Traveling Cleverly Since 2001

on Sunday, February 27, 2011 | 0 comments

l'll warn you readers: as the days went by, our picture taking became less and less. We were lulled into the rhythm of vacation and relaxation, and consequently our trip journaling suffered. But we still got a few great shots of both Grenada and Tobago. This will be the most boring of all the segments, because we opted to take it easy on Grenada.

I've harbored a strong desire to see Grenada for years now. I've had many travelers tell me it's a lovely place, and the book "An Embarrassment of Mangoes" certainly plays up Grenada as one of the author's favorite places in all of the Caribbean.

I knew we'd be tired by the time we reached Grenada, so we planned for a beach day. I thought we'd walk around St. Georges, check out the Carenage (touted as one of the most picturesque of all Caribbean deep water ports) and taxi over to either Magazine Beach or Morne Rouge.

One of the Summit's sister ships, Millennium, was in port with us that day. It was odd watching our mirror image ship pull in alongside us, but very cool. These folks were on a 10-day Southern Caribbean voyage, so I admit a tad bit of jealously towards the passengers aboard.

Upon disembarking the ship, I was somewhat surprised at how developed Grenada's port facilities are. This island clearly wants cruise ships, and has spent a considerable amount of resources building a large indoor shopping area attached to the port. You must enter through this shopping arcade to get to St. Georges, and I imagine this area is good for business.

We dodged the many aggressive trip hawkers as we made our way to town. Once on the streets of St. Georges, we encountered several friendly folks: one who proudly told us about the country's independence celebration a few days prior, and another who helped us out with directions just because we looked lost.

After walking up what must be one of the steepest hills in the Caribbean, we found the Carenage. I'm not sure what I was expecting... I thought there would be more shops lining the waterfront or something. It is a picturesque town in some ways, but somehow not what I was expecting. No worries. We found a taxi driver and hired him to take us to Morne Rouge for a morning of relaxation and rest.

Morne Rouge is a gorgeous beach, just past Grand Anse. I did notice there is a large pipe feeding into the ocean at one end of the beach, near the Gem Holiday Resort. We steered way clear of this end of the beach and opted to set up shop for the day a good distance away.

We rented chairs for around $10 for the day, and promptly took beach naps under the shade of one of the many large trees that line the beach.

Here's the busy end of the beach...

And here's the view from our chairs...

After napping and reading for the entire morning, we ate at one of the two restaurants on the beach, at the Gem Holiday Resort. I wanted chicken roti. Truthfully, the food was just okay. I kind of wish we'd opted for Magazine Beach because the restaurant there is supposed to be one of the best on the island. But, no regrets, the day was relaxing. That was our objective.

There is a ton to see on Grenada, including rainforest, waterfalls, history (especially from the coup and US invasion during the Reagan administration) and monkeys. By making this a beach day, we did miss out on seeing much of what Grenada has to offer, but we were tired and this was vacation! I loved our beach day. After a passing downpour, we jumped on a water taxi back to St. Georges.

We returned to the ship mid-afternoon, and chose to hang out on our balcony and around the pool instead of in St. Georges. As we sailed away, we opened our bottle of Veuve purchased in San Juan and celebrated another beautiful day in the Caribbean.
on Wednesday, February 23, 2011 | 0 comments
I'm forced to admit defeat. Work is derailing my plans to get the next installment out anytime prior to the end of the week. C'mon, a new job, a toddler... how hard could it possibly be, right?

For now, I'll give everyone a taste of my next installment: Grenada. Frankly, I could use a little Grenada in my life today, too.

on Sunday, February 20, 2011 | 1 comments

I was simultaneously dreading and anticipating our arrival in Dominica. Anticipating because I've read plenty about this garden isle: the high peaks, the verdant landscape, the friendly people. Dreading because I'd signed us up for an activity that was sure to push the boundaries of my comfort zone: Extreme Dominica Canyoning. This is the #1 rated activity on TripAdvisor in Dominica (and there are plenty to choose from), so I swallowed my fear and decided to go for it.

Our room service breakfast was brought to our room around 7:00am, and we used our lovely balcony to watch Dominica come into full view...

As usual, I should have spent less time worrying and more time embracing the fun headed my way. Provided you don't have a paralyzing fear of heights, this is a great activity for anyone in reasonably good shape.***

***Let me clarify what I mean by reasonably good shape. There was a woman in our group who was severely hungover from the day before (as in, passed out and carried back to the ship). She was not an athlete and she hung in with us. Painfully, but still. Apparently they took a group of 70+ year olds the week before. So, it's doable so long as you don't mind some moderate activity.

We met up at the Fort Young Hotel, just a few steps from the ship. We arrived early, so Dave and I sat on the curb and watched Dominica come to life early on a Tuesday morning. Literally, eight out of ten people who passed greeted us, and did so warmly. The Dominicans are a friendly, happy people. Part of me thinks this is because Dominica is extremely difficult to reach and thus sees less tourism than other islands. Part of me thinks it's just their culture. Either way, the friendliness was welcome after our day on St. Kitts.

Truthfully, downtown Roseau leaves a lot to be desired. This isn't the picturesque Caribbean waterfront like Marigot on St. Martin or Charlotte Amalie. Roseau is rough around the edges, a tad worn down, and bustling. But the real beauty of Dominica lies far outside downtown, in nature and the people, so if shopping is your only interest, you might want to stay on the boat. But know that you are missing out on what this island has to offer.

After the nine of us were collected by Richard, owner of Extreme Dominica, we were transported to the Cocoa Cottages where we suited up and practiced rappelling. In case you didn't click on the link above, let me explain: we were getting ready to head deep into a gorge and rappel down waterfalls with about a dozen strangers. I was still edgy at this point, but the practice rappel gave me a good feeling for how secure one is strapped in while rappelling. There is no slack on the rope, so you aren't dangling around; you are fully supported. Here is the rudimentary practice device...

After everyone had a go at the practice rappel, we jumped in the transport and headed about 25 minutes to the gorge. The drive took us through some of the densest foliage I have witnessed. This island rivals Costa Rica in its lushness. Fruit everywhere, flowers everywhere. Nature on steroids.

After we arrived at the gorge, we finished getting suited up. The gear included: a sleeveless wetsuit, an insulating jacket, a secure flotation vest, a helmet and a harness with an absurdly loose diaper over the fanny. At least we looked like we knew what we were doing!

As we lined up to rappel down the first waterfall, I realized I was standing knee-deep in a river in the middle of the Caribbean, letting two complete strangers hook me onto a rope so I could (hopefully) land without incident some thirty feet below. Oy vey.

The guides, Richard, Jeffrey and Natjie (I am sure I spelled that incorrectly) definitely instill confidence in the safety of the operation. There are three safety mechanisms: you, the guide at the top and the guide at the bottom.

There isn't a lot of babying or hand-holding, but consequently people just go with the flow. As Richard told me, "we're not trying to give you a ride, we're trying to get people hooked on canyoning." In my case, success.

We used the helmet cam available for rent in order to get video of our time in the canyon. Consequently, we don't have a ton of still shots from Dominica, but we do have many video clips. We've uploaded a few to You Tube, and I'll share those below.

The trip consists of 5 or 6 rappels, and three cliff jumps. The highest cliff jump is probably 12-15 feet, and is really not scary. After the first rappel and cliff jump, my fear had pretty much dissipated. This was fun. In between rappels, you have to climb and float through the river to get to the next waterfall. The gorge is absolutely beautiful: mist falling down, sun filtering through, green moss coating the canyon walls, and the occasional bat flying overhead. The water was clear and drinkable on most days, though not on our day. As one of our guides reminded me, "there are about 200 people from your ship bathing in the springs at the top of this river." I'll pass, thanks.

Here are videos of two cliff jumps and a rappel. Since lighting in the cavern is fairly dim, video doesn't come out great unless you have a camera with a light... the helmet cam is not equipped with a light, so we did the best we could.

After an awesome couple of hours in the canyon, I realized that what goes down must come... up. Yes, folks, when you descend into the depths of the earth to a place few humans get to see, you must ascend. No one warned me about this part and for some reason this never occurred to me. I'm a bright one. There is a 30-minute hike up, first through a small stream and falls, the over tree roots and muddy terrain. The through a private garden (which looks nothing like the manicured garden you expect) and finally, blessedly, you reach the starting point.

After we returned to Cocoa Cottages, we were provided a homemade lunch: a sandwich with chicken, hummus, cucumber, lettuce and tomato. All accompanied by the most delicious, locally-grown, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice I have ever tasted. Ah Dominica. I love you.

After we all settled our bills, we were driven back to Roseau by Jeffrey and Natjie. Some in our party needed sunglasses, and Dave and I needed to find an internet cafe to contact home and check on our son. Once we arrived in Roseau, Jeffrey and Natjie insisted on not just telling us where we were going, but showing us. Natjie walked us into the depths of town to show us the internet cafe before bidding us farewell. He is a lovely, hospitable person, and the grace and beauty of the Dominican people is with me still. After a very friendly encounter in the internet cafe ($2.50 for an hour of usage! The ship charges $0.65 a minute!), we slowly made our way back to the ship and to the aft bar to bid farewell to Dominica.

We'll be back. I cannot wait to share the beauty of this place with our son. I've heard the Chinese have some large interest in the island and are assisting in the major reconstruction project of the islands' main road. The Chinese government does nothing without ulterior motive, so I'm sure there are economic interests. I just hope this "assistance" doesn't destroy what is one of the Caribbean's best-kept and best-preserved secrets.
on Thursday, February 17, 2011 | 0 comments
I promise I haven't forgotten about the trip report, dear readers. I started a new position on Wednesday and my week has been hijacked by work, work, work.

To give you a taste, here's what is up next: Dominica, waterfall rappelling and the tastiest grapefruit juice on the planet.

PS: I see you people - why no comments?
on Monday, February 14, 2011 | 1 comments

I awoke early on our day in St. Kitts, mainly because bedtime the night before was 9:30pm. This vacation thing sure can wear a woman out. I got ready while we waited for our room service breakfast to arrive and took some great photos as we approached the island:

(For those who don't know him, Dave is being a dork, as usual.)

We didn't have any firm plans for St. Kitts, but we wanted to rent a car rather than take a taxi tour. I've never had a great desire to visit St. Kitts for a land-based trip, though I've heard from many people it's a lovely island. St. Kitts has a decent port set-up, with a newer shopping area and a gauntlet of taxi drivers trying to sell you day tours. We firmly but nicely said "not today" to many lovely gentlemen before we hit the main streets of Basseterre.

Early Impressions = Not Impressed
I did not have a car reserved, so our first adventure was to secure one. The first agency we visited, Thrifty, reluctantly answered about ten questions before I asked the key query, "do you have any cars today?"

"No," was his answer. Really, it was like pulling teeth to get him to answer basic questions. He obviously knew we were searching for a vehicle and knew he didn't have any to offer. So why answer all our questions first? It was weird.

Our experience wasn't much better at the drugstore where we stopped to buy water. We definitely used our typical Caribbean pleasantries of "good morning" everywhere we went, to no avail. We are not loud or obnoxious people. St. Kitts was off to an unfriendly start.

We had a bit of luck when we walked down to Avis - two cars available! Yay. Except for the fact that Dave forgot to bring his license (Note: I had asked him to) so he had to return to the ship to get it so we could rent the car. The people at Avis were friendly, if reserved.

Caribelle Batik and Brimstone Fort
Once the car was secured, we promptly headed out of Basseterre and away from the main tourist areas. We headed up the coast to visit the famous (and commercial) Caribelle Batik factory and Brimstone Fort.

Caribelle Batik is a gorgeous plantation home that has been converted into a batik factory and store. They have many beautiful dresses, pareos, beach bags, etc. I purchased a pareo and we headed up the road to Brimstone Fort as the masses began to descend (note: it's all relative, I'm talking maybe 30 people).

As we headed up to Brimstone Fort, we caught a glimpse of one of the famous vervet monkeys of St. Kitts. Monkeys make me happy. This island was looking up. 

Brimstone Fort is a very large and well-preserved British fort. The small museum and history are very interesting. You can look up the history for yourself if interested, but the views from the fort must be some of the best in the Caribbean.

South Friar's Beach and Shipwreck
We finished up at the fort around 11:30am, and decided it was time for a cold drink, lunch and some beach time. I'd researched a few beaches before we left because I wanted to avoid large crowds. Luckily, ours was the only ship in port that day (as was the case in all ports except one - another reason why we chose this itinerary).

We headed towards the Southeast Peninsula of the island, where the beaches and resorts are located. I personally found the geography of St. Kitts to leave something to be desired. Overall, at least compared to other islands I've visited, St. Kitts is more dry and barren. In particular, the Southeast Peninsula, where the resorts and beaches (with precious few exceptions) are located is not a place of extreme natural beauty. The Marriott resort literally dominates a portion of the peninsula, and it is one ugly structure. Fortunately, we headed past the Marriott and found a lovely spot on South Friar's Beach at Shipwreck Bar and Restaurant.

After a beach massage and a few rum punches, I was feeling St. Kitts. This was more like it. After a really good lunch (highly recommend the chicken tacos), the restaurant puts out some fruit and nuts for two groups of monkeys that live in the hills above Shipwreck. These are not pets - but the restaurant does feed them. There are also mongoose all over the place taking advantage of their good fortune and the monkey's scraps.

I realize my review of St. Kitts may sound like I didn't enjoy our time on the island. This is not the case. Truthfully, it was my least favorite of all the ports we visited, but a beautiful February day on St. Kitts beats a February day in Atlanta any time. Ultimately, that's the problem with cruises: you get a small taste of an island and if you have a negative experience or two, it can color your whole impression of a place. I'd certainly return to St. Kitts in a heartbeat, but on this particular trip there were other islands I enjoyed more. The monkeys were pretty awesome, though.
on Sunday, February 13, 2011 | 3 comments

We're regular visitors to St. John and the BVI, but we'd never made it to St. Croix. St. Croix sits apart from its USVI comrades and is much less visited than St. Thomas and St. John. I've always had the distinct feeling I'd like this island and my instinct was correct. Where St. Thomas and St. John jut out of the sea dramatically, St. Croix rises more softly out of the ocean. The island has dramatically high elevations, but also has rolling plains and flat areas where cows graze and horses are out to pasture. I loved St. Croix, and we'll be back.

Gecko's Island Adventures ATV Tour
Cruise ships dock far from the capital of Christiansted, on the far west end in Fredericksted. Admittedly, we didn't venture far from the ship. We wanted to see the island in a different way, so we booked a small, non-ship sponsored** ATV tour with Gecko's Island Adventures. The outfit is run by an ex-pat couple who have about five or six ATVs. Arlen, the guide and owner, takes you from sea level to 1,000 feet and back in about two hours.

We started out on roads...

Then we climbed to heights of 1,000 feet overlooking gorgeous vistas...

Then we stopped at the highest sugar mill ruin on the island...

Got a great view of the ship from dizzying heights...

Then we came down through the rainforest...

Post-ATV Afternoon
Our afternoon was spent at the beach in front of Cottages by the Sea, small hotel about a mile from Fredericksted. The snorkeling was definitely nothing special compared to St. John (other spots around the island are better, but time did not permit us to explore these sites), but we had a great afternoon and enjoyed some cold Caribs on the beach. Here are some assorted shots from our all-too-brief time on St. Croix:

We enjoyed sail away with a nice glass of wine (or two!) on our awesome balcony. St. Croix, thank you for a wonderful day. We shall return.

** Note: All of our shore activities were booked independently for a more personalized experience.  
on Saturday, February 12, 2011 | 2 comments

We're back! Dave and I spent seven glorious nights in the Southern Caribbean after what has been a rough winter here in the South (relatively speaking). Our decision to take a vacation sans-baby was carefully thought out. Could we leave our wee man? Would the guilt prevent us from having a good time?  Yes and no, respectively. We arranged for our awesome family members to take turns watching the little dude at our house, and he did great. It was hard to leave, but once we were on the plane all was well. We had so much confidence in the family members watching him that we had not a single worry. We checked in daily and the reports were always along the lines of "he's having a great time, enjoy yourselves." And I am happy to report, we did.

Why A Cruise?
Cruises are not normally our favorite way to vacation. We've taken one before, and I thought it was just okay. However, in that case, we had three sea days and three port days. I was very restless on the sea days and I just wanted to be on the beach. This time, we chose a cruise because of the itinerary, plain and simple. This cruise took us to five islands we've never visited in six days. All of these islands present some challenge to reach for a land-based trip, so we wanted to scope them out before deciding where to return for a longer stay. Overall, I loved the port-intensive itinerary, and would definitely do it again.

The Ship - Celebrity Summit
As the trip planner in the family, I agonized quite a bit over which ship to choose. At first, we'd decided on a smaller, but significantly more expensive, Star Clippers ship. However, this ship left from Barbados ($$$$ and difficult to reach) and we'd be in the cheap seats. I looked at mass market lines and found a cruise on the Celebrity Summit leaving out of San Juan. We were able to afford a fabulous aft balcony cabin with a huge outdoor space. The ship holds around 2,500 people, but it felt like a lot less. I'd say the average guest age this time of year was probably 60. If you're young and want to party and meet lots of friends your age, this is not the ship for you. No rock wall to climb, no wave rider, no crazy discos. However, there were also no belly flop contests, no continual announcements over the loudspeaker, no singing waiters and no drunk fools. Celebrity is understated and it worked for us.

Our Cabin - Aft Family Veranda 9197
We were able to secure a cabin normally reserved for families. This cabin was on the back corner of the ship, port-side. We had a bedroom, a divided sitting room and a balcony that was - no joke - about 300 square feet. Why tell when I can show...

The Itinerary
The itinerary, the glorious itinerary. Here's why we chose this cruise:
February 5, 2011: San Juan, PR
February 6, 2011: St. Croix, USVI
February 7, 2011: St. Kitts
February 8, 2011: Dominica
February 9, 2011: Grenada
February 10, 2011: Tobago
February 11, 2011: Sea Day (Boo!)
February 12, 2011: San Juan, PR