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Trip Report Just back from St. Maarten

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My wife and I just returned from a week in St Maarten. Most of our time was spent on the Dutch side so I have very limited comments about the French side. We stayed at the Divi Little Bay Beach Resort outside of Philipsburg. The resort is about 2 miles outside of town on a quiet and secluded peninsula that separates Little Bay from Great Bay. Without getting into a lot of detail, the physical property is a bit dated but very beautiful. The downside is most of the staff needs to attend a class in hospitality management. No particular order, I will list the various things that we found or discovered while on our trip.

Taxi cabs are every where and can be a bit expensive. Cab fares are based on zones. There is a system of unscheduled buses that operate all over the island. They are cheap transportation but not necessarily fast. Fares can range up to $2.50. Destination signs are on the inside of the front windshield. To stop one, simply hold out your hand. To get off, tell the driver, Stop Please. Most buses run around with the side doors open for ventilation.

Car rental is tricky at best. With the narrow roads and heavy traffic we elected not to rent. In researching rentals, there were a lot of horror stories about the rental agencies at the airport. The scam there is trying to bill hundreds of dollars of damage to your credit card for a scratch that was probably already there. Photo document the entire car if you rent and make sure every scratch and dent is documented. Better yet, if staying at a resort look into a two day rental. Those agencies are a bit more honest.

The island is duty free. No taxes on purchases.

The Philipsburg harbor can handle up to 9 cruise ships at a time. The most we saw were 5. The town quickly becomes a mass of people when this happens. If you want to do any tours, book ahead of time. We used Jo Junie Tours with driver Etienne Carty and were very pleased. With Driver Etienne on the round island Fun tour, we saw a lot. He is a walking book of facts and knowledge of the island. For catamaran trips, we used Golden Eagle Tours on the cat Quality Time. Crew was absolutely wonderful.

Currency operates side by side on the island. Dollars exchange freely on both sides with no need to exchange money even though the French side uses Euros. If up on the French side, watch your exchange rate as many shops will charge one dollar for one Euro where some charge $1.25 for 1 Euro. On the Dutch side ATM machines will dispense either local currency or dollars. Make sure to select dollars. Bank fee there is $4.50 per withdrawal. Discover card is accepted in most places and is one of the few that does not charge fees for use. Check with them before going. As a general note, you should notify your credit card company of where you will be and when to avoid having your card shut off for "questionable use" while out of the country.

We were told that the police on the French side are rotated in from France for 6 month tours of duty. Therefore, they never really get to know the local characters and sometimes have no urgency to assist with problems.

Beaches on the French side are clothing optional. This is not a problem on most of the popular beaches but some of the smaller ones can be. If you are uncomfortable with nudity or have small children, it is best to check first.

Don't miss hanging on to the runway fence at Maho Beach as the airplanes landing and taking off are so close you can get your hair parted. When Jet Blue blew my hat into the ocean, several nice kids swam out to rescue it. Be prepared to be sand blasted by planes taking off. The bar at the end of the beach has an old surf board stuck in the sand with listing of all incoming flights. KLM is the only one flying 747's at the moment and I can tell you that is one heck of a blast when it comes in. The runway is almost too small for the plane so they skim the fence coming in.

Shopping and eating in Philipsburg is great. Front Street has all the souvenir, clothing and jewelry shops. Since there are no taxes or duties, it is a good place to shop. Back Street has all the little shops and restaurants where the locals go. Don't miss Shieka's on Back Street. It is not much to look at but the food is terrific and reasonable. They do have seating or on the alley side there is a take out counter. There are small grocery stores where you can stock up for your room or cabin. We used Ahfoo grocery which is one of the larger stores.

On Sunday, most of the shops and restaurants in Philipsburg are closed. Plan you shopping on other days.

If you go to the Philipsburg post office, expect long slow lines.

On the Boardwalk, there are all kinds of vendors with package deals for beach chairs, umbrellas and a bucket of beer. The common price we saw was $20 but there are some package deals for less especially if you don't buy beer or alcoholic drinks.

The people are friendly and helpful. Only downside are all the touts trying to sell you something. They are out in force when cruise ships are in port. Best to do tour research before arriving and not use the touts Also the timeshare people are like flies and very aggressive. Fastest way to get rid of them is to say you already own. We loved the beaches, weather and the people and plan to go back.

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