Friday, June 6, 2014

South Caribbean Cruise Day 5: St. Martin / St. Maarten

Somehow, we seemed to get our excursions mixed up.  On this last island of our South Caribbean cruise, we found ourselves on another full-day catamaran cruise. This was a cruise excursion, and we SUSPECT that our desired excursion was booked up and they just kind of pushed us into the most similar excursion they still had room on, because we both KNEW we wouldn't be able to handle two sailing tours in two days and so we wouldn't have booked it. I was still banged up and bruised from the day before! At any rate, I noticed what was on our agenda the night before and mom sent me to the excursions desk to change it. We really wanted to see both sides of the island, not for any particular sites, but because St. Martin is a French province, and St. Maarten is a Dutch province (officially known as the Kingdom of the Netherlands).  For those not familiar with geocaching, if we find at least one geocache on each side, that gives us credit for two more countries. It's actually nothing more than impressive statistics on our profiles and bragging rights at geocache events to come, but we all try to do it anyway!

(I really didn't dress to match the welcome sign!)

Not surprisingly, there weren't very many options left to change to at the last minute. However, there was one half-day, "Best Of  Both Sides" tour (oh, how I loathe those!) with a stop at a butterfly farm, so we figured that was fine. Surprisingly though, when we got our final ship bill, they did refund the difference between the tours. We figured since we only gave about 12 hours notice of the change, we would have to forfeit the difference. Kudos and thank you Norwegian Cruise Line!

In our worldwide travels, both of us have been to countless 'butterfly farms' (including Tinkerbell's Butterfly Farm at EPCOT during their flower festival last year...unimpressive) and usually you see a few butterflies fluttering about and you're basically left looking at the pretty flowers. So when our huge tour bus (also a "Best Of" pet peeve!) pulled up to this little tiny building and unloaded, I figured I could at least get a stretch and see some St. Martin flora. Man, were we wrong! This Butterfly Farm was awesome! I've never seen so many butterflies in such as small area. And apparently the farm was completely destroyed when Hurricane Luis hit in 1995 and had to be rebuilt from scratch. Starting with a moth bigger than my hand and so many different colors and shapes of butterflies, it was awesome. The farm itself is not huge so the only problem I had was that we couldn't always get close enough to see what our guide was showing us, and with mom being almost deaf, she didn't get to hear any of it. So, I would take her by when the group moved along and try to remember the cool details. Two train wrecks - one can barely hear, the other has short-term memory loss! What a team!

(Left: a male moth the size of my hand. Females are bigger!  Rt: a Monarch stopped long enough for a photo)

Before boarding our tour bus again (BTW...our tour group was with Diamonds International), the now expected, complementary rum punch was indeed flowing!  LOL  I think we came home as alcoholics. There really wasn't any other stops before crossing the border into French territory. Our tour guide on the bus was knowledgeable and gave us steady chatter as we stared out the bus window. There were a couple of scenic views and the water was beautiful. I was beginning to regret not taking that sail excursion so I could get in the water, and other than the butterfly farm and scenic overlook (on the fly, there wasn't a stop at any), it was a pretty boring ride.

(An abandoned tanker destroyed near shore during the 1995 Hurricane Luis)

When we reached the small town of Marigot, we were given a half-hour to walk around. Of course, the guide took us to his favorite shop and told us to check that one out for a little discount. This irritates me because the tour guides get kick-backs for bringing their buses close to these stores and sending business to them. The prices are no better, and are sometimes higher. We went off in search of a couple of close-by geocaches, and then walked through garment market areas and mom got a cute swimsuit cover-up. And then we were back on the bus and headed back to the cruise port in Phillipsburg.

(At a smoothie break in Marigot after finding our geocaches. Mom and the parrot are making the same face!)

The ONE thing that I would have absolutely loved to have seen, we didn't go anywhere near. SO bummed! Maho Beach is home to one of the most famous airports in the world: Princess Juliana International Airport. If you don't know why it's famous, watch the short video at the link above. Basically, the airplanes fly extremely low over the beach adjacent to the airport. I REALLY wanted to lay on the beach and get a photo of one of the planes coming in above. Some people will also hold onto the fence and "fly" when the planes take off. For whatever reason (because she's probably right), mom just knew I'd try to do that so she was glad to NOT go there.

(a plan lands at the famous Princess Juliana International Airport just a few feet above Maho Beach)

Back in Phillipsburg on the Dutch side, we had several hours to kill before our ship left, so we walked into town. It was a bit further from port than we thought, but the stretch was good after the bus. But hot and muggy. Really the worst so far of all the islands. We were after those geocaches for the Dutch credit and saw a couple of cool, older buildings, like the courthouse. I was also looking for a couple of pirate-related souvenirs for some friends, although there were very few considering the area is well-known for It's pirate days.

(Left: mom gets the geocache at the old courthouse. Rt: a direction sign (I love these!) But where's the bird?)

On the main road, hawkers were trying to get us into their shops and of course taxi drivers were lined up as well.  This is one of our biggest hates when traveling by cruise line. Every activity on board revolves around jewelry and art auctions and high-end fashion and at every single port they're selling the same damn things! Who is buying all this crap and what are they doing with it?!  I can barely imagine much of that keeping the shops on the ship in business, let alone all the ones in every port.

After finding a little shop with a few goodies, we were really hot and tired and ready to go back to the ship, and would you believe for the first time on five islands, there's wasn't a freakin' taxi driver ANYWHERE!  Where did they all go?!  By the time we found one, we were half-way back to the ship so we just kept going. St. Martin is definitely pulling up the rear on the five islands. But overall, we really enjoyed this vacation.  Not the sea days...I nearly died of boredom on the two days out and two days back, although after five islands in five days, at least the two back was good for recuperation!

(Our departing view as we leave the last island of our Southern Caribbean cruise)

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