Exploring Sint Maarten/Saint-Martin

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 57 of the May 2017 issue.
Miramar Ocean View rooms at Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort — Sint Maarten. Photo by Randy Keck

(First of two parts)

The need for a dose of relaxation following a heavy work schedule resulted in a March 2017, 6-night visit to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, comprising Sint Maarten (Dutch) and Saint-Martin (French). 

It had been well over a decade since my wife, Gail, and I had visited the island, and much development had occurred, especially on the Dutch side. In terms of size, the French portion of St. Martin is 21 square miles and the Dutch, 16. 

The island’s precolonial inhabitants were the Arawak, who migrated from northern South America. 

The first European to discover the island was Columbus, who sailed past in 1493. During the 16th and early 17th centuries, the island remained in the hands of pirates and buccaneers. The first Dutch settlers arrived in 1627, discovering valued salt ponds on the island. 

In 1633, the Spanish king, wishing to retain sovereignty over the Antilles, sent a fleet from Puerto Rico to occupy the island, building a small fort at the present site of Ft. Amsterdam and leaving a detachment behind to discourage other European intruders. 

Ten years later, the Spanish detachment abandoned the island, and the French and Dutch settlers residing on the other side of the island were called upon by their respective governments to take full possession. The French and Dutch signed a treaty, partitioning the island, in 1648.

Randy surveying the Philipsburg waterfront in Sint Maarten.

Like other Caribbean islands, St. Martin endured a legacy of slavery, which propelled the local sugar and cotton industries until slavery was fully abolished in 1848. The refineries closed, and the island remained in economic doldrums for most of the next century until the first signs of its tourism potential became evident. 

Fast forwarding, on Oct. 10, 2010, Dutch Sint Maarten along with Curaçao were declared autonomous countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while the French side remains part of France. 

Overall, the estimated resident population today totals just under 80,000, although many locals believe the real number is higher. The island population reportedly consists of scores of nationalities, with dozens of religions represented.

All-inclusive ease

The purpose of our visit was to both recharge our batteries and see what had changed since our last visit. To reduce the time we would normally spend foraging for daily sustenance, Gail and I opted to accommodate at an all-inclusive property, the Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort, Casino & Spa – St. Maarten (800/766-3782, www.sonesta.com/stmaarten), receiving a travel-industry rate.

Located on the beachfront of Great Bay, the property is only a 10-minute walk from Philipsburg, the bustling cruise port capital of the Dutch side of the island, which abounds with shopping and dining options. 

Great Bay is one of three Sonesta properties on the island, along with Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, Casino & Spa (which has reciprocal rights with Great Bay) and the adjoining exclusive, 5-star Sonesta Ocean Point Resort. Also on the Dutch side, these two properties are located on Maho Beach, near the airport and the plethora of visitor attractions of Simpson Bay. 

Randy at the Philipsburg waterfront — Sint Maarten.

Rates at all three Sonesta properties are all-inclusive. We visited the other two properties but were happy with our choice to stay at the smaller, adults-only Great Bay location.

Our Grande Island View room the first three nights in residence was, for us, simply a place to sleep while we began exploring the island and enjoying the resort’s amenities. 

One special amenity is dining at the Water’s Edge Restaurant and partaking of a cooking-on-a-rock experience. Your seafood or other main course is delivered to your table with a very hot, lava-stone slab, whereupon you cook the entrée, yourself, adding spices and other accompaniments. We enjoyed this unique culinary outing on two evenings.

In general, the food was also good at the resort’s Il Pescatore Seafood Restaurant, the rather lavish Bay View Restaurant (a buffet that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner) and the daytime-only Pizzeria Capri

While we are not major imbibers, the all-inclusive reality at Sonesta Great Bay provided the opportunity to see which bars’ bartenders made the best guava berry rum punch and mojitos.

Miramar Ocean View

Our Miramar Ocean View room in Sonesta Great Bay resort, where we spent our final three nights, was something of a destination in itself. From our balcony in room 460, we had expansive views of all of Great Bay, including the lengthy beach, the town of Philipsburg and the cruise ship terminal. 

View of the Great Bay beach and Philipsburg from Miramar Ocean View room No. 460 at Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort — St. Maarten. Photo by Randy Keck

It was fun watching the ships depart, especially after dark when they were bedecked with lights like mobile mini-cities. When the last ship had departed each day, the bay seemed to return to a more peaceful, natural state. 

Our balcony literally looked over a cliff to the sea pounding on the rocks below. A bonus — we were on the glide-and-dive path of the resident pelican population, and watching the aerial displays was addictive.

I definitely recommend paying a bit extra for a Miramar Ocean View room and suggest requesting one of the rooms from number 460 to 465.

Room rates vary greatly with the season, with special promotions commonly available. Checking the Sonesta booking site in March 2017, it showed all-inclusive rates for two people to be $409 per night in a Grande Island View room and $508 in a Miramar Ocean View room. 

It is also worthwhile to sign up for the no-cost Sonesta Travel Pass, whose benefits include a complimentary room upgrade when space is available. 

The island challenge

Our declared mission for this trip was to insure needed veg time with a beach focus while getting updated on some of the island’s latest attractions. 

We ended up taking a leisurely sunset cruise aboard a private catamaran, which departed from the Divi Little Bay Beach Resort, a 10-minute walk from our property.

On our 2-hour cruise, we sailed along the southwestern coast of the island to Simpson Bay and Maho Bay, then returned to Little Bay. Along the way, we sighted many of the nearly 200 sailboats, including mega-sailing vessels, which had traveled from near and far to participate in the Heineken Regatta, which takes place annually in Sint Maarten in early March. Simpson Bay seemed to be party central for the throngs attending the regatta. 

We hadn’t realized that the regatta would be taking place during the dates of our visit, and we experienced some of the island’s traffic gridlock that is normal during that event.  

Next month, I will describe more of our island experiences and give recommendations for those considering visiting intriguing Sint Maarten/St. Martin.

Contact Randy at 80 America Way, Jamestown, RI 02835; 401/560-0350, randykeck@yahoo.com.