Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Family Cruise 2014: Day 4, St. Maarten

Our first port day!  So excited, and after a late night, morning came way too early!  We, along with Mum and Dad, didn't have plans.  I was hoping to find a geocache, to put a travel bug in.  I wanted to take the kids along the main strip.  And find a beach.  None of us were booking anything (Lou did her own thing), so we headed into port to figure out what to do.

See the white yacht behind the little booths?  See the helicopter on it?!  The kids were thrilled to see a real "yacht" and especially one with it's own helicopter.  They want to know the difference between a boat and a yacht.
It was busy in port, but not as busy as it gets.  I think there were 5 or 6 ships there, including the new Norwegian Epic.
Our ship was way down at the end, peeking out between the ship on the left and the Mein Schieff.
Like many of the ports, this area has been totally re-done for the cruise ships.  No different than any other port, so please get out of there quickly and head anywhere else.  The main strip of Philipsburg is similar, store-wise, to most ports, but the "flavour" is Dutch, so at least most of it is still quaint.
We found the bus/taxi staging area and talked to the guides about which beach is best.  I did want to see the "airport beach"  Maho Bay, and the guide/driver said another great beach is only a 6 minute walk from there. 
So we PACKED into the taxi van.  I think there were 13 of us.  She insisted kids had to be at the very back, and Mum and I joined them (yes, five in the back seat).  Rob somehow got the passenger's seat, I believe.  This wasn't the last time!
That is the main beach in downtown.
I had heard many stories from my mom and dad about driving in the Caribbean, and I was scared!  The road looks textured here, I wonder if it was getting repaved, or if it's like that for traction in rain?
Up, up we go!
We came to an intersection, and there was a traffic jam, so the driver decided to take a different route.  It was very steep, with switchbacks you couldn't see around.  After studying Google maps, I think she took us up Ariet Peters Rd, which luckily was a one way road, up the mountain.
Up some more!
Look at that switch back road over there!!
There were more big yachts, and our driver told us that Bill Gates and the owner(?) of Victoria's Secret come to the island in their yachts.  I think this would be Snoopy Island or Port de Plaisance.  We went around the airport and heard a little Dutch history (when their Queen steps down, she becomes a Princess again).  The airport is really jammed into a narrow strip between Simpson Bay Lagoon and Simpson Bay.   You should check it out on a map.  All along Simpson Bay there is a nice, looking beach, but I think it's strictly resort and private homes.

We arrived at Maho Beach, and got dropped off at the south-east end, near the Sunset Bar and Grill.  It's interesting to read a bit about this beach, how the hurricanes and jet blasts have eroded the beach significantly.  There was only a tiny strip to walk along, with cars right at your elbows.  I was especially worried for Hugh, after having been hit once by a car.  I'm not sure how the Google satellite image shows this beach totally empty, because it's very, very busy.  As soon as we could, we hopped off the roadway and onto the "beach".  What little there is.  It's not a sunbathing beach!  It's very steep!
That picture doesn't show the steepness of the beach, but it does show the narrowness.  The water seemed much higher when we were there though. The water was coming up onto the steep part, so there wasn't anywhere easy to walk.  Imagine that road,  bumper to bumper with cars.  And people sitting along the concrete barricade, or just standing.
This is a great picture, read about it here! You can see the steepness, and the business is closer to what we saw.  Once we got on the beach, we thought it'd be easier to walk, but it was so packed, we headed towards the water, not realizing how steep it was.  It was also very wavy!   As soon as he stepped down there, Hugh got hit with a wave that got his shoes wet.  He bent over to take it off, got hit again.  Got the shoe off, another wave came and knocked the shoe out of his hand!
We didn't see any big KLM's while we were at the beach, but we did see a few planes come in.  That was enough for us!  The videos you see of tourists being blown away from the beach are when the big jets take off, not land.
That's Saba Island in the distance.  It's quite a long ways off! 28 miles, actually.  Winair has five flights there daily, just 12 minutes, for about $105 roundtrip.
The kids were eager for their first salt water swim! 
She was not quite so happy afterwards, LOL.  She had a raw spot on her foot that the salt hurt.  The waves were very strong, knocking her over.  Sand was getting in every nook and cranny.  But they did love how warm it was!
We saw this tall ship go by, and these two pictures show some wave action!
I did not change position, LOL.
Resting on Daddy.

We decided, since there was no shade and no where to really sit and relax, to continue on the "six minute walk through the two tall hotels and over the bridge to the golf course" to Mullet Bay.  Now, the taxi driver did look to be a fit, athletic woman, but I don't know that you could even drive there in six minutes.  Check it out on a map.  We started out at  the "top" end of Maho Beach, had to backtrack to the road because we couldn't go through the resort (or rather, we didn't want to try and then have to backtrack anyway).  We set our sights on the passageway between the two tall hotels, "Sonesta Maho Beach Resort" and a hotel in front of the Royale Casino.  There were shops all along here, including Subway, which I was hoping we'd stop at, but no...once through there, we couldn't see a little bridge or golf course, but there was no where else to go, so we continued along Rhine Rd, even though it felt like we were going away from the water.  We came to Amazone Rd, and the area up ahead looked like a golf course, and there was something that sort of looked like a bridge.  We headed that way.  We were really going on faith by this point.  It was definitely a golf course, and there was taxi service on the road, and there was another couple walking ahead of us.  But it was also a little eerie.  There seemed to be foundations of old buildings, little driveways to  broken up concrete pads.  We followed the main road, pausing for shade and the last of our water, and to check out the little lizards.  We came across one road, but it didn't seem "right".  Shortly after was another little road that seemed quite busy, so we headed down it.  Then another fork in the road, and we chose the one the taxis were going down.  We finally came to a parking lot!!  I don't know how long it took, but even if we didn't have the kids, six minutes would not have been possible.  I'm not sure even sixteen minutes would have been enough.  If you're interested in doing this, I'd recommend just getting a taxi.  Or, be prepared with water, sunhats, and good shoes.  It was fun, and not really a hard walk, just hot for us northerners!
In the parking lot was this cute little car.  Some other people posed so Meg decided she would too!
We pretty much plopped down under the first trees we found.  They were loaded with this fruit that grew in long bunches, like grapes.  They were, in fact, sea grapes!
The other attraction was the 4x4 van, LOL!  Once again, I had to hear the sob stories about how we should have those in Canada as a standard option, not as an after-market DIY kit...
Hey!  Here's that tall ship we saw at the last beach!  It had a trapeze for swinging over the side.  However, that made the boat list over to the one side quite dramatically!
We could still see the planes coming in, and did see one jumbo KLM.  We could also hear them taking off.
This beach is quite long, with umbrellas at the parking lot end.  The waves were calmer, but there was still plenty of action.  It seems every time we'd see a calm beach, as soon as we got in,the waves started.  The kids quickly got into the idea that we don't "swim" at a beach here, LOL.  They dove for seashells and let themselves get bashed around by the waves.
That's the Rainbow Beach Club Resort, probably.  The American University of the Caribbean is off to the right (I wonder what courses they offer...there is a university dorm....), near "the Towers at Mullet Bay" an older popular tower hotel, which isn't really near Mullet Bay, actually.
There were a couple food stands, but Rob didn't want to get any food.  The kids did get pop/juice and he got a beer, but we were hungry! 

The girls loved the shell collecting (I didn't think it was all that impressive, but it was their first time, so they were thrilled).  Hugh loved crashing in the surf.  This boy once screamed so loudly around water that we stopped going to the pool and splash pads.  Now, he plows right in, but when he's done, he's done.  At one point, we realized that none of us knew where he was.  I headed up the beach, determined to go to the end, though I realized quickly that without my glasses, I wasn't much good.  One of the girls joined me though, but we still couldn't spot him.  We got back to where they had been swimming, and still no sign.  Went back to our rest spot, and there he was with Granddad.  Not sure how we missed seeing him head back there, but oh well.  This isn't the first time he's gone "missing" at a beach, and I try not to get worried, but I see how he drifts down the beach from where we started, and worry that he might go too far out too.  When you're standing on shore, some of the swimmers look like they are really far out, but when you're out there yourself, it doesn't seem all that far at all.
Another couple of shots of the sea grapes (this is how Hugh looks when I don't have my glasses on LOL).

And an unknown fruit.  Maybe a young  coconut?
A beautiful hibiscus!
The 13 of us in the taxi had agreed upon a meet up time for the return trip, but we were ready to go before then, so we wasted a bit of time.  But eventually we were done.  We headed to the parking lot and stood around.  A taxi driver asked us if we needed a ride.  No, we had one arranged.  Okay, but if we change our mind....and isn't this beach lovely?  Etc....after a few minutes, and a check of the price, we decided to just head back with him.
The trip back was a little scary for other reasons....just about every warning light was on, LOL, including the parking brake light.  Rob said later that it was similar in the van on the way over, but this van sounded a LOT worse.
It was neat hearing his stories too.  If young people did well in high school, they could go to the Netherlands for university, on scholarships.  However, too many young people were goofing off and wasting the opportunity, so the government cut back.  Like most people, he was from somewhere else, I think Grenada.
More yachts!

This picture is of  a slide, a picture my dad took at the Bethlehem Bar Viewing Point on A.J.C. Brouwer Rd.  We passed it on our way back into Philipsburg.  My dad may have found it interesting because we knew a family named Brouwer, I think (this is from around 1978).
Always love seeing my bank in foreign countries!
These condos were under construction and had sold out, at bout $300 000 each.  I think it's between Cole Bay and Cay Bay, at what's labelled Indigo Green Development on the map.  We were told by both taxi drivers that the people of Sint Maarten own the land, so when they buy a house, they don't pay property taxes. We weren't too sure how this all worked, but they were both quite proud that average citizens could afford these large, beautiful, stuccoed homes (not the ones above, they were for tourists, the homes below were typical for locals).

Somehow, the conversation turned to hurricanes, and we found out a bit more about the roads and foundation pads at Mullet Beach.  It's really sad, in a way.  If Canada ran the country, they probably would fill in Mullet Bay Pond and part of Simpson Bay Lagoon, expropriated all the land around Airport Rd/Amazone Rd, and built the airport on a diagonal....
It was interesting to hear about the financial toll the hurricanes took on the residents, think of everyone who worked at the resort would be out of a job, the loss of tourists would affect the neighbouring businesses and taxi drivers...thankfully they have that fancy new cruise ship port!  ;)
 
We got back to the cruise port (after watching a transport try to get out of the port, taking up the entire road...I can't imagine driving there!).  While I like the modern port areas, not being near the downtown was disappointing.  When Rob and I went before, things were under construction.  These next nine pictures are from our first trip there, in October 2007.

 I wanted to take the kids here to burn off some energy!

 And every visitor to Sint Maarten should see the courthouse!
 We couldn't see the downtown very well from our ship this time

 I originally took this picture of the Disney lifeboats doing a drill, but you can see the pier extension they were working on.
 Not sure what that flattened area became...according to Google Maps, it's still a flat, unfinished area.  But you can see how far it is to the downtown.
A nice shot of the port area.  It felt like forever to walk over to the yellow building with red awnings, which was the main info building.

Back to 2014!  There were chickens out and about, enjoying the pier area.  My dad had mentioned that the Pasanggrahan Royal Guest House had a chicken issue, but I didn't remember chickens here on the first trip.

That was the Norwegian Epic in the prime dock spot, on the right.  On the left is the MSC Divina, and there were two more to the left:
The Celebrity Eclipse and the Tui Cruises Mein Schiff 2 (oh, did we have fun with that name!!)

We were parked behind the Mein Schiff, and there was no one behind the Celebrity, and the Epic.  So, it appeared there were 5 ships in, and at least three were of the biggest classes.  Are you wondering about that motorcycle?  How'd that get there.  Well, trust Mum to find out:
This was the "biker gang from Georgia" we were behind in the cruise terminal.  They were on a fundraising mission!  They had brought their bikes to be able to ride around the islands and make some money.
It was starting to sprinkle...
Lovely grey skies.  I said to the crew member who mentioned his sister was in Toronto and told him yesterday it was -10C....I'd rather have a bit of rain in warm St. Maartin then be back in Toronto!
I have no pictures from the evening, so  I think this might have been the night we went to see "Strings, A World Adventure on Ice".  As usual, it's a great show.  It features a live violinist along with the skaters.  The kids weren't all that interested in the plot, but the skating is awesome.  I was disappointed there was only one ice show on the trip.
According to the Daily Compass, the "Love and Marriage" show was on at 10pm.  It was a good one, did not get too racey, but perhaps not quite as funny as other times either.  So much just depends on the couples!
More towel creatures.  I got creative with Molly again.
All in all, a great first "on shore" day. 

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