Monday, May 11, 2015

St Martin: Naked Beach or Airplane Beach

Our fourth stop, St. Martin, presented a question that I can only assume most people are not faced with on a regular basis.  Did we want to go to the naked beach or to the airplane beach? 

Undoubtedly, there are other things to do on this half French, half Dutch island but with no tour guide, very little research and a rental car, those were the only real options available to us.

We had maps, brochures, phone apps all within our disposal but try as we might, there were no museums, forts, historical sights or even largest balls of twine-type exhibits for us to visit.  Not even trying to crib from the ship's own excursions booklet was of any help.

In hopes of stumbling onto something, we played around with the car's pre-programmed GPS with its long list of other beaches we could choose from.  We picked one at random, pulled in and saw that it was indeed a beach. Sand, water: check.  One empty restaurant with a bored looking waitress: check.
I had hoped to be at Maho Beach (aka the airplane beach) in the late afternoon to watch the Air France A340 landing but our random wandering had put us on that side of the island much earlier in the day.  Also, this was the only time on our cruise when we had to share the island with another ship. Double the tourists means double the traffic, which is already notoriously difficult going towards the port later in the day.

So, it was decided that we'd drop into the Sunset Bar  early for a beer and to watch airplanes coming in over the beach.  I'd been to this bar before, when I was visiting for a couple of days, maybe ten years ago and remember it fondly.  It was a small tiki-hut right on the beach providing a locals hangout with cold beer and free entertainment. The latter came from its location, just to the right of SXM airport.

Princess Juliana International airport is precariously located between the ocean and a smallish mountain (more of a hill, really).  Coming in, you fly directly over the beach, nearly grazing the sunbathers below.  To take off, you are lined up against a fence, which is only separated from the beach by a two lane road and have to rev up the engines, in order to quickly bank upwards over the mountain.  Thrill seekers would hang on to this fence and allow the jet blast to send them into a horizontal Superman pose.  Even more entertaining, and I actually got to see this happening to one of my coworkers, was when an unsuspecting idiot would stand on the curb, on the beachside of the road to watch the plane take off.  That same jet blast that made the fence hangers-on look like superheroes, made the curb people look like drunk pre-schoolers as they tumbled and rolled halfway back to the ocean, all the while being vigorously loofah'ed by flying sand.

I was expecting more of the same, even though the popularity of the YouTube videos of this beach should have put more people on notice.  What I was not expecting was that the Sunset Beach bar, that little bar where you could exchange a bra for a free drink (note: I never did this, bras ain't cheap, but I do remember seeing many of them dangling from the bar), had now gone full Margaritaville.  It still had the same name and even the same hut, but all of it had been engulfed by a giant deck, multiple levels of seating, a stage and of course, a gift shop.  I don't recall them even having a working toilet before!!

It was mind-blowing to see the transformation our little hangout had undergone.  I blamed technology and those damned YouTube videos, but my new ship's Officer buddy had a more likely explanation. It was us.  We were the problem.  In 2005, St. Martin constructed a new pier that could hold up to 4 cruise ships.  In 2010, they completed another one that could hold the newer megaships.  During the high season, they can have up to 6 ships in port (with the option of more mooring off shore), with an average of 3000 guests and employees per ship, that's 18,000 guests dropping in for the afternoon on an island with a population of 75,000.  It's a wonder they haven't just paved over the entire thing and renamed it Sunset Bar (used to be) Beach.

There was now an additional level of fencing separating people from the direct jet blast, not that it prevented people from trying.  When this 737 took off, there was not enough force to lift up the fence people, just blow them around a little bit but the dude across the street in neon yellow...he rolled.

We were fearful of the traffic that begins later in the day so we opted to circumnavigate the island clockwise, heading back up to Orient Beach (aka the naked beach).  Not the entire beach is clothing optional, just the part beyond Pedro's Beach Bar, but that is the area that attracts the most curiosity.

We did a quick stroll through the naked zone.  I alternated between admiration at the quality of the all over tans and deep concerns about the effects of aging on the human body. Are balls really supposed to hang that low?

Understandably, photography is not permitted in that part of the beach- and no one really wants the spectacle of being chased by a naked security guard- so all my photos are from the 'other' part of the beach, where we eventually settled down to enjoy our remaining time in St. Martin.

Nothing says true love like a couple wearing matching thongs

Normally, whenever we got back to the ship, we would hang out on the back deck, listening to an Argentinian guitar player and watching the sunset, but on this, our second to last night, time was of the essence.  Not only was it a formal night (the 2nd of the week) but we also had the burlesque theme party that I had won passes to the prior evening.

While I was in the shower, I heard my poor beleaguered cabin attendant enter and yell something about leaving a flier.  The fliers, or newsletters, detailed all the next day's activities and FOMO-sufferer that I am, I would go through them with pen and highlighter in hand.  I came out of the shower and looked high and low for that thing.  It was normally on the bed, but even after pulling all the sheets off I found nothing.  It was a good five minutes until I realized he had said he was dropping off flowers.

All week long, we had shared our table with a retired couple from Texas.  Their energy and spirit of adventure were inspiring and I always looked forward to hearing about their day.  We had discussed going to one of the other restaurants but always felt bad leaving our new friends alone.  On this evening, they announced that they would be packing the last day so this was our last dinner together.  

It's crazy, the night before we boarded the ship, I was online trying to book a flight home because I couldn't stand the thought of going on this cruise alone and now that it was coming to an end, I was surprised to see how quickly the time had gone by.

The "burlesque" show, named "Temptation" was less burlesque and more excuse to pass around trays of extravagant drinks and serve creatively decadent deserts. Between courses, there were singers, dancers and acrobats galore.  It was actually ideal, just hanging with friends, old and new.  After all, who needs burlesque when you've already spent the day strolling along Naked Beach.

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