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St. Maarten

St. Maarten Cruise Port: Tips, Attractions, Weather

St. Maarten cruise docks. © 2017 Scott S. Bateman
St. Maarten cruise docks. © 2017 Scott S. Bateman

The Philipsburg St. Maarten cruise port has three major attractions: the massive John Craane cruise terminal, the nearby city and Great Bay Beach right beside it.

A St. Maarten cruise has great appeal simply because the island has one of the best cruise ports in the entire Caribbean. It offers convenient access and plenty to do right there by the port.

Shopping and Dining | Attractions | Getting Around | Beaches | Weather

What makes a good cruise port arguably is a combination of:

  • Shopping
  • Beaches
  • Attractions
  • Local people
  • Atmosphere

The St. Maarten cruise port at Philipsburg has all of the above in a pleasant mix. It is a must-see stop for any southern or eastern Caribbean cruise. It attracts 2 million cruise visitors who come to the port every year, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Quick Travel Tips

  • The main St. Maarten cruise port is Dr. A.C. Wathey Cruise & Cargo Facilities at Philipsburg.
  • The terminal itself is a massive outdoor mall named after John Craane.
  • Walk three fourths of a mile, ride in a land taxi or take a quick water taxi to the downtown tourist district.
  • Great Bay Beach, a long boardwalk and shopping on Front Street run side by side.
  • Orient Beach and the town of Marigot are two popular attractions on the French side of the island.

Attractions and Shore Excursions

Walking Around Attractions

St. Maarten Cruise Port Map

The city of Philipsburg itself is one of the best attractions on the island because of its appealing and well-developed tourism district. It also has the massive cruise terminal nearby.

Cruise visitors will arrive at Dr. A.C. Wathey Cruise & Cargo Facilities just outside of Philipsburg on Great Bay. The John Craane cruise terminal is a large open-air mall where visitors can shop, dine and head for their paid shore excursions. The terminal has useful signs that point people to where they want to go.

Where they want to go often includes Philipsburg itself. The main appeal is the convenient Great Bay Beach, the long boardwalk that runs parallel to it and the shops and restaurants that line the boardwalk. Running parallel to the boardwalk is Front Street, which has most of the shops in the city. It’s worth noting that shopping on Front Street has declined in recent years because much of it has moved to the John Craane cruise terminal.

Great Bay Beach isn’t the best beach in the Caribbean or even the best beach on St. Maarten. But it is one of the most convenient beaches in the Caribbean for cruise port visitors because it is within walking distance of the docks. They can rent umbrellas and chairs for a reasonable price and a lovely view of the bay.

Cruise passengers get from the docks to Philipsburg via walking, taxi or an inexpensive water taxi. The walk is about 10 minutes, goes three fourths of a mile and is not difficult on a warm day. The water taxi stand at the cruise port is just a quick walk north of the docks. Again, look for signs point the way. The price for an entire day is $7 per person at the time of this writing.

Anyone who walks around the Philipsburg waterfront won’t find much else to see other than the beach, boardwalk, shops and restaurants. Very energetic walkers can hike 2.5 miles to the other side of the bay to Little Bay Beach and the small ruins of Fort Amsterdam.

Shore Excursions

Outside of Philipsburg, two of the most famous attractions on the island are beaches.

Orient Beach, which lies north of Philipsburg in the French district, is the most popular and well-known beach on the island. Note that it is clothing optional. Don’t be surprised to see a beach goer who wears nothing at all. An exclusive shore excursion to Orient Bay costs about $70 per person.

One of the more famous and controversial attractions is the Maho Bay beach next to Princess Juliana International Airport. The short runway forces planes to fly low over the beach. Some beach visitors get so close that the blast from the jet engines knock them over. A snorkeling excursion there costs about $75 per person including transportation.

A nice day trip is a jaunt from the Philipsburg cruise port over to Marigot, capital of the French side, or Grand Case. Other St. Maarten attractions include the Mont Vernon Plantation and the Butterfly Farm.

An island tour that includes quick stops at Orient Beach, Maho Bay, Marigot, Mullet Bay Beach and other attractions will cost about $50 per person.

St Maarten photo
Orient Beach St. Martin. © Scott S. Bateman

Beaches Near the Cruise Port

Great Bay Beach is the most convenient beach for cruise port visitors because it lies within a brief walk and water taxi ride from the cruise docks. Orient is the most famous. But in our experience, the best beaches for St. Maarten visitors aren’t on St. Maarten.

Anyone with an interest in good beaches might instead consider a shore excursion to one of the neighboring islands, such as Anguilla, St. Barth or Saba.

Anguilla is the most popular of the three and only 10 miles off the St. Maarten coast. It has beautiful white sand beaches and is reachable by ferry or excursion boat from Simpson Bay and Marigot. St. Barth is frequented by the rich and famous. Saba is known for hiking and other ecotourism activities.

Shopping and Dining

St. Maarten cruise port
Front Street in Philipsburg. © Scott S. Bateman

Anyone wanting a break from Great Bay Beach can stroll along the Boardwalk, which is lined with restaurants and shops.

They can walk a hundred more feet to reach many more restaurants and the port’s extensive shopping district, most of which falls along the lengthy Front Street.

Until the development of the new cruise terminal, Front Street ranked among one of the best shopping experiences in the Caribbean—along with Playa Del Carmen, St. Thomas and Old San Juan. It is quite a bit more quiet these days.

The street is a long walk but not too challenging for anyone who is somewhat fit. If walking isn’t appealing, there are quite a few transportation options.

The best restaurants on the island are mainly concentrated in two areas. They are Philipsburg on the southern coast and Simpson Bay on the southwest coast because they have the cruise port and the airport.

More restaurants are in the packed resort areas. A smaller number of restaurants are on the French side in Marigot and Grand Case.

The Philipsburg and Simpson Bay restaurants cater to all tastes. But they mainly represent low-end casual in one group and high-end seafood and steak in the other.

There are few chain restaurants. The St. Martin French restaurants in Marigot are smaller and more casual.

Getting Around

Philipsburg St. Maarten waterfront
Philipsburg visitors will reach the waterfront after a brief walk from the cruise docks. Credit: Depositphotos

On foot. Philipsburg is big enough and developed enough to spend most of the day on foot.

But traffic outside of the Boardwalk and Front Street is often heavy. So get a taxi or car rental if you plan to see more than just the tourism district.

Taxis. Taxi rates are set according to more than 20 zones around the island.

Expect to pay anywhere between $7 and $35 to get to a zone. At the time of this writing, getting to Marigot is $18 and Orient Beach is $20.

Car rentals. The island has a small number of narrow winding roads, so car rentals even for a day are quite common—so common that traffic jams are frequent.

A cruise visitor who is thinking about a car rental might do so for visits to the less-populated French side of the island, especially the quaint city of Marigot.

Driving around parts of the Dutch side, especially around Simpson Bay, adds some risk of traffic jams and late returns to the ship.

Public bus. Taking a bus is a less expensive option. A St. Maarten bus is often an SUV. It has BUS at the beginning of the license plate and the destination sign in the window.

Taxis, which also are usually SUVs, have a T at the beginning of the license plate. A 10-15 percent tip for bus and taxi drivers is common.

Bicycles / scooters. While it is useful to consider a rental car, bus or taxi, it is wise to avoid renting a bicycle or scooter.

The island has virtually no stop signs or stop lights. The roads are narrow and winding. Drivers are sometimes aggressive when fighting through traffic.

Cruise Port Weather

St. Maarten monthly rainfall
© 2021 Scott S. Bateman

St. Maarten’s average weather consists of warm temperatures year round that average in the mid 80s Fahrenheit.

Temperatures stay in the low 80s Fahrenheit in the winter and reach the high 80s in the summer. Seawater averages about three degrees cooler, which makes swimming good at any time.

Rainfall is a different matter. It is often moderate from January through July. Then it climbs to a high point for the rest of the year.

September and November historically have the highest rainfall and are the riskiest months to go there.

Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. He is the author of four books about cruising in the Caribbean, Alaska and Mexican Riviera.
April 09, 2024

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