Travel

The Caribbean Island Where Planes Soar Just Above Your Head at the Beach

With the steepest zipline in the world and parties with parrots.

Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Give Sint Maarten a Google and you’ll be greeted with a couple different spellings. There’s a reason for that, and prepare for the geographical portion of your mind to be blown: There are actually two separate countries on this singular, 37-square-mile island. That’s right, to the north is the French side, Saint Martin. And to the south-comprising approximately 45% of the island’s total mass-is the Dutch country of Sint Maarten.

Every nook of this enchanted mountains-meets-sea destination deserves your time and energy. The smaller Dutch side carries a memorable punch, with the abundant friendliness of its locals as attraction number one. Its motto is “The Friendly Island,” after all.

Beyond chats with a Saint Maartener over sips of the country’s signature guavaberry liqueur, there is oh so much to experience in this bit of the Leeward Islands. From plopping it on a beach as planes soar a few dozen feet above your head to riding the world’s steepest zipline to noshing on all the johnnycakes possible, here’s how to experience the Sint Maarten magic.

Captain Wang/Shutterstock
Captain Wang/Shutterstock
Captain Wang/Shutterstock

Practically touch the bottom of planes flying over the beach

Perhaps you’ve seen the photos or almost-alarming YouTube videos of vacationers standing on a beach as mega-planes float just over their heads to their tarmac landing literally feet away. That’s St. Maarten’s Maho Beach and the adjacent Princess Juliana International Airport. If you want to go on your own plane-spotting adventure, get there earlier in the day as the larger, international planes typically arrive before mid-afternoon. There are vendors that rent out daybeds and chairs, should you not want to get cozy on the white sand, too.

Beyond Maho Beach, Sint Maarten has 36 other beaches and, yes, much quieter options. Long Bay Beach (you’ll see signs for Baie Longue) in the southwest lives up to its name as the largest beach on the island. Its secluded, turquoise-water coastline is bordered to the north and south by rock structures and is primed for bodyboarding and surfing. For sailing adventures-many of which circle the entirety of the island-Simpson Bay is a hotspot for options, including the likes of No1SXM Sailing and Sail Arawak SXM.

Rainforest Adventures
Rainforest Adventures
Rainforest Adventures

Brave the world’s steepest zipline and party with parrots

Sure, Sint Maarten’s beaches get the bulk of the ecological love. But there is a zipline and a bird sanctuary that will make the outdoorsy hearts flutter equally as so. The Flying Dutchman Zipline starts at the top of the nearly 1,200-foot-tall Sentry Hill on Rockland Estate, one of the highest points on the island. On your zipline ride down to near-sea level, you reach peak speeds of almost 60 miles per hour, taking in panoramic forest, sea, and beach landscapes along the way. For the most seamless experience, Rainforest Adventures offers packages with chairlift rides up to Sentry Hill, in addition to other zipline adventures.

Near the French/Dutch border in the town of Belvedere, you’ll find Parotte Ville Bird Park. Opened in 2015 by local George Parotte, there are hundreds of species to gawk at and hand feed, notably parrots in the most vivid of color combinations. The spot is also a haven for rehabilitating various bird species, which you can learn all about via tours and within its quaint museum set-up, too.

Debbie Ann Powell/Shutterstock
Debbie Ann Powell/Shutterstock
Debbie Ann Powell/Shutterstock

Stroll around colorful shops and the pineapple-shaped bell tower in Philipsburg

Amid the nature and rural options, Sint Maarten has a thriving city, too. Philipsburg is the capital of St. Maarten and is the country’s urban core. Its overarching architectural vibe-think classic Dutch, pastel buildings-is as alluring as the businesses you’ll stroll by.

Front Street is pedestrian-friendly shopping thoroughfare, which has designer clothing boutiques, jewelry shops with locally sourced tanzanite creations, and the town’s colonial-esque courthouse with a pineapple-shaped bell tower on top. Parallel to Front Street is an expansive, seaside boardwalk when you need a scenic reprieve from shopping.

On the art front, Philipsburg’s streets have been recently morphed with modern murals thanks to the Be The Change Foundation‘s ColorMeSXM Project. The foundation partnered with more than a dozen local artists to create an art-walk experience through town, with landscapes spanning flamboyant iguanas to butterfly wings. They are all gram-worthy and conveniently mapped out.

timsimages.uk/Shutterstock
timsimages.uk/Shutterstock
timsimages.uk/Shutterstock

Bring some costume changes to the Carnival party

Whereas most Carnival celebrations are confined to a few days and hyper-focus on its host country, Sint Maarten parties on another level. Its annual Carnival, typically held in mid-April, has a carnival village as its undeniable anchor, open round the clock with more than 30 culinary vendors from throughout the entire Caribbean region.

Another highlight is its Jouvert Morning Jump Up, in which locals and tourists alike wake up at 4 am on a Thursday, dress in group costumes (like maids and butlers or police officers), and party on the streets through the break of dawn. The country has a website with an entire Carnival slate, so there is no shortage of turning up.

The Captain's Rib Shack
The Captain’s Rib Shack
The Captain’s Rib Shack

Explore the sweet to spicy spectrum

Get accustomed to seeing some regular names on menus here, folks. Among them are johnnycakes (cornmeal pancakes), callaloo (a thick, veggie-filled soup named after a leafy vegetable), lokri (a simmered rice dish resembling paella), and spareribs. Oh, the glorious spare ribs that come in such sweet and jerky varieties. Head to the no-frills Captain’s Rib Shack for arguably the best on the island, striking just the right balance.

On the booze front, Sint Maarten is expectedly loaded with cozy, beachside haunts. A favorite is Dutch Blond Beach Bar for its ice-cold, homemade craft brews. Juggie’s Place is as charming as it gets, with a sign reading “The Smallest Bar in the World” above its front door. The owner will donate money toward a local breast cancer awareness nonprofit for anyone who donates one of their own bras. If you’re looking to take a bottle of Saint Maarten rum home, make it Guavaberry. It’s everywhere, from the cruise port to the duty-free section of the airport.

Divi Resorts
Divi Resorts
Divi Resorts

Wade in your hotel’s swim-up bar and snooze in an oceanfront villa

Dreamy, all-inclusive resort or breezy villa? This is the primary lodging question in Sint Maarten. For resorts, Divi Little Bay Beach Resort opened its newest wing in 2022 and has three ocean-view pools, a swim-up bar, and on-site water sports center. Six miles west, Sonesta Maho Beach Resort is a top all-inclusive, family-friendly option with 10 acres of oceanfront property to explore, a kids club, aqua park, and on-site casino. For villas, the super-private Coral Beach Club is tucked in the northeast corner of the country on Oyster Pond and has 24 luxurious villas with ocean and mountain views.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Jesse Scott is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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