St. Maarten - August 2017
The crew just returned from a trip to St. Maarten/St. Martin/Sint Maarten depending on how you want to say it. This was our first trip to the island and one of those trips that just happened because the Diva Divers found a great deal through our time share. Yes, we had a great time…..we were on an island surrounded by blue water.
A little about the island. St. Maarten is divided between the Dutch Side and the French Side. We stayed on the Dutch Side, but did take a trip over to the French side to visit the market (although the market was closing down by the time we got there – tip Go Early). The island is smaller than Bonaire if you can believe that, but way more urban with much more people. They claim to be the “Friendly Island” and I must say everybody was very friendly to us. We stayed at the Belair Resort at Little Bay and traveled between Phillipsburg and Simpson Bay frequently. Simpson Bay is filled with restaurants, bars, and resorts on the main strip. Basically, the hub of the island. Phillipsburg is the capital, but a little more “traditional” than Simpson Bay. Phillipsburg is where the cruise ships come in and this is where the boardwalk along the beach is located along with the many shops and seaside restauraunts. We stayed in the touristy areas because getting to far away felt a little uneasy to us. One thing we did notice everywhere is the abundance of security personnel. They are everywhere standing around watching and every resort parking lot has a maned security gate to access. We never felt in danger unless we got too far away from the touristy areas, but with all the security we had to ask why. Is this because they have a bad issue or they want to make sure they don’t have any issues or they want everybody to feel safe? Honestly, we don’t know the answer. We felt safe everywhere we went with an exception of walking through some of the areas in Phillipsburg late one day trying to explore the area. This may have been just us, but we noticed we were the only tourist in the area and everybody seemed to be looking at us.
One thing that drew us to the island is they claim to have the best food of all the islands. This seems reasonable since there is a French Side. However, we only took one trip to the French side and did not eat. On the Dutch Side we found the food “good” nothing great about it, but nothing bad either – typical island food. What we all agree on is it was a little on the expensive side. A typical hamburger or chicken sandwich is $12-$15 plus soda or tea at $2.50-$3. A dinner meal costs between $25-$30 for fish or a steak. We ate a Jimbo’s one night which is a Mexican Restaurant in Simpson Bay. Good food, but very expensive for Mexican food – $75 for two with no alcohol drinks, but a very nice atmosphere. They do at a “15% Service Charge” on all meals. We asked a waiter if this was a tip or exactly what. He said part if for Tip and part for taxes. In the end, really not sure if we were “supposed” to tip or not.
The Belair Resort. As I stated earlier we booked this resort through our timeshare so it was inexpensive to us…not sure how much is costs for those outside of the timeshare. Belair is one of the oldest resorts located between Simpson Bay and Phillipsburg – not really walking distance to anywhere. It’s older and does not have the modern feel about it like some of the new luxury resorts, but it is clean and well taken care of. The resort sits right on the ocean with a very nice beach. All rooms overlook the beach and the ocean. The rooms are basic with a small kitchen and balcony. The beds were comfortable and the water was hot. The beach was not crowded and did connect with a neighboring resort. One nice thing is that there is a beach attendant that maintains cleanliness on the beach and will provide you with beach chairs where you want them. This is your spot during your stay and the chairs and umbrellas are tagged as yours so there is no “fighting” over beach chairs daily. Each day you simply go down and get in your chairs and enjoy the beach. There is also a nice pool provided on the beach with a small restaurant that provides breakfast, lunch and dinner along with a fully stocked bar. The resort has a small shop to buy food or souvenirs or really anything you may have forgot. There is also a tour guide to book trips and car rental office. In general, a nice clean resort with very friendly people.
The Scuba Diving. We booked our diving through Aqua Mania because they had a shop right down the beach from the Belair. We could walk to the shop from our beach, but we drove daily not wanting to carry our dive gear down the beach each day of diving. Aqua Mania also had a shop in Simpson Bay at the Simpson Bay Resort. We found the Aqua Mania Crew to be a great bunch of people who were very friendly and provided whatever help we needed. We purchased the 10 dive package that basically cost around $40 per dive (using our equipment – a little more if you used their equipment). Each day we met at the dive shop at 9am and they took us out for 2 boat dives. We were back typically around noon each day to spend the rest of the day doing whatever. The dives were good. Typically a wreck dive and a reef dive. What can we say they were blue water dives and not mucky lake dives so they were good. The current was strong in a lot of areas. I’m not going to say these were the best ocean dives we have ever taken. The reef is sparse with good fish life, not a lot. What we did see was awesome. We did encounter reef sharks on most dives which was something new for us and the rays in the sand seemed to be everywhere. We saw a few eels, a few turtles, a few barracudas, and the general reef fish. Some of the wrecks were home to some of the largest lobsters we have ever seen. In general, good diving, but not the reefs you see in Bonaire and Roatan. We did a shore dive from the resort which was good. Again, not a lot of reef, but they do have sunken treasures to see. We also did a night dive with Aqua Mania. As with most night dives it was good, but we did encounter very strong currents. We did see a lot of turtles, lobsters, and crabs. The cost was a little more expensive $80, and they did provide the lights and tank markers.
Aqua Mania. I do want to say they did a very good job with us. The boat was big enough for our groups of 4-10 divers. The basic drill was they set up your gear and kept it in the back of the boat. Each diver goes to the back of the boat and stands on the stern platform to put their fins and mask on. The crew lifts your bcd/tank up to you. Once everything is in place a large stride off the back into the water. Each trip provided 1-2 dive masters to lead the group depending on how large the group was. We also had a Dive Master Candidate trailing the group and helping out. The boat captain, Swanny, was awesome and helped every way he could to include pouring water over those that were a little sea sick. The Dive Masters did a great job finding things and pointing them out to us. They were very friendly and respectful. My only issues with the whole process was the structure of the dives. We would jump in and go down as a group and then follow the dive master around on the reef or wreck. The dive seemed to be a sprint to keep up with the Dive Master, but each dive was about 45 minutes long so it wasn’t get in swim around and get out. For me I wanted to spend a little more time exploring on my own instead of feeling the need to constantly be going. It’s just me and I’m not sure how you would lead dives without doing what they are doing. They want to show you things and keep track of everybody. I would recommend Aqua Mania and I would not hesitate in booking additional diving with them.
Overall we had a great time and as usual the week went by so fast. St. Maarten is a nice island and easy to get around. I recommend renting a car and go with the flow of driving. One thing that will draw your attention are the scooters and motorcycles. They drive down the center of the street so it’s not uncommon for one to fly by as you are driving or stuck in traffic. How they avoid accidents is beyond me.
As we left for our trip Hurricane Harvey was making its way toward the Texas Coast. Our hearts go out to all those affected by the devastation left behind. As we were on St. Maarten these thoughts came back as they were preparing for another hurricane to hit them – Hurricane Irma. The tourism continued, but many of the shops were starting to board up windows just in case. The marinas were busy storing boats. We talked to some of the locals and they said about 3 years prior the island had been hit directly by a hurricane and they lost power for 3 days. Unfortunately, the bad came out and many shops were looted. Hopefully it will not get that bad again.