2020 has been a bad year for anyone involved in the tourism industry, as well as a bad year for anyone that likes to travel. As someone from a nation that relies heavily on tourism and also being someone that likes to travel, watching this dumpster fire smolder has been almost comical in the saddest way. Case in point, COVID-19 has made the concept of taking any vacation a total dream rather than the dream vacations we often speak about. Now though, literally swooping in and saving the day is Microsoft Flight Simulator.
With the power of Bing Maps finally being put to good use, the whole world is accessible by means of one simulator. So, in a desperate attempt to cope with the fact I’ve been stuck on my backwater island all year, I figured why not recreate the awesome trip I took at this same time last year.
In August 2019, I sailed aboard the Carnival Magic on an 8-day cruise to the Eastern Caribbean, starting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I was blown away by the beauty of each island there in real life, so my secondary goal for this little experiment was to see just how well Flight Simulator managed to recreate that beauty with its tech. Spoiler alert: I felt like I went on vacation again.
Stunning St. Maarteen
The first (virtual) port of call was the island of two countries, St. Maarteen. Split between the Netherlands and France, this is a beautiful, hilly little island. Home to 40,000+ people, St. Maarteen is a well-known tourist spot for both cruise-goers and fliers.
Speaking of flying, one of the main attractions of the island is the Princess Juliana International Airport. This famous airport sits on a tiny piece of land with the Caribbean Sea at both ends. What makes it famous is its dangerous approach. It’s not so much a danger for the airplanes (aside from crashing into the ocean), but the real scare is for the people below. The southern end of the runway faces a tiny beach which is typically packed with people that flock there to enjoy the blue waters. The real attraction to this beach is how extremely low the planes fly over as they land.
During takeoff, the engine blast from departing aircraft sends sand (and people) flying. This was one of the stops on my real tour of the island, and you better believe I stood there to capture some planes flying just above my head. The beach will supposedly be closed down in the future, so I’m glad I got to enjoy it while I did. With the default scenery of Microsoft Flight Simulator, the fence that separates the airport from the beach is missing, but somehow the tiny two-way road is visible, and just as laughably narrow.
As for the rest of the island, St. Maarteen is an absolute beauty with many homes nestled in its valleys and along the hillsides. It’s certainly worth checking out for the iconic landing alone. Plus, it’s only a few minutes away from St. Barth, which is the island with the super short runway that’s one of the most dangerous in the world.
The curious Saint Kitts and Nevis
Next up in this Microsoft Flight Simulator journey is the dual island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. Home to 52,441 people, these islands also possess a lot of natural beauty and hilly terrain. St. Kitts’ main natural feature is Mount Liamuiga, a stratovolcano that sits near the center of the island. It did have a crater lake at one point, but here in Flight Simulator, the crater is filled in with trees. Speaking of which, the majority of the island is covered in tropical rainforests and extremely fertile farmland. This is thanks to the volcanic soil.
While Liamuiga has not erupted in over 200 years, remnants of its violent past can still be observed with a certain part of the island containing black rocks along the coastline. I saw these black volcanic rocks in real life, and sure enough, they were also present in Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Since ships only remain in port for a few hours, I didn’t get a chance to actually visit the island of Nevis during my real trip. I was able to visit it here in the sim and was pleased by the continued presence of luscious greenery though.
Streaking into San Juan
What was the real showstopper of the cruise in terms of scale was that of Puerto Rico, and it remains the same in Flight Simulator. As one of the largest islands in the Caribbean, this American overseas territory is home to 2 million people. The difference in cultural influence and GDP is highly visible, as San Juan, the island’s capital and where my ship docked, is covered in skyscrapers and large building complexes. The urban sprawl has been captured well in Microsoft Flight Simulator. This really is in stark contrast to any of the other islands, which are pretty humble by comparison.
I came to San Juan here in the sim with a goal in mind. On the actual cruise, I spotted the small Luis Airport from the top deck of the ship. It offered a great vantage point to watch the planes and take off from. Thus, I wanted to try landing here myself with the sim. After this, I decided to take the drone cam and do some exploration of San Juan itself.
On the cruise, this was the shortest port stay by far, coming in at about four or five hours. So, I didn’t get to really see too much of San Juan while I was there. I did get to see some of the beautiful Spanish colonial architecture though. It reminded me of another city—Cuenca, Ecuador. I lived there for two years, and it remains my favorite place on the planet. So San Juan charmed me in that aspect, and its rendition here in Flight Simulator in terms of the whole island is quite gorgeous.
Taking on Grand Turk
Moving on from the largest port of call, we now have the tiniest port. The little island of Grand Turk. It’s so small, I was able to see the whole thing from the top deck of the cruise ship.
As a part of the Turks and Caicos archipelago, Grand Turk really doesn’t have too much aside from its harbor. It’s mostly a lot of open roads, beautiful beaches, and the salt flats where sea salt is extracted from. While it doesn’t have anywhere near as much stuff to do and see as the other islands, this beautiful little rock looks absolutely gorgeous here in the sim. Its bright turquoise water and the reefs beneath them are even present here in the sim and continue to look stunning.
What was most notable about my actual visit to the Turks and Caicos was that it is, geographically speaking, the most southern point of my country—the Bahamas. The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos used to all belong to the British Crown. The Bahamas opted to gain its independence in the 1970s, but the Turks and Caicos decided to stay. Nevertheless, relations between the two nations continue to be strong. There continue to be regular flights between the capital cities of each nation to this day.
Finding freedom again in Microsoft Flight Simulator
Thanks to Microsoft Flight Simulator, it’s been a joy seeing these spots again, but it feels different right now. Being able to load up the sim and just explore the world feels extremely liberating. At this time, real travel is mostly for emergency purposes so having this is amazing.
After my trip through the Caribbean, I headed south to check out my self-declared second and third homes of Ecuador and Peru. They look as beautiful as I remember. And right now, I’m currently flying over Oregon, on my way north to Alaska—just for the fun of it. I have no idea when I’ll physically be able to travel again. Thus, this simulator has come at the best possible time.