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September 11, 2009

St. Maarten Offers Island Hopping Benefits

By Pardhasaradhi Gonuguntla

PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten (Sept. 1, 2009) – While a week of lazing around a tropical beach or resort pool could be just what the doctor ordered for some, travelers who are more experience-hungry may prefer to move around and see as much as they possibly can. For those “always on the go” types, St. Maarten offers the ideal home base or starting point from which to embark on an island hopping adventure encompassing some of the Caribbean’s most unique and picturesque nations.

“Thanks to our convenient and reliable airlift from every major U.S. gateway – and ideal location at the center of a small group of culturally significant islands in the Northeastern Caribbean – most island hoppers begin in St. Maarten, from where they can access countries such as Anguilla, St. Barths, Saba and St. Eustatius via fast, affordably-priced ferry or air transportation,” said Regina Labega, Director of Tourism for the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau.

“You can actually see Anguilla from the north side of our island – it almost seems close enough to swim,” added Labega.

“In fact, depending on their origin, most visitors to Anguilla and some of the other islands in our corner of the Caribbean have no choice but to fly through St. Maarten,” she said, indicating that most spend at least a night or two in St. Maarten to take advantage of the island’s delectable cuisine, nightlife and duty-free shopping.

“Island hopping within a closely-knit circuit of island paradises such as those surrounding St. Maarten gives one the opportunity to fully experience the unique charm of each destination from cuisine to nightlife – both of which are among St. Maarten’s strongest qualities,” Labega added.

For starters, Anguilla sits a mere seven miles north of St. Maarten and is a must for scuba divers due to its ecologically important coral formations such as Crystal Reef and Grouper’s Bowl. It is also one of the best places in the Caribbean to see a living limestone wall. The island is home to 33 beaches which span 12 miles and have earned a reputation as some of the Caribbean’s finest.

Southeast of St. Maarten lies the island of St. Barthélemy, or more commonly, St. Barths, an overseas collectivity of France best known for its small boutique hotels which have long appealed to the world’s rich and famous. The island was actually purchased by Sweden in the late 18th century, and later sold back to France nearly a century later, resulting in a unique fusion of French and Swedish influences which exist nowhere else in the Caribbean.

Saba is the smallest island in the Netherlands Antilles, and is unique in that it owes its natural beauty to lush vegetation rather than large beach areas. The majority of the island consists of Mt. Scenery, a dormant volcano which reaches 2,877 feet at its highest peak. One highlight is the Elfin Forest Reserve, labeled as such due to its high altitude mist and mossy appearance. The island is also known for its abundance of mango trees.

Another volcano island within a hop, skip or jump away from St. Maarten is saddle-shaped St. Eustatius (or Statia), named after the Catholic Saint Eustace. Also part of the Netherlands Antilles, St. Eustatius is most popular as a pristine eco-tourism destination. The island’s dormant volcano, The Quill, boasts a magnificent rainforest within its crater where hikers can see diverse vegetation as well as rare and endangered animal species.

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Of course, to arrive at the closest nation to St. Maarten, one need not take a boat or plane – one can simply drive from Dutch St. Maarten to the French side of the island, known as St. Martin. St. Maarten and St. Martin co-exist on the smallest island in the world to be shared by two nations, in this case, the Netherlands and France.

While Dutch St. Maarten is renowned for its world-class accommodations, international cuisine, thrilling night scene and high-end, duty-free jewelry and designer shopping, no trip to the country would be complete without at least a short excursion to the French side, where one can spend an afternoon soaking in French-Caribbean culture at one of the relaxing waterfront cafes of Marigot, the capital of the French side, or with a stroll down the restaurant-lined strip in Grand Case.

Visitors to the island shared by St. Maarten and St. Martin are often impressed by the cultural duality of the experience. Adding further enticement, the island enjoys a number of influences from Africa to Asia, which can best be experienced through the island’s culinary offerings.

The vibrant culture and picturesque beauty of St. Maarten is one of the Caribbean’s best kept secrets, and day trips to neighboring islands – as well as French St. Martin – only serve to enhance the experience, creating the perfect island hopping adventure for the traveler who wishes to see and do it all.

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