St. Maarten is an island of incredible pleasures and treasures, made all the more interesting by its two cultures, Dutch and French. While many cruisers may originally see this stop as just another point on an itinerary, this island is truly unique and a step apart from what is seen in the other islands. For visitors with mobility difficulties, you will find that this destination is an incoherent patchwork quilt of locations that are accessible, some that are a disaster, and some quirky sights (i.e. the accessible parking spot with no ramp to the curb)
The French side is definitely the most “European” of the two. For those who have been to France, you will notice some instant similarities in the architecture, the types of stores, and the large use of French on their side of the island. The French capital, Marigot, is an eccletic combination of run down shanty houses, rich shopping malls, and a little everything in between. Most of the shops and stores have a Caribbean flair to them in their design, even though their cuisine or goods may be French. We also found that Marigot was definitely quite difficult to navigate in a wheelchair. Although some sidewalks existed, they often lacked sufficient curb cuts, making it very difficult to get down to the street. Another oddity is their design of elevators; the one we found in the mall was very narrow, with almost no turning radius for a wheelchair.
Although there is only a 10 mile distance between Marigot and Phillipsburg, the differences are night and day. The first major, and most obvious, difference, is the predominance of American chain stores. You will have no trouble finding KFC, Burger King, McDonalds, and Ace Hardware, among many others. Another major change is that although the island is Dutch, English is the predominant language. While you can probably get by with English in Marigot, you will find that the service and interpersonal interactions go much better if French is used. The Dutch side was slightly more accessible. The roads and sidewalks tended to be of a higher quality and in greater quantity. However, most shops and stores tended to have steps in their entrances, making entry impossible without assistance. On a positive note, the duty free shops at the port terminal tended to be very wheelchair accessible and were not difficult to get around.
For the experience alone, I would give the island 3.5 out of 5 stars. We found that the island’s immense diversity in culture, cuisine, and geography gave travellers many options for things to do. It is also conveniently positioned between Anguilla and St. Barthelemy, both of which are accessible by Ferry (20 minutes, $40 round trip to Anguilla, 45 minutes, fare unknown, to St. Barthelemy. We found that one big downer is a lack of public transportation, along with fairly high cab fares ($18 a trip from Phillipsburg to Marigot). It is also a rather difficult island accessibility wise to get around, and can be rather restrictive to the disabled traveler, especially if they are going solo. That being said, the shopping on both sides is first class, the restaurants range from authentic French to Caribbean seafood and just about anything else you would want. It is also full of opportunities for shore excursions, including SNUBA, pristine beaches, and mountain climbing. St. Maarten was an incredibly enjoyable place to visit, and I would encourage a visit here when possible.