~ Rockland Estate Eco Park brings new views of St. Maarten ~

By Rajesh Chintaman

“Stunning,” “breath-taking,” “amazing,” snapchat-worthy” and “beautiful” were just some of the many utterances used to describe the experience of hopping into a chairlift at the base of Sentry Hill and steadily climbing to the highest point on the Dutch side. Rockland Estate Eco Park, located on the historic Emilio Wilson Estate, opens a new view on the St. Maarten landscape.

The Eco Park’s chairlift, which is called Soualiga Sky Explorer, offers riders the possibility to discover a whole new way of seeing St. Maarten and the neighbouring islands. As riders ascend, there is a sudden windy silence; looking down, you notice you are about 72 feet off the ground hovering over the canopy. Lush vegetation still surrounds the massive steel support posts of the lift, giving the feel that care was taken not to damage the existing flora and fauna.

Soualiga Sky Explorer features a series of 58 four-passenger chairs that transport guests to the island’s highest point at 1,125 feet, going at a very comfortable rate of 250 feet per minute. Anguilla, St. Barths, Saba and St. Eustatius and Tintamarre are visible as the chairlift gets higher.

A moment of astonishment for almost all riders on the chairlifts is arriving on the second stage of the lift, only to realize that hidden behind the foliage is a drop-off and hop-on point for another chairlift ride. As the second phase of the lift takes flight, riders are taken to the highest point and the lookout deck. During this part of the ascent, the newest and awe inspiring view is unveiled – a panoramic view of Princess Juliana International Airport SXM, Simpson Bay Causeway and all the way to Anguilla.

On the wooden lookout deck and walkway, guests get a windy almost 360-degree view of the island’s hilly contours, the bright blue of the ocean and the ability to spot various island landmarks, such as Dr. A.C. Wathey Cruise and Cargo Facilities, main roadways and John Cooper Jose Lake Sr. Ballpark.

A small group of invited guests comprising the press corps and a delegation from St. Maarten/St. Martin Annual Regional Tradeshow (SMART) was on Wednesday given a first-hand experience of what will become St. Maarten’s newest destination product.

Minu Jethani who grew up on St. Maarten and was part of the SMART delegation said, “Seeing the airport from the Saunders side of the hill was something I thought was not possible. I had to snapchat this experience. It is a beautiful sight that everyone should get a chance to see.”

According to Chief Engineer John Dalton, getting to this point has been rewarding but has not been an easy task; building at such altitudes requires a lot of very physical labour. The rock work required additional reinforcement to meet the safety standard expected of this project. Dalton explained that two geo studies were carried out and using his 35 years of experience, he said St. Maarten could expect a high level of safety. American and European safety standard will be used at Rockland Estate Eco Park.

The chief engineer said another challenge to the project was the constant change in government. “Talking to five different governments in five years was the hardest challenge,” he declared.

Apart from logistical challenges, the project is a major development – some 70 persons are required to operate and maintain Rockland Estate Eco Park.

Mechanic and operator Jemelle “Grease” Hodge has seen the project grow from the start. He was hired as part of the company’s initiative to get young people involved. The 19-year-old said he is honoured to be part of what he considers a historic development for the island: “Working at these heights was scary at first, but now it is fun. As a young boy, I climbed the hills but I didn’t think I would one day be involved in a project that helps others see how beautiful the island is from the hills.”

The park will offer several distinct attractions geared to making St. Maarten a memorable destination. The local people will have a unique vantage point for admiring their island and some of St. Maarten’s fascinating history while enjoying the fun activities.

Apart from Soualiga Sky Explorer, which seems to be the core activity, St. Maarten will become holder of the record for having the steepest zip line in the world – the “Flying Dutchman”. Guests can experience the thrill of a lifetime, harnessed in a chair and launched down Sentry Hill on a flight line at 56 mph dropping 980 feet in elevation over 2,630 feet.

Located at the mid-way point of Soualiga Sky Explorer, “Schooner Ride” will allow guests to surf down the mountain in large 48-inch inner tubes, on a specially designed 750-foot track of curves and straightaways.

“Emilio Wilson Museum” begins with a restored plantation house originally built in the 1700s. The Museum will showcase the powerful story of Trace Wilson, who was born into slavery on the property in 1818, and his direct descendant Emilio Wilson. Guests will see depictions of what life was like on a plantation and learn about the customs, traditions, lifestyle and stories that earned St. Maarten the moniker “The Friendly Island.”

“Sentry Hill Zip Line” starts at the hop on hop off station before reaching the top, visitors can enjoy the thrills of a traditional zip line on this 1,000-metre, four-span traversing the mountain ridge. It gives zip enthusiasts a chance to warm up before heading on the “Flying Dutchman.”

Restaurant “Emilio’s” will keep visitors fed and hydrated; under the leadership of Su and Norman Wathey, it won the bid to manage the food and beverage aspect of the park. The couple competed against six other bidders that included international restaurateurs. Their proposal includes maintaining the historic look of the buildings and keeping the spirit of the plantation life.

Rockland Estate Park management said on Thursday that the entrance price in high season will be the same as paid by cruise ship passengers, starting at US $59 per person. In low season, entrance for locals will be the same price figure but in Antillean guilders – NAf. 59. Rockland is slated to open at the end of summer.

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