Almost as soon as I paid for the flights, I realized my mistake. While a month in Cambodia or Colombia can be enjoyed on a meager budget, no matter how cheap your tickets to the Caribbean are, 30 days of family accommodation will almost certainly turn an economical escape into an exorbitant one. Add on island taxis, imported food, and daily entertainment, and such a trip threatens to not only break the bank but also your nomadic spirit.
After a small panic, I reasoned: we were not visiting Sint Maarten for its mega-resorts nor its rib-eye steaks. The attraction was the unique 34mi2 (87km2) isle, part of the Leeward Islands in the Northeast Caribbean. Divided in half and governed by two different countries – Sint Maarten by the Netherlands, and St. Martin by France – its fine-as-flour beaches and crystalline waters are complemented by arguably the world’s most famous landing strip. Given all three can be enjoyed for free, Sint Maarten on a shoestring should be possible… right?
A cursory search online highlighted the hazards of long stays in the West Indies. All-inclusive was out of the question, but even two-star hotels were charging US $3,000 for the month. Airbnb averaged US $445 a night. Eventually, after digging with all the determination of our toddler daughter and her bucket and spade, we happened across a yacht support center on the French side of the island.
Such centers are designed to offer assistance to crew members temporarily forced ashore. We had stayed in similar in Antigua, and found them both excellent and economical. Our St. Martin lodgings included a laundromat, engine repair shop, and no-frills waterfront cabins for US $30 per night. We fell asleep each evening to the calming sound of the sea and used the free Wi-Fi while we sipped our morning coffee. Its location was not ideal, but with a car it was no problem. And in the Caribbean, it’s almost always best to rent a car.
All around the Caribbean, island taxis cater almost exclusively to visitors, and the prices reflect that. Arriving at Sint Maarten’s Princess Juliana Airport, we were quoted US $30 for an 11-minute drive to our digs. Instead, we got a free shuttle to a nearby rental car office and booked a Hyundai i20 for US $25 a day.
The other obvious benefit of a car is that it opens up the entire island. In the town of Swetes on Antigua, that had meant a spontaneous stop opposite the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, where a temporary roadside barbecue sold US $10 lobster lunches. In Sint Maarten, it meant lying under incoming airplanes on Maho Beach, but also visiting various others, such as Orient Bay, Cupecoy, and Mullet Bay. On the way, we stopped at a local market and filled a small thermal bag with drinks, rather than splurging at the beachside bars.
Sometimes it seems if you want to eat cheap in the Caribbean, you’re stuck with fast food. Thankfully, that’s an illusion – you just need to eat like a local. Visiting The Bahamas a year earlier, we discovered if you eat under the bustling bridge at Potter’s Cay, rather than at the tourist haven of Arawak, you can save more than 50% on your conch salad or jerk chicken.
In Sint Maarten, it’s a similar story. We avoided the beachfront cafes that unashamedly charge US $15 for a simple omelette, and headed to Dish D’Lish, a family restaurant in the Simpson Bay neighborhood not far from Princess Juliana airport, where we heaped our plates with seafood pasta at the US $10 gourmet buffet. (Note: Dish D'Lish has since closed.)
November, when we were there, is at the tail end of hurricane season, meaning low-season rates for high-season weather, but you should expect at least a couple of tropical downpours. In Sint Maarten, you’ll find casino flyers everywhere that include US $5 or $10 vouchers – no purchase necessary. We spent a rainy evening taking turns playing 50 cent blackjack with free money. Whoever said the house always wins probably also believes it’s impossible to do Sint Maarten on a shoestring. They’re wrong.
The official currency of St. Martin is Euros, and the official currency of Sint Maarten is Antillean guilders, but US dollars are accepted on both sides of the island.
Updated August 2023
With abandoned churches, clock towers, and hotels half-buried in ash from a volcanic eruption, Montserrat's capital is a modern-day Pompeii.
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