Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor
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Trip 11/00 Background We (Todd and Debbie) really enjoy Sandals Royal Caribbean (SRC) in Montego Bay and have gone to Sandals Dunns River (SDR) twice on occasions when SRC wasn't including golf. While Todd really liked Sandals Upton course and Debbie liked the spa, we still really like the layout of SRC better. This time, we wanted to be close to the airport and decided to just pay for golf. This was partly so that Todd could try the new White Witch course. SuperClubs Ironshore Todd planned to play on three occasions and wanted to play SuperClubs Ironshore first to get some practice before playing White Witch. Todd has played the course quite a few times on the occasions when green fees and transportation were included at SRC. You can get information on this and other SuperClubs courses on Debbie's website at http://www.grand-lido.net/golf.htm. We arranged for a cab and a tee time with the concierge. On Saturday, Todd went to Ironshore at 8 a.m. The cab has a 2-person minimum, so he paid $6. Then he paid $58 for green fees, $5 to get back and $30 for the caddie, including tip. He has played there many times but not since SuperClubs took it over. He said the sand traps have been allowed to grow up grass, and the course is in bad shape. He said it has never been in worse shape. For $99, he was disappointed. Perhaps it got in this condition before SuperClubs bought it, but it needs drastic improvement. Since the golf course is outside of SRC's gates, $11 is a bit much for cab fees. Todd shot a 79 here. Ritz Carlton White Witch On Monday, Todd went to Ritz Carlton White Witch. Todd arranged for a cab at 8 a.m. It cost $16 each way since he was, again, charged the 2-person minimum. When he got out of the cab, he was treated like a king. The hostess greeted him at the cab and introduced his caddie, Stacey. His clubs were immediately taken. He was able to pay by Discover! The round cost $175 plus tax, so it was $201.75. Again, he brought his own clubs. He tipped the caddie $15 ($10-15 was recommended). The whole outing cost about $250 with his own clubs, shoes, and balls, but it included green fees, cart, caddie, driving range, and putting green. He also was given a ball marker and a personalized pewter bag name plate with White Witch on it. They asked how he wanted his name done. The course was impressive, and Todd could not say enough good things about the course or the staff. The area in front of the driving range is a cliff with a total drop- off. The course is interesting with a lot of hills. There is almost never a flat line. Walking would be very unpleasant, but some of the caddies do walk. Seventeen is the course's signature hole. Most places on the course have a view of water. The caddie had a cheat sheet on where to aim, distance to traps, etc. Todd used the putting green. There were 4-ball pyramids all around. The greens were hard and fast. If a golfer misses the fairway, it is difficult to get out of trouble due to the layout. There were no cups at the first two watering places, and by the 6th hole, Todd was very thirsty and did get some water cups from the beverage cart when it came around. Todd's score was an 89 due to many 3 and even one 4 putt. Half Moon On Wednesday, Todd went to Half Moon. Todd and I went to the concierge on Tuesday and set up a cab and tee time for Wednesday. We were informed that Wyndham is still closed and sending guests to Ritz Carlton, and we noted that Tryall costs $64 for transportation for 1-4 people. Therefore, Todd booked Half Moon. On Tuesday, we met some people that had come down for a tournament at Upton. I told the man that Todd was playing at Half Moon early the next morning and that he would love to share a cab. The guy indicated that he knows the assistant manager and might be able to get a free round, and he said if he could get a free round, he'd love the share the cab and play early. A short time later at the concierge party, he (Bill) informed us that he had arranged Todd and himself a free round and that he'd like to move Todd's 7:30 cab to 7:15. We got our breakfast delivered at 6:50, so Todd even got to eat. He brought his wallet in case the round wasn't free and set off again with a camera, although he didn't want to bring it going with someone else. He paid $10 for one direction of the cab and paid $15 for the caddie and $25 for half the cart. He paid $6 for drinks. The free round cost $56. Green fees are normally $128. Upon arrival at Half Moon, the staff took Todd's bag. Bill and Todd paid and were put in a cart. The caddie was named Denzel. Carts are not allowed off of the cart paths, but Bill got a medical exception. The course is relatively flat. If a golfer misses the fairway, it is not difficult to get out of trouble. It is across the road from the resort. Todd's score here was 81. The hotel and grounds looked very nice. At two points on the course, you can buy fruit drinks, such as freshly squeezed orange juice. Todd thought the course was better than Breezes, more along the lines of Sandals Upton. Half Moon is flat, and he thinks that Upton is more interesting. If budget is not an object, White Witch is a great experience.
Trip 11/00 This was a family trip to Jamaica this time - we took our two kids who are 6 and 3, and my mom in law. The kids have been to Jamaica once before, when my son was 4 and my daughter was just 1 1/2. Philip has been countless times, since he was a little kid and so has his mom. This was my fifth trip. Our connection was about 2 hours late but we arrived in MoBay around 4PM and set off for Negril. Our driver this time was Delroy, a friend of Lee's that he'd arranged to pick us up. He met us with a full cooler, very nice guy. We took the coast road out, planning to go the back way on the return. The road is in MUCH better shape than last January - just the normal potholes but no major canyons and not too much traffic. We arrived at our hotel (Nirvana on the beach this time, great place) and were so happy to be in NEGRIL! Even though it was dark, my son (my 6 year old) HAD to go swimming right away. Some kind of storm had blown through because I swear the waves were body-surf heaven, compare it to the Atlantic coast. The water calmed down a little bit the next day and was back to bathwater-calm in two. They say stormy weather comes for 3 days and leaves... Anyway, we all had a swim then Philip and I put the kids to bed and left them with Sheri and headed up to 3 Dives to see Lloydie and Paula who had heard about our travel woes and had some chicken and red stripes all ready for us. 3 Dives is next door to Xtabi on the cliffs and has, in my opinion, the best jerk, the best lobster and the very very best company in Negril. It's not expensive, there's a lovely sunset view (though the cliff bar was closed until the season starts, Lloydie and Paula have a bar in their restaurant by the road too). While we were there we placed an order for some of Lloydie's jerk sauce for a friend in Ohio (who I've never met in person - we trade jamband CDs online - but he knew I was going, had some of that sauce on a trip the year before and traded me three excellent recordings of ekoostik Hookah's shows from Negril in 1999 for some of Lloydie's sauce!) and of course, we ordered a bottle for us. They made a fresh batch the day we left and I've already dipped into it. Yummm.... The next morning (Thanksgiving) it was a little rainy when we woke up but a perfect day was upon us by 8AM. To the beach first - the kids insisted. We swam and played awhile and when we were hungry we walked down the beach to find breakfast. We found the Boat Bar (yep, the bar on the beach is made out of a boat, partially) just a few properties down the beach. For under $5 US each, we had ackee and saltfish and fruit and coffee and johnnycakes, the kids had French toast and pancakes and we were all happy. It's right on the beach so my water-loving son could play in the sea right up until the food came. If you've been to Jamaica before you know food never comes fast so we chose beach restaurants for breakfast almost every day so the kids could play in the water in view of our table while we had coffee or whatever. We hung out on the beach that day, enjoying the lovely shade on Nirvana's section of beach. Nirvana is a small property - maybe 5 cottages and 3 suites - but it is as big as that of the bigger hotels so there is a LOT of private space to hang out, almost all shady gardens. There are hammocks and chairs all over too. The entire property is fenced in, as is the case with many of the beach hotels. We appreciated this as it allowed us to let our kids run around "inside the fence" (that was the rule - "you can go play as long as you stay inside the fence!") without worrying about them trying to go swimming alone or getting lost. There is a guard on the beach (Donny) who kept an eye on the kids and his presence seemed to keep what few hustlers there were at bay - though I must admit I hardly saw any this trip. They seemed to know Donny wouldn't let them bug us though if we were interested in buying something, of course we could, and we often did. The absence of hustlers really surprised me as I'd heard all about the big hassle on the beach (as opposed to the cliffs where we stayed last time). I walked it alone and with Sheri (my mom in law) most days and we were never bothered at all - hardly even asked to buy anything, never mind anything more than that! We got the occasional parasailing or braiding offer but "no thanks" and a smile was absolutely enough. Perhaps they are out in force at night - I don't know as we were usually asleep by 9 :) At lunchtime we found Niah's patties, part of a place called WAVES, next to Lazy Dayz, that has bigger stageshows at times and crafts and some food the rest of the time. Niah's patties are not like the ones I was used to, the ones from the bakery - these were huge, fat, very filling ones. We tried lobster and chicken and they were very good. Afternoon is nap/chill out time for us and we wanted to get the kids out of the sun at midday. We lazed around our cottage and played cards, napped. Our cottage, by the way, was lovely. It has 3 bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room/dining room. It's screened in, in fact the living/dining area is more like a screened porch than a room, and has ceiling fans. Not only did we not miss A/C, we didn't even have the fans on a lot of the time. I used a light blanket at night when we did. After naptime it was time to eat again. We eat a lot in Negril. I could spend months working my way through all the little stands and shacks and restaurants in Negril. I just can't get enough Jamaican food and we don't have any here in Ohio so this trip was the big fix for me. Anyway, I'd made a note about the Happy Banana II's chicken stuffed with calalloo and cheese from an ad on negril.com so we decided to check it out. WELL worth the trip, folks, that chicken was amazing. We also had lobster which was very good and shrimp with onions and peppers - also delicious. Great service, Eddie is a very nice guy - he stopped t our table for a bit. Sharon was recovering from surgery so we didn't get to meet her. Happy Banana is on the cliffs, just near the start, not as far as Blue Cave. After dinner we were tired. We were not half the partiers this trip as we were the last. Partially because we had the kids, or we're a year older or something, but we went to sleep after dinner almost every night. As soon as we heard the first "gleep gleeps" of the tree frogs, we knew it was close to bedtime :) Friday, sunny and hot, just like it should be :) I woke up and took a long walk up the beach with Sheri and my son and my daughter. The walk made me appreciate our section of beach and our cottage. I'm not at all a fan of big hotels - they feel impersonal and institutional to me, I much prefer small laid-back places - I have no interest in TVs or phones. Well, maybe phones, but I can handle not having one. Every place we passed on that walk I was thinking "I'm glad we're staying at Nirvana!". On our beach we had chaises, trees for shade, plenty of space...a playhouse and swings for the kids and lots of water and sand toys, and only a handful of people around. Last trip, when we stayed on the cliffs, I thought the beach wasn't that great. This trip, staying right on it, I really enjoyed it. It's nice to have a home base there. The water was calm again and we had a great walk. If you stay on Negril beach and don't take a walk down some good stretch of it, you've missed something major. Especially early in the morning when the only people out are hotel workers raking the sand. It's quiet and peaceful but you can feel the buzz of activity starting up - by the time we walked back, people were up and the day had begun. The ladies at Nirvana cooked breakfast for us that day - it was really nice to come "home" to that. Back to the beach to play and swim. We stayed right next door to White Sands. Though we didn't have a bar, they did. Sheri and I made the theme of this trip "Order Early, Order Often" - it's our antidote to "Soon Come" - if you order a lot and do it early, you don't wait for drinks :) We also made good use of our own blender but being lazy on the beach it was easy to get drinks at WS. For lunch we thought we'd go up to 3 Dives but Lloydie and Paula weren't there yet. We tried Roy and Felix Serious Chicken - same thing. We were in a cab and totally blanked on where else to go so we went to the Pickled Parrot, which was OK since my son wanted to jump and he hadn't been there before. I didn't have my swimsuit but Philip and the kids had fun in the water and my son did jump off the cliff - not the super high one but the sort of medium high one. He's a very good swimmer who knows no fear of water or heights or anything. Lunch itself was so- so and expensive, but we knew that going in. Pickled Parrot is a tourist place, high prices, mainly American menu, but fun water toys. my son and Philip both went down the waterslide which ends with quite a drop down to the water. After our after-lunch nap, we'd arranged to take a boat trip. We never got around to it last time and I wanted to be sure we did this time. We took a glass bottom boat out to the reef and snorkeled a bit. My daughter didn't like that too much so we didn't stay long but in the short time I snorkeled I saw plenty of fish and coral and a small stingray. Or manta ray - I'm never sure which is which. It was really nice to just be out on the water and cruise along the beach. We headed over to Booby Cay next, arriving just an hour or so before sunset. It was DESERTED! It was GREAT! There was some trash the island party people had left from earlier in the day but I was so thrilled to have the island to ourselves that it didn't matter. We walked around with Martin, our "captain" to the back side of the island where there is a small beach, kind of coral-ey. We picked up a little tiny horseshoe crab, saw some sea urchins and hiked around a little. Back on the "front" side, there's a sandy little peninsula jutting into the water, and we swam some more. It was really neat to have our own little island for awhile - if you arrange to go not long before sunset you can probably have it to yourself too - the A/I's use it for daytime beach parties and are generally gone by late afternoon. I also love the feeling of just being out on the water on a boat - in Negril it was extra-nice because we weren't cold and the view was so beautiful. Negril looks different from out there. Snorkeling out there as better than off the cliffs too, though admittedly less convenient. For some dumb reason I forgot to note the name of the boat we took but it "parks" near Nirvana - Martin was a great guide. We sailed back with the sunset and arrived back at Nirvana just at dusk. The ladies cooked chicken dinner for us in the cottage that night and we played cards and all went to bed. Saturday. Breakfast at Dr. Bill's on the beach - good, not great, a little pricey for what it was. Daytime was spent on the beach again. (I'm reminded at this point of another boardie's trip report which went something like "day 1, take off shoes, go to beach, day 2, roll over, day 3, get more rum, day 4, roll over again, day 5, put on shoes, cry, go home" - this trip was much more like that for us than our last, must be a beach thing). For sunset we headed up to LTU Pub for the first negril.com board party. We ate dinner there, which was delicious, and I manned the chat room for a little bit. It's always nice to see Rob and I was happy to see Lucky Lady pretty much at the same spot we left her in last January! She IS a lucky lady! Enjoyed meeting Cool and Deadly and everyone else. Every board party I swear I'm taking a pen so I can write down names but I always forget. At least I had the camera this time! Next we headed down to the Negril Yacht Club to find Rasta John, our partner in crime last trip. Sure enough, he was there and it was great to see him. There were two blues bands playing that night but we only stayed a little while - we needed to head up to the Thatch Hut Bar for Board Party Part II. We dragged RJ up there with us. It was nice, I met Prento and chatted with everyone. I met Sienna of jamaicans.com very briefly - I wish I could have spoken to her longer as we had talked online a lot before I left. Philip wanted to go back to the NYC after a bit to see those blues bands play so we did. One band was from England, one was from Belgium and I was very impressed with their American Blues! I was a little tipsy by now (OK, I was on my way to being toast) and had a ball chatting with a group of locals and some Belgian tourists that had come with the band - I used to speak French, not sure how well I did it that night! The NYC remains my favorite nightspot in Negril. A nice mix of interesting people - locals, tourists, ex-pats, all of it. Good vibes, nice view, free music and cheap drinks - what more do you need? Philip and I stayed up and walked the beach at dawn before going to bed. Sunday. We spent the day really, really hung over. Thank goodness we had Sheri to take care of the kids - they went somewhere and we slept. Around 6PM we were ready to eat (I said we were hung over! We're in our 30's now, it just ain't the same as it used to be!). We'd ordered lobsters at 3 Dives for that night and I was ready for some serious food by then. We headed up and Lloydie said some boardies had been by earlier and asked for us and since he knew we were coming for dinner, he offered to let them know we were there now (they were at Xtabi). Apparently they saw us from Xtabi 'cause they were at 3 Dives shortly. Natalie said she'd been waving frantically for me to see a pod (?) of dolphins swimming right off the cliffs - I missed them - darn! Anyway, it was great to meet them in person and we all had a wonderful dinner, hangover and all. The kids had chicken (spicy sauce-less), and the rest of us had our grilled lobster with garlic butter, calalloo, rice and peas...Paula makes EXCELLENT callalloo - the best I had this trip. Naturally the lobster was great, and not at all expensive. We were stuffed and (guess what) exhausted. Philip and I agreed that Sat night would be the only all-nighter this trip - I can be hung over at home :) Monday. Philip and Rasta John had made plans on Saturday night to head out into the country on a little tour and go to Mayfield Falls. I'd been a little nervous about Mayfield for our kids, even though it had been recommended, because I understood it to be a bit of a hike for little ones. I'd been thinking Apple Valley Park instead but since Philip had made the plans, I figured it was worth checking out. RJ promised to help carry my daughter if necessary :) Our driver for this trip was Johnny the bartender from the Negril Yacht Club. We set out around 9AM with the kids and RJ - Sheri decided to hang out at "home". We headed off towards Sav la Mar, enjoying our first look at the interior this trip. It is gorgeous. The coastal plains give way to steep mountains as you skirt the edge of Cockpit country and start heading up. We stopped along the way to enjoy the views and visit a farm. It was hot and the hike was long, but the beautiful scenery was well worth it. Johnny and RJ and Philip took turns carrying my daughter on our little mountain hike. I got some wonderful pictures at this stop. Johnny calls this part of the island home so he knew the area very well. Now that we were all rather hot from hiking around the hills, we were quite ready to get wet so we headed on just a short way to Mayfield Falls. If you've been to Dunn's or YS, you still haven't been to Mayfield. It's inland, so there's no beach, and it's very quiet. There is a restaurant and bar as well as little huts where you can keep your stuff. We hired a guide, Rodney, who was very knowledgeable about the plants and animals we saw and was really a lifesaver with my daughter, helping her up the rocks and over the falls. My son very enthusiastically climbed and was a little bummed when Rodney suggested the path in a few spots - we had no guide at YS Falls so we climbed it all in the water - here it looked do-able but not with my daughter in tow so we alternated between climbing over rocks in the water and using the path along the side. You can walk quite a way up the river and we did walk as far as the largest set of falls, stopping in lovely pools and "jacuzzis" as we went. Rodney was a hoot, showing us exactly how to position ourselves to get the massages right where we wanted them. I highly suggest a trip to Mayfield. For $10US each, it's a bargain for a day. There's plenty of open space to just hang out if you're so inclined, and it's even possible to camp overnight. We stopped in Little London on the way back for lunch and the old rules about things being cheapest the farther you get from tourists proved true again - we had 3 huge meals of fish and chicken and 6 drinks for under $15US. Tuesday We decided to walk a bit down the beach to breakfast. The kids swam along as we walked to Alfred's. Alfred's has a really great breakfast - I couldn't finish more than half of my plate and the food was delicious. Prices were good too. My son had been eyeing the trampoline in the water up the beach at Margueritaville all week and when a friend he had made staying nearby was heading up, I agreed to take him too. We walked part of the way and swam out to the trampoline. The boys enjoyed jumping on it, off it, and climbing back up for an hour or so. We never actually bought anything at Margueritaville and I guess that was OK because no one came out in the water to suggest that we should :) Dinner that night was at Gino's, part of Mariposa Hideaway. Service was really, really, excellent and the food was good too. It was the only non- Jamaican meal I ate the whole time - this is mainly Italian food. I had lobster pasta and a delicious flan - called caramel custard here - for dessert. Wednesday Breakfast at the Boat Bar yet again...my son insists on it by now because a friend is staying next door at Rondel Village and they can play in the water while we eat. We rented a jetski - fun enough but pretty expensive ($35 for a half hour). We played a bit, had lunch in the cottage and went up to Roy and Felix Serious Chicken for dinner. It was more crowded than I've ever seen it, ambiance as nice as ever, food was just what we needed. That chicken call and blow is still great - I had the Serious Chicken which is really a BBQ chicken - OK, not as good as the call and blow I think. Thursday It was a little rainy and cloudy this day so we decided to take out the two Nirvana kayaks we'd seen by the beach. We should have done this sooner - it was REALLY fun! They're easy to paddle, Philip and I took a kid each and paddled up and down the beach for quite awhile. The clouds and drizzle made the beach deserted and the air cool enough to paddle without feeling too hot. We still abandoned ship a few times for quick swims :) Those kayaks are free for Nirvana guests and Donny has life vests for kids and adults. We read a lot of Harry Potter out loud this trip - no TV - and we got through most of the book. In the afternoon, I went up to 3 Dives to order jerk sauce to take home - Paula remembered and was in the midst of making a fresh batch for us when we arrived. YUMMMMM....so we stopped by the phone place in town to make a few calls and had a terrific lunch at Juicy J's in town. The fish and chicken dishes were around $300J. That night, our last in Negril, we picked up our jerk sauce at 3 Dives and said goodbye to Lydie and Paula. Paula had some lovely purses and swimsuits and things she'd crocheted. They are in the kitchen and you'll have to ask her to show them to you because she's not one to do a hard sell, or any sell - I didn't get one because I forgot to ask her! We fell asleep to the rather bizarre sounds of an American country and western band playing at Waves on the beach...nearly drowned out the gleep gleep of the tree frogs! Friday This is it, our last day. We had breakfast at Palm Beach, next to White Sands. We sat at the "bar" where David the chef cooked our omelettes and pancakes right in front of us - very nice guy, excellent food, price wasn't bad at all. After a final swim, Delroy picked us up and took us back to MoBay. This time we took the inland route, through Sav-la-mar, which is unbelievably gorgeous - try it!! Overall, we had a wonderful trip. Nirvana was just our kind of place - mellow, quiet, right on the beach and the gardens are real eye candy. We ate our way through Negril again, adding a couple of new restaurants to our favorites list. 3 Dives is still the best - you can't go to Negril and miss Lydie and Paul's hospitality and food, really. 3 Dives: www.negril.com/nn060397.htm Nirvana: www.nirvananegril.com
Trip 12/00 I have just spent 6 nights at Sandals St. Lucia and would like to say that I have been to all the Sandals Resorts and found that this one is, in my opinion the best of a great resort chain (Sandals) available. The grounds were emaculate, the food was superior, and the staff was unbelievably friendly (I think a combination of great management and a trait of the St.Lucian people). The Bluff Suites were a pleasant surprise at how convenient and how well the concept works in this truly excellent resort. I also stayed at the Hilton Jalousie in St.Lucia. It also was one the most beautiful settings imaginable. (Set between the famous Pitons). The diving was the best with a high fish count. We also had dinner at the Plantation restaurant at the resort and found it equal to any restaurant I have eaten at. All in all, this is one of my best trips in 18 years in the Caribbean wholesale business.
Trip 12/00 Were really very fortunate: we made two trips to St. Martin this year, and our seventh overall Thanksgiving Day through December 1. Our good fortune came courtesy of American Airlines through some incredibly priced packages. We got eight nights hotel and airfare for less than what we typically pay for airfare from Chicago alone. At a price like this we couldn't afford NOT to go! Our hotel this time was the Mercure Coralia Simson Bay in the Nettle Bay area. It was our first time staying on this side of the island, having always been on Orient Beach or in Grand Case previously. While we appreciated the proximity to Marigot, I felt like we spent a lot of time driving over to Orient or Grand Case and determined I really prefer staying on that side of the island. Rooms at the Mercure were pretty basic. I felt the biggest drawback was the lack of some sort of sitting area in the room. Most other places we've stayed at in SXM have a rattan couch and chair, but the Mercure offered only a pair of straight-back chairs in the room. Out on the patio, however, were a plastic table and three plastic chairs. The patio was also where we found the kitchenette. It featured a small refrigerator, a sink and two rusty electric burners. Nodishes, utensils or pans are provided, but what's called a kitchen kit can be rented for the week from the front desk. Since we didn't plan to cook any meals in our room, we just invested in some disposable plates and utensils that ended up being quite adequate. There's a restaurant and bar at the Mercure; however, whenever actually dined there. The hotel is located on the lagoon so there's not a beach for swimming, but the hotel pool is large and very nice. We ended up using the pool at some point almost every day and even partook in the aqua-aerobics classes a couple of mornings. The hotel is very French in its style; if you prefer a place that caters to Americans you might not like the Mercure that well. That's not to say the staff isn't friendly and helpful; they definitely are and responded to any request we had very quickly. Because we arrived just before the start of the busy winter season, we found a flurry of activity to get everything finalized for the influx of tourists, with a lot of new construction everywhere. The street running from Sunset Beach Bar through Maho was completely torn up. It was pretty humorous to watch the road workers at the foot of the runway run for cover whenever a 747 or DC-10 revved for take-off! Of course, they were a lot smarter than the tourists we saw who thought it would be fun to stand directly in the jet blast, only to be physically hurled into the water. Other roads on the island have also seen a lot of work in recent months -- the pothole situation is much improved. With the snowy, frigid winter we've had so far here in Chicago, we could use those road crews here right about now! The only rough stretch we drove on this time was the access road to Club Orient but I wonder if its left that way on purpose to help keep out the riff-raff! My first impression of the island this time was how green it was, with flowers and butterflies everywhere. Such a contrast to a year ago when we arrived less than a week after Hurricane Lenny had hit to find everything just as brown as things are at home this time of year. Overall, I sensed a high level of optimism among the islanders for a prosperous season ahead. The island is looking great: aside from being so verdant, a lot of the trash we saw on the roadsides last spring has been cleaned up. Theres a lot of new construction all over the island. Anyone who has not been there in a while will be very surprised, particularly on Orient Beach where there are a few new small hotels, several villas on the hillsides, a row of shops along the road going to Bikini Beach Bar and several cranes and cement trucks indicating even more on the way. We've stayed several times at the Hotel St. Tropez, but I fear it wont have quite the same feel in the future. As always, one of the distinctive pleasures of a trip to SXM is the dining. Since everyone has their individual favorite restaurants, I won't go into an excessive amount of detail here except to say we had our most enjoyable meals at Sol E Luna (Cul de Sac), Le Bateau Levoir (Marigot), LesPetit Auberge des Iles (Marigot Marina), Restaurant du Soleil (Grand Case) and La Case Creole (Sandy Ground). Also good were the Boulevard Diner (Simpson Bay)and Bikini Beach Bar (Orient Beach). For the first time, we tried the Greenhouse, but found it to be too American in style for our tastes. During the day, we did our fair share of laying out on Orient Beach. For as green as the island was looking, we encountered very little daytime rain, although there were frequent showers in the middle of the night and early morning. In other words, the weather was perfect! For the first time, we visited the St. Maarten Zoo. This place doesn't get the publicity nor the financing it needs to thrive. We spent quite a bit of time talking with the curator, Neil Grant, and times are tough for the zoo right now. They were devastated by Hurricane Lenny in 1999 and are working very hard to make a comeback. The zoo exists on a small government subsidy that does not begin to cover their costs. At the same time, they need to increase visitorship through advertising and publicity, but these things cost money the zoo cant afford right now. The zoos focus is on species from the Caribbean, Central American and northern South America. There are many colorful animals at the SXM Zoo, so if you have a chance to stop by and see them, you may find it a worthwhile way to spend and hour or two. And if you can, please leave a few extra dollars as a donation to help ensure the zoo will still be running in years to come. You can find the SXM Zoo in the Madame Estate area north of the Great Salt Pond in Philipsburg, just off of Illidge Road. On another day, we set out for the MaDouDou factory. This tiny place is the ultimate cottage industry! We tried to take our friends there, but after driving around and around, we couldn't find it, even though John and I had been there before. The next day, John and I went back on our own and it was right there, where we thought it was all along. It was as if the building, which is hardly more than a shed, had temporarily disappeared for a day (cue up the Twilight Zone music). At the factory, you can get all the different flavors of MaDouDou in several different sizes, as well as a selection of spices. They also have hand-painted bottles that you usually won't find in the stores. The owner is a young man from France who doesn't speak a lot of English, but he is very friendly and will let you sample as many flavors as you care to taste. One thing we learned is that MaDouDou is a fictional character very similar to the Aunt Jemima pancake syrup icon. Among the most enjoyable of activities of this and any of our trips to SXM is getting to know people who have been bitten by the SXM-it is bug like we have. We've made some deep and lasting friendships thanks to this island. I suppose any piece of paradise has its groupies but it seems like there's some magic in the air on St. Martin in particular. I guess that's why they call it the Friendly Island: this place just inspires warmth and friendship among residents and visitors alike. And it keeps us coming back time and again counting down the days till our next trip home.
Trip 11/00 For this, my fifth trip to South, I brought a group of 18 divers to Ocean Haven. The hotel / dive operation is in its second year under Bob Musselwaite and has turned the corner after a tough first year. Bookings are up and the operation appears to be financially stable for the first time in the six years I have been traveling to South. The Diving: In my opinion there is no better diving in the Caribbean than that found on the miles of virgin walls and reefs of South Caicos. In our twenty odd dives over an eight day trip, we regularly encountered sharks, turtles, massive southern sting rays and schools (as many as 25 in a group) of eagle rays. There were also all the usual suspects of the smaller variety. Most of the diving is along the walls and fringing coral on the south side of the island and the walls are spectacular. The walls of Little Cayman pale in comparison to those of Shark Bay on South Caicos. Little Cayman is easy (walls start at 30 fsw) but the deep walls of South (start at 70 fsw and deeper) are simply the most spectacular in the Caribbean The coral is healthy and varied. Some walls are just layers of huge plate coral. There are gardens of finger coral and, on the east side, there are canyons of finger coral and brain coral, quickly becoming rare in other locales, is often seen here. There are also numerous other types of corals. The sponges at South are simply incredible. Seven and eight foot high barrel sponges are fairly common; five foot long purple and yellow tube sponges hang from the walls in tremendous numbers; 5 foot high elephant ear sponges are everywhere. Deep water gorgonians are stunning and black coral is abundant. Last year, Bob and I explored shark bay and found some "lost" dive sites that I remembered from previous visits. This year, we explored further and found the rest. South now has over 25 identified and mapped dive sites. There are also some "unidentified" sites for particularly advanced divers. The diving is done from 23' Carolina skiffs. Backroll in, doff your gear and climb back in using the transom ladder. Dive sites are a short 5 - 10 minute ride from the dock. The boats return to dock between dives allowing for plenty of nap and sunning time. The Hotel: The hotel is clean and the air conditioning works. There is no TV nor are there telephones in the rooms. It is simply clean, comfortable accommodation not quite up to Motel 8 but adequate for hard-core divers. There is a pool but there is no beach. There are sea kayaks for exploring the mangroves and Long Key across the harbor. There is good snorkeling both in front of the hotel and from the kayaks. The Food: In the past, many divers including myself complained about the poorly prepared food served in inadequate quantities. This is no longer a problem. This year, and last, the food was very good and abundant. We had grouper, lobster (twice), pasta, chicken, goat, chicken and beef kabobs and other good stuff for dinner. There was always a salad at both lunch and dinner. Lunch was typically cold cuts, salad and fruit. Breakfast was eggs, pancakes or French toast (and cereals) with plenty of fresh fruit. Potable liquids other than water are extra but the price is reasonable. The Price: The hotel is a bargain. As I recall, a 7 night / six days of diving package is $799 during the "value season" and extra dives are $28 each. The package includes dbl occ room, three meals and two dives per day. The airfare to South from Provodenciales is $99. Bottom Line: Not one of the 18 divers thought that the diving was anything less than among the best that they had ever done. All also considered the trip a bargain. The shop through which I ran the trip plans to make it an annual or semiannual affair. South Caicos Ocean Haven has a web site.
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