When I was in middle-school, I would spend a good portion of my time on the family computer looking at websites that had professional photos of airplanes. At that time, we only had dialup internet, so spending a “good amount of time” on the internet to look at high-res photos was an understatement. I would frequent the Editor’s Choice section of these sites to find the most eye-catching and impressive shots. There was one location that kept showing up again and again — Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten. Aircraft as large as 747s were frozen in time, hovering above the turquoise waters below while beach goers waved maniacally in the foreground. For a nerd like me, this place seemed like paradise.
It was about 20 years ago that I approached my parents about going to St Maarten. We did not have airline benefits, so I was informed that such a trip would not be possible. To be fair, I had some pretty outlandish requests at that age that ranged from places like Midway Atoll to a Bollywood film set. Nevertheless, I was a little upset that my family wasn’t game for crafting an entire trip around plane spotting. Now that I’m living the #nonrevlife, things have changed a bit. I fly to Florida from LA to go to the dentist, so planning a trip to go watch airplanes didn’t seem as crazy anymore.
We arrived early in the day and suspected we would not be able to check-in to our hotel right away, so we killed time at Maho Beach, the one at the approach end of the runway. It was more wild than I had imagined. Many people were wearing wristbands, so I suspect there might have been a few cruise ships that had docked earlier that morning. It was difficult to find a spot on the beach, so my (very supportive) wife and I found an alcove underneath the very popular Sunset Bar, where we could afford at least a little personal space away from the nearby chaos. We were able to get a few pictures of some arriving aircraft, but the prospect of getting closer to the runway centerline seemed very daunting. I have never seen a beach so crowded in my life. We left after a couple hours (a decent amount of time all things considered) to drive to Oyster Bay near the French border to relax and recover.
The island of St Maarten (or St Martin if you prefer) is split into two partitions - one Dutch, one French, though no passport is needed to pass between the two. It was during our drive away from the airport where we began to see a very different island. Whereas Maho Beach had been a bit of a party scene, it did not take long to see buildings without roofs or boats still lying on their sides, half-submerged into the turquoise waters of the nearby marina. Hurricane Irma devastated the Caribbean in September of 2017, and the road to recovery has been arduous in St Maarten. Our hotel in Oyster Bay had reopened less than a year earlier. The Westin down the road was still closed, but it was faring better than many of the other hotels. We didn’t know so at the time, but the beach at Oyster Bay was once a lively, built-up little section of coastline. Now it is a thin strip of sand where just the two of us sat on lounge chairs with our only company being an iguana and a construction crew moving dirt in the distance. Many hotels have been completely razed or are literal shells of their former glory.
It was a very sobering experience. Over the next couple days, we drove our car around both partitions of the island. I was surprised just how “French” the French side was. I walked into a patisserie in the small town of Orléans and was greeted by a friendly, “Bonjour, Bienvenue!” I hadn’t expected to actually hear french on this island, but the needs of my stomach have ensured that my knowledge of pastries and other foods has not been lost in my vocabulary of French words. I ordered a chausson aux pommes (basically an apple turnover) and enjoyed its flaky goodness before we continued our exploration of the island.
Having not seen St Maarten prior to the hurricane, we were often left guessing what it would have once looked like. Nowhere was there such a dramatic change as Grand Case Beach. We parked our car across the street from some dumpsters where workers were tossing debris from buildings that were once shops or boutique hotels. It was fascinating to look in one direction and see the pristine waters of the Caribbean only to turn around and see the collapsing facade of a once grand building. We did also return to Maho Beach to watch the afternoon arrivals including an A340 inbound from Paris. The beach was much more open this time, and the cruise ship crowd was gone. This made the experience much more relaxing with the sounds of the waves, the birds, and the soothing symphony of twin turbofans producing 40,000 lbs of thrust lulling us (or perhaps just me) into a zen-like state.
Perhaps our two dramatically different experiences at Maho Beach are a lesson in travel. You cannot truly judge a place by just one visit. Given how much this island has had to endure, it is unfair to judge it by its current “work-in-progress” state. Even the airport itself is a temporary structure within the framework of the original terminal. It may not be perfect, but it’s functional. In spite of everything that has happened, the people of St Maarten are extremely friendly, helpful, and genuine whether they be on the Dutch or French side. Paradise has not been lost. You just have to look in the right direction.
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