights. It’s a lovely dining experience with the sound of the ocean, cicadas singing, a cooling tropical breeze and the congenial hospitality of owner Daniel Jurzenko, who has been in the restaurant business on St. Maarten for 26 years.

St. Maarten is booming with tourism – several new big hotels are under construction. Condominiums are also being built and sold, reflecting the stability of the government, the economy and the future value of real estate investments. The government recognizes the importance of its role in providing a solid infrastructure, beginning with the beautiful new Princess Juliana Airport, to the lovely beaches, the state of the art cruise pier, and the pleasant Royal Palm lined streets for merchants and their customers in Philipsburg. A fine example is how the new boardwalk along the beach has brought people to the beach area in Philipsburg, and the subsequent investments made by businesses such as Holland House. It all combines to make St. Maarten a fine place for a sunny holiday at any time of the year.

Travel Planner

The St. Maarten Tourist Office has an informative web site: www.st-maarten.com St. Maarten has air service from most major airlines, including Air Transat, Air Canada, and American Airlines. Transat Holidays offers pre-paid all-inclusive packages from Montreal, Toronto and other Canadian cities. A great way to meet friends and family for a holiday. www.transatholidays.com

Accommodations

Princess Heights

Built in 1995, Princess Heights is a deluxe 4 Star all-suite hotel set high on a hillside with a spectacular view of Dawn Beach, and St. Bart’s on the horizon. Owned and operated by Emil Lee and his family, the hotel has recently more than doubled in size with the addition of 45 new studio, one and two bedroom suites. All have lovely balconies with spectacular views. Kitchens are equipped with stainless steel appliances, marble counter tops, and a fine array of cooking utensils and equipment. You’ll need a car to access this hilltop retreat, and to go to the beaches – if you can pry yourselves away from the picturesque pool area. Affordable luxury. www.princessheights.com

Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort & Casino

With 275 rooms, it was the first large hotel built on St. Maarten; “Great Bay’ was our home for five wonderful days and nights. The owners have recently completed a $14 million renovation to completely rebuild all the bathrooms, install extra elevators, an exterior Panorama elevator, and outfit all the rooms with new furniture. A new oceanfront infinity pool has been added, providing 3 pools for the guests. This hotel has perhaps the best location, being right on the beach that stretches for a half mile into Philipsburg, and overlooks the azure-blue waters of Great Bay, where most sunrises open the day to a new cruise ship at dock across the harbour. A perennial favourite of Transat Holidays customers, we met people from Montreal, Toronto and Calgary, many of whom were staying for two or more weeks. www.sonesta.com

Westin Dawn Beach

Recently completed, this 300 room luxury oceanfront resort on Dawn Beach has it all – including the largest salt water pool on the island. An elegant dining room, a full service Hibiscus Spa with 13 treatment rooms, plus large rooms and suites all combine to make The Westin Dawn Beach a destination for special occasions; including weddings. The hotel is fully equipped to provide all the services you’ll need to organize and host a memorable wedding. The Westin Dawn Beach is available in pre-paid package formats through Transat Holidays. www.westin.com

Holland House

boutique hotel in downtown Philipsburg, Holland House is a 54 room hotel with an outstanding location for people who love to shop, and also love the beach. Step out the front door and you’re right in the think of the stores and boutiques on Front Street, one of the Caribbean’s bests shopping districts. Step out the other entrance, and voila, you’re on Great Bay Beach. The rooms are decorated in sophisticated off-whites, and the restaurant and bar area is open to the prevailing breezes. www.hhbh.com

L’Espérance

If you’re looking for long stay accommodations at moderate rates, this family owned and operated two story hotel may your ‘home away from home’. Built around a central courtyard garden and pool, all apartments have fully equipped kitchens. L’Espérance is located in a residential area of Phillipsburg, and you’ll need a car to get around.

Sonesta Maho Beach Resort and Casino

This massive complex is a city unto itself with 537 rooms spread amongst several buildings that shelter a lovely garden and pool area, before opening up to the cliff overhanging the Caribbean Sea. Maho offers several restaurants, including the Ocean Terrace Buffet, The Palms Grill and The Point – offering continental cuisine in an elegant setting. Ideal for families and people seeking lots of action, Maho has one of the islands most popular casinos, with patrons coming from all over St. Maarten and the adjoining St. Martin to pit their skills against the croupiers and dealers. A little bit of Las Vegas in The Caribbean.