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Detailed Review of Soualiga Adventures (Capt. Bob) All Day Beach and Snorkeling Adventure on St. Maarten


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I'm taking a page from @KLAconQueso and splitting out my review of one of our major excursions to this board, rather than making it part of my live blog. Now, I've already posted the photos from that excursion on my recent live blog; you can view them here. This entry is more to talk about the excursion and the folks who run it, how to book it and what to expect when you go.

The official name for the company that runs this tour is "Soualiga Destinations", and this is also the name of their web site. But everyone who's told me about it, and the owner himself, tends to refer to just as "Capt. Bob's". They're an independent outfit and don't do bookings through Royal; everything is done directly with the owner, Capt. Bob himself. They only offer this one tour, which runs daily from 10 AM (with 9:30 checkin) to 4 PM; they expect that if you book with them, your all-aboard time is no earlier than 4:30 PM so you have enough time to walk or get a cab back to the port. In all honesty, our trip with them was back at the marina at 3:45, and I've heard other accounts that indicate 4 PM is really a buffer, and they tend to get back a bit earlier so no one misses their ship.

They currently have 9 boats (having lost 3 to Hurricane Irma in 2017); the larger ones hold about 16 people, while smaller ones hold groups of 8 or 12. While all of the boats have a canopy of some sort, none of them offer full-time shade and you will definitely need to bring a lot of sunscreen for this trip and/or things to cover up with!

At the time we booked in April of 2017, the price was $119 per person plus 5% tax, with a 20% deposit. Payment of the deposit is done via PayPal, and the balance is due in cash when you check in at the port. I was able to pay in full up front, as I wanted to do this for budgeting purposes, and Capt. Bob was up-front that he holds on to your money until you've arrived and taken the trip; if your ship can't make or a disaster like Irma strikes, he issues a full refund of whatever you paid. You are welcome to charter a boat for just your group, but pricing will be affected depending on how large your group is.

Booking with them is done through email. The site's Contact page also lists phone numbers in the US and St. Maarten, but it's clear that email is the preferred method. I actually had a lot of questions before I booked, due to my mobility limits and concerns I had about how much I could take part, and Capt. Bob took the time to answer every one of them before I booked. He's very low-key and has no problem if you end up saying no after first contacting him.

When you arrive in St. Maarten, you'll go through the port market to the main road and make a left. You'll follow the road until you see a yellow building with a cheese shop, which is where the Dock Maarten marina you embark from is located. There's a little walk-through archway on the side of the building that gives you direct access to the marina, and this is where you'll find Capt. Bob and the other boat captains who will be taking care of you. It's a fairly easy 15-minute walk, even for a moderately mobility-limited person like myself. We took a taxi to get there only because we were running a bit late and didn't want to miss check-in, and walked back to the ship afterward.

Our captain that day was Bob's son Brett, and our first mate was his fiancée Laura. We were going out on the only boat that had been docked in Dock Maarten during Irma and survived (albeit banged up and in need of some minor repairs); not just the only boat of theirs, the only boat in the entire marina. Capt. Bob's other surviving boats (two that he owned himself and 7 owned by the other captains who he works with) were docked elsewhere during Irma, so they definitely did well by not pulling all of their figurative eggs in one marina-shaped basket!

I'm going to take a moment here to talk about Brett and Laura, as they were just amazing hosts for this tour and we couldn't have asked for a better pair to guide us around and help make the trip memorable. I was especially grateful to them since I ended up staying on the boat almost the entire time and it was good to have someone to chat with while everyone else was in the water snorkeling or swimming. They told me (and eventually the others on our trip) their back story, and it kind of blew my mind. If you'd rather skip this part, just pass over the quote block.



Both of them were originally from New York, like their dad. Brett was a hedge fund manager for a small firm he and a couple of friends started from scratch, and Laura worked for an investment bank in their trading division. They had met through work, got tired of the financial rat race, and decided to move down to St. Maarten to help his dad out with the business and live a much simpler and (mostly) less stressful life together. They have tried to get married three times now, but each time the wedding had to be called off due to some emergency at the time – West Nile virus the first go-round, Zika the second, and then Hurricane Irma. They're making attempt number four this year and hoping it will finally happen.

On top of that, they have a young daughter and the three of them had quite the experience around Irma. They couldn't evacuate the island as they own two dogs, and there was no one to care for them. So they had to stay in their apartment while the storm ran through. The building's storm shutters were blown out as the first half of the hurricane passed directly over the island; while the building was still intact when the eye went over, they knew it might not survive the second half and had to quickly move to a solid concrete utility room in the apartment's ground floor, along with the other residents who hadn't left ahead of the storm.

After the storm, the island was wracked by looting and it was dangerous to try and get out. It took days for the military to arrive from Norway and France, and then a curfew was put into place. Laura was able to evacuate with their daughter at this point, and flew to Puerto Rico – just days before Hurricane Maria slammed into that island.

Meanwhile, Brett had to stay behind to continue to care for their dogs and look for his own means of evacuation with them. He ended up on a fishing boat with his dad and his dog, plus several other pet owners and their animals. The boat sailed to St. Kitts in what was still very rough water, with 8-foot swells; and while he, his dad, and their dogs all managed to make it through the trip, many of the other animals weren't so lucky. Brett explained that pets don't generally do well with ocean voyages to begin with, and being in such rough seas made it incredibly hard for them to survive.

The hardships didn't end there. While Brett and his dad took a flight from St. Kitts back to New York, Laura was still stuck in Puerto Rico. The airlines were charging $5,000 for her and their daughter to fly out; and while they were able to scrounge up the cash, the emergency management staff there was refusing to complete the then-mandatory evacuation paperwork (essentially a promissory note certifying they would pay the airline whatever gouging rate they wanted to charge). Laura and their daughter didn't reunite with Brett until January, a good four months after they first had to leave each other.

Despite all of this, they still love life on the island and can't currently imagine going back. But Laura did express some concerns about when their daughter was old enough to go to school, and whether the schools on the island would be good enough. But they plan to cross that bridge when they get to it, and in the meantime they're continuing to enjoy their lives together in St. Maarten.



Now for the actual tour!

Every boat that is going out leaves the marina separately, and I think each one also changes up the overall timing of the itinerary a bit to avoid overlap. Even though there are a total of nine boats, and from what I saw at least five of them were going out the day we were there, the only places we saw any other boats from Capt. Bob were at lunch and when we arrived at Maho beach towards the end of our trip. At our snorkeling and beach destinations, ours was the only boat anchored there at that time.

After leaving the marina, you make your way along the coast and quickly move into another inlet. This leads to the most expensive marina on the island, where the truly wealthy dock their multi-million dollar yachts in the winter months. You get to see a lot of amazing vessels here, although when we went through there were several that were damaged (and one sunk) thanks to Irma. Your captain will tell you about the ships that are there at the time; one of them on our trip belonged to a Russian oligarch, and cost a cool $500,000,000! That is some seriously insane (and from what I've heard separately, most likely illegal / laundered) wealth on display!

From the marina, you make your way through a channel and continue along the Dutch side of the island. The channel is wide enough that you speed along, seeing all the buildings built on the shoreline as well as the natural beauty of the island. Even with the devastation still visible everywhere, it was amazing. The color of the water alone will blow your mind. You'll also pass by the mansion of the French side's governor, prominently on display by itself at the top of a modest hill.

At this point, you'll pass under a small drawbridge and cross to the French side of the island. You are warned that on this side the beaches are clothing-optional, but we never saw anything at any point that made us stare (or want to look away quickly). The channel opens back onto the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean not long after, and you'll continue along the coast for a bit before cross over to your first snorkeling stop, Tintemarre Island. This is a small little island with no inhabitants, and is part of a nature preserve that surrounds a lot of St. Maarten and encompasses the surrounding little islands. (islets?) The island is home to sea turtles and sting rays, both of which often keep to the sea grass under the surface of the water.
For those who didn't bring their own snorkeling gear, your captain will hand out fins and also a mask with snorkel. You're instructed to hold onto these for the duration of the trip, until the last snorkeling stop is done. The mask is sprayed with some anti-fog solution so you can see clearly at all times. Those who are unfamiliar with snorkeling get about 10 minutes of instruction here, and both the captain and first mate will check that your mask is on your face correctly before you dive in to the water. Everyone is free to jump in from either the sides of the boat or from the back. You get about 45 minutes at this stop before everyone has to board again. Boarding is done through a short rail-less ladder that gets attached to the back of the ship after everyone has gone into the water. Based on my experience using this ladder at our lunch stop, it's not really something for a mobility-challenged person like myself with a lot of foot problems. The steps of the ladder tended to be a little slippery, and since it's rail-less you need to hang on to the side of the ship, or the engines, or the thick fuel hoses, or anything else that offers a grip while you're pulling yourself back up into the boat.

After everyone is back on board, you go straight to your next stop – Pinel Island. This is also part of the wildlife refuge, but has a small strip of beach with umbrellas and loungers, plus a little bar / restaurant and a small gift shop selling hand-made and -painted bird feeders, wind chimes, and carved trinkets. There is a "bathroom" here, but it's really more of an outhouse; there was no running water to flush with that I could see, and there is also a warning sign outside the little cabin telling you in French and English to not put any toilet paper into the toilet! This is the only spot where you'll have access to any kind of bathroom, though, so if this just doesn't work for you then you'll need to either hold it until 4 PM, or do like the fish do.

I suppose I should mention at this point that from the moment you set out from the marina, there is plenty of water and also beer to be had. Brett told us that the beer was actually cheaper to buy than the water! For our boat, we had Coors Light and a very nice French lager that I'd never had before. There were only a few bottles of that, and I only scored one of them, so the rest of the time it was Coors beer-like tap water for me! But this does make it difficult to avoid needing a restroom the entire trip! :10_wink:

While at Pinel Island, everyone is free to swim, relax on the beach, visit the gift shop, and also enjoy lunch. While they used to do lunch in a different spot that had its own restaurant, that place was destroyed by Irma and hadn't yet been rebuilt. While I clearly smelled food cooking at the bar here, we were more or less told that we couldn't get anything to eat there; if I had to guess why, it was because on the French side they only accept Euros, not dollars, and this place didn't take credit cards. In any event, the new arrangement is for plenty of fresh-made sandwiches that are packed on the boat before you head out. These are really good and come in a nice variety – we had ham, tuna, chorizo, crab, and veggie as our options; and all were on fresh-baked mini-baguettes from one of the local bakeries on the French side. The sandwiches are served with chips and apples, and there are enough sandwiches for everyone on board to have two or even three if they want.

After about an hour and a half, you head out to your second and final snorkeling stop, a large rock that juts out of the water and is named Creole Rock. This is where you will snorkel to see a wide variety of fish, octopi, and sea urchins. The latter tend to make their home on the sides of the rock, so you get a pretty strong warning to stay clear of the rock and stick to the areas marked by little buoys that let you know where the fish tend to congregate. You also have to keep to the side facing the Caribbean Sea, which is much calmer; the other side faces the Atlantic, which has much more wave action, and you'll be warned that going to that side could lead to getting smashed against the rock and the sea urchins.

This stop is shorter, about 25 minutes, and then the really fast part of the trip begins. After everyone's snorkeling gear is gathered up and stowed, the captain opens up the engines and you go flying back to St. Maarten and the Dutch side of the island. It's a literal "hold onto your hat" ride, as the wind is strong enough to rip baseball caps or loose sunglasses off heads and send any loose towels or garments flying off the boat, never to be seen again. You quickly make your way to Plum Bay, where you will see the Dutch governor's home, as well as a large mansion currently owned by the 43rd President of the US. After a quick look and bit of background on that mansion, you fly off again and quickly make your way to Long Bay, site of the white villas with red tile roofs that show up in so many photos from St. Maarten. This is your final beach stop for the day, and you get another half hour or so to just relax and swim. The water is a bit deeper here and the current into the beach a lot stronger than on Pinel Island, so if you want to go to the beach you'll need to prepare for a bit of a fight back into the deeper water where the boat anchors.

When this round of beach time is done, the captain opens up the engines again and you speed along the coast to Maho Beach. You don't get that close to the actual beach area, this is more about hoping to catch a plane flying close overhead. It's kind of luck of the draw here; on our outing, we had a plane pass overhead just as we arrived, with no chance to pull out a camera and get it lined up for a picture. You only spend a couple of minutes before making one last speed dash back to the marina. I'm not sure if this part is common, but there were three other boats from Capt. Bob's at Maho when we arrived, and all four of us left and once and turned that final run into a race to the finish line. It was actually really fun to see which boat would end up "winning", and everyone was hooting and hollering for their captain to the be the one to come in first.

After returning to the marina, your captain will winch the boat back up part-way in its lift before you disembark. You'll be asked for a very well-deserved tip, and you'll also be advised to stop in the cheese shop that you passed on your way to the marina; here you can get a free treat by just mentioning that you were with Capt. Bob. It's normally ice cream, but in our case they had sold out and were instead giving away small caramel waffle cookies. You'll also have a chance here to buy some cheese (no Monty Python jokes, please!), made following authentic Dutch recipes and guaranteed by the owner to travel just fine for the rest of your cruise and your flight home. When we were there, they were giving samples of a really tasty Gouda that I'd have loved to buy, but I wasn't certain it would hold up to the time out of a fridge between getting off the ship and finally getting home.

You'll definitely be pushing the boundaries of your all-aboard time with this trip, but it is incredibly worth it in my opinion. This was far more than any excursion we saw offered by Royal, the group size was very small and made for great snorkeling without a lot of people crowding you, and your captain and first mate are excellent tour guides. I also think they're far less expensive relative to the duration of this trip vs. anything you can book in the Cruise Planner. $119 per person for a six-hour outing is, I want to say, half the price I saw for an equivalent duration excursion on the Cruise Planner. And judging by the feedback from my wife and daughters, the snorkeling was really good and offered a lot to see. Throw in the included beverages and food, and you've got one heck of a value for this trip, even after including a good tip!

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10 hours ago, JLMoran said:

While I clearly smelled food cooking at the bar here, we were more or less told that we couldn't get anything to eat there; if I had to guess why, it was because on the French side they only accept Euros, not dollars, and this place didn't take credit cards.

Just to clarify, you absolutely can use US dollars on the French side. We were there the week before you and every place accepted US dollars with a 1:1 exchange rate...including the not so touristy places. I think the tour boat operators make deals with certain businesses which was probably more of the issue as the place he uses hasn't been rebuilt yet. 

Great review! I am looking at doing something like this next year when we go to St. Maarten again.

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