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From beaches to Bahamas

In the second of a two-part special, Mark Evans finishes his cruise with two beautiful stops - St Martin and the Bahamas

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St Maarten is blessed with beaches

St Maarten is blessed with beaches

A plane flies perilously low over Maho beach, heading for the airport

A plane flies perilously low over Maho beach, heading for the airport

Stephen Evans and iguana on Pinel Island

Stephen Evans and iguana on Pinel Island

Donald Trump’s St Maarten holiday home

Donald Trump’s St Maarten holiday home

Shenanigans in Nassau, Bahamas

Shenanigans in Nassau, Bahamas

Meeting the BeerProv team on MSC Seaside

Meeting the BeerProv team on MSC Seaside

White night on MSC Seaside

White night on MSC Seaside

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St Maarten is blessed with beaches

It's amazing how much you actually pack into a cruise. Last week I wrote about the first few days of a week-long trip, taking in Miami, Puerto Rico and St Thomas - one great city and two very different and beautiful tropical islands. But there's even more to see. Leaving the capital of St Thomas, Charlotte Amalie, it's only a short overnight hop to Philipsburg, the corresponding capital of the next island.

And this is a tricky one, for it's got three names. Americans best know it as Saint Martin, to the French it's Saint-Martin and to the Dutch it's Sint Maarten.

It's an oddity all right - one portion of the Caribbean island is French, the other is Dutch, with their respective languages spoken on either side. Legend has it that both sides picked two men to walk from the two furthest points and where they met up would be the border. It's just a well-worn legend, but a nice story nonetheless, and more interesting than a history lesson of European sea and land treaties.

Our cruise ship, MSC Seaside, pulled up on the Dutch side, in the port of Philipsburg. Welcome to Sint Maarten.

Stepping onto dry land, the best way to see this jaw-droppingly beautiful island is by boat - and we were in luck. Aboard the ship, a group of passengers had organised an excursion with a local expert, Captain Bob, for a full day's sailing around the island, which would show the sights before getting us back to the ship on time for its departure.

We joined 10 or so others at a small dock near the cruise port as Captain Bob's boat showcased the island in a morning and afternoon of snorkelling, pit stops and a few cases of ice-cold beer.

Guides Yuri and Vanessa gave us the lowdown on the island - the Dutch side is cheaper for cost of living and accommodation, and it's where everyone goes for nightlife. The French side? Snazzier (read pricier) houses and fancier restaurants. So it's a case of fun versus classy. After a few minutes sailing through Simpson's Bay Lagoon and - voilà - welcome to France.

The beaches here are stunning, as good as anywhere on the planet. Even Donald Trump has a prime spot here, with a mansion on Terres Basses beach. Consisting of two villas, the massive property cost $17m to buy and update.

But it can be yours - to rent anyway - for the princely sum of $11,000 a night. So if you want to sleep in the US President's bed and take a dip in his pool, bookings are available online on lechateaudespalmiers.com, if you've got that kind of cash.

The highlight of the speedboat tour for me was a visit to Pinel Island, a tiny speck to the east of the main island. Prepare to be wowed as you stop off the boat, wade through the warm, clear waters and walk a beach straight out of Robinson Crusoe. This is the Caribbean idyll you'd imagine Columbus found over 500 years ago. Except here there's a little wooden restaurant with the monsieurs and madames, all speaking French, and we're served up some coffees under the blazing sun.


Vanessa brings us to meet the island's friendliest inhabitants - the native iguanas who always pop over to say hello, especially if you've got some apples or Doritos to feed them. They're wild but gentle, happily posing for pictures or a hug (I didn't fancy that). What I did fancy, though, was leaving our fellow passengers to take the boat while we remained on the island for a week or so.

Oh well, back onboard...

On an island of incredible sands, St Martin's best-known spot is Maho Beach, where we took a dip and swam with giant turtles in a crystal clear sea, a place where you could look way down to the bottom it was so clear. But Maho isn't known for its beach alone - it's the sight of aircraft flying perilously close over the heads of sunworshippers as they land just beyond on the island's Princess Juliana Airport.

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A plane flies perilously low over Maho beach, heading for the airport

A plane flies perilously low over Maho beach, heading for the airport

A plane flies perilously low over Maho beach, heading for the airport

If you're heading to the island by cruise or even staying over, I'd recommend the boat tour, with a variety available. You'll have unforgettable memories that last you through many a cold winter back home. See soualigadestinations.com.

St Martin was the furthest stop east, and from there it was the Bahamas and then back to the US. That involved another sea day, giving time to further explore the 20-deck ship. The big plus for me is the mix of people on MSC Seaside. Some people prefer cruise lines which cater to English-speakers in the main, but I reckon that's their loss.

Seaside had a great mix onboard, from American holidaymakers to Caribbean families who wanted to see other islands from their region. The ship caters for a lot of Europeans too, so it's a lively cocktail of English, Spanish, French and Italian voices onboard. And it's reflected in the buzz. In the early to late evenings the action is in the Haven Lounge, a cabaret spot that's popular with the Spanish speakers, its dance floor full of salsa-ing couples that could easily hold their own on Strictly Come Dancing. As the night draws on, the party moves to the South Beach Bar next door, as the drinking goes al fresco in the humid Caribbean evenings. Later still, and the hard-partying crowd head to the Garage Club, a big hit with young and hip African-American passengers with a bar that opens till around 4am.

But you can have a gentler pace too. Our favourite spot for a pre-dinner glass of wine was the Seaview Lounge. A comfy and quiet spot, the waiting staff, from the Ukraine and the Philippines, knew within a day or two your favourite tipple. In the evenings it usually has some jazz trios or pianists playing, and it's just a great spot. The sports bar is excellent too - filled with memorabilia and the chicken wings, for a few dollars, are worth it with a beer.

The main dining room is included in the cruise price and while the ship is a mix of nationalities, MSC were sharp enough to put all the Irish in the one area, so we were beside a honeymoon couple from Mayo and families from the Midlands, which was a nice touch.

I'm not a shows man but the theatre played host to the BeerProv comedy team from Canada. We caught their show twice, and it was a good night out, so worth checking it out if you're travelling on MSC.

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Meeting the BeerProv team on MSC Seaside

Meeting the BeerProv team on MSC Seaside

Meeting the BeerProv team on MSC Seaside

And check in advance about dress-up nights - the white night is a stylish occasion, so be prepared!

Sea days also gave us the chance for some deckside activity - sunbathing for herself (plenty of deckchairs to go around if you keep a small distance from the pool areas) and five-a-side football for us on the top deck, in the blazing 40-degree heat.

But sun turned to showers - make that storms - as we pulled into the port of Nassau in the Bahamas' New Providence Island. But downpours of rain - Caribbean folk like to call it 'liquid sunshine' - didn't dampen our enthusiasm for the historic port, with echoes of its British past in its architecture. The most historic sites, including forts and the opulent Government House, are just outside the town, but with the inclement weather, that's for next time, and we strolled around downtown, which had its own share of historic buildings.

A local man dressed as a leprechaun was enough to tempt us into the town's Irish bar, Shenanigans, on Bay Street. The food is good, the rum packs a punch and it's a lively spot with fellow revellers, with a nice balcony overlooking the town. Heading back towards the ship, the nearby Straw Market is worth a look. Nassau is not a budget destination, but the handicrafts and T-shirts were decently priced if you're looking for a souvenir.

It's a shame to say farewell to the Caribbean, but there's always one last joy; seeing the sun rise as the Miami skyline looms ever larger for our final stop.

CRUISE OPTIONS

⬤ How to book:

We bought out trip through Tour America, based in Abbey Street in Dublin. A lot of different options are available on MSC - and even just on MSC Seaside itself. Typical packages include an eight-night family Caribbean fly/cruise & stay from €1,329pps, including flights, one night in a Miami hotel, 7 nights cruising on Seaside and premium drinks package. That's for August 21 next, based on a family of 2+2 sharing an interior stateroom.

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White night on MSC Seaside

White night on MSC Seaside

White night on MSC Seaside

⬤ Slightly cheaper is a 12-night trip (from €1,079pps, based on 2+2 sharing an interior stateroom; November 23 next). It includes the cruise, five nights in Orlando, premium drinks and car hire to the port.

⬤ Finally, there's an eight-night break (September 4) from €1,099pps (again 2+2), with one night hotel, return flights and cruise.

touramerica.ie

Herald