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Caribbean Travel Roundup

Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor




Caribbean Travel Roundup
Paul Graveline, Editor
Edition 62
February 1 1996

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JAMAICA: GRAND LIDO REVIEW BY DEBBIE HOFFREN

SuperClub Reps at Airport and Ride to GL
We arrived in Montego Bay on December 18 after car trouble and many airline delays. American surely got some fines on our trip. Take note, they quit the Red Stripe/soda giveaway at the airport. The rep said they were having too many problems. For $2, you can get something, no problem. We did without. We made it out of the airport without anyone checking my carryon bag containing camcorder and laptop. At 4:15, we boarded our bus, 3 hours after we had expected to depart. We did not leave until 4:25 because one couple had not yet arrived. We drove into GL at 6 p.m. The road to GL was scenic and much less traffic-filled than the road to Ocho Rios. I can see the benefit of taking TimAir, but would not call the ride a bad experience. Since our driver knew that we knew Jamaica, he spoke to us about changes since our visit in July and the golf tournament held the previous day at Tryall.

Hotel Check-in and Greeting
We were seated in comfortable chairs and offered a drink from the bar. You may have anything they have in stock, but they may not have the brand you want. Todd had a bar drink. I had champagne. The four Japanese checking in were greeted by a Japanese man. While waiting a short minute for the drink, we were given a cold towel. We filled out a flight confirmation request and the usual information about our travel agent. We were offered a tour, but the offer was retracted since the orientation was to begin in 15 minutes. They seem to only have the orientation every two days. We checked out our room. In the 10 minutes we were there, they brought our bags and came to turn down the bed. We went to the orientation. It was held outside of the piano bar and was very brief with only one other attendee. He was rather upset, since he had been there two days. The orientation was held every other day.

The Room
Our room was 1008. This is a lovely location on the textile beach side. It is oceanview, far enough from the ocean to not be disturbed by those enjoying the beach while you enjoy the patio, but very closely located to the beach bar, the Beach House and Jacuzzi, and two tennis courts. The watersports are not too far away, and the walk to the main facility is not that bad. There are not steps or hills. We found it very convenient to walk out of our door and go to the Beach House for anything we wanted. We found the room to be nice enough. It has a sunken living area which requires stepping down. The TV remote required a code, which we did not receive and did not call for. Instead, we operated in a manual mode. The living area contained a mini stereo with radio and audio cassette, a couch, coffee table, and chair. French doors opened out onto a good-sized patio which contained a table and two chairs. The balconies above contained chairs, but no table and were about half the size of the patios. The bed was two twins pushed together, and the spread was divided in half, which was nice if one person wants it on and the other doesn't. There was a tiled, headrest containing two bed lamps and plenty of room for anything we wanted to set there. There was no clock, which would have been handy for using for naps in order to stay awake longer at night. We generally did not nap, as we were afraid of missing dinner altogether. The day we left, we noted a number existed on the phone list to request wake- up calls. Opposite of the bed is a dressing table and mirror with a nicely padded chair and a lamp. Next to it is a full-length mirror. The closet had plenty of room but not as many hangers as we would have liked. We simply used the hangers from our garment bag. The closes contained a safe deposit box. Next to the closet was a four drawer chest, with four shelves next to it. A mirror and plug in unit were above it. This was a good area for shaving, etc. The bathroom was adequate, but not spectacular. The tub is normal-sized with a clothes line hanging there, nice touch. The stool and sink were pretty normal. The shower contained a dispenser for shampoo, bath gel, and lotion. Next to the sink was a hanging hair dryer.

The Resort Layout and Grounds
There are many interesting things to view all over the property. Many tropical plants and trees are on the property, though almost none are labeled for the curious or unknowing guest. The main beach is very long. If you sit near the bar, you will probably need to serve yourself, but if you sit a distance down the beach, the server will come by. Each morning, between 10:30 and 11:15, someone walked down the beach offering guests a slice of watermelon. This was very popular. Near the pier are many interesting rock formations and a large variety of fish to view and feed. Although we did not visit there, we walked by the c/o side for the purpose of this review. The beach is much longer than I expected, and had many available seats, with about 10 people of all sizes and shapes lounging there. The pool and Jacuzzi had the concrete bottoms totally dug up and were a work in-progress. It did not appear that the work would be done any time in the near future. We were intrigued by the large tree between the Timber House and the workout facility. It is shown in the brochure.

The Beach and Timber House
Each morning, I went to the Beach House and ordered a pot of hot tea and two glasses of orange juice or cranberry juice. Some mornings, I ordered some champagne. I have found that the tea water is placed in a pot which has a hot water label on the top, if the staff does it correctly. If not, the tea will taste of coffee. Generally, the teapot is green, and the coffee pot is white. This may not always be the case, however. We visited the Beach House often and the Timber House on a couple of vacations. Usually, the service was very fast, but not always. The grilled chicken takes about 30 minutes. The hamburgers, hot dogs, and potato skins were all very good, but you must ask for exactly what you want. Even if the hot dog is supposed to have optional sauerkraut, they will put it on. The burger may come with fries and a glass of champagne, but you will get only the burger if you don't ask for the champagne and fries. The menu is the same as the room service menu. The Jacuzzi at the Beach House was usually a good temperature. Once it was too hot. Once, it was too cold. I went to the Jacuzzi once at the Timber House. It was about 9 p.m. It was lovely, and no one else was there. A waiter took my order and brought me a pitcher of Diet Pepsi. I often ordered a pitcher of Diet Pepsi or water at the Beach House Jacuzzi. The waiters and waitresses will bring food and any beverage to the jacuzzis, also.

The Food

Breakfast Buffets
Every day beginning at 8 a.m., the buffet featured omelets to order with a handful of ingredients to choose from. Eggs to order were also available, but might not turn out 100 percent as expected. We found it beneficial to arrive right at 8 a.m. to get the best service. Even at 8:15, service was slower for tea, etc. Other hot items were bacon, sausage, akee & salt fish, scrambled eggs, waffles, pancakes or French toast and carved pork. Each day, watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple and papaya were served. The watermelon and papaya were always ripe and good. The pineapple was not very good, perhaps it wasn't the right season. Smoked fish and cheeses were available, along with bagels, toast, cereal, and yogurt. I ate eggs, bacon, watermelon, and papaya every day. Sometimes, I ate toast. I enjoyed the hot tea. The waiters brought a box with several selections and waited for me to place the bag in the cup before pouring the water. This was the same tea served at the afternoon tea and at Piacere. The room service tea was Tetley. Some days, we fed the fish from the pier with bread from the buffet.

Lunch Buffets
Held from 12:30-2 p.m. Attire was casual, but guests arriving in swimsuits were asked to go get a cover-up. Lunch offerings every day included quite a few salad and lunchmeat items, along with fruit, a fish dish, and many tasty-looking desserts, all of which I easily resisted. The salad dressings served were different every day and never labeled. The soup was the same almost every day, but was very good. It was labeled. No other items on the buffet were labeled. Each day, a grilled fish was served. Yogurt with fruit and various desserts were served. Other items varied. Sometimes, there was a theme, sometimes not. Tuesday, stuffed pasta shells and jerk chicken grilled right there were the unique items and both very good. Reggae dancing was taught at 1:35 p.m. Wednesday, exhibition cooking involved chicken and beef stir-fry. Hot and sour soup was also served, along with egg rolls and rice. All other buffet items were the same as the previous day. Soca dancing was taught. It was similar to the reggae dancing. No one was pushed to join in. Thursday's lunch was similar to the lunch served on Tuesday, with the same soup. The exhibition cooking was pork chops and bratwurst. I did not try these. Friday's buffet involved grilled chicken, lasagna, fried fish with baked French fries, and all of the regular buffet items. A Jamaican folklore group danced and sang throughout the meal. Saturday's buffet was the best. It was a Tex-Mex buffet. The entertainment was a one-man band. The buffet was tasty, even by a Texan's standards. The fajitas were stir fried, rather than grilled, so they tasted more like Chinese food, but they were good. The bean burrito was good. The lump crabmeat quesadillas were excellent. I did not try the tacos or black bean soup. All other items on the buffet were the same as every day. Most days, the staff offered us wine when we were half finished eating and seldom offered a refill.

Room Service
On Monday night, I put the breakfast request on the doorknob for the eye-opener breakfast and a few other items to be delivered between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Just after 7 a.m., everything was delivered, but it was not exactly what I ordered. They brought the executive breakfast. I had asked for a pot of hot tea. There was water, but no tea bags. I went to the beach house for more tea. The guy there had no clue about how to make hot tea, but he managed to get me some tea bags. I sat out on the patio and drank hot tea, ate fruit and a croissant while Todd lay in bed. Room service is convenient for snacks and bottles of champagne, but we generally chose to get our own from the Beach House, since it was across from our room.

Cafe Lido
On Monday night, we dined at Cafe Lido shortly after our arrival. The next morning, we visited the concierge to book dinner reservations at Piacere. Dinner at Cafe Lido begins at 6:30. The dress for men is slacks and shirt with collar. Women generally wear a casual dress with flat shoes. We arrived at 7 p.m. and would have preferred to eat outside, but there was no table open out there. To dine outside, arrive early or late. Todd's appetizer was two very thin slices of beef with sauce and seasonings. I ordered lobster and crab cocktail, which was similar to deviled crab with no breading. The soup was seafood bisque, very good. The bread was similar to a pizza crust topped with sun-dried tomatoes. This was served around the resort frequently, along with sourdough, French, and a few others. The salad was unexciting greens. The dressing was a choice between 1000 Island and vinaigrette. For the entree, Todd had the chicken cordon blue (tasty). I had the broiled salmon. It was good, but not as good as here in Houston. I gave most of it to Todd, as I was too full. We skipped dessert but had sorbet during the meal. The meal was accompanied by wine. The choice was white or red, no wine list. We were offered drinks for the bar. Todd had one. I did not. The menu changed mid-week and was posted outside an hour or two before the restaurant opened.

Piacere
We went to Piacere on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights. On Tuesday morning, we reserved with the concierge at 8 a.m. for Tuesday and Thursday evenings. On Friday, I reserved for Saturday night. We had no problem getting reservations. On all three occasions, we had the crab cakes for the appetizer. Twice, the two cakes were served with a large grilled shrimp. On the third occasion, they were served with a crawfish. On our first visit, I ordered the lobster gazpacho soup, forgetting this was a cold soup. I did not like it. Todd ordered double chicken broth. The other soup available contained oysters. On our second visit, Todd and both forgot and ordered the gazpacho. On the third visit, we both ordered the double chicken broth. The first visit, we had mozzarella and tomato salad. The other two visits, we had bibb lettuce with raspberry dressing. Each night, the salad was followed by sorbet. It was always the same and tasted like pink grapefruit. On the first and third visits, Todd had the New York steak. It was tender and tasty, similar quality to an Omaha steak, we thought. On the second visit, Todd had the beef tenderloin at the urgency of the waiter. It was not even close to the taste of the New York steak. On the first visit, I had the New York steak. On the other two nights, I had the seafood medley, the best meal I found at Grand Lido. It was outstanding and contained 4 scallops, 3 large grilled shrimps, and three ? to ? inch lobster tail slices still in the shell. This was served with spinach fettucini (not alfredo, much lighter and tastier) topped with parmesan (the powdered stuff) and surrounded by zucchini, carrots, and mushrooms. The first night, we had no dessert. The meal took 2.5 hours. On the other nights, the meal took about 1 ? hours. Other notes about Piacerewe were given a wine list. The first night, we ordered a German white wine, which we ordered again on the 3rd night. On the 2nd night, we ordered a sauvignon blanc. The menu contained 5 or 6 whites, 5 or 6 reds, and champagne ( I believe), but over half of the wines on the list were not available. One night, Todd ordered a banana and chocolate cake with coffee. I ordered mixed tropical fruit ice, 3 tasty sorbetsraspberry, peach, and coconut with hot tea. We waited a very long time for the dessert and never got the coffee or tea, although I got a tea bag with no water after 20 minutes. On the third visit, I ordered the sorbet again. On our two return visits, the staff remembered us and was very friendly.

La Pasta
The restaurant opens at 3 p.m. and closes at 2 a.m. It is popular between 4 and 7 p.m. The dress is casual, even shorts are allowed. On Wednesday, we went to the pasta restaurant instead of attending carnival night. We sat at the counter, thinking we would get a good exhibition, as in the brochure. There really wasn't much to see, other than two couples who were very loud and drunk. The staff ignored this and was good to them. Todd ordered fettucini alfredo with ham. I had a strange dish with cheese ravioli and curry chicken with baby shrimp. The ravioli was not quite done. We had soup, salad, and sorbet as other courses. The soup was a tomato soup and not as tasty as some of the soups at other locations. La Pasta only serves garlic bread, but the cook brought me a selection of other breads when he got time (within 5 minutes of my request). Menu changed mid-week and was posted late afternoon.

Grand Gala Buffet
The buffet was held on Friday at 7:25 p.m. That evening, I woke Todd up from his nap to get ready for this one. We were there at 7:25. Quite a few people were just sitting around nearby at tables or at the bar waiting for the buffet to begin. Soon after, we took a plate, as did about 10 others. One of the chefs told us that we were supposed to wait for the presentation. We never did see one. Out by the pool, there was carved roast beef, grilled jerk chicken, prawns (very tasty), and some other dishes, such as grilled fish steaks. Where the breakfast and lunch buffets are usually located, an array of salads, including a Caesar prepared on demand, were laid out. The Caesar was at one end, but the other salads were at the opposite end. I chose to eat a mixture of ingredients from both ends. I am still amazed that they have the powdery kind of parmesan cheese all over the resort, rather than freshly grated. In the middle was a huge array of sushi, popular with many. I was able to find some very good vegetablessnow peas and zucchiniand large tasty clams bordering a fish dish. We did not try any desserts, located out of sight and difficult to notice. The only fruit I found was what was used to make a beautiful display, so I took a carved papaya. The service was good at this meal, much better than we received out on the terrace at breakfast or lunch. I am assuming that is because the restaurant staff was outside performing duties. We were offered bar drinks, wine, water, coffee, and tea, whatever we wanted. The wine stewards walked around with baskets of four wines. They offered red or white, dry or sweet. We asked for dry white and received a sauvignon blanc. It was a different one from what we had previously tasked. We did not get a good look at the label, however. In general, we were not at all impressed with the buffet. There were not as many dishes as we expected, although the display was beautiful, with ice sculptures and other carvings. There was no lobster and not that much seafood. San Souci Lido's buffet wins, hands down, over GL for Gala Night, for presentation, variety, and quality. At San Souci, they serve on the beach and light up an entire end of the property. Even though it rained the night we were at San Souci, they moved everything in within 15 minutes.

Carnival Night
We only walked by this one. Featured entrees were grilled tuna, jerk chicken and oxtail. The beach party afterward was near our room but was surprisingly quiet. Earlier in the day, the dance instruction went on, and costumes were handed out to be used later.

Afternoon Tea A variety of teas, cookies, and finger sandwiches were in the lobby at 4 p.m. everyday

The Resort Activities
Bike Tourheld most days at 8:15 a.m. I went one day. The start time gave me just enough time to each a very quick bite of fruit and bacon from the buffet. I was the only one to show up in the lobby. A couple showed up down at the bicycles, but the woman couldn't ride, so they did not go. We were to ride 7 miles each way to the straw market. I had the social director turn around after about 5 miles, giving me a 10 mile ride.

The resort charges $12 for shopping tour to Negril. This should be free, as with the resorts providing shopping tours to Montego Bay or Ocho Rios.

On Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, Tony teaches aerobics at 8:30 a.m. I arrived too late on Monday but attended on the other 3 days. The class lasts an hour. Some days, he teaches step aerobics. Other days, he does hi/lo with hand weights. Some days, he does abdominal exercises at the end. On other days, he does leg work. On Tuesday and Thursday, he conducts "personal training", but if no one shows up in 5 minutes, he disappears. Todd and I opted to do our own weight-lifting without Tony and survived the trip with no weight gain.

One day, Todd participated in the doubles tennis tournament. He won a bottle of Tia Maria liqueur. There are tennis courts at both ends of the resort, and the pro works with those interested in the mornings and evenings.

On Saturday, there was to be a mixology class. We could not find it. The resort holds bingo on Monday. We arrived too late. This was too bad because bingo is usually how I win a lot of souvenirs for us.

During lunch every day, there was either entertainment or reggae or soca dancing class.

The air hockey was not working. Very few people play the slots, which seem to have little to no pay-out ratio. I did not see anyone win anything. Various board games were available for play for anyone interested.

The library is in desperate need of book donations. There were some selections in English and others in foreign language. There were audio and video cassettes there, and these were more readily available than books. We saw no magazines or newspapers.

The piano bar had a lovely atmosphere. They open at 6 p.m. and serve nice appetizers. We were there when it first opened, before dinner at Piacere. The place was beautifully decorated for Christmas. The room could have easily smoke-filled if very many guests were smoking. We only went to the disco once when it was not yet opened but heard it was not very busy at all and that only one couple showed up to the pj party.

Golf
Negril Hills. My husband liked the course and played well, despite the walking up hills. He thought the course was much more difficult than Jamaica Jamaica and Ironshore. This course was very hilly and had some water. His main beef was the 2 hour wait to get a ride back to GL after the round. He put up some big fuss and finally got brought back, so he made it back at 2:30. The outing began at 8:30. The 18 holes was $14 up front for the caddie, a $15 tip afterward plus drinks for him and the caddie, totaling $4. He bought a bottle of water and saved the bottle to use on another day. Two days later, he played again and returned at about 12:20. He complained to get a ride and threatened to take a cab. After 15 minutes, they sent a bus. He didn't play as well this time. He got a cart this time--$30. He didn't like his caddie and paid the $14 up front with only a $10 tip. The caddie drove the cart and hardly ever gave him his clubs. Todd usually tips well but was upset with this guy. This was a $54 round.

M/Y Zein
Most days, the Zein goes out at 3:30 p.m. Reservations are available through the concierge. At 3:30, we got on a boat to go to the Zein, which had been returned to service only the previous day. It was a cocktail cruise. Attire for men required slacks. Women could wear sundresses or fancy skorts. It took 3 boat trips to get everyone out to the Zein. There was an open bar, a crazy Jamaican singing group, and an occasional finger sandwich or fruit kabob. One guy in the singing group lifted his shirt and made his belly dance. He was having a wonderful time. The ride got us back at 6 p.m. but should have stayed out another 10-15 minutes to get the full benefit of the sunset. One day during the week, a c/o cruise was held. We did not attend but saw about 15 people go over on the boat.

Watersports, Beach Time
The textile beach was very nice and long. We went out every day between 9:30 and 10 a.m. and stayed 2-3 hours. There were a string of people all the way down the beach. Some people were chatting, many were reading, swimming, or resting. A few chose to place lounges in the grass behind the beach for more quiet. Every day, we saw one-five topless women of all shapes. We saw several thong suits. More men wore bikini drawers than boxers. Towels were generally available on the textile beach, but some people took them by the handfuls. Less available were the yellow GL floats. Many had no one in them but had a towel placed in them to be saved. It was fairly easy to claim them before 10 and after 3. The pool was much less popular than the beach, with only about 10 people gathered there each day. We floated around on rafts most days and did not burn much, since we did a good job with sunscreen. Every day between 10:30 and 11 a.m., a waitress brought watermelon slices out to guests. This was a nice touch. If located a ways down the beach, drink service was offered. If near the beach bar, you were on your own, although over the weekend after most had left for Christmas, we were offered service once and were pleasantly surprised. Wine at the beach bar was Rhine with a screw cap, and the same wine as at Jamaica Jamaica at their bars. I do not like it. Also, we were not able to order a bottle of wine for our room from the Beach House, as they said we had to have our own opener. I drank other drinks instead, such as champagne and vodka with club soda and lime. Once, I ordered this drink and got wine instead of lime! Todd was more adventurous and tried many tropical specials. Often, we just had diet soda.

Snorkeling
Twice, we went snorkeling along the rocks and near the pier. There were so many fish! The mask and fins fit so well. That made all of the difference for me. I was able to stay out there a long time. Todd saw a stingray. I wouldn't look at it. We saw starfish and sea urchins.

Other Water Activities
We tried the water trikes. They are similar to those at Sandals. We skipped everything else, but sailing, kayaks, and water-skiing were available. Todd was going to ski the last day, but the weather was awful. One other day, it was too windy.

Manicure, Pedicure, Massage
The massage room is located between the aerobics room and the weight room. They offer a 45 minute massage for $40 or a 60 minute massage for $50. I went for the 60 minute one. She did the back side for 45 minutes and the front for 15. The pressure was very nice. It took 2 days to get someone to answer the phone in order for me to book an appointment. Another lady I spoke with had the same experience. The concierge would not assist, either.

I booked a manicure and pedicure for myself one day and a pedicure for Todd a few hours later. When I showed up for my appointment, the manicurist did the pedicure first. It was not as nice as others I've had. The water was ice cold, and she didn't massage my feet much. The manicure was good. Todd showed up for the pedicure at 5 p.m. They sent him away and said they were running late. They called him at 5:20 to come down. He returned with a manicure, rather than a pedicure. They had painted his nails with clear polish. He didn't tell the girl he was there for a pedicure or book an appointment for a pedicure for later. Instead, he had me call for a pedicure appointment for him the next day. They got him in and out in 15 minutes or less.

The Gift Shop-Elan
The gift shop had many GL Logo shirts in golf and T-shirt types, but the only sizes available were large and extra large. Logo swim trunks were available. The resort shop had rum at a high price, Blue Mountain coffee at a high price, and many trinkets, cookbooks, etc. They also sold sundries. Near the bag was a large supply of jewelry and duty-free perfumes.

Laundry Service
We only used it once. We had no laundry request form in our room, but we called the service, and they brought a form down. The rep waited patiently while I filled it out. Generally, they take up to 48 hours, but he said it would be done the next day. We called after about 30 hours, and they brought it back within 30 minutes. To get service, call in the mornings.

The Unpleasantness
One day at lunch, just as I was getting my jerk chicken, Todd pointed out the biggest rat I've ever seen running right behind the food line. The tail was at least 8 inches long. I keep trying to keep it out of my mind.

One day the Jacuzzi at the Beach house was scalding. Six people wanted to get in and sat around and talked instead. The next day, it was fixed.

The first night, I put our the breakfast room service door tag. The next day, the delivery was on time, but not what I ordered. The tea arrived without bags, only water. The food was not what I ordered. I got tea bags at the Beach House, and we went to the buffet.

Service can be slow when getting wine at meals. It is easier to get bar service, even at meals, but the staff is trying.

Rain all day on Christmas Eve. Not the fault of the staff.

The air conditioner was very loud and kept me waking up all night every night. Some people just threw open the french doors and forgot the air conditioning. That's a good idea, if you lock up your valuables.

Departure from GL
That last day, I was up and on the patio with hot tea in time to watch the sunrise. I was awake most of the night. Several people were on the balconies above me and chatting across them. At 7 a.m., I got Todd out of bed to begin packing. By this time, it had begun raining. We finished most of our packing and waited for a gap in the rain to go to the breakfast buffet. We ate the usual and then fed the fish, as usual. I spent some time in the Beach House Jacuzzi in the rain. We watched TV for a few minutes while finishing up the packing in order to have our bags out by 11 a.m. We called the bellman to get them. Within 5 minutes, a pickup, used often to service our end of the resort, was there for the bags. At 11:10, the bellman called to make sure someone had come. Next we ordered a large room service traygrilled chicken sandwich with fries, hamburger with fries, hot dog, and potato skins(cheese, bacon, and onions on top) and a bottle of champagne to kill the time until our 12 p.m. departure. The food took some time. At 11:40, the champagne arrived. At 11:47, the food arrived. We choked it all down and went to the lobby at noon. The bus was 15 minutes late, and the bellman was ready to get a cab for the 6 of us departing if the bus had taken much longer. At MBJ, I had 3 inspections of my laptop this time, but the whole trip home went pretty well.

General Comments
Staff to guest ratio didn't seem 1 to 1. Service was mixed. Over half of the guests were European. There were mixed couples and a few Jamaicans. Over half of the guests were in their 50's and 60's. Another 20 percent were in their 40's with the majority of remaining guests being in their late 30's. We are 33 and 34 and were on the young end. There were only a small handful of guests in their 20's. We met interesting people from several parts of the world. I thought the resort was too laid back. I do not like a party atmosphere but like an active vacation where I have to choose an activity, not wait for one. We enjoyed the vacation. We did not see any weddings. We thought the resort was worth a return visit but not as good of a value as it should have been. I still prefer Couples. It has several room categories. The Jacuzzi suites there are cheaper than an oceanview junior suite at GL, and Couples has better food and more romance.


PUERTO RICO: SAN JUAN BY RAYMOND BARBERESI

Just got back from San Juan . Left Thursday just between the snowstorms and airport closings in DC. Delta Air - no glitches.

Stayed at Hosteria del Mar in Ocean Park section of SJ (address #1 Tapia Street). Opted for oceanfront room on second floor at $145 per night, also offers accommodations in back building for about half that rate. 16 rooms in all I think.

Property is compact with nice vegetation and gorgeous ocean views. Could use some general maintenance and more attention to details (staff could use some training) but whatta ya want for $145 a night in season.

Room was adequate, good size with kitchen sink, refrigerator and stove, bath with leaky shower and torn shower curtain. Took 2 days to get soap (this type of thing doesn't bother me, just mentioning it in case it might bother YOUR type!?!).

Room had excellent ventilation, never needed the A/C, tile floors, wicker furniture, plain (or absent) decor. Small, good restaurant on ocean with open air dining possible. Very convenient for fun in the sun without a lot of effort to subsist at the beach (personally I dislike large hotels where it takes half the day to get something from your room on the 14th floor, 2 blocks from the beach). No pool, but who needs it? outside shower, lounge chairs in short supply but had semi-comfortable plastic "Adirondack" chairs.

For those who don't know, Ocean Park is between Isla Verde and Condado sections and it's mostly residential, few restaurants or other services.

I rented a car, so this wasn't a problem (Budget, $32 a day compact Mitsubishi Mirage; suggestion, spend a couple bucks a day more and go to Avis).

Reposteria Kasalta is a bakery/deli on Mc Leary a 5 minute walk from Hosteria del Mar that was perfect for eat in or take out breakfast and lunch, delicious baked goods, noted in Frommer's as THE bakery in SJ.

Dinner: La Casona renowned as the best restaurant in all Puerto Rico served up some fab dishes for one night's "event" dining. Impeccable service with tuxedoes waiters, although patrons were not required to wear neckties (especially not the men).App was Caldo Gallego which was more refined than most, entrees were Lamb Roast which was stupendous and Red Snapper with Roasted Garlic, a real winner, seared to perfection!! Desserts were OK, Tiramisu and kiwi cream pie, nothing to write home about. About $100 for 2 including app, entree, dessert but no alcohol, although they have a large wine selection (valet parking).

Dinner #2 : Oasis, Condado section on Ashford Ave, free parking in rear. Really good food at bargain prices for the area. Caldo Gallego was heartier than at La Casona and half the price. Entrees were very good smoked pork and a little over done grilled Dorado fish, excellent flan for dessert. bill for 2 with tip about $45, again no alcohol (sorry don't drink).

Dinner #3 , La Veranda at El San Juan Hotel. If you know the setting, it screams tropics. La Veranda is an outdoor terrace, informal restaurant that serves everything from all day breakfast to burgers to Pizza Hut pizza (no kidding) to finer local cuisine, asopao, steak churrasco which was great. Dessert not noteworthy. If u want to eat on the cheap ($6 burgers, omelets) and have FANTASTIC ambiance this is the place. Casino action: managed to lose at both Condado and El San Juan Hotel casinos (ha ha), but not too much. Preferred the El San Juan, obviously, the place is magnificent!!

If you can "go with the flow", Hosteria del Mar is worth a stay for the price. If you need action and local convenience, this is not the place - which IS exactly why I picked it -- to each his own.


ST. CROIX BY SUZANNE COMER

Just returned from St. Croix . Anyone who has read my previous reports has probably figured out we are very biased in favor of St. Croix. After spending another week there we are convinced this bias is justified.

The island is wonderful. It is as green as we have ever seen it -- almost lush. The people, as usual, were friendly, outgoing and accommodating. It is amazing how many truly fine restaurants are on such a relatively small island.

We went to the Commanche for the first time ever and were overwhelmed with the food and the service. It can compete with the best state side restaurants. No Bones is as good as ever and Tomas as fine a chef as ever. We are up to 17 in our quest to get to reveal his recipe for seafood chowder. Remember - anyone who makes the wise decision to have a lunch or dinner at No Bones, be sure to tell Tomas Suzanne sent you. He is keeping track.

Although there were not as many cruise ship passengers as there were in November, it is obvious a lot is happening on St. Croix.

There is a vitality evident that has been absent since Hugo. With its beautiful hills, wonderful beaches, excellent restaurants, warm, friendly people, I still think it is the Caribbean's best kept secret. There is also plenty to do for those of us who can sit on a beach for only so long.

We had another wonderful sail to Buck Island with Francis Waters on the Diva. Three novices were with us and the patience he showed in helping them to get the knack for snorkeling was very impressive. Two of them did extremely well and loved every minute of snorkeling the underwater trail. A great way to see Buck Island. A World War One Red Baron bi-plane (correct terminology?) has been added to the multitude of activities offered on the island. I don't know what it costs to ride it but it certainly looked like fun.

The seaplane to St. Thomas seems to be making more frequent flights. We spent the vast majority of our time on the island in condo association meetings but it was still traumatic to get on the plane and head back to frigid New England and reality.


ST. JOHN BY MICHAEL SCHUMANN

My wife and I recently visited St. John with our 6 year old son and my wife's parents. This was our first vacation in the Caribbean. It was a totally awesome experience. We WILL be back.

Getting There

Getting to St. John was the most stressful part of the trip. We were traveling during peak season (Dec. 27, 1995 - Jan. 6, 1996). In addition, many of the direct flights to St. Thomas had been canceled due to the reduced tourist traffic resulting from the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn. We flew Northwest Airlines from Minneapolis to San Juan (via Detroit), and then connected with American Eagle to St. Thomas. Everything was smooth sailing until we got to San Juan. When we got to the American Eagle gate, pandemonium reigned. Not only were they having lots of mechanical problems, but they had massively oversold all of their flights (on our flight they sold 52 tickets for an airplane that only had 32 seats). On top of that, it appeared that airline employees flying standby were somehow being accommodated anyway (rumor had it that $20 bills were being passed to the gate agents for a seat). Needless to say, we were bumped. I was repeatedly told by the American Eagle gate agent that we would get a $300 travel voucher for each bumped passenger. Ultimately we were given $100 vouchers on a take it or bug off basis.

After a 2.5 hour delay, American Eagle managed to find a 64 seat plane for an extra flight so that the many people who had been bumped throughout the day (some waiting for 5-6 hours) could get to St. Thomas. Even though we finally got to St. Thomas, one of our two bags didn't. It was finally delivered to our house on St. John the next day. The return flights (St. Thomas - San Juan - Minneapolis) went much smoother.

Many people on St. John and St. Thomas, expressed their dissatisfaction with American Eagle. Due to the heavy demand, American Eagle has virtually eliminated all discount fares from San Juan to St. Thomas. It cost us almost $200 RT for the 60 mile flight. We were told that a new carrier (Prestige Airline) had just started service from Miami to St. Thomas for virtually the same fare. My advice: avoid San Juan & American Eagle like the plague.

To get to St. John, you need to take a ferry from Red Hook or Charlotte Amalie. While the Charlotte Amalie dock is a very short taxi ride from the airport, this ferry does not run very late.

As a result, you will most likely need to take a taxi to Red Hook. Unless you hook up with a van load of other travelers going to Red Hook at the airport, you will be subjected to a long circular tour of St. Thomas while your driver drops off his other customers. This is the last thing you need at the end of a long day on the road.

Another option is to call ahead and have Sunsational Tours (809/771- 2934) meet you at the airport to take you to Red Hook. They are a little more expensive than a regular taxi ($9 / person vs. $6), but they will guarantee you non-stop service. In addition, they will stop at a supermarket for you if you want to do some grocery shopping before you leave St. Thomas ($0.10 / minute while they wait).

Accommodations

We rented a house overlooking Coral Bay (at the other end of the island). We paid $210 per day, which we considered quite reasonable considering the fact that the house had 2 BRs, 2 Baths, a large sleeping loft, great porches and an unbelievable view. In addition, the kitchen was well equipped so that we had absolutely no problem cooking most of our meals at home (except for finding a pot big enough for a 6 LB live lobster). Our landlords (Donna & Mark Anderson 612/825-7512) own two houses that they rent out at Coral Bay, both of which we can recommend highly.

For comparison, I looked at the Maho Bay camp. They wanted $95 per day for a tent. For double the money, we got 5 times the accommodations.

The big issue that you need to face is location. Coral Bay is very remote and rural. You can hear the goats and the roosters crowing, etc. You will definitely need to rent a vehicle, as it is a half hour drive to Cruz Bay. If you are traveling with children, and plan to spend your days at the beach, and evenings at home, this is a great option. However, if you are looking for night life (to the limited extent it is available), or dining out a lot, you would probably be much better off closer to Cruz Bay.

Car Rental

We rented a Suzuki Samuri from Bougainvillea Leasing (800/253-7107 or 809/776-6420). They operate as part of the Donald Schnell Pottery Studio in Mongoose Junction. They are a very small and friendly operation primarily renting trough word of mouth of property owners on the island. We paid $45 per day, which was quite reasonable. I can recommend them highly.

Beaches

We sent most of our days at the beach. Here are some of our impressions:

Maho Bay

This is a very tranquil beach. It is quite popular. It is directly next to the road, making the actual beach area quite narrow. If there are any waves at all, you need to hang your stuff in a tree or it will get wet. There is a swampy area across the road, so there tend to be a lot of bugs.

Saltpond Bay

This is a very sheltered beach at the far end of the island. It is a little bit of a hike from the parking area to the beach. It is a great place to go to get away from the crowds or if the other beaches are too windy or have high waves. It has some good snorkeling, along with lots of hermit crabs under the trees. Make sure you take the Drunk Bay Trail along the Salt Pond and look at the rock beach on the other side of the peninsula, which has lots of coral swept up by the large waves. The lack of shade and breeze at Saltpond can make this a very hot beach on a warm day.

Trunk Bay

The most popular tourist beach on the island. It has great facilities and very good snorkeling. It is definitely worth checking out.

Jumbie Bay

A very secluded beach accessible from the road via a flight of stairs. There is very limited parking (3 cars) on the road. This is the most accessible beach were people will go topless.

Hawksnest Bay

This is the favorite beach for the locals. As a result, there are always lots of kids. There is good snorkeling within 10 feet of the shore. The big advantage is that starting around 2PM, there is lots of shade on the beach, so you have a chance to cool off. This was one of your favorites.

Boat Rides

We chartered a day sale on the Hirondelle, a 41' 1956 vintage all wood boat with incredible brasswork (book through Connections). It wasn't cheap ($70 / person), but this was one of the highlights of our trip. They price included beverages and a very nice lunch. We spent about one hour of phenomenal snorkeling at the Durloe Cays.

We also rented a 27' powerboat from Coral Bay Watersports ($200/day). We took this to Road Town on Tortola. It was a very windy day with relatively high swells (at least for a boat that size). We got very wet. My advice is to pass on a motor boat rental unless it is a calm day or you are very adventuresome.

Food

We cooked most of our own meals. Groceries on the island are quite expensive (about double of Minneapolis). In addition, to get everything you need, plan on visiting multiple stores, as they are frequently out of stock on common items. However, you can get virtually everything you need for serious gourmet dining if you make the effort.

There are two main grocery stores in Cruz Bay: The Starfish Market (they take Visa / MC) and the Marina Market (they tend to be less expensive). The Marina Market is the only place on the island we found where you can get frozen lime juice, a critical ingredient for frozen daiquiris (1 can frozen lime juice, 1 can clear rum, loosely fill the blender with ice, and blend until smooth; an absolutely fantastic alcoholic slurpee). Note: The cheapest rum on the island was at Joe's Discount Extra in Coral Bay ($2.85 / quart).

There is a deli next to the new gas station in Coral Bay that has phenomenal brie and other items. The Rolling Pin Bakery between the Texaco Station and the Marina Market in Cruz Bay is also an essential source for good bread, rolls, and other baked delights. However, get there early; almost everything is sold out by noon.

Laundry

There is a Dry Cleaner next to the Rolling Pin Bakery that will do your laundry for $0.85 / lb. with same day service. This definitely beats finding a Laundromat.

Restaurants

Our first experience on St. John (at 10:30PM), was eating dinner at Woody's, just up the street from the ferry dock. He has a couple of tables outside that let you get an immediate feel for the Cruz Bay scene. While the food was good, the main attraction is the proximity to the ferry dock and the fact that the kitchen is open until 11PM. This comes in handy if you arrive on a late ferry after traveling an entire day without any other sustenance than airline "snacks".

We ate dinner at Morgan's Mango on New Year's Eve. It wasn't cheap (about $40 / person), but it was absolutely great!

We went to the Lime Inn on Wednesday for the Shrimp Special. Definitely worth it, but not in the same league with Morgan's Mango.

We also had lunch at the BBQ stand across from the Post Office. This was definitely worth it. Note: They also have an exceptionally clean bathroom.

During our motorboat ride to Road Town in Tortola, we had lunch at the Village Cay Marina / Hotel. They had an very nice lunch buffet. At $10 / person, it was the best restaurant value we encountered on our entire trip. The dinning area was located on a verandah adjacent to the docks, so you had a completely unobstructed view of the harbor traffic while you ate. In addition, they had a small pool that was available for Marina and Hotel guests, so our 6 year old had a nice diversion for an hour while we relaxed and had some drinks.

Conclusion

St. John was the best vacation we have ever had. The people we met were incredibly friendly. I couldn't believe how clean the island was. The beaches are immaculate; no cigarette butts, etc.

We were very pleasantly surprised with how many families with children we met on the island. Unlike our experience in Florida, where most of the people we saw on the beach were nearing retirement, the majority of St. John visitors seemed to be our age with lots of kids in tow. Our son never had a problem finding palls on the beach to play with during the day.

A final note concerning the Hurricane: St. John did not get hit nearly as hard as St. Thomas. While some businesses are still closed, and you still see boats on the shore, overall, the island seems to be pretty much back to normal. However, with the Hyatt and Caneel Bay still closed, tourism is definitely down, which makes this a great time to visit and avoid the crowds.


ST. JOHN BY MEREDITH BELL

My first trip there and I can't wait to go back. The hurricane damage is minimal; as it relates to a visitor's stay. In fact, this is the time to go. Unfortunate for those who depend on tourism for income but great for visitors. Crowds are nonexistent, beaches quiet and restaurants are mostly open with no reservations needed.

Caneel Bay and the Hyatt remain closed until spring as do a few restaurants but there are many places to stay if you don't need a fancy resort atmosphere.

The island is mostly national park and is beautiful-lush and green from all the rain. Cruz Bay is "the city" on the western side. When I say city I mean one pharmacy, no real grocery store but small markets. I'm not complaining-that is the charm of St. John.

We stayed in Coral Bay-on the eastern side only about 8-10 miles but a curvy slow ride from Cruz Bay on Centerline Road (20-30 min.). We loved where we stayed. Rented a small cottage on the hillside overlooking the eastern side of the island with Tortola and the other Brittish Virgin Islands as a distant view. I can't say enough good about our accommodations or our hosts.

We rented a jeep for the week and I would strongly recommend that. It is a bit pricy(about $300) but worth it. There is alot to see that is only accessible by jeep. I felt very safe there. We had a small safe in the cottage and kept valuables locked up but otherwise left the cottage unlocked. (This was a distinct change from St. Croix that I visited last year.)

As far as beaches-we didn't go to Cinnamon, Trunk, or Hawksnest though they looked beautiful. We went to beaches/water mainly to snorkel and found good snorkeling at Maho-go far to the right near the camping cabins, Leinster and Waterlemon Cay- a hike but worth it, Hansen/Long Beach on the east side-went there twice and were the only ones there each time. Went to Francis Beach after a recommendation but it had rained and the water was a bit murky so can't say from personal experience.

We dove twice and went with Cruz Bay divers. We also got recommendations for Low Key divers and they seemed good also.

We were very happy with Cruz Bay divers. They were very accommodating and friendly. Bad for dive shops but good for us--no crowds!!! Boats that usually take 16 divers went out with 2-6. GO GO GO! We made an INCREDIBLE night dive and had the best divemaster ever. Warren from Cruz Bay Divers went out of his way for the three(yes-just 3!) of us on our night dive. He chased down and grabbed a puffer fish who turned into a balloon, wrestled a lobster(successfully), found a big sea turtle and a reef squid, and pointed out numerous other things during our 40-45 minutes. If, like me, you are apprehensive about night diving, JUST DO IT!!

Food is expensive in St. John so be prepared. Grocery store prices will surprise you(remember-all has to be ferried in...) I didn't find restaurants that much more expensive than many places, however. We had mainly good experiences in dining with a few duds.

In Cruz Bay-I would highly recommend Luscious Licks for lunch. Only open 10-4 when we were there. Natural food and juices-homemade food with a friendly staff and reasonable prices, it was one of our favorites. Woody's is another Cruz Bay local hangout we discovered- great blackened shrimp and lots of local flavor-another favorite. More expensive is Lime Inn and Morgan's Mango but both very good. I had a great piece of fresh tuna cooked rare as requested at Lime Inn. They have an all you can eat shrimp night, we missed, but heard it was not to be. Didn't try any places at Mongoose Junction or Cafe Roma or Fish Trap; though recommended.

Disappointments included Seychelles(recently reopened-hopefully still just working out the bugs......) and Joe's Diner(only mediocre for food but get a beer and watch the people go by...) Nice outdoor bar by Low Key Divers.

In Coral Bay a must is Skinny Legs-great burgers and a fun place- don't miss it. Don Carlos has a nice location but food is overpriced and only fair. Shipwreck Landing was ok-only ate there once and we split pasta so I can't come down hard on a recommendation. Seabreeze is a great local hang out. Don't be surprised if you drop in for coffee at 10 am and the bar is hopping- life is laid back in the islands.

There is a lot of hiking around the island though we didn't do any to speak of. The scenery is beautiful at every turn in your jeep. I would highly recommend Feet, Fins and Four Wheel Drive, a book we picked up shortly after our arrival. We got our copy at St. John's books in Mongoose Junction. It has great recommendations for beaches, snorkeling, exploring, hiking-we kept it with us the whole trip. Oh and good maps, too.

Dengue fever has struck many of the locals (a virus spread by mosquitoes) but we did not find the bugs a problem and we have been fine since the trip. Don't let that scare you away-just take precautions with bug spray, etc.

Everything is casual so leave the dressy clothes at home. In fact, leave the dressy shorts at home. I brought way too much and the dressiest thing I brought was jeans.

The only drawback to St. John is having to go through St. Thomas to get there. The islands are very different and the people we came into contact with(e.g. cab drivers)were rude and give a negative first impression of the islands. Don't let it bother you-soon you will be in St. John and enjoying a wonderful vacation!


ST. MARTIN BY HETTIE MAIDMAN

We arrived on 12/24 after an uneventful flight from PHL to SJU to St. Martin. After a slow-down by baggage handlers at Julianna Airport we eventually got our bags and were off to Royal Islander. The sight along the airport road was very depressing. Fortunately, the rest of the short trip to R.I. gave us hope. With the exception of the debris we passed, everything else looked pretty normal.

Our place, freshly painted and spotlessly clean was ready when we arrived. The staff greeted us very warmly and thanked us profusely for coming. This pretty much set the tone for the next 10 days. Once we settled in we began to explore the immediate Maho area. Driving through Mullet Bay complex was a little disturbing. The units are standing as hollow shells. Roofs were missing, furniture removed, and vegetation brown. The large trunks of palm trees stood regally but leafless. The windy road was dark until we reached the other side near Atlantis Casino. This sight was a stark reminder of what "was". We pretty much avoided that road for the rest of the trip.

While the Towers at Mullet are fine, the rest of the resort will probably not re-open for quite a while. We heard that the company is reorganizing before rebuilding.

As far as the rest of Maho is concerned most everything else is open and looking for business. Our resort opened on 12/23 and all of the merchants were eager to please. Cheri's is not yet open but will be on 1/15. Cheri had a party on New Year's Eve that was a fund raiser for the island. It was held in the street, on the sidewalks and even on car roofs. It became a little rough as the crowds couldn't be contained in that small area. The police came and sorted out the mess. That was the only time we saw a crowd anywhere on the island.

We were able to dine anywhere we wanted without reservations. This is NEVER possible during X-mas week. We made reservations anyway, just in case and each night we realized that so few people were actually on the islands. We saw the same people every day whether is was in Philipsburg, at the casino, or at various restaurants. With so few large resorts being open, one couldn't help feeling like part of a big family instead of a bunch of unrelated tourists on vacation. We constantly remarked how friendly everyone was, much more than usual.

There were so few cars on the road at any given time that the traffic lights were off at most intersections, including the one that is where the road goes up the hill to Philipsburg on the right or goes straight toward Cole Bay. The only working light was at the approach to Philipsburg by the little bridge near the salt pond. Traffic moved smoothly all day long.

Once in P'burg, parking was available in the municipal lot no matter what time of day. There were a few cruise ships in each day including the Norway and the Monarch of the Seas. The pier is not quite repaired but the tenders came in anyway. The "ship" people did not spend much money according to the merchants we spoke to. Many were from other countries; not the U.S. crowds that normally take those ships. One ship was comprised entirely of French- speaking guests who spent the day in Marigot. There were vans waiting for them in P'burg to take them. Another ship had an Italian-speaking crowd on board. They had a language problem everywhere on the island. So, from what we could gather, the time- share owners such as ourselves, and the few hotel guests, mainly form the French Side, made up the "guest-list" for the holiday period. As most major hotels remain closed, this was definitely a small crowd for the island regardless of time of year.

We had several memorable meals, most at old favorites and two at new restaurants. I will not attempt to rate the meals since each was worth the price and effort. We must recommend Mario's Bistro, the "new" kid on the list. The location is just off the bridge in Sandy Ground. The owner was a chef at Rainbow for several years. The food and staff were worthy of 5*. We spent about 90.00 with no regrets. We each had an appetizer, main course, drinks. Shared dessert. All were more than satisfying in terms of size and excellent in quality. Rainbow in Grand Case had just reopened and was better than ever. Fleur and David want everyone to know that they have relaxed their 2 seating format and just want everyone to be able enjoy their meal. We certainly DID. Prices are a tad lower than previous visits. Setting, prettier than ever. Food...TOPS !!

Saratoga and Spartaco also ranked as highly. The lack of crowds gave us the opportunity to savor our meals at both places. Again, to recommend "what to eat" would not be fair as each restaurant tries with equal effort to make every dish memorable. We spent about $100.00 for 2 as an average. Closer to home we loved La Rosa and Don Carlos. Another new place is Yum-Yum Tree, a Chinese restaurant where Champs Elysee was at the Maho Hotel. It is a joint effort between the former host at Back Street Hong Kong (at El San Juan Hotel) and La Rosa's son. It succeeds. We had choices of traditional Chinese provincial food that ranged from mild to hot. The setting is elegant and service matches.

Not to ignore LaRosa, we did have X-mas eve and New Year's eve dinner there; both excellent. Paradise Cafe was as good as ever. We took some friends (as we did elsewhere) and they loved T-Bone, Byron, and the food.

We had a fun lunch at Ric's Cafe in P'burg. Even the pennants survived the storm. That about does it for food. Shopping will come next.

We've been trying to savor all memories since we got home. If you have been watching the news, we're in it, literally. 31 inches of snow...wish it was sand!!

This is about shopping. Rather than describe my purchases from Heeru at Touch of Gold (beautiful, as usual), I'd rather give an overview of shopping on the island since the big "L". Since my main interest is jewelry I can safely say that the shops in P'burg were all displaying the newest and best that Europe and the rest of the world has to offer. Since some stores did not re-open until a few weeks ago, they may have been low in inventory. We did brouse through at least 6 jewelry stores and found the prices to be as good as ever and the selection varied and current. I should add that we did not get to Marigot so the review covers the Dutch Side only. I found what I "needed" at Touch of Gold and "M" bought a very unusual ring at Shopper's Haven, next door to T. of G.

While we were on the street, we both did well at Gucci. Shoes were a real bargain; on sale and very current. La Romana has only one store open at this time. Their only stock was Fendi. The men's store and the Mullet Bay location are closed, temporarily. The counter at the airport is open with Fendi and a few pieces of Moschino. Little Switzerland has one store open in Marigot as well as the one on Front St. in P'burg. Both are stocked with the goodies that make them famous.

All of the shops at Mullet Bay are closed except the grocery which was well-stocked with necessities at lower prices than last year. The rest of the stores looked like they could re-open though nobody could say when. As for the Maho shopping area, it was fully operational except for Poco-Loco. Simpson's Bay had most stores open but very under-stocked. Lack of traffic was the reason given by the manager at Island Time. Sales were everywhere. It was possible to bargain for just about anything. We even noticed that booze prices were a little lower. Since there were several holidays while we were there, we spent less time shopping than usual. Our vacation was also shorter than usual. There's always next year.

We were very glad we went, spent, and had a great time.


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