The Caribbean Island Where Planes Soar Just Above Your Head at the Beach

With the steepest zipline in the world and parties with parrots.

Give Sint Maarten a Google and you’ll be greeted with a couple different spellings. There’s a reason for that, and prepare for the geographical portion of your mind to be blown: There are actually two separate countries on this singular, 37-square-mile island. That’s right, to the north is the French side, Saint Martin. And to the south—comprising approximately 45% of the island’s total mass—is the Dutch country of Sint Maarten.

Every nook of this enchanted mountains-meets-sea destination deserves your time and energy. The smaller Dutch side carries a memorable punch, with the abundant friendliness of its locals as attraction number one. Its motto is “The Friendly Island,” after all.

Beyond chats with a Saint Maartener over sips of the country’s signature guavaberry liqueur, there is oh so much to experience in this bit of the Leeward Islands. From plopping it on a beach as planes soar a few dozen feet above your head to riding the world’s steepest zipline to noshing on all the johnnycakes possible, here’s how to experience the Sint Maarten magic.

PHILIPSBURG, SINT MAARTEN
Captain Wang/Shutterstock

Practically touch the bottom of planes flying over the beach

Perhaps you’ve seen the photos or almost-alarming YouTube videos of vacationers standing on a beach as mega-planes float just over their heads to their tarmac landing literally feet away. That’s St. Maarten’s Maho Beach and the adjacent Princess Juliana International Airport. If you want to go on your own plane-spotting adventure, get there earlier in the day as the larger, international planes typically arrive before mid-afternoon. There are vendors that rent out daybeds and chairs, should you not want to get cozy on the white sand, too.

Beyond Maho Beach, Sint Maarten has 36 other beaches and, yes, much quieter options. Long Bay Beach (you’ll see signs for Baie Longue) in the southwest lives up to its name as the largest beach on the island. Its secluded, turquoise-water coastline is bordered to the north and south by rock structures and is primed for bodyboarding and surfing. For sailing adventures—many of which circle the entirety of the island—Simpson Bay is a hotspot for options, including the likes of No1SXM Sailing and Sail Arawak SXM.

he Flying Dutchman at St. Maarten with Rainforest Adventures
Rainforest Adventures

Brave the world’s steepest zipline and party with parrots

Sure, Sint Maarten’s beaches get the bulk of the ecological love. But there is a zipline and a bird sanctuary that will make the outdoorsy hearts flutter equally as so. The Flying Dutchman Zipline starts at the top of the nearly 1,200-foot-tall Sentry Hill on Rockland Estate, one of the highest points on the island. On your zipline ride down to near-sea level, you reach peak speeds of almost 60 miles per hour, taking in panoramic forest, sea, and beach landscapes along the way. For the most seamless experience, Rainforest Adventures offers packages with chairlift rides up to Sentry Hill, in addition to other zipline adventures.

Near the French/Dutch border in the town of Belvedere, you’ll find Parotte Ville Bird Park. Opened in 2015 by local George Parotte, there are hundreds of species to gawk at and hand feed, notably parrots in the most vivid of color combinations. The spot is also a haven for rehabilitating various bird species, which you can learn all about via tours and within its quaint museum set-up, too.

Blue Bitch Restaurant in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten
Debbie Ann Powell/Shutterstock

Stroll around colorful shops and the pineapple-shaped bell tower in Philipsburg

Amid the nature and rural options, Sint Maarten has a thriving city, too. Philipsburg is the capital of St. Maarten and is the country’s urban core. Its overarching architectural vibe—think classic Dutch, pastel buildings—is as alluring as the businesses you’ll stroll by.

Front Street is pedestrian-friendly shopping thoroughfare, which has designer clothing boutiques, jewelry shops with locally sourced tanzanite creations, and the town’s colonial-esque courthouse with a pineapple-shaped bell tower on top. Parallel to Front Street is an expansive, seaside boardwalk when you need a scenic reprieve from shopping.

On the art front, Philipsburg’s streets have been recently morphed with modern murals thanks to the Be The Change Foundation’s ColorMeSXM Project. The foundation partnered with more than a dozen local artists to create an art-walk experience through town, with landscapes spanning flamboyant iguanas to butterfly wings. They are all gram-worthy and conveniently mapped out.

May Carnival Parade, Sint Maarten
timsimages.uk/Shutterstock

Bring some costume changes to the Carnival party

Whereas most Carnival celebrations are confined to a few days and hyper-focus on its host country, Sint Maarten parties on another level. Its annual Carnival, typically held in mid-April, has a carnival village as its undeniable anchor, open round the clock with more than 30 culinary vendors from throughout the entire Caribbean region.

Another highlight is its Jouvert Morning Jump Up, in which locals and tourists alike wake up at 4 am on a Thursday, dress in group costumes (like maids and butlers or police officers), and party on the streets through the break of dawn. The country has a website with an entire Carnival slate, so there is no shortage of turning up.

The Captain's Rib Shack in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten
The Captain's Rib Shack

Explore the sweet to spicy spectrum

Get accustomed to seeing some regular names on menus here, folks. Among them are johnnycakes (cornmeal pancakes), callaloo (a thick, veggie-filled soup named after a leafy vegetable), lokri (a simmered rice dish resembling paella), and spareribs. Oh, the glorious spare ribs that come in such sweet and jerky varieties. Head to the no-frills Captain’s Rib Shack for arguably the best on the island, striking just the right balance.

On the booze front, Sint Maarten is expectedly loaded with cozy, beachside haunts. A favorite is Dutch Blond Beach Bar for its ice-cold, homemade craft brews. Juggie’s Place is as charming as it gets, with a sign reading “The Smallest Bar in the World” above its front door. The owner will donate money toward a local breast cancer awareness nonprofit for anyone who donates one of their own bras. If you’re looking to take a bottle of Saint Maarten rum home, make it Guavaberry. It’s everywhere, from the cruise port to the duty-free section of the airport.

Divi Resorts in St. Maarten
Divi Resorts

Wade in your hotel’s swim-up bar and snooze in an oceanfront villa

Dreamy, all-inclusive resort or breezy villa? This is the primary lodging question in Sint Maarten. For resorts, Divi Little Bay Beach Resort opened its newest wing in 2022 and has three ocean-view pools, a swim-up bar, and on-site water sports center. Six miles west, Sonesta Maho Beach Resort is a top all-inclusive, family-friendly option with 10 acres of oceanfront property to explore, a kids club, aqua park, and on-site casino. For villas, the super-private Coral Beach Club is tucked in the northeast corner of the country on Oyster Pond and has 24 luxurious villas with ocean and mountain views.

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Jesse Scott is a contributor for Thrillist.