St. Maarten: One of the Few Places in the World for this Beach Adventure

Adam Twidell, PrivateFly frames the oncoming KLM 747. Also in the shot are Miquel Ros of AllPlanes (left) and Commander Bud Slabbaert. Courtesy Alain Duzant

Adam Twidell, PrivateFly, frames the oncoming KLM 747. Also in the shot are Miquel Ros of AllPlanes (left) and Commander Bud Slabbaert. Courtesy Alain Duzant

By Kathryn B. Creedy

St. Maarten has long been on my bucket list not only because it offers tropical beaches, but because it feeds my insatiable appetite for all things aviation. So when I was invited on a press trip to cover the development of the Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM), I jumped at the chance. I knew I was in for a beachside adventure but had no idea further adventures awaited at neighbor islands St. Barth’s and Sabo — but more on that in a later post.

A KLM 747 just above the heads of travel and aviation journalists. Alain Duzant.

A KLM 747 just above the heads of travel and aviation journalists. Alain Duzant.

The SXM runway is literally several feet from Maho Beach and landing aircraft come in to Runway 10 several meters above the heads of sunbathers bobbing calmly in warm, blue-green waters of Maho Bay. The scene is captivating even to those who would otherwise not give aircraft a second thought. After all, we don’t normally get to be this close to aircraft in flight.

The American morning flight lands feet above the warm, clear waters of Maho Bay. Kathryn B. Creedy

The American morning flight lands feet above the warm, clear waters of Maho Bay. Kathryn B. Creedy

WestJet 737 aircraft landing. Courtesy Chris Kjelgaard, Airlines and Destinations

WestJet 737 aircraft landing. Courtesy Chris Kjelgaard, Airlines and Destinations

“People are aviation enthusiasts without even knowing it,” Sheldon Palm, who runs a fixed base operation serving private jets at the airport. “They see a plane and think, no big deal. But then they come to Maho Beach and the light dawns. I always have to chuckle when I see their reaction to a large jet landing so close.”

Indeed, Palm can often be found at the world renowned Sunset Beach Bar where flight times are posted on — what else — a surf board planted upright in the sand. The wide variety of large and small aircraft landing repeatedly distracts patrons as they grab a mouthful before popping up excitedly to get a shot of the latest aircraft on approach. This is no beach dive. Sunset Beach Bar @sunsetbeachbar not only offers great waterside and airside views but really delicious food.

Steak Salad at Sunset Beach Bar. Mmmm, Good. Kathryn B. Creedy

Steak Salad at Sunset Beach Bar. Mmmm, Good. Kathryn B. Creedy

Maho Beach, too, is world-renowned in AvGeek circles. Long ago, the History Channel made it even more famous by including it in a collection of the most extreme airports naming it the fourth most dangerous airport in the world. That, I think, was dramatic license. In reality, SXM landings and takeoffs are far from dangerous with a 7,500-foot runway and a safety record to match the best in the world. Even the largest jets can handily make the turn required to avoid the mountains on take off. Still, the low approach and easy access to get spectacular photographs make it a plane-spotters paradise.

A tiny, narrow roadway separates a thin strip of sand from the chain link fence surrounding SXM. When the KLM and Air France wide bodies are on approach, crowds gather on the rocky beach and at the fence and drivers carefully navigate the gawkers who are otherwise distracted by a huge aircraft roaring just above their heads. Luckily, we were there in the low summer season and the crowd was manageable. But, locals report that in the high season the place becomes a zoo as tourists push and jostle their way to just the right spot.

That first day, we gathered in a darkened boardroom for a briefing with SXM Director Regina LaBrega, speaking in low tones about the ambitious and impressive expansion plans for the airport. As 10 am approached the 10 travel writers and aviation journalists launched from their seats. It was time to interrupt the briefing for a quick side trip to Maho Beach for the 10:45 KLM 747 landing. We all bundled into Taxi 322 for the five-minute trip and excitedly tumbled out, shielding our eyes from the bright morning glare. With cameras in hand, we were ready for action.

A strong wind blowing from the east greeted us as we scrambled among the rocks placed to maintain the beach during the summer season when sand is eroded away. Unashamedly, and despite numerous warning signs, we climbed the fence to take pictures of departing planes and the looming mountains they must climb as they take off. It was AvGeeks on parade as the cars struggled to pass.

Most pay little attention to the danger warnings. For that reason, the airport moved runway touchdown/takeoff a little further east so gawkers would not get literally blown away in the jet wash. Still that does not stop InselAir from giving gawkers a thrill by revving up its engines near the fence.

Most pay little attention to the danger warnings. For that reason, the airport moved runway touchdown/takeoff a little further east so gawkers would not get literally blown away in the jet wash. Still that does not stop InselAir from giving gawkers a thrill by revving up its jet engines near the fence. Miquel Ros

Then all eyes turned west as an old Amerijet Cargo Boeing 727 approached, providing us with a great practice run for the main event. It closed in on us, dropping lower and lower and screamed so loudly as it passed overhead vibrations tickled the inside of my ears. It was all I could do not to reflexively duck.

A few minutes later, the KLM 747 approached as a tiny speck in the Western sky. We positioned ourselves and it seemed like forever before that tiny dot loomed into one of the largest aircraft in the world. All of a sudden, however, it was upon us, roaring overhead, a ground-shaking rumble compared to the high-pitched scream of the 727. It seemed so close you could almost reach up to touch the drooping undercarriage.

The KLM “speck” appears about frame 50. The audio of this film does not capture the magnitude of the experience. My pitiful attempts at getting good footage were dismal so I am unashamedly poaching from my colleagues with due credit, of course. Video courtesy Chris Kjelgaard, Airlines & Destinations

There was laughter and giggles as we compared notes and immediately checked to see if we captured the mighty event on video. Wow, it was better than we expected, surpassing every inch of dramatic hype we’ve seen over the years. Too soon we were back in that darkened boardroom at SXM, windblown and chattering like excited children. As we returned to business we knew we would be back out there. Lunch was scheduled for the Sunset Beach Bar.

After tours of the airport and the air traffic control tower as well as briefings on air traffic services and how the airport prepares for hurricanes, it was time to head back to the hotel. The hot, sticky, sweat-drenched day had taken its toll and all I could think of was peeling off my clothes at the Sonesta Ocean Point where we stayed. In record time I was jumping into Maho Bay. As I bobbled along in the gently rolling, blue-green surf, a US Airways 767-200 took off overhead, the only aircraft to use Runway 28 for takeoffs owing to its high weight. As it roared by and I floated on my back to watch, I realized it was the perfect capper to the first of many hectic, sun, sea, surf and sky days.

Here’s a KLM takeoff from SXM. 

Cape Flattery: a Challenging Hike But Oh So Worth It!

Story and Photos by Kathryn B. Creedy

map Cape Flattery

There was something intriguing about going to the western-most point in the Continental U.S. After all, I’d been to the southern most point on a trip to Key West. Cape Flattery, WA, however, was far more challenging but it led me to a new realization about myself.

As my daughter and I headed west on the two-hour trip from Port Angeles we passed through the remotest land I’d ever seen. We had lived in Vermont and it was positively metropolitan by comparison. Tiny towns dotted our path along with startling views of the Juan de Fuca Straight, separating the Olympic Peninsula from Canada. Huge, ship-like rocks stood off shore as if waiting to berth.

We traveled into the Neah Bay valley that is the Makah Indian Reservation and it was evident these hearty folk had followed their ancients; making their living from the sea. Fifteen minutes later we were at the end of the world.

As I stood at the trailhead I could only see a sharp incline under a canopy of trees. Down, down, down, down stairs made of tree roots and foot-worn earth we went. About half way down, soft rain began to fall.

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Suddenly I could hear the distant surf, out of place in the deep woods that surrounded us. As I stopped to listen, I surveyed the uneven path and began to worry whether my old legs would get me back up.

“Hmm,” I wondered. “I assume there is no cellphone service so there will be no calling a rescue helicopter.” Little did I know similar thoughts were coursing through my daughter’s head. “What if she falls and breaks something…What if I can’t get her out….”

I continued my decent suddenly realizing I was one of those people. You know the ones. They are in all the evening news pharmaceutical commercials. The ones who make you feel inadequate because you are not swimming across lakes or biking along beautiful wooded paths. “Who are these people,” I would ask myself. “They make aging look so fetching.” I knew better.

But here I was: A woman of a certain age, having already hiked to Marymere Falls earlier that morning, doing just that type of arduous activity. I just wish I looked like some of the women in the commercials!

My mind circled back to that earlier hike near Lake Crescent. Hard by a bucolic Blue Spruce green glacial lake, Lake Crescent Lodge and cottages looked fetching and bespoke of an earlier time in the National Parks. The October air was cool and wet as soft clouds settled in the far valley and the mountains reflected in the clear-to-the-bottom water.

The gentle flow of a brook spilled into the lake to either side of a huge stump lying on its side at the mouth. Yellow leaves swirled in tiny whirlpools. The Marymere Falls hike was to replace my daily two-mile constitutional on the beach at home. The guidebooks called it an easy walk to the falls but did not mention the abrupt climb as we approached the misty cove surrounding the falls.

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“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” my mind recalled a long-remembered Robert Frost poem. And they were, deep and light greens contrasting with sunlit dappled yellows, dew-covered ferns, fairy-like leaves and earth tones. Bird song provided the sound track which mingled with the earthy smell of autumn woodland.

Now, climbing carefully down, I thought the guidebooks should define the word “moderate” better. It didn’t feel moderate to me.

The surf was getting louder and just to our left was a promontory overlooking two sea-torn rocky sentinels, known as sea stacks. The sea swept in crashing at the base, spraying foam up the sides. On top was an unlikely forest of evergreens, cut from the mainland. Was this what it looked like as the continents drifted apart?

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We resumed our hike and were soon slipping along the wet, uneven boardwalk leading to our destination. Trail’s end was high atop a rocky cliff overlooking the Pacific. Huge swells flowed through the straight between the cliff and Tatoosh Island, home to Cape Flattery Light House, eerily adrift on the misty horizon.

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The sea had scoured towering caves in the cliffs on either side of the point. As relentless waves crashed into them, a deep rumbling arose from within like distant thunder, echoing the roiling surf.

Too soon it was time to turn and climb. I had my doubts as we picked our way carefully through the exposed roots traversing the path. I kept an even pace and stopped to catch my breath every so often, watching as tiny droplets fell from delicate leaves in the steady rain.

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It wasn’t long before my climb was at an end. It had taken me 20 minutes to reach the parking lot from high cliff top.

As I sat in the car, I felt my breathing ease, my heart rate slow. I was aware of thrumming in my legs and the uncanny energy that follows such exercise. If the guidebooks had actually described the stumbling path and high-degree incline, I would probably have been scared away. I’m glad I wasn’t.

We drove along the narrow roads and I felt pride that this woman of a certain age not only conquered the challenge of Cape Flattery but the hour-long hike to Marymere Falls. To both my daughter and me, I thought…Oh ye of little faith.

Kathryn B. Creedy is a freelance writer living in Indian Harbour Beach, FL.

Keywords: Olympic Peninsula, Cape Flattery, hiking, sea, light house, water falls, Washington, Port Angeles, Marymere Falls, Lake Crescent, lake, beach, surf, waves, a certain age