Caribbean Travel Roundup

Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor


Caribbean Travel Roundup
Paul Graveline, Editor
Edition 92
February 1, 1999

Last Update 30 JAN 99

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BELIZE BY MICHAEL DELACHAPELLE

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.

BVI BY JACK WALSH

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.

CUBA: SANTIAGO DE CUBA BY G. RODERICK SINGLETON

(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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