No matter what cruise line you happen to be traveling on, there is a good chance that if you are taking a trip to the Eastern Caribbean your itinerary is going to include a stop at either St. Thomas, St. Maarten, or both. During the Caribbean cruising season, these islands can have tens of thousands of people a day arriving and subsequently departing on any number of ships. This particular island has a history that has seen control of the island change hands repeatedly between the Dutch, the French, Spanish and the British between the island’s discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1493 up until the early 19th century. As a result of all this, the island is divided between two nations: The north side of the island is a French territory, and is known as Saint-Martin, and the south side is a Dutch territory known as Sint Maarten.
The island boasts a number of well-known beaches, including Orient Beach, which is considered to be one of the best beaches in the Caribbean (and is also noted as being one of the world’s most popular clothing-optional beaches) and Maho Beach, notable for its location directly behind the runway at Princess Juliana Airport. As is the case with many Caribbean islands, there is also plenty of shopping to be found, assuming that what you happen to be shopping for is jewelry and/or liquor. Oh, and there’s also plenty of tourist kitsch to be found, but one thing you notice after having been on a number of islands is that a lot of it is the same stuff on each island, just with an added sticker showing where it came from (other than China, that is.)
Unfortunately, the short visit we paid to St. Maarten didn’t allow enough time to get much beyond the town of Phillipsburg on the Dutch side of the island, but even in this short time there was still plenty to see, and also time to go out for a rather interesting sailing trip. After the jump, more on our visit to St. Maarten.
On the day our cruise on the Ruby Princess arrived at St. Maarten, it was the last of five different ships to arrive in port. By far the largest of the five ships in port on this day was the 5,400 passenger behemoth Oasis of the Seas, the second-largest cruise ship in the world (her sister ship Allure of the Seas, which departed from Port Everglades at roughly the same time as the Ruby Princess, is roughly 2 inches larger than the Oasis due to differences in the steel,) but the 3,600 passenger Carnival Dream we docked next to is the newest (for now) and largest ship in the Carnival fleet. Also in port on this day were Celebrity Solstice and Norwegian Sun, bringing smaller passenger loads of 2,850 and 2,002 passengers respectively. As you can probably imagine, all this adds up to one crowded day on the island.
As the Ruby Princess made its way into its moorage for the day, the Star deck above the Skywalkers nightclub on the ship provide some nice overhead views of the other ships in port.
The approach into port also allowed a chance to get a good look at the Oasis, and see just how ridiculously huge the ship actually is. Even the 130,000 ton Carnival Dream looks small in comparison.
It’s one thing to see these giant ships from the top deck of another cruise ship, but once the ship is safely moored and the all-clear is given for passengers to go ashore, you soon get a completely different perspective as you see the ships from dock level.
And with many of these ships approaching 1,000 feet in length (or in the case of the Oasis, easily exceeding it) getting past them can make for quite a bit of walking even before you make it off the pier.
In spite of all this, you don’t really get a true feel for the sheer enormity of these ships until you reach the bow end of the two ships and see this view in front of you. Even the Norwegian Sun, a relatively small cruise ship these days at “only” about 77,000 tons, is absolutely monstrous when you see it from this perspective. But we’re not here to gawk at megaships, we’re here to see an island and expand our horizons, and we’ve only got eight hours to do it in. So off we go.
The cruise pier disgorges its passengers into a little village of touristy souvenir and jewelry shops (something that seems to be a bit of a pattern with most of the Caribbean islands visited on cruises) and upon exiting this dock area, it takes about half a mile of walking to get into Phillipsburg. Along the way you pass a number of places with stuff like dive gear, rental cars and other tourist paraphernalia. One of the first things you notice is that the island boasts a mix of American cars and European cars, including a number of brands you wouldn’t find in America like Puegeot, Daihatsu and even a Rover or two. You’ll also see that someone seems to have gotten a bit behind on their child support payments.
Once you reach Phillipsburg, there are two main streets that run through what could charitably be called the “downtown” area: There’s the Boardwalk that runs along the beach, and Front Street (Voorstraat) along with most of the shops are found. One thing you won’t find a lot of in Phillipsburg are traffic signals, as this seemed to be the only one in evidence. I don’t think I saw it change from green the entire time I was there.
Much of the area along the boardwalk is taken up by various bars, with the occasional souvenir shop/stand and a few stores here and there. Apparently the definition of “Health Cuisine” as found in the Caribbean is very different from whatever definitions you’re likely to find here (although some might disagree with me on that.)
If you happen to be looking for something a little less healthy than light beer, you could find that too.
And yes, there’s a beach along the boardwalk from which you can admire the several billion dollars worth of cruise ships docked off in the harbor. One thing you quickly learn around here is that on most beaches, someone will charge you for the use of the beach chairs, or require some sort of food and drink purchase. Unfortunately, the day’s schedule didn’t leave any time to spend on the beach.
As seems to be the case with most Caribbean islands visited by the big cruise ships, the vast majority of shops in Phillipsburg seem to be jewelry and liquor shops (in fact, on most Caribbean islands the ships stop at, you end up with pretty much the same collection of shops at each port) , and as you can imagine, if you’ve seen one of those you’ve seen them all. It’s when you start to get into some of the smaller shops that things get interesting… Assuming that your definition of “Interesting” happens to include a great deal of merchandise of spurious origin. It’s probably a safe assumption that if you see some random little shop in the back corner of a building that saw better days about six hurricanes ago packed to the rafters with Gucci, Coach, Louis Vuitton and Prada bags with $20 price tags on them, there is the possibility someone might raise some questions about authenticity. I don’t see what people are worried about, I’m sure their suspicious are completely groundless.
And there’s plenty of watches to be found too. I’m guessing this particular establishment has their official dealer signs on order. They’ll be in any day now…
Until I visited the Caribbean, I had no idea that Rolex, Chopard, Cartier, Omega, Tag Heuer and a couple other presumably luxurious brands I’ve never heard of all sell their watches in suspiciously identical boxes and keep them right next to the big pile of rum cakes. Who knew? You learn something every day, I guess.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have quite as much time as I would have liked to browse around and see all the shops in Phillipsburg because we had a rather interesting shore excursion planned in the afternoon and had to get back to the ship to get ready for that (I had intended to write about it in this post, but it ‘s going to end up being its own post.) If I had more time (and was a little better at sneaky photo-taking) I could probably find quite a few more “interesting” examples of some of the merchandise being offered in various shops in Phillipsburg. In spite of all this, I didn’t actually buy anything there except for a magnet to add to my refrigerator travelogue. Besides, if I really needed a designer handbag or a fancy watch, I could just run next door and get one. It would almost be cheaper that way too. Or at least it would be if you don’t count the cost of a cruise to St. Maarten in the price. Oh well. I guess if I change my mind I can always find some killer deals in my Spam folder…