“Saint Martin or Sint Maarten? French frolic or Dutch debauchery? In a region of island contrasts this one takes some beating. Forts, cruise ship hordes, duty-free shopping, casinos, condos, resorts, nightlife &, of course, the world-famous & unrivaled aviation thrill of the island’s Maho Beach, the most intimate plane-spotting location on planet earth.“
image || A welcome party on Maho Beach, Sint Maarten, Lesser Antilles, West Indies. June 8 2015.
A spur-of-the-moment flight booking to a neighbouring island when in the presence of a US Immigration official in Puerto Rico‘s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport some 9 days prior granted me access to that particular Caribbean charm. Utilising said flight found me in the rather bizarre half-Dutch, half-French Lesser Antilles territory of Saint Martin, and in a region of island contrasts this one takes some beating. It’s one small Caribbean Island with two vastly different outlooks – French frolic or Dutch debauchery? Take your pick. Or just sample them both. The northern French side – Saint-Martin – is (much) more sedate, more laid-back Caribbean, but it’s the southern Dutch side – Sint Maarten – where you’ll probably have more fun, definitely see more people and most likely spend more money; this is where you’ll find a cruise terminal, duty-free shopping, casinos, condos, sprawling resorts, thumping nightlife &, of course, the world-famous & unrivaled aviation adventure served up by the island’s Juliana Airport & Maho Beach (trust me, you’ve seen photos before). Yes, welcome to Saint Martin, probably the best & definitely the most intimate plane-spotting location on planet earth. Don’t forget your sun cream, hair gel or ear plugs.
HISTORY & THE DIVISION
This is yet another regional piece of land that, and although he never set foot on the island itself, was claimed for Spain in late 1493 by Columbus on his second voyage to the New World; he named it Isla de San Martín after Saint Martin of Tours because it was 11 November, St. Martin’s Day. The Spanish didn’t value the island initially and settlements by the Dutch, English & French went unchallenged. That was until they – the Spanish – seized complete control of the island in 1633, then seeing it as valuable in maintaining control of the salt trade. Subsequent years saw the Spanish rebuffing Dutch attempts to capture the island, one the Spanish finally realised, in 1648, wasn’t actually worth holding onto and thus abandoned for good. With the island free again, both the Dutch and the French jumped at the chance to re-establish their settlements. To avoid war they decided to share it as per the Treaty of Concordia, an arrangement that still stands to this day and one that makes this the smallest inhabited island in the world divided between two nations. The invisible border has changed many times over the years but today French Saint-Martin claims 61% of the island (53 km²) to Dutch Sint Maarten‘s 39% (34 km²). But, and as previously noted, it’s the Dutch, with the larger population occupying the smaller space, that make the most noise and seem to have the lion’s share of the fun in the Caribbean sun.
Saint-Martin – The French Side
I stayed on the Dutch side. I ate on the Dutch side. I drank on the Dutch side. But I visited the French side, getting the public minibus the short distance (6 kilometres) from my base beside Juliana Airport to the Saint Martin capital of Marigot.
It’s a pretty place, Marigot, although there’s not a whole lot to see or do so it won’t detain a visitor for long. The port town boasts a ferry service to the nearby British colony of Anguilla, the cheapest way of getting from this particular Caribbean island to one of the West Indies most exclusive & expensive islands; a few resident drunks in the small central park (I couldn’t help but comment that this would be a nice place in which to be destitute); a colourful array of tourist-tat stalls in the Waterfront Market; a few nice & typically Caribbean wooden buildings with wrought-iron balconies; and a grouping of large ‘I Love SXM’ letters just begging to be photographed and shared on social media. I saw them all en route to the town’s Fort Louis, but not before I had me some lunch.
Sint Maarten – The Dutch Side
A 10 kilometre, international-border-crossing minibus jaunt from Marigot brings you to Philipsburg, the Sint Maarten capital. Things are a tad more kitsch on the Dutch side of the fence, that much blatantly obvious having visited Marigot. Philipsburg is still a nice place to explore. Of course it is – this is the picture-postcard Caribbean. It’s even quaint in places. Again, there’s not a whole lot to see here save for some nicely painted wooden Caribbean-esque architecture. This particular Caribbean port is all about spending money and having a raucous good ol’ time.
A Caribbean Tourism Trendsetter
In much of the Caribbean tourism took root as a result of World War II. Nowhere is this more apparent than here in Sint Maarten. In 1930 the population of the island stood at just 2,000. Things changed in 1943 when the US Navy built large runways on the islands of the region as part of a Caribbean base, runways used ever since to fly in tourists. (Similar port infrastructure left behind by the US also proved useful when the cruise and package-holiday business got going in the 1950s.) On this particular island the Dutch realised the tourism potential from the get-go; they began focusing on tourism in the 1950s (the French side followed suit two decades later) and by the late 1950s the island’s population had ballooned to 70,000. Today tourism remains, and as it is on many Caribbean islands, the number one industry, some say the only industry – of the present-day population of 80,000, it is estimated that approximately 85% are engaged in the tourism industry.
Maho Beach – An Awesome Aviation Adventure
Yes, I took a quick look around Marigot & Philipsburg but for me this particular Caribbean location was always going to be about its world-famous aeronautical attraction, the approach to the island’s small Princess Juliana International Airport, voted best airport in the Caribbean 2016 by Caribbean Journal. Maybe there are better plane-spotting locations elsewhere on planet earth (I’m not a connoisseur of such endeavours) but there are surely none as iconic nor as intimate as the deafening, hair-raising antics of the massive jets – and smaller ones too – as they come in to land seemingly within touching distance of those on the sands of Sint Maarten’s Maho Beach.
The majority of the daylight hours I spent on the island saw me hanging out on Maho Beach. Armed with take-off & landing times, I just waited.
Riding The Fence
Maho Beach isn’t just about the thrill of the big jets. It’s about the challenge they provide, too.
The beach was especially busy on my last day on the island. An iconic Boeing 747 was due to land and take-off, a big deal in these parts. Due to land at 11 a.m., the KLM flight from Amsterdam arrived an hour early meaning that, and I’m ashamed to admit, I missed the landing. But I was there for the taxiing & attempted take-off, as were many, many others. The so-called Queen of the Skies can certainly pull the crowds. UPDATE: Damn. As of October 2016, the 747 no longer serves the island. Yes, it’s the End of the World’s Coolest Landing.
Video – Big Plane, Short Runway
This is an awesome look at the KLM flight from Amsterdam to Sint Maarten courtesy of KLM themselves.
I took video of the shenanigans on Maho Beach but YouTube is awash with similar efforts much better than mine. Here is a good look at the some Maho Beach goings-on, including a take-off of the very same City of Guayaquil KLM 747 seen here. I don’t blame the guy with the camera for running out of harm’s way.