Keep your money in your wallet and pass on an excursion in St. Maarten. With a beach and tons of shopping, you can easily fill the whole day in lively Philipsburg—and come back again for more.


The Dutch island at the northern end of the Lesser Antilles is often the last stop on Eastern Caribbean cruises. Sint Maarten, as it’s locally known, is popular and with good reason—with its long calm blue sea harbor, tropical foliage lining the waterfront and streets, beachfront bars and restaurants, steel drum band and coconut stand, it positively screams the Caribbean.


You can do the place in many different ways—nibble on French macaroons (there’s a stand at the pier), and shop in Diamond International and Ralph Lauren. Or go for knickknacks and snacks in your flip-flops. With tourism its main industry, St. Maarten is dedicated to your pleasure, whatever it is.


Here’s just an example of how you could spend your day in port:


9 a.m. Take your time on the short walk from ship to pier—you’re going to be in St. Maarten all day. Check out the shops in the plaza, but you might want to resist buying anything—the prices are better in downtown Philipsburg. But be sure to grab a free sample of the coconut smoothie from the vendor in the plaza for a mouthful of marvelous.


10 a.m.-noon You’ve done the shops at the pier, had your smoothie sample, and now you’re ready to see Philipsburg, so you head toward the water taxi, on the far left side of the plaza. It’s a bargain—$7 buys you unlimited travel for the day. The ride is about seven minutes or so, and treats you to a sweeping view of the coastline.


Wander Front Street (one street back parallel to the waterfront) and stop in the high-end boutiques and low-end tourist shops, getting your free bamboo necklace from Cariloha and color-changing mood ring from Del Sol (if you go to your ship’s shopping talk, you’ll get the magic words to use to get your free stuff).


Visit the Guavaberry Emporium at the far right end of Front Street for samples and a bottle for the road, and pick up some rum in the colorful painted bottles you’ll find in many liquor stores in town. Meander down alleyways, where you’ll find knickknack heaven and even an art shop where you can get original local paintings for as little as $10.


Noon-2 p.m. Hop on the ferry back to the ship for lunch or enjoy local seafood and Caribbean beer Presidente at a beachside restaurant or quiche at a French café on Old Street. (St. Martin, the other half of the island, is French.) While you’re on Old Street, look for the Manneken Pis in front of The Belgian Chocolate Box and you’d swear you were in Brussels.


2 p.m.-4 p.m. Start your siesta with one of the cheap umbrella-wifi-bucket of beer packages touted along the waterfront and plant yourself on the beach. Spend your last hours at this great port dipping in the water, or digging your feet in the sand, as you watch the jet skis kick up some spray and the majestic schooners as they lazily float by.

-- Musing About Cruising