St. Maarten (or St. Martin if you're on the French side) offers cruisers a unique experience... two countries and two cultures through a stop at a single port.
by Kim & Johnnie Rhodes
One of the coolest things about cruising is the opportunity to visit other nations on far-away shores. When you get the chance to visit two nations on one shore, in one day... well, that's certainly a rare treat. But that's exactly what's offered when you visit the port at Philipsburg, St. Maarten.
St. Maarten, or St. Martin as it's called on the French side, is the smallest island in the world inhabited by two countries. Originally inhabited by the Arawak Indians, Columbus discovered this jewel in the late 1400's. Spain's domination of this island was later erased by the Netherlands and France, who now peacefully coexist in seperate territories here.
Below: Fort Amsterdam, on the Dutch side of the island.
Citizens and visitors are free to pass back and forth with no checks whatsoever between these two territories. In fact, the national boundaries are very loosely defined. How ironic that two markedly different cultures exist so closely together and maintain their distinction, when it's so easy to venture from one of these worlds to the other.
Below: Easy come, easy go... Passing back and forth across the Dutch/French border is as easy as crossing a county line in the States.
On our last trip here we chose the Dutch and French Island Experience excursion, as a way to soak up as much of the way of life on this island as possible. The outing didn't disappoint, giving us a chance to travel all the way around the island, with two stops while enroute. We boarded comfortable, air-conditioned buses for the journey, and our tour guide provided informative narration while we were underway.
One of the first historic sites we encountered on this trip was Fort Amsterdam, situated on a beautiful peninsula on the southern end of the island. This fort was built by the Dutch in 1631, and was later taken over by the Spanish during their tenure here.
Shortly after, we made a stop at a beautiful overlook above Simpson Bay (shown in top picture of this article). We were given ample time here for leg-stretching and picture taking. The view here was truly breathtaking... from this bluff on a point we had a panoramic view of St. Maarten and the surrounding seaside.
After reboarding the bus, we made way for the French border, and the town of Marigot, where we made our final stop in an outdoor shopping area next to the shore.
Below: The open-air market at Marigot offers everything imaginable to visitors and residents. Historic Fort Louis is seen on the hilltop in the background.
This open-air market at Marigot offered fruits, clothing, wind chimes and every type of souvenir imaginable. We were allowed plenty of time to sightsee and shop in this French town, after which we loaded up for the remaining journey around the island.
Marigot was our last stop, but we still had quite a bit of traveling and sightseeing to do before the excursion's end. We continued northward through the countryside, then made our way to the east side of the island, slowing down for a good look at the beach area around beautiful Orient Bay.
Above and Below: Strange Bedfellows... with St. Maarten's semi-arid climate, you'll find lush tropical foliage punctuated by species you'd expect to encounter in a desert, such as cactus.
After taking in the scenery surrounding Orient Bay, we headed south for the final leg of our trip. Finally, we made our return to the cruise terminal in Philipsburg, having circled the entire island of St. Maarten/St. Martin, taking in so many of its treasures, from famous sights to little-known natural beauty.
Overall, this was a great excursion because it gave us a chance to taste much of what this island is known for. While it would have been nice to visit some of the beaches or historic landmarks, this was a great way to 'see it all' within the time constraints of a cruise excursion.
Other excursions at St. Maarten include trips to the Butterfly Farm, beach excursions, scuba, snorkeling and snuba trips, and even an America's Cup Regatta excursion, where you'll get a chance to take part in a race around a shortened version of the America's Cup sailing course, aboard world-famous 12-meter sailboats such as the Stars and Stripes!
If you're an airplane buff, or just the adventurous type, you may also want to consider hitching a ride to Maho Beach, where you can get very much up-close-and-personal with some very large aircraft, such as Boeing 747's. Maho Beach happens to be just off the end of the runway at Princess Juliana International Airport, and is world-famous for close encounters of the jumbo jet kind. Here fearless sunbathers have the chance to take in the sunshine while monstrous aircraft pass just a few feet above their heads while on final approach.
Below: Princess Juliana International Airport is world-famous because of the extremely low approaches that aircraft make over Maho Beach, seen at the end of the runway here.
Below: This video shows an example of the incredibly-close aircraft enounters you can experience at Maho Beach, if you dare.
Oh... and while you're steaming away after a full day's activities onshore at St. Maarten, keep your eyes peeled for the island of Saba, made famous for being King Kong's home in the original 1930's movie version. Most prominent on this island is the peak of volcanic Mount Scenery. Mount Scenery is a potentially active volcano, last having erupted around 1640.
Below: While cruising away from St. Maarten, try to catch a glimpse of Saba, the volcanic island featured in the original King Kong movie of the 1930's.