My wife and I have been to the beautiful island nation of St. Maarten a few times over the years as this cruise port is one of the most popular stops in the Caribbean. Often referred to as the crossroads of the Caribbean, St. Maarten is just 150 miles southeast of Puerto Rico.
On a recent trip aboard Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas (see my review on Cruiseable), we were traveling with family members who had never been to the island, so we decided to take in as much of the island as we could in one big, six-hour day trip. We settled upon the SXM II Tour with Bernard’s Tours, which stopped at popular attractions on both the French side and Dutch side of the island. (There are lots of other options.)
Our ship docked in the capital of Philipsburg on the Dutch side of the island,. The tour would be taking us to some well-known sites on this side of the island, as well as hitting St. Martin, the French side.
The first thing that caught our attention was the quiet and partially abandoned port. It turned out that many island inhabitants were preparing for an impending hurricane, and with no other ships scheduled to be in St. Maarten that day in August, many of the merchants had opted to stay closed. Fewer fellow tourists to jostle with? No problem!
Getting the tour started
All of us were loaded into a medium-size tour van with plenty of seats and large windows providing great views of the island. Here, we were introduced to our driver and tour guide for the day, the Mailman, who outlined our route through both sides of the island. Our tour would make some short stops for photo ops and three major stops, including the famous Orient Beach, Maho Beach and the French capital of Marigot.
One of the many upsides of our travels through St. Maarten is that the island does not have an open container law. That meant our friend the Mailman was traveling with a few coolers containing beer, soda, water and his homemade rum punch. I sampled this brew later in the day, and it was definitely not “punch with some rum” but rather “rum with a punch”!
Quick trip through Philipsburg
With our schedule laid out, and refreshments packed, it was time to explore this island. While we had already seen many of these stops, our family had not. We wanted them to have a great experience while visiting the island, so we chose a St. Maarten Island Tour as we believe it is one of the best things to do in St. Maarten on a cruise, especially for first timers.
Departing the port, the Mailman provided some information on the development of the cruise port and the two jetties that can now handle up to eight docked cruise ships. During the busy time of year, St. Maarten can actually see over 10 ships in port on a given day. (Multiply our ship's passengers by 10 and you get the idea.)
During our drive through Philipsburg, our guide described the history of the island. The original inhabitants of the island were the Carib and Arawak Indians. Since the “discovery” of St. Maarten by European explorers, various countries have switched occupation of the island.
The current French and Dutch setup was established with the Treaty of Concordia in 1648. A legend arose that the island was divided by the two countries with a race between a Dutch and French representative starting at separate ends of the island. Although this folklore makes for a good story, it's not true. Regardless, on Nov. 11 each year a ceremony is held in which French and Dutch representatives re-sign the treaty maintaining the separation and two countries on the 37-square-mile island.
For a time, salt mining was a major industry in St. Maarten, and there are still remnants of that history in Philipsburg. Today, tourism is the No. 1 industry on the island, and local officials are working on finding ways to get even more travelers to the island, including plans to extend the cruise port to a potential third jetty.
A roadside photo stop
As we learned about both colonial rule and modern-day St. Maarten, the van arrived at our first photo op, the French and Dutch border near Oyster Pond. This picturesque harbor hosts many boats that individuals can rent to travel to nearby islands.
After a few pictures, we were on to our next stop, the Coralita Lookout Point (also known as the Rotary Lookout Point). En route, the Mailman described the different types of sea life we might be able to interact with. At this lookout point, there's a wooden platform that rises about two stories above sea level, offering you views along the Atlantic coast of the island, with St. Barts off in the distance.
According to our guide, we would be making an “alternative stop” to see some iguanas as the iguana farm was under construction. So, it was a bit of a surprise when a few miles down the road the van pulled up to a group of iguanas alongside of the road. Iguanas were everywhere — all different sizes and variations in color. I was surprised when my wife grabbed the camera and decided to exit the van. Surely, she'd be afraid of them, but she was not; she wanted to make sure she got some closeup shots of these lizards.
Going back in time … and to the beach
After spending our allotted time admiring the iguanas, our next stop was going to be Orient Beach. But on our way there, we drove through the French Quarter of the island where original structures from the first French settlers dating back to the 17th century still stand. It was amazing to hear that it was not uncommon to have 10 or more family members living in these tiny homes.
The drive to Orient Beach seemed quick. Upon arrival, we first did a drive-by of Club Orient, a “naturalist resort,” and then drove to one of the dozens of other resorts that line the beach.
We were dropped off at La Playa Resort, where we would be able to use the facilities. La Playa offered a deal to our tour group: $10 for two lounge chairs with an umbrella, two rum punches and access to wi-fi. Not bad. So we paid the $10 and grabbed some seats to enjoy this famous beach for the next 60 minutes.
On the premises, there was a well stocked main bar, a beachfront bar and a restaurant if you wanted to grab a bite to eat or a round of drinks. Since we had the drink package on the ship, our one free rum punch would do for now.
Since we were only here for an hour, I decided to just dip my toes into the water, which was cool and refreshing. Surprisingly, there was a lot of seaweed, which the Mailman explained was a problem that many of the neighboring islands were also experiencing. It didn’t matter, though, we were on vacation and spent most of our time just relaxing in the sun, tanning and sipping a rum punch. What more could you want?
Before we knew it, our time was up. As we entered the bus, other travelers were getting refreshments, so it was now finally time to try the Mailman's rum punch. The Dixie cup sized portion was plenty because this was definitely a drink you had to sip slowly!
Exploring Marigot for a few minutes
During the 20 minute or so drive from Orient Beach to Marigot, we drove by some resorts and vacation homes and a shipwrecked boat near the coast, which was the result of Hurricane Lenny in 1999.
We also learned that the movie "Speed 2" was filmed in Marigot. The movie studio actually built up a large section of the waterfront for the film's final scene, and much of that foundation still remains today as an open air market.
Having never visited Marigot before, we were eager to see what the French capital had to offer. Arriving near the open air market, we were given only 30 minutes to explore and grab a bite to eat. With its French heritage, everyone made a beeline to Sarafina’s, a well-known French bakery offering more than 100 items such as desserts, sandwiches and breads. I grabbed a quick bite, and my wife and I rushed off to take pictures of the area while our family continued to enjoy lunch.
With limited time, we were able to grab some shots of the city harbor and Fort Luis towering above the city and made a quick browse through the markets. Next time in St. Maarten, we will spend more time exploring Marigot.
Final destination: A return to Maho Beach
Marigot is not far from the French/Dutch border so as we traveled to our final stop at Maho Beach, next to the Princess Juliana International Airport, we drove by the Border Obelisk, which was erected on the 300th year anniversary of the signing of the treaty that established the two-country island.
At Maho Beach, we were given about 45 minutes. Upon arrival, we checked the board at the Sunset Bar and Grill, which lists the plane arrivals and departures for the given day, only to find out that the largest plane, a KLM 747, had already landed. During our time at Maho Beach, we were able to see 727 aircraft from American Airlines and Delta land.
With the final stop of our St. Maarten Island Tour complete, there was no other option than to return to port. During our travels back to the ship, the Mailman did have one more trick up his sleeve: a photo op at the top of Cole Bay Hill. Although the cramped spot was not an ideal location for multiple passengers to stand and take photos, it does provide fantastic vistas of the area and the cruise ships. Being the only ship in port this day, we got an amazing bird’s eye view of Adventure of the Seas waiting for our return.
Just before we made it back to the ship we made a quick stop at one of the only shops open to get our customary island ornament for our vacation tree. If you're looking for other ideas on what to do in St. Maarten on a cruise, be sure to check out our other recommendations.
The final scorecard
What’s missing: You get to see a lot of the attractions in both the Dutch and French sides of the island with this 6-hour tour. However, if you are looking to do more shopping and exploring in Marigot or Philipsburg, then you might be a little disappointed. Our 30-minute stop in Marigot was just long enough to grab a few photos and a French baguette sandwich. Our tour also did not officially stop in downtown Philipsburg; instead we were bused back to the port at the end of the tour.
Main takeaway: Hitting all of the island highlights, with great customer service and a personalized level of detail that you will not find on some of the “larger” tours, we highly recommend a St. Maarten Island Tour with Bernard's Tour. Traveling with family that had never been to St. Maarten, we were able to check a number of items off our must-see list. Arranging the tour with a tour operator can be done online.
How about you? Have you cruised to St. Maarten? I'd love to hear about your experience! What was the highlight?