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I just experienced the most most amazing visit to St Maarten ever!


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How’s that for a lead in?

In a post last fall, I wrote that one of the most satisfying aspects of travel derives from the experience of meeting people in faraway places who come from completely different backgrounds and learning their stories. On a recent port stop on St Maarten, I met another awesome person and the world got a little smaller; I want to share. Based on advice from a friend that I’ve never actually met, I hired a private driver for our port stop on that island.

For only $150, Leo Brown, a lifelong resident of St Maarten, agreed to meet us at the dock, drive us anywhere on the island that we wanted to go, wait for us, and then bring us back to the port at the end of the day. Whatever we wanted to do, visit a beach, have a meal, visit another beach, anything, Leo would handle it.

If you think that private drivers are the stuff of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or perhaps that the price sounds extravagant, it’s not; In reality, Leo’s services were quite economical when compared versus the alternatives. Normally, taxis on the island operate as shared rides and charge on a per-person basis. If you take a taxi to one place and then want to go somewhere else after that first stop, you have to seek out another taxi. As things go in the Caribbean, even after you’ve found a taxi, often you’ll have to wait for the vehicle to fill before the driver will leave. It’s easy to rack up a lot of fares pretty quickly and still not experience anywhere near the same level of attention we did with our private driver (more on that in a minute).

If you decide to skip the taxis and just do a tour sponsored by the ship, those excursions easily can run $75 per person. Generally, participants on those ships’ tours are guided around the island in large herds and provided a sterile, predictable tour. Even with only two people on our private tour, Leo’s price likely matched the ship excursion price. Leo’s van could have fit two more couples without any problems, which would have made the per person price unbelievably cheap! In addition, Leo provided us with personalized attention that is impossible to replicate on a large group tour!

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On my last visit to St Maarten, I went to Orient Beach, which is among the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I wanted to return to Orient Beach on this trip, but I learned that all of the facilities at Orient Beach and many other places on St Maarten were devastated by Hurricane Irma last September and rebuilding has been very slow. I needed a different plan, so I reached out to Matt Hochberg of the Royal Caribbean Blog and Podcast. I have heard Matt rave about Leo from his own visits to St Maarten, so I requested Leo’s contact information. I figured that Leo would help us navigate the closures and take us to some good places.

Boy, did he ever!

As promised, Leo met us at the port holding a sign with my name on it. The day began with a tour around Phillipsburg, and then a stop at the border monument and a drive around Marigot, the capital of the French side. Leo made a few stops for pictures; evidence of destruction from Maria was still everywhere, and Leo explained various aspects: what used to be there, how the rebuilding is going, and what the future plans are. Government buildings, former hotels, the airport, even a former Harley shop. Nothing was spared from the fury of Maria. Download for windows 10 free. Leo told us that winds of 240 mph pounded the island for seven consecutive hours. It was sad on one hand, but it was also uplifting to hear the spirit and optimism he demonstrated.

The former Sonesta Hotel on Great Bay, left in ruins by Hurricane Maria

Our original plan was to have breakfast in Marigot, but the entire town seemed to be closed. Leo explained that we happened to be visiting on a holiday, Ascension Day, forty days after Easter. So, we proceeded to Baie Rouge, a hidden beach that is even more beautiful than Orient Beach. There were no signs on the road; Leo just pulled into a lot behind a restaurant and led us to a beach that had only ten other people on it. Without Leo, we would have never found it; because of him, we had this strand of paradise almost to ourselves!

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Baie Rouge this picture-perfect, uncrowded beach is hidden behind an unassuming beach grill. We never would have found it without Leo. Although the restaurant brags in French that “everything is good,” I don’t think that they included good service in that boast!

As the day continued, Leo took us to Maho Beach in time to see the biggest plane of the day land at SXM airport. This is the famous beach where the huge jetliners on final approach buzz over tourists and thrillseekers. We grabbed a table at the Sunset Bar and had lunch as we waited for the planes to arrive. Leo, who was becoming our friend for the day, sat with us. He pulled out his phone and showed me pictures of his kids and of his wife’s fiftieth birthday party while we shared a pizza.

Hanging out at Sunset Bar and Grill on Maho Beach

Our final stop was a visit to Mullet Bay, a beach on the Dutch side of the island. Leo sat in the shade with us and kept watch over our belongings while we waded into the ocean. Given that it was a holiday, Mullet Bay was very busy that afternoon. Leo’s ninja parking skills were put to the test as he managed to shoehorn his van into and out of the chaotic parking lot. To squeeze through, he had to fold in the mirrors on his van — and the mirrors of the passing vehicles, too! “Check to see if there are any scratches,” he told another driver after we passed impossibly close! There were no scratches; Leo is a pro.

Leo chills under a beach umbrella on Mullet Bay

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At the end of the day, as we said goodbye to Leo and reboarded our cruise ship, we were filled with joy thinking about the friendly man with whom we had been able to spend our day on St Maarten. The island and its incredible beaches did not disappoint, but it’s Leo that we’ll remember long after. It was an experience that we would not have enjoyed had we stuck to one of the insulated, unimaginative package tours. It’s the kind of experience that can be had only by grabbing your passport and seeing the world.

Leo gives us two thumbs up as we depart back to our ship.

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Edited: 2019-02-03 to correct the name of the hurricane which devastated St Maarten in 2017.

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