Family Vacations to Saint Maarten and Saint Martin

Family Overview - Saint Maarten and Saint Martin
Azure waters, pristine beaches…another day in Saint Martin (Digital Vision)

Saint Maarten and Saint Martin Highlights

  • Crew aboard a racing yacht used in the America's Cup races.
  • Stroll among hundreds of colorful butterflies at the Butterfly Farm.
  • Take an all-day, guided eco-challenge hike up Pic du Paradis.
  • Glide through the forest's treetops on a zip line at Loterie Farm .
  • Browse for bargains on jewelry, crafts, and leather in Phillipsburg.

For more than 350 years these two nations have lived side by side on a 37-square-mile island. And with no check points or roadblocks, travel is seamless—except for the traffic—between French Saint Martin and Dutch Saint Maarten. While both sides are well-developed—no sleepy Caribbean idylls in either section—Phillipsburg, the Dutch capital, offers more shopping and caters to the hordes of cruise passengers. Browse the jewelry, crafts, linen, leather, and other boutiques lining Front Street and haggle with the vendors in Back Street's Market Place, but deals can be found in Saint Maarten as well as the French Saint Martin, both duty free ports. On the French side look for discounts on French perfumes, cosmetics, and crystal. (The Dutch side, for those 20-somethings interested, has gambling casinos).

While teens like spending some time bargaining for silver bracelets, T-shirts, and other trinkets, try to break away from the shops and the family exploring. For those who love sailing, crew aboard an America's Cup racing yacht. Grind the winch, trim the sails, keep time, and help with other tasks as you compete against another sleek sailing vessel. Just be sure to book ahead for the popular Saint Maarten 12-Metre Challenge.

Young kids won't want to miss the Butterfly Farm (on the French side). Hundreds of winged beauties flit about in a netted enclosure, landing on plants and sometimes people (wear red to increase your chances). Tours teach kids about the creature's life cycle as they evolve from caterpillar to chrysalis to colorful critter. Marigot, the French capital, has a pretty harbor with some good cafes. Loterie Farm, at the base of Pic du Paradis, offers guided hikes through the private reserve's tropical humid forest. Athletic teens may be able to tackle the all-day up-and-down the mountain eco-challenge. The Hidden Forest tour is a relatively easy 90-minute walk through a lush canopy of mango, guavaberry, and royal palm trees. Add some thrills by signing on for Loterie's zip line, a series of glides along cables strung between trees.

Of the island's 37 beaches, a few are best for families. On the Dutch side these include Dawn Beach, known for its sunrises and snorkeling, and Mullet Bay Beach, which usually has calm water. On the French side, head to Grand Case, which has watersport vendors and snack shops and Ilet Pinel, a five-minute boat ride from the mainland. While outfitters push the snorkeling, it's just so-so; however, the sand is very nice. Avoid Orient Beach unless you want your kids to get an eyeful; it's a popular clothing-optional beach.

For an underwater look at fish without getting wet, board the Seaworld Explorer, a semi-submersible, on which the bottom deck takes you about five feet below the surface. Watch the schooling fish and catch sight of green and moray eels through the portholes.

For serious diving and snorkeling, visit Saba, a 12-minute flight from Saint Maarten or a one-hour trip on a high-speed ferry. Sometimes the crossing can be a bit rough.

Tip: Watch sailing vessels compete at the island's 27th Annual Saint Maarten Heineken Regatta each March.'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 26 Nov 2007 | Last Updated: 9 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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