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Caribbean Travel Roundup

Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor




Caribbean Travel Roundup
Paul Graveline, Editor
Edition 65
May 15 1996

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BARBADOS BY TOM LEIB

My wife and I just returned from two wonderful weeks in Barbados. It is our fifth consecutive year going there and each year is better than the last. Even though Barbados is small (26 miles by 15 miles) it is incredibly diverse and therefore we keep finding new things to do and see. We're never bored, but are always well rested when we return (not to mention well tanned!).

First, a description of our various meanderings around the Island: As in years past we participated in the Sunday morning hikes sponsored by the Barbados Bank and Trust. They begin at 6:00am (there is a second hike Sunday afternoon @ 3:00pm) which is not as bad as it would sound at first blush. The first hike started on the Spring Garden Highway just outside the main city, Bridgetown and proceeded through the city. Not as rigorous a hike as normal, but nevertheless one filled with a ton of history. We participated on a "clean up" mission in the downtown area for about 15 minutes. The hike leader is Dr. Colin Hudson who in my opinion is a national Barbadian treasure. Colin knows the history, the culture, the current issues and the economy of the Island; and shares it with hike participants on his "stop and stare" hikes. The Bridgetown hike had more stopping and staring than most hikes, but it was worth it, learning about this fascinating port city that was the refuge of pirates and priests alike.

On the second Sunday we hiked around Drax Hall in the middle of the island. Mr. Drax was one of the first sugar moguls on the island and built a magnificent house in the mid 1600's that still stands. We walked through sugar fields, gullies and down little used roads. There were magnificent views from vistas where one can see the South and East coast. Colin discussed the attempt by British and Canadian real estate interests to transform the land we were on into 6 tournament rated golf courses. The locals amassed enough opposition to squelch the deal. I, for one, am certainly glad it failed - the countryside is so beautiful the way it is.

On our second Monday, my wife and I took a walk of our own. We went to the Atlantis Hotel in Bathsheba an began walking south along the east coast of the island. This is a well worn hiking trail (actually it was formerly a bed for railroad tracks) that goes south from Bathsheba to Martins Bay and then on to the beach at Bath. I am told it also goes north from Bathsheba, but I can't confirm that. The scenery on the walk is nothing short of spectacular! The rock formations on the East Coast are a sight to behold. Plus when you get to Martins Bay you are greeted with a view up the entire East Coast. A word of caution, if you start this hike late in the day (we started about 9:00am) you will need lots of water. We carried two jugs, but still needed to stop at the friendly rum shack in Martins Bay for refills (and a Banks Beer).

One last suggestion on hiking in Barbados - There is a guided hike called Highland Tours. My wife and I haven't tried it, but our daughter and her husband have and they highly recommend it. The tour operators will pick you up at your hotel, take you to the highest point in Barbados, and then lead you on a jaunt down to the seaside where there is a lunch and drinks. The advantage of hiking only downhill should be obvious.

As long as I'm on the beauty of the island, let me mention on more venture. After failing last year, this year we finally found Gays Cove on the Northeast Coast. This is purported to be the most beautiful spot on the island and if there is a prettier spot, then I haven't seen it. The problem is getting there. For those of you who have maps, the route is to go to Pie Corners take a right, then continue to bear right, go past a horse farm and then do not lose faith when the road quits. What the heck, these mokes are rented at any rate So plow ahead through the cow pasture, by rows of casurina trees, and all of a sudden you are struck with the glorious sight of the entire east coast of the island. Plus you will be staring at Pico Teneriffe, a large rock outcropping with multiple hues and shades. This place may be tough to get to, but its well worth the effort.

Enough of the sight seeing, and on to sports. I'm not much of a golfer and I don't take my clubs to Barbados, but this time I did play a couple of rounds at the Rockley golf course in Christ Church. This is a 9 hole course that is pretty short. The grass is for the most part typical Caribbean crab grass and it is HOT. Nevertheless it was fun playing golf with my Canadian time sharing friends.

For an even more rustic round of golf, we played at the BelAir par three course on the east coast. Not much of a golf course, but the scenery is great and the ambiance is pure fun. We had a sixsome (no strict rules here) and went through at least a dozen golf balls - you see 7 of the nine holes have water on them. Number 4 is played over the Atlantic Ocean. Number 6 is not only surrounded by water, it has an astroturf green with a cement base. No holding that green with your tee shot. If you ask, the proprietor will be sure there is some ice cold Banks beer for you at the end of the round (he rides his bike up to the local mini mart to get the beer and only takes a modest mark up for his efforts.)

The best sport on the island though was the cricket test match between New Zealand and the West Indies. Cricket is not a sport in Barbados, it is a religion. School was called off for the first day of the match (a match takes 5 days) The West Indies have been world cricket champions for 30 to 40 years until last year when the title went to, of all places, Sri Lanka. Yet, the West Indies residents BELIEVE they are still the best. They annihilated the Kiwis. The West Indies team is made up of people from all of the British Caribbean Islands, and in this match the hero was a local Bajan player, Sherwin Campbell who scored a double century. (If you don't understand cricket, this is a grand feat - Campbell batted for two days straight) My daughter and I went one day and were constantly mistaken for New Zealanders. I was all great fun and very exciting when Sherwin Campbell accomplished his 200th run. Our only other "excursion" was a visit to the Banks Beer Brewery (reservations needed). This is a beer that has incredible market share on the island (I guess 85 - 90%) and whose flavor is "just right" for the tropical conditions of Barbados. The tour was interesting and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes that kind of venture.

Now on to the restaurants: We stayed on the South Coast (Sand Acres) and did most of our eating there. One of our favorites was Bellini's in St. Lawrence Gap. We ate there twice. The Paglia & Fieno, a pasta dish with salmon and caviar was outa sight. A new restaurant has opened up on the South coast west of "the Gap", its called Champers. We had lunch there an it was great. I am told the dinners are just as good. The setting is stunning. For other "nice meals out" we ate at the Mermaid on Maxwell Coast Road which has always been a favorite of ours and continues to be; and the Masquerade in the Gap which was fine - a little overpriced and the portion were small, but it was ok. For a local place, we found the Drop Inn north of the Gap. The Drop Inn was opened last January by a guy who calls himself Marc International. The local food, especially the cous-cous and the mac pies are great and the hospitality cannot be beat. For a casual seaside lunch we loved the beach bar at Round Rock in St. Phillips. Its where the serious wind surfers cingregate. The flying fish is scrumptious. Finally for a great night out, go to Angies on Wednesday night for their buffet. Angie, her husband Swamii, and their kids Laura and Scotty put on a good time. Get Swamii to sing the caylpso version of "He Lies". There are always interesting characters at Angies, which, by the way moved this year to a new location west of Oistens.

In addition to the above we attended the Congaline festival with the best bands of the Caribbean including Krosfyah (pronounced Cross Fire), and we ate at the Hotel Atlantis in Bathsheba - its as good as always. They have a great flying fish seasoning - yum!.


CANCUN bY JACK AND FLO ALLEN

Flo and I just returned from a fabulous week in Cancun and I wanted to tell you all about it and hopefully offer you a few insights.

We are from the Midwest and were lucky enough to escape the brutal cold snap that arrived the day we left. We kissed the kids good-bye, hugged the in-laws (yea, right) and we were off.

We flew on Continental and were very happy with the service. We connected through Houston and only had a one hour layover. The service was good and they even have Margaritas they serve on the beverage cart. I was lucky enough to get an extra because I goosed the stewardess as she was backing up the isle with the cart. (just kidding) We arrived at the airport at about 10:00 pm. We had to wait at customs for about 20 mins and we were the unlucky ones when we punched the random search button and it lit up big and bright. Flo almost died when they searched her bag and a discussion ensued between the two agents about the personal toys in her bag. They looked at me and I just rolled my eyes and pointed at her. I paid later for that. There was an official transportation stand in the airport and I went and paid for a ride to the Hotel, I think it was 12 dollars. We then had to go out and wait while they rounded up as many as could fit in the new suburbans and then doubled that number. We all smelled like sardines when we got out.

We stayed at the Marriott Casa Magna and were very happy. When we arrived it was about 10:55 PM and we were really impressed as we walked through the front door as to how big and beautiful the hotel was. We were really surprised to not see a person anywhere other than the one person behind the front desk. It only took a couple of minutes to check in and after we deposited our bags in the room we went wandering. We found the bar in the back of the lobby and realized the reason we didn't notice it before was they were holding a funeral in it and everyone was dead. We shook the waiter and asked for a drink and were informed they were closing, oh well.... We went outside and wandered the grounds. The whole backside of the hotel is a series of pools and falls, it is absolutely gorgeous and nice to just walk around. We walked down to the beach and it was deserted. We went back and crashed as we had big plans for tomorrow.

We slept in and after getting ready, we went in search of food. We came to find out that the Marriott was sold out the entire time we there and that we were the only ones that didn't know about the gigantic game of hide and seek that everyone was playing. The hotel really was so big that you never felt like that many people were there. We laid around the pool for the major portion of the morning and then took off for town. We had been told that you can ride the buses for very little and that they were very good. We had to find out if this was true. We walked down the long driveway to the main drag and the second we got there a bus came to a screeching halt right in front of us. We got on and gave him a buck each and were off. I started to tell the driver where we wanted to go when he turned and hit the pedal and I found myself at the back of the bus,(and I thought I couldn't surf). The driver looked suspiciously like Ralph Kramden. We rode until it looked like we were in the old part of downtown and when most of the touristy looking folks stood up, I told Flo this must be it. We had no sooner gotten off the bus than we were found by the vendor in the first shop. It turns out he had everything anyone would ever need and Flo got the deal of the century on a wonderful blanket that we had to haul around with us the rest of the day. Flo also got great deals on shirts and jewelry and I got a great deal on his big sister. This worked out well for all of us because we were his first sell for the day and along with the subscriptions we purchased, he earned a trip to Disneyland. We anxiously await the promised postcard.

We had received alot of great info and the agenda for the first night was one of the clubs that sounded the best, Cat's. We took the bus and got there around 7:00. We then found out it didn't even open until 9:00. We again fell into our wandering mode and a block up the street found a restaurant named "El Mexicano". We had one of the best meals we've ever had. The service was outstanding and the food was second to none. They even had a roving band of thugs, or was it a roving band of mariachi's, or something like that. They sang "Juan ton a mero, my girls a one ton tomato" , (my personal favorite) The restaurant was a walk-in but it was packed. They also had a floor show with native dancers. We would highly recommend this place for a great time and great food. We finally got to Cat's at about 9:10 and we were the second people there. The reason we wanted to go there was that they are a Reggae Club. As we walked I they were playing videos and there were twenty or so employees milling around. The videos were horrible and we were wondering if we were in the wrong club after about 45 mins. It had been kind of quiet other that the videos, when all of the sudden the place was packed. Everybody came at once and 15 mins later the band started up. I love reggae music and this band was one of the best I've ever heard. The waiters had been at the end of the bar in a group up until now and they all took off like shots out of a gun, and best of all, the "shooters" girls came from nowhere to happily force shots down everyone's throats and shake our heads. I bought them several shots for themselves just so I could shake their heads and get even. This place really rocked all night long. The dance floor was packed every dance and the crowd was great. It seems to be in fashion now for women to dance together. We seen that everywhere we went and especially this night. I have to say it was a very pleasant sight, at times even titillating (OK, so I'm a pervert). The crowd at Cat's was a real mixed bag and we ended up talking to a couple of ladies from Florida at the table next to us most of the night and had a ball. Everyone got real wound up and the place was crazy into the wee hours of the morning. They go for ever here, there was alot of talk about a couple of dorks over at the Marriott were it was rumored that they were in bed by 11:00 pm the previous evening. We didn't participate in that conversation.

We had to sleep in the next day for obvious reasons, after lounging around the breakfast bar and then the pool for a bit we decided to hit the town again. We hit the bus again and was again amazed with the service, one stopped for us as we stepped to the road with no waiting. This time I gave him a buck for the two of us and he smiled and hit the gas. We wanted to take advantage of some of the tours that are offered around and started to look and see what was available. The office at our hotel was a bit pricey and we ran into a fellow in town that was 30.00 u.s. for a tour of Chichen Itza for both of us. We had to go to the Sheraton and listen to a presentation for 45 mins. We had been warned to run from the timeshares and we didn't. This was a Vacation Club, and being in sales, I could appreciate the whole deal, they had a ton of people there all getting the pitch. We got assigned a very nice young man from Mexico City and he was really good. He showed us all around and then asked us to join, we said no and then he turned us over to an older hard-core guy who wasn't quite so nice, we said no and he turned us over to a resort senior manager who was busy for a few minutes. We said we wouldn't wait and they finally got us out of there 2 hours with our tickets. We wouldn't do it again , but we did save 60.00 u.s. on the tour. We went back to the hotel to lounge around before dinner.

Dinner and the rest of the evening was spent at Senior Frogs. We had been warned by a few of our correspondents to avoid this place. We got there at 7:00 pm and again turned out to be quite early. The meal was fabulous and they start you out with what they call "The Yard". It is a yard long glass with the middle being somewhat narrow and the ends flaring out like a dumbbells. They offer an assortment of fine drinks, which all blend together after two or three of these. You end up having to stand on your chairs and they make you participate in the "Y.M.C.A. Dance". I felt rather fortunate because for some reason I knew that song and dance. The band was great, the music was excellent, they did Kareoke and had great videos in between. The DJ that kept it all moving was at the top of his form and it was non- stop. We did notice some people in the course of the evening who would come through and just stand open mouthed, gawking at the pandemonium. They are the ones who will tell you to avoid this place like the plague. As the evening wears on they move the tables and the chairs away and it ends up being one large dance floor. You can barely move as the place is packed and they are waiting outside all night long. As we had started early, we ended up only making it to about 11:30 before I had to drag Flo to a cab and it deposited us on the front step of the Marriott. Nobody seemed to notice as we crawled to our room and died right there.

I'll skip to morning proceedings as it was ugly. We had been told to hit the mall for great deals, so off we went. It rained and was a little chilly today so it was a great day to be a mall-rat. The mall was real different. More of a maze of hallways than an open area. We found everything in the mall that they had in the outdoor shops at alot better prices. Oh well, Flo loaded up again and we shopped like crazy. I found a Cuban cigar section at one store and bought a "Punch". It was the best and smoothest cigar I've ever had, for 6.00 u.s. it should have been. The mall had everything you would want and was really nice. The most pleasant surprise came at the mall in the form of a fellow named Antonio. He sold tours from a little shop and was born and raised in Calif. so he spoke our lingo. He told us that he discounts tours and could get us as good a deal as we want. He was connected with all the timeshares, clubs, hotels and such. We wouldn't do any of that and he just gave us a regular discount on a tour to the "Isle Mujeras"? I think we paid 30.00 u.s. for the two of us, and felt good.

Back to the Hotel for R & R. We decided for dinner to hit another restaurant that was high on everyone's lists, Mango Tango. This was not to far from our Hotel on the main drag. The evening was a little chilly but the place was rather busy all the same. They had a large floorshow that was extra and we opted to sit away from that. The staff was excellent, so attentive it was mind boggling. The food was very good and the coffee after the meal was a treat in itself. Our waiters were as entertaining as the floor show probably was, they were all great. We sat next to two sisters from North Carolina that were an absolute gas. They were both in their early thirties and were down on a girls get away for the weekend. They had been camped out at Senior Frogs for most of their time there and we all ended up going back after dinner. We arrived at a better hour and had to wait in line. The place was hopping again and we blended right in.

We all danced and one of the sisters was stuck on some guy who was a minor league baseball coach all night, I think she ended up getting her season tickets punched later. We ended up pacing ourselves and lasted until about 2:00 am and repeated the cab ride and again crawled home to Mama Marriott.

The dawn of the weekend brought some major changes in the old Marriott. A dentists convention came to town with many new arrivals at our hotel. Imagine if you will this crazy brunch turning it loose ,( and we worry about the spring breakers.) It was crazy, hospitality suites were setup everywhere with freeflowing nitrous oxide wafting through the halls. We snuck into one and was immediately sky high. There was K-Y jelly tubes everywhere and lots of quarters scattered on the floors, elevator music was piped into the whole hotel, can these guys party or what. Everywhere we went in town was packed with the Bermuda shorts crowd. Wow.

The tour we saved on by going to the Sheraton was today and they picked us up at the hotel front steps. The group we went with was Mayaland and the bus was a double decker and was very nice. We went up to the top deck and relaxed for the long trip. It turns out the trip was about 5 mins as they took everyone to the convention center and dispatched from there. It was nice and orderly and we had about 30 mins to wait for our bus to depart. There was a coffee shop right there and it was just like the ones you find in the U.S. They ended up separating us onto buses for English and others for Spanish. Our crew consisted of a driver , a guide and one all purpose fellow. We found out that our discount tickets were only for the bottom of the ,bus and the higher paying folks sat up top. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the guide spoke on the intercom to both levels and we could see his hand actions , I would have been lost without. Also we got alot more attention than the top. There were seats up top and we had tables to sit at.

We arrived at the site after a beautiful 2 hr drive on the new freeway. Our first order of business was a buffet lunch at the Mayaland hotel. This was included in the price and was just average. We then went over to the Chichen Itza site and were given a tour by our guide from the bus if we wanted or left to wander on our own. We did his tour first, then wander aimlessly for about 2 1/2 hrs.

This really was one of the highlights of the trip. If you have even the slightest interest in historical things, make sure and hit some of these sights. They played a video movie on the way home and kept the beer flowing. We ended up getting home early in the evening and they dropped us off at the hotels front step. We were a bit chilled and headed for the hot tub, with all of the feedback from us and other guests, they will probably be changing the name to the lukewarm tub. Anyway, another high point which would come highly recommended to future visitors and Mayaland tours were more than well worth the money.

The next day was the much awaited trip to Isla Mujeras. We got up early and headed down to Fat Tuesdays where we were to depart. It was windy down there and when we got there we were informed that all trips had been canceled due to rough seas. We stayed because of a advertised breakfast that was very inexpensive and was surprised at how good they were. All the wind turned into a pretty good storm and we just sat and watched it from the restaurant. We then stayed a little longer because of the advertised Daiquiris and Margaritas that were surprisingly tasty. Needless to say, we were hammered by noon and headed back to crash at the hotel. The rest of the day was downhill from there.

The trip to Isla Mujeras was rescheduled for today and we repeated the routine from the previous day with much more luck this time. We boarded the boat and were off. The outfit we went with was Fiesta something or other and I can't remember. They have an office in Fat Tuesdays, not in the shack out front but in the restaurant itself. They were great, they had a band on the boat that couldn't play because of the rain, and food and drink were everywhere. We sat at a table with two young ladies from Italy. They did not speak a lick of English and we spoke no Italian. We ended up talking to them the whole way over and back. Paper and pencil and pictures were all we ended up needing, Alot of fun.

We got to the Island and ended up getting a scooter for all day for 20 u.s. We had been told that the prices on the island were the best and they were right. We also found the best exchange rate we had seen on the whole trip, A much more relaxed atmosphere too. We loved this part of the trip. We went all over the Island and seen it all, on the east side is where all the people live. The south side is not too developed, we stopped at the turtle farm, very under developed and generally just tooled around on our scooter. We ended up on the north end of the island where we were told the best beaches are. Because it was so cold, there was no one to be seen anywhere. We resorted to plan B and stopped for a drink at a place called Ya-Ya's. They brought us a Margarita half the size of the others we had had at other places. Much to our surprise, they were heavenly. Very strong, and very delicious. We decided right there and then to blow off lunch on the boat and eat there. The food turned out to be exceptional also, and after a couple of hours and two more drinks, we were a mess. Flo fell off the scooter, o.k., so did I, but Flo ripped skin off of one of her toes and we barely got the scooter back. Don't miss Ya-Ya's. The boat ride back was kinda sad, we talked with several others that had been there before and they all said this was a horrible trip because of the weather. We really enjoyed it and wished we could have been there with the benefit of some great weather.

You can always feel when your trip winds down and we were getting into our funk. The next morning we packed and caught a cab to the airport. We got there an hour early and were quite surprised to see that continental had moved our flight up by 45 mins and we never knew. lucky us. we walked on the minute we got there. Good trip home , good connections, and we were home.

A few thoughts about the trip.

Talk to as many of the locals as you can, they are the best people in the world. We still talk about the people and especially the kids we met and talked to.

When you see the beggars and the little children selling gum and such, be liberal with your pesos. We talked to people that were so critical of this and would say how they hated to see that and they thought it was horrible for the parents to exploit their kids, but this is their way of life and we should be compassionate, not critical.

We loved the tours we took, and the operators.

We were very impressed with the service anywhere we went.

The food was always a bargain.

Dollars work as well as Pesos, but confuses everyone on the exchange.

Bus system is fabulous, recommended.

Have fun and Enjoy.


GRAND CAYMAN BY TOM ALTSTIEL

Barefoot Stingrays from Hell..and Other Observations of the Cayman Islands

You may think Grand Cayman is your average tropical paradise. But before you can say "been there, done that, bought the T shirt," you begin to notice what's missing on Grand Cayman. Where's the litter? The goats running loose? The tumble-down shacks and rusting auto carcasses? Despite my wife's constant reminder to "stay on the left", I got the feeling we never left home. "Honey look at that. They've got Texaco, Olive Garden, Pizza Hut, Wendy's, KFC, Burger King!"

As the local chamber of commerce proudly points out, residents of Grand Cayman enjoy the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. With that prosperity comes the suburban sludge most of us would gladly leave behind for a week or two. It would also be nice to leave the traffic behind. Rush hour lasts from 8AM to 11PM-- except on holidays, when it's finally possible to find parking near stores that aren't open.

We loved our condo on the world famous Seven Mile Beach. Soft white sand, gentle waves, leather-skinned elderly folks, toddlers with sandbagged diapers and an unbroken string of condos and hotels. Somehow the Caymanians found a way to high jack Sanibel Island and tow it down here. Oh well, at least it's not Naples.

Unlike Sanibel, there are no shells worthy of bagging for the folks back home.

The real action is offshore. We were amazed to find a huge variety of fish and a few remnants of living coral and sponges only a few yards from the beach. The reef still lives despite the geezers in their orange horse collar PFD's who use the coral for stepping stones rather than swimming.

But we didn't come down here to rub elbows with timid beach-head divers. Our ultimate destination was Stingray City. No, it's not an old Jan and Dean tune. It's a really two spots. A 12-foot deep location for scuba divers and a waist-deep sandbar for snorkelers.

As we reached the sandbar, scores of stingrays swam in like friendly puppies. They inhaled the pieces of squid we offered then hung around just to play. Now that's something you won't get at Sanibel.

After snorkeling, we had ample opportunity to study the food chain, and discovered that the restaurant owner sits at the very top. Good thing Grand Cayman is an international banking center, because you will require a home equity loan to cover a meal at a "moderate" restaurant. The nicer establishments will accept first born children, if they are well behaved. (There is a labor shortage you know). Even the local fast food joints have a drive through window to deposit arms and legs.

A local explained why the food is so expensive on Grand Cayman, "First of all, there's no agriculture--the last chicken farm was displaced by a KFC restaurant. Second, it's an island--we have to airlift all that frozen seafood in from Chicago. Third, you're a bloody tourist...and I won't tell you where we locals eat".

After trading our Minolta for an order of conch fritters and a Red Stripe, we headed to the center of island activity, the Holiday Inn. Tonight's main attraction? Same as every night's main attraction for the last 20 years--the world famous Barefoot Man, who you would think by now could afford shoes. (Unless he eats at restaurants here). I must admit my image of "barefoot" was a thin black man in ragged pants and a straw hat singing "Day- Oh" in a lilting Jamaican brogue. Instead the real Mr. Barefoot is a short, fat blonde guy in big glasses, singing "Day-Oh" with all the local color of an accountant in a kareoke bar. He covered all the Belafonte favorites, muddled through some Marley standards and tackled the always challenging "Margaritaville" with the panache of every Buffett wannabee in South Florida. But the music was danceable, the night was warm, and the nearest entertainment alternative was in Havana, so we all boogied with the Barefooted One.

A trip to Grand Cayman is not complete without a visit to Hell. No, it's not the local Pizza Hut. The world famous Cayman Island Hell is, and I not making this up, a quarter acre of rocks. Ooooh! Yes, ugly gray ragged rocks. No fire. No brimstone. No trace of the Ayatollah or Nixon. It's not even hotter than the rest of the island. Just rocks. But at least there are four T shirt shops so you can prove you've been to Hell and back.

Another must is the world famous Turtle Farm. As you may know, Columbus originally named these islands "Las Tortugas" which is Spanish for "You may not bring turtle products into the United States." The turtles are raised for eventual release to keep poachers employed and for local restaurant consumption. There is even a sort of petting zoo where the kids can pick up and cuddle a future $29.95 entree (15% gratuity included).

Time did not permit a visit to the world famous Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Royal Imperial Botanical Garden and Hat Museum. Seems they cleared several hundred acres of worthless native vegetation to establish a beautiful display of expensive native vegetation. Damn clever those English.

A word about money. Most prices are listed in CI (Cleverly Inflated) dollars. Remember, to convert currency, one CI dollar = anything the locals want it be. The following is a quick guide for converting prices: 1 bottle of CI beer = 1 six pack of US beer; 1 gallon of CI milk= 1 US cow; 1 gallon of CI gasoline = 1 US 1988 Buick Century.

Don't get me wrong. We loved Grand Cayman. We can't wait to return. We have to go back to get our children, who we left as collateral at Chef Tell's Grand Old House.


CUBA BY RIVKA BUCHANAN

I just got back from two terrific weeks in southeast Cuba.

If you are looking for a fascinating, absolutely gorgeous vacation that is restful, out of the ordinary, and highly affordable, you should go to Marea del Portillo on the southeastern coast of Cuba. This is a Cuba that few tourists see. It is a land of majestic mountains, magnificent coral reefs, sweeping plantations, and the most generous and warmhearted people in the world.

We booked with Alba Tours to fly from Toronto to Manzanillo airport in the Granma Province of southeast Cuba. A beautiful hour and a half bus ride which includes bar service took us to our hotel through lush farmlands, a beautiful mountain pass, and along a coral coast. We passed by rolling fields of sugarcane, stands of tall white-columned oil palms, tiny homes, and the cleanest and tidiest of landscapes. In fact the tidy Cuban countryside, towns and cities put Canada to shame. Healthy, happy, friendly people are everywhere. Schoolchildren in colourful uniforms, housewives and workers laughed and waved at us as our bus rolled along. Glimpses inside tiny thatched and tile- roofed homes were of immaculate neatness.

In the fields the slow rhythms of oxen yoked in tandem pull plows in long slow furrows through iron red earth. Heavy cartloads of cane and produce lumber along the roads. Climbing through the high pass of the Sierra Maestra, we passed vegetable gardens and orchards, a reservoir, skirting the edges of precipices, always with smiling happy people, staring at us snowbirds. The people use many forms of transportation: foot, horseback, bicycle, truck-bed, ancient bus (if it shows up), tractor, ox cart, horse-drawn buggy, and even beautifully maintained and refurbished cars of 40s to 60s vintages. But these are rarely seen due to the high price of fuels and general unavailability.

Winding down switchbacks out of the mountains onto the plains we passed more teams of oxen, and extended families of goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and other animals grazing along the roads. At the end of a long avenue of flowering Oleanders we passed the local disco and came to a bay fringed by surf with mangroves tipping the protecting arms, all backed by the gold and green wall of the Sierra Maestra. These are mountains with an epic history: Castro and Che Guevara fought their way through them with the help of local people, to free Cuba from the dictator Batista.

The Marea del Portillo hotel lies along the curve of the crescent beach, and the Farallon del Caribe crests a promontory at the west end of the beach. The hotels face a surf-laced shoreline and coral reefs. Sugar cane and banana plantations sweep away for kilometers in each direction to the east and west with tiny clusters of houses, ranches and small villages snuggled into the landscape.

The welcome at the Marea del Portillo hotel was Cuban music and laughter from smiling staff offering trays of rum punch and good humour. We were given keys and invited to relax in the lounges or at the pool while our bags were taken quickly to our rooms. I found myself in a chaise beside the pool with rum punch, a soft samba, happy laughter in the background and over all the murmur of surf and the rustle of palm fronds. Paradise!!

During the following two weeks I learned again to relax, to smile and to wave to people as I passed, and how to accept kindness and the warmest hospitality. Simply out of the generosity of their hearts the local people often invite perfect strangers into their homes, for coffee and to look around the house and yard if you are interested. They would like us to know them better and they are very house proud. As frequently as not, there is no common language except smiles and handshakes. But it is enough. One learns very quickly to never offend by offering recompense for these quiet invitations, other than a gracias, muchas gracias, a smile and as much matching outpouring of warmth as is possible from jaded and city-tainted Canadians. New visitors find it astonishing that the invitations are solely from the generosity of the Cuban heart, and that any attempt at payment is both unwanted and embarrassing.

The accommodation

Both the Marea del Portillo and the Farallon del Caribe are lovely, comfortable, well staffed hotels, although of different ages and styles.

The Marea is almost fifteen years old, built right on the beach, and two stories tall, with all rooms facing the ocean. An attractive pool, bar, snack bar, and covered entertainment areas are in a central area. The buffet-style dining room is just off the lobby, surrounded by comfortable breezy lounges and two small shops. A beach bar is a few steps from the pool, right out on the sand with a lovely view east and west along the beach and out to sea. Shady lounging on the beach for both hotels is provided by thatched canopies with a liberal scatter of chaises and chairs, cleaned and rearranged every morning at dawn as the beach is raked and groomed.

At the Marea the tone and style of service is fairly quiet. Guests are often retired, many returning year after year, although younger couples and sometimes families with children also like to come. The rooms are tiled and comfortably furnished in leather-upholstered bamboo. All rooms look onto the beach through a fringe of palms. First-floor rooms have patios that lead right onto the beach, and the second-floor rooms have balconies. I found the surf at night a wonderful lullaby, and the birds an all-day serenade from the trees along the walkways. In the evenings, the some of the trees loose a perfume like jasmine that drifts you along to dinner. The pace is tropical with an atmosphere of luxurious relaxation. A wonderful change for the city-weary.

The two-year-old Farallon del Caribe, built on the top of a small rise and set back slightly from the beach, has a truly magnificent 270 degree surround of bay, lagoon and the majestic sweep of the Sierra Maestra. The tone and style of the Farallon is faster than at the Marea, the music, the entertainment, and the general level of sound livelier and geared toward a younger crowd, often including young couples and families with young children, although retired couples are also much in evidence. Entertainment runs later in the evening and is often a little different from that offered at the Marea, although the same groups will present in each hotel.

The Farallon lobby winds along the crest of the hill with public rooms on each side and private rooms on several floors beyond the public areas. A bar is at each side of the lobby, breezy lounges and games areas and an open dining area are at the east end where the buffet lunch is served. This area turns into a specialty restaurant in the evenings, taking reservations for lobster, steak and other delicacies, although this is not included in the hotel and meals package.

The main buffet-style dining room, where breakfast and dinner are served, is on the floor above the lobby, enclosed, with an outside deck looking across the lagoon to the golden rise of the mountains. From your breakfast table you can watch the light build against that mountain wall, and the pelicans busy in the lagoon while a small rowboat moves between the floating boxes of the oyster farm. You can pay a few dollars to have the farmers row you to the pavillion for a full tour of the operation, including shucking a dozen oysters for you to wash down with a glass of wine.

All around the lagoon, kingfishers flash blue in the edges of the mangroves, as needlefish zip and skim the surface over giant jellyfish slowly wafting their way. The mangrove roots are thick with oysters, great white clusters showing dimly through the slow-moving waters, with the red and yellow of occasional crabs clambering frantically out of sight as your boat moves past.

From the beach bar at the Farallon you can watch pelicans plunge into the bay and red-necked, yellow-legged blue herons hunting for their dinner.

At the west side of the Farallon (the Spanish word for cliff), just at the start of the second-floor rooms, is a large banana tree and right behind it a cliff studded with cactus and yucca. On the cliff face is the home of the hotel mascot. He is a medium sized iguana named, of course, Clifford. Clifford comes regally out of his home every morning as the sun touches his front door, to spend most of the day basking in the sun on his personal rock, occasionally going off for a meal, and sometimes resting chin-stretched, fast asleep. While I was there, in a banana tree near Clifford hung a bunch of bananas with flowers still blooming on the lower end. Tiny, iridescent green hummingbirds frequented those blossoms, which also dripped nectar onto the broad green leaves below. A slight movement on one of those leaves turned out to be a beautiful green chameleon, slowly licking up drops of nectar and curling its way seductively across the leafscape. Cuba is blessed with some of the finest music and musicians in the world.

And in that tradition, the musicians and singers who entertain at the hotels, while not world-class, are thoroughly enjoyable. Trios play beside your table at lunch and dinner, but only if invited, and always selecting music and levels of sound appropriate for their listeners. Guitar, jazz sax, singers, bongos, and oh those hips on the bongo player--positively pneumatic!! And just ten minutes down the road by car, toward the town of Pilon, at the disco you can try dancing to some of the same music. Beside the disco is another smaller hotel also managed by the Commonwealth Group.

The gift shop at the Farallon offers souvenirs, clothing, snacks, tobacco products and local rums, beers, and canned drinks. The merchandise is somewhat different from that at the Marea. At both hotels, local artisans work in the lounge areas, using many local materials and producing a mixture of everything from kitsch to artistic excellence.

The Food

At both hotels, the food is delicious and abundant. It could not be fresher if you picked and prepared it yourself. The incredibly sweet young vegetables are all so fresh and tender that they nearly melt in your mouth. Papaya, bananas, limes and oranges fresh from the tree are served at every meal, and in season, mangoes and other local fruits appear. Fish is local and prepared with zesty herbal sauces. The chicken, pork and beef are also local and prepared in a variety of imaginative ways. Today's friendly piglet and the chickens running around just down the road are next week's barbecue. A hotel pig roast is a weekly event, sometimes oftener if you take advantage of some of the tours. Everyone who ate it raved about the roast pork, saying that it was one of the best things about their entire vacation.

In both hotel dining rooms, a chef will prepare short-order dishes for you at breakfast and lunch. Desserts are generous, sugary and laced with rum, in pretty presentations, and always at least four varieties as well as mounds of fresh fruits and bowls of fresh fruit salad.

This is coffee heaven. Ask for a cafe Cubano after your meal. You will be served a demi-tasse of incredibly rich, dark, espresso-like coffee into which heaps of sugar must be stirred for a truly Cuban experience. Beer, juices, tea, coffee and water are included with your meals. The same cold beverages, plus rum and soft drinks are available at all of the bars. And you can hear a general sigh of relief when people learn that all drinking water in Cuba is perfectly safe. The bars are open at the hotels and on the beach from 10 in the morning until 11 at night, seven days a week, and at the Farallon, a pay-as-you-go bar is open as late as anyone wants to drink. At both hotels, a sandwich bar is open in the afternoons so it is impossible to go hungry, or thirsty.

Staff for both hotels are drawn from the local population. Trained by Sohail Saeed, Director of Operations for Commonwealth Hospitality Ltd. in Cuba, which manages these and other Cuban hotels, the staff are universally warm, friendly, and completely dedicated to the welfare of the guests. Sohail has developed a terrific training program and its success is evident in the style and quality of service at both hotels. Sohail and Commonwealth have also expended a great deal of effort to ensure that the impact of hotels and guests on local culture is as positive and low-key as possible.

Canadians love to bring gifts, and they are most welcome, but practicality rather than luxury is encouraged, and giving to local organizations such as hospitals, churches and schools rather than handing things out in the streets which only encourages begging. Unfortunately, not all guests hear the request or are intelligent enough to see the damage they do out of ignorance. I was surprised to learn that our gifts of soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes are considered luxuries. They are all quite readily available in local form from plants and materials like yucca and salt which cost nothing but a little effort. Pens, paper, pencils, hospital and school supplies and clothing are necessities and not readily available. It was gently suggested that unless you can provide a lifetime supply of a luxury, you should not bring it, or if you do, give it only to a local organization such as a hospital. The management of your hotel can help you direct gifts appropriately.

Group tipping is encouraged so that every one of the hardworking staff, including cooks, clerks, cleaners and others can benefit from your generosity. There is a box to leave your tip at the reception desk in each hotel. However small offerings of things like soaps, perfumes, lotions, notebooks, pens and pencils to your favorite housemaids and waitresses/waiters seem to be traditional and are much appreciated in this very poor country.

Activities

Many people stay for weeks and even months at these hotels, particularly at the Marea del Portillo. There are a tremendous number of things to do and places to go.

The hotels offer tennis, windsurfing, kayaking, snorkelling, aquasize, and a variety of beach and board games for quieter times. Staff entertainers at both hotels involve folks in everything from bingo and aquatic sports to board games and dance lessons, as well as producing all the floorshows. You can relax magnificently or be as active as you like. A free SCUBA lesson is given twice a week in the hotel pool, and SCUBA diving can be arranged through Dive Adventures at their shop on the beach.

Tours of many kinds are available through the hotels, as are rental cars, jeeps, mopeds and free bicycles. Unusual to me was staff discouraging guests from using the mopeds and bicycles as the state of road repair is interesting and accidents are all too common. The staff are truly and deeply interested in your wellbeing.

Day trips and multi-day excursions are easily arranged to the lovely old cities of Santiago da Cuba, east along the magnificent coast road, Manzanillo to the north, and the towns of Pilon and Niquero to the west, or even to Havana. Excursions are also available by horseback and by jeep into the Sierra Maestra to waterfalls and rivers, for bird and wildlife viewing and to many of the local plantations. For all tours and for SCUBA diving it is best to book ahead for better prices and because the operations can be very busy.

Horse-drawn carriages wait under the trees to take you for fascinating drives through the tiny towns nearby, where you are quite likely to be invited in for coffee by friends of the driver or by passing citizens. You are always welcome at the local schools, hospitals, churches, markets and the weekly festival that occurs in every town each Saturday.

On one of the days when I was not SCUBA diving my friends and I rode horseback into the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. The Arabian ancestry of the horses was apparent in the gleaming hides, the slimness, and the intelligence of the animals which have been used for centuries throughout Cuba. As we rode high into the Sierra Maestra, we found dozens of tiny ranches nestling amongst the cliffs and rivers where generations of Cuban farmers have quietly raised their families amidst the lush forests, sugar cane, bananas, coffee and fruit trees. Families of pigs with herds of tiny piglets run through the fences and around the feet of goats and chickens and children alike. Limestone cliffs hang heavy with bryophytes and yucca, while gekkos, iguanas and other small lizards zip in and out and soak up the sun.

After an hour and a half, we tied our horses just below a series of pools and rock ledges where a family was preparing our lunch over open fires. In those clear cool pools of the Rio Salte, small fish schooled and startled, flashing away as our hosts' children dived and splashed. Further up the winding river, we hopped across stepping stones and clambered over water-worn rockfaces, in a fifteen minute hike to a broad rainbow-striped waterfall. It splashed into a large, refreshingly chilly pool where we swam and lingered until hunger drove us back down the river for lunch: barbecued pig accompanied by plantain, rice and other vegetables. Seasoned by the morning's exercise, that roast pig just disappeared, and we were soon on the return ride.

At a home into which we were invited for Cuban coffee we were delighted to take part in a cane crushing operation. Behind the house, an elderly gentleman was wielding a razor-sharp machette and tending a cauldron of cane sap boiling down much like maple syrup and about to be poured into palm leaf moulds on a nearby table. He smiled at us and disappeared up into a field above us to return with six eight-foot lengths of cane which he gently scraped with his giant machette, then with the help of both male and female family members, he put one of the canes through a hand crusher. Two people turned the mill while two others pulled the cane backwards and forwards through the gears. Over a pint of liquid came from that single cane. Some of my friends leapt to help when offered the chance and found, with the remaining five canes, just how hard the work really is.

The juice was strained and we were each offered a huge foamy glass of cool green liquid, very sweet, into which our hostess squeezed a fresh lime. Cuba could get rid of its national debt with that drink. Unbelievably refreshing!! We reluctantly wandered back out, with handshakes and hugs, petting again the velvet ears of the two-day old kid and laughing at the herd of piglets, to remount our steeds and continue homeward.

Booking and Services

The best way to book a vacation at the Marea del Portillo or the Farallon del Caribe is through your travel agent and Alba Tours. They have excellent packages for both hotels at almost any time of year. And they welcome all sizes of groups from singles and couples to large groups, with special prices and arrangements to suit most requests, including wheelchair accessibility at the Marea, but not yet at the Farallon.

Public services in Cuba are not like in Canada. Telephone service, when it is available, is very expensive. The Cuban postal system into or out of the country, does not necessarily deliver to its destination. Things have a tendency to disappear, particularly packages and things with foreign stamps. Many Cubans quietly ask visitors to take mail for them to be posted in Canada. To send things into Cuba, it is best to get someone to carry it for you and have it delivered personally. As far as TV goes, I admit that I have no idea what can be seen on the television sets in the rooms at the Farallon. I was too busy relaxing. When the VCR worked at the Marea, we watched the tapes from Ian's underwater videos of the day's diving. A movie is scheduled each night.

Just at the end of my stay, I learned that the Marea is to be closed for six months to undergo major renovation. But by the fall, the staff will be welcoming visitors again with all their traditional warmth. While the Marea is being renovated, the Farallon will be open, and Clifford, of course, will be in. Weekly flights leave Toronto from fall through spring, heading for Manzanillo Airport in the Granma Province of southeast Cuba. Just ask your travel agent.

For SCUBA diving Dive Adventures can be reached at: 1-800-567-6284 for North America (416) 424-4247 worldwide (416) 424-1533 fax


GRAND CAYMAN ISLAND BY MARCIA AND AL GREENGOLD

Wed. 4/16- We left our home on Long Island, N.Y., in 9 inches of snow, at 6:30 a.m., and just made it Laguardia Airport in time for our 10:00 flight. We used Riteway Parking, as recommended by someone and it worked out fine ($11 daily).

We arrived on Grand Cayman at 3:00 (EST), and rented a car from Hertz. Our insurance does not cover out of U.S. rentals, but by using Visa, we were able to waive the additional insurance, and still be covered. When quoting any prices, I will use U.S. Dollars, not C.I. Dollars. The C.I. Dollar is worth about 20% more than ours, so when you see an item listed for $10 C.I.., you have to give them $12 U.S. We also found that by converting our money to C.I. money, it was easier to keep track of prices and the correct change. Every place accepts U.S. money, but almost all give you your change in C.I. money. When quoting dinner prices, it will be for 2, including an appetizer, entree, and 1 dessert. Drinks are not included in our prices, so be prepared to pay quite a bit extra if you have drinks with dinner.

We were staying at the Hyatt, on 7 Mile beach, about 20 minutes from the airport. Other hotels on that strip include the Westin, Raddisson, Clarion and Holiday Inn. There are also many condos on the beach, available for rentals.

That night we had dinner at Hemingways, a Hyatt restaurant. This is one of the fancier places on the island, right on the beach, and very scenic. The meals and the service were good. Dinner was $90. The Hyatt has a meal plan for $60 per day, per person. Since we had a car, and wanted to try many different places, we did not take the meal plan. If you don't have a car, or want to stay at the hotel, the meal plan is probably worth it. The Hyatt has 3 very good restaurants.

Thur. 4/11- We had the buffet breakfast at the Hyatt, $37. It's a nice buffet, but nothing special. The Hyatt is not directly on the beach, it is about a 5 min. walk, across a very busy road, from the rooms to the beach. When we went to the beach that morning, we got a big surprise. The Hyatt, a very large hotel, has a very small beach area. That morning it was just a mass of lounge chairs, side by side. Not exactly what we had in mind. It didn't get better until later in the week, when the occupancy went down quite a bit. We stayed at the beach most of the day, and did some snorkeling right there. Later in the afternoon we went back to the pool for some drinks and to relax before dinner.

At the pool was a performer, James White, who sings, plays guitar, and steel drums, and is backed by his invisible, electronic band. James plays laid back island type music (Belafonte, James Taylor, Buffett, etc.), but will play anything on request. He has a vast repertoire of songs, and is fun to listen to. He is enjoyable, without being intrusive. You can either listen, or talk without being drowned out by some high tech speaker system. He also performs acoustically in the lounge at night. He has many original songs, and had a small scene in the movie The Firm. We really enjoyed him, and made it a point to see him each day.

We had dinner at Whitehall Bay, a small place, on the water, (as were most of our dinners), about 5 minutes from the Hyatt. Dinner was $47. I don't think we would go back, it was OK, but there are so many other places.

Fri. 4/12- We had breakfast at Hog Sty Bay, also about 5 minutes from the hotel. This is a nice old place, again on the water, with a great view. The food was good. Breakfast was $18, we planned on going back, but never made it.

From there we went snorkeling at Cemetery Reef. This is about 5 miles on the other side of the Hyatt. You just park in the street, walk past the cemetery and you're there. There is a lady there who rents, and sells beach supplies. A lounge chair is $3. They also have public restrooms. The snorkeling there is great right off shore, and if you go out just a little farther, it's even better. Since we were towards the Western side of the island, we decided to go visit Hell, a spot mentioned in all of the travel guides. Hell consists of a small plot of eerie looking rock formations, and a muddy swamp. It also has a bar, a post office and a souvenir shop. If you have to go more than 5 minutes out of your way, it's not worth it.

We had a late lunch at the Lonestar, right next to the Hyatt. This was the worst meal we've had anywhere in a long time. I had chili, which was hardly edible, and a chicken sandwich was almost as bad. Not recommended!

Dinner late that night was at Capt. Morgans, a place we found by accident. This was a pleasant surprise, they grill your meal right at your table, and they have a nice salad bar. Dinner was $50.

Sat. 4/13- We went on a 1/2 day (8:30-12:30) snorkeling trip. There are many charters available. We picked Fantasea Tours, because we read about it in an earlier CTR. It turned out to be the perfect choice. Capt. Dexter has a large catamaran, and doesn't take many people out. On our trip there were only 7 aboard. Also his boat can maneuver in shallow water, which meant that when we got to our spot, we just walked right overboard in 3-4 feet of water. We saw other boats, very crowded, and they had to anchor a little further away, and swim to the spot. Our first spot was at Stingray Sandbar. There are stingrays of all sizes, all over the place. Capt. Dexter helped us feed them, and hold them for pictures. It was great. Back onboard he put out a platter of fruit, and served some rum punches. Then we went to another reef, and snorkeled some more, and saw many different types of fish. I would definitely do this again. The trip was $25 per person.

On the way back we to the hotel, we stopped for lunch at the Holiday Inn. Not a bad lunch by the pool for $22, but more about the Holiday Inn food later. Dinner that night was at The Wharf, another of the fancier places on the island. It's a beautiful place, with a great view. The food and the service was great, and I'd recommend it. We stayed for the tarpon feeding show at 9 PM. It was fun to see the tarpons in a feeding frenzy. If you happen to be there at that time stay and see it, otherwise forget it.

Sun. 4/14- We planned on taking a ride around to the North side of the island, and getting something to eat in Georgetown. Not on Sunday, everything is closed. We kept riding and found a place called The Edge, just outside of town. What a great place! We had a nice breakfast on the beach. The view was wonderful, and the service good. The portions were a little small, but good. Breakfast was $14.

From there we decided to go back towards, town and on the way found a snorkeling spot called Smiths Cove. This is a beautiful, protected cove, with more fish than we've ever seen. There are no amenities there, so bring blankets or a chair. I didn't see a public restroom. The local church congregation had a baptismal ceremony while we were there, and it was interesting. It's a great snorkeling spot.

Dinner that night was at the Holiday Inn, a pasta buffet for $35. That is pretty cheap for Grand Cayman, but barely worth it.

Mon. 4/15- We were on the beach early, about 8. that's a nice time of day for the beach, not too hot, and not too crowded. We walked next door, on the beach, to the Beach Colony Club, and had lunch there. It's a nice spot, and the food was good, but the service was poor (slow). Lunch was $22.

Dinner that night was at the most recom

Chef Tells. It's hard for anyplace to live up to such high expectations, but Chef Tells did it. It's in a fabulous location, about 1/2 hour from the Hyatt. It's as fancy as the island gets, with great outdoor, or indoor, or screened in areas to eat. We had a great spot outdoors, and saw a beautiful sunset. Don't come in tank top- or T-shirt. Shorts were acceptable, but most people had long pants on. The whole meal was great, but the dessert was really spectacular, it looked like a whole sampler tray of goodies. Dinner was $103, but we felt like we got what we paid for.

Tue. 4/16- Breakfast on the beach again, after Chef Tells, we weren't too hungry. Then it was back to cemetery reef for more snorkeling. That afternoon we went into Georgetown for our T-shirt, and souvenir shopping. As far as island towns go, Georgetown is as nice as we've seen. There is no begging, panhandling, street hawkers, etc.

We planned on eating dinner at DJs, but it didn't look so good, then we looked at Eduardos's and Benjamins Roof, all in the same shopping center, but didn't like either of them. So it was back to the Holiday inn, big mistake. The buffet that night was a BBQ. It wasn't very good, and then on top of that we saw a big roach in the buffet line. Not much of an appetite after that.

4/17- Wed.- On our last full day, we decided to drive all the way around to the North side to Rum Point . which we had read a lot about. On the way we stopped at Morrits, a timesharing spot. It's very nice, but very isolated from town, and the restaurants (about 45 minutes from town). We continued on to Rum Point., and were not impressed. Just a small beach and snack shop/restaurant. It definitely was not worth the trip. You can also take a ferry there from 7 mile beach.

On the way back, we had lunch at the Lighthouse, This is a very nice place, on the water, with a nice selection on the menu. Lunch was $40.

That night we planned on seeing the Barefoot Man, at the Holiday Inn. He had been on vacation all week, and to be sure we wouldn't be late we went back there for dinner, but not the buffet. We ate indoors in a nice looking pub type restaurant. unfortunately the food wasn't good and the service was very bad, but we should have known. Dinner was $30.

The Barefoot Man was not all that I had hoped he would be. We had heard so much about him, and all his catchy, funny songs. That night he did mostly old standards, Hot,Hot,Hot, Yellow Bird, Banana Boat song, and some bad Jimmy Buffett interpretations. However to be fair, I must admit that the crowd was into it, and the dance floor was lively. He did do some requests, and was friendly when approached for pictures, and autographs.

Grand Cayman, I think, is the cleanest, and safest island we have been to. There is absolutely no harassment, or peddling on the beach, and everyone we spoke to was friendly and helpful. We were able to get a small refrigerator for our room, at no charge, and bought a case of beer and soda for the week to take to the beach and pool. Drinks at the Hyatt are $4 for a can of beer, and $7 for a rum punch type drink. That can add up after a week.

I would also recommend buying any duty free liquor before you go back to the airport, because if you buy it there you have to carry it on.


GRAND TURK BY DON ACHESON

Grand Turk Island has been on my list of places to go scuba diving for several years. After an aborted attempt in 1992, my schedule and airline seat and hotel room availabilities coincided, so I booked 8 nights at the Salt Raker Inn and a week of diving with a relatively new operation, Sea Eye.

Grand Turk is a small, but interesting island. Geographically among the southernmost islands of the Bahamas chain, politically it's part of a British protectorate, the Turks and Caicos Islands. Grand Turk has a long history. Among a few other islands in the Bahamas, it claims to be the site of Christopher Columbus's first landfall. While that's disputable, the fact that Bermudians established salt trade there in the late 1600's isn't and the Bermuda heritage is still evident in many of the old buildings. Cut Bermuda stone was brought to the island as ballast and used for construction. The Salt Raker Inn was built by Bermudians in the mid-1800's. Columns in the Post Office are Bermuda cedar as are some floor joists and boards in the small museum. The latter displays the remains of a very old shipwreck, not positively identified, but dated as 1513 at the latest. Early hopes were that it was the Pinta, but it's more likely that the ship was a slaver plying between the earliest Spanish settlements on Hispaniola, less than 100 miles to the south, and Indian communities in the Bahamas. In any case, the wreckage and artifacts are fascinating and professionally presented. The curator, who also frequented the Salt Raker in the evening, proved to be an excellent source of accurate information about island history.

Most of the permanent residents and visitors reside on the western side of the island. Sheltered from the open Atlantic and on the edge of a 7000 foot deep passage, the beaches slope gently out to white sand flats with some hard coral patches for 200 or 300 yards until, at depths of 25 to 40 feet, the wall drops abruptly into the blue deep. All diving on Grand Turk seems to revolve around the wall: roll off the boat anchored near the wall, drift down over the edge to the appropriate depth, swim easily along for 20 minutes or so hoping to see something spectacular in the deep water close to the wall, then up to the top to return to the boat either peering hopefully over the edge or abandoning the wall for the reef and sand flats inside. Spectacular things are to be seen in the deep water. During my week there, a pod of about a dozen dolphins, several manta rays, a few sharks, and turtles were reported. We hoped to sight migrating whales under water since the day I arrived divers were excited about having heard them underwater, but we were disappointed. Common Caribbean reef and sand creatures - tropical fish, southern sting rays, garden eels, conch, lobster, moray eels, etc. - are found on the top of the wall. After watching a ray buried in the fine white sand from two feet away for several minutes, I'm still puzzled how it kept sand out of its gills! Maybe it doesn't; maybe I'm only attributing my own distaste for grit to an animal which roots for its food in the sand.

During the week, visibility ranged from 50 to 100 feet or perhaps a bit more. Currents were very light, causing minor troubles only on one day when winds piled surface water between the reef and shore from where it drained down the sand channels and over the edge of the wall; most of us were pushed down 10 or 20 feet before realizing it.

My room at the Salt Raker was very clean and made up every morning while I was diving. Although provided with a room air- conditioner, the breeze and a ceiling fan sufficed. Water for hot showers after diving or swimming never failed, although the Inn, like every other place on Grand Turk, collects rainwater off its roofs in a cistern. Staff was invariably friendly and helpful. I ate most meals at the Salt Raker. I like seafood, and enjoyed the fresh conch and fish, finding lobster "island style" especially well-prepared and tasty. But grilled lobster didn't appeal to me on either of two occasions - too dry. A meal at the Turk's Head Inn, recommended by a winter resident as the best on the island, proved disappointing.

Sea Eye is a smooth operation. Boarding their boats, Carolina Skiffs, from the beach was easy when the surf was down. When it was up, a couple of anchors and the divemeaster steadying the boat and providing a hand to everybody got us on and off safely. The divemaster also handled tanks, BC's, and regulators. Most dive sites were buoyed; on the few that weren't, the anchor was always put in the sand. Scooting one's butt up a few inches from the seat to the gunwhale and a backroll constituted entry; passing up weight belt and tank, regulator and BC from the water before climbing the ladder eased the exit. Dives were led, but after one dive with Sea Eye everyone was permitted to roam freely. Most stayed within sight of the divemaster since his pace was easy, offering plenty of opportunities to check out a hole or get a photo and still get back with the group. Although target depths and times were set on every dive, these were minimums only. I usually exceeded the depth "limit" and always stayed until either tired, low on air, or chilled. (Yes, one can get cold in 78 degree water!)

The bottom line proved very reasonable. Room (single occupancy) for 8 nights and 14 dives were bundled together at $833. Meals (kept on a tab at the Salt Raker) with tips ran about $320. Drinks were additional and reasonable.


GUADELOUPE: CLUB MED BY GREGORY CHRISTOPHER

(Ed Note: After reading previous CTR reports from Gary Moore and Rick Krause, Gregory Christopher adds these comments.)

Spent a week at the Guadeloupe Club Med in early April 1996, and I generally agree with the laudatory reports previously provided by but I would add:

(1) Whatever you think you might need, bring. The price of a 4 oz. bottle of sun tan lotion is $17; a can of 3 tennis balls is $18; an ordinary men's swim suit is $70.

(2) Bring a mosquito repellent; two nights' sleep were ruined by my failure to do so.

(3) Don't bother with the all-day excursion that includes La Soufriere; the bus goes only part way up the volcano, which at that point looks like any other hill, and does not permit a hike to the top.

(4) Do give the trapeze a try (which is only 33 foot high; it just seems like 70 feet, ), but only on the last day, unless you have very strong chest and stomach muscles which will be sorely tested.

(5) Teenagers will be bored unless they are very gregarious and make friends easily.


GUADELOUPE: CLUB MED CARAVELLE BY BILL SCHEUERMANN

Merci beau coup ( the little French I know ) to all of you who provided the tips and insightful information before I left.

As they would say at Caravelle, the past week was "Super Magnifique". The new arrival reception was held on the second floor open air lobby where a huge, free-flowing concrete canopy towers above. As a past student of architecture I was most impressed. The brochure doesn't show this. A GO escorted me to my room, #38, ground floor at the very end of Desirade. I would have liked a better view but the location was a reasonable walk to the lobby and I could hear the crickets and other nocturnal critters at night. I enjoyed that.

The beach is what my mind's eye has always pictured at the mention of a Caribbean beach. I spent most of the time under a palm tree - it was perfection.

The food was outstanding all week - as good or better than the 5 Star dining we enjoyed on the Club Med 2 and a lot less formal(g). Dining in one of the gazebos, with food being cooked on an open pit grill just a few feet away was unique to say the least. The breads, pastries and desserts were typically CM delicious.

As expected, the GMs were predominantly French and surprisingly friendly! Most would even speak when passing. The French schools were out and there were literally hundreds of children. I didn't mind and in fact have always enjoyed their circus show and the short comedy skits the teen-agers would perform on the lounge stage in the afternoon. CM maintains a strong subtle hand on all the kids, of all ages, at all times. A teenager from Paris noticed the 3 prism lens on my camcorder - he was taking a video course in school and knew more about it than I do. He enjoyed having the opportunity to speak English - we became friends - it was almost like having Mark there.

The GOs only wore the same clothing on Sat. and Sun. for the benefit of the new arrivals. The rest of the week they wore their own casual clothing so I had to determine that if they were young, smiling and moving fast, then they must be GOs. They were as gracious and fun loving a group as I've ever seen and no doubt inspired by the chef de village, Momo. His name is pronounced" moo moo", short for Mohammed. He is a tall, slender, 29 year old from Morocco. His casual, yet determined demeanor endured the GMs by mingling with them and asking if every thing was O.K. I've never met a CDV so endearing and personable. It's always fun to see GOs that I've met at other villages and for the third time I ran into Philippe Cham, Chief of Staff. He was responsible for the original staffing of Columbus Isle. and confirmed, Adria, that Jean-Paul was now at C.I. and that his next assignment will be Chief of Sports! Be sure to give him my congratulations when you see him in July.

After the CM2 last year, it was great to go back to a village this year and especially this one. There was no structural damage after the hurricane this year so the village probably hasn't changed much since you were there Adria.

Well it's back to reality. I think I'll pull out the brochure, think about next year and put reality off for a few more days. Bill


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