Years ago, I watched World’s Most Extreme: Airports on the Travel Channel where St. Maarten’s Princess Julianna International Airport was one of many featured on the program. Located on the Dutch side of the island, this airport has an unusually short runway of only 7,150 feet (2180 meters) and is one of the few places in the world with a beach just at the end of the runway.
Because of the unique location, aircrafts on their final approach fly over the beach (which is in the direct flight path) at altitudes of less than 100 feet, just over the heads of beach-goers.
It’s pretty extreme and exhilarating to say the least – or at least it certainly looked that way on tv. I knew right away I HAD to experience this for myself and that’s how St. Maarten landed as a must-see destination on my bucket list.
How To Get To Maho Beach
If you plan to visit Maho Beach as part of your trip to St. Maarten, there are few ways to get there. If you are visiting as part of a cruise, you can walk from the Philipsburg cruise terminal to the center of the city to catch the local minibus (it’s about a 10-minute walk) or hop in a cab at the port like we did. If you fly in and rent a car, the beach is a 3-minute drive from the airport.
Chris and I visited St. Maarten as a port of call on our 2016 cruise on the Carnival Fascination. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even look at other excursions and tours because all I wanted to do was spend the day at Maho Beach plane watching.
It was an overcast Saturday when we were in port and the beach was pretty crowded since there were a few ships calling. Even though the larger planes didn’t come in until mid-afternoon, I wanted to get there to stake out my spot. Plus, I figured we would just make a beach day of our visit and hang out at the Sunset Bar & Grill.
A surfboard with all of the flight times for the day is posted at the entrance to the restaurant. I took a quick look to see what airlines were coming and made note of the approximate times so I wouldn’t miss my photo op.
Since the beach is so close to the end of the runway, there are posted warnings to stay a safe distance away from the airport fence due to the jet blast from departing flights. In fact, in recent years tourists have been hurt and even killed from the jet blast because they ignored the warnings.
We did see a few adrenaline junkies attempt to hold on to the fence but of course, I don’t recommend this at all. And if I’ve just made you worried about safety, don’t be. This is a must-see experience and generally speaking, the beachside is safe for viewing. Just be sure to pay attention to the signs and stay away from the end of the runway across the street. As I said, there are plenty of warnings telling you where not to go and plenty of safe places to watch the planes fly over without putting yourself in danger.
After taking a quick look around, we grabbed a table, ordered a bucket of beers and some food, and settled in for the show. I alternated between our table and the beach, taking a few dips in the water to cool off. The beach is small and slightly rocky, but it’s still the epitome of a Caribbean beach with crystal clear water and white sand.
Sunset Bar & Grill does offer a beach chair and umbrella for $10.00 a day and to be honest, I’m not sure why we didn’t just do that. Either way, we had a great vantage point from our table and spent the afternoon sipping on Caribe and snapping away photos.
I realllllly wanted my own photo of KLM’s 747 Jumbo Jet because it’s the iconic plane in so many photos. Sadly, the “Queen of the Skies” no longer flies to St. Maarten. In fact, KLM is actually moving forward with plans to completely retire these Boeing 747’s from its fleet by 2021. While I was bummed for a minute about this, I did get photos of planes of all sizes including larger airliners such as Air France and Air Canada.
All in all, it was a great experience and one I’m glad to have crossed off my bucket list. I even bought a t-shirt from the gift shop to commemorate our visit because there’s nothing really quite like having huge planes flying so low overhead. This place is certainly unique and I hope you’ll get to experience it, too.
St.Maarten was hit by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. All reports indicate the island has or is in the process of rebuilding. We are planning to visit Maho Beach in St. Maarten again on our March 2020 cruise as part of an updated itinerary for the Carnival Fascination, so stay tuned. I’ll be updating this post with more photos and information later this spring.
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