Saint Martin/Sint Maarten was the first stop on our southern Caribbean cruise. In terms of islands in the Caribbean, it’s pretty unique. The island is split between the French and the Dutch.
It makes for an interesting difference between the two capital cities: Marigot and Philipsburg.
This was the only island on which we did not take an excursion. We just didn’t find one that suited what we wanted to do. So, instead, we decided to hit a few spots on the island ourselves. We thought about renting a car, but the cost to get a car at the cruise port was more than we wanted to spend. We read that prices are much cheaper at the airport, so if you are flying in that might be a better option. But, be warned: the drivers are crazy! Regardless of cost, we definitely think we made the right choice by just taking taxis around the island.
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We shared a cab with another family over to Maho Bay. One note about taxis: the board fixes the costs based upon the number of passengers and destination. If you can share a cab with another couple or family, you’ll save a couple of bucks. The cab to Maho Bay took about 40 minutes due to traffic and cost $20 for two. We were able to save a couple bucks each by going with the other group.
Maho Bay is famous for being located at the end of the runway for the airport. We arrived at Sunset Grill, a waterside restaurant with a pool. We were able to change there (albeit in a restroom stall) and then spent some time on the beach.
The beach is small but pretty. And by small, we mean about the width of a two or three-lane road. The water is great, but it gets deep quickly. The real attraction of Maho Bay is watching the planes come in and land almost right on top of you. The runway is literally just on the other side of the road from the beach. And it’s only a two-lane road.
We stayed there for a few hours, doing our best to relax and enjoy the beach, but Bonnie is pretty fair-skinned, so staying out in the sun for long periods of time involves a lot of sunscreen. A LOT of sunscreen.
We ate lunch at the grill, enjoying Presidente beer and a pizza with a local spiced beef on it. The view alone is worth the price of the food, which was a tad overpriced for the quality. Don’t get me wrong, it was tasty, but still pricey. One thing of note: the bar has screens up with a schedule of both arrivals and departures. The arrivals are great to watch, but the departures of the jets will blow everything you own into the water if you aren’t careful.
After lunch, we took another cab to Marigot ($20) on the French side of the island. Unfortunately, we arrived on a Sunday afternoon in November, so the owners closed most of the shops. I say unfortunately because Saturday has a market that would have been cool to attend.
Overlooking the town is Fort Louis, the ruins of a French defensive fort. The hike up was very steep, but the view was more than worth it.
Why Not Orient Bay?
With the closed shops in Marigot, we took a cab back to Philipsburg ($20). Fortunately for us, there was road construction on the leeward side of the island, so the cab driver took us the long way around to get to Philipsburg, which basically gave us a windshield tour of the island.
Many folks will ask why we didn’t go to Orient Bay, the famous clothing-optional beach on the French side. The answer is pretty simple: that’s the last place we wanted to run into a student, regardless of the state of dress. One of the considerations we always have when it comes to vacations like cruises is running into students and their families. While we don’t mind seeing our students, the last thing we want to hear is, “Hey, I saw you on the nude beach in Saint Martin.” It just wouldn’t be good.
We enjoyed Phillipsburg a bit more than Marigot. We enjoyed the shopping area. It backed right on to the beach. The shopping was good, with the cheapest price we found for Johnnie Walker Blue Label anywhere in the Caribbean.
One piece of advice when it comes to buying liquor in the Caribbean: shop around. When we got off the plane in San Juan, I checked the price of liquor. The airport had a really good deal on Johnnie Walker Blue, but we shopped around in the duty-free shops on all the islands and the boat. The best deal? In Phillipsburg! We walked away spending less than 50% of the cost back in the States.
One more piece of advice: you can buy liquor in the San Juan airport for pretty reasonable prices (about 40% off in the States) and you do not have to go through customs on the way home. Legally, we could buy 1 liter each of liquor without paying duty on it (as long as it does not exceed the $800 value).
In addition, we could buy a liter of alcohol made by any of the Caribbean Basin Initiative countries (i.e. RUM!). But once you clear customs after disembarking from the boat, you can buy more in the San Juan airport!
We ended up bringing back five bottles of alcohol: two bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue (one a gift), two bottles of Mount Gay XO rum from Barbados (one a gift) and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Green Label purchased in San Juan.
Enjoying the Beach
The beach in Phillipsburg was pretty nice. The view is not quite a pretty as the view at Maho Bay (you can see the cruise ship in the distance) but not needing to take a taxi is perfect.
We did not have much time left before the boat was leaving, so we walked back to the boat easily. There was a sidewalk the whole way and it took about 10-15 minutes.
We certainly loved Saint Martin/Sint Maarten and would go back to spend more time exploring the island. Maybe next time we won’t be teachers and can enjoy the beach at Orient Bay.