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. 

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The Beat on the Beach – Family Fun at Nokomis

Creedy Girls Drums

Alexis, Kathryn & Brooks Creedy Sunsetting on Nokomis Beach

By Kathryn B. Creedy

Sunset on the Gulf Coast is usually spectacular during the high, wide and handsome days of a Florida winter. But this year, as the New Year dawned, my daughters and I experienced a unique sunset event that harkened back to primeval days when we joined a Drum Circle at Florida’s Nokomis Beach on the Gulf Coast.

Our hosts for the weekend mentioned a cool family event, which occurs each Wednesday and Saturday at sunset at their local beach. I had no idea what to expect when they said there were a lot of drummers on the beach but I was very intrigued.

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The Nokomis Drum Circle threw me back millennia. Despite the modern trappings surrounding me, I felt as if I were part of a pre-Colombian sun worshiping ceremony. January 3, 2015, was unique, however, with a simultaneous sunset and full moonrise as the drums beat a steady rhythm you could feel through the sand.

Drummers were all ages and all abilities from master drummers to people with simple tambourines. The audience was already large when we arrived having set up hundreds of chairs that completed the circle. Near the dunes, sat 25 to 30 drummers, men, women, young and old. Opposite were the sea and the sinking sun under a clear blue sky.

In the middle of the circle was a white opaque ball, surrounded at its base with fairy lights and palm leaves. Dozens of dancers swayed to the beat in both modern interpretive styles and traditional belly dancing as they moved around the circle.

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Was this what Florida’s Indians did in the earliest days of this peninsula, I asked myself as I looked around. Dancers weaved in and out of the circle some with children in tow like modern-day pied pipers. Some of the dancers had crafted elaborate wing-like costumes and seemed to float, billowing in the gentle breeze, as they made their way around the circle looking like giant, colorful butterflies.

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This is so primitive, I thought, as primal as a heartbeat. But it drew me in with the magnetism that draws many of us to the sea. I later found out that the allusion to pagan rituals is no accident since the Nokomis Beach Drum Circle was founded as just that. While the word pagan comes with baggage typical of the unfamiliar, at its core, it is simply a reverence for the natural world and seeing a divine presence in that world. As an environmentalist and one who cleans the beach every day on my two-mile walk, I related to that. Even so, drum circles may not have anything to do with pagan worship but can just be a group of people spontaneously creating music on drums and other percussion instruments.

It turns out the 20-plus-year-old Nokomis Beach Drum Circle is far from unique. Indeed, there are many such circles in Florida both beachside and inland and they can be found at The Primal Connection or elsewhere around the world at the Drum Circle Network. The Nokomis circle is an informal affair, according to the unofficial liaison between the County and the group, Frank Alexander. All you have to do is show up with a percussion instrument. If you go he suggested getting there an hour and a half before sunset.

The audience sat contentedly tapping hands on legs or bare feet in the sugary white sand typical of many Gulf beaches. They dined al fresco from the picnic baskets filled with typical beach picnic fare along with such libations as wine, beer and soda. It is a casual affair with few rules and is clearly a tradition in this small community, one that continues to resonate with residents and visitors alike.

As the drummers reached one of many crescendos, the light visibly softened signaling that duskish time just before sunset. Necks craned to watch the sun sink in the Western sky as the beat climbed. Many left the circle to stand at water’s edge to watch it descend into the cool, calm blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

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The sky turned from blue to yellow to a fiery orange red. Then, inside the circle a single individual joined the dancers and faced west. He lifted a conch shell to his lips and blew a single long note to mark sunset. He repeated this to the south, east and north then returned to his place among the drummers. Nearby, a dancer posed at water’s edge, the sun, the sea and a sailboat marking her backdrop.

Slowly, a full moon appeared veiled in gossamer clouds as it ascended in the Eastern sky. Drummers had quickened their pace to the setting sun and were now beating a calmer percussion. In the center of the ring, the opaque ball changed colors to the many hues of blue, green and red, pink, orange and yellow. Little girls stood mesmerized by this central focal point designed to replace the bonfire, which lit the Drum Circle in its early days. They gingerly touched the ball quickly drawing back their tiny fingers, clearly expecting it to be hot. They then leaned over, their small hands becoming colorful shadows as the ball cast its changing glow.

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As the moon emerged from its cloudy veil, dancers donned lit hula hoops, which provided a colorful counterpoint to the gathering dark. The swirling hoops created patterned lights dancing out from the bodies swaying to the beat.

Revelers stay for hours through the night. As it darkened, however, we headed home. Walking down the beach, the sounds of the drums followed us as stars emerged from the inky black sky.

Beat on the Beach slideshow with soundtrack