One of my greatest joys is traveling. When I was young, while other kids were reading comic books, Hardy Boys, and Goosebumps, I was reading maps, fantasizing what it must be like on another corner of the globe. I could name every country and their capitals, major cities, and natural geographic features. Hence it is not too surprising that I would eventually choose somewhere across the seas to live and study, here in St. Maarten.
Being on this island for two whole semesters so far, I feel that I have seen and done quite a lot, and there is still so much to do. Here I’ve made a list of affordable, relatively-affordable, and not-so-affordable yet fun things you can do on this island and beyond. These activities are perfect for the AUC student who’s strapped for cash but want to take a break from studying for a few hours, a day, or a weekend.
Disclaimer: Make sure you get your studying done first before you venture off to do any of these fun, stress-relieving activities. Remember, academics first!
- Free Activities Within Walking Distance of Campus
- Free Activities That Require Some Driving
- Relatively-Affordable Activities (less than $50)
- Not-So-Affordable Activities, But Fun Nevertheless (Definitely over $50)
- Events and Festivities
- Neighboring Islands Worth Visiting
- Some Practical Information
Free Activities Within Walking Distance of Campus
- Snorkeling in Mullet Bay Beach — If you have your own snorkeling gear (like me), Mullet Bay has much to discover: sea urchins, crabs, octopus, colorful fish. In terms of coral, there aren’t so many, if any. Suggested trip: snorkel along the rocks on the right side of the beach, until you get to Cupecoy Beach. Then, go hang out at Cupecoy Cave. Stay close to the coast when you snorkel because sometimes catamarans and jetskiers come pretty close to the shore.
- Volleyball on Mullet Bay Beach — The afternoon after every block exam, AUC students (and sometimes professors) go play volleyball at the volleyball net on Mullet Bay Beach. Phi Chi also hold a fundraiser beach volleyball tournament every year during the AMSA/PhiChi Beach BBQ every semester, and it is a popular event among students. I’m not much of a ball player so I instead wade in the ocean and watch.
- Natural Bridge — Walk to the far end of Mullet Bay Beach and you will find a trail leading to a rocky coast. Here you’ll find many interesting rock formations, whale holes, and natural bridges.
- Jump off a Cliff — If you keep walking along the rocky coast from the natural bridge, you’ll reach a 40 ft. cliff. Here, you can jump off and have a blast. But please make sure you go with someone who knows where it is. Jump at your own risk and be safe.
- Cupecoy Cave — There are three ways to get there. As the cave is located at a private beach belonging to Cupecoy Beach Club Apartments, you can either find a friend who lives there who could let you in. Or, you could go to the beach at Windham Sapphire and follow the cliffs on the left side until you reach it. The most fun way is to snorkel there from Mullet Bay Beach. Just follow along the rocks at the right of Mullet Bay Beach.
- Maho Beach — Yes, this is the famous beach where Boeing 747’s land just above your head while you wade in the crystal-blue waters. Maho Beach isn’t the best beach on St. Maarten but it certainly is one of the most fun precisely for this reason. Check out Sunset Beach Bar if you’re hungry or just want a drink, and enjoy watching the planes land and take off. Maho Beach is located on the other side of the golf course from AUC, about 30 minutes away on foot. If you don’t like walking, I’d suggest taking the public bus for $1 each way.
- Watching the Game at Atlantis Casino — Many AUC students go to the sports lounge in Atlantis Casino to watch the game. I’m not a big sports fan, but I went once to go watch hockey during the Olympics and it was filled with American students on one side and Canadian students on the other cheering their respective teams. It was fun.
- Then of course, there are the casinos (Atlantis Casino just right outside of campus, and Casino Royale in Maho) and the clubs (Tantra and Bliss, both in Maho). It’s obviously more fun to spend money at these places but there are no cover charges. If you choose to do so, please gamble and drink safely.
Free Activities That Require Some Driving
- Marigot Market — Every Wednesday and Saturday mornings, fishermen from St. Martin and Anguilla come to sell their fresh catch at the outdoor market at Marigot. Get your fresh locally-grown fruits and veggies here or bargain for the usual tourist-targeted merchandise. Visit the coconut man for a sip of yummy coconut juice, or try some conch at one of the local food shacks.
- Fort Louis — Overlooking Marigot, For Louis offers some fantastic views of the island and beyond.
- Fort Amsterdam — Overlooking Philipsburg, Fort Amsterdam not only offers great views but also is perfect for the history buff. There are lots of ruins, old cannons, and plaques that explain the history of the place. Drive into Little Divi Bay hotel resort, park, then follow the signs up the hill to walk there.
- Pic Paradis — Pic Paradis is the highest point on the island and offers wonderful vistas of the island and the ocean in all directions. A hiking trail on top links mountain peaks to mountain peaks. A one-way hike would take about 2 hrs to complete, or 4 hrs roundtrip, if you please to go that far. As the trail winds through forest and meadows, you may see mango trees (or even pick a mango or two to try), banana trees, and if you’re really lucky, you may spot a monkey. Drive past Marigot and follow the signs for pic paradis. At the top, you’ll reach a radio station. Park somewhere on the side of the road and follow the sign for the hiking trail.
- Island Hopping Adventure — Off the coast of Lucas Bay lies four little, uninhabited islands. As the bay is shallow, it is easy to wade across the water from island to island, exploring what each has to offer. The waters are very clear and you can see starfish, sea urchins, and conchs.
- Snorkeling the Shipwreck at Simpson Bay Beach — On the far side of Simpson Bay Beach, close to the drawbridge, there is a small shipwreck that may be worth exploring by snorkel. I have yet to do this one.
- Snorkel the Caves at Baie Rouge — I’ve been recommended this one by several people. There is much to see when you snorkel along the bluff on the right hand side of the beach. There’s even an arch in the water so I hear!
- Strolling down the Boardwalk in Philipsburg — This is probably the most touristy thing you can do in Philipsburg, along with hundreds of other cruise ship day-trippers.
- Shopping on Front Street — Front Street is the main avenue in downtown Philipsburg and is basically one big outdoor mall with cars and tourists. It’s the most lively place to go shop on the island in my opinion. Jewelry stores, boutiques, upscale fashion stores, and restaurants line the street. Go visit the Yoda Guy. He’s one of the key artists who designed Yoda from Star Wars (along with characters from other movies) and he now runs a museum/store selling genuine Star Wars memorabilia.
- Shopping in Marigot — Downtown Marigot also offers a lot of great shopping places. There are lots of upscale clothing stores like Promod that feature the latest st
yles from Paris. If you are hungry, have a nice lunch at Sarafina’s, a very popular French bakery among the locals.
- Hiking to Petite Cayes — On the north side of the island by the French Cul-de-Sac lies the St. Martin Natural Reserve. This entire area is secluded, protected, and pristine, and offers great hiking trails. Drive to Grand Cayes and park at the entrance of the landfill. Walk along the coast, and you should see a sign that maps out the hiking trail. Within an hour and a half of hiking, you will get to a hidden, secluded beach called Petite Cayes Beach. This is one of St. Martin’s best kept secrets and rewarding to hike to.
- Hiking in Guana Bay — On the east coast of the island on the Dutch side, a single-file trail takes you along grassy slopes and rocky cliffs in this beautiful, popular, and easy hike.
- Orient Beach — arguably the most famous and popular beach in St. Martin. The right side of the beach is a very large and famous nudist resort, Club Orient. Otherwise, jump on a water trampoline, build a sand castle, or just simply enjoy the sun and the water.
- Explore the Ruins of La Bella Creole Resort — La Bella Creole resort was once a famous five-star hotel in French St. Martin, offering one of the most luxurious living on the island. It was designed to resemble an old French village and provided views from its cliffs and beaches. All this changed, however, with the great Hurricane Luis of 1995. Ever since, the hotel could not be repaired and fell to looters. Today, you can go explore the ruins of the hotel, and see the fallen grandeur of this hotel. To get there, drive to the entrance of Baie Rouge and there will be an abandoned private road leading to the ruins. To be safe, go with a group of people.
- Night Photography around the island — This is a fun activity to do if you love photography. Vistas to check out on your night escapade: Fort Louis, International viewpoint (on “the Hill” between Cole Bay and Philispburg), the Boardwalk in Philipsburg, Fifth floor roof of the AUC dorms.
Relatively-Affordable Activities (less than $50)
- Kayaking in the Lagoon — Simpson Bay Lagoon is a great place to go kayaking — the waters are stable, clear, and the scenery’s beautiful. Kayak to one of the small islands in the lagoon and do some exploration. There are several shops you can rent kayaks, but at Tri Sport, you can rent a double and go with a buddy for $29 for 4 hrs.
- Butterfly Farm — Hardly any locals come here. Most people who come here are cruise ship tourists. Nevertheless, if you like caterpillars and butterflies all around you, this is the picture perfect place. $15 per person.
- Pinel Island — This offshore island is pure-joy to be. It’s a nice place to lay on the beach or go snorkeling, and offers a wonderful view of St. Martin. Ferries leave from French Cul-de-Sac every half hour until about 4 or 5pm. Tickets are $7 per person round-trip.
- Go Kart racing — If you drive past Marigot right before you get to Grand Case, you’ll see a Go Kart racing place on the right side. I don’t know how much it would cost but I can’t imagine it being that much. One of the classes at AUC once had a fundraiser Go Kart racing tournament here.
- Paintball — There are two places I know of on the island where you can go paintballing. On the Dutch side, in Simpson Bay, not too far from AUC, is Kookamanga’s. They have a paintball court up front, with a crashed airplane in the middle of the court, and a tapas bar and restaurant in the back. They also have live music on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. If you are driving from AUC to Simpson Bay, look for the airplane on the left. It’s hard to miss. Another paintballing place is on the French side near Orient Bay by the Cadisco gas station. Here, cost is around 20 euros, which include all the equipment you need minus the bullets. They are open Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 5pm. Look for the signs.
- St. Maarten Zoo — The St. Maarten zoo showcases hundreds of animals from all over the Caribbean and beyond. There is a bat house, a reptile house, and an enclosed aviary you can walk into. For the kids, there is also a petting zoo and a fun pirate-ship-themed playground. The most fun part about the zoo, in my opinion, is that you can purchase peanuts to feed the animals in the zoo, and that’s something you can’t do in most zoos in the US. To get there, drive to the north side of the Salt Pond in Philipsburg. Entrance fee is $5 for kids and $10 for adults.
- Sunday Brunch — Have all-you-can-eat champagne, oysters, crab legs, sushi, Italian pasta bar, hand-carved roasted lamb, fondue, and more at the Westin in Oyster Pond for $48 (you’ll eat your money’s worth). Then spend some time relaxing on Dawn Beach (where the Westin is), one of the nicer beaches on the island.
Not-So-Affordable Activities, But Fun Nevertheless (Definitely over $50)
- Scuba Diving — With clear, azure waters and diverse marine life, St. Maarten is the perfect place to learn how to dive. If you’re already certified, great! Some well-known sites include Creole Rock on the French side and Proselyte (a huge sunken ship) on the Dutch side. Join the AUC Dive club to go on dive trips (at an affordable price) with your fellow AUC students. Several dive shops around the island offer discounts for AUC students, most notably Octopus Diving. I got certified with Octopus and I highly recommend them.
- Parasailing — You’ll be surprising how relaxing it is being 800 ft in the air on
a parachute dragged by the boat. Parasailing tours are available at Bobby’s Marina in Philipsburg. It’s $50 for 400ft and $80 for 800 ft.
- Jet Skiing — I don’t know how much this would cost, but I’m sure it’s pricey. Nevertheless, it looks fun. There are tons of places you can go jet skiing. Any touristy beach like Orient Beach or the one in Philipsburg will have them and they usually charge per 15 minutes. Some places offer jet-skiing tours around the island or in the lagoon.
- Kite Surfing — If you go to Le Galion Bay on the French side, you’ll see tons of people kite surfing, or in layman’s terms, surfing over the water while navigating with a kite. Some people can let the wind take them several feet into the air before landing on the water again. Take a class or rent the equipment and have some major fun!
- Zip Lining — Zip from tree to tree, criss-crossing a valley high above the tropical forest below. The only way to do it is at Loterie Farms on the French side. When you drive past Marigot, look out on the right hand side for a sign pointing to Pic Paradis. Take a right there and go up the hill until you see a purple sign for Loterie Farms on the right. The most exciting zip lining course (and only one you should consider doing) is FlyZone Xtreme. Tickets are $80 and lasts an hour and a half or so.
- Mud Bathing in Tintamarre Island — Tintamarre Island is a small island just off the coast of St. Martin. Despite its size, it has a fascinating history. At one point, it was home to 150 people, had its own airport and airline serving the region, and even had its own “king” at one point. All this is gone, however, and the island is now uninhabited. Today, the island is known for its mud bathing, where people come and lather themselves in the mud and baking in the sun before taking a dip in the warm waters of the beach. Once rinsed, your skin will feel soft and smooth. There are many tour boats that can take you to Tintamarre, usually as part of a snorkeling package.
- Deep-Sea Fishing Trip — There are many charter boats that offer half-day or full-day deep sea fishing trips. Fishing is a pricey sport, but you may catch your money’s worth! Or, you can buy a cheap fishing pole from Ace’s Hardware in Cole Bay and go fishing off the docks anywhere around the island.
- Horseback Riding — Go horseback riding on the beach at sunset with your loved one or go explore the trails of St. Martin Nature Reserve with a group of friends. Horseback riding can cost anywhere from $70 to $95 per hour per person. Several places offer it: OK Corral in Oyster Pond or Bayside Stables at Le Galion Beach on the French side. The best bargain would be at Seaside Nature Park, with rides starting at $60.
Events and Festivities
- Carnival — With concerts, festivals, street parties, band competitions, pageants, and parades, Carnival season came to St. Maarten this past month, a holiday celebrated throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and New Orleans (where it is called Mardi Gras). A tradition merging the Catholic, West Indian and African heritages of the region, Carnival is the largest celebration in the Caribbean.
- St. Maarten Day — St. Maarten and St. Martin may be two different countries with different traditions, but St. Maarten’s day, held every year, celebrates the harmony between the two sides and the unity of the people on the island. Every year during St. Maarten’s Day (or St. Martin’s Day on the French side), thousands of local St. Maarteners and St. Martiners come to the festival center where they come see different local groups perform drumming, dancing, and skits. Food vendors selling local foods surround the entire complex at a cheap price, and people play games like dominoes or egg-toss. Every year, the two sides alternate in hosting the event.
- Heineken Regatta — Every year in March, St. Maarten holds the Heineken Regatta, one of the largest boat races in the world. More than 300 sailboats and their participants and supporters from all over the world come to the island to compete in a series of races that last for four days on both the Dutch and French sides. The race is an all-island event, complete with festivals, concerts, and street parties, so there is something for everyone, even if you are not sailing.
- Fish Day — This local festival on the French side is all about the islanders’ love of fish and good times.
Neighboring Islands Worth Visiting
One thing great about St. Maarten is that it is not only a destination for traveling, but also an jumping point from which to do more traveling. Having St. Maarten as a home base is an opportunity. Ever since becoming a Caribbean med student, I have already traveled to Anguilla, St. Barths, Saba, Puerto Rico, Dominica, and Curacao. Here, I’ve created a guide to all of these places in the Caribbean that I have been, with the student in mind!
- Anguilla (UK) — Anguilla is a British territory located 30 minutes from Marigot by ferry. Anguilla is most famous for its world-class beaches, and its quiet, rural setting, away from the crowds. Shoal Bay East is the most beautiful beach I’ve seen in my travels, and I highly recommend it. To get here, take the ferry from Marigot Harbor. One-way tickets cost $15 + $5 international departure tax. Car rental on Anguilla cost $30 + $20 temporary Anguilla driver’s license. They drive on the left side on the road. As Anguilla is a different country, remember to bring your passport! One day should be enough time to see the island.
- St. Barths (Fr) — St. Barths is a very beautiful French island, much nicer than St. Maarten. The landscape is rugged and the towns and villages are cute, clean, and traditional. I highly recommend St. Jean Beach. The water is calm, clear and the view is magnificent. St. Barths is the most expensive place I have been to. If you plan to save money, smuggle in your own sac lunch. Several ferries can take you to St. Barths. I went with Great Bay Express for $80 round-trip. One day should be enough time to see the island.
- Saba (Neth) — If you are to go explore another island during your stay at AUC, go explore Saba, a volcanic Dutch island that rises dramatically from the ocean (you can see it from AUC!). Saba is for nature lovers, and famous for its breath-taking scenery. Hike to the top of Mount Scenery, a defunct volcano twice as high as the tallest peak in St. Martin. If you are certified, dive Saba’s world-renown pinnacles. And of course, as an AUC student, meet some of your fellow med students from Saba University. Round-trip tickets are $100 for a 2-hour ferry, or if you are adventurous enough, take a 15-minute flight into Saba with Winair, onto one of the shortest and scariest runways in the world, flanked by cliffs. Saba is so beautiful you would want to stay at least 2 days to see the island.
- Puerto Rico (US) — The flight between St. Maarten and Puerto Rico is only 35 minutes, so it is a great idea for a long weekend trip or a break trip between semesters. There is lots to see and do and taste in this American commonwealth, and even after staying 8 days, there’s still much yet for us to explore.
- Dominica — Nicknamed “The Nature Island,” Dominica is an island country known for its stunning unspoiled beauty. It is 290 square miles (8x larger than SXM) and has a population of around 72,000 people. Highlights: Second largest boiling lake in the world, Valley of Desolation, hot sulfur springs, warm welcoming people, Champagne Reef, Waterfalls, Ross University School of Medicine. 5 days is a reasonable amount of time to explore Dominica.
- Curaçao (Neth) — Curaçao is a Dutch island off the coast of Venezuela. It has a unique culture that blends Latino and Dutch characteristics. Geographically a part of South America, it is unique among the Caribbean islands for having a desert landscape, yet has gorgeous beaches and excellent diving. As Curaçao and St. Maarten are both part of the Netherlands, flights in between the two islands are considered domestic and are therefore very affordable, considering the distance between them.
- St. Martin vs. St. Maarten: Basic Information — St. Maarten/St. Martin is an island shared between two nations, French and Dutch. Because of this, the island is unique in that two different standards of living coexist together on one small island, from language, to voltage, to currency. Please visit this link for more information.
- Hotels — St. Maarten have tons of resorts and hotels of all sizes and price ranges. As this guide is geared more towards students, the hotels that I have listed in the link are the more affordable hotels on the island. For those looking for nicer hotels, you may consider the Westin, or even renting a beach house on the French side. The most expensive hotel on the island is La Semanna, located on the French side.
- Restaurants — With it’s Dutch, French, African, and West Indian heritage, St. Maarten is well known in the Caribbean for its food. From fine French dining in Grand Case to traditional roadside barbecues known as lolos, there’s tons of great eateries to choose from, representing culinary traditions from around the world.
- Grocery Stores — Here, I’ve compiled a list of some of the more popular grocery stores both near and far from AUC’s campus.
- Transportation — You can get around the island with taxi, public bus, or rental car. Taxi is a rather expensive option so I do not recommend it if you are on a budget. The bus is the cheapest option, but often comes sporadically. Car rental is the best way to explore the island, relatively cheaper than renting cars in the US. A regular American or Canadian drivers license is all that is needed to rent a car.