Tips for Planespotting at Maho Beach, St. Maarten

By: Kenny Hyde

Planespotting is the act of catching as many views as you can of airplanes, whether it be at the airport or in the sky. Those that engage in this activity are known as “planespotters.”  There are meetup groups, Facebook groups, etc. for planespotting, and the people involved get really into it. Apparently, this is a thing.  I always thought planes were cool as a mode of transportation, but I didn’t really understand the extreme fondness for these metal birds…until I tried it out for myself.

For our last full day on The Friendly Island, we decided to join the group for planespotting at Maho Beach. The planes come in for landing at Princess Juliana Airport, but not just any landing: they come amazingly close to the beach in their approach, with very little room for error as they clear the fence and touch down on the runway. It also provides a thrill for those wanting to get as close as possible to the planes via the fence just across the road.

Maho Beach, as beaches go, is not that impressive. You have sand; you have water. Thus, you have a beach. Alone, it’s very minimalist. However, add some planes coming in for a close landing, and taking off exerting an amazing force, almost strong enough to blow people into the water, it becomes an amazing tourist attraction.

Some creative thrill-seekers have found their high at this beach by engaging in “fence-riding”: enduring the thrust of the airplane as it takes off by holding on to the fence and facing the runway. Since the plane takes off in the direction away from the fence, the thrust force goes right back to the fence, to be felt by those “riding the fence.”

As I saw my first jumbo jet come in for a landing above my head, my jaded outlook on planespotting began to change. I’m not sure exactly what the deciding factor was – my proximity to these behemoth machines while they are still in flight, the sound of the engine as it approaches the runway, the reaction of everyone around me or the sheer size of the jet…but I was definitely into this!

Each time I heard or saw a plane make its approach from afar, I had to get a picture or video of it. Even while sitting at the beach bar or talking to those around me, my camera was always cocked and ready.

No matter your thoughts on this, you have to admit, it is one of those things that you just have to see to believe. Unfortunately, I saw a Youtube video of someone who couldn’t hold on.  They were blown into some concrete behind them, and suffered a serious head injury.  I was freaked out a bit and decided against fence-riding while I was there. But if I ever make it back to Maho Beach again, I’m definitely giving it a try.

Occasionally a police truck came by to warn people not to ride the fences, just to give the appearance that the area was being monitored.  Realistically though, lots of people were riding the fences, and I only saw that police truck once in the 4+ hours we were there. It appeared to be just in a polite warning, not for any real consequence.

If you plan on planespotting on Maho Beach, here are my suggestions:

  • Check airplane schedules via Kayak or other similar online tool ahead of time to see arrivals and departures for Philipsburg (Princess Juliana Airport: SXM). If you decide to go early, you may only get to see a few planes, as the highest plane activity appears to happen in the afternoon (sometime between 1pm and 4pm).
  • Find a bar on either side of the beach to anchor yourself. Try to get a table with a good view of the sea so you can get a clear view of the planes coming in. My recommendation would be the Sunset Bar and Grill, where we had a great view of the planes and I could take many of my photos from the table where I was sitting.
  • If you choose to be a “fence-rider,” the most important piece of advice would be to hold on to the fence with both hands, and don’t let go! Usually holding on with one hand is not enough to keep you on the fence in the midst of those strong thrust forces hitting you. If you get separated from the fence, there is no telling where those forces will take you.
  • Enjoy some good food and drink while you wait for planes to take off or land, but also so they can stay around. I know some places in other parts of the world are trying to do away with beach bars, and that would be unfortunate. Beach bars are great (sandless) spots for nourishment, socializing, and relaxation. Maho Beach, in particular, is so small that the beach bar becomes more important.

All in all, this turned out to be an awesome experience. It was definitely one of the highlights of our St. Maarten trip. Even if you’re not a beach person, or a seasoned planespotting enthusiast, I think you’d still find this to be a must-see attraction for the island.

If anyone has had the pleasure of the Maho Beach experience, or any other planespotting experiences please share your thoughts below!

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Photo Credit: Kenny Hyde