1. Where to Stay
Just across the border, ten minutes from Dutch St. Martin’s Princess Juliana airport, La Samanna isn’t cheap, but you can stay at the tony property, the only real luxury hotel on the island, for a relatively reasonable rate during the hotel’s Best Deal Days (from $675 for high season; from $395 for low). Beachfront rooms are somewhat dated-looking (bright colors, bamboo furniture, and terra-cotta floors), so get your ocean views in a remodeled deluxe room in the Main House. At the new beach bar, the infinity pool overlooks the pristine Baie Longue.
In Grand Case, the island’s gastronomic capital known for its beachside restaurant row, L’Esplanade (from $495 for high season; from $245 for low) has 24 rooms with ocean views, Balinese furniture, and fully equipped kitchens. The best bargains are the recently revamped deluxe studios, with private terraces and open-air showers. Find free beach access and lounge chairs two miles away at sister property Le Petit Hotel. Neither hotel has a restaurant, but owners Kristin and Marc Petrelluzzi (both U.S. expats), are full of recommendations for all tastes and budgets.
Book the Nacre suite at Sol e Luna, a popular restaurant turned inn in Mt. Vernon (from $180 for high season; from $150 for low), for its white on white décor and private outdoor Jacuzzi. Though the neighborhood is residential, the hotel is a quick drive from both Orient Beach and Grand Case (and ten miles from the airport) and its six rooms come with kitchenettes, expansive travertine bathrooms, and free wi-fi. If you don’t stay there, be sure to eat there: Phyllo-encrusted seven-hour lamb is a house specialty.
2. Where to Eat
For cheap eats, nothing beats the island’s lolos, or roadside barbecue joints. Most offer similar fare, but Cole Bay’s Johnny B Under the Tree is among the most famous: Former five-star-hotel chef Johnny Bridgewater grills up tender, crispy baby back ribs and whole lobsters, served with fried plantains, rice and peas, and hot foil-wrapped flat bread (559-557-5576; Tues.–Sun., 5 p.m.–midnight).
If you’re looking for something fancier than a picnic table, Rosemary’s in Marigot is a bit more restaurantlike. You’ll be so distracted by the falling-off-the-bone goat curry, you won’t even notice the views of the parking lot (Place du Marché Front de Mer; 0690-30-98-18).
For a more formal meal, head to one of the French bistros on Grand Case’s restaurant row: The 50-seat, coral-colored Le Cottage is known for its foie gras and stellar wine list.
3. What to Do
Rent a car—it’s cheaper and more convenient than taking taxis—to check out the island’s 37 stretches of white sand. On the French side, Orient Beach, once famous for its clothing-optional policy, has since cracked down on wandering naturalists from nearby nudist colony, Club Orient. There’s several bars along the two miles of beach, and you can pick up chairs, umbrellas, snorkeling gear, and surfside massages anywhere along the way. Also on the French side (but on the western half of the island), neighboring Plum Bay and Baie Longue are more secluded and significantly less populated. Surfers and snorkelers go to Plum Bay (coral reefs can be found just offshore), while Baie Longue is favored by sun worshippers. There are no services on either, so you’ll need to bring your own provisions—stock up at Le Petite Market, which has sandwiches and handmade ice cream (44 Rhein; 599-545-3322). Go to Dawn Beach, on the Dutch side, for sunrise views of St. Barts and breakfast at Mr. Busby’s Beach Bar (599 543-6828).
4. Insider’s Tip
On the Dutch side of the island, nearly everything is priced in dollars, while on the French side, many establishments (from beach vendors to restaurants) will offer a one-to-one conversion if you pay in cash (saving you about 33 percent). Even places that don’t have a one-dollar-equals-one-euro policy will have a better exchange rate than your credit card. Forget the euros—just bring lots of dollars.
5. Oddball Day
Leave your budget-conscious self on the tarmac and take a fifteen-minute puddle-jump to St. Barts to mingle with the yacht crowd for the day. Several carriers offer flights, but Air Caraïbes has the best deals (aircaraibes.com; from $140). From the airport, it’s a short walk to the Baie de St. Jean, a crescent-shaped beach lined with five-star hotels, luxury villas, and high-end shopping. (Get a new bathing suit by hard-to-find Parisian line D nu D at Filles des Iles.) Lunch at Eden Rock’s Sand Bar, a casual, beachside restaurant (where Texas oil barons and bronzed wait staff makes for excellent eye candy), then hitch a ride (it’s safe and quite common) to Gustavia where $50,000-a-night yachts clog the harbor and celebs get their Dior and Hermès fix—before heading back to “reality” (the last flight leaves around 4:30 p.m. in the winter months).
For listings, maps, and reviews of the island’s best restaurants, check out SXM Restaurants.com.
Navigate the island’s multitude of beach options with the help of Sint-Maarten.Net. The site lists every beach, with information about renting chairs, wind conditions, child safety, etc.
The Scuba Shop has outposts on both sides of the island and offers excursions ranging from PADI diving courses for beginners to shark-feeding trips for the fearless. Its Website has information on the island’s best dive sites.