Help us vacation on an island (Saint Martin vs Grand Cayman)?
November 19, 2014 7:01 AM   Subscribe

We're trying to plan a 1-week vacation over Christmas for the three of us (wife, college-age daughter, myself). Some friends recommended Saint Martin, other friends recommended Grand Cayman, but neither has been to both to compare between the two of them.

We're mostly looking for relaxation, but with some activity when we get bored. We like to snorkel, we like to eat interesting food (but the wife has some allergies that require no gluten or dairy), we like visiting interesting things. We tend to prefer not too touristy area's. For example, we've been to Puerto Rico, Aruba, and Honolulu. We liked PR a whole lot, Aruba quite a bit, and the best day in Hawaii was when we left Honolulu and drove around the island.

Based on what I've read Saint Martin seems a better bet, but the Tripadvisor forum seems to suggest that crime is a real problem there (though, like all forums, I suspect it highlights the bad).

Thoughts and suggestions?
posted by Runes to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total)
Been to Grand Cayman but like 20 years ago, haven't been to St Martin / Sint Maarten.

I just wanted to note that St Martin / Sint Maarten is secondarily famous for watching planes land over Maho Beach. If you like airplanes.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:23 AM on November 19, 2014

Grand Cayman is a beautiful island but disappointing on the local culture front. With the exception of visiting Cemetary Beach, which is exactly what it sounds like, I can't remember finding anything to do there I woulnd't call "touristy."
posted by STFUDonnie at 7:48 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been to St. Maarten. You do have your choice of French or Dutch, but frankly I found it lacking in culture. It was a real snore. I likened it to Disneyland in look and feel on the main touristy areas.

One island I'd like to explore more is Barbados. It's socialized so while folks may be poor, they're not destitute. I enjoyed my tour of the Mt. Gay rum factory, and it's just naturally beautiful.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:57 AM on November 19, 2014

The nice thing about St. Martin is that you can ferry to Anguilla and St. Barth's and get four very different island cultures (since St. Martin has two) in a week.
posted by nicwolff at 10:17 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I liked St. Maarten/St. Martin. What set it apart from the other islands for me, in the planning process, was that I could get a direct flight there. You would not enjoy the touristy parts on the Dutch side, although if you're there a whole week, you might consider stopping in once for a cheap burger or a sea-doo ride. The French side would be more your style.

I had never been snorkeling before, and enjoyed several different snorkeling spots around the island. There were plenty of opportunities to have someone take you in a boat to go snorkel at a nearby island, depending on the tides and weather and where the fish were. The people in the group who had been snorkeling before were going nuts about how great it was and how much we were seeing. I did feel a little crowded in the water, like the fish were a little too close for comfort. Apparently that's a good thing when you snorkel, though. I also climbed Pic Paradis. It would not impress a real hiker, but it was an easy hike with a good view.

I thought the food was pretty great. The French restaurants were as good as what you would get for the same price in Paris. Le Pressoir had local ingredients cooked in fairly traditional ways, but just really creatively combined, and Astrolabe was a more formal atmosphere, with modern and creative food. I also managed to find somewhere near a flea market that served the food of the islanders. It was not marketed to tourists; it was just where the people working at the market ate. I remember all those meals in detail five years later, so that's saying something.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:27 AM on November 19, 2014

I've been to Grand Cayman and while the weather was nice and the sea was beautiful there wasn't much above the surface of the water that was especially and uniquely memorable. It's warm and has decent beaches but it's not otherwise a particularly scenic island -- it's very flat and kind of scrubby and not very vegetated because of the geology of the islands -- they're chiefly limestone and not all that fertile.

The geology is an advantage for snorkeling and diving, however -- the same porous limestone that's not very hospitable to lush vegetation means the islands don't have big rivers and streams carrying sedimentary runoff into the ocean. As a consequence the water is very clear and underwater visibility quite notably good. So while I wasn't overwhelmed by the scenery above the surface, below the surface of the water things were more impressive. The snorkeling was very good and my understanding is that the diving is better (and is the chief reason to go there, assuming you are not there to establish an offshore tax shelter of some sort.)

We rented a private house along the beach on the island's north shore (towards Rum Point) and had a very different trip than I expect we'd have had if we had booked into a hotel in the beach resorts / cruise passengers / souvenir shops nexus around Seven Mile Beach. Personal preference should probably dictate which of those two options you go for but if it were me I'd be looking to stay outside of George Town.
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:31 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've vacationed to both (in my early 20's) and would chime in to say that both have their own merits, but overall I'd say that the St Martin trip might yield more activities and overall atmospheric energy.

When in Grand Cayman I took a private boat out to the stingrays and fed them in an area that everyone goes to, but still found it enjoyable. National Geographic happened to be out there filming for something. There is a Ritz Carlton on Grand Cayman, if that matters to you. The life/atmosphere on Grand Cayman felt quiet and at the time that wasn't what I wanted. Now that I'm older, a quiet house on the north shore sounds amazing (see Nerd of the North's post above.)

The St. Martin and surrounding area provided more of the vibrant people/atmosphere that I was looking for. I took various ferries and group taxi's to explore. I met hippies who made a living by recycling glass beer bottles (they were glassblowers and would blow a corona bottle until it was large enough to be a beer pitcher, then sell these pitchers to tourists.) I also met plenty of people from around the world and just generally soaked it all in. I did not have any of the issues brought up by the reviews you mentioned, but ymmv.

Just my two cents! Have a great trip, whatever you decide!
posted by MansRiot at 11:25 AM on November 19, 2014

I haven't been to Grand Cayman but out of the 15 or so Caribbean Islands I have been to I have found St Maarten the friendliest.
posted by beccaj at 1:03 PM on November 19, 2014

Best answer: Hi Runes - I have spent more time in Dutch St. Maarten than I'd care to think about (due to work). I've never been to the Cayman Isl so I can't directly compare. Some positive points for St. Martin... 1) you can easily get to St. Barths, Anguilla, and Saba
2) the French side is just like being in France. It is completely different than the Dutch side and the food can be very good. I think there are better beaches on the French side too.

A big disadvantage...some parts of the Dutch side can be tacky tourist hell. You'll probably want to stay away from Phillipsburg altogether unless you really like drinking quarts of watered down margaritas for $5.

I flew from St. Martin to St. Barth a couple years ago just for the experience of landing at the airport in St. Barth. I think it cost 79euro for the flight. The landing at St. Barth is better than any amusement park ride you'll ever go on. Try to sit right behind the pilots and in the aisle seats so you can look through the front window over the pilots shoulders. The town and port area is quaint but more expensive the St. Martin. On the other hand you might see a celebrity.

Another thing you may be interested in doing in St. Martin is watching the superyachts pass through the bridge from the ocean into the protected lagoon and then into the big marinas. The bridge opening is about 15-m (45') across and there are often 250' - 300' long superyachts squeezing through the gap. The bridge opens at set times; in the morning, around noon, and in the afternoon. You never know what you'll see but for much of the winter it is bound to be impressive, especially at Christmas as all the big yachts will be on charter or have the owners on. It's not unusual to see a yacht hit the bridge and do thousands of dollars worth of paint damage in an instant. Often Lex Wexman's impressive boat Limitless is at Isle de Sol marina. The bridge is right next to Isle de Sol, about 20 minutes from the airport (on the Dutch side). There is a little bar just next to the bridge (on the side away from the airport) which has the best view.

A note about safety and security...Cayman will definitely be 'safer' as it is a British dependency. But St. Martin is perfectly safe as long as you don't do anything stupid or put yourself in a stupid situation. Never take an unmarked taxi. Never go anyplace secluded at night. Leave you jewelry and expensive watch at home. Outrageous and violent crimes happen nearly every year on most Caribbean islands.

Read up about Saba and Anguilla, they are very different places and you might enjoy seeing how different the Caribbean can be. Saba is definitely not touristy. There is a quickish ferry that goes every day and afternoon. I think it would be about $40 for the ferry to Saba. That ferry would leave from the Dutch side. I think the ferry to Anguilla would leave from the French side, either Gande Anse or Marigot. I don't think there is much to see on Anguilla (aside from $1000/night hotels) but the passage between the two and the little islands around are beautiful.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by pandabearjohnson at 3:55 PM on November 19, 2014

Response by poster: We decided on Saint Martin. Had a wonderful time. Didn't feel unsafe at all. The Gendarmerie were out in force on the street in Grand Case during the Christmas festival, otherwise seems pretty low-key. Food is great, beaches are wonderful.
posted by Runes at 8:54 AM on December 26, 2014

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