Arguably, St. Maarten is one of the Caribbean's most popular ports of call. There's a pretty good chance your first Caribbean cruise called here. After a couple of return visits, you probably started looking hard for the offbeat, the unusual. Two more visits and you figured you could conduct a ship's port lecture singled-handedly. So, the next time a St. Maarten port call shows up on your itinerary you're thinking you may just stay onboard.
But wait ... here's an idea you might not have thought of: a great thing to do in St. Maarten is to escape from St. Maarten. Why? Besides being a popular destination for cruisers, St. Maarten is popular with yachters, sailors and other island-hopping vagabonds. That's because being one of those islands positioned in a clump of nearby islands -- many very different in ambience, resources and personality -- it makes a great jumping-off point for a daytrip.
Since many voyages arrive in St. Maarten early and depart late, ranging far afield is both easy and economical. Next time, consider using St. Maarten as a departure point from which to venture to other islands that you have either never visited or only been to once or twice. All you need is access to your passport (for those destinations that require it), and to do a bit of homework. (And even that may be unnecessary as some of these island hops may be doable through your ship's shore excursion department.)
What's There: A short distance from frenetic St. Maarten is diametrically opposite, peaceful, laid-back, tiny Anguilla. The character of Anguilla's tourist population runs the gamut as well, from the perfectly coiffed and pedicured, two-swimsuits-a-day-with-no-repeats types ensconced at five-star resort Cap Juluca (888-858-5822), to the funky, barefoot, beach bar, drink-with-the-locals-and-dance-till-dawn-to-a-Reggae band set. Interestingly enough, at either end of the spectrum, you are equally likely to sight celebrities vacationing far from the madding crowd. Anguilla is the island for uncrowded beaches, great waterfront bars and grills, a fantastic local music scene, and some of the Caribbean's finest restaurants.
Most of the action takes place at the island's west end; handy, since that includes Blowing Point, the terminus of the ferry that runs from St. Martin. Taxis are always available here to take you to one of the nearby local beaches. Closest is Rendezvous Bay, with sparkling white sand, as well as rocky sections better for snorkeling. A mile or so to the west is Cove Bay, where you can talk to the dive shop about dive or snorkel trips, or simply kick back on the beach (there's a stand that rents mats, floats and beach umbrellas). Cove Bay is the home of Smokey's, a quintessential island beach barbecue. Or, you can walk from Cove Bay to Maunday's Bay, home of the Cap Juluca Resort, perennially at the top of annual "best of the best" articles in travel magazines. It's worth a visit if only to see what all the hoopla is about. Cap Juluca has three restaurants, but not all are open year-round, and it's best to check with the resort before leaving the states for reservations, dress codes and the like. Near the westernmost tip of the island is Shoal Bay West, another glittering white sand beach perhaps best known for Trattoria Tramonto, a seaside Italian restaurant, which offers its lunch guests free use of lounge chairs on its beach.
On the north shore of the island -- directly opposite Blowing Point -- is Sandy Ground, a less than charming beach, but notable for other assets. First is Johnno's Beach Stop -- another legendary beach bar and grill -- known not only for it's grilled lobster and other West Indian fare, but for its music scene. Live music, alas, mostly happens after dark, except for Sundays when a world-class jazz combo performs. But, perhaps the best thing that Sandy Ground has to offer is regular ferry service to Sandy Island. Located a couple of miles offshore, this authentic gem is for those who crave a real, off-the-beaten-track beach experience. Sandy Island, true to its name, is a speck of land that is mostly beach with a few palm trees and a lagoon, surrounded by pristine coral reefs. Small as it is, it still sports a boutique, bar and restaurant. Use of snorkeling gear and underwater cameras is offered free of charge.
Getting There: Take a taxi to the ferry dock at Marigot in French St. Martin (about $5.00 - $10.00 per person each way. Note: you must bring your passport!) The ferry to Blowing Point, Anguilla runs approximately semi-hourly from early morning until about 7:00 p.m. ($10 - $12 each way, plus a nominal departure tax of about $3 each way.). Taxis are available at Anguilla's ferry terminal.
What's There: Whether you know it by its full name, or by one of its shortened nicknames -- St. Barth's, or St. Barts -- it's pretty certain that you know that this is one of the top Caribbean playgrounds of the rich and famous. It's not difficult to see why. St. Barth's is the clone of the French Riviera, packing everything that an upscale European vacation haven has to offer into a mere eight square miles -- all the French culture, cuisine and couture -- with warmer water and sandier beaches to boot. But lest you think this is all a bit snooty for your tastes, remember that all beaches in St. Barth's are open to the public; and be aware that in recent years, like French St. Martin, the number of locals who speak English has grown exponentially.
Ground zero for visitors to St. Barths is the harbor town of Gustavia, a horseshoe-shaped marina that is the terminus of ferries calling from St. Martin. Though from Gustavia you can catch a taxi or even walk to innumerable beaches and other points of interest, there is enough right in the harbor to comfortably fill an entire day. First and foremost there's people-watching and yacht-ogling. You never know what superstar, supermodel or supermogul may be hanging out at one of Gustavia's brasseries or sipping a cappuccino on the deck of their megayacht. Just taking a gander at some of the world's most fabulous yachts lined up side-by-side all along the quay is worth a stroll around Gustavia.
But during that stroll you're likely to notice Gustavia's shopping opportunities, which include everything from nautical gizmos to France's latest haute couture to tropical togs to art and antiques. If there's any room left on your credit card after perusing Gustavia's boutiques, don't miss sampling what has been called by many the finest food in all the Caribbean. There are more than 20 restaurants fronting the harbor at Gustavia, and you would be hard pressed to find a bad meal at any of them. Our favorite is Le Repaire, a bistro with a lovely open-air terrace overlooking all the action on the waterfront: It is the perfect spot to enjoy a deliciously grilled langouste (local lobster), crisp salad or nicely chilled gazpacho. If you crave something a bit funkier, with music to accompany your lunch, take a walk over to Le Select at the far end of the harbor. This is the spot for burgers, fish and chips, and other pub fare, and is reputed to be the subject of Jimmy Buffett's "Cheeseburger in Paradise."
If beaching is on your to-do list, your closest opportunity is Shell Beach (Petite Anse de Galet), about a quarter-mile south of Gustavia. But there are better choices. Our two favorites are Baie de St.-Jean and Anse de Grande Saline. St.-Jean will make you think you really are on the Cote d'Azur with its quaint B&Bs, beachside bistros and beautiful scantily clad (or unclad) bronzing bodies who seem not to have gotten the "wear your sunblock" memo. St.-Jean is about a mile north of Gustavia Harbor, and for those who feel like tackling the steep rocky road over the hills, it's doable, but a very long hike. Otherwise, negotiate with a taxi driver in Gustavia. Grande Saline, delightfully secluded about two miles from Gustavia, is the island's top-rated, all-around beach destination. The ocean bottom here is soft and sandy, and the ocean swimmable and development nonexistent. To get here from the road requires a ten-minute walk on a steep rocky trail, so bring appropriate shoes. Be aware: Due to this beach's seclusion -- though full nudity is officially prohibited -- nudity is commonplace.
Getting There: The best way to get to St. Barths is via the new, super-high-speed catamaran Rapid Explorer, which departs from Dock Maarten Marina, about a five-minute walk from St. Maarten's new A. C. Wathey Cruise Terminal. Rapid Explorer makes the trip in about 45 minutes and costs approximately $100 per roundtrip (price may vary due to currency fluctuations). On the way over they provide a discussion of what to do in St. Barths, and will conduct personalized tours for an additional fee. Reservations are required, so contact Rapid Explorer before leaving home; but, before booking, make certain that you can't get a better rate through your ship's shore excursion department (email@example.com or 599-542-9762). This is one of those strange cases where the ship's price may actually be lower than you can get directly.
What's There: If you are looking for an unspoiled spot in the Caribbean, Saba should be on your short list. Don't waste time and effort wending your way here from St. Maarten if shopping or urban amenities are on your to-do list; there's precious little of either. Here you'll find an island where you can hike from the sea through a pristine rainforest to the island's highest peak -- the highest peak in the entire Kingdom of the Netherlands for that matter -- and back again, with enough time for a dockside lunch and be able to ferry back to St. Maarten to catch your ship.
Tiny Saba, measuring only about five square miles, is actually the peak of a submerged volcano, whose steep flanks plunge precipitously to sea level and continue down to the abyss. The steep terrain provides numerous cliffs and rocky shores, so if kicking back on a sandy beach has appeal, forget it; Saba has none. What Saba does have is some of the Caribbean's lushest, most pristine reefs, due in part to the relatively low volume of tourist traffic, and in part to the protection of sea life by the Saba National Marine Park, which completely surrounds the island. Those attributes and the legendary clarity of the water make Saba a diving and snorkeling mecca. Though much of the underwater terrain is at depths of 60 ft. or more, there are still a number of well-marked shallow snorkeling reefs. For scuba or snorkeling maps, guidance or information on organized trips, contact National Marine Park headquarters in Fort Bay (Saba Conservation Foundation/Marine Park Visitors Center, 599-416-3295). You can also contact local dive shops directly. Two operators are located in Windwardside just a taxi ride from the ferry dock in Fort Bay -- the island's second largest community -- Saba Divers (599-416-2740) and Sea Saba (599-416-2246). There is also Saba Deep, a dive shop in Fort Bay, which may be more convenient for day visitors from cruise ships (599-416-3347). Saba Deep also operates "In Two Deep" -- a lively harborside bar and grill, which features excellent sandwiches at affordable prices.
Taxi drivers are easily found near the ferry dock, and will provide island tours for about $40 for up to four passengers, as well as make reservations for lunch to be enjoyed either during or following the tours. For those who prefer to tour on foot, hiking the aptly named Mt. Scenery -- with 1,064 stone and concrete steps leading to its 2,855-ft. summit -- is a must-do. On the way back, stop at the Rainforest Restaurant. It's a 10-minute hike down the Crispeen Track from the Mt. Scenery Trail, which transits the middle of the rainforest. Contact them in advance to make sure they are open for lunch on the day you will be visiting (Ecolodge Rendez-Vous, Crispeen Track, Windwardside, 599-416-3888).
For a complete rundown on all 18 of Saba's botanical hikes, contact the Saba Conservation Foundation either at the National Marine Park headquarters in Fort Bay or at their Trail Shop in Windwardside (599-416-2630). You can also book guided hikes through the Foundation.
Getting There: Two ferry companies run service between St. Maarten and Saba. The Edge, a high-speed ferry, makes one round trip per day between Pelican Marina in Simpson Bay on the Dutch side and Fort Bay, Saba; The ferry operates five days a week, costs $60 roundtrip, and takes a bit over an hour each way. Check with them for current days and hours (599-544-2640). Voyager I and Voyager II run twice weekly between either Philipsburg or Marigot and Fort Bay for about the same price. Again, check with them for schedules (599-542-4096).
Photo on homepage and top photo appear courtesy of geographia.com.