ONBOARD THE OCEANIA RIVIERA – Ah, memories! Some 30+ years ago Chet and I used to visit St. Maarten regularly over the Easter holidays. We would spend a week with our friends Pete and Nancy in the Pasanggrahan Guest House, in a little apartment right on the Philipsburg waterfront.
Each morning we would sip coffee while sitting in beach chairs as we watched cruise ships sail into the bay and drop anchor. One or two a day at the most. Frequently we would see ships from Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. (Remember them?) All of this activity was a novelty.
Around noon, we would drive over to Grand Case for a wonderful lunch in one of their French restaurants and then sleep off the wine under an umbrella on one of the nearby beaches. For dinner, we might stroll a block or two into Phillipsburg to feast on authentic Indonesion rijstaffel…we never wanted to drive at night on that crazy, twisty road to the French side of the island. They we might walk the other way to the marina bar for a nightcap.
A vivid part of those memories is one particular rooster. He lived in the vacant lot next to our apartment and every day at daybreak he did what roosters do … right outside our window. Such a screech! And our guys lined up rocks on the window sills to throw at him to try to quiet him down.
Over the years since, we have visited any number of times, mostly on cruise ships and have discovered an island that is vastly changed.
The Pasanggrahan is still there, now honored as the oldest hotel on the island, but the rooster and vacant lot are gone. The marina is still there but past it is the A.C. Wathey Cruise Center with long piers that will accommodate huge cruise ships, sometimes as many as 7-8 per day. Connecting the cruise center to downtown is a long boardwalk that runs right in front of the Pasanggrahan.
Downtown Philipsburg has changed, too. The main street is still tiny and narrow but the shops extend further at each end and it seems that 90 percent of them are jewelry stores. The beach that runs along downtown used to be rather scraggly but now its pedestrian boardwalk is lined with bars, restaurants and shops and the beach has been widened and is filled with beach chairs and umbrellas.
And how do you like this deal: One umbrellas, two beach chairs, six cans of beer or two frozen drinks or five sodas with free restrooms and wifi for $20?
Dutch St. Maarten might just have become the perfect cruise destination. You can take a shore excursion in the morning and then return for lunch on the ship before boarding the water taxi ($7 round-trip) to head into Philipsburg for a few hours of beaching, shopping or both. The fellow hyping the umbrella/chair deal at the Chic restaurant mentioned they have free changing rooms, too!
To be truthful, these days I prefer visiting the French capital of Marigot but mostly small ships go there. In fact, I wonder why the Riviera does not visit Marigot instead of Philipsburg; probably because they would have to tender.
But Philipsburg is definitely one of the best shopping areas in the Caribbean and I did managed to pick up some Christmas gifts here today. But whatever part of the island you visit you always receive a warm welcome here…roosters notwithstanding!
Yesterday we were at St. Bart’s for the entire day but two strikes were against us: It was Sunday and virtually all of the stores are closed and it rained heavily on and off all day. Every time we were about to leave the ship there was another deluge. Finally, we abandoned that plan and enjoyed a quiet day aboard.
December 7, 2015