When we stop in cruise ports, we usually venture out on our own rather than joining excursions from the ship or other organized tours. Typically, that means we get more time at our destination and save money. It also usually means we avoid the crowds because we go somewhere a little less touristy. But sometimes we head right into the heart of the tourist hub. Knowingly. And that’s what happened when we visited Maho Beach in St. Maarten.
Maho Beach, on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, is the best vantage point to watch planes land at Princess Juliana International Airport. There are not more than a few yards between the edge of the beach and the edge of the runway (only a two-lane road separates them), so the planes have to approach the beach at a low altitude in order to hit the runway at just the right time. It makes for quite a show.
Until recently, the major attraction at Maho Beach was the landing of KLM’s regular 747 flights. Photos of the massive plane’s flight path make it look like it’s mere inches from beachgoers as it heads toward the runway. Alas, the 747 doesn’t fly into Princess Juliana International Airport (at least not regularly) anymore. But that doesn’t mean that there still aren’t great things to see at Maho Beach, especially from our chosen spot at the Sunset Bar and Grill.
Getting a good spot at Maho Beach
We knew that Maho Beach would be popular and crowded as we were cruising in high season just after New Years. To get a good spot and have the most opportunities for watching landings, we decided to start our day in St. Maarten early. Our ship, Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas, was cleared in port in St. Maarten just before 9am. Not long after that, we were off and ready to start our day. A taxi to Maho Beach from the cruise port was only $7 per person each way, so would found a shuttle at the port and headed for the beach.
It was only about 10am when we arrived at the Sunset Bar and Grill. The restaurant was nearly empty, but the relatively small beach was already filling up with people. We realized that Maho Beach had the potential to get quite packed as the day went on and setting up shop there would put us directly in the middle of the crowd. Instead, we opted for cushy beach chairs beside Sunset’s pool where we could relax all day, have dedicated food and drink service, and pop over to the beach whenever we wanted. For a rental fee of $10 per chair, which included use of the pool, it turned out to the perfect decision for us. If we hadn’t gotten that spot, our day at Maho Beach wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable.
Watching the planes
As soon as we had our chairs, our server pointed us to the daily schedule that showed the times the planes were slated to land. What wasn’t immediately clear was that the planes listed were only the major airlines. Throughout the day, there were dozens of small planes approaching the airport that bridge the gaps between the jetliners’ landings. No matter how small the planes are, it’s exciting to watch them appear seemingly from nowhere and head straight toward where you’re standing on the beach.
One aspect of a day at St. Maarten’s Maho Beach that we hadn’t really counted on was that plane landings aren’t the only attraction. Take-offs get a lot of attention, too. As the planes turn to take their place on the runway at take-off, their exhaust barrels toward the fence that separates the airport from the road. If you’re sitting on the beach or certainly at the Sunset Bar, you wouldn’t notice it at all. But some intrepid souls decide to ride the fence. Signs along the fence make it clear how very dangerous that can be.
Photographing the approach
Watching planes land at Maho Beach in St. Maarten is truly a unique experience, and most people are focused on getting great photos. Unless you have a great travel camera or excel at taking action shots, it can be difficult to time things perfectly.
Of course you can take photos from anywhere on the beach or at the bar (where you have a clear view). For us, the two best spots were near the runway to get more overhead shots or near the pool at the Sunset Bar and Grill where we could capture the whole scene of the arriving plane and the beach below. We also set our cameras to continuous shooting, so we could capture the plane as it moved across the sky. My sister also shot some great iPhone videos and got perfect photos by just holding down the iPhone’s button to create a photo burst.
What we learned visiting Maho Beach
- It can get crowded—tour buses continue to arrive throughout the day
- Timing is everything—get an early start to get a prime spot
- Be patient—the restaurant gets particularly busy 12:30-2:00 but is much quieter before and after
- It’s possible to avoid the masses (sometimes)—most people swam within 10 feet of the beach, but we swam out a little farther and were alone with schools of fish, sea urchins, and coral
- Transportation is convenient—we had no trouble getting a shuttle to Maho Beach from the cruise port or getting one back
- Leave plenty of time—St. Maarten has a number of drawbridges that can stop traffic for sometime; while it only took about a half-hour to get to Maho Beach, it took us closer to an hour to return to the ship in the afternoon