Schizophrenic St. Maarten

Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Philipsburg, Saint Martin
Made the effort to rise early again to witness the ship enter another harbour. The only people up at this time are those like me wanting to photograph at this time and location, and those doing their morning exercise. I cannot understand how some people choose to wake at 7 am to walk 100 rounds the jogging track and then choose to sit in a tour bus or on the beach when ashore. 

The port is Philipsburg, on the Dutch Antilles side of St . Maarten island. People were talking about which beach they wanted to spend the day at. There were like 37 beaches to choose from, including clothing-optional ones for those who forget to bring their swim suits or are too cheap to buy one. Me? I have been to plenty of nice beaches and chose to experience some culture, particularly the schizophrenic character of the island.

Not too long ago, cruise ships anchored in the bay and passengers (and crew on leave) were tendered ashore. A cruise ship pier has since been built along with the strategically placed duty free shops at the end. But it was still far from town and still necessitate a ferry ride of 10 mins. The people of St. Maarten wisely decided that instead of paying to make the waters near town deep enough for cruise ships, to charge $6 to ferry passengers from ships berthed further away. There were 3 ships today - including the Carnival Valor and Ruby Princess - so passenger numbers must be like 8000 or 9000, plus about half that number of crew granted shore leave . So you do the math for each day.

Naturally there was a queue to get on the ferry, but it was orderly and moved briskly as the town deployed its entire flotilla of ferries each of which can take like 60 passengers or more. I was queuing next to a crew member from Nicaragua. The ferry crew recognized her from previous trips and there was friendly banter in Spanish. The residents here are a mighty friendly lot with a sense of humour. On the ferry they announced that if you had a complaint, or compliment, to write it on a dollar note and put it in the box, and they promise they would look into it. Cruise ship crew are usually given at least a couple of hours, and up to an hour less than passenger (for they disembark and embark and hour later and earlier than passengers). Those crew who have been to the port before would usually just head for a familiar place to buy necessities like phone cards or food items.

I was determined to see the French side of the island rather than just go to a beach which can be anywhere in the world . And I planned to take the local bus there. In places like these where the locals are friendly and English widely spoken, this was easy. Philipsburg had 2 main streets named Front Street and, you guessed it, Back Street. Local buses ply along the narrow Back Street. These are small passenger vans, some air conditioned some not, with the destination displayed on the windshield. My destination was Marigot, the capital of the French, St. Martin. A short wait and 25-min ride later, I was there. 

Marigot was immediately quieter than Philipsburg. Most of the tourists who make it here arrive by sightseeing boats and buses, and hang around at the tourist shops by the waterfront. Marigot has a busy marina and boat charter operations. The marina area has characterful restaurants and watering holes. I stopped at one for a drink. The menu was in French and the staff only spoke French. But that is what I came for, not somewhere catering to thousands of North American cruise passengers. The fit and game can choose to ascend Fort Louis, perched on a small hill at the edge of town . The route there takes one past a Catholic Church, then some interesting vegetation, as the views begin to reveal themselves.

A French flag is patriotically planted at the top of the hill and fort. Was the hike worth it? You bet. Just a few walls and cannons remained, pointing in various directions. The return bus journey was in a full bus (unlike the empty one taken there), among its passengers probably a couple of yachters from the marina going to buy supplies. There were not other tourists and I suspect I was the only one from the ship to take a local bus. It cost me all of $2 in each direction. Did the obligatory souvenir shopping in Philipsburg market where I dropped off. Walking to the sea front, I appreciated Marigot even more, as the whole promenade exists solely for cruise passengers, whether for shopping - you are talking diamonds and jewelry - eating and drinking, or just lying on the long stretch of beach. Rental deck chairs covered the entire length of the beach that there was hardly a gap to lie on . Segways plied the promenade and beach. 

Someone asked me to take a photo of him. Why do people assume that someone carrying an SLR is a good photographer? He was a crew from the Eclipse, from Bali. It was hot and the water inviting, so I jumped into the water. Refreshing. And I wonder how much more different the water would feel if I had spent $40 going to another beach on the island? This was just next to the jetty from which I took the ferry back to the pier. The Eclipse was scheduled to sail at 5 pm, so I returned in time for a late lunch of burger at the outdoor grill. 

Foodwise, I made the precious discovery that the main eatery of the ship, Ocean View Cafe, had a section offering Indian curries, which I ate as often as I could. Good curries they were, and they were probably offered because a large proportion of the crew were from India, many from Goa. The cafe was open at 6.30 am and only shut at 9.30 pm, so it was handy for late meals after the show - I must announce that it was a treat to watch West End singer, Lindsay Hamilton of Evita and Cosette fame perform - or when one's meal times were messed up by overeating earlier.