Dodging Planes at Maho Beach


Every flying enthusiast has spent at least one afternoon near an airport, watching airplanes land or take off. There is something thrilling about watching the big aluminum tubes come in or head on their way, even more so when the plane in question is one as large as a 747 or A380.

Some airports are better for plane-spotting than others. LAX has close access for landings over the 405 and takeoffs out over the coast. San Diego is a fantastic spot as well. From Banker’s Hill you can look right down on to the runway, or you can enjoy a drink at Liberty Public Market while watching planes take off over Point Loma.

No airport has anything on Princess Juliana International Airport in Saint Martin, and the Maho Beach from which you can watch.

Saint Martin is a Caribbean island nation a couple hundred miles east of Puerto Rico. Split between Dutch and French halves, it’s a quaint, beautiful relaxation destination, and a frequent stop for cruise liners. Its single major airport is relatively small, with only one short runway used for both taxing and take-off, and it is built only feet past the public Maho Beach.

Because of the runway’s short length and proximity to the beach, planes come in only a few dozen feet above the heads of sunbathers.

It’s a spectacular sight, which everyone should see once in their lives. Maho Beach has a fantastic bar – the Sunset Beach Bar – where you can sit a few feet back from the real action and enjoy the spectacle.

While every plane landing and take off is an experience in and of itself, I had the opportunity to visit Maho Beach a few years back while KLM still flew a 747 to the airport.

As the Queen of the Skies taxied for takeoff, a growing group of tourists lined up on the airport fence, prepared to hold on for dear life as the force of the four jet engines lifted them off of their feet.

The sheer magnitude of the plane is hard to under-appreciate when you’re standing right behind it.

The 747 finished its turn and squared up with the runway, ready for takeoff. At this point, those standing at the fence were holding on for dear life.

As you can tell from the photos, I was a little farther back. The fence is separated from the beach by a  small, two lane road. I was on the sand. And it seemed that, there, I would be far enough away from the plane to enjoy the experience in calm. I even failed to understand how the plane’s takeoff could create that much force that those standing at the fence would feel it. After all, we were far away!

Or so I thought.

The 747 gunned its engines, and they powered up with ferocious force. Within seconds, the sound was defining, sand was blowing on us at painful speeds, and those who had started at the fence were either holding on with their legs flying high in the sky or blown back on to the beach with us. There was nothing to do but fall to the ground, cover your head and wait out the take off.

This picture says it all. I have never had more sand in more crevices across my body. It took days to get it all out. And being there when that 747 took off was so much fun!

If you find yourself in Saint Martin, I strongly recommend checking out Maho Beach. It’s only a short taxi ride from the Cruise Terminal.

And, if you can, time your visit to coincide with the big planes that fly in and out of SXM. KLM no longer flies a 747; it downgraded the flight to an A330 last fall. Big, but not huge. However, Air France flies a (four engine) A340, which should be nearly as spectacular as the 747. It arrives from Paris daily at 1:45 PM, and takes off back to France at 3:45.