Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor
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Dec. 18, 1998 – Jan. 2, 1999 This is the story of a 2-week family (parents, brothers, girl friends) trip to Belize over the Christmas-New Years holidays. Our itinerary was a week at Turneffe Island Resort on a remote offshore Cay for scuba diving, followed by a second week on the mainland at Jaguar Reef Lodge for jungle activities. Our flights from Seattle to Belize City via Houston on Continental were uneventful (a pleasant change from a previous Continental flight to Central America). We had to overnight in Belize City to make our boat connection the next day. We stayed at the Fiesta Inn, an unappealing hotel that went into bankruptcy days after our stay. We spent the next morning touring the Mayan Ruins (Altun Ha) about an hour out of town. We also walked around downtown Belize City which wasn’t particularly interesting or charming. However, it seemed safe (although I’m told that there are bad sections) and not at all touristy. Turneffe Island Resort In the afternoon the managers of the Turneffe Island resort met us on the Fiesta Inn dock and loaded the guests on a boat for the 30-mile trip out to the resort. Upon arrival to the 5-acre island we were escorted to our 2 cottages that would be our home for the next week. The rooms were comfortable, but not luxurious, with good ventilation, ceiling fans and air conditioning (which we never needed to use). All buildings were elevated off the ground to catch more breeze, allow storm waves to pass underneath, and to reduce sand fly exposure (more on this subject in due course) Meals were served in a comfortable cottage having a dining area, bar and gathering area. The cooking was good but a little heavy for my tastes (Belizean cuisine tends to be that way). A choice of entrees was available for folks who didn’t like red meat. I ate fresh seafood for every dinner and was quite pleased with the cooking. Portions were generous and seconds helpings were available. Guests shared large dining tables encouraging friendship and lively conversation. After spending a week dining together and diving together we were like one big happy family. I really enjoyed the company of the other guests and resort managers. The island is completely covered with sand and a few palm trees on the windward side and mangroves on the lee side. There is a nice sandy beach out front with a few coconut trees, a couple of hammocks and kayaks for guests to use. We enjoyed paddling around the nearby keys in protected waters. The reef and wall were only a few minutes paddle away, but there was no snorkeling or diving accessible from the island. The island and resort were recovering from minor Hurricane Mitch damage that covered the island with a foot of sand and debris. Docks were being rebuilt and the beach was recovering (some palm trees were uprooted). Turneffe Resort faired very well compared to other off shore resorts. The dive operation (owned by the resort) was very well managed by Andy, and the dive masters and boat crews were very competent. The wall was just off the resort so most boat trips were only a few minutes, with the boat returning to the resort after each dive (3 dives a day was standard). Group diving was the common practice, which ordinarily would not be my preference, but worked out well with my family. The boat would drop us off, follow our bubbles during the dive and pick us up at the end. I felt very lazy because everything was too easy - no currents, no waves, no grueling boat rides, no navigation back to the boat, no need to swim, no challenge. But I got used to it, along with a nap between dives, and somehow I managed to survive on this remote island for a week. Most of the diving was along walls, which started at 40 to 70 feet. I was at my no-decompression limits on nearly every dive because of my desire to swim along the edge of the walls, with occasional excursions over the edge to see something interesting. Nitrox diving, offered on the live aboards, would be quite useful here. The diving was about as good as it gets in the Caribbean. There were plentiful large game fish (grouper, permits, jacks, etc.), eagle rays, sting rays, turtles and nurse sharks. Visibility was usually greater than 100 feet, but sometimes poor above 20 feet. Turneffe Resort makes a daylong dive trip out to Half Moon Cay and Blue Hole once a week. The trip can be rough, but well worth it. The Blue Hole dive was OK, but definitely not my favorite. To see the stalactites you must go deep (130+ feet), which limits your bottom time to a few minutes. There really isn’t that much to see, but I had to check the square. The other wall dive we did at Half Moon Cay was much prettier and more interesting. I also enjoyed walking around the small island and booby nesting sanctuary. All our group unanimously agreed that Turneffe Island Resort was very well managed by Jesse, Ron and Andy; had very comfortable accommodations; good food; excellent hard working staff; good diving minutes away; and a competent & safe diving operation. The owners have invested lots of money in facilities improvements such as desalination (superb quality water), large electrical generators and a massive dive compressor. Towards the end of our stay, the resort treated us to a very fine Belizean Christmas dinner (Turkey and much more) and gift exchange party. We were all sad to say goodbye. Jaguar Reef Lodge We took the motorboat back to the Fiesta Inn, where we had departed a week earlier, and then boarded a Tropic Air flight to the tiny airstrip at Dangriga, on the coast south of Belize City. The flight took only 20 minutes, but would have consumed a whole day if we decided to drive, for there is no road along the coast. A rather scruffy looking German ex-patriot named Walter met us promptly at the airstrip and drove us the Jaguar Reef Resort 1.5 hours to the south in the small town of Hopkins Village. Walter, it turned out, was an interesting guy and a hard worker (mechanic, maintenance man, carpenter, security guard and bar tender) for the resort. The first impression of the Lodge is very positive. The rooms are spacious and well furnished, with original artwork on the walls. The main building containing the bar, dining room, reception desk and terrace has a high cathedral ceiling made of thatch, as do the guest cottages. The Lodge is situated on a nice sand beach. Kayaks and mountain bikes are available free of charge. The initial positive impression quickly began to wear off. The water pressure in my room was near zero, and never got better during our stay. We were hot and tired from our boat/plane/car travel and went to take a late afternoon nap. We turned on the ceiling fan and opened the windows to try to get some breeze. After dozing off for awhile I was awaken by many insect bites over exposed portions of my body. I quickly determined that the culprits were dreaded sand flies that had passed through the large screen used on the windows. Quickly I switched to plan B, shut all the windows and turn on the air conditioner so as not to suffocate. Trouble was, there was no way to turn on the air conditioner. So, off to the front desk I go to inquire how to turn on the air conditioner. Answer was, you must pay $20 a night extra to get it activated. So let me get this straight, the choice is to open the windows and get devoured by bugs, close the windows and suffocate, or pay for air conditioning. This was extortion! The manager kindly explained that each room is supplied with a fogger (fuma kilas) that is safe to use with the windows closed (yeah right!). So the recommendation was to suffocate and fumigate at the same time. After vigorous pressure, the manager did relent and provided air conditioning for free. Other guests had the same problems and also received free AC. Travel tip: insist on free AC before you go. The dining room and terrace were quite nice, and the food was quite good, but while the guests ate, the sand flies devoured the guests, so nobody could really enjoyed the food or the surroundings. In fact, there was no safe area for people to congregate and escape the sand flies; so most guests retreated to their rooms immediately after the last bite of food. The glacial service by the waitresses only prolonged the agony. After the first night of carnage, we quickly learned how to survive. One strategy is to cover every square inch of your body with clothing –not very comfortable in the tropics. The other was to coat your body in DEET. It was hilarious to see guests show up for meals either wrapped up like mummies or glistening with a thick coat of DEET. My dad preferred to wage chemical warfare with the sand flies by liberal use of 100% DEET Jungle Juice and continuous room fogging with all windows shut. His skin was so covered with DEET that sand flies would instantly die upon contact. Lest you think I’m exaggerating about the sand fly problem, let me recount a couple of incidents. The children of one family at the Lodge were bitten mercilessly and left a couple days early (to the jungle where there were fewer biting insects). Others also cut their stay short. The mother of another family got so many bites that she hastily left the resort to fly back to the US but was hospitalized in Houston on the way home. Two people in our group suffered swelling of their limbs. There are lots of simple things this resort could have done to alleviate the sand fly problems, and there are some things that can’t be fixed. The entire resort is built at ground level, and you will notice that almost every home in the area is built up high (usually on wooden stilts). The reason to be off the ground is not only flooding, but most importantly to get above the sand flies and catch some breeze. The lodge meticulously maintains large patches of sand between cottages that are nothing more than sand fly breeding grounds. Why not fill them in? Why not use large fans to blow away sand flies while guests are dining? Why not provide a screened area where guests can congregate? It’s sad to see an Eco resort that has to constantly apply pesticides to the environment in a pathetic attempt to fight Mother Nature. Another thing that bothered me about Jaguar Reef was the dichotomy between the hyped descriptions of their eco-tours on their slick web page and brochures, and the real Belize we encountered during our eco-adventures. Reading this material you would think that the jungle was teaming with life; exotic birds, primates and cats. Perhaps the new age elevator music played every morning at breakfast was meant to elevate us to a higher level of consciousness so we could ignore the swarms of sand flies and see the hidden animals of the jungle that were not visible to our naked eyes. In fact, there are original oil paintings in every room depicting idyllic jungle scenes teaming with life (featuring the mystical jaguar, of course) and picturesque native village with a luxuriant coral reef just off shore. In fact, we found the local jungle to be almost devoid of life, the local village was awash in garbage (as was the ocean and beach), and the reef was miles off shore. The lauded 5 shaded of blue lake (and recent National Park) was actually 5 shades of green with visibility less than 10 feet (very bad for an aquifer). We saw very little life at the Jaguar Preserve and other short treks into the jungle. The jungle was sterile compared to what we saw in Costa Rica a year earlier. What explains the lack of jungle life? Possibly the logging of all mature hard wood trees that formed the top of the jungle canopy. Possibly the very recent creation of national parks and nature reserves (Costa Rica’s parks are much older and more established). Eco-tourism does not stand a chance in Belize without more jungle life. For water sports we took the “river & reef” tour that brings guests up the nearby Sittee River (several crocs and iguanas sighted, but not much else) followed by a long ride out to the off shore coral reef. The visibility was not very good but there was lots to see. I was impressed with one snorkeling spot that had an abundance of eagles rays and sting rays – so many, in fact, that this spot could easily become the Sting Ray City (a popular dive on Grand Cayman) of Belize. On the long boat ride back to the resort we stopped at a small Cay that was a booby and frigate bird nesting sanctuary (similar to Half Moon Bay). The quantity of nesting birds was impressive. We probably had the most fun walking or kayaking into Hopkins Village (2 miles down the beach) to play with the kids (this was not a tour described in their slick brochure). The kids of Hopkins were great, although the grown ups were often cold to us. Even though Hopkins has an impoverished appearance, there is actually zero crime and delinquency (this is sure to change because most of the tiny huts we saw had a TV antenna sprouting from the roof). The Garifuna people of Hopkins still have a distinct culture, and many villagers still make a living by paddling dug out canoes to the offshore reefs to catch a few fish. One wonders why they pollute their environment and livelihood by throwing their trash into water. We encountered so many used disposal diapers floating by the resort that it got to be a big joke. In summary, I do not recommend this resort. The sand flies can ruin your stay (depending on how much breeze you get) and the jungle excursions are not very interesting (compared to Costa Rica, for instance). This resort has potential, but there are many fundamental problems that can’t easily be fixed. With adequate protection, the jungle should recover (Howler Monkeys and Jaguars have been reintroduced to help the process along). Development around the lodge threatens its secluded nature and the burgeoning population of Hopkins Villages is likely to exert more environmental pressures. All I can say is good luck.
Trip 1/99 Well a little about our trip. We left Boston at noon and arrived in St. Thomas at about 9pm. We had to change planes in Atlanta and while walking through the airport we saw Mohammed Ali, we were all to stunned too ask for an autograph, although we saw other people shaking hands with him. Our accommodations in St. Thomas that night were much less than luxurious, but we made the best of it. The next morning we caught the ferry to Tortilla where we checked into the Treasure Island (appropriately named) Hotel, where the suite was very nice w/ tv and phone, the last we would see for 7 days(and they were not missed one bit).The day was spent swimming in the hotel pool and a walk across the street to the Marina to look at some of the boats, and secretly trying to get a peek at ours before the big day tomorrow, but no luck. We had dinner in a local restaurant called "the pub" it should have been named " The we have really bad service, high prices, and the food is awful Pub". So much for local flavor. We salvaged the night with a few drinks back at the hotel, and some ice cream sundaes for the girls, Jill's favorite thing in the world. That night I admit, I slept poorly, wondering how we were going to like being on a boat for 7 days and would everyone’s stomach hold up? Wednesday finally came and we waited at noon for Captain Joe to come and pick us up, and take us to our floating hotel. True to his word, he was there at the stroke of noon, wearing a huge Sampan type hat,(like the kind you might see in Japan) and a smile to match. I knew the minute I saw him I was going to like him. We carried our bags to the dock and boarded a small dingy for the 10 minute ride to the boat docked in the harbor. On the way we went directly under the bow of a cruise ship that was anchored at the dock, talk about feeling small in comparison to this giant ship, WOW! We arrived at" Cruise Forever" (name of our boat) and Joe’s' sister Val leaned over the side and greeted us and took our bags, She is a very sweet woman about 40, with short blonde hair and a smile that let you know she was surely Joe's sister. Climbing up the ladder the first time was a bit comical but we managed to scamper on board and Val served us a nice lunch. We immediately bombarded them with a million questions, which they took in stride, and made us feel very comfortable, letting us know that most people feel anxious as we do on their first experience on a sailboat. Then we were off. We sailed out of Road town in Tortola and up what is known as the windward passage. This is aptly named as you are sailing directly into the wind and the wind being a bit brisk, increased the swells to rather large proportions, at least by Walsh family standards. At this point I began eating ginger and some wheat thins to settle my stomach, which worked well, this would not be the last time , as by the end of the trip I was having a love affair with the wheat thins and ginger combo. Capt. Joe took us to Monkey Point on the north shore of Tortola (about a 3 hr. sail) where we experienced the best snorkeling we would find on the trip. He told us this was the best place he had ever seen, and it proved him true to his word. It was FABULOUS! There were so many fish you felt as if you were part of them, from minnows to 5 ft. tarpon , they were all there to greet us on our first day. We sailed another 1/2 hr. to Trellis bay and anchored for the night. Val cooked a great dinner and Joe grilled the meat on a charcoal grill attached to the rail on the back of the boat, in the pitch dark. He did however accomplish this in a fashion we all found quite unique. He wears a light attached to his head similar to a coal miner, so that both hands are free to grill. After dinner we went in the dingy to a private island about 200 yds. in circumference that contains only one thing, a restaurant called "The Last Resort", run by a British family who also happened to be the entertainment for the night, and they were excellent. The opening act was a guitar player, from where else, Nashua N.H.(small world).We had a blast, and actually got hot fudge sundaes for the girls, something I was amazed that they had. Then back to the boat for a night cap and off to sleep. I might mention ,that not one night were we able to stay awake any later than 11P.M. Day two on the high seas begins with Val making us breakfast, anything we want and serving it on the deck. We are in heaven. We are heading up the Windward passage again today and over to the island of Virgin Gorda to hopefully rendezvous with our friends, who are also down in the islands on a boat they have chartered. The difference is they are sailing it themselves because they claim to know what they are doing. We have a 3 hr. sail to get to Mountain Point, where we plan to snorkel and then have lunch. Well we make it and I have now eaten the major supply of wheat thins on the boat, but no one is complaining, because that is the alternative to wrenching over the side, which no one wanted to see, because they tell me on the high seas it can become contagious. The snorkeling is only marginal as we were quite spoiled yesterday, but lunch is lovely. We trim the sails and head for North Sound in Virgin Gorda and onto The Bitter End Yacht Club where we are supposed to hook up with our friends at 2pm. We dingy in and slug down multiple island type drinks as we wait patiently for their arrival, which never materializes. We do however notice a bunch of shops and the woman of the Walsh family uphold the tradition of buying all kinds of vacation things that will never be used, or even taken out of the closet once they arrive home, but it is a ritual that must be completed. I notice a small bar on a tiny island within dingy range and put everyone in the small craft and head over. I make it without incident, and this is good as I am the worst seaman in the group. We get a few drinks and the girls play darts, while they continue to comb the bay for their friends. We try calling our friends on the radio on the boat and also use the radio in the yacht club because it has a longer range. We have learned that sailors and all people of the sea seem very willing to share their equipment and knowledge to help their fellow sailors. This I have decided is why many of them have survived out here for so many years, as sailing is not as easy as it may appear, but the world certainly slows down out here. They have a saying down here that I have seen on t shirts and hats,"Sail fast Live slow". I guess that sums up this lifestyle pretty well. We have dinner on the boat, and Joe once again thrills us with his coal miner cooking get up. Val and I stay aboard to watch a video while the rest go ashore for entertainment and dancing. I was felling a little sick and very tired. They return early and we all watch the end of the movie and lights out at 11pm. Still no word from our friends. Friday morning Nancy and Joe decide to try and leave a message with the Bitter End Yatch Club telling them where we are headed should our friends call in. When they state their message, the woman mentions that our friends had called 15 minutes before this looking for us but did not leave a message where they were, or where they were headed. How dumb can they be? We leave our message and decide that we can do no more and are not going to let this ruin our fun. The girls are disappointed, but we assure them we will keep using the radio to try and locate them. Joe gives them a short lesson on how to use the radio so they feel better, at least they feel they have a small bit of control over the situation. We decide to sail down the north coast of Virgin Gorda to an area known as "The Baths". It is a large rock formation intertwined with the sea and is very interesting. It is so named, because when slaves where brought from Africa, they often stopped here to bath them, before they were sold. We explore, snorkel, and have lunch onboard which puts us at around 1pm. I might mention the sailing is much smoother and enjoyable as we are heading downwind, and is more like surfing than crashing into the waves. We raise the sails and head off for Cooper Island about an hour away. We try to anchor 3 times but there is a lot of turtle grass on the bottom and we can not set the anchor. This is a bad situation because if it is not set properly, in the middle of the night you could go for an unplanned sail. It is getting dark but Joe says we can make Peter Island in an hour. He is dead right. We are anchored and having cocktails by 6:15. It is so peaceful everything has seemed to slow to a crawl. Nancy is feeling the effects of the sail because the boat was pitching side to side and it seemed to bother her. She skips dinner and spends three hours topside while we teach Joe and Val to play Taboo. We fed her bread only as the wheat thin supply was depleted. There is no night life on Peter Island, which was just fine with Nancy this particular evening. We have all had a great day and sleep sounds good to everyone, even the little night owl Jill. Saturday is just like every other day we have experienced in the British Virgin Islands, it is perfect. At night you get about a 10 minute shower and that is it. We have also become quite proficient at showering quickly. You get yourself wet, turn off the water, soap up, then rinse off. Although we have the capability of making all the fresh water we want on board like magic, and I might add very tasty and drinkable, we have decided to be stringent in the use, because no one wants to spoil the serenity of the trip listening to the pump making the water. The girls have now called their friends, or at least tried to raise them on the radio about a gazillion times to no avail. We are starting to wonder if anything has happened to Jill's friend Ashley as she is sometimes prone to seizures if she forgets to take her medication, or if she runs a high fever. Today we are going to a place they call "The Indians", I am not sure why it is called this but it is a series of 4 rocks that rise about thirty feet out of the ocean and are lined up side by side. This is our first snorkel destination of the day. Nancy decides to stay behind, possibly , but not admitting to a little left over sickness from the prior day, or possibly from the sail over here. The seas are rough and I worry about Jilly, and a good thing I do because she certainly has no fear. We do however make her take a noodle, which is a Styrofoam noodle shaped floatation device. She however feels this is a blow to her swimming ability, like someone will see her in the middle of the Caribbean sea, and run back and tell the kids in her class. I jump in last and immediately have both contacts fold up in my eyes. I not only feel as if I have hot pokers in my eyes, but I have to get out and take out the lenses. All the while Jilly is yelling for me to get my on noodle if I am having trouble catch up and the snorkeling is fantastic, all kinds of strange colorful fish. Nancy has said she will keep an eye on Jill from the boat and if she gets tired, signal, and she will dingy out and get her. We are doing ok until we round the corner outside the line of sight of the boat, at which point the current gets nasty, and Jill is pressed to keep up. I tell Joe I will go back with Jill and catch up later, Meg and Joe also decide to come back.Nancy has gotten worried and shows up with the dingy, although she will never admit it, I know Jill was glad to get a ride in. We put her in and the 3 of us continued around the "Indians". It was well worth the swim as we saw a lot of weird creatures and some scuba divers 50 ft. below us. The bubbles from their tanks surrounded us and was a strange sensation. As usual when we returned Val had lunch served on deck, What more could a man ask for? The next stop was "The Caves at Norman Island". This is a famous place in the BVI's, and anyone passing through always stops to view them, They are in the side of a rocky cliff on the north side of the island, unlike "The Indians", the water is very calm and a lot easier, as you can imagine to swim in. We had brought our own snorkel gear along, but Joe provided us with some high intensity underwater lights that we would need to see in the caves. Val led the expedition as she is also an accomplished scuba diver as well as Joe. This was a new wrinkle for us, going into a pitch black cave. Naturally Jill could not wait and Meg was trying to grab the light from me as fear got the best of her. Jilly, who I must admit was the only one on the trip who never even thought about being sick, pressed on with all the enthusiasm her nine years would allow, She is fearless, almost to the point of reckless, but that is what we love about her. Megan who appears to be the opposite sometimes only because she has the instincts to protect Jilly, which Jilly can not understand. After 45 minutes we had seen it all and dingied back to the boat. We still had no idea where our friends were. We were going to anchor in Cane Garden bay a 2 hour sail on the north side of Tortola so we had to go. I asked Joe if we could check out a restaurant called "THE WILLIE T"? It was a 5 minute sail and I could see it from where we were. It is built on a ship and floats in an anchorage at Norman Island. Joe’s' standard answer anytime you ask for anything is, "no problem" so over we sailed. There is a drink in the islands called a 'Painkiller" which I became quite fond of. As the name suggests after a few there is no pain. Perhaps it should have been named "Brainkiller". There is a long distance radio on this ship and as always we are welcome to use it. Joe calls Virgin Island Radio and there is a message for us from our friends. They say they will be at a place called "the Bite on Saturday. I ask Joe, "isn't today Saturday?" He thinks for a minute, as you never know what day it is down there,.. because everyday is the same. He decides it is Saturday, and I ask "where is The Bite?" He says "it is right where we are now. "The next thing I know everyone is screaming, and I look up to see our friends boat 100 yards away from the ship, and all the kids are going crazy. I can't believe we have found each other in the middle of the Caribbean sea by sheer luck. Ill be dammed. We all party for a couple hours at Willie T's then they come to our boat for dinner, where they take a lot of flack for not meeting us the first time, and we show no mercy. They said sailing up the Windward passage would have been to tough the day we went. Some seaman they are, and we also were merciless with our comments about their lack of guts. Jill and Ashley slept on "cruise forever" and Meg and Emily on "Knockabout". The girls were now satisfied, and if we had all perished that night, I think all would have felt the mission had been accomplished. Sunday We all go to Cane Garden Bay on both boats. The bay is a bit polluted and no one wants to stay although we have sailed 21/2 hours. We do go ashore and shop a little, try the painkillers on this beach, Then head off to the island of Jost Van Dyke population 146 really. Knockabout decides to anchor in Great Harbor (very quiet) but we decide on next harbor over Little Harbor(better night life). Joe and Val have been great with the kids and we tell her to take the night off and we all go ashore for dinner at Foxys. Foxy is the owner and entertainer, as seems to be a tradition in the islands. He was not playing that night and it was quiet, about 20 people in the place. We did however meet a guy from Nashua N.H., man what a small world. The food was good and they had my favorite wine, Kendall Jackson chardonay. There was a trampoline outside for the guests to use, which Jill and Ashley made good use of. Upon leaving 2 people asked for a dingy ride back to their boat, and being as the law of the sea states, we could not refuse. They were quite surprised at the proficiency Jilly showed even in the pitch black driving the dingy, and finding their boat. I admit she is much smoother than me. Joe and I polish off the better part of a bottle of Grand Marnier before we finally give into sleep. It was late about 10:30. Monday both boats go to Green Cay a very very small and deserted island, about 300yards in circumference. We all go ashore armed with snorkel gear and about a million beers but no food. We spend the day with the kids making sandcastles and assorted creations on the beach. Jill won the sculpting contest with a great sea turtle sculpture. This is a very relaxed day, only took us 25 minutes to sail here. About 3:00 we set the sails for Leister Bay about a 1 hour sail. We anchor the two boats next to each other and go to their boat for snacks, which eventually takes the place of dinner, and turns into a slug 'em downfest. This gives us another opportunity to give them some more grief about not showing up the first time, and we showed no mercy. We laughed so hard that I thought I would choke. We stayed up until the cows came home, about 10:30. That night we switched the girls around, Jill with them and Emily with us. Tuesday we had to say good by to our friends, but not until 2:30. We snorkeled all morning together, then had lunch. They had to go to Fat Hog Bay in North Tortola to return their boat on Wednesday and we were going south to St. John for the night and onto St. Thomas Wednesday. It was kind of sad but hell, they only live 15 miles from us in the real world. We sailed for 2 hours to St. John but could not dock in the harbor(too crowded).This proved to be a mistake as far as Nancy and I were concerned. Later on while sleeping we were awakened when we realized we had anchored just outside the ferry lane and the wake from it almost knocked us out of our berth. Our last night I took Joe and Val to dinner again at her favorite Italian restaurant "Roma". It was sad knowing we had to leave the next morning but I had been gone from the restaurant for 12 days and had not called once, that may have been the best part of vacation, and Nancy had gotten a much needed rest. We knew Wednesday would finally come and it was here. We had breakfast and showered and packed. I had to go home in shorts, as that is all I brought. We threw our bags in the dingy and Val and Joe took us to the dock, it was really over. There was a lot of hugs and handshakes and a little tear from Jill until I assured her I would take her back to see Joe and Val again someday, so ended the best family vacation, we all agreed we had ever been on. Hope this kept you amused for a while.
(Ed Note: This file is copyrighted by G. Roderick Singleton and is used in the CTR with his permission.)
Some Background This was to be our first vacation in three years. A heart attack and subsequent bypass surgery sort of delayed going anywhere for a bit. However, healing proceeding well, my wife and I began planning our trip in the spring of 1998. First step was to collect and examine all the brochures from every Canadian packager. The second step was to check as many of the travel related World Wide Web sites that we found. By the middle of April we narrowed our choices to five destination countries in the Caribbean then the Canadian dollar took a nosedive. With this devaluation of our currency, we found our budget would suffer greatly or we could choose more economical destinations. Thus we spent the summer re-examining the brochures. When hurricane George struck in September our choices were limited to Jamaica, Cuba and St. Martin/St. Maartan as these were relatively unscathed. So now that we had three possible destinations I checked various price brackets for the time period we could go. Now came the fun part, selecting the final destination. We budgeted CA$3000 which would allow us one week anywhere in the Caribbean. We wanted two weeks. Our travel agent, Shelley Love of Rogers TravelPlus in Richmond Hill, suggested Cuba as having the best "bang for the buck." With her help we looked for suitable resorts. Our first choice was SuperClubs Varedaro but it couldn't meet our budget restraints. We found that SuperClubs had two resorts in the Santiago do Cuba region that were promising. These met our budget needs and both could offer the two-week span we wanted. First we tried to book a room at the adults-only SuperClubs Los Galeones but, unfortunately, we learned that this resort would not open until mid December. Since this was the case, we opted for its sister resort, SuperClubs Sierra Mar, as our final destination. With Shelley's negotiating skills, our cost for two for two weeks, CA$2220 all taxes in. Well within the budget. We closed the deal the first week of October with our trip scheduled to begin at 06h30 November 27, 1998. What follows is more or less a journal of our experience at SuperClubs Sierra Mar, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. I must warn the reader that tenses vary depending on whether or not I made entries as they occur or after the fact. Day One -- Friday November 27, 1998 At 03h00, November 27th the alarm went off and by 03h30 we were in a limousine on the way to Toronto International Airport. The ticket package recommended that we arrive at the airport at least two hours before take-off but we wanted plenty of time for check-in and some leisurely duty free shopping. At 06h00 we boarded the SkyService charter and were on our way. At 06h30 we finally took off. Once at cruising altitude we were given a very decent breakfast. Imagine quiche, sausage, juice, bun, fruit cup and beverage (tea or coffee) as airplane food! Sated, I start creating my journal of the events of the trip on my Psion palmtop. The first leg of our flight took us to the airport at Ciego de Avila. Those passengers destined for this area disembarked and, once they were off and had made their way to customs and immigration, the rest of us were also obliged to deplane. We were directed to the transit lounge and locked behind gates. There was no explanation for this short layover but, from all the uniformed activity on the tarmac, I suspect something illegal. Drugs? No matter, the Ceigo de Avila transit lounge has a bar, a gift shop and a bookshop. While having a smoke and some bottled water outside the bar, we watched three Black vultures circling the fields. We wondered what they were after. We assumed roadkill. Since we are stuck and out of curiosity, I checked out the bookshop. In about 100 square feet there were at least 1500 books of various kinds. I noticed there wasn't the variety we get in North American airport news and bookstands but there was sufficient variety to be interesting. What was particularly striking was the number of books on, by or about Jose Marti and Che Guevera. Most were in Spanish, the rest in a mix of English, French and German. I found an English anthology of Jose Marti's poetry and was in the midst of negotiating the purchase when we were hustled back on board the plane for the forty-minute final leg to Santiago de Cuba airport. In flight, we had our first view of the Sierra Maestra mountain range. Once on the ground, it took about 45 minutes to negotiate the Cuban immigration and customs bureaucracy and out to the arrival platform. There we met our tour representative, Magdelena Rodrigez, helped us get our luggage onboard the correct bus, gave us a basic information package covering the region and generally made us feel welcome. After we got squared away and settled on the bus, Magdelena filled the hour or so ride to the resort with a wealth of information on Cuba and bits of history on the area through which we are driving. She pointed out the driving times varied widely because of goats, cattle and chickens using the roadways along with vehicles. As a point of interest, she pointed out caves used during the revolution and some yard decorations at some houses. These turned out to be mostly patriotic slogans neatly marked out in whitewashed stones or conch shells. About eighty minutes later, we arrive at SuperClubs Sierra Mar. The hotel is nestled in the side of the mountain that goes down to the sea. The brochure said 20 meters above the shoreline but as I look, I'd bet the top floor is more like 60 meters from the seashore. Of course, this means every room has a view of sea, mountains or both. Upon getting off the bus, we are greeted by a gauntlet of singing and dancing staff and guests. Different! Registration took only a couple minutes and we were escorted to our room up the side of the mountain to the top floor. We changed. What relief to exchange our snow-bunny clothes for more appropriate attire. (The weather forecast back home said partly cloudy for the region. If this partly cloudy then I think I'll retire here!) Now off to get some lunch! Management kindly held open the main dining room an extra 30 minutes for us late comers. Nice touch! Well fed, we wandered off to explore the property for an hour or so. Our goal was to get somewhat oriented and see the facilities. The heat is wonderful but tiring so we are going back to our room and grab a siesta until suppertime. Suppertime, for us, arrived at 19h30. The main dining room serves any time between 19h00 and 22h30 so our options are quite open. We had the roast beef with roast potatoes and an assortment of fresh and cooked vegetables. My wife sampled and approved the table white wine as a good accompaniment to her meal. Me, I had Cuban coffee. At the end of the meal we sampled the desserts, selecting a small assortment of eclairs. As desserts are something we rarely do at home, we knew we were on vacation. By 22h00 we packed it in for the day even thought there was stage show on. Getting old? Day Two -- Saturday November 28, 1998 Dawn comes at 05h30. The bright sunlight leaking through the heavy curtains woke me up. Rather than lie-a-bed, I spent the next three hours photographing the flora, fauna and scenery around the resort. There were Hibiscus, flowers I couldn't identify, iguanas and even an early rising guest or two. I checked aback at our room and decide to have breakfast, sans spouse, as I couldn't bring myself to wake her. However, just as I was finishing my coffee, she appeared. I had another coffee while she started her breakfast. However, our orientation meeting is scheduled for 09h30 in the El Rancho restaurant. Since I knew it wasn't the restaurant where we were, I searched found it in the valley about 09h45. I stayed so I could get as much information for us as possible. My wife eventually showed up after her breakfast. I was glad I had stayed rather than fetch her because one of the excursions was a jeep trip into the mountains and another excursion to Santiago de Cuba complete with lunch in the middle of the harbour. She'd like these. We'll see. On the way back to the hotel, we discover a family of iguanas, a big one with two little ones. Their behaviour appeared to be that of a mother with children (but who knows with iguanas.) What's amusing is the manner in which the big one always places itself between the small ones and me. I found this to be very unexpected behaviour and I spent the better part of an hour and a half photographing them and feeding them with small pieces of bread and banana. Now if only the pictures turn out. [They didn't!] The aquatic sports centre is our next stop. They have kayaks, hobie cats, deep- sea fishing and complete diving facilities. Unfortunately no beginners certification course but many upgrades such as open water for those already certified. By now it was lunchtime. I had breaded fish and potatoes and dessert. I was planning to continue the desserts from where I left off yesterday BUT the selection had changed. I started over again. Once fed we returned to the room to slaver on the sunscreen. Boy is the sun hot and bright here! Good thing that there are aloes nearby! Even though we were protected and could go out, a siesta seemed more to order and we did. Resting turned out to be somewhat short lived as the power went off. This meant that the air conditioning went off too. I guessed that Cuba, like many Caribbean islands, selectively shuts down parts of its grid to save resources. It must be Sierra Mar's turn for lack of power. Needless to say, with no air conditioning, we sought cooler pastures. We retreated to the lobby bar until exhaustion catches up to us and we nap in our room anyway. Early supper tonight and back to our room with now working air conditioning. Even the evening breeze of the sea can't compare to refrigeration. Read a mystery, cover to cover, before sleeping. Day Three -- Sunday November 29, 1998 Getting used to things around here and getting in the swing. We found the elevator in our wing was functional, making life a lot easier for me. And there are ramps everywhere plus other elevators, which make access a whole lot easier. In fact, at least two of guests are wheel chair bound and are coping nicely even going to the beach. I spent about two hours with a disabled guest trying to track down the source of lowing dairy cattle and a persistent rooster. Noisy beasts! From the racket, the animals must to be on the property and we look. Eventually, we decide to start back to collect our wives. Mine wasn't up so I watched TV until she finally arose. Once up, she wanted to go to breakfast immediately but I only wanted a coffee. So off we went to eat. She breakfasted on sweet buns, yogurt (in three flavours), juice and coffee. I have to admit that watching her, I got a bit peckish myself. I ended up eating bacon, scrambled eggs, pancakes and French toast with syrup. It's so good! We had to decide what to do next? After a bit of discussion, we are going to explore some of the more remote sections of the property. We passed two nice Harcourt (maybe clay) courts, a basketball/volleyball court, the bicycle stable, the moped concession and the horses stable. Nice walk but by10h00 the sun was starting to beat down and burning the tops of my feet. So we started back to the main lobby but not before checking the iguanas. Today only one of the babies was visible and it quickly hid in deep crevice in the coral rocks that make up its home. Well I found out about the power situation today. It went down, again, but no one knows for how long. Rather than suffer without air, my wife decided to take a dip in the pool. This seems like a good idea under the circumstances but I choose to lounge on the balcony and bring this record up-to-date. It's 11h00 so maybe I'll join her complete with a coating of #40 suntan lotion... Nope, she just came back and sought shelter too. The natives burned a field of sugar cane or other crop today during siesta time. We watched from our balcony. Like a grass fire back home, it was smoky and over very quickly. I think I've figured out why we're sleeping so much. No hats! Yes, we both left our hats in our cars. How silly but I'll blame our hasty preparation for coming to Cuba. Off to the shop for hats. My guess is this lack of hats is resulting in a touch of sun or heat stroke. Well we're well rested and now have some hats. We'll how things go on our walking tour tomorrow morning We enjoyed a light supper with new friends from Huntsville, Ontario. Later we took in a few games of euchre and much conversation. Day Four -- Monday November 30, 1998 Up at the crack of dawn to get ready for our 09h00 excursion with our new friends. We had a quick breakfast and took a little from the table to feed our favourite critters. She, to feed her tropical fish from the pier and I, the iguana family. Today, there are only the two young iguanas and they are very interested in the fruit I brought. But they're skittish and ran off with their prizes so I didn't see them eat. I'll see what happens tomorrow when I go back. With our duty done to the critters, we rendezvoused with our friends, Valerie and Eric and then off to begin the two-hour walk into the mountains to the home of one of Eric's Cuban friends. We are met at the highway by Odallas, another of Eric's Cuban friends. She is the local dentist and speaks some English which complements our broken "Spanglish." We begin the trek inland. Along the way we see cattle, pigs and parrots. I try to get some photographs. About forty-five minutes in the trek, we find some rather unique fruit. Odallas calls it, "parrot fruit." These have an orange cover that splits in two to reveal a red spherical seed pod. We all tried one. The pulp is sweet but the seeds are bitter. A little while later in this up hill climb, I find myself physically unable to continue. I must halt, rest and turn back. The others went on taking my camera. While I rested, a local farmer on a mule hauling a dead tree passed by. He stopped and asked if he could help, as I was so obviously a tourist off the beaten path. I said no and we exchanged pleasantries. His name is Moses. A long conversation of much broken "Spanglish" and gestures and not a few cigarettes followed. I found out that his dead tree was for repairing a fence and rather than simply going about his business, he invited me to his home. I agreed that I would stop by on my way to the resort. About an hour after our meeting, I arrived at Moses' home. The house is wood on a concrete slab. Although the construction was rough in places, it was extremely clean and well kept. I met his wife and three children plus some other members of his family. This included assorted pet animals. We sat on the porch and drank coffee while we talked. Turns out that Moses and I have music in common. He has a band. At one time he even played at Sierra Mar. I listened to one of his performance tapes and was very impressed. So impressed that I must have a copy. I told him that I would get some blank cassettes so he can make me copies. I'll take at least one copy back home. Then we got to politics. Moses explained that even though Cuba was a poor country, it was government policy to see that every Cuban had an education to at least the age of sixteen (my translation of what he said), some sort of work, health care and, again my translation, a minimum income. Given the evidence of my visit with my new friend, I'd say that the plan works. Maybe I should say, "Most of the time." During the time I was visiting, my spouse and friends returned and were waiting for me by the pool. It seems that they too made new friends. Theirs was a farmer's wife who gave them fresh honeycomb when they stopped at her home. After this interlude, they traveled a bit further and stopped at a nearby waterfall. They even had a dip in the pool at the bottom of the falls. Sounded like fun and I'm a bit sorry that I missed out. However, c'est la vie, n'est pas? Nice pool, though. The remainder of the day we spent eating and sleeping until the power grid went out at 22h30 leaving us with no air conditioning and no TV. I went looking but found no blank cassettes on site. The customer relations coordinator will try to get some in Santiago. Now, I will finish today's journal entry then do something else, such as go for a beer. Day Five -- Tuesday December 1, 1998 We're having a lazy day today. All that walking yesterday has made extensive walking a bit of a problem. Nonetheless, I manage to hobble to the beach to give the iguanas the bits of banana that they like. I got my blank cassettes, finally. One of the tour guides, Walfrido, had to go to eleven stores before he found blank cassettes for sale. Tomorrow when we go to town, I can drop them off. Day Six -- Wednesday December 2, 1998 Today we're grabbing one of the local cabs and visiting the town of Chivirico with Eric and Valerie, our friends from Huntsville. The objective for the day is to buy some Cuban art. Our tour begins at the eastern edge of town. At every opportunity, we check each likely establishment to see what, if any, artwork they might have for sale. As we made our way downtown, we stopped at a store that apparently caters only to Cubans. Here, each Cuban obtains their monthly ration of goods, such as rice and other foodstuffs, clothing, soap et cetera. Near the centre of Chivirico, we discover an REAL art gallery. The salesperson turned out to be an old friend of Eric's. This meant a period of renewing the friendship before really looking at the art. And what a variety there is. Paintings in abstract, impressionistic and primitive style; sculpture, in bronze or ceramic or stone and handicrafts in various media are the most memorable. Some pieces were very powerful, indeed. My wife and I selected a small landscape in oil that really caught the essence of the countryside e had seen so far Just outside the gallery, we met another of Eric's friends, a teacher. As we talked about this and that, he mentioned that there was a computer club in the town. As this is my field, I was very interested. He had one of his students take me to the club for a visit and, I hoped, for a demonstration. Well I got my demonstration and I was very surprised at the level of expertise everyone there exhibited. Even the hardware was relatively current. The lads were extremely enthusiastic and eager to discuss any and all aspects of computing. Unfortunately, the club has no Internet access. I think this is a sad state of affairs but suspect that access is more a political thing than a physical limitation. We lunched in town. Chivirico has many street vendors hawking all kinds of local specialties from pushcarts that resemble popcorn wagons. We had little sweet buns, called yucca. These are like deep-fried sweet dough dumplings with fillings of various types. We selected vegetarian ones rather than meat ones, just to be on the safer side. Cans of pop and some pieces of sugar cane completed the meal. Before meeting our taxi for the return, we decided to explore the back streets of Chivirico. With a population near 15,000, there is much to see but we limited ourselves to the area one block in between the gallery and where we are meeting the taxi. This proved daunting anyway but we managed to check out one of the local fishmongers. Prices were quite reasonable. For example, swordfish was 3 Cuban pesos per kilogram (20 Cuban pesos per US$). Eventually we reached our pickup location and started back. On the way back, I stopped in at Moses' to deliver the cassettes. Unfortunately, I couldn't visit for very long as everyone was waiting in the taxi and getting very warm. I'll visit properly on Friday. The remainder of the day was occupied with eating and socializing. We gained a new friend, Vincent, as well. Turns out that he's also from Ontario and he comes to this part of Cuba two times a year to visit his adopted son. He's also an opera and film buff and, although he's not a singer, we still have much to share. Day Seven -- Thursday December 3, 1998 Today, I must nurse a cold. No doubt it's the result of intermittent air conditioning or possibly the somewhat extreme temperature differences one encounters in Cuba. Oh well so I'll do little else except eat. Food is good here. Day Eight -- Friday December 4, 1998 About 02h00, I discover livestock in my bed. It was one of the large wild Cuban cucarachas and not one of the little German ones that infest places. Ugh! Since I couldn't bring myself to having it share my bed or walk over me. I retreated to the lobby to do a bit of recording and also to read. Needless to say, I complained. The front desk staff was very sympathetic and supportive. They will spray our room first thing in the morning. Hopefully this will eliminate any reoccurrence. As promised, the pest controls person sprayed during breakfast. When we returned to our room, we found that Guest Relations had given us a gift of fruit and champagne. Nice touch and I think typical of SuperClubs, in general. Just for fun, I rented a moped. My wife was not enthusiastic about this but, what the hell; I'm on vacation with no opportunity to ride back home. Therefore, I ignored her protestations. I rode to Moses' house. Here, I visited in a more proper manner than I had the other day. We had coffee and talked in our own way. Moses' wife joined us and while we talked music, she picked through the family's rice allotment for stones, chaff and other foreign objects. I took a picture of her. After all no one wants to lose teeth for want of little sorting. Before leaving my friends home, he gave me copies of the performance tape that I liked, One will be for me and, I promised, I'll send the other to the manager at Sierra Mar with a recommendation. We must wait to see if that gets him a gig. I then set out to moped to Granma National Park which is about 30-40 Km from the entrance to the resort. I was interested because of a "Lonely Planet" episode that showed the park and tree houses. These are where Fidel Castro and his comrades lived after they came back from Mexico on the yacht, Granma, on December 2, 1956. I also got a brochure on the park from the hotel. Besides the treehouses, there's also an archeological and nature trail. You get a two-hour walk through the woods and tropical vegetation and can see remnants of the indigenous culture from pre-Colombian times. The brochure said, "Funeral caves which still keep stone icons and archeological excavations bringing back the life of the first inhabitants of the area." All this sounded intriguing until I ran low on gas between the park and Chivirico. Saddly, I turned back and turned in the moped just as it sputtered its last on the remaining fumes. Oh well, I still have the brochure.
Continued in Part 3 of the CTR
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