Day 4 – Philipsburg, St. Maarten

European Cruising Meets Dutch Heritage in St. Maarten

Sun sets tonight on MSC Divina's Infinity Pool located on Deck 15 aft. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Sun sets tonight on MSC Divina’s Infinity Pool located on Deck 15 aft. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Just after eight o’clock this morning, MSC Cruises’ MSC Divina came alongside in the island paradise that is Philipsburg, St. Maarten.

Discovered by Christopher Columbus on November 11, 1493, the town itself was actually founded nearly 300 years later. In 1763, John Philips – a Scottish captain serving in the Dutch navy – officially created the town, humbly naming it in honour of his own glorious visage.

MSC Divina docked in St. Maarten today. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
MSC Divina docked in St. Maarten today. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

But St. Maarten isn’t just a Dutch Overseas Colony. No. It’s also a French Overseas Territory, with the town of Marigot serving as the capital of the French side of the island, Sint Marten. Because of its dual Dutch/French heritage, the atmosphere on the island is a curious blend of Europeanism and Caribbean traditions all wrapped into one. St. Maarten is an independent colony of the Netherlands; the French side is part of the Eurozone – making the island one of the only places in the world where you can actually cross into Europe without border controls.

Even this two-dimensional character on Deck 16 is excited about our arrival in Philipsburg! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Even this two-dimensional character on Deck 16 is excited about our arrival in Philipsburg! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It also wasn't a bad morning to be out by MSC Divina's Aqua Park midships pool, either! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It also wasn’t a bad morning to be out by MSC Divina’s Aqua Park midships pool, either! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
How Far Cruising Has Come: The classic Thomson Celebration, ex. Noordam, was built in 1984...and looks positively tiny compared to our massive ship. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
How Far Cruising Has Come: The classic Thomson Celebration, ex. Noordam, was built in 1984…and looks positively tiny compared to our massive ship. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Columbus and Philips may be long dead and gone, but thousands of explorers follow in his footsteps nearly every day of the year as they arrive in Philipsburg’s picturesque harbour. It’s a full house today here at the cruise ship piers; in addition to MSC Divina, we’re joined by Norwegian Getaway, Carnival Conquest, Caribbean Princess and the classy Thomson Celebration, which older cruisers might better remember as Holland America’s Noordam of 1984.

Cycling My Way Through History

Today, I took MSC's Historic Philipsburg by Bicycle excursion...and was not disappointed! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Today, I took MSC’s Historic Philipsburg by Bicycle excursion…and was not disappointed! Here, our guide – a former Detective Inspector with the Amsterdam Police – details how to use our bikes. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

MSC offers a total of 21 different shore excursions here in St. Maarten, and I opted to take part in the three hour-long Historical Philipsburg by Bicycle tour. At $59 per person, it’s a steal for an 11 kilometre ride that takes guests all the way from the cruise piers to the remains of the Fort Amsterdam on the opposite side of the bay.

We cycled from the piers to historic downtown Philipsburg, passing the Courthouse. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
We cycled from the piers to historic downtown Philipsburg, passing the Courthouse. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Getting on my tour was easy enough. The MSC Daily Program lists the meeting times and locations for each excursion, and I was fortunate to have a leisurely morning onboard before arriving in the Pantheon Theatre at 11:15 a.m. for the start of our tour. Once there, our small group made our way to the gangway on Deck 4 and met our guide on the pier, who walked us to the bicycles.

We dodged pedestrians on The Boardwalk...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
We dodged pedestrians on The Boardwalk…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...before pedaling to the appropriately named, much quieter, Back Street. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…before pedaling to the much-quieter confines of Front Street. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The morning group from another cruise line had run late, but our guide from Tri-Sport Bikes & Kayaks used the time to fill us in on the island’s colourful history. A former Detective Inspector with the Amsterdam police force, he and his wife moved to the island in 2013 to do something different. Now, he offers guided bike tours of St. Maarten. What a great career change!

He was also thoroughly knowledgeable, from the history of Peter Stuyvesant (a former Dutch governor and one-legged inspiration for the term “Pegleg Pete”) to little facts and trivia about the islands. Here, people honk their horns both to say hello and eff-off, so he told us not to take the horns too seriously. “You’ll know what the difference is!”

Overlooking Philipsburg from our first panoramic vantage point...at the top of a hill with a 16 percent grade! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Overlooking Philipsburg from our first panoramic vantage point…at the top of a hill with a 16 percent grade! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

And so began one of the best excursions I think I’ve taken in the Caribbean. It was active, fun, and historically informative – all three of the things I value most in an excursion. More importantly, MSC’s Excursions brochure accurately described it. You don’t have to be super-active to enjoy this bicycle ride; most of it is on flat ground. But you should be comfortable on a bike, and the one hill that has to be navigated is a real doozy, with a 16-percent grade that’ll make you earn your buffet lunch back onboard.

We also got to visit the remains of Fort Amsterdam,located on the grounds of the Divi Little Bay Beach Resort. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
We also got to visit the remains of Fort Amsterdam,located on the grounds of the Divi Little Bay Beach Resort. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Culminating with our lookout and history lesson at Fort Amsterdam, it’s easy to reconcile the modern Philipsburg with the historic one. Today, the cannons no longer need to guard the town against intruders or raging enemy forces; people come here willingly – in droves. You could argue that perhaps piracy still continues to this day (Arrgh, matey – another diamond shop!), but it is this island’s rich history and uniquely European mindset that makes it so attractive.

Canons that once protected the harbour now stand watch over cruise ships. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Canons that once protected the harbour now stand watch over cruise ships. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Our group of cyclists at the top of Fort Amsterdam. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Our group of cyclists at the top of Fort Amsterdam. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The verdict: if you’re looking to see Philipsburg in an entirely new light and don’t mind a little physical activity, take this tour. If manual labour isn’t your thing, MSC does offer the option to Discover St. Maarten by Jeep for $99 per person. That’s in addition to tours like the America’s Cup yachting experience; snorkeling adventures, and – of course – visits to some of the island’s most beautiful beaches on both the Dutch and French side. If you’re conservative, just be forewarned: in keeping with European tradition, the French side allows nude bathing.

Caribbean Days, Mediterranean Nights

Returning to the gorgeous MSC Divina this afternoon. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Returning to the gorgeous MSC Divina this afternoon. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Back onboard, I ran up to the Buffet on Deck 14 for a late lunch – which certainly wasn’t a problem onboard the MSC Divina. In fact, there’s hardly a time when you can’t get food. Here’s the complete lineup for today in the Calumet & Manitou Buffet:

  • 24 hours: Coffee, Tea, Water, Ice and Creamers
  • 6:30 a.m. – 7:00 a.m.: Early Bird Breakfast
  • 7:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.: Breakfast
  • 10:00 a.m. – 12 Noon: Continental Breakfast
  • 12 Noon – 4:00 p.m.: Buffet Lunch
  • 12 Noon – Midnight: Pizzeria
  • 12 Noon – 10:00 p.m.: The Grill
  • 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.: Afternoon Snacks
  • 4:30 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.: Make Your Own Sandwich
  • 6:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.: Dinner
  • 11:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m.: Make Your Own Sandwich

Curious about the other dining times onboard? Here you go:

Black Crab Restaurant, Decks 5 and 6:

  • 7:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m.: Breakfast
  • 5:45 p.m.: 1st Dinner Seating
  • 8:30 p.m.: 2nd Dinner Seating

Villa Rossa Restaurant, Deck 6

  • 5:45 p.m.: 1st Dinner Seating
  • 8:30 p.m.: 2nd Dinner Seating

Note that the Black Crab Restaurant typically features lunch from 12 Noon until 2:00 p.m. on sea days. Still – hunger is an absolute impossibility on this ship!

Tonight, a spectacular sunset...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Tonight, a spectacular sunset…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...accompanied our departure from St. Maarten. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…accompanied our departure from St. Maarten. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

What else can I say about today other than the fact that evenings here onboard the MSC Divina continue to be my favorite time of day? The live music, the atmosphere onboard – it’s all splendid, like a modern throwback to the glory days of transatlantic ocean travel. I know that sounds odd to say that about a mainstream product, but it is true: there’s a subtle but built-in grandeur to this ship. If you wound back the clock six or seven decades, MSC Divina might very well be the Rex. Or the Conte di Savoia.

Now that's a sunset! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Now that’s a sunset! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Gearing up for The White Party on-deck later tonight. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Gearing up for The White Party on-deck later tonight. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

That impression of bygone elegance was only reinforced tonight when two passengers played two separate musical instruments as we departed St. Maarten. One, at the aft end of Deck 15, let loose on a set of bagpipes. Another, midship on the starboard side of Deck 15, played the French horn. I’ve been on sixty-two cruises, and I’ve never seen anything like it before. MSC should hire them both!

Of course, there’s one thing that MSC couldn’t control: the spectacular sunset tonight. Although, on second thought…

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Our full journey:

Our MSC Divina Eastern Caribbean Live Voyage Report will run from February 7-14, 2015. Illustration courtesy of MSC Cruises.
Our MSC Divina Eastern Caribbean Live Voyage Report will run from February 7-14, 2015. Illustration courtesy of MSC Cruises.

MSC Divina, Sailing the Eastern Caribbean, Mediterranean Style

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
Saturday, February 7, 2015Miami, FloridaEmbark MSC Divina19:00
Sunday, February 8At Sea
Monday, February 9At Sea
Tuesday, February 10Philipsburg, St. Maarten09:00 18:00
Wednesday, February 11San Juan, Puerto Rico08:0016:00
Thursday, February 12Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos10:0017:30
Friday, February 13At Sea
Saturday, February 14, 2015Miami, Florida07:00Disembark
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