St. Maarten Cruise Port Is Simply a Blast
The St. Maarten cruise port of Philipsburg is one of the best places to visit for any southern or eastern Caribbean cruise.
This small island in the Netherland Antilles consists of two halves—one half is an overseas territory of the Netherlands and the other is a territory of France. The Dutch half is Saint Maarten (otherwise known as St. Maarten) and the French half is Saint Martin.
Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch side, while the quaint town of Marigot is capital of the French side. Most cruises to the island dock at Philipsburg.
The island has 2 million cruise visitors and 500,000 overnight vacationers each year, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. It is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the Caribbean because of its attractive port and many things to do.
What to Expect in Philipsburg
Visitors who disembark from the cruise ship will walk off the dock and either walk or drive about a mile to the tourism district in Philipsburg.
They also will find a nice beach with plenty of space for sunning and swimming, along with beach chairs and umbrellas for rent.
The beach is part of the Great Bay waterfront and runs parallel with the Philipsburg Boardwalk. The Boardwalk has many restaurants and shops for anyone who wants to spend time on the beach and wants a break now and then.
For shoppers, it gets even better walking one block into town. The main attraction within Philipsburg itself is Front Street, which is one of the nicest shopping districts among the major Caribbean destinations. Front Street is long, clean, attractive and filled with many shops and restaurants.
Shops and restaurant quality ranges from low-end to the usual mid-range found in most Caribbean tourism areas. Most of the restaurants have outdoor seating, and prices are reasonable.
Tourist Attractions and Shore Excursions
Cruise visitors who want to see more of St. Maarten than just Philipsburg usually have three main choices:
Orient Beach is the largest and most famous beach on the island. It is on the French side, so clothing is optional. Anyone with concerns about nudity should consider staying on Great Bay Beach. Budget-conscious visitors should eat before going there or take food with them because buying it there is expensive.
Marigot is a pretty village and capital of the French side. It is smaller than Philipsburg and appealing for its French cafes and marketplace. Energetic visitors should consider climbing to the remains of Fort Louis, which has excellent photo opportunities for the expansive views of the surrounding area.
The resort area at Simpson Bay is the place to go for the higher quality restaurants.
Other attractions include the village of Grand Case, Lottery Farm, Mont Vernon Plantation, Butterfly Farm and St. Maarten Park, an animal reserve.
Anyone with an interest in history might want to visit Fort Amsterdam at the mouth of Great Bay. The Dutch built the fort in 1631.
For those with a longer stay, we had a great time taking a half-hour boat ride over to the nearby island of Anguilla for snorkeling around the island's stunning beaches.
Getting from the St. Maarten cruise port at Philipsburg to the rest of the island is worth the effort if traffic is good and visitors can get back to the ship in time.
Marigot is a pretty village and capital of the French side. It is smaller than Philipsburg and appealing for its French cafes and marketplace.
Transportation and Getting Around
Philipsburg is big enough to fill an afternoon or maybe even an entire day. It's also small enough for someone to tour it on foot.
One of the biggest negatives of the island—and there are few of them—is the traffic.
The entire island has a limited number of narrow roads, few road signs and a great many cars, buses and taxis. The buses are mainly used by locals getting to and from work.
The government regulates taxis and make them use a zone system for setting rates. Search online for the St. Maarten Taxi Association to find the rate schedule.
Anyone who thinks of renting a bicycle or scooter should think twice. St. Maarten roads are often quite dangerous for anyone who isn't driving a car.
Bicycle rentals do make sense for cruise visitors disembarking in Philipsburg if they cycle within the city.
A rental car trip from between Philipsburg and Simpson Bay took painfully long because of the lack of roads and, in one case, a traffic accident that shut down the main road. Drivers were backed up for miles.
Other than excursion buses, a St. Maarten car rental is a great idea for anyone wanting to see the best attractions and things to do on this popular Caribbean island. It makes sense for both cruise visitors and people staying for a week or more.
Many car rental agencies exist at Philipsburg and Princess Juliana International Airport. The airport sits at the southwest corner of the island.
The island is small, and the distances from Philipsburg to Marigot and other areas look short. But the roads are few, hilly and often filled with cars. Simpson Bay, close to the airport, has many resorts, restaurants and shopping. It is one reason why cars jam the roads so often.
Cruise visitors, who mostly disembark in Philipsburg, will have an easier time of it because the roads aren't so busy. They may want to rent a car to see Marigot, capital of the French side and a popular excursion destination. The trip is worth it for the beautiful harbor alone.
Another reason to rent a car is for the beaches, which are relatively few for this Caribbean paradise but scattered all over like the resorts and villas. The most famous and popular is the clothing-optional Orient Bay, which lies to the north of Philipsburg.
For visitors who plan to see multiple places on the island, a car rental will probably be less expensive and more convenient than taking a taxi or excursion bus.
St. Maarten's weather draws vacationers to this southern Caribbean island because of its year-round warmth. But rain is a higher risk later in the year.
Rainfall in St. Maarten averages two to three inches from January through July except for a slight increase in May.
It starts to climb in August as a result of the annual Caribbean hurricane season. The season officially begins on June 1 and ends on November 30.
The worst months for storms and potential hurricanes are September and October.
Few islands are directly hit by a hurricane or major tropical storm. But they do receive higher than normal rain when those hurricanes or storms pass nearby.
The weather is slightly different from most Caribbean destinations because it has the highest rainfall in November—an average of six inches during the month.
The average high temperatures in St. Maarten range from the low 80s Fahrenheit during the winter to the high 80s during the summer, according to the World Weather Organization.
The warmest months of the year are July through September when temperatures reach 89 degrees, although the actually daily temperature will vary.
The average low temperatures occur mainly at night. They range from the mid 70s Fahrenheit during the winter to the high 70s during the summer.
Sea water remains comfortable for swimming year round because temperatures stay warm and consistent throughout the year.
Best Months to Go
The best months to go to St. Maarten are usually December through July each year. The most popular months of all are December through March, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
These are the peak times for eastern Caribbean cruises. But for the sake of warmer weather and fewer crowds, April and May are better times to go.
Vacationers will take on a little more risk in August and September and even more risk in October and November. September also is the least popular month to visit.
The worst weather months usually result in better prices at hotels and resorts.
Anyone willing to take a chance and go during the peak times of the Caribbean hurricane season should consider travel insurance.
St. Maarten Poll
If you have not been to St. Maarten, would you like to go? If you have been there, would you recommend it?
Questions & Answers
We are 1st time cruisers with children ages eight and eleven. I'm trying to determine if it is better to pay for a beach excursion at this port or figure it out on our own. One option I've read about is getting a day pass at the Westin, but I went to their website, and it is currently closed. Do you have a specific recommendation for how we might plan our day? We very much want to spend most of it on the beach.
Personally, I wouldn't bother with a beach excursion. St. Maarten offers one of the most convenient beaches near a cruise port in the entire Caribbean.
Great Bay Beach lies in front of the Phillipsburg Boardwalk and the city's tourism district. I recommend this option if you want to keep your visit cheap and straightforward. Save your excursion money for something else.
You have three options to get there from the cruise terminal:
1. You can walk it for free in about 15 minutes. This is the best option for tight budgets, but do it only in comfortable temperatures.
2. You can take a cheap water taxi. They usually make several stops, but they offer great views of the bay and St. Maarten.
3. You can take a slightly more expensive land taxi. It's the quickest option.
Is it better to take a water taxi or a regular taxi to St. Maarten?
A water taxi gives you a much better view of the harbor, beach and boardwalk than a land taxi. Between the two choices, I would pick the water taxi. Keep in mind that a water taxi also makes several stops.
You also have a third option, which is walking. The walk takes about 15 to 20 minutes depending on your fitness level.
© 2014 Scott S Bateman