Life, LIBERTY, and the Pursuit of a Sweet Vacation – St. Maarten.

It was one of those mornings I woke up but didn’t really feel like getting out of bed. I wasn’t hungover. I wasn’t really tired. I was there watching the TV that was always on the bow cam. We had approached an island and it looked like St. Maarten. Could it be Antigua? The water didn’t look too rough, the flag on the bow wasn’t being violently whipped by wind. Hesitantly, I picked up my phone and opened the Marine Traffic app to see where we were. Sure enough, we were at low speed, coming into port at St. Maarten. As much as I’d rather swung by Antigua (where I haven’t been), I was happy we were making port in St. Maarten instead of a sea day.

The last time I was in St. Maarten, things did not go well, at all. I was on Carnival Valor in 2013. I had begun to feel ill after leaving port in St. Kitts. The next morning I woke up with a full-on cold. My mother and I caught an early cab over to Sunset Beach Bar for breakfast and coffee. While I did catch some planes, I began to feel even worse. Not only was this an issue, but for the rest of the day, it POURED rain. After about two hours, I gave up and headed back to the ship where I spent the remaining time in my cabin (thankfully a balcony).

This time the weather they called for was.. well, the same. My fingers crossed, I started getting around to make the best of a second chance on St. Maarten.

I had breakfast again with some of the gang at the usual table. It was the last morning we’d wake up and still be on an actual cruise. Bummer. At least it was a port day we had to look forward to. Mostly everyone I talked to was intending to stop by Maho Beach. This is probably one of, if not the most popular places on the island. Here in Washington D.C., we have Gravelly Point right outside Washington National Airport. The planes come in really low, but the runway is further away, on the other side of an inlet. With Maho Beach, Princess Julianna Airports runway is literally there on the other side of a fence. Planes landing and taking off are spectacular. The experience is made even better with the Sunset Beach Bar   being at the end of the beach. I could hardly wait for take 2.

The ship did indeed make port Saturday morning. You could tell there would be a chance of rain, but for the most part the day looked promising. The wind that was threatening the forecast the day before was mostly absent. I headed off the ship once cleared and was among some of the first people waiting for a taxi to Maho. Within a few minutes more people came along but they wound up wanting to go to Orient Beach (a nude beach). As enticing as nude beaches sound I can all but guarantee that you will not see what you want to see, but instead what you DON’T. I was glad that I was not sharing a cab with them. Thankfully before too long a few more people came along. Two couples from Canada, with two of them being French-Canadian. With 5 people our taxi driver gathered us and headed off for Maho.

After the roughly 20 minute drive through the populated areas and mountains, past the bars of Simpson Bay, and then past the airport, we arrived at the entrance of Sunset Beach Bar. It was fairly quiet as we were the first ship passengers who had arrived. It was also early, with our arrival there being roughly 9am. One of the things I looked for was how much beach was available. In weeks to months prior, the beach had suffered some considerable erosion. This is actually a normal occurrence with this location. Thankfully, today there was a beach! Being there that early was as cool as it was kind of a drag. I had a light breakfast so I decided that I would have some more at Sunset. I did pretty much the same thing last time I was there. The tables had beads of water on them from some rain that occurred. I cleared off the water off a table and sat myself along a railing with a decent view, under an umbrella of course. I ordered a basic breakfast with decaf coffee and sat there while a couple of rain bands passed through. I chose the only area on the deck that seemed to no get wet. The rain bands could be seen coming from the mountain at the other side of the runway.

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After a while of off an on rain, I had finished my breakfast and relocated my stuff to a stool under at the bar. I watched the airport for planes for activity. There was an American Airbus at the gates when I arrived. After a few minutes at the bar, it had pulled away and started taxiing to the runway. I got off my seat and ran to stand behind it as it took off. There are several things in life I love. Palm trees, beaches, ships,.. and airplanes.  Jet-engined airplanes to be specific. Who was I to not stand behind a plane on take off and experience the jet blast? I ran to the end of the runway and stood on the opposite of the street from the runway, dead center. The plane lined-up. As I stood there the French Canadian couple came as well.

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Ray Ban Aviators. Perfect shades for today. As for the sign, you get the idea..

When the planes line up the wind is already loud. The sound of the planes taking off cannot be heard, only felt as you try to stand in the same place. This was an Airbus A319. A “smaller” jetliner. I could only imagine what the Air France A340, or better yet, the KLM 747 experience would be like. We leaned into the wind as the jet rolled down the runway. You don’t fully understand the amount of energy it takes for a plane to take-off until you stand close behind one that is.

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Damp from the jet blowing the water from the runway onto me, I headed back to the bar and ordered some beer. I opened my FlightRadar24 app to check for incoming planes. A Caribbean Airways 737 was inbound within a few minutes… Awesome! I could stand there as the plane came in low overhead! Sure enough, the app is reliable. I could make out the landing lights in the distance. Getting back up off my bar stool, I ran back over to the end of the runway to catch the 737 as it passed right overhead. It was just as you expect, LOUD, with a little bit of wind.

VIDEO – 737 so close I can almost touch it!

I headed back to the bar to continue with my beer. The plane that had just landed would turn-around within the hour. As I waited for it to do so, I sent some messages over Facebook and posted the flight schedule on the group page. There would be no 747 today as it flies in on Saturday. The big A340 would come though, but later in the afternoon. I was going to try and hold-out for it. More people were starting to arrive now and with there now being two ships in port, that meant the beach and bar would be a little more crowded. No biggie though, it was at least a smaller ship.

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While the 737 was turning around at the gate, some island-hopper planes came and went. Most early traffic tends to be inter-island travel with the larger U.S. and Europe based aircraft arriving around lunch, through the afternoon. Note to you all, the bigger planes usually start becoming more frequent around noon.

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After the 737 pushed back from the gate, it was time to run back to the end of the runway again! This time I was going to ride the fence! There were signs telling me not to do this. Painted all over the guard rail was wording that stated “WARNING, JET BLAST, DO NOT STAND.” Not to mention the road that passed behind the runway was fairly busy. As the plane approached the end of the runway to turn and take off, some more people and myself ran up the the fence to experience the jet blast a little closer. I put my wrist around the fence to help keep in place while I filmed with my camera. The 737 lined up and even at idle, the engines were producing a pretty decent amount of wind. 12 or so feet of distance closer than I stood previously made a real difference though shortly after. As before, you could not hear the sound of the engines powering-up, only the blast of hot-exhaust-filled air trying to push you back and away. This was still a smaller plane. It was an adrenaline rush.

VIDEO – Riding the fence behind a 737.

After that take off, I was content for a while. I walked back to the bar and found that some more people had arrived. Some of them friends from the ship. I sat there with Suzette, Keith, Adi, and Austin. Sitting at the tables were Franny, Paul, Johnnie, and all the New England people. Over the course of time, we’d drink and watch the planes, occasionally stepping out  to stand under a landing one or behind one taking off. One particular plane actually took off the opposite direction, over our heads. It was great hanging out there.

VIDEO – MD-80 passing overhead

After a while the sun started getting to me and I started to get hungry. I began to care less about waiting it out for the Air France plane. Some of the U.S. flights had started to arrive. It was also getting pretty packed. The police had come by and were now keeping people off the fence and off the road. A bit of a buzzkill, but considering that people now probably had more alcohol in them, someone might try to do something more risky. I guess I get it.

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I eventually gave up. Into the afternoon, I was beginning to feel spent. I had purchased some stuff from the store at the bar, I had my videos and photos, I was a satisfied guy. Wanting to head back as well were Suzette, Keith, and Mike. There were guys outside the bar that were holding signs for cabs to take passengers back to the ships. We followed one of them and sat exhausted inside for a longer than expected trip back to port, thanks to traffic from a festival.

Before we made it back to the port, we found ourselves in downtown Philipsburg. We were all kind of starving, but there was some pretty cool stuff to see downtown. We got out of our cab and walked around for a little while. I purchased a St. Maarten license plate to bring home. They looked around at other souvenirs. After buying a couple things and taking photos of signs, we decided to head back to the ship for either lunch or siesta. A water taxi was available for $5 that would take you back and forth to the ship with one stop in-between.

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After being dropped off in the port area (inside the secured area) we all headed back toward the ship. We noticed that Liberty was dropping anchor for some reason, but unsure why. The wind had picked up just a little and water was splashing against the ship’s bow.

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Right before boarding, I realized I had a brain-fart. My favorite local bartender was Dutch and I wanted to bring something back for her. I ran back to the port area and found a shark-shaped bottle opener with “St. Maarten, Dutch Caribbean” inscribed on it. Tacky, but she’s got a good sense of humor. Perfect. Her bottle-opener in hand, I headed back onto the boat for the last time.

As sail-away neared I called my mom to catch up a little bit. She was watching my ship on the port webcam. Before to long the Oceana Regatta pulled away, all but 5 or 6 bores sailing on that ship didn’t come out to wave or watch it sail out. When we started backing out, there was a hint of sadness. I was talking to Carol as we pulled out of port. I heard a noise and overhead flew the Air France A340 that I had missed earlier in the day. It was higher in the air, but it was sort of sentimental to see it depart with us. Along the horizon, St. Barths and Saba dimly lit by the setting sun.

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Inside the ship I made some rounds. Looking at photos I had taken, but didn’t want to buy. T-shirts I didn’t want. I was just making sure I had my bases covered in case there was something I wanted to bring back. Oh yea… A stuffed Fun-ship Freddy. Carnival had retired the poor red mascot once they added the Dr. Suess stuff across the fleet. There were only 3 left on Liberty when I purchased mine.

Dinner this evening would be in the dining room. I wanted to thank my excellent wait staff. Even though I had not been there every night, they really did a great job. Ivan was terrific and Kris was very helpful. Nothing on the menu looked particularly appetizing, but I enjoyed what I ordered anyways even if I couldn’t remember what it was.

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My “damn, its pretty much over” face.

After dinner was packing. I had A LOT of wine left over and I decided I may as well enjoy it while trying to jam all my crap back into my carry on and back-pack. Occasionally friends would visit in the hall, and I with them. We were all a little sad to be debarking the following morning. Many of us wishing for at least another sea day beforehand. We exchanged some information. My roommates stayed out a little later than I, but eventually they too came in to pack. After some wine and filling out my customs slip, I climbed into my upper bunk for the last time and passed-out.

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