Tuesday, February 26, 2013

St. Maarten trip report part 5 - the beaches!

If you're going to St. Maarten, chances are you're going to the beach. It's the Caribbean - why else would you be there? The amazing architecture?

I've already written about Maho Beach, but St. Maarten actually has more than 20 beaches on its tiny coastline - too many to visit in one trip! We had actually planned to take a day trip to St. Baarth's while we were there, but realized we paid all this money to go to St. Maarten - we may as well enjoy it first.

We ended up spending time on four beaches on St. Maarten, carefully picked from a combination of online sources and recommendations of the locals. These four were Maho Beach, Mullet Bay Beach, Orient Beach and Dawn Beach. All of these beaches are serviced, meaning you can get drinks and food from an adjacent beach bar. Just these four will give you a good variety, although if I went back, I'd love to explore the Coralita/L'embouchure/Oyster Pond area some more - this area reminded me a lot of Northern California, with a lot of walkable sandbars, mini-islands and rocks, and not a lot of people. We only saw it from the car on this trip - it teased us pretty much every time we went anywhere.

Below I'll run through the other beaches we did visit.

Note: because I know this is vital info (either because it makes you uncomfortable or the opposite), I'm going to rate the topless factor of each beach. St. Maarten is generally a top-optional island, and while that was fine with us, families with kids or those with a more conservative world view might want to avoid some of these beaches (or St. Maarten altogether, quite honestly - this island might just not be for you).

Maho Beach
Check out my previous post on planespotting on Maho Beach for an in-depth report, but here's another photo of this beach just for the heck of it:

Maho Beach is a small, steeply banked and busy beach - it's really there for a single purpose, and that's watching planes landing and taking off at the airport across the street. Still, it's fun to do that while swimming or just lounging on the sand. Maho Beach is also smack in the middle of the Dutch tourist area of the island - if you're the kind of person who likes staying "in town", then you'll probably want to visit this beach.

The people on this beach are a complete mix of young and old (though skewing older).

Topless factor: 2. We saw just one person without a top on two visits to this beach, though the Sunset Bar and Grill gives free drinks to topless girls. We didn't see anyone partake in that while we were there.

Mullet Bay Beach
Just about 1,000 feet from Maho Beach as the crow flies - walking distance, really - is probably my favorite beach of those we visited. Mullet Bay Beach is the perfect Caribbean beach - perfect white sand, beautiful water (usually calm), and lined with palm trees in a a near-perfect semi-circle. There seems to be only one bar/restaurant but that's enough, and it means the rest of the beach is quiet and pristine.

This is looking south from about the middle of the beach.

A boat parked itself while we were there and let people off to swim around it.

This is looking in the other direction; you can see how quiet the other side of the beach is.

Incidentally, the beach is close enough to the airport that you can still watch planes if you want, without the noise or the sandblasting:

That gives you an idea how close it is to Maho Beach, which that plane would be flying right over just a second or two later.

There were more young people at this beach than other beaches we visited - a mostly European and pretty hot crowd, to be perfectly honest.

Topless factor: 1. We actually didn't see any, but no doubt the beach is not immune, like all St. Maarten beaches. It just doesn't seem that common here.

Orient Bay Beach
Some people consider this to be "the" St. Maarten beach, so we felt obligated to check it out. In fact, we spent almost an entire day there. It's definitely a destination beach, almost more like a theme park than somewhere you'd go to try to relax. I think it's more like Long Beach (either California or Long Island, take your pick) than what I think of when I think of a prototypical Caribbean beach... but hey, some people want a party beach, and I don't judge them. We enjoyed our day there.

One advantage Orient Bay Beach has is that there are literally about a million beach chairs for rent from the beach bars spaced about every 100 feet, so even though it gets really crowded, the chairs never totally fill up like on other beaches. We got there pretty late and still got a set of chairs in the "front row" at the Bikini Beach bar.

Parasailing is one of the activities you can do on this beach - they also have waverunner tours. (Honestly, the parasailing looked pretty fun, but I'm still getting over a bad rib muscle strain so I was kind of afraid to try it this time.)

We actually didn't get too many photos on this beach because we'd read that photography was not allowed, and that's probably because it's partially a nude beach. Not the area we were in, but there was definitely a lack of tops on along the entire beach. (This is not as titillating as it sounds - most of the people who go topless are older and just don't care anymore.) So we have basically no shots with people in them, but trust me when I say this beach was crowded.

Topless factor: 9. Lots. Mostly older people. There's also a fully nude section of the beach, though we didn't see it. (Probably just as well.)

Dawn Beach
Right next to our hotel - and the huge Westin resort - is Dawn Beach, so named because you can sit on it and watch the sunrise:

I was there five days and that's the best I got - sue me!

Dawn Beach is bigger than we initially thought - there are actually two parts of it, both accessible through resorts (though it is a public beach). We went through the Westin on our first visit.

That's the south end looking up towards the Westin.

This part of Dawn Beach is really quiet, and strangely kind of "dead". It may be more of a morning beach because of the sunrise - we went kind of late in the day. It had a weird vibe to it, and my wife was not very comfortable because she thought all the Westin people were staring at us - it's a public beach, though, so who cares? There really weren't many people on this beach at all besides people who were obviously Westin guests (they were all using their chairs), and those people had kind of a zombified look to them - like they were still shell-shocked from seeing their overinflated hotel bills.

On our last day in St. Maarten - literally just before going to the airport - we decided to eat at Mr. Busby's Beach Bar in Oyster Pond, which we only then realized actually opens up to the north end of Dawn Beach:

That's part of the view from our table at the restaurant - can you believe that? And that's where we ate before going to the airport. I love St. Maarten! Hey man, I'm from New York - we don't have this kind of thing. Here's a panorama shot:

The full size of that (which also has my wife on the right side of the frame) is one of my favorite shots from our trip.

Anyway, this part of the beach felt more alive, and I'd like to come back here again.

Topless factor: 1. We saw not a one.

Coming up next (and probably last in this trip report): the food of St. Maarten! To whet your appetite, here's a shot of the Grand Case beach - we didn't actually spend any time on the beach there (we just ate and ate and ate!), but we got this great panorama:

Sunday, February 24, 2013

St. Maarten trip report part 4 - planespotting at Maho Beach

A lot of Caribbean islands can offer you perfect weather, brilliant turquoise water and white sand beaches. But only St. Maarten can offer you this:

That's Maho Beach, one of the most unique experiences in the world. The end of the runway for Princess Juliana Airport is literally across the street from the beach. It's not just that you're watching planes land 20 feet above your head. It's not just that you're on a beautiful Caribbean beach. It's that you're on a beautiful Caribbean beach watching planes land 20 feet above your head.

The combination of those two things is what makes this place so special. Normally when you think of watching planes land, what probably comes to mind is dingy industrial areas or getting strip-searched by an overzealous cop who thinks you're planning another 9/11 - at least if you're in the United States.

But on Maho Beach, you can relax in the sun, swim in the warm, tropical water or enjoy a beer at the Sunset Bar and Grill - all while large commercial jets fly so low above you that they can literally blow you into the water if you're not careful.

Here's the Air France A340 landing right on top of us:

There aren't that many widebodies at St. Maarten - that A340, a KLM 747-400 and an occasional Corsair 747-400 charter.  The Sunset Bar and Grill posts an arrivals board on a surfboard.  There are plenty of smaller commercial jets, though, and tons of commuter and private planes.  It's a busy airport.

We caught the KLM flight just as we arrived on our first day there (we went back a second time later) - this photo was literally shot from our car:

We were lucky enough to "see" it takeoff as well. Takeoffs can be an adventure too, as I found out. No, I wasn't completely stupid - I did not try riding the fence during a 747 takeoff like these guys. But I did stand directly behind the #4 engine. And yes, I was sandblasted, and blown into the water. It was nuts - I was crashing into people running in all directions, it was like a mosh pit in a fog of sand. Video of this exists, but my wife won't let me post it because she's embarrassed.

Here's proof, though - I took a screengrab of the plane turning towards the runway. That's me in the red shirt on the right:

I did get video of a 737 takeoff - watch the poor little girl on the beach below.  A private plane took off just after this that I really wish I'd filmed; one guy went completely end over end into the water, and the entire Sunset Bar laughed.  It would have gone viral.  But you'll have to settle for this.

If you want to check out the beach yourself, the best time to go is between 12 and 4. You'll catch any of the big jets coming in, a bunch of other commercial jets and most of the noteworthy takeoffs during that time.

Maho Beach itself is not the best beach on St. Maarten - the reason you go is to watch the planes. It's why everybody's there - you see how everybody's into it in these videos. Otherwise you may as well go to Orient Beach or Mullet Bay Beach. (More on those later.)

A little tip: a great place to watch takeoffs is in the car rental area on the side of the runway. Our first day there, we were surprised to hear the A340 screaming towards us and then see it lift off right next to us at the Dollar Rent a Car outlet. Didn't get a photo of it, but the JetBlue flight to San Juan was probably the next to depart, if I remember right:

A couple other photos from the beach - here's an AA 757:

This is probably the best photo of the beach and a plane that I got - and it was a throwaway cell phone pic as we were walking back to our car to leave on the second day:

The lowest landing we saw - Insel Air MD-83 - looked like he was going to take someone's head off!

Here's a 360 degree (yes, not 180!) panorama of the beach:

And lastly, if you go to Maho Beach, you're probably going to want to make the Sunset Bar your base of operations - here is it from the outside:

Their beach chairs go quick, so if you want one, go early. But you can sit in the bar as long as you want, their beer is cheap and their food is good. They also have a souvenir shop where you can buy t-shirts to commemorate your tumble from the top of the beach to the water at the hands of a jet engine.

This was actually a bucket list experience for me and the main reason I wanted to go to this island, and it exceeded my expectations. How many people can say they've been sandblasted by the jet blast from a 747? Even my wife had to admit it was pretty cool - you can hear her laughing at the end of the A340 video above.

Monday, February 18, 2013

St. Maarten trip report part 3 - driving

I feel like I write about transportation in my trip reports a lot more than most people, but it's important! How are you going to enjoy your stay if you can't get anywhere, or if it takes you hours to do it? Driving in St. Maarten is also kind of a unique challenge, so it's worth talking about.

First of all, do you need to drive? Yes. What are you gonna do, take taxis everywhere? That may work if you're on a half-day cruise stop, but not for a multi-day stay. We rented a car from Dollar, which you can do over the internet like renting anywhere in the United States. This is the car we got: a Hyundai Getz!

These things are basically junk, but you see them all over the island. They're kind of the standard rental car and I think a lot of locals own them too. They remind me of when Hyundai first sold the Excel in the United States for $4,995... no power anything, no intermittent wipers, no automatic turn signals (you need to turn them off manually after a turn - this hasn't even been *available* on most US cars since the 1970's), and just cheap creaky plastic everywhere.  Also, a cassette deck!  But they're fine to get around in on St. Maarten's roads.

You can rent better cars if you want.  If you do go upmarket, I recommend springing for a Jeep.  It's pointless to just get a bigger, more expensive sedan or coupe on this island - you either want as small a car as you can stand, or a 4x4.  We saw a few people driving around in rented Mustang convertibles (and Dollar has them), which is actually ridiculously stupid on this island for a whole bunch of reasons. St. Maarten is not California.

We also rented a GPS, even though a bunch of people told us we wouldn't need one. Wrong! We would have been hopelessly lost from day one without it. I think people who say it's not needed just must not go anywhere - we had to drive from the airport all the way to the opposite side of the island for our first trip, and we went to all four corners of the island after that. St. Maarten doesn't have highways - every road is practically a back country road, and they all look the same. Don't count on using your smartphone, either. My phone actually does work in St. Maarten but data roaming costs are ridiculous, and there's no offline Android GPS app (either paid or free) that seems to have decent St. Maarten maps. (All too bad, because the rented Garmin Nuvi did nothing if not make me homesick for Google Navigation.)

I like driving (well, in ideal conditions), but I do get stressed out/annoyed/pissed off if I see other drivers being stupid. I found driving on the island to be incredibly stressful to the point that my wife ended up taking over halfway through the trip and I never touched the wheel again.

For one thing, traffic on St. Maarten is a bitch. Parts of the island are still pretty quiet but other parts are really built up (and seem to be getting moreso), and it seems like you have to drive through those areas to go pretty much anywhere. In the photo above, you see a long line of cars - the car directly in front of us doesn't have his brake lights on because he's actually in park.  The tiny single lane roads just can't handle all those cars, and certainly not the idiot drivers on St. Maarten that will think nothing of stopping in the middle of the street to talk to a friend they happen to pass by or read a restaurant menu as they decide where to eat. Because of how small the roads are, there is no way to pass these jackasses. You can get backups for miles caused by somebody who has just decided to stop in the middle of the road for no good reason.

Ditto for parking.

This is Marigot, on the French side. We had to park on the edge of town. In Grand Case, we had to make three trips to the town before we could park at all.

This is Grand Case. There is a parking lot (which was full) and otherwise it's street parking, but you have to find an actual spot, which can be challenging. Here we're - what else? - stuck in traffic. This photo also illustrates another reason why you don't want a convertible - we'd been hit by a sudden and intense rain shower a few minutes before (which seems like it didn't even make it to Grand Case), before things completely cleared up 5 minutes later.

To be fair, the parking problems aren't true everywhere - like anyplace else, St. Maarten has its busy areas and its not so busy areas, and its busy times. This was peak season and it also makes a difference how many cruise ships are in port.  When we first got to St. Maarten, there seemed to be four or five large cruise ships in port at the same time, and it was a weekend.

The roads themselves seem like they were built about 50 years ago and then not maintained since. There were several areas we had to drive through on a daily basis that literally looked like the surface of the moon. (This is one reason why a 4x4 isn't a bad idea.) On our road to the hotel, which is actually a private road, we did see some homemade patchwork repairs being made using a trowel and what looked like that concrete stuff you buy in a tub at Home Depot. Better than nothing, but I guess there's no budget on this island for pothole repair crews.

Tailgating is a problem too. Because of the slow speeds that are most common on St. Maarten's roads, drivers have probably gotten used to being stuck to the back bumper of the car in front - even when speeds do pick up. There are some quiet stretches of road where you can get up to 70 or 80kph, and if you happen to have someone behind you, they'll still be so close that you can't see their headlights in your rear view mirror.

You see how close those cars are - it looks like bumper to bumper traffic, but on this stretch of road everybody's doing about 70kph.

You also need to be careful of wildlife. Like this guy:

These goats were also in the road when we first came upon them:

And while I surprisingly have no photos of them, there are tons of stray dogs you need to dodge.

Lastly, there are some monster hills in St. Maarten. This almost never comes through in pictures, but probably the best illustration I captured of it is the pic of our hotel entrance from my last post:

The main road there is actually a steep slope downward, and the hotel entrance is a steep slope upward. If you go to the right into the hotel there, you can also make a quick left to go to the office, which you can't even see because it's another blind hill that goes almost straight down for a second. You can see all the hills around in this pic too, and imagine that they all have similar roads to this. Our car was just barely able to navigate these roads with its little lawnmower engine, and there were definitely a few times I really wondered if we were going to go flipping down the side of a mountain. (There's one particular strange upward curve on a hill by our hotel where I swear, we were only held onto the road by centrifugal force as we drove around it - if we'd have stopped, I feel like our car would have tumbled off.)

Driving's a necessary evil on St. Maarten, but it's probably not going to be the most pleasant part of your trip.

Incidentally, we had no problem with Dollar Rent-a-Car.  A lot of horror stories are floating around about various car rental agencies on St. Maarten, but our experience was smooth.

St. Maarten trip report part 2 - the Princess Heights hotel

My wife and I stayed at the Princess Heights condo hotel, which is on the east side of the island in a quiet area called Oyster Pond, just barely on the Dutch side of the border. It turned out to be a really nice hotel and it was much cheaper than anything else that looked halfway decent. We stayed in a brand new building (they have another that's a bit older) with huge rooms that each have a kitchenette and a balcony that overlooks Dawn Beach... ok, and the roof of the Westin resort below. Honestly though, overlooking the Westin like that, and with a much better view of the surroundings, I felt kind of superior to those people who spent $450 per night down below us. Especially because Princess Heights guests are allowed to use all of the Westin's facilities... except for their beach chairs.

I had told the hotel that it was our anniversary and they made the room up special for us, with flower petals on the bed and a bottle of wine set out for us. It was a nice surprise. Our room (like all their rooms) also had a balcony, and we spent every night there just sitting outside, enjoying the view and talking. St. Maarten weather is nearly always perfect - the temperature when we were there only varied between 77 and 80 degrees from night to day, so you can sit outside in total comfort at any time.

A couple nights, I just went out there by myself and sat and listened to the waves. When I was a kid, my family used to rent a house every couple years at Holden Beach in North Carolina, and I remember a similar feeling of serenity then. I haven't felt that feeling again until now. Given the frigid weather and constant noise back home, I sure needed it.

Ok, ignore the sound of the car struggling to get up the hill, and imagine that's at night. (I actually did take a night video, but it was almost completely black.)

We did visit Dawn Beach and the Westin itself one day. Dawn Beach is a quiet little beach that's mainly used by Westin guests, and because of that my wife was a little uncomfortable on it - she felt like people knew we weren't staying at the Westin. But it's a public beach that just happens to be surrounded by the Westin on its south side, so who really cares? I didn't.

It's a nice beach and if you stay at the Princess Heights, you really should go. You can park at the Westin for free - they allow the public to park there. (My guess is that they had to make certain concessions to be allowed to serve as the entrance to the beach.) You can also walk, but it's easier to drive.

In the middle of this photo is the Princess Heights as seen from the Westin pool.

The Westin was surprisingly dead inside when we were there - it's a huge hotel with a casino in the middle of the giant lobby, but only one guy was using it that I could see. There were other people in the pool area and on the beach but they all looked like zombies! No talking, very little movement. It was kind of a weird atmosphere.

Incidentally, our hotel was literally the only place on the Dutch side of the island where I saw a mainly Dutch staff. Apparently the hotel is owned by Chinese but we didn't see them - the manager and all the workers are at least European and mostly Dutch. They seem to have a rotating internship program, so the staff is very young but eager to work. The person who checked us in (her name was Nina) actually rode with us in our car up to the second building to show us how to get there and then to show us around the room. She was really helpful! I somehow don't think we'd get such personalized attention at the Westin.

I got a little unlucky with the clouds in the mornings that I was able to get up this early, but apparently you can get some great sunrises from either Dawn Beach or our hotel:

Friday, February 15, 2013

St. Maarten trip report - the intro!

My wife and I just got back from our first trip to the Caribbean - our 10th anniversary gift to ourselves. We picked St. Maarten because it's got all the stuff the islands are known for - the beaches, the perfect weather, the palm trees - but also this:

There's nowhere else in the world with a view like that. I'm kind of an airplane geek, so with no other really obvious differentiator between islands, this clinched it. And a lot of other people go there for the same reason, as we discovered. I'll be writing a post just on planespotting there in the next couple days.

I've got a few other things to write about too, and a lot of pics (and a few videos) to post! Rather than write a couple of really long-winded posts on multiple subjects, I've decided to break it down into bite-sized chunks - you know, like a blog. So while I don't think this is going to turn into one of my monster Japan trip reports (activities in St. Maarten generally fall under either "going to the beach" or "eating"), sit back and enjoy whatever I end up spitting out. If you're planning a trip yourself, maybe you'll even get some useful info out of it. It's a great place, and I wish I was still there!

Oh well... another Japan trip's coming up in 6 weeks!

Sunday, February 03, 2013

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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