The French Side: St. Martin’s Unparalleled Island Paradise

Poolside meets beachside heaven

St Martin’s French side is exactly what you’d expect of an island paradise: it’s lush, it’s green, it’s unpretentiously hip, and it’s a balmy 80 degrees just about every day of the year.

The island, divided in two by the French and Dutch eons ago, hosts several very distinct cultural vibes. On the Dutch side, known as Sint Maarten, from the town of Phillipsburg through the Simpson Bay area, it’s condo heaven, replete with casinos, eateries, and plenty of density, and there are handfuls of beaches to charm.

A blissed-out Christmas Day

But the French side is a wildly different experience. Mountainous and oh-so-green, the rolling hills drop off into pristine turquoise water, sea-coves, and even smaller islands just a quick boat ride away. The climate brings a moist, island-y air, and salty seawater easily cools everything that needs cooling. In and amongst the touristy spots on the island are authentic flatland local towns, such as French Quarter, where we ate some of the finest Caribbean-spiced stewed chicken we’ve ever had in our lives.

At the Radission Blu's Plantation Bar

On an island with 37 beaches, there’s nothing but seascape-life and beautiful weather to relax the soul and soothe the spirit, but the French side, with its more rural geography, lulls the soul into an ease that’s even easier than expected. The island is small—about a half-hour drive across—and has both an Atlantic side and a Caribbean side. About half of the French side is Atlantic-facing and tends to be windy, and we found out quickly that the protected cove beaches on the Caribbean side were the sweetest of any we’ve experienced.

Christmas French-Island Style

So let’s talk beaches:

First and foremost, do what we did and get yourself a good guide to beach geography. You do need a car on St. Martin, and though our first misguided thought was to rent bikes given the island’s small size, it’s not a good idea. Roads are narrow, drivers drive fast, and the terrain is hilly—not a good combination for cycling. Second, book your car with a reputable company before you go—nothing small. The local dealer we used overcharged us significantly for insurance, and though it all got sorted out, the language barrier and the misquoting was a three-day hassle. (Also note many gas stations don’t take debit/credit cards, so cash is a good idea. Everyone on the island takes dollars, no matter which side.)

Grand Cas Beach

Mullet Bay was our favorite Dutch-side beach; peopled by young travelers and the bring-your-own-umbrella crowd, its authentic beach-side grill, dramatic sand reefs, and the sweet, good kick to its waves were perfect delights. It’s just down the road from Maho Beach, the stretch of sand under the flight path of Juliana airport; planes fly overhead low enough to blow back anything that’s not pinned down, so if you’re so inclined to get a blast of jet stream while standing on sand, don’t miss it.

A second Dutch-side favorite was Cupecoy Beach—a little stretch of hidden-away sand perched just across the street from the huge Blue Mall, tucked in a few northwest steps from the Rainbow Beach Club condos. The sand is white and light on the skin, and the waves are soft and easy. Cupecoy is a natural beach with no services, so bring everything you need for a day’s respite. (It’s also sometimes clothing-optional.) We were lucky enough to make friends with a couple who owned a condo at Rainbow and spent a stunning sunset drinking champagne and watching the sun melt into the watery horizon.

Beach Bar at Anse Marcel

Orient Bay, on the French side, is a long stretch of seaside heaven on the Atlantic and a good day-beach, and we spent several days there walking up and down its long length and unwinding on its warm sands. Most beaches here have “beach clubs,” meaning for about $10 a person per day, you can rent a sturdy, large beach umbrella and a lounge chair, and most have food and a bar as well. That said, that daily cost can add up, so buying your own beach chairs and umbrella is a good idea. On the French side all of the beaches are public, so regardless of hotel-front property or beach club territory, beach lovers can plop their own towel and gear down on any beach they like.

The most beautiful find of St. Martin was by far the beach at Anse Marcel. A quick drive over the hill from French Cul-de-sac, this beach astounds. The steep hills drop off into flatlands just at the entrance of The Radisson Blu, and public parking abounds. Walk past the guard shack, find the long path to the beach, and set up camp wherever you like; there are several beach clubs, two hotels, and lots of neighborhood visitors who frequent this exquisite crescent of seaside bliss, and you’ll be happy you joined them.

Rainbow Beach Club, Cupecoy Beach, with friends Deb and John

Staying in St. Martin is easier than ever these days, given the availability and affordability of rentals on sites such as Vacation Rentals By Owner and Airbnb and the booming condo-timeshare market. We stayed at Villa Kikiwi, a set of three cute apartments in French Cul-de-sac owned by the lovely Daisy and Alain Plenet. At just over $100 per night and set on a hill with a private garden, it was perfect.

But don’t even blink, though, if you can afford it; just go straight to the knock-your-socks-off Radisson Blu where the grounds mimic grand plantation architecture, and the landscape is downright beautiful. The staff, too, is incredibly attentive, and, just as we did, you’ll find your favorite locals working the beach each day who’ll give you the best tips on where to eat on the island. Alberto, our new friend there, guided us to Yvette’s Restaurant, an authentic eatery that’s run by his aunt’s family just near Oyster Pond (ask around; locals know it). The place is housed in a tiny cottage with plastic checked tablecloths, and the stewed chicken knocked us over. (I wanted to lick the plate!)

The water at Anse Marcel is a gorgeous turquoise, two small mountains shelter the cove, and the hotel pool is huge and sits just at the edge of the sea. Take shelter at the Radisson’s bar and have a rum drink or lunch when one of the daily, 10-minute tropical rains hit, and then head right back to your beach lounge and enjoy the view. It’s perfection; there are no other words for it.

There’s one thing to watch out for in St. Martin and that’s insect bites. Mosquitos are silent and ardent, and—lesson learned—we needed to go right for the chemical stuff to keep them at bay. Sand flies, too, abound, so get your Deet before you go. (Lemon grass is a natural alternative, but after a day or two we knew we needed the hard-core stuff.) Keep the A/C on high in your room, too, since biting bugs hate the cold.

Pinel Island views the lovely French Cul-de-sac

If you’re inclined to leave your beach umbrella for the afternoon, head to Marigot and take in the shops. Don’t forget that French St. Martin is French—meaning amazing breads and pastries. Even the plain-looking bakery next to the Super U Market outside Marigot has phenomenal breads and croissants. Marigot has a row of little cafés offering all French delicacies.

Groceries can be expensive on the island since everything has to be shipped in, but given this is France, it’s easy to buy some affordable, amazing cheeses, some pâté, and good bread like we did and feast on simple delights.

Grand Cas, the town dubbed “The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean,” was just a five-minute drive from our locale, so we wandered its streets and tried its gourmet offerings.  Don’t think beach-fare here; this is fine dining with prices starting at $30 an entrée and gourmet tastes to match. If that’s too much to spend on a nightly basis, try the LOLOs—named for “locally owned, locally operated”—open-air fish restaurants, sitting right above the beach on the north side of the main drag. Beyond its food, Grand Cas has a beautiful stretch of white sand beach, and it’s easy to park on the street by day and find an unpopulated spot behind the restaurants to enjoy the sun.

Jules, my adopted “brother,” beachside at the Radission

For dinner on the Dutch side, don’t miss Lee’s. Sometimes the places listed in all the guidebooks are there for a reason, and this is one of them: delectable plates of fish in a locale perched in bright sightlines of harbor yachts. Lee’s will not disappoint.

The culinary find of our trip, though, was a small open-air neighborhood restaurant in French Cul-de-sac, just near the Pinel Island parking lot. It goes by the humble name of Villa Pizza and has no sign (look for a white open-air place just as you come to the flats on the right-hand side of the road.) It’s a brilliant mix of French and Italian food, with prices so affordable you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. We did. Don’t miss the salmon pasta with a healthy amount of fish in the dish, finished with brandy and cream—amazing—for about $20 or the Friday night cous cous or lamb shank for the same price. Even the pizza and salads are exquisite.

Lastly, and not least by any stretch, we discovered Pinel Island. Just $20 took us across the water in a rickety speedboat, and 10 minutes later we landed on Pinel, a gorgeous and tiny beach island facing back toward French Cul-de-sac. It borders both bay and Atlantic, and a quick trek around its hiking trail brought us face to face with a family of docile iguanas and some wild winds around the beach’s bend. The day’s mild sun on our limbs was proof positive that this was what we had come for: pure paradise, warming both body and soul.

French St. Martin charms like nothing else. It is a respite, for sure, from everything difficult, from everything wintery and cold, but it is much, much more. Its charm, its history, its cultural mix, its food, its villages, and its perfect beaches make it a destination that lives on in our hearts as the place that let us unwind, stand still, breath in, and feel all of the delights of living and taking in. Gorgeous ocean, incredible sun, and blessed relaxation—the age-old gifts of the Caribbean charmed us intently, and we will be back.