Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor
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Trip 3/99 I just returned from a week at Grand Lido Braco on March 19, 1999. My wife and I left from Philadelphia via Air Jamaica with 1st class tickets. This was our third trip to Jamaica, second trip to a Grand Lido, the first time was to Negril. I am male, age 37, with an above average income. The flight. Air Jamaica was not bad (not great either) and we forgot that the week we went March 13 through 19 was spring break, so the plane was loaded with college students. Thank god we had 1st class air! We arrived in Montego Bay on time at the Donald Sangster Airport which is just notch or two above a third world dump (no chickens on the runway) if you have never been there. The place was absolutely mobbed! There were at least 2,500 people in line to go through immigration, which is in a relatively small room. No air conditioning or at least none noticeable, and a lot of very ticked off passengers. There must have been 5 or 6 flights which arrived all at around the same time and the line took an hour to go through. On to baggage claim. Also mobbed of course, but they had everyones bags lined up so when we finally got down there we were out in short order. The airport staff is very helpful and directed us to the Superclubs meeting area where we were greeted and our bags taken for transport to the resort. Be prepared to get clipped for $10 by the baggage handler who does not work for Superclubs. I thought this was pretty tacky on the part of Superclubs to allow this, but I guess there is a baggage handlers union. If you come during regular hours and there are a number of guests arriving at the same time you will be taken to the resort via jitney bus together. The ride. Though the ride is somewhat shorter than to Negril. I figured how bad could it be. Brutal is an understatement. The resort is east of the airport and is about three fourths of the way to Ocho Rios. It took about an hour on a narrow, pot hole invested, very windy road, that made most of us on the bus close to car sick. The bus itself felt like it was riding on stone wheels as the shock absorbers were shot. The scenery is that of a rural, impoverished country which goes through the town of Falmouth. I will let the town speak for itself. The resort. You drive in past the gates through the nine hole golf course (more on that later) to Grand Lido Braco (used to be Braco Village before being bought by Superclubs about a year ago). The staff was well organized and friendly and you felt like you were at the entrance to Epcot Center at Disney World since the resort is actually a little village. I bet Falmouth looked like this once.......in 1700 maybe! The reception staff was very nice, champagne or rum punch was served while room keys were handed out etc. The resort itself is centered around a Jamaican village theme which has a bakery, Italian, French, and Japanese restaurants, as well as a disco, town hall, court house, town square, and various shops. There is also Nanna's Jerk Pit, Victoria's Market, and the main pool area. To the left of the Village (as you enter the resort) Is the nude side rooms, complete with pool, Jacuzzi, bar, beach, etc. To the right the main beach and the other rooms. The buildings are 2 and 3 story, Victorian in appearance, and the grounds are very well maintained. Make sure you ask for a room in either the 100 through 300 buildings (garden or ocean view does not matter) because the hike back to the village particularly with a golf bag gets old quick. I was in the 500 building which is the second to last building and is probably 250 yards from the main pool area. The room we had was ocean view on the second floor. Not a huge room but adequate. Decent balcony with great view. First floor rooms you can walk right out to the beach but the view is partially blocked by trees and bushes. The review. The key question is would I go back? No, and here's why. Having been to Grand Lido Negril where I went on my honeymoon and had a fantastic time my expectations were high (not to mention this place isn't cheap). Negril was great, from the beach to the service, everything was frankly perfect. This was five years ago so don't hold me to it, Superclubs may be slipping if Braco was any indication. Braco was not so perfect in fact my wife and I complained several times to the resort manager about issues I will detail next. The food was fair with the exception of the French restaurant which was above average (guys must wear a sport coat). Your main dinning area will be Victoria's Market where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served. Dinning is casual. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style, dinner is sit down. Food was fair. I eat out a lot so my definition of fair is a cut above a wedding reception. Above average would indicate a good restaurant with an average entree price of around $25. The wine selection is horrible! This was one of my main complaints. The name of the vineyard escapes me but the white wine was equivalent to jug wine. The red I didn't try after having the white. The wine served may go for around 5 or 6 bucks a bottle at the liquor store. Champagne was equally bad. I prayed for a bottle of Korbel, which I hate, but would have gladly taken in its place. The wine selection at the French restaurant was somewhat better and should have been available resort wide. They do have a good selection of liquors but the beer is Red Stripe. Love it or hate that's what you get. The Japanese restaurant was a little better than a Benihana (same type of presentation) and the sushi bar forget! The fish was previously frozen, small selection, and really not very good. The sushi chef was very good but he apologized for the lack of quality fish. He tried though. I live 20 minutes from South Philadelphia which has probably some of the best Italian restaurants in the US so you can bet how the my review of the Italian restaurant would be.... fair. Room service is available 24 hours a day, not bad, but somewhat slow. I ordered a bottle of champagne one night and it came with 2 glasses. No bucket no ice. Another call to management. This time a bottle of Moet White Star showed up with an apology letter! The beach. Keep in mind that the coast of Jamaica where Braco is not the pristine sandy beaches you get in Negril. Instead you are on the windward side of the island where the coast is rocky and storm blown. This is evidenced by walking to the edge of the Braco property and looking down the coastline. The Braco beach is a man made buy employing rock jetties and breakwaters to create a safe haven and preserve sand. When you walk out into the water the bottom is somewhat rocky but not too bad. The rest of the beach is lined with young palm trees and tropical plants. I personally enjoy riding the waves to kill time while on the beach and though there are plenty of waves to be had the breakwater prevents them from coming ashore. You want beautiful beaches go to Negril. No waves though. Golf. The nine hole course is all par 3's and one par 4. It is a $12 municipal course if you want a comparison. If the weather is cloudy or you are bored of the beach you can kill time here. The driving range, well lets just say when they hand you the shag bag and tell you to pick up the balls you just hit.....you'll get my point. I brought my clubs down which works out better if you plan on playing over at the Breezes course which is 20 minutes away. The course is pretty good, long and is worth the trip. Green fees are included but not the caddy. The caddy will set you back $20. Cart will cost extra on top of the caddy. Transportation is also included and you do all this through the conceirge at Braco. You can play any course on the island you want, but you must pay to play and get there too, plan on around $200 per round. Golf lessons at Braco are included and are conducted by a PGA pro who gets free room and board for the week in exchange for his or her time. Take advantage of this, it is worth it. One last note about the golf at Braco (another complaint) they charge you $4 to use a pull cart. What's up with that? I thought golf was included. Guess not all things golf. The summary. My wife and I had a very good time at Braco despite its short comings. The village theme really puts the guests together particularly at night when the place gets going around 10 pm. There are a lot of activities planned all day to keep most people busy. The biggest bitch I had was I did not feel that the food, the wine, or the service was worth the $600 per day per couple you are charged to stay at Braco. Look at Negril before Braco. Better yet if you can afford it, the Half Moon Resort or Tryall these are the premiere resorts on the island. That's my next trip hopefully.
We had read horror stories about the transition from the airport at MB to the Ocho Rios area. They were either from people who lead a far more sterile life than I do or were misguided. The trip was uneventful and pleasant. The "halfway" stop at a local tourist trap was even reasonable. There was none of the aggressive behavior I had been led to expect. The facilities were clean and the beer and sodas were cold. There were local crafts and "agricultural" products available if you just cannot wait. The Sangster airport was another matter. It was typical of the Carib and poorly organized. The delay for luggage was excessive, but so what? At SDR, the reception was smooth, pleasant, and relaxing. Once assigned to a room, the luggage was delivered with us. The room was a huge disappointment. It simply was not what we expected nor what we wanted. Before unpacking, I went to the office and stated our disappointment. The lady at the desk showed us a couple of other choices and we found exactly what we expected. I met with the assistant manager on duty and we had a discussion about the situation. He ended up meeting our expectations (actually exceeded them) and we were reassigned to the new room. I was pleasantly shocked at how quickly our luggage was delivered to the new room. It was almost by the time we got there although it was another completely different building. The food and beverage services at SDR are excellent. I would not call it "fine dining", but it is surely well above average and is of the quality one would expect at any mid-scale US restaurant. SDR and SOR have a shuttle so that restaurants and facilities at the two resorts can be shared. The SDR restaurants include international, Japanese, Italian, and Carib cuisine. There is also a 24 hour grill for those that might get the "munchies" or need a late night hamburger to fight off insomnia. The Italian and Japanese restaurants were outstanding. The international and Carib fare was not quite as good, but was excellent. Breakfast was buffet style with eggs/omelets/pancakes/waffles to order along with fruit, breads, etc. Lunch was similar. Neither was particularly notable, but certainly met expectations. The beach and pool areas were great. There are multiple pools, each with a "swim up" bar for afternoon adult beverages or soft drinks. The beach is clean (amazingly clean) and well maintained. It is a bit short from side to side and walking the beach is more like doing laps. The water to dune depth is fine. There are plenty of chairs and lounges as well as hammocks to enjoy the breezes and sun. The water is typically beautiful as found in all the Carib. There is a reef about 1/4 mile offshore so the waves do not crash onto the beach and the surf is rather gentle. The resort watersports include skiing, snorkle trips, scuba, etc. There is a twice daily trip on a 50 ft catamaran to Dunns River Falls for a fun diversion that includes other water activities, too. One of the reasons we selected SDR was for the availability of golf. The course is the former Upton Country Club course and is located about 15 minutes away by regular shuttle. The course is a fine island course. The week we were there, the greens had just been aerated and although that detracted somewhat, it was otherwise excellent. The layout is playable for all and challenging for multiple levels of players. For the record, my wife won 4 days, lost 1, and tied 1. She made me get that into this report!! The nicest thing about the course was the "ball quota". So many resort courses seem to eat golf balls. This one is playable with one ball for the entire round. There is water, but it does not threaten every shot. Actually it only comes into play on about 2 holes. No need to load up with balls before the trip. Just bring what you have in the bag and it will be enough. Caddies are required, carts are available. The course is walkable without too much effort. Although it is in the hills, it seems to be well layed out for walking. The staff was wonderful. By the second day, all seemed to recognize us and know our preferences. After my initial meeting with the assistant manager, we seemed to meet daily and have a nice word with each other. He always was pleasant and seemed to genuinely care that our stay was pleasant. Activities were on the disappointing side. The traditional island show was very good. Otherwise, entertainment was more cabaret style where we would have preferred to dance and party. We are both 45+ and were not honeymooning. There were several honeymooners and the activities seemed more geared to a younger set perhaps. There was a "dance under the stars" that lasted all of 15 minutes. Two songs, and the band quit and set up inside for a cabaret show. That was poor. I understand that there were dances about midnight each evening, but for us "old folks" that just didn't work. We got up early each morning to play golf and then spent the afternoon in the sun. If there were dances or other opportunities early it would be better. I know they cannot be everything to all but they tried. It just happened that it didn't fit our preferences very well. There are also daily trips and other activities available including shopping, Blue Mountain, etc. All are excellent based on personal experience and/or reports. All in all, I hope this sounds like a very positive review. It should. We were genuinely well satisfied and in almost every case, our expectations were exceeded.
Trip 2/99 We left JFK terminal 4E on a North American charter Flt. #011 non-stop to Martinique at 10:20am on Sunday morning, February 7th, 1999 with a plane full of Club Med people heading to Martinique or the next stop of Guadeloupe. There were only a very few Club ABC people aboard. The seating was a bit tight but we were offered free soft drinks, a good hot lunch, and later on Hagen-Dazs and a current film to watch. The time went swiftly by and we landed early on the 4 hour flight. There were a host of people meeting the Club Med group, but no one showed up for us. After a time, one in the group telephoned the hotel who told us to take cabs which they would pay. It was a 25 minute drive to the hotel on Pointe du Bout so we had our first glimpse of the flowers and tropical forests on the island. It is a very lush place; quite different from another French island St. Martin visited earlier. At the hotel, we were warmly welcomed, our taxi bill paid, and our room keys and packages distributed. The rooms are modern, well-air- conditioned, face the tropical gardens, beach and sea, and Fort de France and its mountain in the background. All rooms have large terraces with a table and chairs and a light. There were no screens because there are no mosquitoes or other bugs. The bathroom is bright with shower and tub, tv speaker so you don't miss anything, hair dryer, several close-up mirrors, tissues, and all the soaps and hair creams in small bottles found at the best hotels. The mini-bar even had a small ice-tray though there's no available ice machine for guests. The tv had 5 stations plus radio and included CNN so we could keep up on world happenings. We learned later that the rooms at the Club Med had no radio, tv, or telephone so those guests were isolated from the world. Perhaps that's what they wanted. After unpacking and changing to more comfortable island attire, we had a cocktail in the room and then dinner at La Sirne, one of the two hotel restaurants. It was fairly expensive and only mediocre in quality with Creole flavors (spicy), rather than typical French cuisine. We were exhausted from the long day on which wed arisen at 5:30am and so went to bed early and slept like a rock. Next morning we were up early to enjoy the hotels huge and very good buffet breakfast. They had an omelet man preparing whatever you wished and also a French gadget to make 3-4 minute brown eggs which we used daily. They had wonderful pineapple, melons, bananas, (all locally grown) and other fruit, yogurt, breads and croissants (chocolate and regular), cereal, juices, milk, cheeses, ham, and at the table wonderful strong caf au lait. There were flowers on all the tables as Martinique is known as the Lisle des Fleurs. There are no side walls in the restaurant and the view is of the pool and sea and is spectacular. Theres some netting to prevent the many small birds from sharing your meal but many get in anyway. They seem trained not to disturb, but when you leave the table, they attack for the crumbs, et al. Its an amusing sight. We signed up for a Madinina Tours full day bus tour of the North Island for next day (440). Wed have to take the 8:30am ferry to Fort de France where wed meet the bus but they'd drive us home to the door on return. We took the half-hour 30 (franc) round-trip ferry ride into Fort de France. That's when we got badly sunburned because we hadn't yet started using sunscreen. In town, we wandered through the outdoor tourist market to get a feel for the town, the biggest on the island. Prices seem high everywhere. Stopped in the post office for stamps; 3.80 (64) to the USA, 3 (51) to France, and 5.3 (90) to the rest of Europe and the world. This is about the most expensive anywhere and now, 10 days after returning from Martinique, none of my cards have yet been delivered. A friend told me that they are first sent to Paris. That would explain the delay but who knows maybe they'll never be delivered like some third world countries. We stopped at the West- Indies Restaurant for a local Lorraine beer and a rum drink on their terrace. Back in Pointe du Bout, we explored some by walking to the marina from the hotels front entrance; a longer way to go and then perusing the stores and boats there and choosing a restaurant, the Marina, for some lunch. We couldn't get a piazza because the ovens close between 2:30pm and 6:30pm. We couldn't get a hamburger because that was only available on the childrens menu. I settled for Accra, the local specialty which is like a potato puff made with fish as well as potato. I got a whole plate full of them. My friend ordered fish soup and a salad which was good but too filling. We found the local supermarket and bought a lime, pineapple soda, and orange juice for drinks later in the room with the rum purchased at the JFK duty free shop.. Later we returned to the marina area for dinner at LEmbarcadere, on their terrace upstairs overlooking the boats. We had chicken and shrimp dishes both of which were only so-so. Next morning we took the early morning Fort de France ferry to meet our tour bus by 9am. The ferry was crowded with people going to work but the ride was lovely with the morning sun and a refreshing breeze. We were early and so wandered into the downtown park for little while. There were 18 passengers on our mini bus and a tour guide. 16 of the 18 were French speaking and the guide promised to give us a share of English guidance but it was a fraction of what the others got. She said they have English guides for when the cruise ships come in, but we weren't on a cruise ship. The major stop on this outing was at St. Pierre, the original capital which was totally destroyed in the Mont Pele volcano of May 8, 1902 when all but one of the 30,000 inhabitants died, mostly from the toxic fumes. The survivor was a prisoner named Cyparis, locked in his cell behind thick walls which prevented the fumes from reaching him. He was badly burned though and trapped in his cell. Several days later, he was freed by a rescue group and later become a circus freak with the Barnum & Bailey circus showing off his awful scars from the burns received from the volcano eruption. We took an hours tram ride around the town with a guide who only spoke in French. Then we visited the local museum which had all sorts of melted items from that awful day as well as pictures of the town, the local theater, and the survivor. Continuing on we passed Le Carbet where Columbus landed in 1502 on his fourth trip to the Americas and Anse Turin where Paul Gauguin painted for a few months in 1887. Lastly, we stopped at Les Ombrages Botanical and Floral Path for a tour of the grounds with a great variety of flowers, trees, fronds, and tropical plants. After a 45 minute tour of these grounds as well as a look at some 17th century ruins of a sugar mill and other buildings, we headed to an outdoor but covered restaurant for a huge luncheon which included a rum cocktail, accra hors doeuvres, a salad, main course of Marlin and vegetables, red wine, an ice cream desert, and French expresso. During lunch we made an attempt to chat with our French neighbors and found one lady from Lille who acted as translator. It was fun except for one man on the trip from Loraine who was abusive, loud, and difficult. There's always We continued on to Fort de France and eventually to our hotel arriving around 5pm after an enjoyable and interesting excursion. Next day we spent time in Fort de France visiting their covered fruit and vegetable market and their meat market, their pre-Columbian Museum of Archeology, their Sacr Coeur cathedral copy, and their 1640 Fort St. Louis for an extended private guided tour. In addition to being a museum now, it is also a base for the French Navy. We stopped for a wonderfully tasty lunch (160) of green salads, spaghetti Boulegnese, and local Lorraine beers at the West-Indies restaurant right on the water. There was a delay at the docks getting back to Pointe du Bout but we eventually made it. That night we tried the local chinese restaurant, Le Cantonnais. The food was only adequate and was expensive but the waiter was very good and pleasant. We tried it again one night and it was much worse with an order of shrimp dim sum with unbaked raw dough and sweet and sour pork that was fatty and unpleasant. We spent one day at the hotel enjoying the pool and the beach which was quite lively this day because a cruise ship was in town and seemed to have rented a part of our beach. They brought their own Carnival Cruise beach towels and they were a bit loud and rambunctious and took over the dining room of La Sirne where wed thought of eating. Instead we went to town and La Marina and finally had that piazza; quite hot and thin and good. Hordes of young woman comb the beach area selling beautiful colorful dresses and wraps made in Guadeloupe and really quite attractive but with very high prices. I was approached too to buy a cotton sport shirt in a natural color but $70 was too much to spend from a beach hawker for a shirt I didn't really need. We walked over to the Mridian Hotel next door where they asked us for $5 to sit on one of their lounge chairs on the beach. If you speak English, they think you've come off a cruise ship and then everything is sold in dollars as cruise passengers never have local currency. On that beach a lady approached us telling us about a sailing trip all day on Friday on a 60 foot by 30 foot catamaran named MICALINE and showing us pictures of the boat and the elaborate cabin below. We had known of this trip before but thought that it was too long a day to be out in the sun. But now we were sold on it and were told to meet Michle, the salesperson, to sign up and pay, at her office in the hotel at 8:45am on Friday for the 9pm departure. We got to the Mridien counter around 8:30am next morning and paid our day trip bill (480 each) and then boarded this beautiful ship shortly after nine. There were about 20 guests and this time there was another American couple who we could talk to. The ship pitched a bit at the start but later on it was a very smooth ride and fast too. There's always plenty of wind in this body of water. One of the crew took pictures of us at the bow a l Titanic and at days end had them available for sale in a 5x7 size. They came out wonderfully. Around 11:30am we stopped at a beautiful beach with aquamarine waters for swimming and snorkeling. They took us in to the beach on a motorized dinghy and gave us an hour to spend there. We found a spot under a tree so as not to be in the direct sunlight which is so strong and relaxed and later went for a swim. Many other catamarans stopped at this same spot on the southern shore. The hour went by very quickly and then the zodiac appeared. Back on board the main outdoor cabin had been reconfigured and a table set up big enough for all 20 of us. It was set with a lace tablecloth, a big centerpiece of very colorful flowers, water and wine glasses, and china. We were all amazed. We began with a rum punch and those famous Martinique hors doeuvres of Accra. They were a big hit. We also had bread and salad and then the piece de resistance, a platter of cold spiny langouste or lobsters. The platter was artfully displayed with flowers set amongst the crustaceans. There also were bottles of cold white wine. It was, indeed, a feast. Later came a platter of cut up local fruits soaked in rum and still later expresso. This was perhaps our best meal on the island. We sailed for a few more hours and then stopped again and boarded the zodiac for visits to two caves; one a bat cave. We had time again for swimming or snorkeling off the boat. Then we headed home and made it back to the Mridian dock before 5pm after a most enjoyable day at sea. The time really flew by and didn't at all seem like all those hours had passed. That evening we tried a different restaurant called, Poisson Dor on the road to the next town and recommended by a hotel staff member. We both made the mistake of ordering meat instead of fish. I had the advertised special of a lamb curry with rice and vegetables which included a first course of a strange vegetable soup and then a banana flamb. It wasn't inedible, it just wasn't very good and certainly the meat was not tender. My friend had the entrecote which was too tough. We enjoyed our Lorraine beers never-the-less. Leaving we met the American couple from the days catamaran trip who had just had a fish dish in a coconut sauce and thought it was excellent. Wed thought of renting a car one day but after driving on the main roads on the bus tour, we decided that driving looked too difficult and drivers went to fast and seemed reckless. So, we relaxed again on the beach; this time without the cruise ship people who were long gone. After breakfast on our last day, we packed, swam, and took a last look at the lovely facilities of our hotel. We never did get to play ping pong or sail a sunfish nor see some of the sights in Fort de France or other resort areas such as St. Anne. These are left for a future visit. A bus arrived at 2:20pm to take us to the airport. Our plane left on time at 4:45pm for Guadeloupe and, after picking up a large group there, we headed to JFK and arrived an hour earlier than scheduled. We were back home before our scheduled landing time after a very pleasant warm weather interlude on an interesting island.
Once again, our holiday at the Iberostar Quetzal/Tucan in the Playacar Resort Development, just outside of Playa Del Carmen, was FABULOUS! Having stayed there twice, I still feel that this is one of the best resorts we have visited outside of the US. There are a number of fine all-inclusive resorts in the area, so rest assured if you choose something other than the Iberostar, you probably have made a good decision. ROOMS - I recommend buildings 20 - 23 on the Quetzal side and buildings 10 - 13 on the Tucan side. Buildings 20 and 10 are sea front, boasting spectacular views of the Caribbean. These buildings will be farther from reception and the main restaurants, but handy during the day if you plan on spending a lot of time at the pool or on the beach. We stayed in room 2027, a junior suite, which we found not to be that much different from our previous room in building 23. Each room has a mini-bar (ours was fully stocked each day) and a safe -- both complimentary. All rooms have balconies or patios with table and chairs. A generous size bathroom with showers only (but very large). Satellite TV -- HBO, CNN, DISNEY, ESPN2 and some other Mexican channels. RESTAURANTS - Two main buffets -- Tulum (Tucan side) and Cozumel (Quetzal side), two Palapa Grills close to the beach and pool -- Uxmal (Tucan side) and La Marimba (Quetzal side). There are three specialty restaurants, but only two are advertised. La Hacienda (Mexican), La Gondola (Italian) and the new La Marimba Grill (steaks). You will receive two certificates upon check-in, one for the Italian and one for the Mexican. Reservations are made at the concierge desk between 9:00 and 11:00 A.M. Make your reservations at the beginning of your stay as they have limited seating. You can then ask about the La Marimba. We had a HUGE variety of food at night in the buffets including steak and lobster, pastas, Wellington's (beef, pork and lamb), seafood night, a fajita station, beef kabobs, GREAT soup, salad bar, French fries daily, variety of breads, numerous desserts including ice cream and on and on... Breakfast was the normal fare -- cereals, yogurt, fresh fruit, eggs cooked to order, pancakes, French toast, sweet breads and toast, a juice bar, bloody Mary's one morning and champagne another. Continental breakfast was served at the Palapa Grills each morning from 10-12. Did not try the buffets at lunch -- ate at the Palapa Grills with a salad bar, different pasta each day, hamburgers, hot-dogs, croissant sandwiches, grilled sandwiches, pizza, French fries, tostadas fresh fruit, desserts and on and on. BEACH - The beach area is large, but not as flat as others in the area. There is spots to the north and south of the resort that have flat land, but directly at the sea it is quite sloped. Be sure to walk the beach in both directions -- it is incredible, a little sloped directly at the sea edge to the south, flatter to the north but you will encounter more seaweed this way. Seaweed is not a problem at the Iberostar, but is at other resorts -- the Royal Hideaway seemed to be the worst, but I just bet they will work on this as the resort is BEAUTIFUL, very classy and extremely upscale -- thinking of staying here next year when we return to the area. ACTIVITIES - A number of scheduled activities during the day for adults and children. The children's program seemed to be geared for those from 5 - 12, or at least from what we saw. They did do an excellent job with the children in these age groups. We walked north to town and enjoyed the lush foliage and decent sidewalk. A couple of small ruins along the way. There is a bird aviary just before you reach town on the west side of the main road that is beautiful -- you may want to take along insect repellent if you plan on visiting the aviary. Walked up 5th Avenue and cut over to the Porto Real, back down the beach past the sea front hotels (not all offer lounge chairs) in PDC -- there seemed to be a seaweed problem during the times we were there and a little rocky in spots. The Porto Real was the worst for seaweed, but to the north of the hotel, it is beautiful. PDC - Shopping, restaurants and bars are abundant. Karen's Grill and Pizza was a fun spot with great music at night. Also worth trying is LaParrilla, Media Luna, Blue Parrot and Blue Lobster. Of course don't forget Senor Frogs, we were there at noon and was actually very laid back -- great spot to sit and watch the ferry's come and go. One restaurant I would advise you not to visit is LaCarmela in Plaza Antiqua. Advertised as Mexican Gourmet Cuisine, but we found it only fair and expensive for the area. We each had their seafood special at $30 US each -- can do better than that in Minneapolis and have better food (the wine was good though!). Once again, my trip report has gotten extremely long -- so, if you have any specific questions on the Iberostar, Playacar resorts, Playa Del Carmen, arriving or departing from the Cancun airport, etc., feel free to e-mail me. I cannot say enough about this gem of an area -- if you are planning a holiday here, I truly believe that you will LOVE it! HAPPY TRAVELS!
Trip 3/99 Having been to St. John 3 times for day trips while on cruises, we knew itíd be a wonderful island for a week long vacation! Air fare to St. Thomas has risen so much, but we found a way around it! Delta had packaged a Delta Vacation to St. Thomas with the Windward Passage hotel in Charlotte Amalie including 3 nights accommodations for less than air fare alone. We booked that the first day it was advertised and then extended our flight back to include 4 nights on St. John. This is where past trip reports helped. I remembered Book-it V.I. being mentioned, so I found a great small home overlooking Fish Bay for our 4 nights on St. John. Christy Dove was our contact. She is Bill Doveís daughter who has decided to live on St. John after being the Childrenís Director of all activities for Celebrity Cruise Lines. She was excellent to work with, and answered all E-mails in less than a day! We flew to St. Thomas on a Monday afternoon on Delta. The flight was fine but it was 8:30 by the time we were on the ground! Stepping off the plane the warm wind felt so wonderful, especially since we knew Cincinnati, our home would be getting a large snow storm that evening! We had a free transfer to our hotel through Tropical Tours from the Delta package. They have a desk at the luggage carousel and you just need to let them know youíve arrived. The Windward Passage is an average hotel, with a wonderful view from our window of the harbor. The highlight was watching the cruise ships arrive in the morning. I saw the Grand Princess for the first time and several others. We had dinner this evening at Room with a View at Bluebeards Castle. They had a wonderful view of Charlotte Amalie and the harbor lights. Then menu was also good! This was a good choice for dinner, since by the time we arrived it was 10:00 and many restaurants close by then. Tuesday This trip was meant to spend most of our time on St. John, but we decided to spend the morning on St. Thomas since the only beach we had gone to on this island in the past was Magens Bay, where our daughter got married almost 2 years ago while on a cruise! We hired a taxi and headed for Coki Beach, where I heard the snorkeling was wonderful. Our taxi driver was great, we took his card and used him several times the next few days. He was always were we needed him at a pre-arranged time! As soon as the door to the taxi opened on Coki Beach, the beach hawkers were trying to rent us chairs, snorkel equipment etc. Well, that is not the atmosphere weíre used to on St. John and it was annoying. We did rent 1 lounge and had our own snorkel gear, so they went on to the others arriving. The water was surprisingly cold compared to our last trips which are usually in January. Oh well, still clear and wonderful. The snorkeling wasnít very good to our disappointment and soon a cruise ship mob from Carnival arrived. After enjoying the sun for awhile we decided it was time to leave. I had wanted to see the Sapphire Beach resort so we headed over there. The beach looked very nice and the view was fantastic of the neighboring islands but the outside of the rooms didnít look that wonderful. Lunch at the Seagrape restaurant was very expensive, so we decided it was time to go catch the ferry to St. John! We walked from the Sapphire resort to the dock in Red Hook. Probably not very wise with the narrow roads, but it was only a 15 minute walk! Having just missed the ferry for this hour, we bought a pizza across the road for $10 and enjoyed our lunch to loud music and waited for the next ferry. While here we called Christy Dove and arranged a time to meet her and Bill, the owner of the house we were renting on Thursday morning. Finally on St. John we carried our snorkel gear with us to find the trail to Solomon Beach. To our surprise the National Park Headquarters had been torn down! The building is being rebuilt. They expect it to take another year and a half to complete. While itís a construction mess, you can still walk around it to the beginning of the trail. We found out there is an easier way than the park trail to get to the beach. The park trail is rocky and uphill and quite tiring. The alternate route is to start as usual but when you get to a large pile of large rocks, and the national park signs pointing to Solomon and Honeymoon beaches take you up the trail to the right, a left grassy trail heads off to the left. Take this route and while not much shorter, itís much easier because it doesnít climb as much and isnít to rocky. Then the two trails merge later down the path and youíll head down the next rocky part to Solomon beach. Another option which is the best, but is officially closed at this time, is to park on Route 20 just by the large National Park sign, close to town where there are 4 parking spots. Donít park anywhere except in these 4 spots. You walk down into the area where the park rangers live past their homes, and off to the right is the beginning of the trail. This is a great short cut but after you get to the spot where you connect to the main trail there is a sign saying this trail is officially closed. Finally arriving, we noticed there was much more nudity than past years. The beach was just as wonderful, water just as blue but also much colder, itís our favorite beach on St. John! We did some snorkeling to the right side and then relaxed for the rest of the day! That evening we ate at Oliver Twist where I had a grilled portobello sandwich and a salad with Creole dressing so very hot it cleared my sinuses. Watch out for that one. Greg had Mai Mai sandwich which he enjoyed more than I did my food. We were impressed on how everyone knew each other here. Also a live band was busy setting up for music this evening. Itís a regular Tuesday night occurrence! After walking around Wharfside Village a bit we headed back to St. Thomas on the night ferry. Wednesday Today we took the trip I had wanted to go on for 2 years, on the Stormy Petrel! After arriving at the American Yacht Harbor on St. Thomas, we met Eric and Michelle. Michelle is the pilot of Pirates Penny , the sister boat to Stormy Petrel, and Eric has been her partner since the fall. They were a great team! Although this turned out to be the one day of our trip that rain arrived and seas were gray we started out with windbreakers on heading for Tortola. The plan was to sail along the North side of Tortola to the Baths and swim in. The rain was off and on, and the seas were pretty rough. A few on our boat were getting queasy! The Stormy Petrel decided it was better to go along the South side of Tortola were it was calmer. We did fine and I enjoyed the exciting ride! This trip is not cheap. Itís $95 + $15 for customs + about $12 for lunch on Copper Island each. Well, the water was too rough to swim into the Baths, with waves crashing against the rocks, so we docked in Spanish Town, and while Michelle took care of customs for us, Eric hired an open aired taxi truck for us to drive to the Baths. While there he took us on a climb through the boulders and crevices and explained how they came to be. It was disappointing not being able to swim and snorkel in the baths, but having done it in the past, I took video this time which was great! We then headed for Copper Island, and while sailing there Eric phoned ahead with our lunch order so the food was waiting for us when we arrived. The food was great, but a few mosquitoes bothered some. Then we snorkeled at Peter Island at a long reef with many fish and good coral. This was excellent snorkeling in a protected spot so the high seas werenít a problem. It was a wonderful day. Our taxi driver was waiting for us at the harbor when we returned, and on the drive back to Charlotte Amalie we saw 8 cruise ships leaving port, spread all over the harbor. What a sight!!! This evening we had one of the best meals of our trip at Craig and Sallyís. You must have reservations. Itís a very popular spot. I had fresh tuna with apricot and ginger sauce over linguini! Just wonderful!! Thursday St. John here we come!! We took the 9:00 ferry to St. John from Red Hook and met Christy Dove and Bill, the home owner at the dock! Christy was holding a sign with our name on it. We were going to rent a Suzuki Sidekick for the next 4 days from OíConner at the Texaco station. Christy had set this up for us through E-mail messages! It was $60 a day including insurance and was the nicest jeep weíd had on St. John. We then said good-by to Chrisy and followed Bill to his home down a dirt road into the residential section on Fish Bay. The road wasnít all that bad, you get used to it quickly. The home is next to his, they were able to build two homes, overlooking the bay, 1 to live in and one to rent! The view was just wonderful with a deck overlooking it. This is just a small one room home, only 2 years old, and just perfect for us. The bed faced a large sliding glass door where the sun rise woke us in the morning! Another great bonus, living downstairs in the home next door was the massage therapist for Caneel Bay. Bill said sheíd give me a massage at a reduced rate if we could schedule it! What an opportunity After settling in we went to Waterlemon Cay for some great snorkeling! This is the best snorkeling we found on St. John. The beach is reached by driving first to Annaberg Ruins and then down a dirt road where many cars will be parked. Then you walk about 15-20 minutes to were the Cay is. We brought sandwiches with us from Chilly Billys. They were excellent, but we only ate half of them and got full. Putting them back in the Styrofoam boxes they came in and covering them up with clothing, was not a good idea. When we returned from our snorkeling the mongooses had eaten every bite! When you snorkel at Waterlemon Cay start by going up the right side of the Cay. You want to go counter clockwise to avoid the current. Also itís very important to avoid the very shallow water over the sandbar in front of the Cay. We ended up snorkeling over it, because most of the people had started snorkeling up the left side and we were following them, ignoring the advise we had been given, then got smart and went over to the right side to begin. This made me very tired, avoiding getting scrapped in the beginning. But the best coral is all along the right side. The fish were great! We had no problems here with tiny jelly fish, although we did wear t-shirts here for that reason. Then coming around the back and along the left side the snorkeling wasnít as good. We went up on the little beach and rested a bit. Here we knew a starfish area was straight out from. Also we tried to get our bearings on where to snorkel back to land. This was very hard for us to spot. The whole area looked the same to me. We saw the wonderful starfish, many of them in all different shades of yellows and oranges, then went the wrong direction back to land. We ended up in the boat channel, with very deep water, couldnít see the bottom. Here the tiny jellyfish were, and a stronger current. While this was a big mistake, my husband corrected our ways, and exhausted we headed back the right direction. We were very tired by the time we got back. If we hadnít gone the wrong direction, just snorkeling the Cay would of been great, not too much or too hard. We did learn a lesson in clearly marking our area so we can see where to return next time!! A little shaken, we drove over to Francis Beach to relax. The water here was rough. Itís a beautiful, long beach but with no good snorkeling, which was just fine with us at this time! I would of preferred the still calm waters weíve had past years, but a park ranger told us this wasnít to bad considering in February the seas were so high they covered all of Trunk Bayís sand. Driving back along Centerline Road to Fish Bay we stopped at Colomboís Cafť at the intersection of 20 and 10 for a great ice cream cone! We had dinner at Morganís Mango this evening. Again reservations are a must. They have live music on Thursday evenings. We had a very nice table at the back of the restaurant, by the trees. I had heard the food here was good, but I was very disappointed in it. The service was terrible also. It was so busy, that we never got our bread, until I asked for it for the 3rd time and it ended up being dessert. This was a good honeybread, but not meant for dessert! Greg had snapper with oriental sauce and we had chicken quesidellas and steak and mushroom empanadas for appetizers. Nothing was very special about the food. They did have 2 for 1 margaritas though. Friday We started out at Chilly Billyís for breakfast. I had monkeybread french toast, and Greg had the early bird special which lasts until 10:30. It was 10:30 when we ordered and he still got the lower price! We signed the guest book when we left, thanking Christy for her good help. Now we need to send a postcard! Today we went to Salt Pond Bay to snorkel. Itís quite a long drive to Salt Pond for St. John! After parking, you walk down to the beach about 15 minutes. This is a harder walk up when you return, so the coolers full of food and drink you bring down, better be empty on the way back up! The only facilities down on this beach is an outhouse! Be sure to bring water to drink with you! The snorkeling on the left side was good to excellent, many fish, squid but no turtles or rays today. We snorkeled the middle area, in grasser areas, but still no turtles! The right side had poor snorkeling. After a wonderful time here, we hiked back up to the car. At the top a local woman had a van full of cold sandwiches, cokes, candy bars, snacks for sale. What a good idea! We then drove to the East End of St. John. The views here were just beautiful! The road is very steep though, you know itís steep when even a sign reading "hill" was posted. Most of St. John has hilly roads, so when one is marked itís quite a hill! There is nothing much down this way besides wonderful view, but we heard there is great snorkeling at Haulover Bay if you can find it. We didnít have time, because we decided to hike back to Solomon Beach for the rest of the day! After asking Bill, where the best restaurant on the island was, he sent us to La Tapa! Wow! I wish I could bring the artichoke soup home with me. They were very friendly, had great bread, and wonderful food. We had penne pasta with chicken and mushrooms and dried tomatoes in sherry basil sauce. The salads looked wonderful also. We had no reservations here, but were lucky enough not to have to wait for a table. I donít think many tourists know how wonderful this restaurant is, it doesnít seem to be as crowded as others on the island. Saturday We had breakfast on the deck of our rental home! So peaceful. We then drove to Cinnamon Bay Campground to see the archeological dig of a Taino Indian feast site. They would have these big feasts and when finished would cover up the remnants with sand, the dishes and all. It was very interesting, one of the interns working on the site, explained it to us. They were uncovering a turtle shell, intact, while we were there. They think they have 500 years of history to uncover there before the erosion reaches it. It is covered with broken clay food bowls, bones, teeth of fish sea shells, pots, and some body ornaments. They have also just started another site. Anyone can help uncover the treasures. We then went back to Solomon Beach so we could spend a longer time relaxing there today. Spent the day under a palm tree, slightly cloudy so not to hot!! Had to leave by 3:30 though so we could get back for that promised massage on our deck by Star from Caneel! Being my first massage I have nothing to compare it to but it was Just wonderful. An hour of total relaxation, I was Jell-O at the end! Then off to Lime Tree Inn for an excellent dinner of Lobster! You must have reservations for this restaurant also! They were very friendly here, although it was very loud. It was a great place! Sunday Our last full day on St. John. We started it with breakfast on the deck again, then drove over to Gallows Point to see how we liked it there. We had also walked around the grounds at the Westin earlier in the week. Both seemed very nice, but we much preferred our little house in Fish Bay. The privacy was wonderful. We drove to Jumbie Beach. I wanted to do some snorkeling there. We got one of 4 parking spots. Sunday morning on St. John is very quiet! Even Trunk Bay was quiet! Walking down to the beach is easy, but again the seas were to rough to snorkel there. It was a very nice beach with a lot of shade, but we didnít stay. I wanted to see how Trunk Bay had changed since they now charge to get in, $4 each, which is also good for Annaberg Ruins on the same day. The atmosphere is quiet different. There is a ranger building and a long cement pathway down to the beach area, and another building. They still have great hamburgers and French fries at the food stand. The beach itself hasnít changed, still just beautiful! We snorkeled the left side where there are long reefs, but it was difficult with the rough seas. We beached on the little sand area on left side for awhile, then swam back to the main beach. After lunch we headed back to Solomon for the day. We had more excitement there today than we wanted! The park ranger boat came along with a few people on the beach yelling RANGER, RANGER, and many covered up, happily seeing the Rangers drive on by. An hour later though to the screams again of RANGER, RANGER, the Ranger boat came on in. A boat was docked on the beach which was to large for the area. The rangers had a few words with the owners of the boat and told them to leave the area. Doing their job, they then told everyone on the beach from the side of their boat, that this wasnít a clothing optional beach. Well everyone except 1 couple had already covered up. One couple absolutely refused to put their suits back on. Even with prodding from a local woman, they refused. They rangers were getting angry, and people on the beach were getting angry with the stubborn couple, knowing they could ruin things for everyone else. Finally they cooperated after about 15 minutes. It was very unpleasant. The beach this day was quite active, more crowded than during the week. A man was there with 3 20 somethings doing a great deal of photography, and many single guys were hanging out. Oh well, still a wonderful beach! We had our last dinner on St. John at the Fish Trap. They donít take reservations, and can get quite crowded. They are one of the few places open on Sunday night, so we had a long wait. We had wonderful peel and eat shrimp for dinner along with a shrimp pasta. It was great! They have opened a new restaurant The Stone Terrace, which is supposed to be wonderful, but more expensive. Monday Breakfast at Chilly Billyís again before we had to catch the ferry back to Charlotte Amalie. We had to return our car early so as not to be charged for another day. We then dropped our luggage off at the Windward Passage and they held it for us for the day. We had a 4:40 flight out so we had the day to shop, how fun. Not liking all the shops here to much, we did little shopping. Did buy some Waterford Crystal for our daughter though which was engraved by one of Waterfordís master wedge cutter who was visiting from Ireland! We lunched at Cuzzins on Back Street which was excellent. They serve local foods, and will explain what each is before you order. I didnít care for one of my side dishes, and mentioned it when asked, so she brought me 2 more to try! How nice. It was a wonderful way to end our visit to the beautiful U.S.V.I.
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