European sophistication meets the warm laid-back nature of the Caribbean in the small and beautiful island of St. Maarten. This popular destination in the eastern Caribbean is found in the lesser Antilles Archipelago. We love this cruise destination so much we won’t just be covering things to do in Philipsburg, St. Maarten on the Dutch side but also some awesome things on the French side too!
St. Maarten is a world record holder for being the smallest island in the world to host two nations. Sint Maarten as called by the Dutch and St. Martin by the French, is a 37 sq mile island that features all the charm of the Caribbean.
The island has gorgeous powdery sand beaches, charming European-style towns and green rolling hills in its backdrop.
On top of that, it’s home to a variety of plants and animal species including the largest collection of butterflies in the Caribbean. All this combined with the varying cultures of its inhabitants makes it the perfect cruise destination in the Antilles.
When cruising to St. Maarten, you will get to enjoy both cultures and traditions of the Dutch and French as you freely cross the border between these two nations living side by side on the island.
Expect to enjoy a mixture of water sports adventures, exploration tours, delicious Caribbean-style French cuisine and a perfect beach day. To help you plan your trip there, here is a list of things to do on a port day in St. Maarten:
St. Maarten Port Information
To start with, you will enjoy docking at St. Maarten as tendering is not necessary. Your ship will dock on the Dutch side of the island at Philipsburg, where all large vessels such as cruise ships dock.
Docking at the island is smooth, courtesy of the large pier that accommodates up to 7 ships. Don’t be alarmed, however, as you will rarely dock with 6 other ships. And even if it happens, the island has plenty of attractions which helps spread out the masses.
To get around the island you will need a vehicle and luckily transport is readily available at the end of the short pier. There are water taxis, vehicles, trams, buses and even ATV’s at the transport stand.
Getting a taxi, rented vehicle or any other means of transportation is easy in St. Maarten. And best of all the taxi charges are standardized by the government. Just walk up to the transport booth at the end of the pier and choose from a number of choices availed to you.
1. Explore the Town of Philipsburg
Before taking a taxi tour of the island, it’s best to start with a brief walking tour of the nearby town of Philipsburg. It takes one 10-20 minutes to get to the heart of the colorful town of Philipsburg located 1 mile away from the pier.
You can do this by taking a scenic walk on the Philipsburg boardwalk or go sightseeing and window-shopping on the waterfront street a block behind the boardwalk.
Phillipsburg has a lot of Dutch charm to offer and there is always a festive mood on their end of the island. Enjoy shopping beautiful jewelry, sampling exotic rum drinks made from rare guava berries or hit the Casinos and try your luck.
Let the rich aroma of Caribbean cuisines guide you to an eatery, and grab a quick bite, before getting on with the rest of the day’s activities.
You can buy all your St. Maarten souvenirs from Amazon by going here.
Downtown is a hive of activity and a major part of that are the small electronic stores. You’ll often find crew members buying there new phones and devices as the price can be much lower than in the U.S.
The first beach you will come across on the island is Great Bay beach which is readily accessible from the boardwalk. You can choose to stop here, just relax, splash a bit and take in the views of the gorgeous island.
However, if you are a more adventurous soul, there is much to see and do in both the Dutch and French side. So, get to the port early to have the best of the two places.
2. Great Bay Beach
The first beach you will come across on the island is Great Bay beach which is readily accessible from the boardwalk.
This is the most convenient beach for a cruiser not wanting to wander far from the cruise terminal as it’s located just a short distance from the cruise port.
Great Bay Beach is a 2 mile long stretch of white sandy beach that is located at the heart of Philipsburg about a 15-20minute walk from the cruise terminal.
The beach features all necessary amenities for your comfort including sun loungers, umbrellas, showers, clean bathrooms, and restaurants.
Pro Tip: Pass the hawkers at the beach’s entrance, trying to sell you packages and get better deals once on the beach. Most deals include free drinks for chair and umbrella rentals.
Spend your day at Great Bay Beach enjoying the shallow calm crystal clear waters. And if you need a break, the best duty-free shopping in Philipsburg is just a stone’s throw away.
3. Tour of the Island
A quick tour of the island with all its highlights is the best way to explore St. Maarten. The tour can be done through a boat excursion around the island’s coastline with brief stops in major tourist areas.
It can also be done on land via buses or taxis. You can do this via an excursion booked with your cruise line or a DIY tour. If you choose to explore on your own, then you can take a taxi at the taxi stand at the end of the pier. The taxis charge one fixed price and the trick here is to go in a large group of at least 8 people to lower the cost per head.
As is common in the Caribbean most taxi drivers double as tour guides, the same is true in St. Maarten. This drivers/guides will take you on a guided tour around the island starting from the Dutch sidean then to the French side stopping briefly at popular tourist attractions.
The best thing about a DIY trip is that you can choose to alight at any stop that interests you and continue on your own with no questions asked. Just don’t lose track of time, lest your boat leaves you.
On this tour, you will learn a lot of interesting history about the island and the humorous stories on how the two nations decided on where to divide the island. You will get to do a lot of sightseeing so have your cameras ready to capture those perfect shots of the beauty and wonder of the place.
4. Wild Guava Berry Liquor Tasting
One should probably start the day with a level head, but this made hard when you visit one of the most popular places on the Dutch side, the Guava Berry Liquor Emporium. Rum is not the only reason to visit this emporium, but also to learn the colonial history of the town.
To hear ancient tales of how the Rum was made in people’s houses from wild rare guava berries found on the island. The emporium also showcases and sells a variety of unique Caribbean spices. Once a tour of the emporium is done you are welcomed to sample various rum and guava berry liquors.
You can actually get popular Tortuga Caribbean Rum Cake and more from Amazon.
5. Shop in Marigot
Once done at the Dutch side celebrate visiting two countries within just minutes as you cross the border over to the French side. Explore the beautiful mountainous side on the French’s turf and visit its capital of Marigot town.
It is the busiest place on the French side. Here is where you will shop for all those chic French fashions and unique French souvenirs. And you should purpose to shop here if you fancy European designer brands because the prices of items here are at times 40% cheaper than at European retail outlets.
Visit the open market bazaar and peruse till you find what you are looking for, or that which catches your eye’s attention. Besides that, you can also try the famous French cuisine.
Enjoy exquisitely made French-Caribbean cuisines including freshly made baguettes. Live the life of luxury, sophistication, and pleasure while you wine and dine like a royal in this town. Only be ready to part with a small fortune when all is done.
6. Enjoy Great Views
Besides shopping and eating, the next best thing to do while on the French side is to hike up the green hills in its background. One such hill just a few yards from Marigot’s busy center hosts one of St. Martin’s historical monuments, Fort Louis.
Take the mountainside staircase up the steep hill to get to the fort at the top. It will all be worth it once you see the view of the island and its surrounding neighbors from the advantageous panoramic view afforded to you up there. You should definitely carry a camera to capture all this.
7. Orient Beach
While still on the French side, visit the most popular beach on St. Maarten, Orient beach. The beach sure lives up to this praise and doesn’t disappoint. Graced with a long stretch of white powdery sand beach and crystal clear blue waters, Orient beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean.
Grab a beach towel, umbrella or a sun lounger and enjoy a perfect beach day at this place. Lazy around under the clear blue skies and warm weather sipping on cold cocktails. However, being that this is a French beach, be ready to encounter naturalists in its optional clothing section.
8. Visit the Chill and Fun, Loterie Farm
Visit the Loterie Farm found on one side of Pic Paradis. It is a beautiful resort dotted with beautiful wooden cabanas hidden among the trees. It features a large pool, restaurants and large picnic-play grounds. This is where you want to take a large group of friends or family for a fun hangout.
There is fun for all ages offered by the zip line courses, hikes and boat trips offered here. It’s also a very beautiful place to have a wedding at. The zip line course at this farm dubbed the extreme fly zone shouldn’t be missed. It runs from top of Pic Paradis (the highest point on the island) to the farm below.
9. Go on a Hike
For the energetic and adventurous individual, hiking in St. Maarten is a must do. Just above the Loterie farm are two observation decks found on top of the mountain at the magnificent Pic Paradis point. The highest point on St. Maarten. Take a hike through the forest and enjoy panoramic views of the surroundings including the neighboring island of Anguilla.
10. Flying Adventures
Speaking of panoramic views, check out the Flying Dutchman zip line course at the Rockland Estate which is located in historic Emilio Wilson Estate. Enjoy the rich history behind this old plantation estate. Then take a ride on the famous sky ride, a chairlift suspended from a flight cable hundreds of feet above the ground.
We posted about the opening of this new zip line shore excursion right here.
This lift will take you on a relaxing and scenic ride up the mountain. Where you will receive a short orientation before getting strapped onto the zip line cable and beginning the 1050ft descent down the mountain.
Enjoy the picturesque scenery of the vast blue waters, and the lush green countryside as you zoom your way down the mountain.
Once the Flying Dutchman course is over, get onto yet another exhilarating ride on the schooner ride, a slide running down the rest of the mountain up to the farm. Grab a tube and hold on as you slide through the forest careening and bending at every curve to get to the bottom.
11. Explore on an ATV
Another way to see this island is on an ATV. Take a tour of the island on top of this powerful bikes, navigating the rugged terrain on dirt paths through the forest areas, and on the rugged coastlines. Enjoy the thrill of the challenge as you drive at full speed embracing the beauty of St Maarten.
12. Snorkel and Snuba
Have you secretly desired to scuba dive and have never had a chance to do so? Then don’t miss out on the opportunity to do so in Philipsburg, St. Maarten. Most cruise lines and local tour operators offer a snuba excursion for diving beginners and amateurs, where you are allowed to dive without a tank, but with an air pipe tethered to air tanks on the surface of the water.
There are many snorkeling and diving spots around St. Martin which have clear warm waters that allow light to sip through making them perfect for this activity. Most of the snorkeling is done on Simpson Bay found on the Dutch side or Mullet Bay beach adjacent to Maho beach.
Browse travel snorkel for your cruise vacation by clicking here.
13. Butterfly Farm
If you are a nature lover then you won’t want to miss the Butterfly Farm at St. Maarten tucked away amidst the mountains on the French side. The butterfly nature reserve hosts over 100 species of butterflies from everywhere in the world.
Enjoy interacting with these beautiful creations as they flatter and lay kisses around you. You can book this activity as an excursion with your cruise ship or visit the place by taking a taxi there. The best time to visit is early in the morning when young butterflies emerge from their cocoons.
14. Maho Beach
One of the most popular things to do in St. Maarten is to watch airplanes land at Princess Julia International airport. You might wonder why this is so, and well it’s for a valid reason. The airport is nestled between a mountain on one end and a beach on the other. Maho beach aligns perfectly with the runway at Princess Julia airport.
Thus, it affords people the chance gaze at the belly of giant 747s as they fly extremely low over the beach to touch ground at the runway. That explains the strange photos you might have seen of planes flying at almost an arm’s length above people on a beach.
That beach is Maho beach in St. Martin, make sure to stop by here before the end of your trip. Take some photos and cringe at the overwhelming feeling of getting sandblasted.
15. Mullet Bay Beach
Though airplane watching at Maho beach is an out of the world experience, it is not something that you want to experience for long. That’s why you should head on over to the adjacent Mullet Bay beach just nearby, which is sheltered from the noise and activities of the airport.
It has a beautiful stretch of sand and clear waters that are perfect for snorkeling and other water sports.
Get all your handy beach accessories from Amazon before your cruise.
16. Boat Trips to Anguilla
However, if you fancy more private and secluded beaches, you can charter a boat to the nearby island of Anguilla. Anguilla is endowed with virgin beaches that feature pristine white sandy stretches.
It’s the best place to enjoy a perfect beach day. A boat transfer only takes 30 minutes to get to the island. You can book an excursion to Anguilla via your ship or local tour operators.
17. Pinel Island
Pinel Island is one of St. Martin’s best kept secrets. It is located on Orient Bay and is accessible by boat from the Cul de Sac. This is a must-visit island while on the French side of St.Martin. It has soft white beaches, great hiking opportunities, and plenty of snorkeling. The island features some of the best beaches in St. Martin.
You can visit the main beach or take a 5-10minutes hike to the deserted side of the island for more beaches (note they might be clothing optional). The far left of the beach offers great snorkeling.
There are at least three restaurants on the island that serve everything from seafood to BBQ and local specials. For just a $6 per person boat ride, you can enjoy yourself on this remote island.
18. Parrott Ville Bird Sanctuary
Another hidden gem in St. Maarten is Parrott Ville Bird Sanctuary. If you are looking for a non-touristy one-on-one experience with nature, then this is the place to go. The sanctuary features many species of colorful parrots. Whom you can feed with unique cups of seeds while knowledgeable, caring guides tell you more about them.
The sanctuary also has a herb garden where you can learn a lot about the herbs of the island and a cool small museum showing relics of the past century.
Located on Bishop Hill Road in the Belvedere region on your way to Orient Bay Beach is this bird paradise.
Before beginning your tour of the place, you will go through an information corridor where you will learn about each of the birds from photograph displays. For just $10 per adult or $5 per kid, you will absolutely enjoy this incredible place.
19. Rotary Lookout Point
The Rotary Lookout Point is another secret gem on the island of St. Martin. It’s a magnificent lookout point at the Coralita site just 10minutes from Orient Bay. With great parking, the site is easily accessible.
The lookout platform has information boards that are pretty helpful in capturing the protected nature reserve’s essence. From here you get panoramic views of the bay, the town and far away islands.
At the bay, the waters are shallow and the clearest you will ever see. This is a great place to swim or play in the waters even for the young kids. There are picnic areas at this shoreline so you have plenty to do on this secret gem courtesy of the Rotary Club of St. Maarten.
20. Prickly Pear
Prickly Pear is a small uninhabited island west of Anguilla. This pretty place has awesome snorkeling and it’s a nice island getaway with a picturesque tropical aura. Go enjoy swimming, snorkeling and exploring. Afterward, enjoy a hearty lunch on the beach and sunbathe awhile before you are whisked back to the main island.
21. Try Your Luck at the Casino
Conveniently located in Philipsburg are 12 casinos where you can try your luck at the slot machine, crap, blackjack, roulette, and many others. These European style casinos closely resemble those in Las Vegas but with a touch of the Caribbean atmosphere which brings a laid-back and relaxed atmosphere. Don’t just play in the cruise ship’s casino, mix things up in Phillipsburg.
22. Visit an Art Gallery
Other than beach bumming, water activities, shopping, and dining, St. Maarten is also a place that inspires. Enjoy a visually pleasing tour of the islands art galleries located on both sides of the island. Artists in St. Martin have been inspired by the island’s beauty to create some of the most stunning pieces of art you will ever see.
23. Le Gallion Beach
Orient Bay beach can get pretty crowded when cruise ships are in port. If you are looking for a more secluded, kid-friendly beach, then Le Gallion is the beach to go to. Located just a few meters southeast of Orient beach, this beach features crystal-clear, warm, shallow waters that are great even for kids.
The coral reef a few yards from the beach acts as a barrier that protects the pools from rough surf making it perfect for swimming, snorkeling, floating or just wading in. The beach itself is a wide swath of pristine white sandy beach.
This is a nice beach for a picnic but please pack everything you need, clean up after yourselves and don’t leave any valuables in your car.
24. Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit
Star Wars movie fans are in for a treat in St. Maarten. Of all the places to find a Star Wars museum with original scripts and relics, you find one in Philipsburg at the Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit. Where Nick Maley otherwise known as “That Yoda Guy”, who was one of the creators of Yoda from Star Wars, has created a sci-fi movie memorabilia museum.
In this museum he showcases relics form 54movies he worked on and others from his colleagues. Memorabilia from films such as Hellraiser, Alien and of course the Star Wars sagas.
The museum also displays head casts of famous actor/actresses and historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln. If you loved blockbuster movies such as Men in Black, The Terminator and more then you will love taking a trip back memory lane at this place.
If you are lucky enough to find Nick and his wife, they will pose for photos and autograph any purchases you make at the gift store.
25. Learn the Island’s History
Learn this island’s incredible history at St. Maarten museum on Front Street in Philipsburg. Though the museum is small it’s a history buff’s paradise, filled with rich island history from as early as 500BC.
Showing artifacts and curved items from the Arawaks and old photographs and important memorabilia of the colonial governments of the island. For just $1 per adult and free for children and students, St. Maarten museum is a must visit.
26. Dine Like a Local
A visit to St. Maarten is not complete without tasting the island’s cuisine. This cuisine won’t disappoint either, influenced by French and Creole cooking, expect to enjoy a wide array of delicious, mouth-watering dishes.
Sample popular Caribbean treats such as Johnny cakes, callaloo, conch, fish fritters, lobster, and more. The best place to experience the island’s best dishes is at Grand Case, Marigot on the French side. If you are looking to dine like a local this is the place.
27. Martin’s Natural Reserve
Covering 3060 hectares in the northeast side of the island is St. Martin’s Nature Reserve. The largest part of this reserve, about 2900 hectares is offshore and includes the coastal outline and the water.
This nature reserve has a variety of lush plants, birds and marine life. The biodiversity represented on this side of the island is simply amazing. Be one with nature, visit the great outdoors of St. Martin and enjoy a truly unique tropical paradise.
28. Off the Beaten Path Adventures
Leave the touristy spots of St. Martin/Maarten and discover the hidden gems of the island in an off the beaten path adventure. Whether it is kayaking, biking, swimming, or hiking, Tri-Sport knows how to show you the good stuff.
Go hiking in Guana Bay where you are guaranteed to be the only ones except your tour guides and goats. Or go mountain biking and experience something new while in Philipsburg, St. Maarten.
29. Sea Horseback Ride
Check sea-horseback riding off your bucket list. St. Maarten has plenty of stables and healthy, well-cared for horses to take you on a different kind of island tour.
Horseback riding excursions take you through the scenic lush countryside, along the island’s shores, and into the water. It’s an amazing adventure and you get to learn about tropical plants, animals and the history of the island from friendly and charming guides.
Then the climax of it all comes when you enter the crystal clear waters of the ocean and start galloping around. This is a fun family bonding adventure that you will absolutely love. Most cruise lines offer this excursion but you can check out local tour operators such as Lucky Stables.
30. Private Catamaran Tour
There are plenty of small islands to explore near St. Maarten and what better way to do so than on a private yacht/catamaran tour around the island.
These tours take you to beautiful offshore islands such as St. Barths and Tintamarre for quality beach time and snorkeling. They highlight the island’s beauty and give you a glimpse into the world below.
St. Maarten Weather
St. Maarten as most other Caribbean destination experiences the tropical monsoon climate where it’s hot throughout the year. Temperature averages in the 80s and it’s hottest from July to September and cold from December to April.
June to December is the rainy season on the island, and this is also the Hurricane season. Therefore, plan your trip to coincide with the weather that you prefer to avoid getting disappointed with your trip.
Over to You
If are yet to visit Philipsburg, St. Maarten then you now have reasons why you should. However, these reasons aren’t exhaustive. There are plenty other things to enjoy in this cruise destination including golfing, private yacht trips, culinary tours, and nature explorations.
Kindly note that due to the devastating Hurricane Irma that hit the island in September 2017, a lot of the island was damaged and is still recovering. Therefore, some of the popular attractions you might want to see or activities you may want to engage in might not be available when you visit.
With that said, however, you shouldn’t be discouraged from visiting the island as it has picked up its pieces pretty fast and its charm and beauty still holds. Besides they depend on your tourism as their number one economic activity which also helps them gain funds to rebuild.
That’s all for St. Maarten for now. Enjoy your trip there. Happy Cruising.