The Caribbean can be a challenging destination for backpackers and budget travelers. With its high prices and heavy reliance on luxury tourism, the region’s lush mountainsides and idyllic beaches are often overlooked in favor of more budget-friendly alternatives in Central America and Southeast Asia. Many backpackers simply dismiss the Caribbean due to the assumption that the region only caters to honeymooners, cruise ship passengers and families seeking all-inclusive getaways.
But despite the region’s reputation, I wanted to see for myself if the Caribbean and budget travel were, indeed, mutually exclusive. And so this past November, in a bid to escape the relentless rain of the Pacific Northwest, I headed to the fine, powdery beaches of St Martin for a do-it-yourself island hopping tour of the Leeward Islands.
Dutch St Maarten
The island of St Martin is a tiny speck of land split in half. The northern part of the island (also called St Martin) is an Overseas Collectivity of France, while its southern shores (St Maarten) belong to the Netherlands.
I spent the majority of my time on the island in Dutch St Maarten. St Maarten is chock-full of amenities for travelers, has frequent and convenient public transportation and is slightly less expensive than its French counterpart.
For only $17 per night, I was able to find a wonderful little hostel called Vicky’s Keys. The hostel sits nestled away in a residential neighborhood. It is the perfect place to meet fellow travelers and get a taste of local island life.
I began my tour of St Maarten at Maho Beach—a crowded stretch of sand that is known for its close proximity to the island’s international airport. The beach is St Maarten’s most famous attraction. And I have to admit that, though it is crowded and overly commercialized, Maho Beach is a must-see when visiting the island.
Due to the beach’s proximity to the Princess Juliana Airport, watching airplanes take off and land at Maho Beach is a thrilling spectacle. From my vantage point at the water’s edge, I watched planes materialize out of thin air and descend merely meters above my head. The landing planes came so close to the beach, that I felt as though I could practically reach out and touch them.
And when they took off, the jet blasts left behind such a blinding and suffocating storm of swirling sand, that I was left temporarily gasping for breath.
I stayed at Maho Beach long enough to watch the landing of a few small planes and a Jetblue 373. I’d thought of waiting around to see one of Delta’s flights later in the day, but eventually dragged myself away from the crowds, toward the bluer waters of Mullet Beach.
Flanked by a golf course and virtually devoid of eyesore resorts, Mullet Bay is one of St Maarten’s most beautiful beaches. Compared to Maho Beach, Mullet Bay’s fine crescent of sand lies virtually untouched. Aside from the conglomeration of umbrellas and chairs on the southern end of the beach, I found that I had the aquamarine waters and powdery sands of paradise almost exclusively to myself.
I spent much of the afternoon soaking up the sun and wading in the crystal waters. Swim, dry off, rinse, repeat. Over and over and over again. It was pure bliss.
From Mullet Bay, I decided to continue up the road on foot. It wasn’t long before I reached the secluded coves of Cupecoy Beach, just minutes from the island’s French border.
Cupecoy is known for the cliffs that line its soft patches of tan-colored sand. I would have loved to photograph the dramatic limestone coves and watch the waves as they crashed against the rugged rocks. Yet, the sheltered beaches of Cupecoy are famous for attracting those who find swimwear to be too cumbersome. So in order to respect the privacy of the nude sunbathers, I tucked my camera out of sight and continued on my way.
The Best of French St Martin
While reaching Maho Beach, Mullet Bay and Cupecoy from Philipsburg is easy and convenient with local transport, the best beaches on the French side of the island are most easily accessed by renting a car. Even after consulting locals, visiting tourist information offices and scouring online forums, I could find little information on buses that run onward from the French capital, Marigot.
St Martin’s most popular beach is the sprawling Orient Bay. Orient Bay is the prototype for what I always imagined popular Caribbean beaches to be–a long crescent of sugary sand, full of bars, restaurants, umbrellas and sunbathing tourists.
I briefly visited Orient Bay with Baldeep, Jason and Anna–three fellow travelers from my hostel. We didn’t stay long though, because we found the beach to be crowded, characterless and cookie-cutter.
I was happy that we decided to spend most of our time in St Martin enjoying Pinel Island instead.
Pinel Island is home to a healthy population of iguanas, crystal clear water, secluded beaches and some of the best views in St Martin.
A $10 roundtrip boat ride ferries passengers from the French town of Cul-de-Sac to Pinel Island’s main beach. The boat unloads passengers on a strip of white sand that is covered in lounge chairs and lined with restaurants. The main beach of Pinel Island is beautiful and its shallow turquoise waters are inviting and warm.
Yet, it is behind this main beach, that the magic of Pinel Island lies.
Trails leading to viewpoints and secluded beaches begin behind the row of restaurants and crisscross up a shallow hill. Together with my new friend, Jason, I set out to explore this neglected side of the island and was rewarded with untouched scenery and unparalleled views.
Pinel Island is an uninhabited paradise with pristine shores and striking views of St Martin’s verdant interior. Hiking to the secluded beaches and viewpoints of Pinel Island was an undeniable highlight of my time in St Martin and evidence that, even in places known for mass tourism, it often doesn’t take much to stray off the beaten path.
As with my visit to St Lucia a few months prior, my trip to St Martin proved that backpacking the Caribbean is possible.
Yes, traveling between the region’s islands is expensive. Yes, hostels are few and far between. And yes, excursions and day trips will usually set you back more than $100 per person.
But the Caribbean and budget travel are not mutually exclusive. For even St Martin—a place that is so often associated with all-inclusive resorts and high-end tourism—can be an exciting and rewarding destination for backpackers if done right.