Tiny St Martin is one of the smallest divided islands in the world, although there are no border controls between the larger Dutch side (Sint Maarten) and the smaller French side (Saint-Martin). Technically, the usage of the Anglicised name St Martin would imply a reference to the island of the whole, and English is widely spoken throughout the island anyway.
Given the compact size of St Martin, and given that many people visiting the island are just passing through on their way to a cruise ship or between connecting flights, is there any reason to hire a car there?
- Variable public transport — if you’re just trying to get between places on the major roads, then you should be able to flag down a bus quite easily, and one should pass every few minutes, but there are no formal bus stops, therefore there aren’t any published timetables or on-street indicators.
Instead, you just hope the bus will turn up sooner or later, and take what comes. If you want to transfer from one bus to another, you will pay again.
In some cases, bus routes end abruptly, and you will have to walk to continue onwards — for example there is no bus between Cupecoy Bay and Mullet Beach.
- No French airport connection — to travel between the main Princess Juliana airport (SXM) and Phillipsburg, which is capital of the Dutch side, you should have no problem going by bus, although they run along the adjacent Airport Road, and don’t actually call at the terminal.
However, there is no direct bus to Marigot, the capital of the French side. Instead, you will have the change in Cole Bay. Plenty of taxis are also available, and they can operate islandwide.
- Freedom and flexibility — a hire car will let you explore the island in your own time, at your own pace. St Martin car hire options usually include open buggies as well as more conventional cars.
- Getting away from it — given its compact size, St Martin is one of the most overdeveloped islands in the Caribbean, and a lot of the time, this development has not been sympathetic to the local environment, especially on the Dutch side. The buses tend to run between the developed areas, so to find a more secluded beach, a hire car can be extremely useful.
- No-go for cyclists — you might have thought that an island with a shared Dutch and French heritage would be able to combine the very best of Dutch cycling infrastructure and French passion for cycle touring, but alas, this is sadly not the case. In fact, just as with anywhere else in the Caribbean, there is no designated cycling infrastructure whatsoever on St Martin, and when this is combined with the generally unsympathetic attitude of local drivers, St Martin is actually a very unpleasant place in which to ride a bike.
- Walk at your peril — many of the roads have no pavements (sidewalks), especially if you are trying to walk between, rather than within, the built-up areas.
- French chic — the French side of the island is generally more sympathetically developed than the Dutch side, but it is easier to get there, and then to get around, if you have a hire car.
- Maho Beach — if there is one unique and enduring image of St Martin which sets it apart from any other Caribbean island, it is that of arriving heavy jets landing over the world famous Maho beach, situated at the western end of the runway at Princess Juliana airport. Many aviation buffs come to St Martin just to get so up close and personal with these huge metal beasts, and videos of landings are a perennial Youtube favourite. Maho Beach is a short (but not particularly pleasant) walk from the airport terminal.
- Accessing remote beaches — a hire car might take you closer to some beaches than a bus will, but ultimately to reach some of the more inaccessible beaches, such as Back Bay or Geneve Bay to the east of Phillipsburg, you will still need to walk the last few miles.
- Traffic — travelling around St Martin can mean sitting in a virtually endless queue of traffic, so you might prefer to let someone else do the driving.
- Walking in St Martin — St Martin has some excellent walking trails, affording stunning views of the island itself and of some of the nearby islands. Make sure you arm yourself with a good map, plenty of water, repellant and long clothes to minimise the risk of getting stung by some of the vicious wasps which inhabit these areas.
- Excursions by air — St Martin is an ideal base for some of the most hair -aising flights in the world.
The most famous is the short hop over to nearby Saba, which has the shortest runway in the world for a commercial airport. The approach into Saba runs under some very dramatic cliffs, and if you get the chance to sit at the front, you will see the airport appear like a tiny postage stamp above the sea.
Another famous approach is into St Barts, where pilots have to navigate their way past a steep hill before diving down to the runway. These islands, together with Anguilla, can be visited on a day trip from St Martin, as there are multiple flights.
Of course, there are numerous other delightful islands which can be reached by excursion from St Martin, although you will usually have to stay at least one night, as most of these flights only operate once each day.
- Excursions by sea — there are three ports on the island offering departures to nearby islands — Oyster Pond and Pelican Key, which both offer boat trips to Saba and St Barts; and Marigot, which offers boat trips to St Barts and Anguilla.
- Easy transfers — you should have no problem transferring by bus between Juliana Airport and Phillipsburg, from where cruise ships depart.
St Martin car hire verdict
Do you need a car in St Martin? Given that St Martin is so heavily developed, it is hardly surprising that you can get around between the main communities on the island by bus, but it really isn’t a particularly easy system to get used to, especially if you’re only here for a day or two.
As most of the development is on the Dutch side, and as the island is a generally unpleasant place to get around on foot or by bike, a hire car becomes the best option by default.
Do you need a car in St Martin?
Verdict — yes
St Martin car hire notes
Do you need a car in St Martin?
- The official currency on French St Martin is the euro, whereas Dutch St Martin uses the Netherlands Antillian Guilder, which is set to transfer to the Caribbean Guilder dollar “in the near future”.
- In reality, the US dollar is widely used on both sides of the island, but especially on the Dutch side. Avoid paying in euros in Dutch St Martin, as you will usually be given a very poor exchange rate of 1 to 1 against the US dollar.
- French St Martin is treated as French territory, with a status similar to that of Corsica. However, if you fly into Princess Juliana airport from Paris or any other French territory, you will still have to go through brief immigration and customs checks, as the Dutch side of St Martin is administered separately, and neither part of the island is within the Schengen zone.
- St Martin is generally used to refer to the whole island, and it is also the French way of writing the island’s name, abbreviated from Saint Martin. The Dutch language spelling of the island is Sint Maarten. For Sint Martin car hire options, searching in English will still result in Sint Maarten car hire locations being presented, as these are all around the site of the island’s main Juliana International Airport (SXM).