Whether you’re looking for a chi-chi beachside bistro or a secluded picnic spot, an adrenaline kick or a sexy place in the sun, you can find it on the beach in French St. Martin. And it’s best to take a when-in-Rome attitude during your stay, as the locals really know how to enjoy the good things in life: windsurfing and swimming in the morning; leisurely, wine-enhanced lunches within sight of the sea; siestas on the sand in the soft late-afternoon sun; gourmet dinners under starlit skies.
We’ve found more than a dozen beaches that any Caribbean connoisseur would want to visit on a complete Tour de French-side beaches. Or, in keeping with the easygoing ambience, you can simply use the following guide to pick the one beach that matches your mood, then pack a trashy existentialist novel and two bathing suits — a stylish number for posing among the people-watchers, and something baggy that will still be comfortable after you discover how great the food is. Either way, vive la plage!
Lowlands (Terres Basses)
The westernmost part of St. Martin, a dollop of land that seems barely tethered to the island, features three secluded beaches dotted with million-dollar villas.
Facing southwest and stretching more than a mile from end to end is aptly named Baie Longue (Long Bay). However, only the generous section of beach near the luxurious La Samanna offers sand down to the waterline. On the rest, the ocean meets a colorful strip of limestone ironshore.
The surf often kicks up in September and stays rough through November or December, making for dangerous swimming, but the entire beach is always great for strolling, golden sunset views and shell collecting.
Moving west, you reach Pointe du Canonnier at the very tip of the island. Around the point, Baie aux Prunes (Plum Bay) unfurls a sea grape-lined ribbon of paper-white sand. Dive into the clear water at its north end for superb snorkeling and swimming, and claim a spot for what is, hands down, the best beach for a romantic sunset.
Facing north and bordered by towering cliffs on each end, Baie Rouge’s (Red Bay) long arc of beige sand and calm blue water is the most popular of the Lowland beaches. Snorkel through the rock arch on the east side, called David’s Grotto, and you’ll find a hidden nook of sand.
Where to Stay: Aside from private villas, the only rooms out here are at the four-star La Samanna ($425 to $2,950*; 800-854-2252; www.lasamanna.com), which has a commanding view from atop Baie Longue’s east cliff. Lounges and water-sports equipment are for guests only, but the beach is open to all.
Where to Play: For the past 14 years, Ray, of Chez Raymond ($**; no phone), has been dishing up local favorites like shrimp stew from his beach shack on Baie Rouge. Drink two of his “Raymond Specials,” a lethal mix of six rums and fresh fruit juices, and your visit will be a little less memorable — or, rather, you’ll remember less of it. You can jam to live reggae with Ray and crew on weekends.
Hot Stuff: Road signs lead to Baie Longue and Baie aux Prunes; park on the unmarked sandy pull-offs and follow the footpaths between fences. Shell collecting is best near Pointe du Canonnier. Happy hour at Chez Raymond starts when the conch shell blows, so listen up.
The strip of land separating Simpson Bay Lagoon from the ocean, called Baie Nettlè, is home to an unkempt beach rarely visited for anything but the bars that bookend it. Layla’s Beach Bar ($$; 011-590-590-51-00-93) on the east anchors the nicest stretch of sand, swept clean and lined with palms. Their menu of fresh fish is seasoned with herbs grown in the garden. Ma Ti Beach Bar ($$; 011-590-590-87-01-30), on the west end, dishes out French and Creole fare. Both are open for lunch and dinner.
Friar’s Bay and Happy Bay
Friar’s Bay is best known for its dueling drink shacks. Kali’s Beach Bar ($; 011-590-690-49-06-81; www.kali-beach-bar.com), attended by Kali himself, has Rasta-colored everything, a burgers-and-BBQ menu and a laid-back attitude. Meanwhile, just a stone’s throw down the beach is a defiantly French outpost, Friar’s Bay Beach Café ($$; no phone). The sand around the bar serves as an al fresco gallery where the owner, Laurent, displays art that he commissions — usually politically motivated pieces on large canvasses. When gazers get hungry, Laurent, a former chef with Windstar Cruises, creates exquisite entrees like beef carpaccio and stuffed mussels.
An easy 10-minute hike from the north side of Friar’s brings you to Happy Bay, one of the island’s best stretches, whose blissful privacy and natural beauty more than make up for its lack of amenities. The creamy, palm-lined crescent is completely surrounded by emerald hills, and you can snorkel around rocks right off the beach. Pack a picnic that includes a bottle of wine and a baguette and get happy.
Hot Stuff: They say a full moon brings weirdos out of the woodwork. Test the theory at Kali’s Full Moon Party. A bonfire on the beach and reggae bands from Anguilla, St. Barts and Guadeloupe draw the night owls from St. Martin and neighboring islands to hoot at the moon.
A skinny crescent of pale sand facing Anguilla is home to the quaint village of Grand Case. Waterfront foodies have converted this once-obscure fishing village into the culinary hub of the island, if not the entire West Indies. More than a dozen gourmet restaurants overlook the sand, and chefs from around the world painstakingly prepare traditional French dishes like foie gras and frog legs as well as extravagant shrimp curries, crab cakes and Italian pastas and pizzas. All, of course, enhanced by superb wine lists.
Though Grand Case is ideal for fine-food feeding frenzies, the village also offers lo-los, a group of barbecue shacks in the middle of restaurant row that cook up mouth-watering chicken, fish and ribs on oil-drum pits and then pile plates high with rice ’n’ peas and salad. It’s great, cheap (relatively cheap in the case of the grilled lobster) local flavor, and you can go in your swim trunks.
Grand Case Beach itself is about as sleepy as the town. Since there’s not a wide swath, make sure to stake out a spot beyond high tide’s range.
Where to Stay: Amble out of your room and right onto the sand at Le Petit Hotel ($240 to $280; 011-590-590-29-09-65; www.lepetithotel.com), where large suites make you feel right at home. Grand Case Beach Club ($115 to $160; 800-344-3016; www.grandcasebeachclub.com) offers packages complete with water sports on Petit Plage at the north end of Grand Case.
Where to Play: If you get fidgety, head to Petite Plage where the Grand Case Beach Club offers kayaks, Sunfish, motorized water sports and two-hour excursions to nearby Creole Rock for some of the island’s best snorkeling. The trip costs $30 and includes a guide and skin-diving gear.
Where to Eat: With a fantastic location at the south end of restaurant row, and overlooking Grand Case Beach’s blue-green waters, Rainbow Café ($$$; 011-590-590-87-55-80; www.rainbow-cafe.com) serves up grilled lamb chops, braised Chilean sea bass and an entertaining dose of owners David and Fleur. Also along the ocean side of the main street and worth the delicious calories are four restaurants offering French fare and open-air views of the bay. Try Le Tastevin ($$$; 011-590-590-87-55-45); L’Escapade ($$$; 011-590-590-87-75-04; www.escapaderestaurant.com); Le Pressoir ($$$; 011-590-590-87-76-62); and La California ($$$; 011-590-590-87-55-57; www.california-restaurant.com).
The Northern Tip
The winding road up and over Pigeon Pea Hill opens onto a spectacular view of Anse Marcel. Embraced by mountains, this golden beach with a smattering of smooth black stones invites a romantic stroll or a dip in the sea.
A strenuous but worthwhile hour-and-a-half hike north from Anse Marcel leads over a hill and down to the most pristine beach on the island. Baie de Petites Cayes is the quintessential Caribbean setting, with water several shades of turquoise, a silky white ribbon of sand and quietude free from cars, crowds and development. Part of the charm is the hike, with spectacular views of the bay, Anguilla and passing sailboats.
To get to Petites Cayes, park at the service road for the water treatment plant, cross the chain and hike the road to the nursery. A metal culvert to the right is the beginning of the overgrown path. You can take the 25-minute, less scenic route by parking at Grandes Cayes (take a right in Cul de Sac before the hill to Anse Marcel) and hiking along the coast. If you bring a picnic lunch, throw it in a knapsack, because you’ll need both hands free for the trail.
Where to Stay: While you can’t quite step out of your room directly onto the sand at Le Meridien St. Martin ($203 to $420; 800-543-4300; www.stmartin.lemeridien.com), this 230-room resort with three bars and four restaurants is the closest you’ll get to Anse Marcel’s golden shore.
Where to Play: Drop by Anse Marcel’s Caraibes Watersports (011-590-590-29-67-64) for parasailing, kayaks, snorkel gear and water-bike rentals and excursions, then top up on drinks at Zozo Bar (no phone).
Hot Stuff: Around the point from Petites Cayes, and more accessible from Cul de Sac, is Grandes Cayes. The beach is thin and strewn with rocks, but locals gather here on the weekends. It’s also popular with surfers and paragliders, who take flight from the hills just above the beach.
If you placed a want ad for the perfect beach, it might read something like this:
Seeking idyllic, uninhabited island with tall coconut palms gently swaying in the breeze, calm, baby-blue water perfect for swimming, gorgeous mountain backdrop and colorful umbrellas dotting the soft sand. Must have beach bar within whistling distance and lobster lunches that swim in the sea until ordered. Secret spots and excellent snorkeling a plus.
Îlet Pinel would be sure to get the job. It even has water sports, an island boutique and two beach bars within whistling distance.
Where to Play: Karibuni ($$; 011-590-690-39-67-00), from the Swahili word for “welcome,” is the longest-running beach bar on this slice of paradise, and its lobster lunch is a must. The waterside deck, restaurant and bar look out over sapphire water. A row of banana-colored umbrellas leads to the Yellow Beach Restaurant ($$; no phone). Its bar sits under a bent palm just steps from the water. Tucked between the two, Paradiso Boutique sells flowery wraps, wind chimes and other beachy knickknacks. Pinel Watersport, a little hut in the sand, keeps it lively with water bikes, kayaks, snorkel gear and pedal boats.
Hot Stuff: Ferries ($6) run from Cul de Sac to Pinel daily, on the hour, from 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with the last return trip at 4:30 p.m. Or you can hop aboard a CNS Watersports catamaran from Orient Beach for about $45. Snorkeling is best near the secret beaches on the back (east) side of the island and at the rocks on the southern tip.
You know that a place called the “St. Tropez of the Caribbean” is not going to be just another beach. Orient Bay’s very popular beach is a world-renowned destination, with food, faces and style from around the globe. It’s definitely the place to see and be seen on St. Martin. Euro-beauties cavort topless up and down the strand past a rainbow of beach umbrellas while sunscreen-slathered Lotharios vie for their attention. A multitude of beachfront bar/restaurants serve up everything from baby back ribs to sushi to beluga caviar, and margaritas to piña coladas to Dom Perignon.
When it comes to activities, you can play on, in and under the water, or soar above the shoreline by parasail. Kiteboards, windsurf gear and Hobie Cats are available right from the beach, and if you don’t already know the ropes, they’ll teach you. Sometimes the best activity is to claim a prime spot and admire the passing show. And, if you dare, you can do it in the altogether.
Where to Stay: It’s surprising to most visitors that the Caribbean’s most famous beach doesn’t offer any rooms directly on the sand. There are, however, many hotels, such as quaint La Plantation ($131 to $180; 011-590-590-29-58-00; www.la-plantation.com), just a short walk from the action. If you want to let it all hang out, hit Club Orient ($143 to $247; 011-590-590-87-33-85; www.cluborient.com), the clothing-optional mainstay at the south end of the bay.
Where to Play: The island-flavored outpost Kontiki ($$; 011-590-590-87-43-27) stylishly serves sushi, jerk chicken and a host of other favorites. Get Thai food, paella or a good ol’ burger at Bikini Beach ($$; 011-590-590-87-43-25; www.bikinibeach.net), which is open for dinner well after everything else shuts down. Try a massage at Waikiki Beach ($$; 011-590-590-87-43-19) or a pizza and champagne at Kakao ($$; 011-590-590-87-43-26). If you’re too lazy to brave the waves, take a dip in La Playa’s pool ($$; 011-590-590-77-20-90). CNS Watersports (011-590-590-29-41-57; www.cnsorientbay.com) will hook you up with kiteboards, windsurfers and Hobies — and teach you how to use them. Strap in with Kontiki Watersports (011-590-590-87-46-89) for a bird’s-eye view of the bay by parasail. Try on a new top or sterling silver jewelry at Sexy Fruits Boutique (011-590-590-87-27-99).
Hot Stuff: Sunday night is prime time at Kontiki, where you’ll find the island’s top partiers jammin’ until sunrise.
Baie de l’Embouchure
An oasis of calm just minutes south of Orient Bay, Baie de l’Embouchure is actually two beaches: Coconut Grove and Le Galion. The peaceful water belies the area’s contentious past, which includes tales of Euro-mob shenanigans (see sidebar “To Protect and Serve”). Today, though, the beach is a shining star with a stretch of soft sand and a marine reserve protecting coral reefs.
Recently voted the best beach for kids by St. Martin’s residents, the gently sloping bottom and a cool beach bar make it a great choice for the whole family.
Onshore winds are ideal for windsurfers.
Where to Play: Tropical Wave and Chez Pat ($; 011-590-590-87-37-25; www.sxm-info.com) offer a full menu of windsurfing, water sports, burgers and rum punch. They’re open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week in high season. You can also mosey down Coconut Grove’s sandy strand on a one- or two-hour horseback tour, or ride off into the sunset with Bayside Riding Club ($45 to 70; 011-590-590-87-36-64; www.bay sideridingclub.com).
Hot Stuff: The reef that protects the bay from rough waters pulls double duty as a surfing spot and snorkeling haven.
A small border of white sand trims the quiet coast of Baie Lucas just outside Oyster Pond. The only maintained stretch is behind the Coralita Beach Apartments, which offer no public access. Get to the beach via the abandoned hotel south of the apartments. The bay isn’t protected and can have some rough water, but there are coral heads for snorkeling and a constant breeze for windsurfing.
Zach Stovall is Caribbean Travel & Life’s Photo Services Director.
Caribbean Travel & Life is the magazine for anyone in search of the perfect tropical getaway. Each issue presents expert insider’s advice on where to find the Caribbean’s best beaches and attractions, its finest resorts and spas, liveliest beach bars and activities, and its friendliest people.