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St. Martin is a 37 sq. mile island divided between two countries; French St. Martin, which is part of France, and Dutch St. Maarten, which is actually part of a separate nation, the Netherlands Antilles. While the border is marked, it is open. English is the common language, although there is considerable French spoken on the French side. The island is a popular cruise ship destination, and is best known for duty-free shopping, beaches, and excellent restaurants. While the landscape is reasonably attractive, it is not generally highly scenic. The island has undergone and is undergoing a great deal of development and construction. St. Martin retains considerable French Caribbean character, while St. Maarten has become much more touristy and Americanized, and the development there, regrettably, has been unplanned and some might say chaotic in places. Most of the night-life of the island can be found in casinos and clubs on the Dutch side, especially in the Maho and Simpson Bay areas. The main town is Philipsburg, capital of St. Maarten, where most passengers from cruise ships will disembark, and which offers the greatest shopping options. It has been spiffied up and is quite attractive, although clearly tourist oriented. The capital of the French side, Marigot, also provides shopping opportunities and is pleasant. The village of Grand Case is noted for its many restaurants, an excellent snorkeling and diving on two beautiful reefs just off shore.
Stay-over visitors typically rent a car, which is relatively inexpensive. Roads are not bad by Caribbean standards, but traffic can be very heavy on the Dutch side and around Marigot at certain times. Ease of visiting the different beaches is one of the advantages of a car; while there remain a few undeveloped beaches, most have beach bars or other facilities on them – some quite a few. The most well known beach is Orient, which has the greatest abundance of water-sports and the added attraction of being clothes-optional, although for the most part this is limited to one end. This is one beach that provides reasonable parking access - most of it at the beach bars, but you can walk until you find an empty spot of beach or rent a beach chair (you can often negotiate the price if you buy lunch). Many of the other "public" beaches have poorly marked access or no parking in the vicinity of the access. With heavy cruise passenger traffic, parts of it can be very crowded, and the regiments of chairs in front of some of the establishments reflect this. All beaches on the French side are topless, and topless is seen also on the Dutch side to a lesser extent. How common this is on a particular beach depends on the visitors there on a given day.
Safety is a concern of many travelers, and while St.Martin is a reletively safe island, it is heaviliy populated and in a large group of people there will always be some who break the law. However,a very small fraction of tourists encounter major crime. On the other hand, there are a lot of tourists (around a million cruise ship passengers alone a year). In the daytime, you should not have any worries except in very isolated areas such as the top of Pic Paradis, the highest point and a good view, but not recommended unless part of a group. Similarly, it is best to stick to active areas at night, and to avoid flashing a lot of jewelry or money. One caveat: never leave anything in a parked car, as car break-ins have been commonplace on the island for a long time. Otherwise, the main hassles will be from time-share sales people, who are harmless if annoying. Beach vendors are rarely a problem.