Midwesterners were struck by some frigid winter weather this week, so I thought I would share one of my warmer travel experiences! The Caribbean is a volatile cluster of islands that depends so heavily on tourism and unfortunately gets the most attention during hurricane season. Hurricane Irma struck many of the Eastern Caribbean islands in September 2017 wreaking havoc and leaving nothing but devastation in its wake. I was working for the airlines at the time and when a storm like Irma hits, the flights to the impacted areas are considerably empty for months after. In November, two months after the storm, my friend from Ohio State and I decided to fly to Sint Maarten because the number of seats available would make it easy to get there and back on standby.
NOTE: I will specify that the island of Sint Maarten is separated into two countries: French in the North and Dutch in the South (spelled Saint Martin and Sint Maarten respectively). The airport and all of our explorations were on the Dutch side.
When taking a trip, you typically have a plan for your lodging once you arrive. I can confidently say boarding that plane with no confirmed room situation on the other end, two months after the hurricane struck, was one of the craziest choices I have made. Our standby seats were cleared, so once we boarded we were scrounging through every hotel, Airbnb, and hostel option we could find. The issue was, most places had not reopened from the hurricane damage. We were becoming hopeless sitting on the plane wondering if we should get off and stay home or if we should plan to sleep in the airport on the island. After another few minutes of rapid web searching, we found what was probably the one and only Airbnb open and still unbooked that weekend. After quickly processing the payment, we were off!
The flight in was beautiful as we flew over the infamous turquoise waters. Coming into land, however, was a different story. We were naïve and had assumed that the island would have been coming back to life after the storm, but we were incredibly wrong. All along the fences surrounding the airport we could see overturned boats and heavily damaged houses and debris everywhere. We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into or what to expect….but we knew we at least had a place to sleep!! The airport terminal had been shut down completely, so it was a good thing that was not our back up. We got through customs (which operated out of a large tent), walked from the airport to our Airbnb about 30 minutes on foot, and ended up at one of the most put-together buildings in the neighborhood. Given the state of the surrounding properties, we could tell the owners had probably been working night and day to get this place back in operation. We were shown to our apartment just off the center courtyard; it had all the amenities of a modern apartment with drinkable water and wifi.
We had about two full days on the island and given that almost all restaurants and tourist areas were closed and still in need of significant repairs, we did not feel the pressure of having to cram all kinds of sight seeing into our schedule. We were there to relax, and that is exactly what we did. Our first evening, after settling in, we explored Karakter beach right down the street from our Airbnb and ended up eating dinner at the Karakter Beach Bar and Restaurant located directly on the beach itself. The food was a bit pricey, but we had to remember that islands import a lot of their supplies, so it was bound to be a bit steeper in price. However, they arguably had the BEST coconut shrimp ever. After dinner, we found an open quick-stop grocery store where we bought some bottled water for the beach, snacks for breakfast, and some local snacks (mostly European delicacies like chocolate and packaged desserts imported from the Netherlands and France).
The following day, we decided to spend almost entirely at the beach. We wandered out of the neighborhood headed toward Mullet Bay Beach, but on the way, we passed Maho Beach. Yep, the one with the planes flying overhead and landing just a few meters from the water. All of the large airliners arrive within about a two hour window in the afternoon on the island, so we were a bit early, but did see a few propeller planes take off and land! We were surprised to see that Maho really was not a beach. It was mostly large rocks leading right into the water and we did not realize until talking with a local later that day that the beach comes and goes with the tide and with storms. So the beach is still there, we just didn’t get to see it! We continued down the road making it to Mullet Bay at the perfect time. It was still early in the morning and we saw a few locals setting up beach chairs and umbrellas. They shouted to us “Two chairs and an umbrella, ten dollars!”. We assumed this was for an hour, but nope. Ten dollars for the entire day. We obviously could not say no, so we set up and immediately jumped into the water. It was so beautifully clear and had such a bold color.
We were the only ones on the beach for a while, but it started to get more populated around 11:00am. Shortly after, some locals rolled in a grill and some speakers, put some reggae music on, and started grilling chicken and ribs right behind our chairs. Seeing that lunch came to us, and the smell drew us even closer, we each picked up a plate of ribs, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water for about $10. There were at least 10 ribs on my plate, and they were cooked to perfection! I am almost drooling as I type this and never have I ever found such cheap meat! We were accompanied at lunch by an older couple who had retired on the island and had good conversation about island life, the two countries, and the resilience after the storms. Another couple hours in the sun and we were ready to retreat to some shade. We wandered back to Maho beach and stopped for dinner and drinks at the Sunset Bar and Grill overlooking the beach. The planes arrive in late afternoon, so we waited just a short time before we (both of us are huge aviation nerds) started geeking out over the sight and sound of a plane landing so close to us. Had the sandy beach been there during our trip, we would have gone to stand under a plane as it was landing. In terms of planes taking off, if you take a trip there, please, read the “Danger, Jet Blast” signs and do not stand directly behind the runway. Jet blast is nothing to mess around with and can hurt or kill you if you get thrown into a rock. Be smart and stay safe!
The following day, we were set to fly out later in the afternoon. We made a trip out to stroll along the beach and through the water and happened to end up at the Karakter to fill up on coconut shrimp one last time! We were packing up and turning our keys back over to the owner’s wife who lived on site, and she was one of the humblest, kindest human beings I have met. She offered to drive us to the airport out of courtesy (we accepted) and she kindly asked that we share our experiences once we returned to the U.S. She emphasized how the island, and all of the Caribbean, depends heavily on tourism, so when storms hit causing tourists to stay away, a lot of their spending money is depleted which largely impacts the rebuilding process. She was politely adamant about us sharing our story and advertising for the island. While my intent here is not to advertise, I would just like to note that if you are not looking for the shopping and the high level tourism but instead are just seeking a relaxing beach get-away, maybe consider taking a trip shortly after a storm. Not TOO soon. Make sure there is at least running water, available food, and a place to stay (wifi is important as well), but you would get the chance to explore the quiet island undisturbed by tourists and get a sense of the camaraderie of the locals working together to rebuild. The trip opened our eyes to how resilient the islands really are yet how fragile their economies can be when their main source of income disappears.
I encourage you, if you ever get the chance, to go and explore for yourself. Even if you are looking for a bit more than just time on the beach, Sint Maarten typically has lots of shopping, night life, island bus tours, rum tastings, and more when the island is in full operation, and we met plenty of friendly locals during our stay. Still have questions? Comment below! I am happy to discuss anything!