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Trip 1/99 You can access the original version of this travelogue and others, complete with graphics, at http://www.mollica.net/travel.htm INTRODUCTION 1999 marked the fifth year that I went to Saint Martin during January. Our original plans were for me to spend the first week by myself, and then my wife and son, Joey, were going to join me for the second week. Unfortunately, Joey was diagnosed with strep throat on the day they were to join me, so I spent two weeks on vacation by myself! You can find more travelogues on my Travel Page or in the Caribbean Travel Roundup (which has hundreds of travelogues about St. Martin and other Caribbean islands). This year's travelogue covers the weather, rental cars, beaches, restaurants, and miscellaneous topics - in that order. There are lots of great things about Saint Martin that I didn't cover this year - but you can find information about those things in my travelogue from 1997 and 1998. WEATHER Twelve out of 14 days were gorgeous at least half of the day and usually all day; the other two days were rainy and windy most of the day. I know that a lot of people hang around Orient Beach and other beaches on the northeast and east parts of the island, which are on the Atlantic Ocean side - but I find that the wind is often so strong on the Atlantic side that it spoils the beach experience. The beaches on the west and southwest parts of the island face the Caribbean Sea, and they are better protected from the strong easterly winds that can spoil a day at Orient Beach. I recommend that people who limit themselves to Orient Beach try a beach on the Caribbean side on those incredibly windy days - the difference can be unbelievable. RENTAL CAR I am continually surprised that so many people do not rent a vehicle in St. Martin. They spend thousands of dollars to have a week or two of what ought to be a great vacation, and then to save a couple hundred dollars they don't get a rental car. Big mistake, in my opinion. They miss out on 90% of what St. Martin has to offer by limiting themselves to an occasional taxi or just hanging around one resort area or beach. It's amazing how many people never venture outside of the Orient Beach area or the Maho Beach resort area. I feel badly for those people. I used Empress Rent-A-Car again this year. I had not reserved a jeep, as I usually do, so I had to rent a car for a day and switch to a jeep when it became available the next day. The car was adequate - like most cars on the island, it was well used - but the jeep was good. Its antenna was gone so the radio didn't work, but a jeep on that island is much better than a car in terms of fun and practicality. The jeep rented for $270/week during high season (Dec 22 - April 14); a car with automatic transmission was $216, and one with a standard transmission was $162. Empress is located at the Pelican Resort, which might not be a practical option for vacationers who don't stay at the Pelican or a nearby resort. I would still recommend Empress to people renting a jeep (011-45293 Ext. 5190), but I was unimpressed by the car. The best- looking rental cars on the island were from Best Deal (I don't have the phone number), Adventure Car Rental (011-43688), and Safari Rentals (011-53186) - they all have offices at the Airport right outside of the baggage claim area. BEACHES ORIENT BEACH Orient Beach "...was the best of times. It was the worst of times..." The worst first: The restaurants and concessions have almost totally taken over the beach area. Restaurants extend from the treeline halfway down the beach and then the lounge chairs and umbrellas continue the march to the sea, side by side, armrest to armrest. But the beach in front of Club Orient is still fine. In fact, at first I wondered why there were so many non-naturalists at Club Orient's naturist beach, but I think it's because there are so few good places left on the main beach that a body can just plunk down on the sand without renting a lounge chair. Reminded me of little vinyl apartment complexes. The other annoyance at Orient is that the winds can be a bit overwhelming. As noted under the 'weather' section above, try heading for a beach on the Caribbean side of the island if the winds on the Atlantic side get too strong for your enjoyment. And now the best: There's simply no place like Orient Beach for people-watching and beach excitement. It really is a fun place to spend a day or two. I don't know if it's more fun watching the sunbathers, the strollers, or the people bussed in from the cruise ships and navy ships who are watching the sunbathers and strollers. Shopping, eating, drinking, parasailing...people from all over the planet...it's a fun beach. Orient is also a good place for folks who want to do a little "anonymous skinnydipping." Who the heck do you know there? Nobody! Then again, I did overhear one naked guy unexpectedly greeting a naked woman, who apparently was a neighbor or co-worker from the States: "Well, this is a little awkward, but I guess we'll get used to it!" Check out this web site about Orient Beach. Oh yeah, the water was fine! BAIE ROUGE I've been telling you for the last few years that Baie Rouge is my favorite beach. And it's still one of my favorite beaches (though I have a new favorite to suggest this year). Baie Rouge is a spacious beach and very picturesque; it is a wonderful place to swim. You can rent a chair and umbrella for $5 each, and you can get good food at either of the two beach lo-lo's (Gus' Place and Raymond's). I paid $8 for a plate of spare ribs with rice and salad; a burger and fries were $4; a bottle of beer was $2. The beach is a nice family beach and your car will be safe - a security guard is in the place they call a parking lot (you'll see what I mean when you get there). Tops Optional. PRUNE BAY I always rave about this beach, but this year I thought I had found beach perfection. I went to Prune Bay twice and each time there were about a dozen people, mostly French and American. There are no facilities and no concessions. It is a gorgeous beach with great swimming conditions. An excellent place for the family. Tops Optional. I have three tips that might help you. #1: Prune Bay is notoriously difficult to get to because there are no signs after the one on the main road and the access road is horrendous - so most people don't bother. Here are driving directions that I think will get you there on the best roads (still bad) in the shortest distance: You'll see the sign for Prune Bay from the main road, so use your map to get at least that far. When you see the sign, leave the main road. Dodge potholes for one mile, at which point you'll see a cement wall on the right side that is about eight feet tall. The wall is weird - just two small sections that intersect with each other to form a wedge. The wall is at an intersection. Turn right at that intersection. Go for another mile to the beach - lots of zigs and zags, but no turns. The beach is at the end of this winding road. #2: I noticed that there were police officers in the parking area in the afternoon during both of my visits, but not in the morning - so I would recommend going to Prune Bay after noon. #3: Stop at Subway or someplace to get food and drink before you go to Prune Bay - there are no facilities there. You're going to love this beach. Go there. FRIARS BAY I thought Prune Bay was perfection, and the next day I went to Friars Bay and found more perfection. I told you last year about Kali's Beach Bar at Friars Bay. This year Kali's has competition from Friar's Bay Beach Cafe and Cranberry Cafe. I would recommend - strongly - that you head for the area in front of Friars Bay Beach Cafe (FBBC). The beach is excellent and there is good snorkeling at both ends of the beach. This is one of the few beaches that I saw yachts come and drop anchor offshore. The lounge chairs and umbrellas in front of the FBBC are free if you eat at the FBBC...and I assure you that the food there is excellent. They have an extensive menu with very reasonable prices. And the music...you have to hear this music - talk about eclectic! Frank Sinatra...French crooners a la Tony Bennett...Jazz with American Indian interludes...you name it..and it's all playing on Bose speakers. Gawd...life is good! (Of course, they could have done without that Bee Gees interlude.) I visited Kali's and I still thinks it's a good place, but I thought the FBBC was better. I didn't try the Cranberry Cafe, but they too looked good...interesting, they have a concession where you can get temporary tattoos. I went to Friars twice this year. French, Italians, Latin Americans, and folks from the USA made up the bulk of the vacationers. Those Italians were having so much fun telling stories and taking family pictures. It's a nice family place. Also, my completely unscientific assessment is that, percentage-wise, there's much more tops optional at Friars than at Orient. HAPPY BAY I think very few people ever find Happy Bay. If you want to add a postcard-perfect beach to your St. Martin experience, find Happy Bay! I'm not going to post a picture of the beach for you because I don't want to spoil your experience of "discovering" this beach for yourself. It is simply gorgeous. You'll think you're in a movie scene when you emerge from an overgrown path and see this beach. First, go to Friar's Bay...park your vehicle...and then walk to the path that starts right behind the Cranberry Cafe. You'll be safe, so just do it. When you get to a point where the path splits, you can go left to follow the longer, more interesting path (which also passes a very small beach that is full of sea shells); or you can bear to the right. On both paths you'll step over a small rock wall that is topped with a trampled down string of barbed wire. On the right path you'll see some houses that were ruined by Hurricane Luis...just follow the path that passes the houses to the ocean. In either case the walk takes about 15-20 minutes. On the day that I went, there were no facilities (so stop at Subway or somewhere before going), but I saw a small building that made me think there is a concession that sets up sometimes. All I know is that you'll find a 300-yard long crescent beach with about four people on it. Wear your bathing suit or take off your clothes. Who cares? There's only four people there whom you'll never see again. CUPECOY BEACH This was my favorite beach this year. Like Friars, it's a great beach with good facilities but not too much commercialization. As you know, there are several small beaches that make up Cupecoy. I'm talking about the beach furthest from the Sapphire resort. It's mostly a naturist beach, but there are plenty of people who wear their bathing suits. So why was this my favorite this year? First of all, your car is safe parked up on the road because the guys who work the beach concession also keep an eye on things up on the road. More importantly, the beach itself is wide and the water conditions are perfect. The scenery (not counting the human scenery) is lovely. The guys who work for Rolland's Beach Bar make sure you have a lounge chair and umbrella if you want them ($5 each), and they bring your drinks to you on the beach (a beer is $2; give the guy a tip and you get impeccable service the whole day). The guys remember you from day to day; they are polite and friendly. I didn't try the food at Rolland's, so I can't comment on it - but it's barbecue fare, so it ought to be fine. You folks who like the naturist scene at Orient would find this beach a great alternative. PINEL ISLAND I had been to St. Martin four times, but never to Pinel Island, so this time I went. You'll see signs everywhere on the island, like the one on the right, that direct you to Pinel Island [you can see the island off to the left from Orient Beach]. These signs point you to French Cul de Sac where you can take a boat to the island. Use your map to find the turn-off to French Cul de Sac - at the intersection where Surf Club South is located. When you get to the parking area at the end of the road you'll find some shopping concessions and a dock with several boats lined up. A fellow with a loud whistle will sound the call to board the boat, and he'll collect $10 to cover the round-trip to Pinel Island. The boat comes and goes about every 15-20 minutes, with the last trip from the island scheduled for 4:30PM. The island has a nice beach - kind of reminded me of Gilligan's Island - but the local tourist companies bus in so many vacationers from cruise ships and who-knows-where that the beach is jammed. There was a big group of Panamanians on the beach the day I went. They were having one helluva time, but the place was crowded. I couldn't even get service at the beach restaurant. On a more positive note, there were a couple of singers who did a karaoke style of "live act" that was actually very good. They were nice guys who played the crowd well and livened up the action. Also the snorkeling at Pinel is supposed to be good (though I overheard a father and daughter saying that the coral was so close to the surface that it was hard for them to snorkel safely). Overall assessment: You might disagree, but I found Pinel Island to be very touristy and not worth the $10 and extra time that could have been better spent at Cupecoy, Friars, Prune Bay, or even Orient. SMALL BEACH (at the Grand Case Beach Club) I always tell you that this is a great little beach that has lots of amenities without being overrun by people. I stand by that opinion, but this year there were two differences: access to the beach is now limited to an unimpressive path next to the Grand Case Beach Club, and the beach seems really small this year. I love the Grand Case Beach Club and recommend it to anyone who will listen. But folks who don't stay there who now have to access the beach via that bogus little path might be turned off a little. You can still rent their lounge chairs and umbrellas, and take advantage of their beachside restaurant, but you just can't park your car at the GCBC or access the beach from the GCBC itself. LE GALION, also known as Coconut Grove or Baie de l'Embouchere This beach is next to Orient Beach, just down the road from the Butterfly Farm (a great place!) and a horse-riding stable...but I don't recommend it. The guidebooks always say what a nice family beach it is. I think it could be nice, but it's trashy and I wouldn't waste a precious vacation day going there. PELICAN RESORT BEACH Real beach aficionados probably wonder why I mention this beach every year, but I'm tellin' 'ya, this is a good little beach - especially if you have little kids. The Pelican provides free lounge chairs and umbrellas, a very nice beach protected by rock jetties on both sides, and two beach bars - the thatched one serves up the best barbecued burgers I've had on the island. And of course you have all the other amenities of the Pelican Resort right there. If you go to the Pelican's beach, take 20 minutes to stroll down the beaches to the east - towards the Flamingo Resort...start at the Pelican Beach and just follow the shoreline. And if you're with your spouse or sweetheart (could be the same person?), without kids, you're in for one heck of a romantic walk. It is absolutely lovely (and a great place to collect seashells...and take sunset pictures). RESTAURANTS, CAFES, BARS My descriptions of restaurants, cafes, and bars are in no particular order this year. You'll find my favorite restaurant on the island...a place where topless women drink for free...an informal cafe that serves gourmet food...(they're not all the same place)...read on. Ren & Stimpy's One of my favorite little restaurants on the island...is gone. What a shame. Ren & Stimpy's served outstanding Creole dishes in Simpson Bay. The Globe This is a new restaurant that opened in mid-December 1998 next to The Boathouse restaurant in Simpson Bay. The front of the restaurant is freshly painted in a deep stucco color. At night the lighting is very dramatic and gives the restaurant the church mission look of The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. The restaurant has a nice bar area and tables inside and outside. The Globe's interior decor is an imaginative mixture of the southwestern USA, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. Heavy cross beams in the ceiling are painted green and concave-shaped pillars - thicker in the middle than at the top and bottom - are painted a mauve color. The staff, at least partially from Canada, is attentive and polite. When I asked the waiter what the theme of the menu was, he responded, "Global." And he was right. The menu listed appetizers, salads, meats, fish, pasta, Texmex, and desserts. I had tapas for an appetizer, an Indian chicken dish for the main course, and chocolate mousse for dessert. The food portions were large but the quality was pretty mediocre - in fact, I wouldn't go back for the food. I'm no tapas expert, but there sure seemed to be a lot of little dead fishes in mine; the chicken was dry from being too heavily spiced; and the mousse had an out-of-the package, too-long-in-the refrigerator taste and look. The prices were very reasonable, so maybe you ought to try the Globe for yourself. It takes time for a new restaurant to get things just right, and maybe some of their other dishes are prepared very well. If nothing else, stop in for drinks so you can enjoy the personable staff and great decor. Lynette's This place is so dependable. Located in Simpson Bay near the airport, Lynette's has been a favorite of regular visitors for years. The ambiance of the restaurant is very nice (though you wouldn't guess that from the outside), the quality of the food is outstanding, and the service is very good. I had their Lobster Creole dish which, I think, is their most expensive entree at $30. It was scrumptious. Then again, everything I've eaten there is delicious. Lynette's (like many restaurants in St. Martin) has a 15% surcharge, which you will see on the check but not on the credit card slip. Add more tip if you want - just remember when you're signing the credit card slip that it already includes 15%. Turtle Pier You have to love Turtle Pier - another dependable restaurant in Simpson Bay. I've never eaten supper there, but I frequently go there for breakfast or lunch. The kids will love all the birds and animals that line the walkway into the restaurant. Be sure to take a seat right at the water if you bring kids - they'll love to toss bread to the fish. Turtle Pier serves an outstanding breakfast with plenty of coffee refills. Lunches are also dependably delicious - everything is flavorful, fairly portioned, and reasonably priced. For example, a lunch of hamburger and onion rings costs $6.50. All that and you get a great view too. Tutta Pasta I said I wouldn't go back to the Tutta Pasta because the service was too bad, but I did. The service is still lousy, but the food is still great. The wait staff is so inattentive and poorly trained that it detracts from the enjoyment of the truly excellent food. I suspect you can order anything on Tutta Pasta's menu and it will be excellent. I overheard one self-important guy say to Warren, the proprietor, "This is some of the best Italian food I've ever eaten, and I ought to know because I'm from New Jersey." Like New Jersey is in Italy, right? Probably more authoritative is the author of the book Mangia Pasta, who wrote a complimentary letter to Warren after she ate there. Prices at Tutta Pasta are good - appetizers mostly in the $5-6 range, entrees between $10-22. Bring cash because they don't accept credit cards. My bill, including an appetizer, entree, and wine came to $22. Sunset Bar So I'm driving back to the Pelican Resort after spending a day at Baie Rouge, and I decide to grab a beer at the Sunset Bar, located on Maho Bay at the approach to the runway at the airport. Standing at the bar facing the street are two beautiful, buxom, blonde women with no tops on. After nearly crashing the jeep, I parked it and headed for the Bar. The writing on the chalkboard behind the bartender says, "Topless women drink for free," which explains the bosomy beauties (they were American, by the way). I returned to the Sunset Bar five or six times during my visit; though I didn't see any more topless women there, I kept returning because it is a great place to relax with a $2 beer, enjoy the view of Maho Bay, and watch the airplanes coming and going. The bar serves barbecued foods too; I didn't sample any but I heard one guy say that the food was great. The bar has picnic tables on a large deck overlooking Maho Bay and Juliana Airport. It is a lot of fun to watch the huge jets and small commuter flights taking off and landing. The WinAir commuter planes' landing are the best...those pilots pay no attention to the proper approach and glide path...they just come winging in from all angles, line up on the runway at the last possible minute, and touch down as close as possible to the start of the runway. They're a riot. Top Carrot This restaurant with a natural foods theme is located at Simpson Bay in the Plaza del Lago by the Marina. I went there for lunch one day and they turned a simple turkey & cheese submarine into a veritable feast. Fresh baked bread and ingredients made for a great lunch for about $5. Michael's Cafe Imagine: you're sitting in an informal, relaxed cafe; you're looking at the island of Anguilla and the beautiful bay at Grand Case; you're chatting with Marilyn and Michael, two warm and friendly American expatriates, listening to their stories (adventures is more like it); and you're eating gourmet quality food at an incredibly reasonable price. There. You're in Michael's Cafe at Grand Case. Michael's Cafe is a delight. I told you about Michael's last year, remember? Michael and Marilyn Petone are a couple of Americans from Harvard, Massachusetts; they opened the place in the summer of 1997 (you can read more about them in my 1998 travelogue). Last year my son Joey gave Michael's Cafe his 5-Star Joey Rating for the best breakfast on the island. Anyway, one evening on this year's vacation, I had just ordered dinner at Michael's and was chatting with Marilyn. Something I said made her say, "Wait a minute. You're not Joey's father, are you? The kid who gave us his 5-star rating?" I burst out laughing and said that I was. Next thing you know, Marilyn brings out Michael and a copy of my travelogue from last year, saying that all year long people had been coming into the restaurant waving that Internet article and shouting, "Joey sent me!" Michael and Marilyn now serve dinner from 6:00pm to 9:00pm in addition to serving breakfast and lunch during the day. And let me tell you, if Joey had been with me, he would have awarded his now famous 5-star rating to their dinner menu. I ordered Salmon with Lemon Capers for $13, and it was simply outstanding (the same entree would have cost twice that price at most of the restaurants in Grand Case). Bring cash...no checks or credit cards. In addition to the fantastic food and magnificent view, engage Marilyn and Michael in conversation. Their stories about life in St. Martin will keep you laughing. Be sure have them show you the "cruise ship" that shows up on Anguilla every night; ask them to tell you the story about the son of a woman down the street who had 17 children (23 pregnancies) - I can't do justice to that story; also, have Marilyn mix up one of those coffee cappucino things she makes - delicious. And what was Marilyn's response when I asked what it was like to live in St. Martin now that they had been there for almost two years? "Still lovin' it!" Pelican Reef Steak and Seafood House Pelican Reef is located at the Pelican Resort and is acclaimed by travel writers as the best steak house on the island. I ordered an Argentinian cut of beef that they call The Gaucho for $28.50 (many entrees were smaller and much less expensive). The meat and side dishes were cooked perfectly, but I didn't care for the texture of the meat - I mentioned my comment in an e-mail to Jean and Marvin Rich, the folks who run the Pelican Reef, and they explained: You're quite right about that steak's chewiness and that is characteristic of Argentine beef. This, our signature El Gaucho steak and its little sister the petit Chateaubriand ($ 14.50), is flown in from Argentina and is the tenderloin cut...12 oz. of pure meat with very little fat. While any animal can be tougher than others, in general the Argentine beef is more flavorful and more chewy compared to USA beef because it's grass fed and very lean (as described on the menu). In fact, the Argentine beef is all natural, no hormones and hasn't been fattened at those famous mid-western feed-lots as in the USA. (Wine Spectator a month or so ago just had a whole article about the Argentine beef as health food for that reason.) USA beef is more melt-in-your mouth style because of the fat and the homonal influences. The Gaucho's lean- ness is also why the waiters are supposed to recommend to our guests to have the Gaucho grilled a little more on the rare side than you normally order your USA beef cuts done/ they're supposed to suggest that people order a different steak if they like steak more well done than medium because that makes this meat actually tough. Most people tell us it's the best steak they've ever had because of the flavor. But if that chewiness doesn't appeal to you, I suggest the next time you have our Nebraska corn-fed filet mignon --it cuts with a fork and melts in your mouth. We also have 2 prime rib cuts and 2 sirloins from Nebraska feed lots. All are more tender than the Argentine. How's that for great customer service? You can bet I'll try the Pelican Reef again. I should also point out that all of the food was prepared very well and the service was good. A caberet singer named Rick Day was performing on the night I was there, and he really does a nice job making you feel right at home. Crocadile Cafe An informal cafe at the Pelican Resort, the Croc's food is great, but the service is inconsistent. They do a good breakfast and lunch, and one evening I had a Mahi-mahi dinner there for $25 that was unbelievably good - expensive for that setting, but good. I ordered their Grilled Chicken Breast Caribe at lunch one day, which was delicious, but again, a little overpriced at $12.25. You wouldn't go out of your way to eat there, but it sure is convenient for folks who stay at the Pelican Resort. Le Bistro Gourmand Le Bistro Gourmand has a restaurant and a delicatessen at Cupecoy. I ate breakfast at Le Bistro Gourmand's deli a couple of times before heading for the beaches. They make a delicious omelet - packed full of flavor. I tried their grilled ham and cheese sandwich too, which looks incredible in the deli case, but actually tastes pretty average. I didn't try any other food there, but the submarines I saw them prepare for someone else looked great. You can also pick up newspapers, beach gear, film, and other sundries at the deli. I never did make it to their restaurant. Kangaroo Court As you face the courthouse in Phillipsburg, to the right you'll see a sidestreet. Walk a few yards down that sidestreet and you'll find the Kangaroo Court. It is a spiffy little restaurant with good service and reasonable prices. I ate breakfast there one morning, and except for the excellent fresh-baked bread, there wasn't an ounce of flavor in anything on my plate. Bacon, eggs, fries - how the heck do you take the flavor out of bacon? Cheri's Cafe Cheri's Cafe is Cheri's Cafe...I paid $3.50 for a Carib beer that I got for $2 everywhere else. If you want to pay high prices to sit and watch the same people you came over on the plane with, you'll like Cheri's. Le Pressoir This is still, in my humble opinion, the one restaurant to eat in if you can eat at only one. I can't say anymore than I said in 1997's and 1998's travelogues about this Grand Case restaurant except that it's harder and harder to get in without a reservation, so do reserve ahead. You'll probably pay about $50 per person, but you will have an exquisite meal and perfect service in the oldest house on St. Martin. Miscellaneous Notes There seems to be a lot more tourism activity on the island these days, but Phillipsburg and the Dutch side extending east and north from Phillipsburg are an eyesore. Aside from a day for shopping in Phillipsburg, I can't see much reason to go there. I still find that when the Timeshare Gnomes approach you, the quickest way to get rid of them is to say, "I live here." There are only three or four stealth speed bumps left on the road between Maho Bay and Cupecoy - there used to be more than a dozen. The Caribbean Cyber Cafe in Simpson Bay charges $15/hour to surf the net - extra for e-mail. Using America On Line is cheaper, but still pricey. On an island where topless and clothing optional beaches are common, why is there a market for a Hooters Restaurant? [Simpson Bay] I feel badly for the guy whose ruined yacht is being stored at a salvage yard that is visible from the airport road. Hurricane Luis destroyed the yacht. Its name is 'No Problem.' Need money while you're on vacation? There is a Western Union office located in Cole Bay, across the street from the Lightning Casino, and a couple of them in Phillipsburg. My wife wired money at 10:30am one day from Maryland and I had it in St. Martin at 10:45am. Fast and trouble-free. Saw a couple of interesting headlines in the Daily Herald while I was in St. Martin: Son Returns As Daughter After 2 Years In Holland "I Know He Is Sorry Every Time He Beats Me," Says Battered Woman That's it for this year, Folks! Have a great time in St. Martin!
TRIP FEB/MAR '99 Last year, returning from a very pleasant week in Grenada, Sally and I vowed that we would not travel with BWIA again. The plane was tatty, they ran out of wine and the food as awful. However, this year we decided we wanted to visit Tobago and the only flights we could get from London were with BWIA, so here we are again! The flight to Antigua - the first stop - wasn't too bad. The plane left on time, the food was almost edible and they hadn't run out of wine - we were quite close to the front! At Antigua there was a problem with overcrowding on the ramp - a Virgin Atlantic Jumbo was in residence, together with a German charter 767 and assorted small turboprops. Eventually they found us a space and we parked. After about forty-five minutes on the ramp, we took off for Trinidad as the sun set. Trinidad was chaotic. The immigration hall was full and only the locals were going anywhere. After a while an official called for anyone going to Tobago and led us to an empty line, where we were processed quite quickly. Then to the baggage hall, where I stood scrutinizing bags on the carousel for some minutes until finally discovering our suitcases had been removed and placed to one side. (It was impossible to through-check the luggage, as our last hop to Tobago is a "domestic" sector and we had to pass through Customs in Trinidad. Getting a direct flight to Tobago would prevent a great deal of hassle.) We found the domestic check-in and handed our bags in again. It had taken about an hour from landing to this point, and I had just enough time to change some money at the Bank before boarding our twenty minute flight to Tobago. We finally arrived at nine-forty-five (quarter-to-two in the morning UK time) collected our baggage once more and got a taxi to our hotel, Le Grand Courlan Resort & Spa on Stone Haven Bay. This was not a problem; taxi prices are fixed and displayed in the arrivals hall for most destinations on the island, and they increase by 50% after 10 pm. The Hotel provided us with the customary welcome drink before we were shown to our room overlooking the large angular pool and, beyond it, the sea. All rooms face the sea, though none are actually on the beach, which is reached down a fairly shallow flight of stairs. The room was of a better standard than we have been used to in the Caribbean - we have previously stayed in Rex resorts. Good quality furnishings were accompanied by little extras such as a room-safe, robes, satellite TV and a remote-control air-conditioning system. In the morning after a substantial breakfast, we walked down to the beach. It was only nine o'clock and we had the pick of a good quantity of sunloungers under palm-thatched rondavels. The beach is quite unspoiled, vegetation successfully concealing any development. There are, in fact, a number of buildings hidden away but much of the shoreline and beyond is scrub. Next to "Le Grand" on one side is its sister hotel, the Grafton Beach. On the other side are the "Plantation Beach Villas", an attractive group of three-bedroom colonial-style rental villas. Although a delightful beach for sunbathing, Stone Haven Bay is not particularly friendly for swimming, with quite large waves crashing in. Beyond these the water is okay, but the waves defeat numerous would-be swimmers. We did our swimming in the hotel pool. Food Breakfast turned out to be the meal of the day at "Le Grand". Lunch was mostly snacks taken in the lounge bar or on the pool terrace. Dinner in the "Pinnacle" restaurant turned out to be a disappointment. Clearly others thought so too, as we only ever saw a handful of guests in the restaurant at dinner time. For dinner on our second night we visited the resort's other dining room "Leandros", styled as Mediterranean. I had an appalling Gazpacho and their "speciality" of seafood Paella, which was boring and tasted mostly of chopped olive. Sally quite enjoyed her Chicken salad Romana and her "open ravioli of chicken and Victoria ham". Again we had few fellow diners. During the rest of our stay we dined at The Seahorse Inn, right next to Le Grand, the Shirvan Watermill, Patinos - both on the road between Stone Haven Bay and Crown Point - and the Papillon restaurant, which is at the Grange Hotel. Of these the nicest were the Seahorse and the Shirvan Watermill, with very pleasant surroundings, good service and very acceptable food. Patinos was okay, but we were not very impressed with the Papillon. All offered a varied menu of fish, seafood and meat. Prices for three courses and a bottle of wine were roughly TT$500 - #50 or US$85 - for two. We looked at several other restaurants around the island. The Peacock Mill is quite near the Crown Point area but a long way down a rutted track. Eleven Degrees North and Dillons Seafood are both within walking distance of the Coco Reef, but neither looked particularly inviting. Arnos Vale Waterwheel is deep in the interior of the island in a very attractive setting, but not one you would relish driving to or from in the dark. What's more it is part of a nature park and you have to pay an admission fee even to look the place over - though they have a menu at the gate house. The Black Rock Cafe is on the edge of Black Rock village. We were told it was good, but its position isn't the prettiest! Another couple we met recommended Rouselles in Bacolet, but we didn't get there. The Island After some days on the beach/at the poolside we hired a jeep (TT$260 per day) and explored the island over a three-day period. On the first day we drove to Scarborough, the island capital. This is a no- nonsense, busy little place with a permanent market and a "shopping mall". There was a small cruise ship in port, but there were few concessions to tourists. On the way there we looked in at the Rex Turtle Beach Hotel on Great Courland Bay. This is a long narrow building right on a very pleasant sandy beach, excellent for swimming. The hotel looked a bit tatty, but its position is probably the best on the island if you're looking for a beach holiday. From Scarborough we drove down the main road to Crown Point, where the airport and much of the cheaper accommodation is located. For a small, relatively undeveloped island this area is a surprisingly unpleasant jumble of buildings, ranging from shacks to the up-market Coco Reef Hotel. Store Bay, between the Coco Reef and the airport, is where you get boat trips to the Buccoo Reef and around the island. It sports a number of traditional island ladies selling traditional island food from a row of newly constructed concrete kitchens! The Coco Reef looked palatial but did not appear to have much of a beach. (This was confirmed by some fellow Brits we met who were staying there, who incidentally had little to say in the Hotel's favor.) Nearby is Pigeon Point, reputedly the island's best beach. We didn't look because you have to pay to get to it, and it was raining, but in photographs it looks lovely. On the second day we drove up the north west coast past several small bays. One such, Culloden Bay, is the location for the Footprints "Eco Resort", a grouping of rooms and villas constructed out of local materials trying, with a lot of success, to mould itself into the environment. Within, the rooms had every convenience, including air- conditioning. We met a Canadian couple staying there who told us the food was excellent, and it would need to be, as it would not be very feasible to drive anywhere else for dinner! The prettiest bay we found was Englishman's Bay, set just off the road through a dense grove of bamboo. There were a few stalls selling soft drinks, crafts and "roti", the local curry dish. Further up the coast we came to Castara, a village on quite a pleasant beach. It was lunchtime, and the only obvious option was the L & H Sunset Bar, which had four small tables upstairs. The food choice was stewed fish or chicken, served with rice, potato salad and pink beans. Two of these and two Caribs came to TT$50! The stew was quite edible, but not particularly hot. They were doing a steady trade. A little further north, at Bloody Bay, the road turns inland and climbs through the Main Ridge Forest Reserve which forms the spine of the island. There are hiking trails through the rain forest but it is hard to get any specific information on these trails as it is expected that you will take the services of a guide. Once again it was raining as we reached the main trail-head, so we decided to press on. The interior of the island is very green, interspersed with trees with vivid orange flowers. There are palms and bamboo everywhere. We reached the Windward side of the island at Roxborough and headed back towards Scarborough. The road is particularly windy down this Atlantic coast. There are several spots where the waves threaten the roadway as you pass. The following day we drove back up the Windward road to Roxborough to visit the Argyle Falls. You have to pay to see the falls, and for the services of a guide to take you along a very obvious trail for about fifteen minutes to reach the bottom of the falls. Here, and along the way, are pools where you are encouraged to swim. Our guide identified a few birds along the trail and then, back at the trailhead, waited very blatantly for a fat tip! Incidentally, you are warned in all the brochures and guide books only to accept qualified guides bearing badges, but we had great difficulty persuading one to accompany us, as they were trying hard to fob us off with a "trainee". The falls themselves are well worth the journey, but we couldn't help reflecting that last year we had been able to hike alone for several times the distance to a fairly remote waterfall in Grenada for free. For an undeveloped island, Tobago is not slow at finding ways of extracting the most from the visitor! From here we drove up to Speyside to lunch at Jemma's, which had been recommended both here on the CTR and by people we met on the island. Sadly it has been overtaken by its own popularity. It is on the round- the-island tour schedule, and when we arrived there were two buses outside and a large party in occupation. There were still plenty of tables free, but they have tried to fit too many seats in so our lunch was spent moving around to allow others access to their tables. The food - "chicken, fish or lobster" - was okay, but it was not the dining experience we had anticipated. The bill for two chcken stews, two soft drinks and two cups of tea was $TT135 - not quite the value of the previous day. Just before we reached Speyside we detoured to Kings Bay. This is a very pleasant beach, on the Atlantic coast, but sheltered from the rollers and it looked as good for swimming as any of the supposedly calmer beaches on the leeward side of the island. Overall we were a bit disappointed with Tobago. Our hotel was very comfortable and in a good position, but the food at dinner was unacceptably poor. The restaurants we visited were not generally as good as those we had been to in Grenada or Antigua in previous years. The development around the airport is really rather unattractive; this didn't fit in with the image of the unspoiled island paradise we had hoped for. The return journey with BWIA reinforced my desire to avoid them in future. On the sector between Trinidad and Antigua they served drinks and some cheese snacks, but when I asked for a beer I was told they were still warm - the flight hadn't been going long enough for them to cool down. When I suggested that their caterers might keep the beers refrigerated I was treated to a lecture on the perils of allowing beer to cool down and heat up repeatedly!. After the stop at Antigua, by which time it was after ten pm, it was an age before dinner was served, and a further age before we were offered anything more to drink. At least the stewardess didn't say "would you like something to drink with your meal?" as it was apparent we had long-since finished eating
The Caribbean Travel Roundup is available worldwide via Compuserve and INTERNET and is distributed through the facilities of America Online. The official CTR World Wide Web site is http://caribtravelnews.com. Contact: Paul Graveline, 9 Stirling St., Andover, MA 01810-1408 USA :Home (Voice or Fax) 978-470-1971. E-mail via firstname.lastname@example.org or CTREDITOR@aol.com : On Prodigy - MKWC51A
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