Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Cool Caribbean Charm

USA Trip 2013:  Blog Post #12

"To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me". - Isaac Newton 

Our day in St Martin was a perfect example of how you can do all the research in the world into a travel destination, but none of this is a substitute for actually seeing it with your own eyes.   For some reason I almost wrote St Martin off before we even arrived.  I struggled to find a port excursion that fit the interests of my family and I was worried that we would find the Island charmless.   I am happy to eat a big slice of humble pie on this one as it ended up being our favourite port day of the whole trip.  

Saint Martin or Sint Maarten (depending what side of the island you are on) is an island shared between the French and the Dutch.  France owns the North of the Island while the Netherlands owns the South.  There are some distinct differences between the two areas and I definitely sensed some unwritten competition between the locals over what part is better.  

While I wasn’t there long enough to come up with a preference of my own, a day was all I needed to decide that the whole island is pretty special. 

The charm of this Island begins from the moment you step off the ship.
What I got from St Martin, that I didn’t get the following day from St Thomas and St John, is a relaxed Caribbean vibe.  Coming from the opposite side of the world, the whole Caribbean had always been a bit of an unknown entity.  I can tell you quite a bit about the Islands of the South Pacific, but until this trip, my knowledge of the Caribbean was really only one of stereotypes: easy-going people, beautiful beaches, cool Caribbean rhythms, brightly coloured buildings, and plenty of rum. 

Stereotypes or not, the picture I had painted in my head was one I was hoping to experience.  St Maarten did not fail to disappoint.  We had been onboard our tour vehicle for less than 10 minutes when our guide and driver cracked open the cooler box and started offering us his homemade rum punch.  “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere in the world”, he explained.    We knew we were in for an enjoyable day. 

For sipping only.  The Mailman makes
a pretty strong rum punch.
I’ve always been a fairly cautious person and I can’t imagine anything worse than finishing a cruise excursion late only to watch the ship sail into the distance without you.  (This happens more often than one might think.  There are even YouTube videos of unfortunate souls running down the wharf waving desperately at their departing ship).  So with this in mind, I usually explore the areas close to the ports, or I opt for the guarantee that comes with a ship-organised excursion.  

The problem with all of Disney’s St Martin excursions is that I didn’t really like the look of any of them.  Maho Beach was the one place on the Island that we really wanted to visit and, perhaps for safety reasons, Disney didn’t offer a tour that would take us there.  I started some research into privately run tour companies and discovered Bernard’s Tours.  Not only do they take you to Maho Beach, but they have a very good online reputation.  Many people have used them and then raved afterwards on cruise forums about how much they enjoyed the tour.  Plus, because the tours on offer finished about 3 hours before the ship was due to leave port, I felt the odds of something going disastrously
wrong were fairly low.
Low enough for me to take the risk and book.

While Bernard's Tours offer the option to book a private tour for just you and your family, we instead opted for the much cheaper option of being grouped with about a dozen strangers.  With free-flowing beer and rum punch, it didn’t take long for our van full of different nationalities to relax in each other’s company.

Who's this handsome fella?
Our driver was nicknamed the Mailman and he was fantastic.  He struck the perfect balance between relaxed humour and informative dialogue.  From both his words and his manner, we learnt a lot about the island and it’s people.  You sometimes get tour guides that spend the whole trip fishing for tips (see my upcoming St John post), but the Mailman wasn’t like that.  He seemed to genuinely enjoy his job and was proud of the Island he was showcasing. 

As well as a driving tour of both parts of the Island, we had 7 scheduled stops.  The first was at an iguana farm where iguanas of all sizes could be enticed to eat lettuce from your hand.   I don’t think we were the first tour of the day to try and feed these lizards, as they weren’t particularly hungry by the time we arrived.  But it was still a fun stop that was particularly enjoyable for the kids in our group. 

The last stop of the day was at a beautiful elevated lookout (the Mailman called it his secret spot) where we were able to get some fantastic photos of the Fantasy.

The five stops in between included Maho Beach, Orient Beach, Marigot markets, another scenic lookout, and an encounter with some peculiar sea creatures.  The exact order of these stops has slipped my mind, but I think this schedule can vary slightly from tour to tour anyway.  There needs to be a bit of flexibility to fit around plane landings at Maho.  

One of two scenic lookouts
The peculiar sea creatures were a selection of live sea urchins and sea stars.  A lovely local gentleman had fished them out of the sea that day for our viewing and touching pleasure.  He took measures to keep the animals alive during the day and, from my understanding, returned them to the sea after the last group had left.  He worked separately from Bernard’s Tours and survived on donations from tourists.  It made me a bit sad to notice that many tourists were happy to be entertained by his unique sea life, but weren’t prepared to throw a few dollars his way at the end.

A squirmy sea urchin.  This little guy is better caught on video. 
Maho Beach's Sunset Bar keeps you
up to date with the day's flight schedule.
The highlight of the day had to be Maho beach.  For Scott it was probably the highlight of the whole holiday.  The airport is a Health and Safety risk that few other countries would ever allow to exist.  But here in Sint Maarten it is tourism gold.  Watching as the planes fly above your head, seemingly close enough to almost reach up and touch, is an experience neither of us will quickly forget.  

The real danger comes not from the plane landings, but from the plane takeoffs.   The Mailman entertained us with stories of incautious tourists who had attempted to ‘ride the fence’ while the plane prepped for takeoff.  The thrust from the plane’s turbines sent them cartwheeling across the road and into the water with many a serious injury resulting from such foolishness.    Scott was very eager to try this escapade for himself and it took some serious begging and pointing towards the large "Danger, you could die" sign (I'm paraphrasing), for me to convince him that he was thinking with his brawn rather than his brain.  Hospitals and broken bones are not my idea of a happy family holiday. 
Search 'Maho Beach' on google for better photos than this. 
Take heed of the warning.
For the other two stops, we had chosen a tour that spent a short amount of time at Orient beach and a longer amount of time shopping at the markets.  There was a second tour that offered the opposite and in hindsight I made the wrong choice.  The short length of the beach visit, paired with a concern about being sandy and uncomfortable for the rest of the day, meant that we had decided to leave our beachwear on the ship and just paddle in the water instead.  The brilliant azure water of Orient Beach drew us in like a magnet and we wished desperately that we had brought our swimsuits.  In the end we stripped Oskar down to his shorts and let him in the water anyway.  It seemed cruel not to.  The Orient Beach location that the mailman took us to has access to showers, changing rooms, a bar, and beach chairs.   I could have happily spent a few hours there. 

Orient Beach.  How inviting does that water look?
The markets in contrast were just okay.  Most of the stall owners were selling variations of the same items and twenty minutes of browsing was all that was really needed.  In saying that, I did enjoy the bright colours of the area, and it was nice having the time to try out one of the local French bakeries. With directions from the Mailman, we also had time to walk to a nearby shipping office to get our passports stamped. 

The colourful Marigot Markets

While the total length of the tour was only about 5 hours, I feel satisfied that we got a comprehensive and child-friendly introduction to the Island.  If I was to return to St Martin/Maarten, I would more than happily do a Bernard’s Tour again.  Only this time I would make the most of it's beautiful beaches.

The stunning Maho Beach.  The planes aren't the only memorable thing about this location.

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