Maho Beach… Been There, Done That, Got the T-shirt!
I’ve travelled to some truly special places to satisfy my passion for aviation photo opportunities. I’ve photographed airliners at London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airports, from Imperial Hill near LAX, and at a score of other interesting facilities around the world. One destination that had eluded me for some time was the famous Maho Beach approach to Princess Juliana International Airport on the Dutch side of Sint Maarten (Dutch spelling) island. By coincidence this past March, while searching itineraries that would mitigate the effects of a long cold New England winter, my wife Shirl found a cruise from New Orleans LA to Barcelona Spain whose first port of call just happened to be “The Friendly Island” of Saint Martin (English spelling). The cruise sounded exactly what we needed to warm ourselves up, and we quickly booked our cabin. Of course, a side trip to the airport went high on my (our) to-do list.
Noteworthy for photos and videos of airborne jumbo jets extremely close to the ground and for people being blasted by sand and debris from a departing jetliner, the opportunities from the beach near St. Maarten’s airport piqued my interest. Being close to aircraft in flight isn’t new to me, but watching other people’s reactions due to the proximity of the airplanes would be fun to see. And I’d experience that rush of excitement that I get when I’m close to the action.
Maho Beach is within walking distance of the airport passenger terminal, or a 30 minute taxi ride from downtown Phillipsburg where our ship arrived. After setting foot on land four days after leaving New Orleans, we quickly hailed a taxi. After some shopping in town, we set out for the airport with a two hour allowance for exploring the approach end of runway 10, before returning for our ship’s afternoon departure.
The local government has posted (famous) warning signs about injury and/or death hazards while being subjected to jetwash from the nearby runway. We didn’t see any big jets depart, so we didn’t witness the resulting sandblasting event (this wasn’t on my to-do list anyway). However, we did manage to catch a number of arrivals from a pair of vantage points, and these satisfied my curiosity.
The well-known Sunset Bar and Grille sits just southwest of the runway threshold, serving food and drink to tourists that flock to the beach. We walked onto the outdoor patio, found a pair of stools facing the bay, and ordered lunch and refreshments. There’s a surfboard mounted on a railing near the steps onto the beach; the schedule of arriving airliners was scrawled on it in chalk. Only a few larger airliners were expected during our visit, but as we watched, there seemed to be a regional airliner or private aircraft inbound every ten minutes or so. I quickly photographed a pair of arriving Cessna Citations over the bay and discounted my concern about blowing sand fouling my camera and lens; only a departing jet could cause this problem.
You definitely don’t need a super telephoto lens to get decent photos from the Sunset’s patio. Some arrivals stay above the background buildings, while others are low enough to be photographed “in the weeds”. I quickly realized that if I included an aircraft’s shadow in a picture, whether cast upon water or beach sand, it aided with the perception of its low altitude. After lunch, I changed to a wider lens, and we walked onto the beach for some aircraft belly photos. Because of the turquoise-shaded waters in the bay, the color of your plane’s undersides will look blue… all part of the experience. The beach was alive with tourists taking “selfies” with arriving aircraft in the background; I found myself taking photos of people taking pictures of themselves… sounds kind of odd, doesn’t it? There were some serious photographers from all corners of the globe roaming about with some serious equipment tooi… I definitely wasn’t the only plane spotter there that day.
With a few good arrival sequences captured on my storage card, it was time to walk back to our taxi and return to the ship. I wanted to get a photo of the famous warning sign at the edge of the roadway, but a group of bystanders blocked it. Not wanting to miss our ship’s sailing, I gave up on taking that picture. Luckily, my wife spied a t-shirt in the Sunset’s gift shop with the warning message emblazoned across it; with souvenir in hand and photos from the visit, I fulfilled my desire to be a part of the excitement found at Maho Beach. Would I return? You bet! I’d like to spend a couple of days photographing a wider range of aircraft, including arriving and departing jumbos. It’s great fun to people watch, and there are a few excellent vantage points for photos and plane spotting too. Maho Beach is definitely one of those very special places that I’ve visited during my aviation-related travels, and worthy of a return trip.