Saint Martin (French Side)

For the first couple days of our trip, we had been exploring the Dutch side of the island of Saint Martin. The Dutch side was heavily American and didn't feel like visiting a foreign country at all; everyone spoke English, everything was priced in dollars, and I don't think we ever spotted so much as a single sign written in Dutch. We could have been visiting one of the US Virgin Islands and it likely would have been pretty much the same as visiting Sint Maarten. Starting on the third day of our vacation however, we made the short drive across the border to the French side of the island where there was a noticeably different culture. French language predominated (although everyone also spoke English of course), prices were listed in Euros, and the French towns were significantly less touristy in nature. Whereas the Dutch side of the island had felt American, the French side of the island felt as though we were somewhere in Europe. Due to the small size of the island, we had the chance to visit most of the attractions on the French side of Saint Martin over the next few days.

There are four total crossing points between the two sides of the island; pictured here are the eastern most pair of border crossings. Our hotel at Oyster Pond was withing walking distance of the easternmost crossing point which as the image suggests didn't receive a ton of traffic. This looked like the kind of road running through a suburban neighborhood, not the dividing line between two separate countries. There were no guards to pass through or much of anything other than a small sign indicating the crossing point. We stopped here briefly to take a picture looking back at our hotel from the opposite side of Oyster Pond with the light blue buildings of the Oyster Bay Resort off in the distance. We also made frequent use of another border crossing on a more trafficked road which had a formal monument commemorating 350 years of friendship between the Dutch and French governments. The island was officially divided in 1648 and has remained separated ever since, though there is a local political movement looking to unify Saint Martin that has attracted a decent degree of support.

On this first trip over to the French side of the island, we drove for a short distance along the seaside coast while taking in the landscape. There was a scenic overlook here named Rotary Point where a small wooden platform had been constructed where visitors could look out across the Baie de L'Embouchure. This was a sparsely populated part of the island and we were treated to beautiful midmorning views looking out over the water. There was hardly anyone here aside from a couple of other cars stopping to take pictures and then a group of tourists who pulled up in rented dune buggies. It was a good start to the day's activities.

We had skipped breakfast at our hotel this morning in favor of eating at a cafe on the French side of the island. We stopped at the pictured Good Morning Cafe which was located outside Orient Beach, the largest waterfront area on the French side. The cafe was doing good business as almost every table was full and we wound up having to sit in the sunshine - which was surprisingly hot despite being well before noon! Liz ordered a breakfast platter while I ordered, ummm, a pizza. It looked more appealing to me than any of the other options, what can I say. We were both taken aback by the large portion sizes and wound up eating enough that we were able to skip most of lunch later that day. As for Orient Bay, the town had a collection of shops and restaurants which were just beginning to open for the day. We planned to come back for a full meal later on but it never ended up happening for whatever reason. Definitely not for a lack of good options, there was a seafood restaurant and a hot pot restaurant here that we were interested in trying.

The beach was the featured attraction at Orient Bay, of course, and we walked over to spend some time relaxing by the water. There were beach umbrellas to rent here as well and we were able to take a seat in front of one of the sparsely-populated restaurants overlooking the ocean. We noticed right away that there was a steady breeze coming in from the water and this was being used for various outdoor water sports. There were a bunch of places offering kites to fly, parasailing, jetskis, paddleboards, and the like. We soon realized that Orient Bay was the most popular location on the island of Saint Martin to engage in these outdoor water activities, and even though the COVID pandemic had limited tourism below its normal amount, most of the tourists at Orient Bay were pursuing one of these various activities. Unfortunately due to the high winds and presence of more seaweed, Orient Bay wasn't that good of a beach for actual swimming and there were few people in the water who weren't windsurfing. We didn't end up going in the water here and only stayed for a little over an hour before heading off to another beach with better swimming conditions.

We were headed to one of the most popular tourist destinations on Saint Martin, an offshore pinprick of land named Pinel Island which can only be reached via a short ferry crossing. The ferry was located at the northeastern corner of Saint Martin and there wasn't much to see here while waiting for the boat to arrive. We were fortunate in having to wait only a few minutes for the ferry; it makes crossings over to Pinel Island every 30 minutes throughout the day. The boat wasn't particularly crowded here in the early afternoon and there were maybe a dozen other people heading over to the island with us. Pinel Island was only about half a mile offshore and easily visible as the ferry motored its way across the short expanse of water. There were lots of expensive-looking sailboats and catamarans floating at anchor in the water as we approached Pinel Island, their owners having taxied over to the island in smaller craft. Pinel Island is a popular destination with high-end tourists due to its relative inaccessibility.

It only took about five minutes to make the short trip over to Pinel Island where we disembarked onto a beautiful sandy beach. Pinel is an extremely small island that doesn't even reach a single square mile in size, perched a stone's throw away from the northeastern coast of Saint Martin. The western side of Pinel Island faces back at Saint Martin and has been converted into a popular beach area for tourists. There were two restaurants here serving lunch and we rented a pair of beach chairs from the one further away from the ferry (Karibuni) hoping it would be cheaper. Spoiler alert: it was not. (Both of the restaurants were on the expensive end and we only purchased a snack since we'd had that big breakfast earlier.) The water here was absolutely perfect and we spent several hours enjoying the sunshine and swimming in the surf. We had wonderful views looking back at Saint Martin which were accentuated by the presence of all those expensive boats floating just beyond the roped off swimming area. This place was pricey but it was also arguably the best beach that we visited on our trip.

These are some more pictures from the beach area on Pinel Island. These were mostly taken on the small boardwalk over by the restaurant looking out over the water. This was one of the busiest beaches we visited with several hundred people present though still clearly far below maximum capacity. In addition to the sailboats out beyond the swimming area we also spotted these kayaks with some dogs on board. Pinel Island is close enough to Saint Martin that it's possible to rent kayaks and paddle over instead of taking the ferry. I don't think that we could have had more perfect weather conditions than this as it was downright gorgeous on this afternoon.

We also ran into some local wildlife while walking around the beachfront. First there was a dry patch of ground over near the restaurant where several iguanas were sunning themselves on the rocks. These were green iguanas which are common throughout the Caribbean, even the iguana with orange coloring that belied its name. We spotted a bunch of these lizards during our time on Saint Martin including the ones that kept interrupting our breakfast back at the hotel. There was also a much shyer tortoise that we spotted a short distance away as it crawled past one of the buildings on the island. The tortoise was far smaller than the ones that we had seen in the Galapagos, I'd say roughly 1 foot / 30 cm in length which would have been easy to pick up in one hand. It seemed to be doing its best to crawl back into the protection of the underbrush and we left it alone aside from snapping some pictures.

Towards the end of our time on Pinel Island, Liz stayed back to relax at our umbrella while I went for a walk around the tiny island. Most of Pinel was covered with knee-high grasses away from the beach area, dotted with scattered rocks and short stubby trees which were little more than bushes. The soil had to be poor for such a small bit of land constantly being raked over by wind and water. The lack of vegetation made it easy to see in every direction though, both looking back towards Saint Martin and also in the other direction at some offshore islands. One of these was Tintamarre, a slightly larger uninhabited island located several miles away to the northeast. It was easily visible from here and there are a bunch of boat tours that take visitors over to Tintamarre for an afternoon of hiking. Off to the north, it was also easy to spot the neighboring country of Anguilla about a dozen miles or twenty kilometers away:

Unlike Pinel and Tintamarre Islands, Anguilla was inhabited and it was a place that we would have visited if not for the COVID pandemic restrictions on travel. Anguilla would remain tantalizingly out of reach on this vacation, often visible in the distance but never somewhere that we could visit for ourselves. These pictures were taken from the northern side of Pinel Island which was exposed to the open ocean and had much larger waves as a result. This part of the island felt wilder and more primal, a far remove from the relaxing beach just a few minutes walking distance away. I followed the northern shoreline and wound up getting slightly lost for a few minutes although fortunately Pinel was so small and open that it was basically impossible not to find my way back. The last ferry departs from Pinel at 5:00 PM and we joined the big queue of visitors heading back to Saint Martin in the late afternoon. This ferry was packed to the gills unlike our outbound trip and we were glad that it only lasted a few minutes. We really enjoyed visiting Pinel Island and would have liked to return again on this trip but it was far enough away from our hotel that we never made it back. If we would come back to Saint Martin again, this place would be at the top of our list to visit.

The sun was starting to set at this point and we drove to the nearby town of Grand Case in search of dinner. Grand Case was listed in every tour guide book for Saint Martin as the place to visit on the island for outstanding dining options. The guide books went on and on about the magnificent restaurants located here and I had high hopes for the little town. As it turned out, Grand Case was a pretty big disappointment when we arrived, consisting of a single street (with fairly heavy traffic) that didn't impress us with its dining options. They weren't terrible or anything but the place certainly didn't live up to the reputation that we had read ahead of time. We walked from the northern end of Grand Case at the public parking lot down to the south end and back again before ultimately settling on a more casual beachside spot that looked similar to the pictured Cynthia's restaurant. The food here was inexpensive and we had excellent views looking out over the water:

We were on the northern side of the island and we were treated to picturesque views of the Baie de Grand Case as the sun set in the west. There was an offshore rock formation named Creole Rock which is supported to be a good place for snorkeling that we could see off in the distance and the overall vibe of the place was just perfect. Liz ordered some fresh fish and johnny cakes while I had chicken on the grill served with curry rice. We could see and smell several huge racks of ribs which were cooking on the grill for a large party coming to the restaurant later that night, and they made me wish that I could eat multiple different meals here. Even though we had been disappointed by Grand Case overall, this proved to be a fine dinner between the seaside atmosphere and the tasty food.

And some final pictures from the evening as night fell over Grand Case. We bought some ice cream and ate it while strolling along the little pier that ran out into the waters of the bay. I wouldn't recommend spending too much time in Grand Case and the beach here was subpar compared to elsewhere but we did enjoy the meal that we ate once we were able to find a spot along the water.

We returned to the French side of Saint Martin a couple days later with the intention of visiting Marigot, the largest town on the French side of the island. We drove halfway around Saint Martin and parked in a public lot next to a McDonalds only to find a horse (?!) wandering around eating grass next to the parked cars. The horse was unsecured to anything and roamed freely around the parking lot right next to a busy road. I have no idea what was going on here; I guess someone just let their horse wander around in the open and this was where it happened to go. It's not like the island of Saint Martin has herds of wild horses or something like that. The same horse was even still there a few hours later when we returned to our rental car - very strange stuff!

It was a short walk from the public parking lot / impromptu horse stable to the town of Marigot proper where we began our visit by checking out historic Fort Louis. This stone structure dated back to the colonial period when the 18th century kings of France (all of them named Louis) had ordered the construction of fortifications to protect the entrance to Marigot's harbor. Naturally Fort Louis was located up on top of the tallest hill overlooking the town and we had to climb up a series of stairs to reach its grounds. This wasn't the worst problem to have as the additional elevation provided us with sweeping views looking out across the Baie de Marigot and the small town below. This was another beautiful day as we continued to enjoy good weather in Saint Martin and these were perfect conditions for exploring the area.

The passage of time had not been kind to Fort Louis and there wasn't much left of the stone buildings at the top of the hill. We could see the outlines of old barracks and crumbling fortifications but there wasn't so much as a single structure still standing intact. It was windy at the top and we had the place largely to ourselves aside from a few more iguanas scuttling around on the rocks. This was the best place to take pictures of the town and we paused to take a few selfies standing next to the rusting cannons. It was worth the hike up here for the views alone and these were some of the best pictures that we took on this day of sightseeing.

We climbed down from Fort Louis and spent the next hour or so walking around the town of Marigot. This is the capital and biggest town on the French side of the island although Marigot still isn't particularly large with a little over 5000 permanent resisdents. It was one of the most densely populated parts of the island that we visited though and the roads nearby had fairly heavy traffic. There were plenty of shops and restaurants in Marigot and we spent some time exploring them. Many of the stores seemed to be catering to a more expensive crowd and were a bit out of our price range; perhaps they were targeted towards the tourists who arrive on the cruise ships over at Philipsburg. Less expensive was an outdoor market where we poked around some of the stalls in search of souvenirs. It was also getting pretty hot outside so Liz bought a coconut from one of the vendors so that we could drink the juice inside. It was an appropriately tropical way to cool down in the early afternoon.

Our next destination was a short drive away still on the French side of the island. We turned away from the coastline and headed inland towards the central hills of the island where a tourist attraction named Loterie Farm was located. This is a nature sanctuary mixed with an adventure park that offers swimming, zip lining, and climbing courses along with a restaurant and fully stocked bar. We considered eating lunch here but decided that Loterie Farm was a bit too pricey and instead opted to head straight for the zip lining course. Once again it was not crowded and we were the only two people buckling on harnesses and climbing up onto the ropes course. There were two different zip lining options here and we selected the less intense version since we had little experience with the devices. Our guides walked us through the process and we quickly found ourselves up in the trees, perched on a series of tiny platforms in the middle of a dense tropical forest.

The zip lining course was a ton of fun and one of the highlights of our whole vacation. The lack of anyone else taking part in the same activity allowed us to take our time and thoroughly enjoy the whole experience. Our guides were super helpful and had a good sense of humor, making sure that we were using the gear correctly at first and then mixing things up by shaking and bouncing the walkways once they saw that we were feeling comforable. There was one point in time where the path forward was blocked by more iguanas who had to be shooed away by our guides; we were hoping to see monkeys here which live in this forest but didn't come across any. This was the first time that I had been zip lining and it was a total blast once I had the hang of it. We were on the zip lining course for well over an hour and felt that the experience was more than worth the cost. There's a more extreme zip line over on the Dutch side of the island for those who are feeling adventurous but we had a lot of fun with this version at Loterie Farm.

It was late afternoon at this point and we decided to visit another beach to cool off from the heat of the day. The closest beach was named Friar's Bay Beach which we were eventually able to find after having some issues with the directions from Google Maps that initially led us to a weird spot. Friar's Bay Beach had a scattering of other tourists while once again being well below full capacity thanks to the pandemic. There were three restaurants here and we walked over to the one named Ici t'es ailleur which translates more or less as "Here you're somewhere else". We were hoping to get a full meal here only to discover that the kitchen had already closed for the day and the restaurant was only serving drinks and appetizers. That was a bit disappointing but at least we were able to enjoy the water for a few hours and get a break from the sun. The daylight was starting to fade so we didn't stay too long here before packing up and heading back to our hotel.

Because we had mostly skipped over lunch for the day, we decided that this would be the night to have our one expensive dinner. We had driven past this seafood restaurant named Big Fish every single day since it was located right next to our hotel at Oyster Bay and this was the evening that we wound up having a meal inside. Big Fish was definitely more upscale than the other places where we ate and I felt a bit underdressed in my tourist T-shirt and shorts. Liz and I had a running joke that Big Fish was deserted every time that we drove past and it was therefore surprising when the hosts seemed surprised that we didn't have a reservation to eat dinner. This was a Friday night and it was more crowded inside but the restaurant was still far short of full. The food on the menu was pretty expensive at $30-40 for entrees but we could afford that for one night as long as we didn't make a habit of it. I ordered a seafood pasta dish with shrimp and scallops while Liz had their black pepper tuna. Liz said that this was delicious but the portion size for her meal was tiny, always a potential problem at these fancy restaurants. I really enjoyed my pasta and this was my favorite dinner from our trip but Liz had to snack on some more food in our hotel room afterwards. It really would have been nice to get a little bit more tuna for that price point!

The next day we took a ferry over to the separate island of Saint Barthelemy (which is detailed on the next page) so I'll skip over that to the final full day that we spent on Saint Martin. Liz and I split up for a few hours to pursue separate activities: Liz wanted to spend more time relaxing on Dawn Beach next to our hotel while I was hoping to take a short hike up to the highest point on the island. This was named Pic Paradis (Paradise Peak) and it could be accessed from a road located near Loterie Farm's zip lining course. As I drove our rental car up this road, it soon turned from pavement to gravel to dirt as it curved around increasingly steep bends. I was surprised to find that there were a bunch of private villas located up here at the highest elevation on the island, looking to get away from the enervating heat of the tropical lowlands. I later discovered that there was a restaurant up here named La Villa Hibiscus which caters to the luxury tourist trade: visitors can get a meal here starting at the low price of 150 Euros per person. That... was not for us.

I was using Google Maps for automated driving directions and I was starting to have some serious doubts about the increasingly poor quality of the road that I was on. Eventually it became so narrow and bumpy that I realized it was time to park and walk the remaining distance uphill on foot. I left the car outside a tiny exclusive hotel and continued following the road as it snaked further and further uphill. After maybe ten more minutes of walking I found a group of broadcast towers at the summit - I guess this was Pic Paradis? It wasn't as impressive as I'd been expecting or as the travel guide books had led me to believe. There was one nice view looking down at Marigot in the distance but I was still a bit disappointed.

I was about ready to leave but decided to poke around for another minute or two before heading back to the car. I was glad that I did because I found a little side trail that led to a viewing platform with much better sightlines looking out across the rest of the island. Almost every part of Saint Martin was visible from here with the exception of Marigot since it was blocked by the bulk of the peak. Off to the north I could see a little bit of Grand Case and then look out across Orient Bay at nearby Pinel Island and Tintamarre off in the distance. The town of French Quartier was located down below at the foot of the peak (which we had repeatedly driven through but never stopped to take pictures) and the Oyster Bay Resort was off beyond that which I've indicated with an arrow. Even Philipsburg was visible though it was tough to see in the distance. I would have stayed here longer to take in the view but a storm was threatening to roll in and I didn't want to get caught on top of the peak. I made it back to the rental car just in time to avoid the rain which fell heavily for a few minutes and then stopped. It was a case of good timing in dodging this brief tropical storm.

Before heading back to our hotel I made one more stop on the French side of the island. This was Happy Bay Beach which was rated as one of the top beaches on the island in our tour guide books. We had been planning to stop here earlier and then opted for Friar's Bay Beach instead because the latter beach had food options available. Happy Bay Beach is a bit difficult to reach because there's no direct road access and visitors have to walk on a trail for about ten minutes to reach the ocean. This is a bit of a pain but it ensures that the beach doesn't get crowded and there were maybe two dozen people in total when I arrived. Happy Bay Beach was exactly what you would expect to see when visiting the Caribbean, a pristine expanse of sand next to an azure sea with palm trees waving along the shoreline. This would be a great place to bring an umbrella and a cooler with drinks and then spend the whole day relaxing. I only stayed long enough to walk up and down the beach because I wanted to get back to Liz but this would have been another lovely place to spend the day.

We were taking it easy on this day because we had had a busy trip over to Saint Barthelemy the previous day and then we were going to spend the following day traveling back home again. We spent a few hours resting at the hotel (watching the end of the early NFL games since it was a Sunday) and then went to get dinner at a nearby restaurant. We made the short drive over to the French side of Oyster Pond and ate at a restaurant named Oasis which offered a combination of seafood, sandwiches, and pizza. Liz and I both opted for pizzas since they were less expensive and also looked delicious to eat. Our meal came with strips of paper containing funny little mouth expressions and the phrase J'adore l'Oasis ("I love Oasis") which I'm pictured holding in a goofy picture above. Now I actually do love pizza and this was a really good meal at an affordable price so I recommend this restaurant in glowing terms for anyone who happens to find themselves in the Oyster Pond area.

That brought our experiences on Saint Martin to a close. We felt that we had seen pretty much everything of interest on this not-particularly-large island over the course of our weeklong vacation. I'll conclude this report by covering our excursion over to the island of Saint Barthelemy which was another fun day trip. If the food on Saint Martin was occasionally expensive for tourists, well, we hadn't seen anything yet!