Plane Spotting At Maho Beach, Sint Maarten

Filed Under: Travel

Hello from Sint Maarten! I’m currently island hopping through the Caribbean as part of my four month trip.

There were an overwhelming number of options to choose from when looking at which Caribbean islands to visit, especially as I had never visited the region before. This was the second stop, after Aruba.

I picked Sint Maarten for one very special reason, and if you are an avgeek you may already immediately know why.

The end of the runway at the island’s main airport, Princess Juliana Airport (SXM), is a public beach.

Okay, but “there are plenty of airports around the world near a beach,” I hear you say.

But this runway is really, really close to the beach.

And because the runway is a reasonably short 2,141 metres/7,000 feet, the larger planes hit the runway pretty early, meaning you can almost touch them from the beach as they fly overhead.

How close?

How’s this for a lunch view?!

We landed from Curacao around 12 noon, and picked up our hire car from the airport.

As the beach is quite literally at the end of the runway, it was a three minute drive to Maho Beach. We were pleased to find free parking at the Sunset Bar and Grill, noting it is currently shoulder season, so they may well charge during the peak season of late December and January.

There are bars at each end of the beach.

There’s Driftwood Bar on the northern end…

And Sunset Bar on the southern end. We preferred the view and atmosphere at Sunset…

The beach was actually surprisingly small (much smaller than it looked in photos and videos I had seen online), but that was actually part of its charm.

There’s a really great atmosphere because it’s really relaxed, and everyone is there for the same reason.

Now if you’re planning a visit you’ll want to allow around 3 to 4 hours, and come in the afternoon, but ideally base your entire visit around two particular flight numbers…

KL789 and AF498

The island is half Dutch territory (Sint Maarten) and half French territory (Saint Martin). SXM airport is located on the Dutch side.

Although it’s a pretty small airport, there are two regular wide body flights — a KLM service from Amsterdam, and an Air France service from Paris.

  • Depending on the time of year, KL789 operates as an A330-200 service on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, landing at either 13:40 or 15:25
  • AF498 also operates as either an A330 or 340 service, daily during the northern winter, landing at 14:50, and reduced during the quieter northern summer

Now KLM used to operate a Boeing 747 service to SXM and the sight of this landing right over the beach would have been spectacular, and I am a bit sad I never got to see this in person.

Here is one of the many videos online of this spectacular sight:

But our visit was on a Monday, so the Air France flight was the only wide body of the day.

There were a few 737 and 757 size jets taking off and landing too, which were also great fun to witness. I especially enjoyed being only a few feet underneath an American 737 arriving from Miami.

Most of the planes that landed in the period we were there (noon to about 4pm) were smaller propeller planes that weren’t as exciting as the full size jets.

Do remember it’s quite a small airport, so there won’t be jets every 10 minutes.

Ben and I are both now addicted to the Flightradar24 app, so this was great to fire up each time I could see a plane approaching the beach to determine what type of aircraft it was, who it belonged to and where it was coming in from.

You can also check their website to determine which aircraft landing are the bigger jets, rather than the smaller turboprop and regional aircraft.

The highlight of the day was the Air France wide body, and while it was a fantastic atmosphere, I would say I enjoyed the smaller 737 and 757 jets landing just as much.

The beach was not crowded at any stage during the day – this was as packed as it got…

It was such a unique opportunity being able to actually be in the water, on a beautiful sunny day, with a beer in hand, watching planes land right over your head. These are a few of my favourite things!

There’s the added bonus that most planes also take off at the beach end of the runway. For those planes that power up before they turn onto the runway it’s not quite as exciting, but for those that taxi to the start of the runway, and then stop, and then power up, it’s as close as you’ll ever get to standing behind a jet engine.

I tried standing on the beach behind the Delta 757 as it headed to Atlanta, and it was so strong it pushed me several steps backwards.

Some other tips if you are planning a visit:

  • Delays for flights taking off seemed to be the norm, not the exception, so make sure you leave plenty of time if there is a certain plane or flight you are hoping to see take off
  • The bars at either end of the beach post the arrival times of each jet landing, as they know it’s why most people are coming to the beach
  • Try and connect to the wifi at either bar (i.e. by buying a drink if you need the password) if you don’t have mobile data to keep on top of the updated arrivals and departures information
  • If you happen to have a layover at SXM, the beach is an easy walk from the airport
  • I actually thought the view of the entire beach from Sunset Bar was just as good for each landing, if not better than being directly underneath the planes on the beach
  • This should go without saying but do not hold on to the fence closest to the runway when planes take off. People have actually died after the force blew them off the fence and over the road.
  • When we flew out we left around midday and there were no jets at all landing (or on the ground) during that time, so avoid visiting in the mornings
  • SXM airport is still being rebuilt after last year’s hurricane, so don’t expect a fully functional airport if you are visiting this year — we literally had to step over ladders to get to our gate, and there were absolutely no flight status screens anywhere
  • If you are heading to the french side of the island, the traffic is horrendous at evening peak hours, so I would definitely aim to leave before 4pm, or wait until after 7pm

Bottom line

Visiting Maho Beach at SXM was definitely a bucket list item for me, and I could have honestly spent a week just at this beach each day.

Sunshine, a great beach, beers and aircraft — what more could an avgeek ask for?!

While it’s a shame the KLM 747 no longer flies to SXM (and probably never will again), it was such a memorable, enjoyable and unique experience that was definitely one of the best days of this whole trip.

If you have the chance to visit the Caribbean and love watching planes I would highly recommend it.

Have you ever visited Maho Beach at Sint Maarten?

  1. I’ve been to SXM a few times for plane spotting and Maho Beach is amazing. Not sure how recovered they are for this high season, but some days there are 3-5 cruise ships and the beach become crowded as hell. As we’re getting closer to Christmas, the airport will get very busy with an incredible number of business jets and probably Abramovich private 767.

    It’s just a shame jets generally don’t come as low as they used to come a few years ago.

  2. “The beach was actually surprisingly small (much smaller than it looked in photos and videos I had seen online), but that was actually part of its charm.”

    The beach shrinks and grows with hurricane season. After the island got destroyed last year, the beach was entirely gone, but it is coming back.

  3. Just beware that the signs with warnings are there for a reason; in the past, people have died as a result of being thrown around by jetblast…

  4. It is irresponsible to not mention deaths have occurred in this “thrill seeking” behavior. Would it stop me? No. Nonetheless, a callout of the hazard including death itself should have been duly noted.

  5. St Maarten/st Martin used to be a wonderful place, very affordable and easy to reach. Things have changed and hurricane Irma did not help too. If you have the chance, go to Pinel, a wonderful small island 10min by boat a few miles up from orient beach.

  6. I lucked out with an awesome visit at the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort in May of 2016, as the KLM 747 and Air France A340 were still in service to the island. They’ve done a lot of work since the hurricanes and I’ll be back.

  7. I have alot of family that live in St Maarten so I have been to the beach many times! However one of my family members lived in Phillipsburg and the planes always went directly over the house. So I could sit on the balcony and watch the massive planes fly over head. Unfortunately I was never allowed to go plane spotting at the beach for the KLM 747. I was a kid back then but I still remember seeing her.

  8. Visited Sint Maarten/St Martin many times, years ago, always around Thanksgiving, staying at the famous Mary’s Boon just to the right of the runway, on beautiful Simpson Bay (my opinion — the most beautiful beach on the island). We’d get the upper level room (above the office/restaurant) and watch the planes come & go (ID by aircraft radio). Most of the day, it’s the small planes going to nearby islands. The afternoon would be the big ones, LH, AF, KLM, Pan Am, American et al.

  9. Thank you @James for a well written and great report as always.
    Where did you decide to bunk for the night? The known chains with points options either for earning or burning are limited.

  10. @ Peter Fox – yes the hotel options are limited. We wanted to stay on the french side (which has even less hotel options) to ensure it felt a different to Aruba where we had just come from so we stayed in an airbnb near the beach.

  11. Thanks for the happy reminder: spent my honeymoon in Saint Marteen in 2000 and our favorite activity was plane watching off that beach from the bars on the beach. Sad that the 747 is no longer flying there.

  12. Never visited Maho beach in St Maarten but I did visit JSI- Skiathos airport which is the equivalent of St Maarten in Europe. Definitely worth visiting, tho don’t expect wide-bodies there.

  13. This is bucket list for me too, but wasn’t sure how recovered the island was after last year. Glad to hear its on the way back!

    Just came through HKT the other week and I didn’t realise the end of that runway also has a beach under it, and there was a crowd watching our Malaysian flight coming in. They get widebodies, so maybe another potential spotting location.

  14. Such a shame you missed the 747, I was there 2 years ago and it was jaw dropping as it came over…..a once in a lifetime spectacle. I often play my video to remind me.

  15. Ok, so nobody’s gonna comment on the Zambian Airlines flight, supposedly arriving at 14:55 almost 10 years after they ceased operations?

    I feel like someone mentioned Pan Am and now I’m going crazy… Does anyone else not see that?

  16. “This should go without saying but do not hold on to the fence closest to the runway when planes take off.”

    It SHOULD go without saying, but I still kinda want to do it….

  17. I’ve been to Sint Maarten once for plane spotting for several days. Will cherish that memory. I would alternate between the balcony of my room at Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, Maho Beach and Sunset Bar.

  18. James – thanks for the wonderful report. I’ve been wondering how the island has been doing since the devastating hurricane. I can’t believe the progress that has apparently been made. Good luck to the people of the island. What a tragic hurricane it was that basically destroyed the island.

  19. Such a pity 747s aren’t coming in any more. KLM is my favourite airline! Widebody joke hilariously awful, by the way.

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