French Caribbean
It's islands upon islands here. | Multiverse/Shutterstock
It's islands upon islands here. | Multiverse/Shutterstock

Come to the French Side of This Gorgeous Caribbean Island

Creole food shines against a turquoise water backdrop.

People may come to Saint Martin for the beaches, but it’s the delicious cuisine that sets this Caribbean destination apart. That’s partly due to the fresh fish, the French influence, and the abundance of Creole spices. Together, it all makes for mouth-watering festivals and fantastic restaurants stuck in the sand or popping up on tiny surrounding islands.

The landscape is nothing to shrug at either, when it comes to reasons to go. Think stretches of long, white-sand beaches with secret coves and sheltered bays. Walk along those shores and you’ll find coconut palm trees and pure relaxation. And all around, colorful buildings cascade through lush green hills down to the sea.

Saint Martin sits on an island where the Netherlands claimed the south side and France claimed the north side. Today, the French-roots Saint Martin is known as “the friendly island” and is less touristy than its Dutch counterpart. While the Caribbean is never a bad idea any time of year, the best time to visit is now, during shoulder season, mid-May to mid-July when the crowds are gone, prices are down, and the cruise ships have set sail. Here are the beaches, boats, and eats to find there.

fresh fish
Fish cooked whole keeps all the juices in. | Villa Royale Restaurant

Eat Johnny cakes and whole fish

Many consider Saint Martin to be the Caribbean’s premier food destination. In fact, 2022 has been dubbed its “year of gastronomy”—a nod to the burgeoning food scene and a sign of finally bouncing back from the devastating effects of 2017’s hurricane Irma and COVID-19. Saint Martin’s well-respected Festival de la Gastronomie—which showcases local chefs, restaurants, and up-and-coming talent—is also helping put the country on the map and is set to be a major draw for visitors this fall.

At local outdoor restaurants, or “lolos,” you’ll find crispy cod fritters or a plate of fresh fish with creole spices. Other local specialties include the many pain au chocolat options at bakeries and fresh mangos that melt in your mouth.

Head to Sandy’s for warm johnny cakes, a large plate of salted fish, and scrambled eggs for breakfast. While at Villa Royale, a Creole restaurant in Grande Case, the goat curry and fried fish are worth the wait.

You’ll also find a lot of French restaurants due to the history here. In fact, the wait staff and most of the guests at Les Galets speak French in between puffs of their cigarettes. Outdoor tables overlook a deep blue pool lit up at night for a romantic setting, and you can select a cheese board from a cart brought to your table. At French restaurant La Cigale, you can have dinner on the beach in the sand, overlooking the water, champagne in hand. There you can eat a perfectly cooked piece of meat for half the price you’d find in New York.

Saint Martin beach
The sand in Saint Martin is almost as white as the crashing waves. | Saint-Martin – French Side

Hit the beach, and then maybe a nude beach

Saint Martin’s crystal-clear turquoise water is the kind you always picture for the Caribbean and perfect for the ‘gram. The island has 37 picturesque beaches to choose from. Honestly, there are no bad choices, but Suzanne Scantlebery, a local who works for the Saint-Martin tourist office, recommends Grand Case Beach, Happy Bay, Friars Bay, and Mullet Bay Beach.

Grand Case Beach is a particularly lively option. The long stretch of sand is lined with lolos, as well as French and Creole restaurants. Happy Bay is a bit more difficult to reach, as it requires a short 10-minute hike from Friar’s Bay. But the pay-off is worth it, as this stretch of soft sand is lined with coconut palms and has an azure blue lagoon. Whereas Friar’s Bay is popular on weekends, due to its accessibility and calm, shallow waters. Plus once a month, it hosts a full moon party.

Orient Bay beach is known as “The St. Tropez of the Caribbean” for its European beach clubs. It’s also known as a popular nude beach. Stroll up and down the shore or reserve a lounging chair at Coco Beach Club, where there’s always a crowd there for the excellent food. This beach tends to be windy, which makes it a popular choice for kites and windsurfers.

rum cocktail
It's like a guava berry and rum colada. | Guavaberry Colombier Tradition

Drink in the local flavors of Saint Martin

In Saint Martin, whether you’re on the beach, at a restaurant, during the day, or at night, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a drink in hand at almost any hour—well, except maybe an early breakfast. This is the kind of place where you can always find a bottle of bubbly in the beach clubs and French restaurants, but locals prefer cocktails usually based with rum, or “rhum.”

Another traditional drink is guavaberry rum. First made in people’s homes centuries ago as a Christmas drink, today you can find this local punch around the island. It’s made from cane sugar, wild guava berries from the island’s hilly central region, spices, and of course, rum. Visit the Guavaberry Colombier Tradition distillery for free tastings and to see how the magic is made.

Also, make sure to go to Hot Spot, bartender Daryl Brooks’ lolo in Marigot, for his award-winning tamarind martini. He’s also the bee’s knees to chat with.

Saint Martin boat
Why settle for a motorboat when you can sail in these winds? | Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock

Take a boat trip to Tintamarre, Creole Rock, and Pinel Island

If you didn’t get on a boat in Saint Martin, did you really even go? There are several ways to rent a boat. Spend time aboard Captain Jo Boat Charter or set sail on Scoobitoo's 75-foot catamaran, enjoying the views from the water and stops at uninhabited heavenly inlets and gorgeous sandy beaches. Go for two-hours, a half day, or the whole day—just sign up online or give them a ring. Captain and owner Stephane used to be a renowned chef, so lunches are delicious and include fresh baguettes, French cheese, and wine. Or take your pick of one of these amazing charter boats and create your own nautical adventure (captain included).

Here’s the game plan: Leave early in the morning and pack water, sunscreen, a bathing suit, and a hat. First stop is Creole Rock, where you can jump off the side of your boat and snorkel with schools of striped fish and view the coral reef.

Next, head east to Tintamarre, which translates to “flat island,” because its powder-soft beach stretches across the entire tranquil island. A short boat ride from Orient Bay, people come here for the shallow, warm water, perfect for swimming and relative quiet. Don’t be surprised if you see a yacht anchored next to your speedboat.

In the heart of the Nature Reserve and a short boat ride away is Pinel Island, a perfect spot for lunch at the couple restaurants on shore, including options for grilled lobster. At Yellow Beach restaurant you can have an afternoon cocktail at one of the tables planted directly in the water. Also, look out for the iguanas near the gift shop.

Fort Louis
Anyone got a really big match? | Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Climb Fort Louis for breathtaking views

Outside the town of Marigot, a short drive leads uphill to Fort Louis and a bit of island history. There, 120 steps will take you to the top of this French military fort built in the 18th century to defend this side of the island from enemy attacks. At the very top, you’ll find stunning panoramic views overlooking Marigot Bay and the marina.

Saint Martin hotel
Now these are work-from-abroad views. | Karibuni Sxm

Where to stay in Saint Martin

Most of the best accommodations in Saint Martin are either boutique hotels or Airbnb rentals in the Cul-de-sac area. Some favorites include L’Esplanade Hotel, which pulls design touches from Spain, Mexico, and Morocco, such as tiles and lanterns. Set on a hill above Grand Case village, it’s surrounded by gardens and has sweeping ocean views.

Other standouts include Orient Beach Hotel, where each room has its own terrace and you can step out right onto the beach. That experience gets even more private at Grand Case Beach Hotel, since this resort has its own private beaches. You can waterski, wakeboard, and snorkel directly from the property, or arrange to go ziplining, kite surfing, and horseback riding nearby, in addition to island hopping. Or you can rent spacious suites at Karibuni, which each come with their own private plunge pools. From the hotel, kayak to Pinel Island just across the bay.

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Jennifer Mattson writes for Thrillist and is a longtime journalist. Follow her travels @jennifermattson.