Airline: We flew US Airways. 4 legs, 4 planes. Every single one of them a) left late, b) arrived late, and/or c) had luggage issues. A poorly operated airline, even compared to Delta, which is saying something.
Travel: Why is the USA the only country I've ever been to that consistently has a poorly implemented entry program?
Those were really the only sour notes.
Lodging: We stayed at a VRBO (net site) listed condo-ized studio apartment at Mont Vernon at the north end of Orient Beach. The price was right and it was a very good place to use as a base. This place is an ex 400-unit resort hotel, some of the units (like ours) have been renovated and provide a nice bedroom, bathroom, and studio kitchen for your stay. It's not a hotel, there are no "daily" amenities like maid service. It was clean, the managers (see That Yodaguy rentals) are polite, the bed is comfortable. Other than that we weren't in it much, though we did cook there twice, and the full sized refrigerator was convenient. Water pressure was great, and the AC worked quickly and well.
Rental Car: Gosh there are a lot of very small rental car places on the island. We strongly recommend you get one somewhere. We rented from USave and did fine (again the price was right). The car was adequate, though the driver could not open the door from the inside and had to roll down the window to open it from the outside each stop. The AC worked fine and it got good gas milage.
Gas on the island is sold by the liter. Take cash, and expect to be paying upwards of $5 per gallon.
We locked the car. We left the car unlocked. We had no issues either way and experienced no evidence of crime or even suspicious activity our entire trip. Panhandling on the island is at a minimum, everyone was nice. I suspect that if you act reasonably and don't tempt people it's no more dangerous than any US city.
Groceries: There is a US Market (a french grocery) near where we stayed. That and the Grand Marche on the Dutch side in Cole Bay provided most of our regular groceries. Take your own grocery bags. Most of the food on the island is imported, and prices are high enough that eating cheaply isn't much (if any) more expensive than buying and cooking your own.
Getting around: It took about a day to adapt to driving styles on the island. The whole thing is only 37 square miles, surrounded by a loop road about 30 miles long. Once you get used to it, it's easy to navigate around. I printed google earth street maps of the different areas of the island and had no issues, though it helps if you don't mind exploring nooks and crannies.
We spent 7 days on the beach at Club Orient. $100 got us parking at the resort, and 7 days of 2 lounge chairs and 1 umbrella. Our experience on the island is that the southern end of the beach at Orient Beach is nicer than the northern end, both for wind and surf reasons. The Perch is an excellent bar with an excellent Bartender, and of course you are near to all the other Orient Beach Bars and restaurants. We particularly enjoyed the Bikini Beach Bar and their in-house flavored rums.
St. Martin is a foreign country, topless is legal everywhere on the beaches, nudity is acceptable in a variety of locations, particularly on the French side. If this is an issue for you, perhaps somewhere else would be a better vacation spot. I just don't understand US citizens who voluntarily choose to go to a place with topless beaches and casual nudity and then complain. The other problem of course is US citizens who don't understand that nudity does not equal sex, and then embarrass themselves and other people by acting sexually on the beaches *which is not desired or allowed (Get a room)*.
We spent 2 days touring the island when we'd had enough sun and/or the wind was really too high for most of the beaches.
Marigot has at least two nice bakeries down on the waterfront, La Sucerie, and Serafinas. The fish/meat markets on Wednesday and Saturday are worth getting down there early (before 8 am). We ate at a lovely Saturday only Lolo (Miss Ebby's) in one of the little fish market buildings. They featured baked johnny cakes, sugar cane / almond and sweet potato desserts, pig tail soup, and stuffed crabs. We had a nice breakfast there.
Quarter D'Orleans had two restaurants we really enjoyed eating at. Yvettes and Poulet D'Orleans are both locally owned and operated places which have good food at good prices.
Yvettes has been open for nearly 30 years, and is an air-conditioned dining room with friendly service and delicious food. The conch chowder, and creole-style entrees were delicious, as were the friend johnny cakes (I slathered mine with the hot pepper pickled carrots and stuff in a jar that was on the table). The homemade coconut tart for dessert was nicely not too sweet and had a lovely texture and taste. The menu is in US dollars (a rarity) and is very reasonable.
Poulet D'Orleans is run by Tony Romney, who serves you on his exposed front porch on old marble & iron tables with plastic exterior chairs. Yes, he lives there, and he is the owner, chef, and waiter. Don't be in a hurry, you're on island time. He serves a small and nicely varied menu (three different styles of cooking/sauce on nearly each entree). We had stuffed mushrooms, conch fritters, grilled fish (creole sauce) and a half a chicken (creole sauce). You're dining outside on a steep hill with the traffic going by right below you. Frankly the food is great. It's more like being served by a personal chef than dining in a restaurant and we really enjoyed it.
The Lolos in Grand Case are fun and have good grilled food. We got food from several of them and are given to understand that they're all pretty similar. Very inexpensive, basic, food.
Most of the chicken we ate on the island was local or from another carribean island. Most of the pork is from Brazil. The beef tends to come from the US (oh well) or from France, but we didn't eat any beef. Fish come from a variety of sources, including local.
There are a lot of little boulangeries (french bakeries) all over the french side. Stop at any of them and grab some great french bread, maybe a pastry. Get some french cheeses at a grocery, and voila, you have lunch. or breakfast.
We ate at Skipjacks, a seafood restaurant with its own seafood market on the Simpson Bay Lagoon. The seafood was all top of the line fresh and prepared very well. The martini I had was excellent.
Villa Pizza in Cul de Sac is a nice small outdoor eating place with good salads, entrees, and pizza. We ate there twice. As usual with any outdoor place on the island, the mosquitoes come out at dusk, but you can also do take-out if you wish.
We visited Mr. Buzby's Beach Bar on Dawn Beach at Oyster Bay. A nice beach bar with excellent homemade banana flavored rum. We were just there for drinks.
The Loterie Farm is an interesting place. The restaurant looked good but pricey. The cocktails were very good (and pricey), though the Trees Lounge was a nice place to hang out. They have zip lines if you enjoy that kind of thing, and some rather expensive poolside cabanas for a day rental if you are tired of the beach and the turquoise water and the sun.
We went to Ma Dou Dou, a small shack which has had a resort built up around it in Cul de Sac. They make and sell flavored rums, hot sauce, and flavored teas. It was a fun exploration and we bought several items after tasting, all of which are quite good.
We also spent over an hour in a place in Grand Case on the main road called Busco. It sells Carribean products and you can taste lots of stuff there as well. The proprietor was wonderful and we enjoyed tasting and talking with her.
Nearly all of the people we met on the island were very friendly and fun to interact with.
The tropical sun is no joke. If you aren't familiar with it, be prepared. Take SPF 50+, and use it liberally. Take more than you think you'll need.
Anywhere you go, *ask* what the exchange rate is for US dollars cash, before you buy. Ask if they take credit cards (many places don't). Sometimes you get good deals on the exchange rate, other places may not give you a break. But we always paid the dollar to euro posted exchange rate or better (never worse), and got 1-to-1 a number of times. ATMs on the Dutch side are more convenient (they pay out in US dollars) and the fees for using them were lower than going to another bank's ATM in the states.
Phillipsburg is mostly just like any other cruise ship port, no surprises. Development is more rampant and less controlled on the Dutch side, and traffic is higher and more congested. It's also more "Americanized" and has chain restaurants, etc (which we don't eat at). The French side is quieter, and well. ...more French.
Overall we had a great time. St. Martin will remain on our "places that are worth going to more than once" list. We didn't *do* a lot, and this is a great vacation for exactly that.