Saint Martin Is Making a Comeback After Hurricane Irma
While there is still work to be done, this unflappable island is ready to welcome visitors with new infrastructure, revamped resorts, and unmatched natural beauty.
Saint Martin, the half-Dutch, half-French gem of the Leeward Islands, has been a popular vacation destination for Americans since the 1950s. Tragedy struck in September 2017, however, when the Category 5 Hurricane Irma raged over the island for a full eight hours. This was one of the worst-hit islands, and it’s estimated that more than 90 percent of the buildings were damaged; one-third were completely destroyed.
Most of the population is involved with tourism in some way, so residents, the European Union, and the World Bank knew it was crucial to put infrastructure back in place quickly to get evacuees out and supplies in. There have been people on the ground working tirelessly to get this beloved Caribbean destination back, slowly but surely, on its feet.
At this point, despite the largely completed work on infrastructure, only about half of the island’s pre-storm hotel capacity has been restored. So much construction is being done on the island that there are bottlenecks: in permitting, importing materials, and getting visas for construction workers. It adds up to frustrating delays for the resorts and their staffs, who are eager to get back to work.
When I visited Saint Martin in late January of this year, I could still see plenty of private homes and mom-and-pop eateries that remained damaged, and stores that were boarded up or for lease. But I also found most all of the debris cleared (save for the dramatic shipwrecks, for which the island is famous — many of which predate Irma by decades).
The airport got up and running first, resuming operations just a month after the storm and reopening the main terminal in December 2018. Next came the cruise port. It’s a crucial source of income; the island couldn’t afford for the lines to reroute, often the easiest solution for the cruise lines. Cruise companies stayed loyal to the troubled island, and soon enough up to seven massive ships were again coming in each day. Since most cruise passengers remain within the Dutch capital of Philipsburg, where the docks are, cleaning up and rebuilding there took first priority, and the town is largely back to itself. And many of the island's best resorts are back online.
Why visit now? The destination's pre-storm popularity means it's easy to get to, with plenty of affordable nonstop flights from Miami, New York, and Charlotte. It’s also big with the European crowd, with direct routes from Paris and Amsterdam. (Way back in 1648, France and the Netherlands agreed to split up the island; the northern part of the island is French Saint-Martin, while the south, Sint Maarten, is a state of the Netherlands.) The two distinct foreign flavors are a draw for travelers from the Americas seeking a soupçon of something different — without traveling far. And putting tourism money into local businesses is currently one of the best ways to support the ongoing recovery efforts.
Almost two years on from Irma, the exciting activities (and relaxation) you look for in a Saint Martin vacation are, for the most part, up and running. There is more work to be done, but locals are ready to welcome you back. There’s a reason they call this the "Friendly Island."
Here's a rundown of all the reasons to visit now.
Where to Stay
During my stay, I chose the adults-only, all-inclusive Sonesta Ocean Point, which had just reopened — the first major international brand to do so. Entertainment director Shep Shepherd, who helped shelter more than 300 guests and employees during the Category 5 storm, played host to me during my stay. (While some final touches were being put into place, Shepherd and his fiancee-slash-fellow entertainer, Lauren Morgan, had time to entertain each guest individually.) He is more committed to the island and the resorts than ever after his near-death experience.
Though you wouldn't know it now, Ocean Point was particularly devastated by the hurricane; the resort is situated right where Irma made landfall, high on a promontory at the far western end of Dutch Sint Maarten. All of the suites have since been redone in a cheerful white and blue, each with a balcony or swim-out patio. In addition to offering four bars and two restaurants, it's conveniently close to the charming French capital, Marigot, as well as gambling and nightlife in Cole Bay and shopping and sightseeing in Philipsburg.
Since my visit, Ocean Point's sister property — the 420-room, family-friendly Sonesta Maho Beach Resort — has also begun to receive guests. All rooms at this all-inclusive feature living areas and private balconies or terraces. The 10-acre property has six restaurants, a water park, and a robust schedule of activities and entertainment for kids, adults, and teens. (24-hour babysitting is also available.) As with Ocean Point, its state-of-the-art construction is designed to withstand any future storms.
Resort reopenings on Saint Martin are integral in buoying the island's economy to pre-Irma levels. On the Dutch side, Divi Little Bay also opened its doors again this tourist season, as did Simpson Bay Resorts & Marina and Oyster Bay Beach Resort. On the French side, the eagerly awaited Belmond La Samanna now sits at the top of the luxury food chain. There is a large market of timeshares and villa rentals here that has also bounced back with construction that, as elsewhere, has been done with an eye toward stronger storms. On the horizon: the Morgan (formerly the Alegria Beach Resort), opening fall 2019 in Simpson Bay, and a new Secrets resort, taking over the Riu Palace St. Martin next year following a $20 million renovation.
Where to Go
Saint Martin’s 37 beaches are all, by law, open to the public, and are just as clean and pleasant as ever — though the hurricane caused some to grow and others to shrink. My stay was brief, so I only got to two. One was Maho Beach, which is a major tourist attraction. Here, arriving jets come in right above your head, testing your faith that you won't be hit by one. After the roaring blast of the engines, I experienced the singular sensation of being blasted by stinging sand followed by the sweet relief of running into the water to cool off. (I canceled my afternoon microdermabrasion appointment.) Much more restful was the neighboring Mullet Bay Beach, a broad white stretch with no planes on it at all. Loungers and umbrellas can be rented by the hour or day from one of its two bar-grills.
Away from the beach, climbing Pic Paradis is a favored activity, to be combined with a visit to the neighboring nature reserve (and bar, and restaurant, and pool club) Loterie Farm. Rainforest Adventures at Rockland Estate is a new attraction that offers a tour of a historic plantation and museum, ridgetop ziplining, a less harrowing seated zipline called the Flying Dutchman, scenic chairlift rides up and down, a panoramic overlook, inner tube rides down the mountain, or all of the above. The beloved Butterfly Farm and the Blue Mall, in Cupecoy, are sadly shuttered indefinitely.
What to Do
French St. Martin's annual Carnival takes place around Lent, as in most places, in keeping with Catholic tradition — but unlike most other places, it lasts a whopping two and a half weeks. Not to be outdone or upstaged, Dutch Sint Maarten's Carnival is just as long and chooses its own time slot in late April. (The next one runs from April 16 to May 3, 2020.) At either one, expect to see elaborate costumes, parades, pageants, concerts, food vendors, barbecues, and marathon sessions of dancing in the street.
Staying on Saint Martin also means easy day trips to the famous beaches in Anguilla, unspoiled nature in Saba, and glitz in St. Bart’s. And let’s not forget the shopping: St. Martin is a duty-free and tax-free port, which means bargain-hunting galore, especially for high-end jewelry and fashion. ("Honey, I know this Patek is expensive, but think of how much we’re saving.") Gambling is legal here, and there are several casinos; the largest among them is Casino Royale, which also had a major refresh following Hurricane Irma. It also has the largest theater in the region, which stages three original live shows every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, with no cover charge.