Day 4 – Sint Maarten
We arrived in “Sint Maarten” (the proper spelling for the Dutch half of the island) a little after 7:30am. In 2010, this part of the island was granted the status of “country” within the Kingdom of the Netherlands; the northern half, Saint-Martin, was colonized by the French. I watched from our stateroom balcony as we backed in slowly and gracefully to the dock beside the beach in Philipsburg. The view from the 9th deck of the Oasis was quite spectacular – a ribbon of white sandy beach separating the turquoise waters of the harbour from the white, pink, blue and yellow stuccoed bars, restaurants and boutiques stretching in a long arc away from the ship.
This was our first port since we left Fort Lauderdale, and we were quite excited to get off the ship and explore this island oasis. To enhance our experience, and help us to gain some knowledge of Philipsburg and Sint Maarten, Kim had booked us on a Royal Caribbean excursion called The Race – a take off from the popular TV reality show “The Amazing Race”. The object was to follow clues around the town of Philipsburg and complete a series of challenges and eventually end up at the destination area, while collecting the most points, in the least amount of time.
Our excursion began at 9:15am at a pickup station on the pier beside the ship. There were another dozen or so families gathered around our meeting point, and once everyone had been checked in, we walked as a group to the water taxi that would bring us to the town.
The excursion was scheduled to finish up around 12:30pm so our plan was to stay in Philipsburg after the excursion and find a spot on the beach to swim and relax before the 4:30 “all aboard”. We had packed a bag with towels, swimsuits and extra water, but, as it turned out, there was nowhere for us to leave the bag while we were on the excursion, even though we had been told otherwise by the onboard excursion staff. Rather than carry the bag with us for the next 4 to 5 hours, the tour facilitator offered to have someone from the staff bring our bag back to the ship and have it kept at Guest Services until our return. We gladly chose this option as the temperature was already approaching 30 C and by midday would be several degrees hotter.
With that settled, we followed the rest of the group onto the water taxi for the 5 minute ride to the entrance of the old town of Philipsburg and its 1400 inhabitants. After exiting the water taxi, we all gathered a short distance away where we were greeted by our excursion hosts, clad in bright green teeshirts, who would be providing our challenges for the game and offering guidance along the way.
Each team chose a name (we were Team Ajax) and received a map of Philipsburg along with a notepad and pencil for working out some of the clues. At the end of each successfully completed challenge we would be given the clue for our next destination and challenge. By the end of the excursion we would have covered some of the major highlights of Philipsburg and been introduced to its history and geography – a great way to explore and learn about a new destination!
Once all of the rules were communicated, we began our first challenge. Each team was given a small container filled with dry rice and beans as well as a plastic spoon for each member of the team. The container with the rice and beans was placed on the ground and an empty container was placed about 50 feet away. The object was to have one team member use their spoon to gather a few beans onto their spoon from the first container and pass the beans onto the spoon of a team member standing at arms length away. This team member would pass the beans to the next person in the same manner. Once a participant passed the beans successfully to a teammate, the participant would go to the end of the line to accept beans from the person previously at the end. This process continued until the last person in the line was able to deposit the beans on their spoon into the previously empty container. The challenge ended when there were 30 beans deposited into the container at the end of the line.
While this sounds simple enough, there were a couple of gotcha’s. First, for each grain of rice that ended up in the container at the end, you lost a point. Second, you could only use the spoons to transfer the beans and you were not allowed to touch the beans with your hand. Third, if you dropped the beans during the transfer, you had to start again. Fourth, during the transfer you could not move your feet – you had to perform the transfer with outstretched arms, accept the beans, then transfer to the next person in line with your feet planted firmly on the ground. Because the spoons could hold a maximum of 5 or 6 beans, the more that were on the spoon, the greater the likelihood of “spilling the beans”. We managed to finish our task with relatively few issues and were one of the first teams allowed to proceed to our next task – we were stoked!
After completing the first challenge we were given our first clue and, using the map, headed to our next destination. Our second challenge took us to the beautiful, white, sandy beach of Philipsburg. This would also be our most physical challenge of the day. Each team lined up about 200 feet from the beach and were given a plastic cup and a sponge. One member of the team placed the empty cup on their head. The other members of the team would take turns running to the water’s edge, filling the sponge with water, then running back to the start line and squeezing the water out of the sponge, into the cup. This task was completed when the cup was overflowing. Needless to say, this challenge left us quite exhausted in the scorching heat!
With our second challenge completed, our next clue took us through the old town of Philipsburg, along Front Street – the street closest, and running parallel, to the beach. We meandered through tiny shops, markets and boutique stores as we followed our clue to the museum at the eastern most point of town. Once there, we entered the tiny 2 storey building which was filled with works of art, furniture, crafts and model ships depicting the history of the colony. Our task was to find a dolphin on a ship and record the information that was displayed about that ship for a future task. While the museum was small (each of the 2 storeys consisted of only one room about 200 square feet), there were hundreds of artifacts. We finally located the ship with the dolphin – It was an old sailing ship that had a carved dolphin perched on its bow – in a tiny alcove on the 2nd storey. We took a picture of the plaque describing the ship to record the information that we would need later in the game.
Our third clue took us north from the museum to the Library where we had to locate a small park and determine what kind of bird was depicted on the sign by the entrance. The bird was a dove and as it turns out, is the National bird of Sint Maarten. Once we determined what the bird was, we had 2 other tasks that we needed to complete here before we could go on to our next destination.
The first was to list 20 independent Caribbean countries. Fortunately for us, we have been on several Caribbean cruises in the past and had the benefit of a professional cruise consultant at our disposal so were therefore able to list quite a few of the 20 quite quickly. It took us a few minutes to get the last 2 or 3, but finally we were successful and the list was checked off by one of the excursion facilitators who pointed us to the Library for our next task at this location.
A narrow table, about 6 feet long stood on the sidewalk at the entrance to the library. There were several fruits and vegetables lined up along the length of the table and the object was to identify as many of these as possible. A point was allocated for each properly named fruit and vegetable. Some were easily identifiable and are items that we commonly purchase in Canada such as bananas, mangos and coconuts. Others were more difficult, because they the are not commonly consumed at home. We were able to identify some less obscure ones like plantains and a version of avocado that is much larger than we find in our local grocery store, but we did get stuck on some of the varieties that we never see at all. This was the task that gave us the most difficulty and we did lose a few points here, but, undaunted, we got the clue to our next task and continued on our way.
Leaving the library, which is situated at the North East corner of town, we headed west toward the north central part of town where we were looking for a monument situated on the round-about that is the northern entrance to Philipsburg. Our specific task was to identify the name of the monument, and explain its significance. We spotted the monument as we walked up the street toward the police station which is located at the intersection marked by the round-about. The large, stark sign is easy enough to read, even from away. The sign simply reads “The Salt Pickers”. The simplicity and starkness of the sign is an indication of what the monument represents – the harshness of life for the early inhabitants who worked the island’s salt mines. The monument depicts a small group - men, women and children- labouring around mounds of course salt atop a stone base that makes up the entire round-about. The dark, grey stone, the white, course salt and the stooped figures serve as a sharp contrast to the fun and sun that visitors experience in Sint Maarten today.
Our next task headed us south through the centre of town back towards the beach. We were looking for the catholic church that boasts the statue of Saint Martin of Tours, the patron saint after whom the island (and the Church) is named. The statue stands inside the gates of the church and to the right of its main entrance. At the base of the statue is a plaque that describes the saint and refers to the episode of the Cloak and Beggar. It is said that St. Martin, when he was a soldier in the Roman Army, came upon a beggar on a cold winter night and used his sword to cut his woolen cloak in two and gave one half to the beggar. After pausing and reflecting on the statue, we headed south towards the beach and the last few tasks of our excursion.
To get back to the beach and our final destination, our next clue took us west along Front street through the more commercial parts of town that included higher end clothing stores, diamond and jewellery retailers and dozens of tourist shops. Our clue had us looking for “dancing fountains” that marked the main entranceway from Front Street to the beach at the westernmost part of the town.
We were approaching the 3 hour mark of our excursion and, as the sun was beating relentlessly on our sweating bodies, we were looking forward to a swim at the beach. After a 20 minute walk through the crowded street, we spotted a wide opening on the south side of the street, between the endless row of shops. The opening was the gateway that we were looking for and featured two rows of fountains about 6 feet apart that guided the way down a pedestrian boulevard from Front Street to the Beach. Our pace quickened as we neared our final destination and we made our way to the beach.
The pedestrian boulevard from the street to the beach ended abruptly and we stepped onto the burning white sand dotted with brightly coloured umbrellas. We made our way to the destination point – an outdoor bar at the entrance to the Nazca Peruvian Restaurant where the excursion guides had set up their command post. Our arrival time was registered by the guides and we were given one final task to perform: one of us had to ride a tiny plastic tricycle around a set of pylons on the beach and then swim out 50 yards to a designated buoy and back to officially complete the race. Ian “eagerly volunteered” to perform this last feat and managed it quite well despite the challenges of plowing a tricycle through soft sand and battling fatigue on the final swim.
With our last task out of the way and officially clocked in, we went inside the Nazca restaurant to escape the scorching sun and found a table underneath one of the several oversized ceiling fans. The Nazca is a typical beachside restaurant with moderate inside space, modest décor and surprisingly good food. As its name implies, the Nazca specializes in Peruvian food abundant in seafood dishes. We had fresh white fish, shrimp and hamburgers. As we finished our meal, the excursion guides announced the winners of the grueling race – sadly, it was not us, although we did finish in the top 5!
After lazing in the Nazca to take advantage of the cooling fans and some shade, we returned to the bright sunshine of the beach. We were able to locate a spot on this very busy stretch of sand with an umbrella and a couple of lounge chairs that were unoccupied. All four of us headed into the sea where we spent the better part of the next hour wallowing in the warm waters of the Caribbean.
It was approaching 3:00pm and since our all aboard time was 4:30pm, we decided to start making our way back to the tender pick up point. During one of our tasks in the morning, we had passed by the Rum Emporium on Front Street and wanted to stop in to try one of their specialty liqueurs – Guava Berry rum. It just so happened that this was on our route back to the pickup point. We tried a couple of different liqueurs, including the Guava Berry, and decided to purchase a bottle of the very tasty Mango rum for $20 US. Since our return home, we have enjoyed a variety of martinis using this liqueur as the base.
After a very busy and exhausting day in Philipsburg, we finally boarded the tender back to the ship around 4:15pm. We went to our respective staterooms and showered off the salt and sand in preparation for another fabulous dinner. Of course once again the dining room did not disappoint. We thoroughly enjoyed lasagna, short ribs and chicken cordon bleu.
Feeling both full and tired after a hearty meal, we were happy to just spend some time relaxing in the main theatre and taking in the Headliner show that featured Marcus Terrell and the Serenades. Marcus Terrell was a quarter finalist in Season 4 of the TV show America’s Got Talent. He and the Serenades provided some lively entertainment that focused on the wholesome sound of Motown. I quite enjoyed both the music and the energy that Marcus Terrell brought as well as his ability to engage the audience.
Following the headline show we strolled around the Promenade and ended up at On Air where tonight’s event was Karaoke. Auditions had just finished for the competitive event that would last for a couple of evenings and unfortunately, we had arrived too late for Ian to register. He did perform a moving rendition of Frankie Valli’s “I Love You Baby” for which he received a resounding ovation from the audience and accolades from the host. It was an appropriate end to a great day.
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.