Our original itinerary on Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas had a port stop scheduled in Antigua instead of St Martin, but these days cruises that don’t get cancelled often have itinerary changes long before they actually set sail. Cancelled or not, we haven’t had a cruise booked that we didn’t get itinerary change notices for since Covid started.
The island of Saint Martin belongs to two different countries. The Dutch side where the cruise ships dock is Sint Maarten, and the French side Saint Martin, which is also how Americans generally spell it regardless of which part they are actually visiting. The story goes that a Dutchman and a Frenchman set out from the same point walking in opposite directions with the boundry line drawn across the island from the point they started to the place they met. Which would mean the Frenchman either moved faster or had easier terrain to cross because the French got a larger piece of the island.
The Dutch got the side that eventually ended up with a cruise dock and airport though. Maho Beach next to Princess Juliana Airport is a popular spot for tourists to get up-close photos of the underside of airplanes. Cruise ships dock in the Dutch capital Philipsburg. There’s lots of shops right at the port. A water taxi takes people from the port to town, where there are more shops and restaurants and quite a nice beach. Bars too, and a casino. There’s also a taxi stand at the port for people who want to go elsewhere on the island.
On our last visit to Saint Martin we were the 4th of 4 ships at the dock. This time we were the third of 3. Docked alongside Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas and across from Carnival Magic. We’d been traveling along near the Magic for quite some time, probably since leaving Miami as there were two Carnival ships in port that day. I’ve been on the Magic before out of Port Canaveral, but not on Rhapsody.
Rhapsody looked large at the dock until the Magic pulled in, but once Symphony got there it towered over the Magic as well. Rhapsody had gotten there long before the other two. It was not yet in use and had docked there when all the ships stopped sailing due to Covid and had to find somewhere to go. Which explained its derelict appearance and desperate need of a paint job where the ship’s name was slowly vanishing off the stern. When in use any little scratch gets painted over at the very next port stop and they’d never let part of the name peel away.
Saint Martin has changed since we were last there, which was not only pre-Covid, but also some years before that. Although the buildings at the port seemed to be in decent condition, it kind of had the air of a place that hadn’t been used much recently, and some places were not yet open.
In town parts of Phillipsburg looked a bit run down during our visit. It had some severe damage in 2017’s hurricane Irma and not everything had been repaired yet. Not to mention the loss in tourist dollars due to Covid. With ships not sailing for so long a lot of places went out of business. They do depend on tourism as a main source of income for the island. Parts of the town looked rather sad and neglected, but with ships sailing again now perhaps they will be able to get things fixed up and new tenants for the empty stores.
Not all the shops are in buildings. Some are outdoor booths. With all the vacancies, it’s not for lack of building space, so maybe they just can’t afford the rent.
We came to town on a sunny day, which is normally a nice thing on a Caribbean cruise, but for me on this particular trip not so much. I took a trip to Vermont a couple weeks prior to the cruise, went hiking up a mountain, and came back with a tick of the black-legged sort (deer tick) that can carry Lyme’s Disease. Taking doxycycline for about 3 weeks to prevent that is pretty standard treatment (so we were told), but doxycycline makes people extremely sensitive to the sun, so not the best thing for a Caribbean cruise. I got a full-body UV swimming suit so I could still go snorkeling this trip, but that was the plan for other ports rather than this one.
Besides a good slathering of sunscreen (of the mineral type which besides being more effective is also reef safe), I wore a long skirt and the sort of sweater with a loose weave so it’s not too hot for a lot more skin coverage than the weather would have called for. I thought the skirt would shade my feet so I wore sandles, but even though I stayed in the shade whenever there was any available and didn’t stay out very long my feet did get a touch of sunburn.
We had no plans for this port so after wandering the port area for a bit we took the water taxi to town. The fleet of yellow boats I remember from the past no longer existed. There was a large catamaran that looked to be sponsored by Diamonds International, and a smaller black boat that far more closely resembled the old yellow fleet. That was all for that day at least.
We wandered about town for awhile and the sisters did some shopping. A lot of the places that didn’t survive the shutdown while cruise ships were absent had for rent signs in their windows. Most buildings seemed intact, but some definitely appeared worse for the wear. A sign at the water taxi dock said build back better so apparently there are plans in the works to spruce up the town now that the tourists are back.
Here and there people who looked like they might be police or some sort of security had working dogs out in the sun. Then we saw one with several dogs taking a break in the shade.
A little tourist train slunk by on the cobblestone road – only for passengers who had booked the ride onboard. Other excursions the ship offered included snorkeling and airplane spotting at Maho Beach. We didn’t go to the taxi stand to see what sort of places they take people to now and if it is anywhere besides Maho Beach. On a previous visit we’d tried unsuccessfully to take a taxi out to a zipline course in the French area, but none of the drivers wanted to go there that time. In town we had a couple offers for island tours from locals, but my sisters weren’t interested so we didn’t take them up on it.
After leaving St Maarten the Magic once again sailed nearby as our ship moved along toward the next port. We saw them there, but not at the same dock. We did not expect to see them at the last port since our last scheduled stop was Royal Caribbean’s private island in the Bahamas. Carnival has their own island there.