Is this tiny Caribbean island aviation-lovers paradise?

Maho Beach, as close as it gets to planespotter paradise

Maho Beach, as close as it gets to planespotter paradise

I am quite sure that Princess Juliana airport, in the small bi-national island (French & Dutch Antillian) of Sint Maarten (Saint Martin in French) features prominently in the imagination of quite a few aviation enthusiasts...and possibly beyond the avgeek community as well, as the iconic image of Jumbo jets blasting the onlookers at Maho Beach, has been making the rounds on blogs and social media for already quite some time!

No wonder then that, when I received an invitation from Princess Juliana International Airport (for simplicity I will from now one refer to it by its SXM code) to visit and learn more about the role this facility plays as a gateway for that part of the Caribbean, I did not have to think it long! 

The other end of Princess Juliana Airport, right next to the lagoon and the mountains that separate the French and Dutch sides of the island of Saint Martin. Picture: Alain Duzant

I was expecting some amazing planespotting opportunities, of course, and, on this front, I was not disappointed (I am going to post some of the pictures on a separate post!) but, actually, the trip to Sint Maarten turned out to be way more than this: a genuine and comprehensive aviation experience from beginning to end. 

For a start, there is Maho Beach...and, yes, it is really how it looks in the pictures: you are on the beach and a massive KLM Boeing 747 comes in to land, roaring engines literally just a few meters above your head...

I love the way KLM's light blue matches the crystalline turquoise waters of Maho Beach!

I love the way KLM's light blue matches the crystalline turquoise waters of Maho Beach!

And, while standing on the beach, right behind the blast of a Boeing 747's jet engines might well be the most exhilarating planespotting experience to be had anywhere in the World, Maho Beach offers other amazing venues from where to contemplate the landings and departures with relative tranquility, while sipping a refreshing drink. In this regard you are spoilt by choice, it is either the Sonesta Ocean Point Resort, that boasts a number of panoramic bar and restaurant terraces, or the Sunset Bar & Grill, just on the opposite side of the beach.  

A couple of curiosities that caught my eye: the Sonesta Ocean Point keeps its guests constantly updated about the upcoming landings through flight information screens, while the Sunset Bar & Grill has named its pizzas (in the picture) after airlines that fly into SXM!

A couple of curiosities that caught my eye: the Sonesta Ocean Point keeps its guests constantly updated about the upcoming landings through flight information screens, while the Sunset Bar & Grill has named its pizzas (in the picture) after airlines that fly into SXM!

A big part of this appeal derives from the very diverse nature of the traffic at Princess Juliana airport:

First, there are the long-haul flights from Europe, a particular favourite among the crowds at Maho Beach. At the moment this means Air France (using Airbus A340-300) and KLM (with a Boeing 747) with a daily flight each, but there are also seasonal flights with Air Caraibes and Dutch charter operator Arkefly is going to start flights soon too.

The view from the Sunset Bar & Grill, opposite is the Sonesta Ocean Point Resort, that boasts several panoramic terraces with views towards the airport approaches. Here pictured is the Air France daily flight from Paris, one of the most awaited moments by the spotters on Maho Beach. Picture: Alain Duzant

The view from the Sunset Bar & Grill, opposite is the Sonesta Ocean Point Resort, that boasts several panoramic terraces with views towards the airport approaches. Here pictured is the Air France daily flight from Paris, one of the most awaited moments by the spotters on Maho Beach. Picture: Alain Duzant

Then there are a number of regular flights from the US and Canada (American Airlines, Delta, US Airways, JetBlue, WestJet) and a myriad of different operators, such as LIAT, Copa or InselAir, that link SXM to other points in the Caribbean, as well as charter and cargo operators flying into SXM with a wide array of different aircraft types.

Most of the links to the US are on Airbus A320s or Boeing 737s, but you might come across other types, such as this beautiful Boeing 757!

SXM is also a popular destination for private jets, as, in addition to Saint Martin's own appeal as a holiday destination, it is also the gateway to neighbouring, super-chic, St.Barts, the playground of the uber-rich, where, due to operational constraints, the airport can't take but the smallest propeller-driven private aircraft.

At SXM you can see aircraft of all types an sizes, from the smallest to large Jumbo jets

At SXM you can see aircraft of all types an sizes, from the smallest to large Jumbo jets

It is precisely small turboprops that make up a significant number of operations at SXM. Operated by small local airlines, such as SXM-based Winair (the short name for the official "Windward Islands Airways International"), it is these aircraft that you hear constantly buzzing around SXM. They play an essential role in the life of the islands, as they link the small communities such as Saba, Saint Eustatius or St.Barts to the outside World via the SXM hub (in addition to connecting them to Sint Maarten, Winair has a codeshare agreement with Air France/KLM that provides also a smooth link to and from Europe)

Inside the cockpit of a Winair DHC-6 Twin Otter, the islands' lifeline. Picture: Alain Duzant

Inside the cockpit of a Winair DHC-6 Twin Otter, the islands' lifeline. Picture: Alain Duzant

It is not only about the tourists, although they are certainly the basis of the islands' economies, these island-hoping flights are also a real lifeline for small communities. Frequency and travel times on these  "local" air services are not out of tune with that of public transportation in large cities!

An extreme example of the role aviation plays in these islands is the innovative "pizza by air" delivery service, with Winair delivering freshly baked pizza from Domino's branch at SXM to the islands of Saba and Sint Eustatius for only the usual delivery charge of $2.75. Not a marketing stunt, but a regular service...and quite feasible as blogger Leslie Yip was able to prove during our trip, by delivering a pizza to Saba in less than 30min since a telephone order was received! 

A Winair DHC-6 Twin Otter, the workhorse of the inter-islands air routes

A Winair DHC-6 Twin Otter, the workhorse of the inter-islands air routes

It is these small commuter aircraft that provide another of the unforgettable aviation experiences you can get on Sint Maarten.

No need to say that flying on a DHC-6 Twin Otter is a totally different experience from flying in a large jet airliner, as you can really "feel" every one of the aircraft's movements, you can really "feel" you are flying. But, there is more to that: geology has endowed some of the islands around Sint Maarten with an orography that adds considerably to the experience... 

Take for example, the tiny island of Saba, an almost perfect volcanic cone emerging from the sea. It is almost like a miracle that a runway could be built here, perched precariously on one of the mountain sides. Saba has, actually, the shortest runway in the world operating regular commercial flights! As a matter of fact, only pilots that are specifically qualified are allowed to land in Saba...which is not surprising at all, since it is almost like landing in an aircraft carrier!

Approach to the island of Saba. In case you were wondering the airport is the tiny flat strip at the bottom left side of the mountain. Picture: Kristen Kellogg/Border Free Travels

Approach to the island of Saba. In case you were wondering the airport is the tiny flat strip at the bottom left side of the mountain. Picture: Kristen Kellogg/Border Free Travels

Landing in the island of Saint Barts involves also quite a thrilling approach as you can see in this video filmed from the cockpit of Winair DHC-6 Twin Otter as it lands (credit adn big thanks for this video goes to fellow aviation blogger @WandrMe, who was also on the plane!)

Its airport is, literally, at the bottom of a narrow valley, encased by mountains on pretty much all for sides. A configuration that restricts operations to just quite a few types of small propeller aircraft, something that is, actually, quite alright, since this helps keeps mass tourism away from St.Barts and helps the island preserve its aura of exclusivity.

If you wish to experience what a steep descend means, take a flight to St.Barts!

St.Barts airport (SBH) offers somes opportunities for really extreme planespotting! Picture: Alain Duzant

St.Barts airport (SBH) offers somes opportunities for really extreme planespotting! Picture: Alain Duzant

Picture: Alain Duzant

Picture: Alain Duzant

St.Barts airport is at the bottom of a valley that opens up a bit towards the sea, but just a little bit, since another range of mountains rise themselves up on the other side of the water. Picture: Alain Duzant

St.Barts airport is at the bottom of a valley that opens up a bit towards the sea, but just a little bit, since another range of mountains rise themselves up on the other side of the water. Picture: Alain Duzant

SXM might, actually, strengthen its status as an aviation center in the near future, not only by increasing the number of carriers flying in (something that will undoubtedly delight the planespotters at Maho Beach!) through a route development committee that includes also representatives of the smaller islands.

But this is not all, there are some new interesting initiatives in the pipeline that I am sure will catch the attention of aviation enthusiasts reading this article: a new air show that will take place in November (the organizers are currently negotiating to get the Breitling Acrobatic Team to participate), an aviation photography festival (can't think of a better place for this!) and a new aviation training center (those dramatic approaches must certainly be good to hone your piloting skills!).

The summary: if you have a passion for aviation Sint Maarten and the neighbouring islands are not to be missed!