Length of stay: 8 days
Visited: March 2016
Dives logged: 6
Dives to date: 6
- Completing our PADI Open Water
- Scuba Diving at Japanese Gardens and Tug Boat
- Scuba Diving at Creole Rock and Turtle Reef
Saint Martin is an island of two countries. The northern part of the island is French and the southern part is Dutch. You can move seamlessly between the two countries and both sides accept the same currency (American dollars). We opted to stay on the French side along Orient Beach as it is reputed to be quieter and is farther away from the cruise port at Philipsburg. We stayed at Hotel Mont Vernon, which (contrary to its name) is not actually a hotel. Well, it used to be a hotel. But all the units are now privately owned. We rented a nice studio apartment that overlooks the ocean that we found on AirBnB. It was here on this small island of two countries where we breathed underwater for the first time and became PADI Open Water certified.
Day 1: Bonjour Saint Martin / Hallo Sint Marteen
We arrived in Saint Martin at 12:00p.m. After clearing customs we headed over to the shuttle bus to get to the rental car agency located around the block from the airport. After waiting outside in the hot hot heat for a few minutes we were eager to get to our accommodations to go swimming. The rental agency hooked us up with a beater. We actually prefer a car with some prior scratches and dents on it so it doesn’t look obvious if we make any contributions of our own. Just as long as it doesn’t break down on us, we’re fine.
We drove to the Mont Vernon residence, met up with our AirBnB host, and settled into our studio apartment. Our place comes complete with a full kitchen so we figured we’d make a detour to the grocery store in an effort to eat healthier. After eating a quick bite to eat for lunch we decided to head down to the beach and check out the amenities of our “resort”. The beach was nice and the water was warm, wavy, and full of surprise tanglers. The further up the beach we walked, the fewer the clumps of seaweed along the shoreline. Surprisingly there weren’t many people out for a Saturday afternoon. With gorgeous weather.
To wash away all the salt away from our bathing suits and bodies we took a leisurely dip in the pool. For the remainder of the evening we lounged around on our patio just soaking in the panoramic view of Orient Bay. The temperatures were actually quite pleasant in the evening. So much so that we slept with the balcony door open so we could listen to the sound of the waves as we fell asleep.
Day 2: Confined Water Dive
What better way to start the day than eating breakfast on a patio with a view like this.
After breakfast we went for a walk along the entire part of the beach. While Orient Bay is an ideal place for water sports because it is both windy and wavy, it is also known for being a clothing optional beach. Especially first thing in the morning. We probably saw around 35 to 40 old man wieners along our walk. Luckily during the day we only came across a minimal number of naked people. Probably because of the strength of the sun. Either way, seeing as few old naked people the better.
When we returned to our apartment we made some lunch before heading out for our first day of diving. The main reason we came to Saint Martin was to learn to scuba dive.
We enrolled in the PADI Open Water course prior to our trip which will allow us to dive up to a maximum depth of 18m or 60ft. Instead of spending time in a classroom for two days to learn the theory and basic principles of scuba diving, we opted for the e-Learning option where all the reading and viewing materials are accessible online. This option was super convenient as you could watch the videos and take the assessments on your own time. The second part of the course involves a confined water dive where you’ll apply the skills you learned in the previous section from the safety of a shallow pool. Or in our case, in the lagoon behind the dive shop. And the final part of the course consists of completing four open water dives which combine practicing scuba skills with an actual dive.
We registered to complete our PADI Open Water with Octopus Diving as their reviews are outstanding, they cater towards smaller groups, and we liked the fact that it is a family run business. Our confined water dive took place just behind the dive shop at Grand Case. It was just us and our amazing instructor, Rachel. We first completed a short review quiz that consisted of 20 multiple choice questions. We were then fitted for gear and went through all of the steps to assemble our scuba kit together on dry land. Rachel then went over important details like underwater signs and the skills we would be mastering underwater today.
Some of the skills took a few tries to master. And surprisingly the skill I was most concerned for – flooding my mask (partially because I wear contact lenses and wholly because salt water stings), turned out to be surprisingly easy. In the end we nailed it.
By the time we were done our mouths were super dry and salty. We stumbled out of the water with our tanks and peeled off our wetsuit and dismantled our scuba kit. We were then required to head back into the water and swim 200m without fins and a mask and tread water for 10 minutes. After that we were free to go home and relax.
Day 3: Open Water Dives 1 & 2
We went for our daily morning stroll along the beach. Minimal nakedness this time. When we returned back to our apartment we ate an early lunch in preparation for our first two open water dives.
We were accompanied by a girl a couple of years older than us and her husband and father-in-law who were both already PADI Open Water certified. They hung around above water while we practiced our surface skills and joined up with our group when we descended for the actual dive component afterwards.
Our first dive took place at Creole Rock which is said to resemble a man lying on his back. This area is quite shallow (under 10m/30ft) and is sheltered from the current. It is reputed to be among the top locations on the island for snorkelling. Prior to our dive we practiced a series of surface and underwater skills. We had to partially flood our mask and then clear it, practice our regulator to snorkel exchange, and practice removing our regulator and retrieving it. After mastering these skills, we were guided through a dive around Creole Rock. The area was bustling with marine life. We saw angel fish, trumpet fish, sea urchins, and colourful coral.
Our second dive took place at Turtle Reef, another shallow dive site with a depth of under 10m/30ft. And let me tell you, we were super pumped for this dive site given its name. But unfortunately we didn’t see any turtles. We were quick to get over our disappointment with all the other forms of marine life that we encountered. We saw lionfish, puffer fish, angel fish, trumpet fish, sea urchins, lots of sea grass and more coral. As with our first open water dive, we first practiced a number of surface and underwater skills before embarking on our second guided dive. I had some issues equalizing the pressure in my right ear upon descent. And at first I thought my ear would eventually “pop” – similar to that experience when you’re on an airplane. But it doesn’t. It just becomes super painful to the point where you need to ascend until it’s comfortable. And then slowly descend again all the while continuing to equalizing the pressure. It was a super frustrating experience but I’m glad I was able to continue with our dive without feeling any pain. Instead when we surfaced I just had to deal with a completely blocked right ear.
Day 4: Kayaking to Pinel Island
Scuba diving is wonderful. But exhausting. Despite enjoying our first two open water dives, we’re happy to have a day off to rest. Especially since my right ear remained blocked until the early hours of the next morning. So it’s probably a good thing we aren’t diving again today. Instead we ate breakfast on our balcony and then decided to go for a swim in the pool to shake things up this morning. This also gave us an excuse to figure out how to use the settings for our new underwater camera that we purchased specifically for diving.
In the afternoon we rented a tandem kayak from Caribbean Paddling for $30. It was a fairly short and easy paddle over to Pinel Island. Alternatively there is also a ferry that can take you to Pinel Island for the same price. The island is pretty cute and has a nice calm beach. Apparently there is also some good snorkelling spots on the island. On the way back to the mainland we kayaked around Little Key, which is an even smaller island with an even smaller (non-existent) beach. We saw some small geckos/iguanas sunbathing on the rocks. And as we were paddling back to the shore we saw a spotted eagle ray in the water.
Day 5: Open Water Dives 3 & 4
We completed our remaining open water dives and are now officially PADI Open Water certified! We were initially scheduled to dive around Tintamarre Island, but the waves were pretty rough. And since we had to practice some surface skills on the third dive, we went back to Creole Rock and Turtle Reef which are much more sheltered.
The dives themselves were quiet pleasant. But let’s be real, even if all we saw was leaf coral we’d still be amazed. But we didn’t just see leaf coral. And this time we spotted an actual turtle while diving at Turtle Reef! It was hanging out in the sea grass having a good time. We also saw a spotted eagle ray, a hermit crab, grey angel fish, trumpet fish, sea urchins and other types of sea creatures and coral we’re not even sure what they’re called.
Day 6: Additional Diving at Japanese Garden and Tugboat
We signed up for two additional dives with Octopus Diving. And we’re sure glad that we did because today was our favourite day of diving. Hands down. We couldn’t have picked a better way to celebrate K’s birthday. The water was super wavy this morning, but our boat captain, Ian, strategically navigated through the choppy waves. And, as an added bonus, our wonderful instructor, Rachel, was our guide. We were joined by two additional divers from the US.
Our first dive site was at Japanese Gardens at a depth of 18m/60ft – our deepest dive yet! Despite being wavy on the surface, our excellent training prepared us to successfully and safely descend to the bottom. The reef was covered in a variety of different types of hard and soft coral and consists of a series of rows of rock and coral with sand in between.
We encountered a wider variety of fish and other sea creatures on this dive, including a massive school of fish, a spotted moray eel, grey angel fish, pufferfish, and a (massive) lobster.
Our second dive site was at TugBoat located near Tintamarre Island. A 50ft tugboat was sunk (upright!) on purpose to encourage marine growth. We did a “hot drop” at this site as another boat was on the mooring line. This consisted of us gearing up and rolling backwards off the boat together – James Bond style. We met up at the front of the boat and descended to the bottom together. It is a pretty shallow dive site sitting at 13m in depth. Tugboat itself was impressive. But so were all the fish and marine life inside and around it.
The reef around Tugboat was a little underwhelming. But we did catch another glimpse of a turtle. And a sting ray!
After our amazing morning of scuba diving, we just kind of relaxed around our apartment for the remainder of the afternoon. We went for a leisurely stroll along the beach and spent as much time outside on our balcony.
Day 7: Exploring Sint Maarten
On our last full day we decided to explore the Dutch side of the island. There was defiantly more traffic and people out and about. Once we managed to find parking we walked over to Mullet Beach. Conveniently the Saint Martin Heineken Regatta, an international sailing competition around the island, was taking place. So we viewed passing sailboats from the comfort of the beach. Although, those dark ominous clouds were far from comforting.
From Mullet Beach we walked over to Maho Beach, which is famous for its close proximity to the airport runway. We happened to be sitting in the “no standing” section of the beach. But we thought this was fine because (a) we weren’t near the fence with all the signage, (b) we were sitting, not standing, and (c) we are dumb dumbs. We saw a few smaller planes take off and land while enjoying the view from our spot on the beach.
And then we noticed that a jet was coming down the runway, so we decided to stay and watch. How bad could it be? But when those jet engines ramped up, sand was flying everywhere. We rolled down the slope of the beach for cover like a bunch of idiots. We truly understand what it meant to be in the “no standing” zone. In the aftermath there were sandals, hats, sunglasses, and towels scattered in the shallows of the ocean. Including my flip-flops. Which I obviously went in to rescue.
After returning back to the quietness of the French side of the island we spent the remainder of the day back at the pool trying to wash all the sand from Maho beach off us. It was everywhere. In our clothes, bathing suits, hair.
Day 8: Au revoir Saint Martin
Well Saint Martin, this is it. We went for one final stroll along the beach in the morning before packing up to leave. We’re already looking forward to our next diving adventure!
L & K