This trip was a spontaneous last minute vacation for us. My husband’s parents had a timeshare week that was set to expire this year, and we had frequent flier miles to use. We did not research much with the exception of some forum posts and a few reviews before we took off for this beautiful Caribbean island. I have categorized everything for easier reader viewing since the report is so long. Please scroll down to the items that are of interest to you.
Flights: We flew USAir out of Dayton to Charlotte, then to St. Maarten with the same stops on our return flight. All flights were on time. If making an early flight out of Dayton, OH, it does not help to arrive 2 hours before. Ticket counters do not open up until at least 4 a.m. Our flight was scheduled at 5:30 a.m. We checked in early online the day before and paid the $15.00 for each of our 1 checked bags. (For the return flight, there was no charge for the 1st checked bags.) Custom forms were handed out on the flight with ample time to complete. Lines were long in St. Maarten immigration, but the process was very smooth. Princess Juliana International airport is very nice, and up to date. St. Maarten does not have U.S. Customs in their airport; hence we went through customs in Charlotte on our return flight. The lines were set up in a queue which created an easy flow. Again, custom forms were handed out on the flight with plenty of time to complete. Unfortunately, a person in front of us did not have her card filled out which resulted in a longer wait for us as we had already been placed in a line for an immigration officer.
Car Rental: After reading reviews on TA, we decided to use Unity Cars. We were picked up at the airport and taken to the rental lot. The transaction was smooth, and the employees friendly and professional. We took extra liability insurance for the 10 nights we were staying, and also took out extra insurance from American Express. When we returned our car, the representative took us back in our rental vehicle to the airport so we didn’t need to transfer all our bags. We would use them again.
Hotel and Resort Accomodations:
• L’Hoste Hotel (Orient Bay, St. Martin) – This hotel is on the French side of the island. We stayed here for our first night, and for the last two nights as we had specific days we needed to fly in and out with our frequent flier miles for the most use of our points. The hotel is a little difficult to find once in the Orient Beach resort area. The sign was stuck in a corner of the buildings and hidden by some plants. There is a small open air desk for check in. The first night we were in room #219, and the last couple we were in room #210. Room #219 faces a fenced in area with a single horse in it, and is not an updated room. Room #210 had a slight ocean view and had been updated with a stone counter in the bathroom, and stone flooring in the shower. Both rooms were Bamboo Suites and had a four poster king bed, and a single bed placed along the wall. They also had 2 burners, a small kitchen sink, and some eating utensils and dishes, a microwave and small refrigerator (with a large complimentary bottle of water). The electricity is different on this side of the island than the states. We tried using an adaptor and transformer, and blew some circuits which left us without electricity, and we think others. (The staff took care of our problem immediately, and electricity was restored in our unit, and any others that were affected.) My rollers which had a switch to turn depending on the voltage did not work at the hotel. On Orient Beach, the hotels do not sit on the beach/water edge. Instead, bars and restaurants have that property, and umbrellas and chairs are maintained by them. L’Hoste guests are allowed complimentary use of the umbrellas and chairs from the bar (La Playa) in front of the compound. Upon arrival, several coupons are given for free drinks at different eating establishments. Breakfast at L’Hoste is continental served in the open air space, “Madras”. The breakfast is presented on a tray by a server and includes juice, different types of pastries including croissants, and Pain au Chocolat (my personal favorite), French bread, fruits (grapefruit, pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew, yogurt), and is adjusted to the size of the party. A center island houses urns of hot water for tea, coffee, and hot chocolate. Very nice amenity! There is a pool on property next to the Madras, but it is basic, and not populated.
• The Atrium Resort (Simpson Bay, St. Maarten) – This is the timeshare we exchanged for. We had a 1 bedroom unit that consisted of one bathroom, one bedroom, a sitting area with a pull out sofa, flat screen TV and a couple of chairs, an eating area, and a very useable kitchen. We were in room 709. There was a private balcony that overlooked the lagoon, and the hillside. The room was outdated, but well maintained. Towel service was provided every day, and other cleaning twice a week. We had free internet in the room which was a nice plus. There are laundry facilities but I believe there is only 1 per every other floor. The pool was outdated, and rarely used. The grounds were ok, but nothing extravagant. Umbrellas and chairs are placed on the beach daily, but are limited in number. No one seemed to be fighting for the umbrellas though. The water at the beach is generally very calm (great for younger kids and for socializing). We met some wonderful couples that had also exchanged for this resort. The Atrium hosts a Welcoming Party every Monday in their lobby. Several types of cheese, crackers, bread, fruit, and veggies are presented buffet style with rum punch beverages provided also. Because of the pending hurricane, Bill, in the Atlantic, only one tour company showed up. Reservations were not being taken for any trips before Friday. The resort is near several restaurants and within walking distance to many businesses on Simpson Bay. Although I enjoyed our stay at this resort, it is not one of my favorites, and the grounds a little too basic. The water, very calm with the exception of a couple days with the affects of Hurricane Bill in the Atlantic, has little to no surf, and has a sand ledge in the water that changes and is generally unseen. We saw several people trip and fall when the ledge took them by surprise.
Food: We ate most of our meals in the resort while we were on the Dutch side of the island. We did our grocery shopping at Le Gourmet Marche in Simpson Bay. The store had basically everything we needed, but later in our stay we went to the same store in Philipsburg, and wish we would have done our main shopping there. The store was designed much like a large grocery store in the states. I purchased some Dutch candy bars to bring back that we had tried in Aruba before that are so good! The brand is Verkade. I have been trying to find them in the states, but have had no luck. We ate at the following restaurants during our stay on the Dutch and French sides of the island:
• La Playa (Orient Bay), St. Martin – This bar/restaurant is located on the beach in front of L’Hoste Hotel. We arrived around 4 p.m. after our flight to the island. At that time they only serve “snacks” which include hamburgers/fries, etc. We had three blue cheese burgers and fries for a cost of $50.00. Our beverages were complimentary with the coupon we used. The tip was not included, and had to be paid in cash. Pricey, but delicious.
• Zee Best (Simpson Bay), St. Maarten – This restaurant is located on the Dutch side close to The Atrium resort. I had a scrumptious cheese crepe made with goat cheese and two other varieties. It was served with French fries. The portions are large here. The restaurant serves bread in a basket and you pay for what you eat. We did not consume as this seemed highly non hygienic to us. I understand this is typical for a French restaurant. Cash is the only form of payment accepted, and the restaurant is only open until 2 p.m.
• Pineapple Pete’s (Simpson Bay), St. Maarten – Fairly close to the Atrium also. Dave had Lobster Thermador and a Mojito for the first time. He loved both. I had Cocunut Shrimp with rice and mixed veggies. Damien had a Penne Marinara and some Bruschetta that he loved. As we were celebrating my birthday, I ordered a Dark Rum Crème Brulee that was absolutely scrumptious. The service was great, and the management very accommodating. Our server had a large smile on her face the entire time we were there. 15% gratuity is automatically added to the ticket. We added additional money to the check.
• Sunset Grill (Maho Beach), St. Maarten – Very close to the airport runway. The lunch was typical grill food, but the view was amazing. Not only do you see the waves crashing into the beach, but you also experience low flying aircraft, and hear transmissions between the pilots and the control tower over the speakers. Fun to visit at least once.
• Toppers (Simpson Bay), St. Maarten – Close to the Atrium Resort. It is a quicker walk if you cut through the beach. Excellent service! This restaurant provides the extras that make it special. Our server was extremely friendly (saw her the next day on the French side with her family, and she greeted us and introduced us in a very warm manner). Dave had a filet mignon that was at least 3 inches thick. We all tried it; absolutely wonderful. At the end of the meal, our check was enclosed in a wooden box with several pieces of candy in it. Also, we were given a sampling (our flavor choice) of the local rum made on the island. This restaurant was recommended to us on TA, and I’m so glad we were able to dine here.
• The Talk of the Town Lolo Bar and Restaurant (Grand Case), St. Martin – A visit to the island is incomplete, in my opinion, if a Lolo is not experienced. The French side of the island has very expensive dining options, and with the U.S. dollar weak against the Euro, it can be very costly. However, Lolos provide a large portion of food for a low cost, and as in our case when paid by cash, the food was 1 dollar to 1 euro. The Rib and Chicken platter with three sides of choice was only $10.00, and the soft drinks (served in cans) were only $1.00. Most Lolos in the Caribbean are roadside shacks and mobile vans that serve barbeque type foods in generous quantities. The Talk of the Town has covered seating though and a waitstaff, with restroom accommodations.
• Little Italie (Orient Bay), St. Martin – Located close to L’Hoste Hotel. I had a Gnocchi Di Pate Al Gorgonzola that was out of this world. All of our meals were served gourmet style and were very tasty. This was our 11 year old’s favorite restaurant on the island. Service was very good. We used a coupon for free wine at dinner, and a complimentary lemon liquor shot was served at the end of the meal to aide in digestion. The meal cost for the three of us was $79.30 (61.00 euros), not including tip.
• Bikini Beach Bar (Orient Bay), St. Martin – Next to La Playa bar in front of L’Hoste Hotel. We first visited the bar for a Happy Hour one night, and enjoyed visiting with the bartender who is originally from England. She was very informative, and extremely nice. She makes a mean Margarita on the rocks though. No alcohol spared on that drink. The next day while a quick rain fell on the beach, we ate lunch here. The salsa is from a jar, and tasted like Pace. I had a French cheese plate that was very scrumptious. Our drinks were provided free from a coupon issued by our hotel.
• Le Piment (Orient Bay), St. Martin – Located next to Little Italie. We were a little disappointed with this restaurant. We ordered three personal gourmet pizzas and 4 beverages and our bill was $65.00, without gratuity. The service was ok, but as it became busier, the server was a little less friendly. The pizzas were ok, and several types were available, but better pizza can be found elsewhere.
Beaches: We visited different beaches and each one was different. There are beaches to meet many various types of needs and wants. Some are very soft white sand, and others are browner. Some water was calm and tranquil, while others had large surfs. Except for Orient Beach, none of the beaches were very long.
• Orient Beach (French Side) – We loved the surf on this beach, and the pretty white sand. There is a lot to do with regards to water activities, and several eating places located directly on the beach near the water. It is very crowded with seating and umbrellas though. Also, this is the beach that topless is the most prevalent that we saw. We did see some nudists walking the beach in the morning. There is a clothing optional resort on the south end of the beach not located close to where we were staying.
• Mullet Bay Beach (Dutch Side) – This was our absolute favorite beach. The surf was high, and the water just beautiful. Umbrellas and two chairs cost $10.00 for the day. It is not crowded as there is not a resort located on the beach, but there are two casual eating places located on the strip. Hurricane Luis destroyed the largest resort on St. Maarten, Mulley Bay, in 1995 so the beach, although once very crowded, is relatively quiet.
• Maho Beach (Dutch Side) – Located at the end of the airstrip. The surfs are the highest I have ever seen, and the entire beach is washed over with some of the waves. We enjoyed playing in the water here, and watching the planes fly over us.
• Simpson Bay Beach (Dutch Side) – We spent most of our time here as this is where our timeshare was located. The waters, with the exception of when Hurricane Bill was in the Atlantic, are generally very calm and clear. However, after the Hurricane passed by the Caribbean islands, the water became very murky. It is a nice beach for young children, and for socializing with others in the water.
General: At no time did we feel unsafe. We were aware of our surroundings, and didn’t leave things lying around. We did however go into the water, and leave our beach items and bags in our chairs where we had a good view of them. At Mullet Bay we left our rental vehicle unlocked as suggested by Unity Car Rental. If we purchased something, someone stayed in the car or we took the items with us. The Atrium had good security with cameras located around the property, and the parking lot was secured at all times with the exception of Saturdays for easy check in and check out. We did not experience any problems during our entire stay. The peddlers on the beaches became annoying after awhile. Although not as bad as Puerto Vallarta in Mexico (several years ago), it still took away some of the peacefulness on the beaches. Also, we saw a man (worker or regular customer) at Bikini Beach Bar beat his dog with his shoe. This was extremely heart wrenching. The dog had been playing with some other dogs, and they became a little rough in their play. I hope the owners of the establishment do not allow this type of cruelty! All in all, we enjoyed the differences between the two sides of the island, and the shopping in Philipsburg. One tip I would pass on though is if you plan to shop in Philipsburg, arrive before the stores open, otherwise it is extremely hard to find a parking spot. Most of the people who work downtown use up the available spaces. In my opinion, a parking garage needs to be built to help alleviate some of the parking issues. Although not my favorite Caribbean island, I would visit again if the circumstances allowed, but would probably stay somewhere other than The Atrium.
Pictures of our trip are posted on Facebook: www.facebook.com/editphoto.php…