Sint Maarten/Saint Martin.

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin: The Smallest Dual-Nation Island in the World

Jennifer Dombrowski

Jennifer Dombrowski

July 21, 2023

7 min read

One island, two nations  

One island, two names, two nations laying their claim. Dutch Sint Maarten and French Saint Martin pack plenty of Caribbean flair with a distinctly European feel. Only 34 square miles in size, the small island packs such a big punch that a week-long visit is never enough. 

There are dozens of white sand beaches, a mountainous interior, and a renowned culinary scene with influence from Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe. Add in an almost never-ending Carnival celebration and it’s easy to see why this dual-nation island has double the appeal. 

A salty start 

The island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin can trace being inhabited back more than 3,000 years. Later, from 400 BC to 960 CE, groups arrived from Venezuela and Colombia and called the island Soualiga, or Land of Salt, for its salt pans. 

Those salt pans would influence the later development of the island. Western colonization began in 1493 when Christopher Columbus sailed to the West Indies and spotted the island. Though he never actually came ashore, Columbus named the island Isla de San Martín since it was November 11 and day of the patron Saint Martin in Spain. 

The Dutch created a colony there in 1631, erected Fort Amsterdam and established a new important trade route for Sint Maarten. The French set up their own colonies and of course, now that both the Dutch and French were showing interest, Spain wanted to claim St. Martin for its valuable salt pans. 

The Spanish kicked the Dutch off the island for a time, but after the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Netherlands ended, the Spanish lost interest in the island and left in 1648. The Dutch and French then decided to partition the island. The two nations have shared the island since a treaty was established in 1648, making it the smallest dual-nation island in the world. 

A new beach for every day of the month

beach in Sint Maarten/Saint Martin from above.

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin is a relatively small island at just 34 square miles. You can circumnavigate it by car along the road that runs the entire perimeter of the island in just a few hours. But even with its small size, SXM (as it’s often called, after the code for the island’s airport) boasts an incredible 37 beautiful beaches along more than 43 miles of coastline. 

Maho Beach is one of Dutch Sint Maarten’s most famous beaches. The tiny swath of sands sits smack at the end of the extremely short, 7,152-foot long runway at Princess Juliana International Airport. Daredevils love to line up on the beach to see if they can withstand the jet blast from the planes taking off. Even better is plane spotting as the jets line up and practically buzz your head upon landing. 

Though Maho Beach is a tourist hotspot on SXM, don’t miss the island’s many other beautiful beaches. Many of them, like clothing-optional Happy Bay Beach, are remote and visitors can enjoy the beaches practically to themselves.    

The drinking contest that determined a border   

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin isn’t divided equally in half, and a local legend explains how the French ended up with a bit more land. 

As the tale goes, the French and Dutch devised a contest to officially set the land boundaries. Two men, a Frenchman drinking wine and a Dutchman drinking jenever (Dutch gin), would both set off from the Oyster Pond once sufficiently intoxicated from their drink of choice. The Frenchman was to head north along the coast facing Anguilla and the Dutchman was to head south along the coast. Wherever the two men would meet up would mark the boundary line between the two nations. 

Apparently, it was the Frenchman who could handle his alcohol a bit better, while the Dutchman got distracted by a woman and stopped to sleep off his jenever with her. In the end, the Frenchman covered more ground and thus claimed more land. Of course, the real story is a bit more bloody, but it’s an entertaining legend nonetheless. 

The border is nothing more than a formality, and residents of both sides regularly pass back and forth between Sint Maarten (the Dutch side) and Saint Martin (the French side). 

The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean 

restaurant in Sint Maarten/Saint Martin.

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin is known as the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean. Living up to such a moniker is no small feat, but the dual-island nation delivers culinary delights in spades. 

The cuisine is a blend of Caribbean- and African-influenced flavors and haute French cuisine. The impressive number of restaurants and lolos (roadside barbecue pits) cook up dishes that could easily rival those served at the chicest bistros in Paris. 

Grand Case, a town on French Saint Martin, easily takes the crown for culinary capital of the island. This charming and tiny town boasts more than 65 restaurants lining its beach adjacent boulevard. Ask any local for a recommendation on the best place to eat, and it will be a battle of the crème de la crème. 

What locals can agree on are the typical dishes you simply must try. A visit to any one of the delicious lolos serving up fresh seafood, ribs, and chicken on the grill with a side of macaroni salad is top of that list. 

Conch and dumplings is the national dish of Sint Maarten and while it’s a favorite year-round, you’ll see this dish served up often during the Carnival celebrations. Of course, a dual-island nation doesn’t just have one national dish. On the French side, it’s callaloo soup, which was created by enslaved Africans and made using the leafy greens of the amaranth plant. 

And no traditional meal in Sint Maarten/Saint Martin is complete without a Johnny Cake. Once a reliable form of sustenance throughout the history of SXM, these bun-like fried pieces of dough can be traced back to the Arawak people. Originally made of corn, the cakes were cooked on a hot stone and gave the Arawak people energy during expeditions. 

The Europeans discovered the cakes were perfect for providing sustenance on long journeys. They added wheat flour to the recipe, and the cakes transitioned to the fried bun deliciousness that is served all over the island today. 

The centuries old national liqueur 

SXM is blessed with an abundance of a small cherry-sized berry called the guavaberry, which grows on guavaberry trees. And while some of these trees also grow in the US Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands and a few spots in Central and South America, there are more guavaberry trees located in Sint Maarten/Saint Martin than anywhere else on earth. 

Despite what the name might imply, the guavaberry is absolutely nothing like the guava fruit. These berries are tangy, woody, and bittersweet in flavor. Locals discovered centuries ago that the guavaberry makes a delicious liqueur when mixed with aged rum and cane sugar. First made privately in homes just to be shared among family and friends, guavaberry liqueur became a local tradition. It’s such an integral part of the island’s culture that there are even folk songs and stories about this mysterious berry that has baffled botanists for centuries. 

It’s hand-picked and made into both the Dutch and French side’s national liqueur, and often served as a guavaberry colada. And if you just can’t wait to visit the island for yourself, there are a few stores scattered across the US where you can find this delicious taste of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin. 

Monkey see, monkey do

Monkeys most likely were brought to the Caribbean on slave ships from The Gambia and Senegal in the 17th and 18th centuries. The monkeys were either then set free or escaped. Mainly considered pests because of the damage they can do to crops, monkeys didn’t coexist with people for long on most of the Caribbean islands where they once roamed. 

In fact, today you can find monkeys on only four islands in the Caribbean—including Sint Maarten/Saint Martin. Other wildlife includes bats, iguanas, sea turtles, tree frogs, and more than 100 species of birds. 

More than beaches 

town in Sint Maarten/Saint Martin.

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin may have more beaches than there are days in a month, but the island also offers a lot more away from the sand and sea. 

The Dutch side’s 13 square miles are among the more developed on the island, with modern casinos, many beach resorts, shopping areas, and nightlife. The slightly larger French side’s 21 square miles are far less developed and are home to most of the island’s natural wonders, including Pic Paradis, which at roughly 1,400 feet above sea level is the highest point on the island. The rainforest surrounding Pic Paradis is where the exotic guavaberry trees and wild vervet monkeys are found on the island. 

SMX’s Dutch capital, Philipsburg, is the main town on the island and though it gets crowded while cruise ships are in port, it’s worth a stroll. It’s home to the Guavaberry Emporium on Front Street, where tastings of the island’s famous guavaberry liqueur await, and the pineapple-topped courthouse on Front Street, which is a historic landmark and one of the most important sites on the island.

On the French side, it’s the town of Marigot that serves as the capital. Get a taste for the local French-meets-Caribbean flare at the open-air Marigot Market. Pay homage to the man who was integral in abolishing slavery in the French colonies, François-Auguste Perrinon, at his tomb in the Marigot cemetery. And don’t miss the breathtaking views over Marigot and stretching all the way to Anguilla from atop Fort St. Louis. 

Bathing suits optional 

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin may be just a short flight away from much of the East Coast of the US, but this dual island nation is very much European. Not only are topless beaches found around the island, but naturists also love Sint Maarten/Saint Martin for its clothing-optional beaches. In fact, one of the world’s most famous nude beaches, Orient Bay, is located on the French side of the island. 

Note though, that birthday suits aren’t permitted everywhere on the island. Nudity isn’t tolerated off the officially designated beaches. 

The local artist knighted by the Queen

Local artist Sir Roland Richardson, or simply Sir Roland as he’s known in Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, is practically as much of a linchpin of the island’s history and culture as the guavaberry. 

Born on Saint Martin, Sir Roland has been painting the landscapes and depicting the history of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin for decades and he’s particularly known around the world for his depictions of the national tree, the flamboyant, in his plein air impressionism style. 

Sir Roland was even knighted in 2007 by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands for his lifelong artistic contribution to his community and he’s received the lifetime achievement award from the French government. His works have been part of the collections of some of the world’s most famous people, from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Harry Belafonte. 

The Caribbean’s longest Carnival 

beautiful view in Sint Maarten/Saint Martin.

While Sint Maarten’s Carnival celebration isn’t even close to the world’s oldest—the first Carnival in Sint Maarten was held as recently as the 1970s—it is the longest celebration in the Caribbean.

Carnival is one of Sint Maarten’s biggest events of the year and islanders go all out to celebrate Sint Maarten’s rich culture and history. The 2+ week-long event is filled non-stop with parades, calypso competitions with musicians vying for the title of Calypso King or Queen, reggae bands, bejeweled and feathered costumes, and  dancing. Of course, the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean can’t celebrate such a huge event without a plethora of food and drinks. More than 100 booths offer up all the island’s must-eats from conch and dumplings to the more-beloved-than-french-fries Johnny Cakes. 

Planning a trip 

US citizens arriving at Princess Juliana Airport (SXM) are required to complete an online immigration card prior to travel, purchase mandatory COVID-19 health insurance prior to travel, and show a negative COVID-19 PCR test or a negative antigen test taken within 120 hours before arrival.

Regular fares to Sint Maarten can be $500-$600 roundtrip, but we frequently find cheap flights for Going members under $200. 

More Caribbean destinations: 

Jennifer Dombrowski

Jennifer Dombrowski

Freelance Writer

Jennifer Dombrowski is an independent travel publisher, content creator and an American expat who lives in Bordeaux, France. She is an award-winning travel writer. She is also a travel correspondent on Traveling on the American Forces Radio Network. Her award-winning blog, Luxe Adventure Traveler, was named one of the top travel blogs to watch and has been featured by top publications.

Published July 21, 2023

Last updated December 19, 2023

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