WHY WE LOVE IT
- Two cultures on one tiny island (just 37 square miles): French Saint Martin, a bit more élégant; and slightly smaller Dutch Sint Maarten, more informal and built-up.
- Good values for this part of the world, with plenty of small independent hotels.
- Some 37 brilliant beaches.
- More than 400 restaurants, with some especially spectacular dining on the pricier French side-especially in Grand Case, the gourmet capital of the Caribbean.
- More than a dozen glitzy casinos on the Dutch side.
- Excellent duty-free shopping in Dutch Philipsburg, a very busy cruise port.
- For folks who like to bare it all, Orient Beach, one of the world's most famous nude beaches.
WHEN TO GO
High season is mid-November through mid-April. Low-season rates can be a quarter to half of high-season ones. Temperatures are fairly consistent all year round, the average ranging from 83 degrees in winter to 88 in summer. February through March is the least rainy period, August through November the wettest and most hurricane-prone.
WHAT TO PACK
Bathing suits, polarized sunglasses, sunblock, camera, U.S. passport, binoculars (if you're into birding). For evenings, "smart casual" clothing; a handful of the fancier restaurants request that men wear jackets at dinner.
WHAT TO BUY
Butterfly-wing jewelry from the Butterfly Farm (La Ferme Des Papillons); guavaberry liqueur; Delft pottery from the Netherlands; swimwear; designer clothes and gemstones; anything duty-free.
It's a lot easier to get hitched on the Dutch side. You'll need to file a request with the chief civil registrar (Census Office, Soualiga Road, Philipsburg; 599-542-2457; fax 599-542-4267) at least 14 days before the ceremony, along with notarized copies of both your birth certificates (for U.S. citizens, stamped by the secretary of state's office in your home state; for Canadians, stamped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Dutch consulate); an affidavit of marital status not older than three months; divorce or death certificates as relevant. You'll also need to send your address(es); your parents' names and dates and places of birth, and your mothers' maiden names; and your professions and those of your parents. Once on-island, if you're not wedding at an official marriage hall, you'll need six witnesses—a detail resort wedding directors can usually handle. The total cost is US$286.
If you insist on le mariage à la française, at least one of you will have to live on-island for not less than one month before the wedding. You'll need to present your passports; official birth-certificate copies, certified at least three months before the wedding; proof of domicile (such as a utilities bill with your address on it); and certificates attesting that you're single, divorced or widowed, also notarized at least three months prior to the wedding. All these documents must be translated into French by a certified translator. For more information, contact the tourism office (see below).