Don't Miss in St. Maarten
Shopping: First on many passengers' lists is shopping in Philipsburg; the main drags of Front and Back streets, as well as charming side streets and alleys, are crammed with duty-free jewelry shops, electronics (bargaining recommended) and liquor. (Most shops are generally open when cruise ships are in port, no matter the day of week.)
Great Bay Boardwalk: The boardwalk along Great Bay has an extensive beachfront where you can rent chairs and umbrellas; buy souvenirs from the locals selling island hats, jewelry and more; enjoy a picnic at the many thatched-roof picnic tables; frolic in the crystal blue water; or quench your thirst (or hunger) at the dozens of restaurants and bars. You can also find plenty of water sports operators to arrange snorkeling, scuba-diving and fishing excursions.
Sunset Bar & Grill: You've seen the YouTube videos. Now, catch the jumbo jets landing and taking off precariously close at Sunset Bar & Grill, which sits at the end of the runway at Princess Juliana International Airport. Enjoy a cool cocktail or a tasty meal with a serious Caribbean vibe while you watch swimmers and sunbathers at Maho Beach deal with the jet blasts. A surfboard out front keeps track of when the planes arrive; there's live music most nights and Sunday afternoons. (2 Beacon Hill Road; open early for breakfast and late night until 2 a.m.)
Orient Bay: It's on the French side, but almost every island tour includes a stop at Orient Bay, one of the Caribbean's more famous beaches. The curious can drop by Club Orient, the naturist side of the beach. The rest of the beach is more conventional, and you'll find it packed with beach bars, watersports providers and souvenir shops.
Casinos: If you're looking to gamble, check out the varied casinos of St. Maarten. From Casino Royale at Maho Village, the largest casino on St. Maarten (set to re-open Summer 2018 following Hurricane Irma), to the four locations of the Atlantis World Casino family and the resort casinos in Philipsburg, Lady Luck is waiting for you at the many roulette, baccarat, craps, blackjack and poker tables (and don't forget the slot machines) throughout the island.
Horseback Riding: Horseback-riders, novices and experts alike, can enjoy scoping out St. Maarten's beaches or nature trails leading to hidden coves and waterfalls. Lucky Stables offers one- to two-hour rides and an evening Champagne ride, and St. Maarten Horseback Beach Rides offers one- and two-hour group beach rides, as well as one-hour private rides.
Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit: Looking for something offbeat in Philipsburg? Consider a stop at the Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit, a memorabilia collection set up by Nick Maley, a former Hollywood prosthetic and animatronics designer. (Yes, he worked on the team that created the ultimate Jedi master, Yoda.) Now, Maley works on his art in St. Maarten and signs books for museum visitors. (19A Front Street; open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday)
Marigot, St. Martin: This hub (and capital) of the French St. Martin is filled with designer boutiques and fabulous restaurants, bistros and cafes. (Duty-free merchandise, while occasionally available, isn't as much a focus.) Don't miss Marigot Market, a daily open-air market along the waterfront that features morning-caught seafood right off the boat, fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, clothing, locally made jewelry and island souvenirs.
Nearby Islands: Take a day trip to one of St. Maarten's neighbors. One option is Anguilla, a peaceful British-affiliated island located about a 25-minute ferry ride from Marigot that's known for its gorgeous white-sand beaches (Shoal Bay is considered one of the best in the world) and phenomenal gourmet restaurants. There are taxis available at the ferry terminal; make sure you arrange for the cabbie to pick you up again! The cost each way is paid in cash onboard. Both St. Martin and Anguilla charge small "departure" fees. Critical: Make sure you bring your passport, or you'll be denied entry.
Or head over to St. Barts, the Caribbean's most famed celebrity hideaway. Private ferry operator Great Bay Express makes the 45-minute trip to Gustavia from Bobby's Marina, just between the cruise terminal and Philipsburg. Another company, Voyager, makes trips to St. Barts from Oyster Pond and Marigot.
Island collectors might want to make the 80-minute trip to Saba, another link in the Netherland Antilles. (Take your seasick meds ahead of time, as the water can get rough.) Volcanic and dominated by the aptly named Mount Scenery, Saba doesn't have beaches. But it does have outstanding hiking and a steep coastal wall that's perfect for diving. Day trips depart from Simpson Bay Resort (about 45 minutes from the cruise terminal) at 9 a.m. and return around 5 p.m., so this excursion is only good for passengers with a longer port stay.