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la Samanna in St. Martin. (© Joe Vaughn)
la Samanna in St. Martin. (© Joe Vaughn)

One Caribbean island, two ways: Refined or relaxed on Saint Martin, which will you choose? Add to ...

Congratulations. You’ve survived Blue Monday (the “most depressing day of the year” on Jan. 21), lung-collapsing frigid temperatures and the worst flu season in years. Now, depending on where you live in our vast country, you’re either facing a midwinter thaw (hello, disgusting slush) or more subzero suffering (sorry, Edmonton).

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A reminder: It’s never too late for a last-minute sprint to warmer climes. Those unable to settle on a destination due to numbing of the brain may want to consider Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, an island where you get two Caribbean flavours for the price of one.

French on one side (St. Martin), Dutch on the other (Sint Maarten), the island’s split personality means you can go on a glamorous yachting adventure one day (French side) and a rollicking ATV tour the next (Dutch side). Nosh on pizza on the beach at lunch (Dutch ), then enjoy upscale Creole at a bistro for dinner (French ).

It’s refined leisure meets guilty pleasure. And who says you can’t have both?

WHERE TO STAY

Refined: Book a suite at L’Esplanade, a boutique hotel in St. Martin perched on a small, lush hillside with jaw-dropping views of Grand Case beach and marina. The location is ideal – elevated enough to avoid pesky mosquitoes, yet only a five-minute walk to a strip of restaurants and shops. After a recent renovation, the open-concept suites now give off a Gluckstein-meets-India-Hicks vibe. You may even find yourself snapping photos of the bathroom, it’s just that pretty. Rates are $245 to $595 a night; lesplanade.com

Relaxed: You’ll have to make your own meals and clean up after yourself, but who needs a continental breakfast when you can wake up to sweeping panoramas in total privacy? That’s what awaits at the Rivage Studio, a one-bedroom, self-catering apartment in Cupecoy, St. Maarten, part of the Wyndham Sapphire Beach Club. The decor is basic, but there’s a king-size bed, small kitchen, balcony and even a jacuzzi. It’s perfect for the type of vacationer who only ever comes home to sleep. Rates start at $129 a night; vrbo.com/316413

WHERE TO PLAY

Refined: Charter a yacht for the afternoon and sail around the coast, visiting the wild, uninhabited island of Tintamarre (northeast of St. Martin) and the coral reefs of Green Cay for snorkelling. For lunch, head to the tiny neighbouring French island of Pinel, where you can have lunch at Karibuni restaurant (karibunipinel.com); order the fresh lobster salad with grapefruit and avocado. If there’s time, and enough wind, sail over to nearby Anguilla or St. Barts for a bit of celebrity spotting (just make sure to bring your passport). Your best bet for swanky sailing is to charter PYC’s glamorous 47-foot catamaran, which comes with a full crew, towels and snorkelling equipment. $900 for a half-day charter (up to eight guests); privateyachtcharter-sxm.com

Relaxed: The most ridiculous way to experience St. Maarten can be summed up in three words: Da Party Bus. Run by local tour company Twin Island Excursions, Da Party Bus is a school bus that’s been converted to resemble a traditional Creole-style home with brightly painted window shutters, a tin roof and even houseplants inside. Those who brave the ride will receive complimentary maracas, noise-makers and Mardi Gras beads. The tour definitely caters to a raucous, rum-punch-in-the-morning kind of crowd, but anyone with a sense of adventure will appreciate the insanity. Another great bet is the guided ATV ride, run by the same tour company, that involves two hours of reckless motoring through the sands of Orient Bay. twinislandexcursions.com

WHERE TO EAT

Refined: The main street in Grand Case, on the west coast of the French side, is densely packed with colourful buildings and personalities to match. Bohemian energy abounds here, but thanks to the lingering colonial influence, it boasts an upscale feel. Bistros are plentiful, but many are overpriced, so read menus with a discerning eye. One hidden gem is at the south end: At the Love hotel, owners Muriel and William make their own liqueurs, offer an impressive list of imported wines and serve small plates of European delectables. Order the charcuterie platter and savour a bit of Paris on the terrace. love-sxm.com

Relaxed: Sometimes it feels good to dive right into the tourist trap: At the very least, it makes for great people watching. The perfect place to do this is at St. Maarten’s cheap-and-cheerful Sunset Bar & Grill, located on Maho Beach directly next to the runway of Princess Juliana airport. Order a slice from their PizzAIRia menu: Options include the “KLM,” topped with ham and mushrooms, or the “Jet Blue” (it comes with blue cheese). sunsetsxm.com

WHERE TO DRINK

Refined: Savour a sundowner at La Samanna, the French side’s most luxurious five-star hotel. The property has a white-on-white Miami feel to it, with multiple venues for imbibing, including the Champagne Bar, the Beach Bar and La Cave (a wine cellar). Bartender Orlando Philgene’s signature cocktail is the Baie Longue Blue, named after the nearby beach and made with La Samanna’s own brand of rum, pineapple juice, coconut milk and blue curaçao. It’s a tad on the neon side, but goes down nicely with an equally neon sunset in the background. lasamanna.com

Relaxed: The tiny island is home to nine casinos, all on the Dutch side. Even if you aren’t the gambling type, it’s worth dropping by Casino Royale for the experience. Its aesthetic is 1950s Vegas and unabashedly gaudy, with 14,000-square-feet of gaming. Grab a stiff drink and, if it’s Thursday night, check out the elaborate street parades right outside, which involve a lot of feathers, sequins and booty-shaking. playmaho.com

WHERE TO SUNBATHE

Refined: The island is densely packed with condos, hotels and rental properties, with construction cranes towering everywhere, but if you know where to look you’ll find a handful of secluded beaches on St. Martin. Happy Bay and Petites Cayes are gorgeous but require semi-arduous treks by foot. A better bet is Baie Longue, where the rich (and too lazy to take another flight to St. Barts) hang out. You’ll find nearly three kilometres of white-sand perfection here, with no bothersome vendors, loud music or cruise ships.

Relaxed: Beaches on the Dutch side have a reputation for rough waters and intense winds, but one exception is the sheltered Cupecoy Bay. Head toward the sandstone cliffs and poke around the cave-like formations, hiding from the scary resort crowds. It’s also a “semi-official nude beach,” according to the St. Maarten tourism board, so feel free to bare all.

IF YOU GO

How, exactly, is St. Martin/Sint Maarten divided?

The island is split horizontally, with the French-ruled half on top and the Dutch underneath. There is more land on the French side, which is generally considered to be quieter and slightly more expensive, while the international airport, big hotels and casinos are on the Dutch side.

How do you cross from one country to the other? Do you need a passport?

The roads frequently crisscross over the border, which is most often marked with a “You are now entering...” sign and possibly a few flags. There is no active form of border control or checkpoints, and you don’t require a passport to go back and forth.

What currency do I use?

Technically, French establishments use the euro and in Dutch Sint Maarten you can pay with the Netherlands Antilles Guilder. But U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere, so best to arrive with those.

The writer did not pay for her accommodation at L’Esplanade.

Follow us on Twitter: @tgamtravel

 

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