When we visited St Maarten this past June on a 7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Disney Fantasy, we booked a non-Disney Port Adventure with Bernard’s Tours. We signed up as part of a larger group, but the tour we took was similar to the current SXM Island Tour II, a beach sightseeing and shopping centric tour. So why venture off on your own? Quite simply, it can be much cheaper as well as more customizable. As you will see below, we were not disappointed in the least!
We pre-registered online by sending our names, the number in our party, the date, and the ship directly to Bernard. We also let him know that we were part of a larger tour group aboard the ship, as we wanted to book the tour as a cohesive unit. We then paid $40 per person at the pier upon arrival. Below is a copy of the confirmation email we were sent:
Thank you for choosing Bernard’s Tours.Your reservation is for our standard Group Tour and we will be meeting you at 9:00 AM right in front of the Yellow Building at the Information Center next to the Claude Wather Statue. Please walk up to the Information Center and ask for Bernard. We are located at about a three minute walk on the pier (from the ship to the Information Center).
Have a great day and we are committed to making your day in Paradise the best it can be. We greatly appreciate your business and look forward to meeting you. Group Tour $40 per person pay upon arrival. We accept payment by Cash, Master Card, Visa and Discover Credit Card…..
PLEASE BE ON TIME BECAUSE TIME IS VERY IMPORTANT ….
PLEASE CONFIRM RECEIPT OF THIS E-MAIL …
Thanking you in advance..
*Note: since we did this tour, Bernard has updated his website and tour information and goes about it a little differently now. There are now two different tours to choose from, as well as a deposit being required at the time of reservation.
This seems to be a good spot to stick in my disclaimer. It is really important for me to point out that Bernard’s Tours is NOT a Disney Port Adventure. First and foremost, you are on your own, if something happens and the ship must leave early or your excursion runs late, you will be left behind. The other aspect of venturing out on a non-Disney Port Adventure is that they have not vetted the tour operator.
This was our first time on our own, and I’d be lying to you if I said I was not worried. My biggest fear is watching the ship sail away while we are returning to the pier. If you do not believe the ship will leave you behind, just search YouTube. My concerns were eased as the first question we were asked was: “What time do we need to be back to the ship?” Plus, we were taking this tour with around 15+ other families sailing on the Fantasy. At least if something would have happened, we would have been in good company!
The meeting point was just a short walk from the pier. We were greeted by Bernard himself. We then proceeded to the window to pay for the tour. The Information Center does have public restrooms, and I would suggest using them before you board the bus as it will be about 90 minutes until you have another opportunity.
Our group was split up between a few air conditioned buses. We tried to stick together with a few of the families that we knew and made our way over to the van where we met our tour guide, Sugar! Once everyone was settled, we were off on our journey. To our surprise, Sugar provided bottled water, juice packs, Presidente Beer, Coke, Diet Coke, and Sugar’s Homemade Spiked Guava Drink (essentially a guavaberry rum punch) all in a cooler for us to enjoy!
Our first stop on the tour was an Iguana farm for approximately 10-15 minutes. At first, we just saw a few iguanas in the bushes. Once Sugar pulled out a bag of romaine lettuce, it was like a scene from Ratatouille – but with a bunch of iguanas! The iguanas converged on our group, as they apparently knew it was feeding time.
Sugar’s said that they really go wild for bananas, and luckily someone in the group had one to share. Boy did those iguanas go crazy like a kid on Christmas morning! Some of these iguanas were HUGE!!! I had an iguana as a kid, but even the smallest one at the farm was bigger than my guy ever got (at least before I gave him to a new family).
As we were heading back to the bus, we noticed some pens which were not part of the Iguana farm tour. These happened to be the home for roosters and as it turns out, St Maarten has a long standing tradition of cock fighting.
Observatory of Coralita
After a brief drive, we arrived at the theo Observatry of Coralita, a protected nature site co-financed by European Union and the French Government. Walking from the bus to the shore you need to be careful walking up and down the slope as the ground made up of loose gravel and in some places pretty slippery. The rocky shoreline was beautiful on this day.
Just near the shore, Sugar was able to picked up this huge star fish and sea urchin to pass around to our group.
As we went back to board our tour vans, we noticed two people off on a beach horseback riding. Sugar mentioned that this was a very common thing on the island for locals to do, not just something that tourists do. While we were driving away, the riders rode the horses into the water! It was a very pretty sight to observe! The kids certainly loved it as well. Sugar told us that they were talking the horses in to cool off on the warm June day.
Orient Bay Beach
As we were heading over to Orient Bay Beach, Sugar said it was time to customize our tour. To be honest, I loved this part and I think that this is something great about hiring a private tour company. Our longest stop of the tour was suppose to be at Orient Beach. He gave us a choice and told us that if we spent the entire allotted 90 minutes at Orient Bay, that we would miss a large jet arrival at Maho Beach later. He said it was completely up to us, that we would still be given beach time, it would just be more split between the two beaches instead of a longer time at one over the other. All but 2 people on the the tour bus agreed with this, and the majority ruled. After all, personally, the main thing we wanted to see was the beach with the planes!
We drove into the Orient Bay area and Sugar informed us that we were passing a part of the beach the was totally clothing-optional. He did warn us that although the area we were going to was more of a family beach, it was permissible to be topless, and that we should not be surprised. We were given about 45-60 minutes to enjoy the sights the beach had to offer. The was quite an interesting stop to say the least. Prior to our arrival, Sugar informed us that we would be setting up shop at Brother’s, a local eatery and bar on the beach. We had free use of the umbrellas, and we could also rent a lounge chair at Brother’s for $5. The arrangement also included the use of the restroom, but let’s just say it was not the best option for the women and children in the group. Maybe, by now, they have fixed the plumbing issue that had turned it into a hybrid bathroom-shower.
The beach was beautiful with crystal clear blue water you expect to find in the Caribbean. However, we did not bring any bathing suits or towels with us. To be honest, we actually didn’t know what to expect with the tour, as on a previous tour in Grand Cayman, it included a beach stop, which was just that – a beach stop (we were there for like 10 minutes to take pics and leave, no swimming). It ended up being OK, as there really wasn’t any place to rinse the salt water off after swimming, and there were still several places to stop once we were through. Our daughter was content to play in the sand, while we stood there under an umbrella, watched her and took pictures. One that that did get a little old fairly quickly were the number of people walking up and down the beach offering hair braiding and trying to sell us things. We told them “no thank you” politely, but it seemed like it was never-ending. Of note, the clothing optional resort, Club Orient, is located at the top of the picture below.
Occasionally, beach walkers would pass by providing additional sightseeing opportunities that you would not expect on a Disney Cruise. This may be something you want to take into consideration and discuss with your children before you arrive. During our time on the beach, there was just a handful of women opting to pass on the bathing suit tops.
Our next stop was to Marigot, the capital on the French side of St. Martin. The popular place to visit in Marigot is Sarafina’s, a Bakery and Pastry Shop, which also serves sandwiches and ice cream. There was a very wide selection of things to get. Many of our fellow cruisers on the tour got something to eat there, and everything did look delicious. One of the families even brought Sugar back his favorite pastry, and he was very thankful for that!! There are also decent public restrooms available at this stop. Near our bus stop, street vendors were set up selling their wares in an area very close to where our bus was parked, and some families did go over there to explore.
Our next stop was Maho Beach on the Dutch side of St Martin. Sugar did an excellent job of getting us there and rushing us over to the beach before the big jet came in (as not all of the tour groups did get there in time; I wonder if it has to do with perhaps a longer time at Orient Bay beach). I had been looking forward to visiting Maho Beach just about as much as the cruise itself (ok, that is a bit of a stretch, but somewhat true). Maho Beach is best known as the beach with the airplanes. The Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) is located just across the street from the beach and arriving aircraft get as close to the beach as possible. In fact, I cannot even believe it is legal to be that close to an arriving airplane.
The families swam in the water and played on the beach here. We thought that this beach was even prettier than Orient Bay. Sure, there weren’t any beach chairs, and there was a steep drop off from the top down to the beach, but the water here was even prettier and the water super calm (plus, the planes provide much better sights!). There was a bar/restaurant down at the end of the beach, but the action with the planes being directly overhead happens more centrally. Here’s a disclaimer from my wife: please be sure to reapply your sunscreen multiple times; we did and we didn’t even swim. In fact, I felt that every time I turned around she was making us reapply, but in the end, it was worth it. It’s especially important here at Maho because there were no umbrellas or any kind of sun shade or protection. Later that day back on board the ship, we saw several of the families we were with and they had crispy sunburned faces, shoulders, chests and arms — ouch!!
While arriving planes are cool, departure can be equally as fun depending on the size of the airplane. The bigger the plane, the more you will feel the push standing behind the engines during takeoff. Below is a short video I shot of the largest plane that departed SXM during our time at Maho.
If you are going to visit Maho Beach for the airplanes, make sure you check the online arrival and departure times. If you have an iOS device and are not worried about international data charges, check out the FlightTrack app (basic version).
Needless to say, this was my favorite stop on the tour. Next time, I hope to see some more of the larger planes.
A Fantastic View
Maho Beach was the last major stop on our group tour, but we were given the opportunity to stop at the general store to pick up cheap souvenirs or whatever else we needed. Sugar referred to this as a local souvenir Walmart. Only 2 people on our tour wanted to stop, so he dropped them off at the store to shop while he drove the rest of us back to the pier. By this time, it was about 2pm. Several of us had young children who were tuckered out by the day’s events, and one family had to get to their appointment in the BBB for their two kids to get their pirate make overs for pirate night. Neat thing about Sugar – he went back to pick them up after dropping the rest of us off at the cruise pier instead of making them find their own way back. I thought that was a nice touch considering he technically could’ve just made us all wait in the van while they shopped instead of making two stops back to the ship. Sugar was excellent, and you could tell he really loved kids, as he could tell they were exhausted from all the fun of the day!!
Our Guide “Sugar“
Our tour guide, Sugar, really did a great job and if you can, be sure to request him as your guide. Be sure to take some cash along to tip your guide at the end if you feel that they deserve it. I can tell you implicitly that Sugar did a superb job, was completely appropriate, and did not disappoint!!
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the island through Bernard’s Tours. We would not hesitate to recommend them, and would certainly take a tour with them again. As far as being back to the ship in time, no problem at all there!!! The ship didn’t leave until 6:30pm and even if we had decided to stop to shop, there still would’ve been plenty of time to spare! If you are interested in booking a tour, give Bernard’s SXM Tours a glace.