Renting a car in St Martin | St Maarten can be a daunting idea. Keep reading to get some advice from me about driving when on island.
My husband loves to drive. He loves cars, he loves bikes, he loves trucks. Sometimes when we are watching TV there will be a car scene and this shiny red car will race through the scene. Chris will say “that is not the sound that that car makes. That is a blah blah blah with a blah blah engine, and the sound was from a blah blah blah with a blah blah engine.” (You can fill in the blah blah blahs as you like). He knows all the stats for all the cars, and for his 40th birthday I bought him a race car driving experience in the UK. He got to drive like 5 super cars or something. (Yes, I am the best wife ever!).
Me, I am not into driving at all, or cars, or trucks, or bikes. I just don’t get it. We don’t argue when we go out and Chris wants to drive… I am happy to let him. The purr of an engine doesn’t do it for me, being pulled back into the seat as the car accelerates, meh. I can just about tell the difference between a car made in the USA versus Japan, but I really don’t care how many cylinders there are, or horse power.
Now, why am I telling you all this? I want you to know what kind of person is giving you driving advice. Really my husband should be writing this, but he isn’t a writer. He is many things… but blogger isn’t one of them. You are getting driving advice from someone who once called her boyfriend to come and rescue her from car trouble and he quickly deduced that it was a flat tire. (Yes, that was Chris, and Yes, he still married me). I am not an expert, but maybe, that is just who you should be getting this guidance from.
Should you rent a car in St Martin / St Maarten? Are you afraid of driving here? Are the drivers here crazy? What are the rules of the road?
Lots of questions and I am going to try an answer some of them.
Should you rent a car?
This island is not a place that is great for public transportation. There are public buses, and you can navigate around the island using them, but it will take forever! Yes, they are cheap, but they are not reliable. There isn’t a bus schedule that you can follow, and I have known friends to be the only person on a bus before, and the driver just says “sorry, last stop.” Dropping them off in the middle of nowhere. You can walk to places that are close to your hotel, or you can take a taxi, but taxis get expensive and after just a few trips you will find that you have already paid more than a rental car for the day. As there are 37 beaches here, and so much to do, I do recommend renting a car.
Are you afraid of driving here?
I get the impression that a lot of people are afraid of driving here. I would like to express, being the kind of driver that you now know that I am, that it really isn’t big deal. I would prefer to drive here than any city under the earth. It is easier here because there ARE so many tourists driving that you expect people to be going slow, figuring out the rules, looking at maps. There are rules, but somehow you aren’t always expected to follow them, or even if you are, you can get away with not once in a while. However, there are some things that I will mention.
1) Expect people to stop in front of you for absolutely no reason, even if there is a super convenient place to pull over 10 feet ahead. This will either be a taxi driver showing someone something, or a local saying “hi” to their friends, or a tourist that is lost, or someone dropping someone off. Just expect this and give ample room to the driver in front. And be patient when this happens. This is the “friendly island” remember?
2) Expect there to be livestock in the road at some point, or a tour bus that is stopped for an iguana on the road.
3) Expect that there are people driving under the influence of alcohol at any point during the day. This doesn’t mean that it should be you, or that it is okay, but there will be other drivers who are. What to do about it? Just be aware and go slow.
4) On the French side you have to give priority to the right. This is an old old law that makes absolutely no sense, but it is still in effect. For example, even if you are driving on a highway and a road intersects that highway from the right, you are supposed to give them priority. Go figure! This is mostly ignored through out the French side, (because it is the most ridiculous rule of the road that ever existed) but in Marigot in the back streets through the town center, it is not ignored. So, just go slow, that is the best option. And don’t go mental if someone pulls out in front of you, because it may be true that they have the right of way.
5) If you are at a T-junction people expect you to just pull out, and you should expect them to. Normally I just roll down my window and then keep edging forward until I am blocking traffic, and then some one lets me out, (or they stop because they have to). Then I give them a wave, a smile and a beep and the world is good.
6) We do have driving laws here!!!! Especially on the French side we have Gendarmes on the road and they will pull you over for; talking on the phone while driving, not wearing your safety belt, and just generally if you are white. I say that because there is racial profiling on the island and the Gendarmes are not afraid to use it. I got pulled not that long ago for no seat belt (I was on the road for like 1 minute) and as the Gendarmes were writing me a ticket, there were probably about 4 local guys going past on illegal mopeds with no license plates or helmets on, and I think one was doing a wheelie at the time. I think it is just easier to pull a thirty something blond and get some cash for a fine, then to pull a local on a bike who may not be so willing to hand over some dough. If you do get pulled by the Gendarmes for no seat belt, or being on the phone, they will demand cash right away. They have no right to do this, and you can tell them you don’t have cash and get a ticket to go pay later. They will insist you have to pay right away, but they do not have this right. Generally speaking though, you can get away with whatever you want to on the road on the Dutch side, but once you cross that border… get off the phone, slow down and put your belt on!
7) Expect mopeds and bikes to be over taking you at any time. They seriously come out of nowhere and a lot of the time they will be doing a wheelie at the same time. I like to think of it as part of the charm of the island, otherwise I would go crazy.
8) Buy one of the good maps of the island. We sell them in our dive shop, and there are quite a few other places that sell them on island, but you should get one. The free maps that the rental companies give out, or the free maps that are in hotels and restaurants just aren’t that great. They don’t have all the roads on the island and they are confusing. Plus, GPS doesn’t really work here. If you use your Garmin GPS to get to Octopus Diving, they send you to entirely the wrong place. These maps are about $15 and they are worth it.
9) I mentioned this before in a blog about whether St Martin is safe or not, you can read it here, that if you rent a car from the Dutch side of the island they put an “R” on the license plate, so that everyone on the island knows that your particular rental car is… well… a rental car. This can be a positive (for example if I am behind an “R” plate I am generally a bit more forgiving when they slow down to read the menu from a restaurant, which they quite easily could’ve just pulled over and parked and gotten out of the car to read the menu instead… wait…. maybe I am less forgiving…. not sure right now.) Or it can be a negative (for example I may be less forgiving if you slow down in front of me to read a menu at a restaurant where you quite easily could’ve just pulled over and parked and gotten out of the car to read the menu instead!!!). Dude, just park and get out of the car to read the menu. Really.
10) Don’t let all of your driving skills and savvy go out the window just because you are on vacation. Think about how you would drive at home, and you will be fine. For example, you wouldn’t slam on the brakes to look at an iguana if you were at home. You wouldn’t turn without indicating just because your wife only noticed the turning at the last moment. Just try and generally be respectful of other drivers and be cautious and you will be totally fine.
I think that if you really want to see everything that the island has to offer, you do need to rent a car. At least for a couple of days while you are here. If you want to be safe while driving on the roads, just use some common sense, be a careful driver, be aware of the other people around you, and don’t be afraid!
(Sally wrote this blog 🙂 )