St. Maarten

Trip Start Nov 28, 2011
Trip End Mar 11, 2013

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Where I stayed
Sea View Beach Hotel Philipsburg
Read my review - 4/5 stars
What I did
12 Metre Challenge Philipsburg
Read my review - 4/5 stars

Flag of Saint Martin  ,
Saturday, December 15, 2012

A few times each year (usually pre-Christmas, pre-Easter, and around the time of the new school year), the ferry company that usually runs one of the ferries between St. Kitts and Nevis runs a “shopping ferry” to St. Maarten.  I don't really need to shop, but I had never been to St. Maarten, so I got a ticket.The tickets aren't available more than a week in advance, you have to buy them in-person at the ferry dock, and they sell out quickly.  I had to give my passport to the ferry company when I bought the ticket, and they held on to it to pre-clear us through St. Maarten immigration.  I felt a bit naked without my passport for the week, but didn't have a choice.  I'm also not sure if you can get the tickets without St. Kitts residency.  When I put my US address as my “permanent address” on the St. maarten form, she asked my to change it to my St. Kitts address, but that could just be because it's easier that way, not that it's impossible to go without a St. Kitts address.
The ferry was supposed to leave at something like 5am on Saturday morning, and they told us to be there to load at 4.  I had heard that it was a bad idea to park my car at the ferry terminal, so I left it at the apartment and walked to the terminal.  I was on a main road the whole time and didn't feel unsafe at all.  Besides, there were still plenty of people still out partying from Friday night.  I was amazed at how many people were still at Party Central that time of morning.The process of loading began.  Even though we were only in St. Maarten for a night, most people had huge suitcases (although they frequently appeared to be almost empty), huge coolers, and huge empty barrels. I had been told of this ahead of time and knew it was a shopping trip, but I still wasn't quite prepared for the colossal amount of empty barrels that were going over.  Later, I found that some people even pre-shipped their empty barrels and had them waiting in St. Maarten already.The boat was loaded and left within a half hour of the scheduled time, which I was impressed with.  The first part of the journey was dark and most people were sleeping on the boat.  Towards the end though, we got some great views of the other islands we passed and the approach to St. Maarten.We were landing in Phillipsburg, on the Dutch half of the island.  The ship didn't land at the cruise ship dock, but instead, at the cargo port.  That meant that 1) we were farther from town, and 2) we had a very different disembarkation procedure.  Instead of getting off the boat one-by-one whenever we were ready and getting individually processed through immigration, we all got off the boat at once and stood in lines.  Our passports had just been handed back ot us on the boat on the way over, and now they took them back from us again to keep for the night to process us back into St. Kitts.  We all had to wait while they checked whatever we were bringing in, and then we could go  The whole process took about an hour.
From there, many people got taxis, but the walk wasn't bad and I didn't have barrels, so I just walked up the pier and into town.  Fortunately, on the way was the sailing outfit I had read about and wanted to join.  12 meter challenge had a spot for me in a short while, so I signed up and went to get some breakfast until sailing time.  I got pancakes at a little restaurant overlooking the beach called Bottums Up.  They were good, but nothing special.  When I asked if they had any local juices or sodas, the waitress said, “well, there's Fanta.”  That's not a particularly local drink in my ind, but I got it anyway.
After breakfast, I joined the sailing group.  I think everybody else in the excursion was from one of the cruise ships.  The staff split us into 2 teams, 1 to sail the Stars and Stripes that won the America's Cup back in the 80s, and 1 to sail some Canadian boat that also raced in the America's Cup.  I ended up on Stars and Stripes.  The staff explained to us that each of us would have a job.  Some people were assigned less-active jobs, like bartender.  Others, like myself, were assigned more active jobs like “grinding.”  Basically, that means that whenever they needed to move the sails, we had to turn some cranks to move them.  We practiced our jobs a little and then got prepped to race.  We were off!  The course was around some buoys and back a few times.  First, they were in the lead, then we caught up and were way ahead of them.  Going into the final leg, we got a good head start, but they picked the other direction to turn around the buoy and ended up beating us by just a bit.  Regardless, we all had a great time sailing the ship, shouting taunts at the other team, and just chilling in the sun when it was the “backup grinders'” turn to grind.  For those who are really into sailing, I bet this is an exciting excursion because you get to race boats that were in the America's Cup race.  For those of us who had never been sailing before, it was a neat little introduction to sailing, without getting too deep.  For those who have sailed before but aren't enough into sailing to appreciate the history behind the boats, it might not be the best excursion as you really don't get to do that much.  We each only had one small job, and we even had to share that with another person so we were only doing it half of the time.  The boat was a bit crowded, but I enjoyed it.
After sailing, I grabbed lunch at a little Italian Gelato place, Gelateria Milano, that also had homemade pasta that was good.  After that, I walked around town a little, trying to find the museum I had heard about before it closed.  It wasn't even open on Saturdays, despite what the guidebook said, so I didn't get to go in at all.  However, there is a “Yoda Guy” store/museum I saw instead, that isn't in the book.Basically, some Hollywood costumer left the limelight to retire to St. Maarten.  He was one of the original designers of Yoda, other Star Wars costumes, and costuemes for many other movies.  He has a museum and shop where he displays all sorts of movie artifacts and sells autographed framed original documents related to Star Wars.  For a Star Wars fan, this is worth a look and it's neat to see the stuff.  For a Star Wars geek, this is a suburb of heaven.  The “Yoda Guy” himself was manning the shop on the day I went, and was taking questions from people who were interested in what it was like to work in Hollywood, to work on Star Wars, and to be an artist.  I wandered downtown some more, aiming in the general direction of the hotel, and found it at the far end of town, right by the McDonalds and casinos.  I was staying at the Seaview hotel because it was inexpensive and available, but it turns out to also be in a good location and I got a nice view.  The hotel was very clean and the rooms were a good size.  It was a good place to change and get cleaned after the sailing and before I went exploring some more.
I checked out the various SCUBA shops and none I went to in the morning had afternoon dives.  The ones I checked out in the afternoon (too late to make it on the afternoon dives) didn't have night dives that night for just one person, but they had them other nights and available for groups.  Oh well.  I walked the town and the beach a little before decided that I also wanted to see the French side of the island.  Also, there wasn't too much to do in town other than shop, which was not really what I was there for.  If I was there for shopping though, I'd be set.  There were more than just the souvenir and duty-free shops that Port Zante has.  There was real clothing shopping, shoe shopping, and even a department store.
The busses in St. Maarten are similar to those in St. Kitts.  They're vans driven by independent drivers with various routes around the island.  You just kind of hail one like you'd hail a taxi, make sure it's going where you want, and hop on.  The one I hopped onto by coincidence already had a Kittitian lady on it who was telling the bus driver about some Carnival things in St. Kitts.  They weren't slowing down their speech for me to understand, but I understood every word.  I have to admit that when I realized I was able to follow the conversation, I got pretty excited and proud of myself.  I can guarantee that I would not have understood before I moved to St. Kitts or even during the early part of my time here.  Eventually, the lady and I got talking and she was telling me all sorts of stories about how St. Kitts was 20 years ago before she moved to St. Maarten.  She was extremely friendly and also gave me a few tips on what to see and do in Marigot.I got off the bus at Marigot, and following her advice, went down to the pier area.  Marigot was dead.  There were a few shops on the way that were open, but most were closed.  There were a few restaurants that were open, but most seemed closed.  There was almost nobody down at the docks.  There were very few people out in the streets.  I guess that when there are not cruise ships in port, there aren't as many tourist maybe.  I walked around for a while, just taking in the town.  Eventually, I wandered into an art gallery that had some nice art.  After that though, it seemed time to head back to Phillipsburg, so I grabbed another bus.The views (both ways) from the mountains and of the windy mountain roads were nice.  They weren't as nice as St. Kitts though, because St. Maarten/Sint Martin is pretty built up.  There are developments and big box stores dotting the mountain side, which detracts quite a bit from the beauty.  I can imagine that there may be parts of St. Kitts that look this way in 20 years or so if the government doesn't limit construction, and I have to admit that thought makes me sad.  One of the things that I find so fabulous about St. Kitts is that it's so green and the mountains are so undeveloped.  However, most of the expats I know on the island who aren't associated with Ross are developers.  Even in my short year there, I've seen one area go from majestic greenery to bulldozed for a new development.In any case, I got back to town and had dinner at this beach bar, then headed to the hotel to chill for a while.  I hadn't gotten so much sleep the night before and we were supposed to be back at the dock at 6am, so I turned in early.
When I got back to dock in the morning, I saw so many people I knew.  It was fabulous and really made me feel like a part of the St. Kitts community.  I chatted with some ladies from work who had been on the other boat that went over for the weekend, and then with some from my boat.  The other boat had been in St. Maarten since Thursday or Friday, and there were even more barrels of stuff on it than on ours.  However, I now understand why.  One lady was telling me that the perfume she buys for $90 US in St. Kitts is available in St. Maarten for $25.  The deodorant you can get in St. Kitts $10 US for 3 sticks is $5 US for 6 sticks in St. Maarten.  Everything is so much cheaper here, that you can easily pay for the ferry fare and night at a hotel by filling a barrel.  Instead of buying shampoo whenever they get close to the end of the bottle like we'd do in the states, they figure out how much shampoo they need for the year, save up for it, and then buy it all in St. Maarten once and hope it lasts the whole year.  In addition to filling the barrels with non perishables (diapers, laundry detergent, cake mix), people had coolers and cooler bags of frozen meat, carry-on bags of who-knows-what, and all sorts of Christmas presents.  This also explains the street vendors of St. Kitts who sell deodorant and other personal items.  I always thought that was odd, but now I understand that they go to St. Maarten, but the stuff, bring it back, and sell it for cheaper than the grocery store can and make money.
We loaded the boat and headed back to St. Kitts.  Along the way, I noticed that there were some really cool birds that were following the boat.  I assumed that they were just catching the wind from the boat, but then I noticed all the flying fish the boat was kicking up.  As we cut the water, we could see hundreds of flying fish swim and then fly in the direction away from us.  The birds obviously saw them too.  They would periodically skim close to the water and just plop right into a mini-wave, then come out with food in their mouths.  I felt like I was in the middle of a Discovery Channel special, watching the birds hunt.
When the boat got back to St. Kitts, they unloaded us and then everybody waited.  I asked what we were waiting for and found out that it was all of the “checked” luggage.  Since I had nothing other than the backpack I went over with, I didn't have to wait and was able to go straight to the makeshift customs center they had set up at the port.  My duty charge was 0, and I was on my way.  I don't know what the duty rate everybody else had to pay was, but even if it is close to 100%, they're still making out ok.
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