Thursday, December 15, 2011: Philipsburg, St. Maarten
Though one of the smallest islands in the Caribbean at only 37 square miles, St. Maarten/St. Martin is one of the most popular amongst cruise ships and as the Celebrity Summit pulled into port, we were joined by three other ships, making it our most chaotic day on the pier. Our day in port today would be shared with Bernard’s Tours as we toured around the island with our driver and guide in a mini-bus, seeing both the Dutch and the French sides of the island.
We began with a drive up the Dutch side of the island, and before we knew it, we were already into the French side of the island and headed towards Lucas Bay. Here we spent some time enjoying the view from the coastline as passengers on our bus got to see a number of the creatures of the sea, courtesy of a local by the name of Calvin. Calvin likes to dive all along the coastline and pick up a number of sea urchins, sea snails, and other unique and interesting sea creepy crawlies and share them with the visitors that happen to stop by. This morning, we got to hold and interact with a number of different species. While some folks were entirely put off by the opportunity, we enjoyed it!
From here, we continued north to Orient Beach, where we were scheduled to spend an hour, however, today, the weather seemed to be extremely windy bringing about substantial waves, blowing sand, and extremely poor water visibility for any type of snorkeling. So, as a group, we agreed to shorten our stay here and have a longer amount of time at later stops in the tour. We did enjoy walking along the shoreline at Orient Beach and a return visit would be welcome, if the weather is a bit more agreeable.
From here, we continued to the French side capital of Marigot and enjoyed about an hour walking around the downtown area and perusing a sizable outdoor market, filled with crafts. Clearly, the locals knew that nearly 10,000 cruise passengers had arrived on the island, and they were going to provide as many opportunities as possible to permit purchases of a keepsake from the visit.
Overall, we found the French capital to have a lot of charm, with wrought iron light poles, buildings in tropical colors, and a multitude of bistros offering a variety of food options. I think that folks in our group would have liked some more time here as we didn’t get to more than half of the stalls at the outdoor marketplace, but it was time to continue along to our next destination.
Back into the mini-bus, we made our way back into the Dutch side of the island (bouncing back and forth between two countries really is strange) and to our final stop of the day, Maho Beach. The winds in this location were much calmer, though the waves still had a significant crush to them as they slammed into the beach. Thankfully, the crystal clear turquoise water was inviting and we all offboarded our mini-bus to enjoy an hour and a half here.
As we arrived to the Sunset Bar and Grill, on the southern edge of the beach, a huge surfboard was sticking out of the ground and had been converted to a wipe-off board, where we started seeing a most interesting schedule:
Insel Air — CUR — 11:20
US Airways — EWR — 2:06
and so on…
We came to find out that these listings (there were about 10 of them) were for airlines (first column), origination city (next three letters), and landing time (final column). Maho Beach sits right on the very edge of Princess Juliana International Airport serving St. Maarten and affords some of the world’s most interesting interactions with airplanes.
Given the extremely short runway, one that barely allows for large commericial passenger jets, incoming planes must fly at extremely low altitudes in order to hit the runway adjacent to the beach. This means a surreal activity takes place every 10-45 minutes every afternoon as massive planes hurtle themselves over the beach as hundreds of tourists and locals stare in awe at being so close to the action of this massive planes.
Hundreds of photographs and dozens of video cameras and cell phones record these events and they leave everyone awestruck. If you desire a little more risk in your afternoon visit to Maho Beach, then takeoffs are for you. If you thought landings were head spinning, as large aircraft position themselves at the top of the runway, these massive planes sit less than 30 yards from dozens of people that are standing on Maho Beach, ready for the most mind-blowing 30 seconds of their lives.
As these planes need to make a steep takeoff climb and a hard right turn to avoid mountains directly ahead of the airport, most planes will open their jet engine throttles to full, meaning that a massive amount of jet engine thrust is thrown behind the jet to propel it forward — and sending all of that energy directly back at the people standing on the beach. It begins mundanely enough with a slight stirring of the grass on the edge of the runway, then proceeds to grow to a thunderous roar as sand begins to blast backwards at the people. As the plane begins to ever so slowly inch forward on its wheels, the people on the beach are now taking the full brunt of the jet engines, loosing hats, towels, and personal possessions as they blow directly backwards and into the ocean water. As the jet engines reach their peak, some people can no longer handle the intense pressure from the wind, heat, and sand and drop to their knees, covering their heads and praying for a quick end to the chaos. Others, foolish as they may be, choose to remain standing, attempting to defy the laws of physics as they begin to tumble head over heels down the sandy embankment towards the crystal clear water below.
Watching this scene unfold from a safe distance away, one has to wonder what compels people to participate in such crazy and possibly injuring behavior. Alas, the next plane is just a few minutes away and the crowd is already beginning to pile up in the “blast zone” to witness the next plane. A combination of an adrenaline rush and watching people make fools of themselves, the beautiful weather and gorgeous beach made the afternoon one to remember, for much more than the ocean waves and golden sand.
We returned to our ship a short time later, having enjoyed St. Maarten and witnessing a truly unique set of events (the planes and the people) at Maho Beach.
Our final stop before returning home is St. Thomas, USVI… See you all tomorrow!