Second homes: Experience the two distinct cultures of St. Maarten

If you associate St. Maarten with timeshares, you probably have not visited lately. Today the island's vacation realty market has shifted to the more traditional whole-ownership model, and in some areas, 50% to 70% of residences are second homes.

Split between two nations, French Saint Martin and Dutch Sint Maarten have enjoyed an unprotected border and peace treaty for more than 350 years. "You get the charm of two different cultures. The French side is more European, the Dutch side more American, but both are very much in the Caribbean," says Arun Jagtiani, a realtor with Island Real Estate Team in the Dutch capital of Philipsburg.

Although both have their appeals, the Dutch side attracts most American buyers because of its proximity to the international airport and favorable tax policies, including no annual real estate tax or capital gains tax. It also has more developed tourism infrastructure, large resorts and casinos.

But there is much more to the island than its famous duty-free status. At a mere 37 square miles, it has 37 beaches, and pristine sand is the main draw. It is also known as the gourmet capital of the Caribbean, with about 400 restaurants for a population of just 76,000. The cuisine reflects the island's cultural diversity: about 90 nationalities are represented.

"Only about 20% of residents are born here. All over the island I meet people who come here on vacation and just have to move," says Jagtiani, whose own parents honeymooned from India and never went back.

Besides the tax structure, real estate transactions are very simple compared with those in some other Caribbean nations. The government of St. Maarten is required to provide clear title and due diligence; there's also no citizenship requirement, no attorney needed, and minimal closing costs.

A look at three St. Maarten neighborhoods

• Philipsburg: The capital city is one of the Caribbean's busiest cruise ports, known for its extensive duty-free shopping. There are casinos, marinas and a mile-long beach. A new beachfront boardwalk is lined with bars and restaurants, and buyers are attracted by the lively atmosphere and pedestrian access to services. Offerings are mostly condos, from the mid-$300,000s to $2 million. Furnished two-bedroom units at the new Great Bay condominiums, part of the Sonesta resort on the beach, run $335-450,000 (

• Cupe Coy: This is the newest second-home hotbed, on the west coast close to the French border. "It has experienced a lot of growth in the past five years, almost all condos," Jagtiani says. More a resort strip than a town, there are several beaches, casinos, restaurants and golf. The highest profile development is Porto Cupecoy, a 150-unit ($450,000-$2 million) community built around a marina that has a mixed-use village, with everything from supermarket to gym. The first residents move in this fall (

• Eastern Coast: The priciest spot in St. Maarten, with extensive views of the ocean and neighboring St. Barts. Most of the large villas and single family houses are here, within gated luxury communities such as Dawn Beach Estates, Tamarind Hill, Oyster Pond and Guana Bay. Most sit on one-quarter to 1 acre and run $700,000-$5 million. There are few condos, but one recent exception is the 24-unit Coral Beach Club, a condo resort, from $795,000 to $2.3 million (