Extreme Aviation at Maho Beach St Maarten - St Martin Beach Airport

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Extreme Aviation at Maho Beach in St. Maarten

Jet approaching Maho Beach St. Maarten
When we stop in cruise ports, we usually venture out on our own rather than joining excursions from the ship or other organized tours. Typically, that means we get more time at our destination and save money. It also usually means we avoid the crowds because we go somewhere a little less touristy. But sometimes we head right into the heart of the tourist hub. Knowingly. And that’s what happened when we visited Maho Beach in St. Maarten.

Maho Beach St Maarten plane landing

The planes seem to appear out of thin air over Maho Beach

Maho Beach, on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, is the best vantage point to watch planes land at Princess Juliana International Airport (aka Maho Beach Airport). There are not more than a few yards between the edge of the beach and the edge of the runway–only a two-lane road separates them. That means that the planes have to approach the beach at a low altitude in order to hit the runway at just the right time. It makes for quite a show.

The schedule of planes landing near Maho Beach St Martin

The landing schedule is posted near one of the bars

Maho Beach, the St Martin airplane beach, and the runway are very close together

The beach and the runway are very close together

Until recently, the major attraction at Maho Beach was the landing of KLM’s regular 747 flights. Photos of the massive plane’s flight path make it look like it’s mere inches from beachgoers as it heads toward the runway.

Alas, the 747 doesn’t fly into Princess Juliana International Airport (at least not regularly) anymore. But that doesn’t mean that there still aren’t great things to see at Maho Beach, especially from our chosen spot at the Sunset Bar and Grill.

The Sunset Bar and Grill sits right on Maho Beach St. Maarten

The Sunset Bar and Grill sits right on Maho Beach

Getting a good spot at Maho Beach

We knew that Maho Beach would be popular and crowded as we were cruising in high season around the holidays. To get a good spot and have the most opportunities for watching landings, we decided to start our day at the St Maarten airport beach early.

Coming in from St. Kitts, our ship was cleared in port in St. Maarten just before 9am. Not long after that, we were off and ready to start our day. A taxi to Maho Beach from the cruise port was only $7 per person each way, so we found a shuttle at the port and headed for the beach.

Pool area at the Sunset Bar and Grill on Maho Beach St. Maarten

Our perfect spot lounging by the pool overlooking the beach

It was only about 10am when we arrived at the Sunset Bar and Grill. The restaurant was nearly empty, but the relatively small beach was already filling up with people. We realized that Maho Beach had the potential to get quite packed as the day went on and setting up shop there would put us directly in the middle of the crowd.

Instead, we opted for cushy beach chairs beside Sunset’s pool where we could relax all day, have dedicated food and drink service, and pop over to the beach whenever we wanted. For a rental fee of $10 per chair, which included use of the pool, it turned out to the perfect decision for us. If we hadn’t gotten that spot, our day at Maho Beach wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable.

To see Maho Beach and visit Orient Beach, too, consider this half-day tour.

If seeing more of the island is on your agenda, see reviews and prices for this tour that will take you to both the French and Dutch sides, including a Maho Beach visit.

A few of the food and beverage options at Sunset Bar and Grill, the St. Martin airport bar on Maho Beach

From awesome guavaberry coladas to chargrilled burgers, there’s lots to choose from

Watching the planes

As soon as we had our chairs at the Maho Beach bar, our server pointed us to the daily schedule that showed the times the planes were slated to land. What wasn’t immediately clear was that the planes listed were only the major airlines. Throughout the day, there were dozens of small planes approaching the airport that bridge the gaps between the jetliners’ landings. No matter how small the planes are, it’s exciting to watch them appear seemingly from nowhere and head straight toward where you’re standing on the beach.

A plane turning around in preparation for take-off at Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten

A plane turning around in preparation for take-off

One aspect of a day at St. Maarten’s Maho Beach that we hadn’t really counted on was that plane landings aren’t the only attraction. Take-offs get a lot of attention, too. As the planes turn to take their place on the St Maarten runway at take-off, their exhaust barrels toward the fence that separates the airport from the road. If you’re sitting on the beach or certainly at the Sunset Bar, you wouldn’t notice it at all. But some intrepid souls decide to ride the fence. Signs along the fence make it clear how very dangerous that can be.

Warning signs tell visitors not to fence surf at Princess Juliana International Airport in St Maarten Maho Beach

The warnings are impossible to miss (and serious)

Photographing the approach

Watching planes land at Maho Beach is truly a unique experience, and most people are focused on getting great photos. Unless you have a great travel camera or excel at taking action shots, it can be difficult to time things perfectly.

Plane landing over the St Maarten plane beach

Align yourself with the runway for an overhead shot

You can take photos from anywhere on the beach or at the bar where you have a clear view. For us, the two best spots were near the runway to get more overhead shots and near the pool at the Sunset Bar and Grill where we could capture the whole scene of the arriving plane and the beach below. We also set our cameras to continuous shooting, so we could capture the plane as it moved across the sky. My sister also shot some great iPhone videos and got perfect photos by just holding down the iPhone’s button to create a photo burst.

Jet landing over Maho Beach at Princess Juliana International Airport in St Maarten

The jets get just a little bit of attention from the crowds below

Tips for visiting Maho Beach

  • It can get crowded—tour buses continue to arrive throughout the day
  • Timing is everything—get an early start to get a prime spot
  • Be patient—the restaurant gets particularly busy 12:30-2:00 but is much quieter before and after
  • It’s possible to avoid the masses (sometimes)—most people swam within 10 feet of the beach, but we swam out a little farther and were alone with schools of fish, sea urchins, and coral. Consider bringing a snorkel set to see them up close. [Also, check out our helpful guide on the best snorkel gear for traveling.]
  • Transportation is convenient—we had no trouble getting a shuttle to Maho Beach from the cruise port or getting one back
  • Leave plenty of time to return to your ship—St. Maarten has a number of drawbridges that can stop traffic for some time; while it only took about a half-hour to get to Maho Beach, it took us closer to an hour to return to the ship in the afternoon
Reef off of Maho Beach St. Maarten

Just below the surface, off the beach

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What do you think about Extreme Aviation at Maho Beach in St. Maarten?

  1. Jeff Sites February 11, 2019 at 9:52 pm #

    We rented a scooter at the port for $60 and rode about 26 miles around the island. It was a perfect way to see a lot!

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