The first time I saw photos of Maho Beach on the island of St. Maarten, I swore they had been Photoshopped. The picture of a Boeing 747 passing within just a few feet of the beach was so shocking, logic insisted that it had to be a fake. It also mandated that Maho Beach be immediately added to my bucket list.
The insanity of Maho Beach is possible thanks to Princess Juliana International Airport and her runway that ends roughly 100 feet from the water's edge. The relatively short runway also means that jumbo jets coming from the United States, Europe, and Asia must land as close to the start of the tarmac as possible, passing roughly 30-50 feet above the sunbathers on Maho Beach. It is the kind of thing that would never be allowed in the United States, but thankfully things are a little more laid back in the Caribbean.
Rather than booking a shore excursion to Maho Beach while aboard the Oasis of the Seas, MJ and I opted to grab a taxi and go it alone. Just like a hotel shuttle often found at airports, the taxi stand at the port paired us up with about ten other people going to "the beach with the planes." This brought the taxi fare to Maho Beach down to $8 per person, which I thought was a pretty good deal considering the comparative cost of a shore excursion and that the airport is on the other side of the island.
|The edge of the beach and the tarmac.|
We arrived to Maho around 9:30am and claimed a corner table at the Sunset Bar & Grill overlooking the beach. The place was practically empty, but we still had about two hours before the first of the big planes arrived. I had a feeling that our table was going to be prime real estate come lunchtime, but for now there was nothing to do except sit back, sip on a Bloody Mary, and wait.
|The bar puts the schedule of flight arrivals on this board.|
After a couple hours of watching small puddle jumper planes come in for landing, I was ready for the real deal. Just then, a speaker in the restaurant came alive with what sounded like chatter between the control tower and a pilot. A few minutes later, an AmeriJet flight from Kingston got the party underway...
The arrival of the first big plane must have set off some sort of alarm in St. Maarten, because the relatively empty bar and beach was suddenly packed with tourists. Our table turned out to be the perfect place to take in the action, so MJ and I took turns walking down to the beach as the jets came in.
I'll admit to being a little timid as I stared down an United Airlines flight from Newark. Standing on the beach in line with the runway, it felt as if the plane was heading straight for me as it approached over the water. As the jet roared over head, lower than the rooftops of the nearby hotels, I didn't know whether to run, duck for cover, or burst out laughing. What I did know, however, was that my adrenal glands were officially in overdrive.
The jets continued arriving at a pace of roughly one every half hour, each plane seemingly bigger, louder, and lower than the last. Soon enough, however, we were introduced to the other thrill of Maho Beach: a takeoff. A thrill that makes Maho Beach one of the most amazing, yet dangerous, beaches in the world.
Like the landings, as a plane is set to takeoff the beachgoers congregate directly in line with the runway. Instead of a plane passing ridiculously close to your head, however, the game is to see who can withstand the powerful jetwash as the flight takes off. Some even hold on to the security fence at the edge of the runway, but they are far more brave - read: more stupid - than me. Getting blown face first into the curb on the road isn't my kind of fun.
|Hey buddy...the plane is that way...|
MJ and I both took a turn being blasted by a departing jet, and once was definitely enough. The sand from the beach felt like a million little pin pricks, and the jetwash was more powerful than anything I've felt in a Florida hurricane. Just for fun, here's a few actions shots of how MJ fared, and a YouTube video that does it better justice.
After a few hours of fun, we decided to cede our table to one of the hawks standing over our shoulder, and watch one more jet land together before heading back to the ship. A tiny spec appeared out on the horizon, and I was a little disappointed that our last plane would be a small island hopper. As the plane drew nearer, I commented to MJ that it was shaped different than all the others, with strange orbs on the tips its the wings. Those orbs, it turned out, were another set of engines, and that small island hopper had come from Paris...
|No zoom necessary.|
I came to Maho Beach expecting to be blown away and that's exactly what happened, literally and figuratively. The fact that such a place exists in the first place, is nearly as amazing as the thrill of the planes themselves. If you're an aviation buff, Maho Beach is most definitely the place for you. And if you're not, by the end of the day, you will be.
If you go...
- Skip the excursion. By the time they arrived, the place was packed.
- Bring cash or Visa. Amex not accepted at Sunset Bar.
- Hold on to your hat and glasses during takeoffs.