Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Gert van Dijken, Editor
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I, my wife, 13 year old daughter and 16 year old son spent 13 days in Puerto Rico in February of 2003. Prior to the trip I spent a quite a bit of time on the internet researching the trip and reading travel journals so I thought I'd submit a journal of my families experiences. To start out we are fairly experienced travelers. We have been to a number of Caribbean Islands and my wife and I have traveled extensively in Mexico, I also speak basic Spanish that I learned over 25 years ago in the Peace Corps. The last major trip we took was two weeks driving through Sicily two years ago. On the whole we enjoyed the trip and Puerto Rico but we also found some drawbacks in PR as travel destination. Day 1 Thursday We traveled from the airport to Fajardo. I had booked 3 nights in the Hotel La Familia. I was very disappointed in the hotel. It was at the level of a $5 hotel in Mexico for which I paid $120 for two rooms that shared a bath. They were bare rooms with barely functioning air conditioners but no way to open the window (covered in plastic). The area around Fajardo was OK but overbuilt. We had a nice meal at an open air restaurant at the end of the Rt 987 across from the fishermen's cove in Las Crobos. We went swimming at Seven Seas Beach which was attractive but kind of rocky. That night I drove around looking for a restaurant and was not too impressed with the area. Finally we ate at a plain but nice family restaurant across from Playa Sardinera. Day 2 Friday Bailed out on the hotel which wasn't probably the best idea because it was Friday of a three day weekend and I didn't have any reservations till Sunday night. We drove south then east toward Ponce through some very nice looking country. The roads were very windy and scenic. I was looking for a place to stay we did make another mistake. We stayed on the highway till we got past Humacao, which appears to be where most of the resorts/hotels were located. There were not very many hotels after that. We did stop at what appeared to be a very appealing hotel in the Patillias area called Hotel Caribe Playa Beach Resort (rooms were $118+/_). It was quite a small place but with a beautiful beach front area with palm trees and hammocks. The hotel also had a very picturesque restaurant and public area. I know someone who stayed at the hotel years ago and spoke very well of it but they did not have a room available. The roads through this region are very hard to follow particularly through the towns and every town had a traffic jam. The routes are fairly well marked but all I can say when the route signs appears to direct you down an alley or drive way follow because that is the route through the town. We went to eat at the Salinas Bay Marina Resort which had a nice location on the water but was hard to get to and no great shakes on the overpriced food. I was really getting concerned about finding a hotel so I made a bunch of calls and finally booked a room in Ponce at the Hotel Milia ($120 for a superior room). The Milia was a wonderful old hotel with a lot of character and we had a large clean room with a balcony overlooking the Plaza de las Delicias. The staff at the hotel is very nice and the whole family enjoyed the historic part of Ponce. The tourist bureau provides free horse drawn carriage and trolley rides. The guides at the Parque de Bombas (Old Fire Station) were very helpful and informative. We had dinner at a nice economical Mexican Restaurant a block from the Square and saw the only live music of our trip a Mariachi Band. Also there is a great ice cream place just below the hotel across from the Plaza, try the guanabana helados. Day 3 Saturday I spent the morning trying to find a hotel for Saturday night, after calling 30 places on the coast finally got a place in Jayuya, a mountain town about 1 hour north of Ponce . We went down to the waterfront boardwalk in Ponce. We had heard it was a lively place from friends. That may apply to a weekend night but Saturday at noon it was dead. One or two of the more an a dozen bar/restaurants were open and nobody was there. The drive up to Jayuya was very scenic and interesting particularly since we had an old map that did not show the new highway 10. Stopping at those little mountain top village colmados can be nice, you get a drink, talk to the locals. We stopped at one the people were very friendly and they redirected us to a better route to our destination. The Town of Jayuga is not a major tourist stop, it's kind of nondescript with kind of a dumpy main street but the country side around it was very attractive. The hotel Posada Jayuya was a semi dump for $69 a room which were OK. There is, at least from the outside, a very nice looking Indian museum but it is closed on weekends. The central plaza with the requisite Catholic Church had a cool small town feel and there was a wedding going on while we were there which made for some nice local flavor. The dining opportunities in Jayuya were very limited, through the hotel advertised a BBQ Chicken joint it was closed. So that leaves the 3 fast food type restaurants on the main street which was really kind of funny. There was a Chinese place that had sandwiches and fried chicken and a fried chicken place that had Chinese food and a sandwich shop with guess what. In our wandering around we saw the same cooks and counter people going back and forth between the places distributing the fried chicken and other foods. The rest of our stay was not very interesting the kids quickly found that the only English stations on the TV were religious and TV guide. This was an unplanned detour that I would not repeat on purpose, but the people were friendly and helpful and it was good for the kids to see a real PR Town but even this place had a Burger King on the road leading in. Day 4 Sunday I did watch the sunrise from the hotel balcony in Jayuya it really was beautiful. With the mountains, tropical vegetation and the cocks crowing, the town did look its best but not good enough to stop us from making an early escape. We took the local roads, which are part of the panoramic route to the new highway RT.10 and we were in Ponce within 1 hour and in Guanica, our next stop, in about another 30 minutes. Since it was too early to check into our rooms we went to the local beach Ballena Caqa Gorda. This beach was great, very clean, nice facilities, plenty of shade, good snack bar (only open on the weekend), easy parking and right next to the Copamarina Resort. In fact on a couple of occasions I walked down the beach and used some of their facilities. At about 1:00 PM we went down the road less than a mile to our accommodations. We had reservations at Mary Lee's by the Sea for the next 5 nights (http://www.maryleesbythesea.com/index.htm). After the last three places we stayed the family was on my case about another less than spectacular lodging choice. Luckily Mary Lee's was great even my 16 year old son who usually keeps his positive remarks to grunts said "You did good Dad". It really is a very unique place. Mary Lee herself was very helpful and quite interesting stories to tell as she had spent time in Batista's Cuba before moving to PR over 30 years ago. The main compound had three or four apartments but it's hard to tell because each one is very private. We rented Tranquilla ($170/night) advertised as a two bed room it could sleep 8 in comfort and privacy. I bet counting the covered deck it was over 2,000 sq ft. The kids had their own rooms which was great after 3 days in one hotel room and the car, getting everyone there own space was nice. The apartment is uniquely decorated with beautiful use of fabrics, lighting and plants. The grounds are small but very nicely landscaped. The waterfront is mangroves, with two docks that give you access to the water. Swimming off the docks is only so good as it is shallow and the bottom is sandy with sea grass. It didn't bother me I swam, snorkeled, fished and watched the moon every day off the docks. Since the apartment had a complete kitchen we went back into Guanica (a 10 minute ride down a windy road) to the ECONO supermarket to get supplies. Days 5 thru 8 Mary Lee's was very relaxing there is no TV but Mary Lee has a small paperback library and a stock of board games. It was good for the family to kick back and relax. We explored the local area and did some hiking in the dry forest. Which was OK but hot, access to the visitor's center was at the end of 334 where the guide was helpful but spoke no English but he did supply a map. The best walk I thought was to go to the end of 333 and walk along the deserted beaches. I also did some surf fishing in this area with varied success. Mary Lee does have kayaks for rent but it was quite windy most of the time we were there and the currents around the off shore cays can be surprisingly strong. We took the boat ride to Gilligan's Island which was nice but quite small. We went on a Thursday morning and by afternoon it was a bit crowded. It must be jammed on the weekends. It is a unique place, on the ocean side there is access to the coral reef (caution strong currents) the coral was ok but in the area I tried was shallow and water was cloudy. The best feature of the island is the lagoon in the middle of the island, it is turquoise blue with a U shaped mangrove channel. You swim against the sometimes quite strong current up one leg of the U and the current floats you back the other leg. Quite a few fish and the clarity of the water is pretty good. Another day we took a ride to La Parguera and Bouqeron Beach. We really liked La Paguera the town looks like it would be very lively on a weekend night. It's full of bars and restaurants but no beach, the waterfront is all mangroves with lots of offshore islands. We had friends that raved about staying at the Villa Parguera on a weekend. We took a very interesting hour and a half boat ride ($25) saw the house boats, iguanas, starfish and sea urchins. We tried some excellent sangria at a bar by the docks and had one of our best meals in PR at a restaurant called The Balconies (inexpensive buffet of local dishes). There was also a great artist coop where we bought a beautiful Carnival Mask print. We continued on to Bouqeron Beach for a swim, nice beach but not worth the hassle of parking and the facilities were poorly located. On the way back we stopped in San German, nice old town center, and a good coffee shop near the Cathedral. The other thing I really liked about staying at Mary Lee's was the Town of Guanica. I thought it was a great example of a very friendly, attractive small Puerto Rican town. It had a nice central square, very colorful friendly Colmado's and a pretty waterfront (if you ignore the fertilizer plant). I really enjoyed going into Town in the morning stopping at the Panaderia for some pastry or an excellent ham, cheese and egg sandwich and the San Juan Star (english newspaper), stopping at one of the fruit and vegetable trucks for mangos, avocados and papayas. Also by about 2:00 PM the fishermen come in and you can buy fresh fish and lobsters at the fish market (located next to that ugly fertilizer plant). I find the social life at Colmados intriguing, you go in and there are always 4 or 5 people sitting on chairs visiting. When I stopped in looking for supplies somebody was always willing to give advice on the best rum (with maybe a sample from those little plastic shot glasses) or where to go to buy fish, invariably some one would ask where I was from and relate how they were once in Boston or had a brother that had lived there. Very social places, kind of like the myth of the old general store with the pot belly stove and the cracker barrel. One other high points of the area is the hidden restaurant at the Gilligan's Island ferry landing (located between the Copamarina hotel and Mary Lee's there is no sign so it's easy to miss). They had very good lobster, fish and steaks. My lobster monfongo must have had 2 pounds of sweet fresh lobster meat and the owner was very friendly and would actually make whatever you wanted. Day 9 Friday We departed from Mary Lee's with heavy hearts hoping to someday return (not realizing I had forgotten our passports and airline tickets in the bedroom and would have to return much sooner). The dive to Rincon was fairly quick and not very attractive basically a collection of strip malls, car dealers and roadside businesses. We found our next rental pretty easily. We rented an apartment through Lemon Tree Waterfront Suites (http://lemontreepr.com/). It wasn't part of the complex but only two doors down. It was a very nice newly renovated two bedroom apartment with a nice porch right on the water with a spectacular view ($160night). There is no real beach here, the water is lapping right against the sea wall but it is sandy and you can walk along the waterfront in ankle deep water. We met the owner very nice woman and we had use of a 2 person kayak and some other assorted floats and a rubber rafts. The water was great for swimming and the snorkeling was quite good right in front of place in the rock formations. The apartment is located on a large bay that made for calm waters great for kayaking. I had a great time fishing out of the kayak and caught 10 different species of fish including a 3 foot barracuda (which I didn't quite know what to do with when I got it close to the kayak). Day 10 to 13 We traveled around the area a bit, we had a great lunch at the very attractive restaurant The Landing. The food was good and a humpback whale was putting on a show right in front. The Landing is located on Sandy Beach which was the nicest beach we saw in the Rincon area. We drove out to Crashboat beach but didn't find it that appealing. In Rincon we also went to Tres Hermanos and the town beach near the center and both were kind of dirty and unkempt. We also ate at the Lazy Parrot, which had a nice setting but the food was uninspired. One of the best tasting and best priced meals was the chicken, rice and yucca from the road side BBQ Pollo trucks. You get a delicious chicken and all the fixing for about $8.00. Another good place to eat or get take out was the seafood empaqadillas restaurant at the high point on the way into town from the south. The major side trip we took from Rincon was to Camuy Cave Park. We found this very interesting and enjoyable. The cave is spectacular, the guide was good and the park in general was very attractive. This is kind of a canned tour so don't expect to be wandering through caves by yourself though I was told more adventurous trips can be arranged. We arrived at the park at about 10:00 AM on Monday bought tickets for the tour (I think they were $10 each plus $2 to park). There was a snack bar and a gift shop at the Visitors Center. Once you get your tickets you are called by groups to see a short movie (10 min) and then get on the trams that take you to the bottom of the sinkhole to the cave opening (our group was called within about 15 min of buying our tickets though it looked crowded with a longer wait later in the day). The tropical vegetation in the sink hole is impressive as is the cave. A guide takes you on an informative 1 hour tour of the cave. After the tour another tram takes you to another sinkhole which has a very nice board walk and stairs down to the bottom. This you do at your own pace which is quite nice. I found the best way to get to the caves from Rincon was Rt 2 to Rt 111 to Rt 10 this is a nice ride through the country much better than the highway with all those annoying stop lights. Day 13 We had a 6:20 PM flight from San Juan so we got up early and left Rincon before 9:00 AM. Believe me that is early when you have to get two teenagers up. We had to go back by way of Guanica because I had forgotten our tickets. We made a fairly quick trip back and then took the main highway over the mountains from Ponce to San Juan. Very pretty and easy ride, though I don't know why the local drivers haven't figured out the left lane is for passing not driving 45 mph. Not many highways I guess. We got to San Juan before noon. We wanted to spend some time site seeing and have lunch in Old San Juan. We have spent time in Old San Juan in the past and always enjoyed ourselves. It was a nice day and we did some shopping and poking around had some free rum at the tourist center by the harbor. Also we went to our favorite lunch place in San Juan, La Bombonera on Calle San Francisco 259 it is a Bakery/Deli try their roast pork it is excellent and quite inexpensive. After a few hours in Old San Juan we got rid of the rental car and went to the airport for our trip back to the frigid northeast. Conclusions and tips * We liked PR in general but we are not sure we would be coming back soon. I will probably opt for Mexico next time. * One problem is it isn't different enough from US to be exotic. Too many MacDonald's, Burger Kings and Walmarts. * I found the beaches somewhat disappointing sometimes rocky, shallow or weedy and the water was always cloudy. Granted I did not see all the beaches in particular I didn't go to Culebra or Vieques. * I like to snorkel and I found snorkeling from the beaches very disappointing and I tried everywhere we went. Again I didn't go to Culebra or Vieques where I hear it is great. I have experienced spectacular snorkeling from beaches in Yucatan, Barbados, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Cayman's so I know it's out their. * I found the food expensive and disappointing with the exception of some local restaurants in the small towns. * One tip when I rented my car I was told I needed a letter from my insurance company stating that my coverage was valid in PR or I would be charged $15.75 per day for their insurance. Luckily this was during business hours so I called my agent and he faxed down a letter. Rental was from Thrifty $275 per week for a Ford Taurus which was fine. * On the positive side PR was easy to get to a nonstop less than 4 hour flight from Hartford; dealing with money was easy US dollars, ATMs (ATH in PR) everywhere. The people were friendly and the weather was great. * Knowing some Spanish was helpful but not at all necessary. Most of the time when I started up in my basic rusty Spanish in a restaurant or store someone spoke English much better than my Spanish.
Just returned from a long anticipated trip to St. Lucia. We flew from Toronto via Air Canada into Hewanorra late Saturday afternoon and yes, the roads are terrible to the Jalousie Hilton. At first it wasn't so bad because we were enjoying the scenery but then it started to rain and got dark and we couldn't see anything. We just wanted to GET THERE. One hour later, we arrived at the Hilton to chilled towels, rum punch and a complimentary upgrade to a Villa Suite. They put me in a good mood until dinner at the Pier Restaurant which was expensive and not very good. This is the main weakness at the Hilton. The choices for dinner are limited and pricey and in the end only so-so. However, in terms of service, location, upkeep, responsiveness and facilities, the Hilton gets 9 out of 10. Our villa suite was nicely laid out, with a good size plunge pool, mini fridge, air con, bottled water, tea, coffee, plenty of towels, bathrobes etc. The grounds are great with a nice beach area and pool. Here is a short rundown of our stay: Sunday: Breakfasts were always a buffet at the Hilton (and a bit pricey at $18 per person) but the Verandah restaurant is a lovely setting and they certainly had enough choice. We took a water taxi with some other guests to go snorkeling at Anse Chastenet. The snorkeling was pretty good, you can walk in from the beach. It was interesting that the locals didn't seem too impressed with Anse Chastanet. According to two boat operators I spoke to, why would you pay all that money for no pool and no AC in the rooms? Interesting take. Had dinner at Bang, right next to the Hilton which was fairly reasonable and had good basic food. We met the owner, Lord Glenconner, who encouraged us to come back on Wednesday which we did. Monday: Rain, rain, all morning and early afternoon. Against my wishes, my husband rented a jeep from Cool Breezes. We went out for a short drive to get oriented. We drove up as far as Canaries. The roads were not as bad but still very twisty. We stopped in Soufriere on the way back to pick up some groceries. Walking around the town wasn't bad. It's small and quaint. However, when we were driving out of town, we were hit up for money by a guy "directing" traffic. We gave him some money and he demanded more! We made it clear that that was all he was going to get. He caused such a commotion in the road that we didn't turn where he said and we ended up on a side road going toward the Diamond Falls. I didn't want to go back so I told my husband to keep going and eventually the road took us back to the main road. I managed to calm myself by a great buffet dinner/ party at Dasheene. Tuesday: This was our day trip day to the north. We knew it would take time but we managed to drive to Pigeon Island, Castries, Rodney Bay and Reduit Beach. We liked Pigeon Island but found Castries to busy and clogged, and Rodney Bay very touristy. We stopped to have a drink at the Royal St. Lucian on Reduit Beach. The hotel has a gorgeous pool area but I thought Reduit Beach was very crowded. We passed through some small villages (Anse La Raye, Gros Inlet), and managed to navigate okay. For dinner, the Hilton had a fish market buffet which was not bad. Wednesday: This was our relaxing sail day. It didn't start out so relaxing. Communication seemed to break down between the booking agent and the operators, so that some people were given wrong start times. Also, a couple who were booked on a half-day sail were told that the booking agent had made a mistake, and there wasn't a half-day sail that day. Eventually, we made to the boat (a 37-foot Benteneau (I know the spelling is wrong).) The captain was not in a good mood, we had lost almost an hour. Also, the trip was designed to give you a choice of either bringing your lunch or eating at Marigot Bay. The one other couple we were with had brought their lunch (because they were on an all-inclusive plan). We wanted to eat at Marigot Bay. This caused more aggravation. The Captain said that we wouldn't be able to go to Marigot Bay at all because of the delay, and that when we stopped at Anse Cochon to snorkel, we might be able to go ashore to the restaurant on the hill at Ti Kaye village. So the day sail didn't start off very well for me. But it was a beautiful day and the snorkeling was good. It was clear that the Captain didn't want to ferry us to the shore, so our sail companions graciously shared their lunch with us. We had a relaxing sail back and the captain started to warm to us. Dinner: We went to Bang for their legendary floor show and had a good time. Thursday: My husband went on a Jeep/Rainforest tour but because of a previous foot injury, I stayed at the Hilton and treated myself to a facial at the spa. The spa is quite good. I then went snorkeling at the beach and found that to be worthwhile as well. Dinner: Went to Dasheene. Saw David Bowie and his wife Iman having dinner. (They were staying at Ladera, the rumor was). Dasheene is a great restaurant. Friday: Decided to splurge a little a take a water taxi to Marigot Bay. It cost US$90 return. We had lunch at Doolittles. I was really happy we did this because Marigot Bay is beautiful. It was worth seeing. We had a good lunch as well. Dinner: The Hilton had its Creole Buffet night with entertainment. It was okay. Saturday: My husband had his complimentary massage at the Spa and we packed and vacated our room. Because our flight wasn't until six o'clock, we hung out on the beach and had lunch at Bayside in the Hilton. The lunches were good at Bayside. Then it was time to go and face the long bumpy ride to the airport. We had a smooth trip home. General impressions: Beautiful island but, in places, hard to get around. People were almost universally warm and friendly. Encountered a lot more panhandling/aggressive vending in certain areas. The Hilton was excellent but dinners are so-so. I think it's a worthwhile island to see. I would encourage anyone who goes there to get out and see the island.
My wife and I just returned from a week at the Landing, 3/1-3/8/03. I cannot begin to express my total satisfaction and appreciation for all the hard working employees, from the gracious ladies who took care of our room (Island) to the maintenance workers to Larry the bartender (Jammers Beach Bar)who was so very helpul and informative and the staff at the main office, check-in area and Main desk. We had an all inclusive plan that took care of all meals and drinks, excepting the usual top shelfers like Absolut, Baileys, and similar. The meals at Papa Dons were excellent, as were breakfasts at Dragonfly and of course lunch and dinner at Jammers. The weather was picture postcard perfect, low to mid 80's and mid 70's at night with an ocassional 400 a.m. shower and a once or twice 1000 a.m. shower that did no harm. Sit thru the RCI time share and save $60 or so per person for the Wednesday Endless Summer cruise that takes you down the coast to the "drive through" volcano, nearby Diamond Botanical Gardens...The RCI deal was such a bargain and the representaive, Curtis, was a real pro and no high pressure salesman, but a thorough professional. We bought a time share and will be returning to beautiful St. Lucia again and again. Final suggestions? Bring SPF 45 sunscreen, maybe 50 2 dollar bills for tipping and the like, half the clothing you think you will need, and spend as much time on the internet to learn as much as possible before arriving....it'll save you time and money. If using birth certificates in lieu of a Passport, have drivers license and if married, a marriage certificate for returning through INS. US Air direct from Philadelphia is a good bet also. Tim Wolfe firstname.lastname@example.org (maybe more thoughts later, can direct questions to me at e-mail, Subject Windhjammer or St. Lucia.
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