It's really all about the beaches on St. Martin

Caribbean Issue The Lesser Antilles

March 25, 2007|By Bob Downing | Bob Downing,McClatchy-Tribune

ORIENT BEACH, St. Martin // There are beaches. And then there are beaches.

Welcome to Orient Beach, a two-mile strip of soft white coral sand and perfect blue water that seems to be in a league of its own in the Caribbean.

The celebrated beach on the French half of the two-country island gets a lot of attention and a lot of hype. It proudly calls itself "the Riviera of the Caribbean" and "the certified best beach in the Caribbean."

It's not St-Tropez, but it is a beach with a buzz. Orient Beach is popular and may be crowded, but it is a world-famous beach destination.

The island, shared by France and the Netherlands, features 37 beaches stretching 10 miles. That's one per mile. They are among the prettiest in the Caribbean.

In addition to its beaches and water sports, St. Martin (France)/St. Maarten (Netherlands) is an island known for its restaurants and its duty-free shopping, not sightseeing or historical attractions.

Orient Beach, it seems, is party central, St. Martin-style.

You can sit back and simply enjoy the sand, sun and surf. You can enjoy water sports: windsurfing, parasailing, snorkeling, kayaking, jet skiing and sailing. There are restaurants and bars on the beach, with nonstop music. There are beachside shops and boutiques.

You can wear your clothes or you can shed your clothes at Orient Beach -- that's up to you. The south end of the beach is clothing optional. All the French beaches on the island are also deemed to be topless.

The beach on St. Martin's northeast coast is protected by a coral reef and three uninhabited islands: Green Cay, Pinel and Tintamarre.

Orient Beach includes six areas: Coco Beach, Waikiki, Bikini Beach, Kon Tiki, Kakao and Club Orient.

Coco Beach is the most Gallic, Bikini Beach is American-managed and Kakao is popular with the sporting crowd. Each beach has its own restaurants, bars, shops and water-sport concessionaires.

Orient Beach gets far more attention than any of the island's other beaches. They include Sunset, Dawn, Cupecoy, Mullet Bay, Maho, Simpson, Little Bay and Great Bay Beach in the middle of Philipsburg on the Dutch side. Top beaches on the French side include Baie Longue (Long Bay), Coconut Grove, Baie Rouge (Red Bay) and Grand Case.

At Dawn Beach, you can watch the sun come up over nearby St. Bart's and then swim out to one of the best reefs on the island.

Nude and topless bathing is discouraged on the Dutch side of the island.

The average water temperature at St. Martin/St. Maarten is 78 degrees.

The island, spotted by Columbus in 1493 and once a haven for pirates, was the land of salt to the Arawak Indians, and salt was a major commodity for a long time.

The island was divided between France and the Netherlands in 1648 to keep the Spanish away.

The border between the two countries is marked by no checkpoints or restrictions.

St. Martin, measuring 8 miles by 5 miles, is home to more than 300 restaurants.

The dining capital of the island is the north coast village of Grand Case with its 20 gourmet restaurants along Boulevard de Grand Case. It has been called the culinary hub of the West Indies.

The French side is less-visited, less-developed, with some of the finest beaches and scenery and restaurants.

The French side is dominated by the capital: colorful Marigot with its open-air markets, boutiques, shops and especially its 50 restaurants and sidewalk cafes. Its harbor is filled with yachts. It is a very European town.

Outside of Marigot, the French half of the island has arid, scrubby hills covered with splashes of green.

The Dutch half of the island is more developed -- with lots more traffic in and around the capital of Philipsburg with its 500 shops, jewelry stores and cruise-ship passengers.

Philipsburg is right up with St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands for being duty-free shopping capitals of the Caribbean.

There are casinos and numerous large resorts on the Dutch side of the island, plus more nightlife and a faster pace.

St. Martin is an island of 70,000 people that has really boomed in the past 20 years. Many are happy with that development, although some lament what has been lost.

It's still an island with only a handful of traffic signals.

IF YOU GO

St. Martin and St. Maarten share a 37-square-mile island governed by two nations.

For information about the Dutch side of the island, contact the St. Maarten Tourist Board at 675 Third Ave., Suite 1807, New York, NY 10017; 800-786- 2278, 212-953-2084 or st-maarten.com.

The mail address for tourist information on the French half of the island is the same. Call 877-956-1234 or 212-475- 8970 or go to st-martin.org.

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