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Rainforest Adventures' St. Maarten eco-park a 'destination-defining attraction'

(Photo: Rainforest Adventures)
Soualaga Sky Explorer climbs to St. Maarten's highest point, providing spectacular, 360-degree views
Just days from opening, Rainforest Adventures' new Rockland Estate eco-park in St. Maarten features what's touted as the world's steepest zip line and a high-flying chairlift adventure.

'It will be a destination-defining attraction. We will further help cruise lines sell St. Maarten as a destination,' Rainforest Adventures president Josef Preschel predicted.

A multimillion-dollar investment seven years in the making indicates the scope of the project and the company's commitment.

The Flying Dutchman zip line and the Soualiga Sky Explorer chairlift, as well as the Emilio Wilson Museum and Emilio’s Restaurant, are opening this month. The Sentry Hill Zip Line and the Schooner Ride, an inner tube adventure, are scheduled to open in early 2018.

The chairlift, accessible for everyone in the family, climbs to St. Maarten's highest point, providing spectacular, 360-degree views of St. Maarten and neighboring islands, according to Shaydar Edelmann, general manager of Rockland Estate. The world's steepest zip line launches riders down Sentry Hill at 56 mph, dropping 1,050 feet over a distance of 2,630 feet.

The Caribbean has plenty of zip lines, but this one is different, said veteran cruise line shore excursions expert Mico Cascais, who's providing destination development consulting to St. Maarten. This is the world's steepest zip line, and the whole attraction tells a 'really incredible story about where it's located. It's really, really well done,' Cascais said.

St. Maarten's role in history comes out in the Rockland Estate's Emilio Wilson Museum and likely will provide 'Aha!' moments for many visitors.

Rainforest Adventures has 20 years of experience creating dynamic attractions like Mystic Mountain in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, with its bobsleds, chairlift and zip line, and aerial trams and zip-line canopy tours in St. Lucia and Costa Rica.

For the company, St. Maarten's appeal is that it's one of the eastern Caribbean's most-visited ports, and both Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. are invested there. Rainforest Adventures hopes Rockland Estate will draw a 5% to 10% share of Philipsburg's 1.8m cruise passengers annually.

It has been a major undertaking. Part of the reason is the gasp-worthy location. The company's chief engineer, John Dalton, scouted the best spot—the highest point on the Dutch side of the island, with unobstructed views. Yet the entrance is just 10 minutes from the cruise port.

'We're typically innovators in the destinations,' Preschel said. 'We work with the governments to do the project in a world-class manner.' In this case, when it came to the chairlifts, the company followed both US and EU codes to secure permits.

Rainforest Adventures is the sole equity investor, however a consortium of financial partners includes the pension fund for employees of a St. Maarten bank and Carnival Corp. & plc.

'We are extremely proud to be part of the development,' said Carnival's David Candib, VP development and operations, Global Port & Destination Development Group. 'This new attraction will surely become a bucket-list item for anyone visiting the island,' he added, whether just to take in the incredible views or to experience the one-of-a-kind attractions, while also gaining perspective on history and culture.

For St. Maarten, already highly-rated destination, Rockland Estate will create an even more compelling reason to visit by cruise, Candib said. He noted St. Maarten is a highly strategic port for Carnival since it welcomes eight of the company's brands and about 34 of its ships annually.

Construction on the eco-park began in 2016, and it was poised to open in September this year. Then Hurricane Irma came along.

The facilities proved so sturdy that most everything sustained Irma's 180 mph winds. The only part impacted was the Schooner Ride, now expected to open by Feb. 10, while the Sentry Hill Zip Line should open by Jan. 10.

Rainforest Adventures works with all the major cruise companies, hotels and tour operators, and it has a significant online presence so awareness should be high.

Another important aspect is the company's commitment to the local community. It's done a significant amount of education and training. Almost all the staff, approximately 80 when the eco-park is completed, will be local hires. A contest was held to name the museum, and residents get a break on the ticket prices.

Irma may have rained on Rockland Estate's parade, but not for long. And, as it turns out, this exciting attraction should give a boost to St. Maarten when that is most needed, during this recovery period.

'St. Maarten is open. St. Maarten is strong. It's ready to be an even better destination than it was before the hurricane,' Preschel told Seatrade Cruise News. 'The destination appreciates the commitment by its cruise line partners,' he added.

'This is the moment to come back in a very strong way. The Caribbean is open for business.'

See also 'SXMStrong—St. Maarten bounces back'

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