I clung tightly to the top of the chain link fence as I balanced precariously on top of a thin metal guardrail. Winds over 150 miles per hour whipped my body and scorched me as I hung on for dear life. Tiny particles of sand pelted me at the speed of a category 5 hurricane as the whole world around me roared a deafening sound. Within a minute, it was all over and the only thing that remained was a cloud of dust and an airplane soaring off into the clouds. I was living life. I was experiencing Maho Beach.
St. Josephine Airport is located on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten and is one of the island’s biggest tourist attractions. Due to limited flat land on the island, the airport was designed so that its runway backs up directly to Maho Beach. There’s only around 50 meters from the water to the runway and the crowds absolutely love it. A bar was even built at the end of the beach so people could sit there all day and watch the planes. Some people go to the Caribbean to swim with dolphins – others go to swim with airplanes.
Maho Beach’s main attraction isn’t just watching the planes fly by. Most of the jets that land at St. Josephine are only meters above the heads of the beachgoers and make for great entertainment whether they’re coming or going. But the most daring people will try to get even more up close and personal with the jets. One day after the airport had started its operation, some genius adrenaline junky realized that they could feel the force from the jet engines during takeoff if they stood directly behind the runway along the fence. They lived to tell the tale and begun the forbidden sport of “fence-surfing”. The adrenaline levels are amped up by the huge DANGER signs and the warnings to not stand behind the jet blast or else you will die. Which makes it even more tempting to do so.
For years I had heard about the excitement that was the airport and I was beyond ecstatic when I made plans to travel there. Heck, I even invested in a GoPro for this monumental event. I was committed to getting the most out of my experience. There is an endless supply of fun at Maho Beach for people who love planes and beaches and so I made sure I brought these items to enhance my experience:
- GoPro Hero Plus – This is just the GoPro that I bought but any one will work well. If anything, I just highly recommend having a waterproof action camera with you
- GoPro Dome – It turns out that GoPro doesn’t actually make their own dome for the split-level pictures so I did my research and bought THIS ONE to work with my GoPro
- Headmount – Perfect for getting the POV-shot that I was also searching for. I saved money and bought mine in a BUNDLE on Amazon to avoid the ridiculous GoPro prices
- DSLR Camera – For when the GoPro couldn’t do justice on the land
- Goggles – Helpful for when I was in the water and when I had dirt flung at me at 150+ mph behind a jet blast
- Sunscreen – You will hate your life if you don’t wear it, I don’t care how dark your skin is
Remember what I said earlier about adrenaline junkies hanging on to the fence behind the jets? That’s exactly what I wanted to do (sorry Grandma). On top of that, I was going to film it. So if anything happened to me, at least it would be caught on camera. After extensive amounts of research, which included lots of videos of 747s landing, I was ready to go. I strapped my GoPro to my forehead and I put my goggles on top of that. Instead of wading into the clear blue ocean, I headed toward the fence and planes. I climbed on top of the guardrail and held on to the fence as a plane came across the sea for the landing. Everyone on the beach was transfixed by the approaching plane and I had a front row seat as the jet came roaring in just over my head. Time slowed down and the plane screeched onto the tarmac.
This is what I traveled 3,500 miles to experience.
The landing was just a little taste of what was to come. I had taken the bait and was ready for the takeoff. As I resumed my position on top of the guardrail at the fence, one woman scoffed at me for wearing my GoPro and goggles.
Joke’s on you, lady.
A MD-80 plane taxied toward us that was operated by Insel Air. I had read online that Insel Air was one of the best airlines to stand behind. The MD-80s have two engines that are situated close to each other on the tail, which produces a lot of jet blast concentrated in a smaller area. I had also read that because of that, the Insel Air pilots like to put on a show for the tourists on the beach and they especially liked it when the fence surfers waved to them. If the pilots waved back, you knew you were in for a great show.
So I stood on top of the rail and waved to the pilot like I was frantically hailing a taxi in Manhattan in the rain. As the plane turned onto the runway, I saw the co-pilot give us a wave.
It’s game time.
The jet pulled into position at the end of the runway and was so close I could almost touch its tail. It was already a warm day on the beach, but as the pilot revved the engine, a blast of heat hit me like I had just put my face into an oven. Just when the heat was getting intense, the pilot held the brakes and revved the engines even more. I could feel the skin on my body jiggling with the force of the jet blast and I curled my fingers into the fence to get a better grip. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see most of the other fence surfers turning away as the engines hurled sand and dirt into us. But I was prepared with my goggles that people had laughed at and I eagerly stared down the business end of a jet airplane. Making my Mom proud one reckless decision at a time.
The pilot pushed the engines even more and a stronger, invisible force slammed into my body. Just like his wave to me said, he was putting on a show and he held the plane still for over 30 seconds as I clung to the fence for dear life. With one final deafening roar, he released the brake and the jet rocketed forward. Everything around me was shaking – the sky, the fence, the ground, even the air – as the plane raced toward the other end of the runway, leaving a cloud of dust and sand hurtling toward me. I watched, enthralled, as the jet left the runway and headed off into the blue sky.
My legs and arms felt like Jell-O as I climbed down from the guardrail and looked at everyone around me.
That was AWESOME… LET’S GO AGAIN!
So I did it again… and again… and again. Although I’ll try not to #humblebrag too much, I’d like to think I started a bit of a trend. More people were brave enough to stand on the guardrail like me and a couple people even pulled out their goggles so they could watch it too. One woman who I talked to said that she didn’t think I was crazy enough to stand behind the plane. Hahahahaha guess who proved her wrong?
The experience I had at Maho Beach was unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. I am a bit of a speed demon and this hit the spot. It was right up there with skydiving, in my opinion. I could go on and on and give you every single minute detail of my day but this article is already getting a little bit long and I still have to give factual information for those of you who want to make the journey to Maho Beach.
When to Go to Maho Beach
The planes come roaring into St. Maarten many times each day. They all vary in size, although many of them are small commuter planes. Unfortunately, the jumbo KLM Boeing 747 no longer flies into St. Maarten. Even though the island is part Dutch, they stopped flying their gigantic planes there. A lot of people were disappointed because they didn’t think the Maho Beach experience would be as good. Don’t listen to those people, it’s still incredible. That being said, it’s wise to look at the schedule ahead of time to see what flights will be flying in during your stay. I used the website here to track, even though it only gave you a day in advance. Mid-morning until 2 in the afternoon is usually the busiest time.
December through April tends to be the high season and is a great time to go. All of the snowbirds from the frigid continental U.S. get too cold in the winter months and flock to the Caribbean for its resorts and cruises. There’s nothing wrong with that because it’s a great time to experience the island. However, that means more people. I spoke with one of the locals and he said that sometimes they have six cruise ships in port on a single day. SIX!! That means almost 10,000 people converge on the small island, not to mention the tiny Maho Beach. This time is also monsoon season, which means there aren’t any hurricanes, just lots of rain showers. The rain is over as quickly as it begins and I’ve adopted the saying “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes”.
How to Get There
Well… you arrive at St. Maarten one of two ways. Option A is you get there via cruise ship. Option B is you fly into St. Josephine Airport and if you can’t figure out where the beach at the end of the runway is, then you’ve got other things to worry about. (Hint, it’s NOT the side that has the mountains)
From the cruise ship dock, the easiest way is definitely going to be a taxi. The rates from the port are $9 USD per person but from the downtown (aka where all the duty-free shopping is), they’re only $8 per person. From the airport terminal, you can just ask for a taxi to take you there, they are very used to it. If you ever have the option to book a layover in St. Maarten, definitely do it! It’ll make the time during your layover fly by. If you’re concerned about making it back to your ship or plane, there’s no need to be. Most of the traffic on that tiny road is taxi drivers yelling at people asking if they need to go back to the ship. There are plenty of taxis to go around.
For those of you who fly into the island, you’re in for a real treat as you fly in. Try to score yourself a window seat so you can see all of the tourists gawking at your landing. Skyscanner is a website that I use religiously to book my flights. The fare calendar gives travelers opportunities to score the cheapest flights into Princess Julianna Airport.
What to Expect at Maho Beach
People. Lots and lots of people. A downside of the amazing weather is that it’s always perfect and there are always people. But the people don’t really matter and it is extremely entertaining to watch a hundred people taking pictures of the same thing and to watch peoples’ belongings get thrown into the ocean in the wake of the jet blast.
Even if you just sit at the bar and watch the planes (and people all day), it is well worth it. What more can you want? It can quite literally be dinner and a show.
One thing that deterred a lot of people from standing on the fence to feel the jets was the fact that there is a road between the beach and the fence. I don’t know why the designers put a road there because they could’ve increased the runway by a little bit more but there’s now a road to deal with. The drivers on the road will honk like crazy because they’re impatient. I honestly think it’s mostly the taxi drivers honking to get peoples’ attention but don’t let it worry you. Cross the street when there aren’t any cars coming and stay close to the fence and there won’t be any problems. Most of the time, when the planes are landing or taking off, the cars will stop to watch avoid hitting dumb tourists who can’t hang on. It’s as safe as an illegal activity with jets can be.
I would avoid standing on the rail or hanging on to the fence if the police are there. During the several hours that I was there, I only saw them once but they didn’t do anything. It’s better to be safe than sorry, even though some people like the girl in blue don’t seem to care. (Yes, I’m the idiot in blue standing on the fence). It’s definitely not recommended but standing on the ground like a normal human being is the safest option out of the reckless decisions of the day. However, I thoroughly enjoyed standing on the guardrail and thought it enhanced the experience.
If you’re an adrenaline junky and want to spend the entire day at Maho Beach, I recommend getting there earlier. That will give you an opportunity to beat all of the crowds (trust me, they’ll come) and you can enjoy the beautiful beach in solitude for a little while. For those of you who plan on staying for a while, a good thing to do is rent a beach chair and umbrella from the Sunset Bar. It costs about $10 for the whole day but if you get there at peak times, the manager will sometimes hike up the cost to $20 for the day.
The Sunset Bar capitalizes on the throngs of visitors at Maho Beach. They make a killing serving drinks to the hot and sunburned people, all thanks to the airport. At the edge of the bar, there is a surfboard that has all of the big arrivals of the day written on it. Not every single flight is listed, however, just the largest jets.
- I sliced the bottom of my foot open on a rock that was hidden on the beach. Standing on a thin rail didn’t exactly help it feel better
- Massive bruise on my forearm. I was so focused on holding on to the fence that I didn’t realize part of it was digging into my skin and broke some blood vessels.
- For my last fence surf (I’m now going to call myself a surfer), I held on to the chain link in such a way that I temporarily cut off circulation to my middle finger. It’s better now, but make sure you place your hands properly. See above casualty for a reminder of that.
- My first ever sunburn. I’m Mexican and I’ve made it 20 years of my life without a single sunburn. I guess being close-ish to the Equator + no sunscreen + almost 7 hours in the sun without shade = a slight sunburn. At this rate, I’ll be tan until summer actually starts.
Here’s a gallery of some of the coolest shots from Maho Beach!
Have you been to Maho Beach to watch the airplanes before? Does this sound like fun or like something you’d try to avoid?
** Disclaimer: I don’t condone illegal activity and if you do something stupid while there, don’t even try to blame me. I’m studying to become a lawyer and I’m not someone you want to mess with. Just use the brain that God gave you and try to walk away intact.