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The island is characterized by mountains on the interior and development around the coasts. There is one main road around the island with secondary routes headed into local residential areas. The main roads are all narrow 2 lane streets. Many of the secondary roads are two way although traffic can only pass in one direction, you will need to pull aside from time to time to let the on-coming traffic pass. Renting a car is recommended but there are taxis and local $1 busses. If you do rent a car, choose the smallest that fits your needs: apart from the narrow roads, parking is a nightmare. Because the traffic is so bad, St Martin drivers expect to be allowed to turn across your path, or out into main roads; be prepared to give way (yield) more often than you would back home.
Getting around via a rental car takes some getting used to. You can easily learn to handle driving around the island, but knowing what to expect will make your experience safer and easier to deal with. If you know about the following seven things, it will make it easier and safer for you to learn to drive on the island.
1) If you look at a map, you will see that roads have names, but there are no signs along the roads which show the names of the roads. That makes is difficult to follow the map, or to know where you are, until you have driven the route a few times.
2) Watch for potholes, they are everywhere, and many are large, especially on secondary roads.
3) Often, at night, you will encounter bicyclists who have no lights and no reflectors on their bicycles, even on the main road around the island. As the main road passes through inhabited areas, bicyclists will dart out onto the road. The first time you encounter this at night may scare you. After a few times, you just get used to the fact that you have to be ready for it.
4) There are many roundabouts on the island. Most have two or three exits. However, few of the exits are marked as to the name of the road, or the name of the area which they lead to. So you need to have a map, or a GPS system, which you can get at your rental car agency. Unfortunately, the roundabouts often have other "secondary" exits which makes things very confusing. The map may show two turn offs, but there may be a third which goes into a parking lot for a small store. Your GPS may say, "Enter the roundabout and take the second exit." However, if there is a small local cut-off, it means the third possible exit. You will get used to this quickly. Have your passenger look at the map and advise you on the general direction that you want to go (for example, bear left or bear right, or go approximately straight ahead), and that will help you select the exit that you are looking for.
5) As was stated above, parking spaces are small and parking areas are crowded, especially in the populated areas, such as those on the drive from the airport to Phillipsburg. To get out of thes small spaces along the main road, one has to back up into oncoming traffic on the main road. The locals are used to this, and do it quickly, but it can be disconcerting to the first-time vacationer.
6) Even on the main road around the island, there are many places at which the road simultaneously goes up or down a steep hill and takes a sharp turn. You must take these slowly. Often, while driving an ascending turn, a local driver will drive up close behind you and flash his lights to let you know he would like you to drive faster. Pay attention to the road, and not to the person who wants to get around you. He can pass when the road straightens out.
7) Finally, there are the GPS systems, which you can get at your rental car agencies. These can be very helpful, but they are not yet fully programmed, which causes surprises for people who are used to using a GPS. For example, while the machine invites you to enter the number and street address of a building, that function is not yet available on the Island. Also, you will encounter times at which the GPS tells you to take a right or a left, and there is no exit to take. When that happens, just keep driving, and it will replan your route.
One cannot really experience the island without having a car. There is Anse Marcel to the North, Marigot and Grand Case to the West, Phillipsburg to the South and Oyster Pond and Orient Bay on the East. There are beautiful beaches all around the island. It will only take one or two days to get used to the particulars of driving on the island, and anyone can learn to do it safely. So please don't let this list of things to be mindful of, stop you from renting a car. As was said above, driving around the island takes some getting used to, but it is easy to get used to, and it is the only way to see the entire island.