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, here's an idea you might not have thought of: A great thing to do for repeat visitors in St. Maarten, might actually be to leave the island. Why? Besides being a frequented destination for cruisers, St. Maarten is a popular base for yachters and other island-hopping vagabonds. That's because being positioned amid a clump of nearby islands -- many very different in ambiance, resources and personality -- makes a great jumping-off point for a day trip.
Since many voyages arrive in St. Maarten early and depart late, ranging far afield would seem both easy and economical. But while you can use St. Maarten as a departure point from which to venture to neighboring islands, you'll want to do a bit of homework before heading off. Ferry or flight delays (should you choose to fly) could mean missing your cruise ship's departure, so you'll want to have an alternate plan in your back pocket, in case your day trip does not go according to schedule.
Itching to try something new during your next call at St. Maarten? Why not opt for visiting one of the following?
**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 the island's five-star resorts 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 Marigot, the French capital of 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 Maundays Bay, home of Cap Juluca, a resort that is perennially near 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 ship 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, another beach notable for Johnno's Beach Stop -- another legendary beach bar and grill -- known not only for its 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 boat shuttle 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: From St. Maarten's A. C. Wathey Cruise Terminal take a taxi to the ferry dock at Marigot in French St. Martin (about $20 each way for up to four passengers). Note: You must bring your passport!) The ferry to Blowing Point, Anguilla runs approximately every 45 minutes from early morning until about 7 p.m. The trip takes 25 minutes and the fare is $20 each way, plus a departure tax of $5 from St. Martin and $8 from Anguilla. Taxis are available at Anguilla's ferry terminal -- budget $60 for an island tour for two, and $10 for each additional person.
What's there: Whether you know it by its full name, or by one of its shortened nicknames -- St. Barths, St. Barth or St. Barts -- it's likely that you know the island as one of the top Caribbean playgrounds of the rich and famous. It's not difficult to see why. St. Barths is a Caribbean clone of the French Riviera, packing everything that an upscale European vacation haven has to offer into a mere 8 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, note that all beaches in St. Barths are open to the public. Like French St. Martin, the number of locals who speak English has grown exponentially.
Ground zero for day visitors to St. Barths is the harbor town of Gustavia, a horseshoe-shaped marina that is the terminus of ferries calling from St. Martin. From Gustavia you can catch a taxi or even walk to several beaches and other points of interest, but 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 might be hanging out at one of Gustavia's brasseries or sipping a cappuccino on the deck of their mega-yacht. 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, and 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 served as the inspiration for Jimmy Buffett's "Cheeseburger in Paradise."
A 90-minute taxi tour of the island for a party of four runs about $125. If beaching is on your to-do list, your closest opportunity is Shell Beach (Petite Anse de Galet), just a 10-minute walk from the port and a perfectly pleasant cove to tuck in at. But there are even 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 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 3 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 almost nonexistent. To get here from the road requires a 10-minute walk on a rocky trail, so bring appropriate shoes. Although full nudity is officially prohibited in St. Barths, birthday suits are common at Grande Saline. Budget about $30 for the one-way taxi ride to Grande Saline, and be sure to make arrangements for the return trip.
Getting there: The easiest way to get to St. Barths is via ferry to Gustavia, and Great Bay Express departs daily from Bobby's Marina, about a 10-minute walk from St. Maarten's A. C. Wathey Cruise Terminal. Great Bay Express makes the trip in about 45 minutes and costs $85 for a same-day round trip. A second ferry, Voyager, operates out of Marigot, on the French side of St. Martin. The distance to Gustavia is further, so the crossing is longer, and you'll need to get to the port in Marigot, a taxi ride that can take 30 minutes or longer. This option is not recommended for day-trippers on a tight schedule. Don't forget to bring your passport!
You can also fly to St. Barths. Air Antilles, St. Barth Commuter, and Winair each make the 12-minute flight several times daily from St. Maarten.
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 lunch and to be able to ferry back to St. Maarten that evening.
With a population of just 1,800, Saba is tiny -- and charming. Measuring only 5 square miles, Saba is actually the peak of a submerged volcano, whose steep flanks plunge precipitously to sea level and continue down into 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 feet 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 -- Saba Divers (599-416-2740) and Sea Saba (599-416-2246).
Taxi drivers are easily found near the ferry dock, and will provide two-hour island tours for $50 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 Mount Scenery -- with 1,064 stone and concrete steps leading to its 2,855-foot summit -- is a must-do, especially on a clear day. For a complete rundown on all 18 of Saba's hikes, contact the Saba Conservation Foundation -- there's another location at Trail Shop in Windwardside (599-416-2630). You can also book guided hikes through the foundation.
Getting there: If your cruise ship is in port in St. Maarten early enough and departs late enough it is possible to take one of the 90-minute ferries to Saba in the morning, and if all goes according to plan, be back to St. Maarten in time for your cruise departure -- but it's very tight. Two ferry companies run service between St. Maarten and Saba -- both charge about $100 including port taxes for a same-day round trip. 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 three days a week; check with them for current days and hours (721-544-2640). Dawn 2 also runs three times weekly between Philipsburg and Fort Bay. Again, check directly for schedules (599-416-2299). Once again, don't forget your passport!
It's also possible to fly to Saba. Winair makes the 20-min hop four times daily, landing at the shortest international airstrip in the world.