The screeching roar of jet engines send thunderous sonic waves and whipping white sand over Maho Beach, knocking the excited crowd of thrill seekers off their feet. "Plane spotting": It's truly bizarre, very exciting and quite dangerous! The jets are arriving and departing from Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten. The beach bar patio is packed, as are the sun chairs. I lie on my back, camera ready, snapping photos of the huge silver birds.
I feel as if I could reach up and touch it's smooth underbelly. The aircraft arches overhead on it's mad descent to the tarmac less than a hundred feet away. An ominous street sign warns that our proximity could result in death. No matter! Janet and I are here to partake in the Edge of the World Party on this tiny French and Dutch island to the southwest of our regular holiday hunting grounds in the Gulf and Caribbean.
Fortunately, my Joys of Retirement include last minute half price sales at the end of tourist season. We have booked a fancy, well heeled resort, the Sonesta Great Bay, on the outskirts of the Phillipsburg, the Dutch capital city. We could usually little afford to stay here. Every meal at the all inclusive resort is scrumptious and picture perfect. It's a quaint, pastel green, eighties style building with three pools, a multi-layered lobby and small casino on the side of the mountain hilltops surrounding the city. There's always plenty of available beach chairs and umbrellas.
Our ocean view balcony looks out across the bay at the huge luxury cruise ships coming and going each day. Sometimes during high season there's up to eight at a time, providing the duty free port with it's source of wealth. The bay is a breathtaking turquoise. Further out to sea, it's a pleasing royal blue stretching to the horizon.
A room with a view!
Overhead, the trade winds create a psychedelic sky. Rows of white ripples slowly spread out in wide circles extending from the big, pillowy, cumulus clouds so common in the region. There is even a rainbow around the sun! The winds carry sand from the Sahara desert across the Atlantic creating a pastel effect. By mid day the sky and scenery become very surreal as everything fades in the blinding white light.
In St. Maarten, the homes, villas and condo towers are big, but it is the huge yachts that are the competitive measure of ones' true wealth. The average monthly income? Well, it's only $600. It's very hard to attach any sense of a national identity to St. Maarten. A quick Wiki search reveals that most of the inhabitants aren't citizens of the country. It's historically been run as an oligarchy along the high powered cocaine drug route extending from South America due north.
Outside on the streets, St. Maarten is like a wild west version of a Caribbean island. Merchants lie in wait to hawk their wares to the endless daytime throngs of cruise ship patrons. They are renowned for selling clothes, jewellery and electronics at supposedly ridiculous low prices. You could fool me. Oh well, maybe if I liked to haggle? Hey big spenders! I buy a few Hawaiian shirts for $10 each, and Janet some cheap baubles and gifts.
By sunset, as the ships leave port, the capital city of Philipsburg shuts down tight for the night. Driving while on the cellphone is very popular and still quite legal. Tires screech. Tempers flare. All manners of vehicles snake in and out along the narrow mountain roads from town to town along the islands approximate 38 mile coast.
On our hotel beach, impossibly thin, tiny, black children perform dangerous flips, and leaps off the high sand dunes for an American dollar, until they are chased off by staff. "Back Street" is Philipsburg's second major thoroughfare and the local, discount shopping strip. We are quite shocked as an angry mother brutally whips her helpless preschooler with a bare, tree branch. He desperately pleads, and screams as he tries to wiggle free from the fierce lashes and her iron tight grip. The locals lean out the street doorways and windows making indecipherable cat calls. They seem to be quite enjoying the afternoon entertainment. Frightened, Janet and I can tell we are far from home!
Everywhere we go most of the staff are polite and give us a per functionary MacDonald employee smile. One senses it's a job requirement. They aren't rude. Perhaps just lacking in the self possessed, natural warmth and charm one usually finds elsewhere in much of the Gulf and Caribbean?
For the cabby's, it seems to always be open season on us as visitors, with endless tales of folks literally being taken for a ride. No two fares to the same place ever cost the same, plus there's no haggling entertained here. There's apparently an unmarked local bus stop a few blocks from the hotel. However, many of the tourists we met became resigned to a cheap car rental. Considering the mad traffic, I myself am not game. For us, a minibus, catamaran and motorboat excursion will have to do.
The churly, choppy sea swell sprays us as we sail from one picturesque white sand beach to another. Each is the perfect picture of paradise, one in which a beach chair and umbrella cost big bucks, except fortunately at our resort. The shoreline invariably drops off quick and deep making for a vigorous and very refreshing swim. Its great fun bobbing on the waves crashing against the shore. However, non swimmers will definitely need a floatation device to avoid getting swept under.
The snorkeling and diving at St. Maarten is very basic, nothing special, compared to many other Caribbean sun destinations, but it can still be fun. I saw some good sized tropical fish, a green turtle, a fair number of conch shells and a few types of coral. There didn't seem to be many easily accessible shore dives. The noisy, dangerous Seadoos definitely had right of way. Invariably, I had to pay to go out farther on a boat. I live to dive. Regretfully, the safety and accessibility concerns definitely put St. Maartens at a serious disadvantage as far as future visits go.
We also took a minibus shopping trip around the island. Clothes, jewellery, and electronics abound in the stores. The sellers were invariably Indian, except for the handicraft stalls and shops staffed by the locals. Alas, our various excursions were rather pricey and invariably cut short, for one reason or another, with our guides basically disinterested in us except when we were being hustled for tips.
St Maarten? It's a beautiful place, where the beautiful people go to be beautiful. I much prefer Cuba for its natural charm and authenticity. There's nothing really wrong with St. Maarten itself as a tourist destination. We were at a very nice resort, on a very beautiful island. We also seemed lost at sea in a strangely, non generic version of the America's. Like the overhead roar of the jet loads of tourists overrunning whatever the island might once have been, our one week visit seemed to come and go like a figment of the imagination. Here but not here. Everywhere but nowhere. In a place where most anything goes, but probably not us anytime soon unless on the very cheap.
I'm glad we got to visit and see St. Maarten. Make no doubt, for the most part we had a very lovely time, except as noted. Still, on the surface, it's oddly picture perfect but with a subtle nagging feel. St. Maarten seemed rather empty, formless, intangible and quite unreal, like a faceless, commercial extension of the US Sunshine states lost somewhere far out on the sun drenched, pastel edge of the Caribbean Sea. Where's it's heart and soul?
Youtube Video: Best of the landing + take offs at Princess Juliana International Airport @ See!
MY RECENT TRAVEL BLOGS
Cuba: What Do They Think? @ CSP
Cuba: What the Heck is Going On? @ Santiago
Cuba: Sea, Sun + Sand @ Brisas
A Canadian Teacher On The Road In Cuba @ Cuba Si!
Christmas in Cuba @ Holidaze
Habana Diary: Club Rio @ More Cuba!
A Whirlwind Trip to New York @ NYC
Ontario: Land of the Lakes @ South East Ontario @ Lake Mississaganon
Jamaica: A Trip to Bob Marley's Home @ Jah Bob!
Jamaica: On the Beach @ Runaway Bay
Paris: The Eiffel Tower @ France
London: A Visit to The Beatles Abbey Road @ England
Joys of Retirement @ Brisas
See my Site Archives top left screen for many more!!!