After years of closed international borders, travelers are itching to explore this big beautiful world of ours. But when an international vacation runs $6,000 for a family of four, you might say adios or au revoir to your getaway plans. But don’t give up hope just quite yet!
What if I told you about a small island nestled in between The Caribbean Sea and The Atlantic Ocean with one idyllic setting after another? One that is actually two European territories and considered the melting pot of The Caribbean with over 130 different nationalities? It’s a fabulous beach vacation with an international flair. It’s called Sint Maarten.
If you’ve only considered this destination expensive and out of reach, here’s what we discovered on our trip to the island.
But First, What Is Sint Maarten?
Part of the southeastern Caribbean Sea’s Leeward Islands, it is the smallest landmass in the world, divided by two countries. This duality not only creates an international mix of culture, traditions, and cuisine but draws people from around the world to its tiny 93-kilometer paradise near The Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
It has a charm that is hard to describe but embodies all the best aspects of a Caribbean getaway, plus allures from not one but two European countries.
The world’s most diverse menu of multicultural cuisine reflects its tumultuous past as a territory of Holland, England, France, and Spain. Three-hundred and seventy-five years ago, the island was peacefully divided by Holland and France and remains that way today. Travelers can leave their passports in their resort safe and travel between the two sides easily without ID checks.
Here’s How Sint Maarten Can Be Surprisingly Affordable
When you think of the Caribbean Island of Sint Maarten, do luxury resorts, fine dining, and celebrity yachts come to mind? Yes, it’s got that, but it also offers a broad mix of accommodations, restaurants, and numerous free or low-cost activities.
There’s a place in the sun for every traveler in Sint Maarten, from Jeff Bezos to those on a budget!
There Are Affordable Accommodations
Besides flights, accommodations are one of the largest parts of any vacation budget. After using frequent flyer miles or your hard-earned money to fly to Sint Maarten, you’ll want to stay as long as possible.
While the island does have iconic luxury resorts like La Samanna and over-the-top private home rentals, there is also a wide range of small boutique hotels, inns, Airbnbs, and timeshare resorts for most budgets and accommodation preferences.
One of the ways to secure a deal in high-end destinations is to bypass standard room rates and book a resort room from a timeshare owner not using theirs. With over 15 timeshare resorts on the island, the odds of finding one for rent are pretty good.
Our family stayed at the highly-recommended, award-winning Belair Beach Hotel, an all-suite resort on Little Bay Beach. Every single unit is an oceanfront two-bedroom, two-bath fully-stocked condo. Each morning, we woke up and slung the living room curtains back for gorgeous, dreamy views of turquoise water, sand, palm trees, and tropical flowers.
With a pool, on-site restaurant, warm staff, small grocery store, and car rental on-site, it’s no surprise that we met people who have stayed annually at this resort for 10, 20, 30, and even 40 years!
If you love the space and home-like conveniences of an Airbnb but prefer the amenities and community of a resort, it is the best of both worlds. The icing on the cake? Owners regularly rent out their unused rooms for $1300 a week or $185.71 a night. It’s a place you, and your wallet, will love!
Exploring the Great Eats in Sint Maarten
The gastronomic Capital of the Caribbean offers over 500 options to suit your taste and budget. Many say that you could stay in Sint Maarten for a year and never have to eat in the same place twice. Now that sounds like a delicious challenge!
One of the hallmarks of Sint Maarten is their roadside eateries called The Lolos. Dubbed the original food trucks, it feels more like eating delicious food in your neighbor’s yard. Favorites include The Original Fat Boy Jimmy, Captain D’s BBQ, Sexy Beef, and Cindy’s Roti Shack, which are all affordable.
Another bonus of having a full kitchen in your accommodations is the ability to make meals in your room. We ventured to the largest supermarket on the island, Carrefour, a French grocery store chain. An international culinary adventure in itself, this enormous grocery store with French, Dutch, and Creole fare, as well as spirits and wine, is also where the rich and famous’ yacht staff stocks up on food.
From the American chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and pizza my kids wanted to the french wine, cheese, bread, pasta, desserts, and Caribbean rum the adults wanted, it was hard not to fill our grocery cart to the brim with international delights. We enjoyed many meals and happy hours on our oceanfront patio, which helped keep our overall vacation costs down.
].If you want to venture for some vacation meals to enjoy the island’s cuisine and take a break from cooking, you can do so without breaking the bank. The best burger on Sint Maarten is at the reasonably priced restaurant inside Topper’s Rhum Distillery right on Simpson Bay Lagoon. Or check out the local Sint Maarten institution Mark’s Place, with a mix of island and Creole dishes. Or come for the BBQ and the island’s famous all-you-can-eat rib dinner for $24 a person.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Sint Maarten in November, 40 restaurants offer a prix fix menu as part of Sint Maarten Flavors Food Festival week.
Actually Affordable Activities in Sint Maarten
While many people come to Sint Maarten to lounge on their resort’s beach and recharge in the sunshine, others want to explore as much of the island as possible. Like other Caribbean islands, there are higher-priced excursions and tours on land and sea. But for those on a tight budget, there is plenty to do around the island for free.
Despite experiences in other destinations, renting a car in Sint Maarten is shockingly affordable. During Christmas, their busiest week of the year, even with a last-minute booking, we rented a car for a week for under $300 with Starlite Car Rental, the outfit at Belair Beach in business for over 20 years. They offer VIP no lines, no waiting service at a rate that’s a fraction of the cost of national U.S. brands and treated us like family.
Sand and Sea
A rental car enables you to drive around the island and explore its world-famous beaches for no additional cost. Swimmers and sand lovers love the mile-long Mullet Bay, while young families and snorkelers love the calm waters of Little Bay Beach.
Wind and kit surfers fly into the winds through Guanan Bay Beach, which also offers views of nearby celebrity-packed St. Barts. Finally, don’t forget the internet-famous Maho Bay during sunset for epic views and snap a photo of planes landing shockingly close, right over your head.
These turquoise Caribbean waters are stunning and have lots of hidden gems under the surface, offering 17 snorkeling spots. For example, Divi Little Bay’s site features a must-see, deliberately sunken submarine and helicopter. So pack your snorkeling gear from home and create your own Snorkeling Tour to a handful of spots!
If you’ve got wave lovers in your family, renting a boogie board for the week is easy, or bring one from home like our son proudly did as his carry-on.
The lush, green, mighty mountains were one of the things that surprised me the most about Sint Maarten. Their contrast against the turquoise waters makes for stunning views and additional free ways to explore the island. With hiking trails along the coast, grassland, and forest, don’t miss a trek to the Natural Pool of Guana Bay and a cooling dip in its water. Even if you don’t take a horseback tour at Seaside Nature Park, end your day with a moonlight hike at this stunning spot.
Explore the Dual Capitals
Pick a day without cruise ships in the port to walk The Dutch Capital, Phillipsburg. Stroll its cobblestone streets and see the tiny yet iconic Court House historical building. Then head to nearby Fort Amsterdam for one of the most epic views and photo spots on this side of the island.
Park at Divi Resort’s large parking lot and grab a happy hour BOGO gelato scoop before your light, short hike up to the top of the hill. In one place, you can see Little Bay, Great Bay, the Great Salt Pond, The Caribbean Sea, and the remnants of centuries-old stone Spanish military buildings.
When exploring the French side of the island, don’t miss the capital of Marigot. Start your day at the bustling daily Marigot Market full of vendors, local fruit and vegetables, meat, and fresh fish catches. Then explore the French shops and stores inside Le West Indies, a petite yet grande shopping center. Kids will love The Willy Wonka-style glass elevator up to the fourth floor of the building with epic bay views.
With so much to celebrate on the island, your trip may coincide with one of their festivals – most of which are free! From the weekly Tuesday evening Grand Case Carnival celebration to Spring Art Events and May’s Saint-Louis Village festival, there are many cultural events to join in on. Or watch the world-famous Heineken Regatta race from the sand, with thousands of sailboats in town.
Sint Maarten Is Calling You – What Are You Waiting For?
For those who love The Caribbean but don’t love the crowds of Aruba, The Bahamas, or Jamaica, book your next getaway, on a budget, to Sint Maarten.
The Crossroads of the Caribbean has daily flights to Europe and South America, plus direct flights to 10 U.S. cities. It also serves as a hub for exploration to neighboring islands like Anguilla, St. Kitts, Nevis, Saba, St. Barts, and St. Eustatius via small airplanes and ferry service. So if you dream of visiting these nearby islands, but the sticker shock of their luxury resorts is out of your budget, you can visit for the day and return to your Sint Maarten accommodations by night.
The tourism board says Sint Maarten will quickly feel like your home away from home. And as someone who recently visited and is already planning our return, that’s not just a slogan or exaggeration. The warmth and loveliness of the island will call you back.
This article originally appeared on Savoteur.