Half of the tiny island is Dutch (St. Maarten) and the other half is French (St. Martin), giving this popular Eastern Caribbean cruise ship port a split personality: It's the smallest island in the world to be divvied up between two nations.
Several days a week, a small flotilla of cruise ships moors alongside the docks at Philipsburg, the Dutch capital, and thousands of travelers spill out ready to take advantage of the island's duty-free shopping. A small cruise ship mall alongside the docks serves those too busy to explore the island, but most visitors walk into town (about a 15-minute stroll). The trip is worth the effort. Jewelry is a particularly good buy along Front and Back streets -- the main shopping area -- as are resort wear, perfume, crystal and other luxury items. For a small place, it offers some big deals.
Cruisers can spend a day in Philipsburg, lounging on the beach, sailing or visiting ocean-view restaurants or bars -- but there's more to the island than this cruise port city and a local cabbie will give you a 2 1/2 -hour island loop tour for about $50.
Yo ho, yo ho
Once a haven for pirates, the island still draws sailors from around the Caribbean: An international coterie of yawls, sloops and mega-yachts often can be seen anchored near shore or in island marinas. Among its other charms are its sandy, white beaches. Within its 37-square-mile territory, St. Maarten/St. Martin has 37 sunny beaches -- some of which are clothing optional or topless. Most tourists try to visit Baie Orientale, known as the St. Tropez of French St. Martin (it's the place to see and be seen) and the beach at Grand Case, where a picturesque village offers excellent food.
St. Martin/St. Maarten is one of the Caribbean's busiest tourist destinations, and parts of the island are overdeveloped. When 10,000 or more visitors pour out of cruise ships on a busy day, the area around Philipsburg can take on connotations of a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour. But there are still interesting things to see -- and tranquillity to be found -- by exploring beyond the cruise ship terminal, particularly by visiting the island's secluded coves, bays and beaches.
Where to eat
In Philipsburg, stop for lunch at the bayside Lounge Deck or restaurant at Holland House Beach Hotel, 43 Front St.; 011-599-542-25-72, www.hhbh.com. Lunch will be about $12 per person. Grand Case, in French St. Martin, is known for its food; choose from open-air street-side restaurants, where seafood or steak dinner will cost less than $20. In Marigot, LaVie en Rose, on the waterfront, 011-590-590-87-54-42, www.lavieenrosestmartin.com, will serve you a romantic French dinner. Entrees from $22.
Where to stay
You'll find seclusion, 22 acres of gardens and beachfront villas at La Samanna, a luxury resort in French St. Martin. Baie Longue; 011-590-590-87-06-55, www.lasamanna.com. Rates from $725 per night. Or try lower-key Hotel L'Esplanade in Grand Case. It's perched on a hill with sweeping views of a crescent-shaped bay; (866) 596-8365, www.lesplanade.com. Doubles from $240.