One of the beacons of hope for the Caribbean's recovery after Hurricane Irma in 2017 was the opening of Rainforest Adventures' Rockland Estate attraction in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, six weeks after the storm.
So upon learning that my Caribbean Princess cruise would stop there, I was very curious to see what the place was about and how it looked 15 months after the 185 mph winds of Irma.
The attraction is one of several operated by Rainforest Adventures in the Caribbean. It was partly financed by Carnival Corp.
Photos taken of the summit of Sentry Hill after Hurricane Irma show the landscaping absolutely shredded by the storm. But fortunately, the infrastructure of the zipline and chairlift rides was designed to a 200 mph sustained winds standard, so with much prestorm preparation, it survived without lasting damage.
Nearly a year and a half after Irma, Rainforest Adventures' Rockland Estate is one of the top excursions on St. Maarten.
The bar at the top of Sentry Hill, which has an extensive observation platform. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
Many of my fellow Princess passengers joined me on the 25-minute bus ride from the pier to Rockland Estate. After passing through the ticket-processing area, we boarded a ski-lift-style ride that goes all the way up the side of a 1,125-foot mountain, the highest peak on the Dutch side of this French/Dutch island.
It is a gentle ride up the slope, which still shows the effects of the storm. While many trees and shrubs have regenerated, some are dead or have dead branches strewn around their base, bleaching in the sun.
The Sky Explorer, as it is fashioned, has 68 upholstered benches that each carry up to four riders.
My first stop was an intermediate platform, where the Schooner Ride begins. When I read that it was an inner tube ride, my assumption was that the Schooner Ride was a waterslide, but in fact it is a dry slide.
The inner tubes skid 657 feet downhill and through three banked turns on a course paved with perforated green plastic mats that look like overgrown AstroTurf. It is slick enough that rubberized mats are added periodically to slow the inner tubes. It took maybe 40 seconds to complete the course, and I felt out of control most of the time. Almost everyone finds themselves sliding back-first at some point, so if you're not a fan of that sensation, the Schooner Ride may not be for you.
After reaching the bottom, I reboarded the Sky Explorer, and this time I headed much farther up the mountain. The ride itself is pleasant, with the sounds from sea level dropping away until all I could hear was the wind rustling the dry grass below.
Riders on the Sentry Hill zipline. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
My destination was the Sentry Hill zipline, a 1,600-foot, four-span line that takes riders over two broad ravines. On this day, the winds were strong enough that it kept stopping riders in one direction short of the platform on the far side of the ravine. The operators closed that direction and had us take double turns over the ravine to the other side.
The vistas overlooking downtown Philipsburg, the adjacent salt pond and the developments around the airport on the opposite side of the island were the highlight of the ride.
From the zipline, there is one more leg of the Sky Explorer to the summit of Sentry Hill, where the attractions are twofold.
The former plantation house at the Rockland Estate is now a museum. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
First, there is a magnificent vista that affords an even more spectacular view of the Dutch side and the Caribbean Sea beyond, including the neighboring islands of Saba, St. Barts and Anguilla. An abundance of wood decking and metal railings give plenty of elbow room even on a crowded day. There are restrooms; a small, shaded bar; and, on the day I visited, a musician playing steel pans for some tropical ambience. The clouds in some cases passed so low, it felt as if I could reach out and touch them. And it was fun to watch jets taking off from Princess Juliana Airport head straight for the hill before veering off skyward.
The other attraction at the summit is the Flying Dutchman, a four-line zipline that drops 1,050 feet in elevation over a length of 2,800 feet, reaching a speed of 56 mph before a spring compression brake at the foot of the hill brings riders to a stop.
Billed as "the world's steepest zipline" in tour promotional material, the Flying Dutchman is 30 seconds of pure exhilaration, or terror, depending on your appetite for speed and heights.
The attractions of Rockland Estate are sold in different packages. A starter level, listed at $69.96 in the Princess Cruises shore excursion program, includes access to the Sky Explorer and views from the summit.
It also includes the ground buildings of the estate: a restaurant, a gift shop and a well-executed museum that was built in the former plantation house, a roofless ruin when Rainforest Adventures began the project.
A second package adds the Schooner Ride and the Sentry Hill Zipline for $129.95 per person. The complete package, which includes the Flying Dutchman, is $149.95. The Sky Explorer and Flying Dutchman combo, which was not offered by the cruise line, was listed at $99 on the Rainforest Adventures website.