I loved the idea of an island vacation where the island is split between two countries, France and The Netherlands, which meant twice as much culture for our family to experience. We chose to stay on the French side which is less crowded, not as built up and because I have retained some college French like, “Ou sont les toilettes?” which is very important when traveling with kids (Where are the bathrooms?). However, you can easily get by in St. Martin without speaking French.
Lodging: We chose to rent instead of staying at a resort. This way we could spread out a lot more, we didn’t have to share a pool with anyone else, we could eat breakfast and lunch at the house which saved a lot of money and the kids had other areas to explore around the property which gave them more freedom. We found the house on Airbnb. It had a pool and resident iguanas, who kept the kids entertained. Who knew iguanas can swim in a pool?
We spent one week in Oyster Pond, a small neighborhood right across the border between the two sides. There wasn’t a beach we could walk to, but there were a couple small grocery stores and a few restaurants, including our favorite one, that was a five-minute walk or less. Our second week we stayed in Cul du Sac. Our house here was also rented off Airbnb and had an infinity pool as well as the most beautiful view I have ever experienced at a house. We could see across to St. Barts and we were a five-minute drive to the boat for Pinel Island.
Here are our St. Martin tips and favorites, keeping in mind we traveled with kids ages 8, 5 and 2.
Rent a car. You can rent a car at the airport. Although the roads are not always marked clearly, with one person driving and another person navigating, you can figure it out. There is a rush hour on the island around 5 p.m. and with only one major road that wraps around the island be aware you might be stuck in traffic for some time. The roads are hilly, but not as steep as some of the other islands like St. Lucia or St. Thomas. We all had a laugh the couple of times we had to stop to let goats or donkeys pass by.
Look up the cruise ship schedule. This way you can plan your activities around when they are docked and it’s a great way to avoid the crowds.
Make advance dinner reservations in more popular areas like Orient Bay and Grand Case – especially if you have a larger group – unless you don’t mind waiting. Or more like if the kids don’t mind waiting.
BZH Creperie in Oyster Pond is a SUPER family friendly restaurant, but we didn’t sacrifice quality of food for the ease with kids. Plus, it’s moderately priced. BZH is a local hangout where Fiona the dog welcomes you along with great pizza and other dishes. Be sure to stay for dessert and have a homemade crepe. St. Martin is known for its food as a lot of French chefs visit and end up never leaving the island.
Seraphina Bakery in Marigot was another of our favorites. This is where the French nationals go for breakfast, lunch or a snack like the delicious macaroons.
Pinel Island (French side) is a great spot to spend an entire day. The shuttle boat leaves every 15 minutes starting at 9 a.m. The last boat back to the mainland is at 5 p.m. It’s about a 5-minute ride across the bay to the island. You can pay to rent a beach chair or just plop yourself on the sand. We like Yellow Beach better for beach chairs, the view back to St. Martin and – very important – it’s closer to the toilets. We found the best restaurant to be Karibuni. Be sure to say “hi” to the resident iguanas, but keep an eye on the kiddos. One of them bit my oldest while he was trying to feed it lettuce. Nothing serious, but nobody wants to be bitten by a reptile while on vacay.
Le Galion (French side). This is an extremely kid friendly beach featuring coral reefs that keep the water very calm. If you wander over to the north side there are wonderful tide pools with tons of crabs peeking in and out, gorgeous conch shells and colorful fish. This is our favorite beach!
Friar’s Bay Beach (French side). This is a quiet beach where the kids enjoyed body surfing the waves and building forts and sand castles. It has many sea shells and smooth rocks for stacking, skipping or slipping into pockets as souvenirs.
Baie Longue/Long Bay (Dutch side). This is one of the longest beaches on the island and it’s pretty vacant. However, it’s not easy to get there – so approach this excursion as an adventure. You have to pass through a security gate where you promise not to take any photos of the houses that you will pass by because, apparently, there are a lot of celebrities (not sure who exactly, but personally I was hoping for Hugh Jackman or Bradley Cooper) that have homes here. Note: there are no public bathrooms here. But, despite the minor technicalities, it’s worth a visit because it’s so BEAUTIFUL!
Fun with the fam:
Calvin the Sea Urchin Man. Located on Rotary Look Out-Baie de L’Embouchure on Rue de Coralita, Calvin is an entertaining local with great knowledge on sea creatures like the sea urchin and starfish that you are welcome to touch and hold. My kids each got to pick out something to take home as well. (Nothing that was still alive, promise.) Note: Bring a few dollars (US is fine) to tip Calvin, and if you have water shoes, depending on the tides, you can walk out to a tiny island across the bay – just watch out for sea urchins on your walk over.
Horseback riding at sunset at Seaside Nature Park in Caybay. This was as magical as it sounds. We did it on a day when there were no cruise ships docked so we had an intimate family experience. Marshmallow roasting for the kids and champagne for the adults was included. The best part – besides the amazing views – is that the horses actually swam in the ocean while you are riding them at the very end of the ride. This was truly an unforgettable experience.
Harmony night in Grand Case. Listen to the steel drums, watch a mini parade go by with Carnival dancers, purchase a beautiful handmade item and eat some great food at this Caribbean-style street fair. This takes place Tuesday nights from 6 to 10 p.m. January 12 to March or April (depends on their funding).
The market in Marigot. Every day, except Sundays, this market offers local produce, fish, spices, hand-made items and – I am not going to lie – the usual tourist junk. Be sure to try the homemade ice cream – my boys still talk about it.
Fort Louis. This old fort is located on a hill above Marigot and even though little of the fort remains the stunning views are worth a visit. Fort Louis is nothing like the fort in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, however, it’s still a great place to visit – especially with imaginative kids who like pirates. Arrr.
Rent paddle boards. We rented paddle boats from Caribbean Paddling, near the shuttle for Pinel Island. I would call or email in advance to reserve here. At Le Galion, you can rent them right on the beach.
Watch the planes come in and eat lunch at Sunset Beach Bar in Maho Beach. We opted for this instead of the beach with sand spraying everywhere from the jets. On their website are the flight schedules so you know the best time to go.
Drive around the island and explore other beaches. There are 37 beaches in St.Martin, discover your favorite and please let me know which one you and your family choose!
The Butterfly Farm. If you don’t have something like this back at home it’s worthwhile. If you do, unless you have some huge butterfly fans, you could probably skip it. That said, it’s a very peaceful and calming place and if you go early in the morning you can see the butterflies emerging.