Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor
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Rafael, our guide, talked in an informative manner as we left Varadero's 20 km (12.5 mi) beach of sparkling-white sand behind. Like the usual Cuban morning, this day the sun was shining brightly as the mini bus with a group of ten made its way southward toward our goal - the recreated Indian village at Guamá, on the southern side of the island. Rafael, with his microphone, dominated the scene, "I've just been asked by a Canadian about prisons in Cuba. Well! They're not nice places, but if prisoners are willing to be rehabilitated their sentences are drastically cut. Today, the most prominent prisoners are cow thieves. The scarcity of meat has made this crime profitable." He went on, "But things are getting better." Was he telling the truth? I could not tell. Many Cubans, to whom I had spoken, had other views. I remembered the words of a taxi driver when I told him that Varadero appeared to be booming. He replied sarcastically as he waved outside the cab's window, "You see all this! It's all for you! Nothing for us!" As we passed through fields of sisal, Rafael talked about the many products, like rope and detergent, produced from this pineapple-like plant, then asked, "Does anyone know why the farmers here call its flower `the flower of death'?" No one had an answer. Rafael smiled as he answered himself, "The plant lives about 17 years, but once it produces a flower it dies." At the entrance to Cardenas, a town of 90,000, as we passed a huge crab monument, Rafael's voice boomed. "This town is noted from its crabs. I'll bet not many of you know that the crabs here make an annual trip to the nearby ocean to wash their gentiles before they breed." I looked around. No one seemed interested. Traversing the city, which like most Cuban towns was neat and clean but with buildings badly in need of paint, we came to sugarcane fields spread out as far as the eye could see - Cuba is one of the three top sugar-producing countries in the world. The 200 products, from animal feed, molasses and alcohol products to medicines and paper, produced from the cane, is a major factor in the evolvement of the struggling Cuban economy. However, sugarcane production has plummeted from 8 million tons in 1992 to some 3 million in the last few years. Its earning of foreign exchange has gone to second place, overwhelmed by tourism which earns 42% of the foreign currency. Past the town of Jovenolla, we left the sugar fields behind and entered a green ocean of well-shaped citrus trees. After Castro's revolution, 80,000 ha (200,000 ac) of citrus fruit were planted in this part of Cuba. Villages and free boarding schools were built amid grapefruit, lemon, orange and tangerine orchards. Secondary and university students work two hours daily in the largest citrus plantation in all of Latin America, then study for the remainder of the day. At Fiesta Campesina, a small farm-zoo, on the edge of the citrus fields, featuring Cuban creatures, we stopped to rest and view the animals. I was truly intrigued with two endangered animal species: the Jutía, a vegetarian tree rat whose females menstruate, holding the blood back with a tree leaf between their legs; and the manjuari, a fish with an alligator head and fish body, which has not evolved for 3 million years. At La Boca, we toured an alligator farm, then boarded a vessel which takes visitors across a lake to the Indian village. After about 30 minutes we docked by the museum-Indian town - a reminder of the totally eliminated non-violent Taínos. When, in 1492, Columbus landed on the northeastern shore of Cuba, the peaceful Taínos received the Spaniards with hospitality. However, the Indians who had greeted him and his crew with food, drink and something new - tobacco - were soon to learn that the Spaniards were without scruples. In the ensuing decades, the savagery of the Conquistadors was without parallel. The Spaniards then proceeded westward slaughtering the Indians who offered any opposition. In less than 40 years, disease, war and the mines had virtually exterminated an indigenous population of some 100,000. The years rolled by and, until Castro came to power, not many Cubans were aware that their island was once the home of peaceful Indians. Among his first acts was to personally supervise the construction of a 16th century Taíno village which was named Guamá after the last courageous Indian chief who fought the conquerors. A few years ago, when I visited this Indian village with its life- like statues, about two dozen people, picked to represent the original inhabitants of Cuba, put on a re-enactment of Indian life before the Spanish conquest. Fascinated with the scene, I stepped forward to take photos. Thinking how physically beautiful were the men and women actors, I looked up from my camera to see a young lady walking toward us. Smilingly she picked me from the some 50 tourist spectators. Taking my hand, she led me to the front of the chief's thatched hut and motioned me to kneel beside her. In front of us, the chief and witch doctor were going through motions which I could not comprehend. Watching their movements, it suddenly struck me. "It was a wedding ceremony. We were being married!" Every time I would glance sideways at my attractive Indian maiden, she would smile and with motions instruct me what to do. I was in a domain of illusion - a world of the long-gone gentle Taíno Indians. The ceremony finished, my fantasy bride pulled me up to join hands with the remainder of the actors, along with the tourists, in a dance - apparently to celebrate our wedding. A few moments later, we entered the chief's hut where my bride took a bright red flower and gave it to me - I thought `to seal our marriage.' Just before the collection plate at the door, my beauty left me. However, my world of illusion would not fade away. As I walked away, I was still in a daze thinking of my fantasy bride. I only woke up to reality when one of our group standing beside me asked, "Are you still thinking of that beautiful young bride? Too bad! She's not real!" This time as our boat docked at the Taíno village, I was excited in anticipation. Perhaps the wedding scene would be repeated. A few minutes later we were in the Taíno village. Alas! I could see no wedding. I turned to Rafael asking, "Is there to be a re-creation of a Taíno wedding today?" He smiled, "Now we have only a purification ceremony. You'll see it in the chief's hut." As we passed single file through the hut, maidens accompanied by drummers began to purge us of our sins. Were they cleansing me of my thoughts of that Indian maiden? I rushed out. I did not want to be purified of the reflections about my beautiful Taíno bride - of the past.
(Ed. Note: Elba also contributed reports from Isla Margarita, and Puerto Rico in this edition.)
After our visit to Dunes Allegro Resort, this place was a let down. We expected the same Allegro experience but fell short. We thought that by visiting its adults only resorts, the fun would be even better. The place felt more like a retreat at a monastery, except the monks like good food. So their idea of adults only means peace and quiet, not wild fun. The resort is nice and a good layout with 2 pools. Beautiful beach with a restaurant. Lush gardens but no hammocks. The food was OK but little variety and after 3 days little else to try. The Italian restaurant was good but hey haven't a clue on how to make a capuchino coffee!. the staff. - sucked The male entertainment staff were local and the female staff were Brazilian. Having been to a Brazilian carnival, our expectations were high. Well first of all they never approached anyone personally to give a welcome and an invitation to join the fun and games. They appeared more interested in chasing single guys. Their entertainment in the pool and beach was limited to throwing the guests a ball and told to get on with it. Second, they gave the impression that their cute buns was all the entertainment needed. The day it rained they had no clue as to how to entertain the guests. they resorted to handing out a few games of scrabble!. (When I visited the Dunes Allegro in Venezuela, the power went out one evening. The staff was so creative it was the best night of all. The manager actually told us he had been very nervous about how the guests would react and even safety. He said that these kids actually saved the evening.) Back in Jack Tarr, the shows were decent. but not outstanding. The Brazilian girls kept trying to steal the show. Later at the disco they were only interested in dancing among themselves and not inviting the crowd. The bartenders and waiters were of limited help. As someone said in a report they were more interested in making life easy on themselves not the guest. They pretended to be friendly and informal when it suited them but it edged on show-offenses and bore. They pretended to imitate Jamaicans. Another problems was that (we speak Spanish) they would talk behind the guests back. Local guests. We found several local guests. Although my wife is Puerto Rican and I find them to be loud, I found Dominicans to be loud and also obnoxious. They invaded one pool every day and gawked at the topless and nude guests, not to mention the remarks. A place I will not return to.
It must have been far from the minds of the creators of the highly successful movie, Jurassic Park, that introducing Dominican amber imbedded with insects would initiate a run on the sale of this centuries-old attractive resin. Yet, this is what has happened. Apparently, the scenes of the actors inspecting amber encasing perfectly preserved insects has created a huge demand for what has been called 'the Dominican Republic's golden gem'. During my numerous trips to Puerto Plata, the Dominican Republic's main tourist resort, I have been always intrigued by the great variety of amber products offered to gawking visitors in the countless tourist shops. The gem's warm-golden transparency and attractive lustre invariably held me enthralled. Like the ancients who for thousands of years prized and held amber in high esteem, this treasure of early man had entrapped me in its aura of mystery and romance. Primitive tribes in the Bronze and Iron Ages endowed amber with mystical qualities and utilized it as a currency and in their religious practices. In the lands edging the Baltic Sea, where it has been known since man first walked that part of the earth, it was believed that amber protected the living and sped the dead on their journey to the other world. Hence, it was placed in tombs to ensure immortality. In Greek mythology, the Heliades, sisters of Phaethon, the favourite child of the sun-god Helios, were transformed into trees from whose branches tears continually fell and hardened into this rich looking resin. Amber has from time immemorial been worn as an amulet and employed for medical purposes. The negative charge of static electricity, produced when it is rubbed, gave it a reputation for curing certain diseases. It was believed by medieval physicians that an amber necklace was an efficacious remedy for throat disorders, especially goiter. Others prescribed it to restrain the flux in the body, as an antidote to poison, to ward off nervous afflictions, relieve asthma, aid in the alleviation of both deafness and dimness of sight and to ease bouts of dysentery. A product originating from living organisms, amber is not truly a mineral even though it is usually obtained by mining. In the main, it is found in loose sands and clays in irregular lumps or nodules which are often washed ashore by the ocean waves. Soft, light in weight and very brittle, these fossil resin shapes in the Dominican Republic have been found to enshrine at least 1,000 species of mostly extinct insects and crustaceans. Outside the Baltic countries, which remain the fountainhead of amber, the most plentiful source is found in the Dominican Republic. It has been mined in that country since it was first mentioned by Columbus in 1496 on his second voyage to the New World. Two of the main deposits are located near the northern shore of the island which has been labeled 'the Amber Coast' - in the Cordillera Septentrional at Palo Alto and in the Samana region. Dominican amber is more brittle than other varieties and tends to easily break when subjected to sharp blows. Almost 60 million years old, this Western Hemisphere resin is very attractive and found in colours from crystal clear to black-golden. The fauna inclusions, which are more abundant than those found in the Baltic lands, have made the country a looking glass mirror for archaeologists from all over the world. Readily cut, drilled and polished; and warm to the touch, amber has since prehistoric times been universally popular for personal adornment and other ornamental products. Skilled Dominican craftsmen turn out from this ancient gem exquisite bangles, earrings, necklaces and charms. A favourite type of jewelry is made from silver or gold-filled wire wrapped around polished amber or used to string up drilled semi-polished nodules into bracelets and necklaces. Besides all types of jewelry, the amber is often carved into knife handles, candlesticks, plaques, rosary beads, statues and table vessels. Most of these artisan products tend to have a distinctive quality which reflects the now extinct Taíno Indian culture. Without question, they are the best buys a tourist can make in the Dominican Republic. One of the top places where a visitor can view and purchase these products is a bazaar- museum complex in Puerto Plata - the heartland of the country's amber industry. The ground floor consists of a seven room bazaar where amber goods are made and sold. It is an excellent handicraft shop which features many types of jewelry not available elsewhere in the Republic. The second floor houses one of the Western Hemisphere's unique museums, featuring the world's most extensive collection of amber. Displaying rough pieces from shale and sediment encrustations to perfectly polished jewels in all shapes and forms, it celebrates the long history of what Dominicans call 'the burning stone'. It is said that after visiting this museum-marketplace, vacationers will always fondly remember the Dominican Republic for its 'golden gem of the ages'.
Trip : 20 to 26 August 1999 We'll try to keep this report (relatively) short, and not duplicate the excellent reports written by others. However, we had such a wonderful time at Grand Lido Negril that we wanted to relive it by writing this! Also, a number of people were kind enough to respond to our on-line questions when we were trying to decide where to go, so this is a sort of payback. To provide context for the reader, this trip represented a belated 25th anniversary celebration. In addition, it was our first time away from our kids for this many nights since a year before the 11 year-old was born (you do the math!). We run a sole proprietorship consulting business, have two kids (14 and 11), volunteer a lot, and spend most of our life exhausted. We wanted a vacation to remember who each other was (that is, social life was not important to us), in a beautiful stress-free beach environment. We spent a lot of time on-line and on the phone trying to select the best resort for our needs. In the end, we selected Grand Lido Negril, and are thrilled that we did. Also, the resort was about 40% full for most of our stay, which definitely affected our impressions. However, given how very empty it seemed at times while we were there, I don't think it would feel crowded even at 100% full. Travel Briefly, we drove from our home in western New Jersey to Raleigh, NC to drop off our kids. When we returned we drove to Kiawah Island SC to pick them up, and then home. We flew Delta from RDU to Atlanta where we connected to Air Jamaica. Both airlines functioned as well as can be expected for late 90's flying, although the Air Jamaica flights were more than half empty, we guess because it's low season for Jamaica. The only major problem was a significant flight delay in Atlanta on our return trip caused by crew being shifted around from flight to flight. Apparently weather elsewhere had delayed many flights. Thus, we arrived back at our lodging in Raleigh at 2:30 a.m. instead of the scheduled 11:30 p.m. However, we can't bash Delta, just two weeks before they had been wonderful to our 14 year-old, and us, when she was stranded overnight in Cincinnatti while returning from Space Camp. Flying in the late 90's has its ups and downs (no pun intended) regardless of airline. Most importantly, we flew from Montego Bay to Negril on Timair, and back again at the end of our stay. Both flights were excellent (thanks to Jason and Sam!). Monica gets motion sick in the back of a cab (bus, train, airplane, you name it), so you can imagine how smooth the flights were, since she loved them! We highly recommend Timair, at least in good flying weather! The Room We had requested the standard junior suite, with ocean view, the middle range selection. We were upgraded to beach front, apparently because I'd mentioned that it was our 25th anniversary. The room was as others have described, and we found it extremely comfortable. The most pleasing part was its location. When we opened the drapes to the patio we discovered we were right on the c/o beach, roughly 50 feet from the waters of Bloody Bay! The convenience of walking this short distance to enter smooth 85 plus degree water at any time of day or night can't be overstated! And, we did it often! The Food Breakfast has the option of the central buffet or room service. We did each, and were happy with each. Room service was great for eating on the patio, but there were a few items on the buffet that we liked very much and that were not available from room service. In particular, no one seemed to notice that a cook was preparing French toast to order every morning. He was located to the left of the main buffet area. I hope that others do begin to take notice, because I wouldn't want the French toast option to go away! For lunch we ate at the central buffet. Others have mentioned that lunch seems an afterthought at GLs, and this was somewhat true. Still, we always found plenty to eat that we enjoyed, and the desserts were awesome! For dinner GL Negril has the option of three restaurants: La Pasta (which serves what you would expect, we get that at home so did not eat there), Café Lido (which has a slacks and collared shirt dress code for men), and Piacere (the "white glove" restaurant with the jacket and slacks, no tie, requirement for men). On Wednesdays and Fridays there are special buffets with special entertainment. We did Café Lido and Piacere each twice (lucky for us it was low season, otherwise it's difficult to visit Piacere more than once in six evenings, reservations are required). Each was excellent in its own way. Café Lido's menu changed, and it had a more relaxed atmosphere, as a Café should, but it was thoroughly enjoyable and the food was excellent. Piacere was almost too formal for our tastes, but then we've been raising kids and eating in diners for the last 14 years. We got used to the much higher standard quickly! The food was excellent here also, but with a more elegant style. A couple of notes: we love dessert, and were not disappointed at any meal in any location. With regards to the "slacks" dress code, it also applies to the cocktail hour cruise on the M/Y Zein as well. It was explained that the experience of the resort has been that if men are allowed to wear shorts they frequently show up in "boxers, jogging shorts, pajama bottoms, etc.". Therefore, when a little less informality is desired the resort requires men to wear slacks. Entertainment and Music in general While there is live entertainment every night, plus piano bar and disco, we didn't always stay, preferring to walk or go for a late swim. However, we did see the Caribbean Night show, which was very good (contortionist, native dancers, fire eater, juggler, limbo, etc.) and a trio of female singers with band backup that did a fine show. What we enjoyed even more, and which I haven't noticed anyone else mention, was the background music at the meals and in the restaurants. Café Lido had two musicians playing very good instrumental jazz as background; Piacere had an excellent pianist. Several lunches in the main buffet were accompanied by the "house band" which played instrumental jazz well. The highlight, however, was the pair of musicians who played for lunch on our last two days. A violinist and keyboardist played jazz, or other genres in a jazz style, with great improvisational flair. As will any good improvisors, they sat facing each other and played off each other. They brought every song they played to life. One example was a rendition of "Dueling Banjos", which drew applause and cheers from the audience of lunchers throughout as well as at the end. Even if you prefer the food from one of the "houses" or bars, if these guys are playing you should grab your food and go listen. Activities We have only a little to say about activities, because we went to GL Negril to become vegetables, and worked very hard at it. However, we snorkeled once, rode a water trike, took the shopping trip. The snorkeling equipment was OK, but I'm sure serious snorkelers would prefer to bring their own. The water trike was fine, and met expectations. The shopping trip was useful for obtaining guilt-reducing souvenirs, and the prices were lower than in the gift shop, although higher than the airport duty-free for some items, while lower for others. The trip involved three stops: the craft market, a duty free store, and a shopping center. The craft market was the only area to bargain on this trip, and the selection of merchandise was pretty good. The middle stop at the duty free store was pointless, and could be eliminated to allow more time at the craft market and shopping center. The shopping center was obviously built to satisfy tourists, but was useful for souvenirs. General Resort Highlights The grounds are extremely attractive and well and skillfully maintained. Workers raked and generally kept the grass, sand, walkways, etc. extremely neat. In addition, gardeners were both pruning and grafting plants throughout the grounds, showing a concern for maintaining and improving on an already beautiful setting. One attention to detail that was a very nice touch: workers using power equipment (trimmers, blowers, etc.) turned them off as guests passed, and back on afterwards. The water of Bloody Bay was extremely calm and clear while we were there (an advantage over Long Bay which had much more watercraft traffic because of the larger number of resorts on that side). You could lay on the surface with a snorkel mask (or regular swimmer's goggles) and see the grains of sand on the bottom. Also, because the shore is part sandy beach and part rock there is a great variety of underwater life very close to shore. We saw a variety of fish, rays, crabs, starfish, and more within a few yards of the beach. The people are uniformly pleasant, ranging from cordial to extremely enthusiastic. We particularly liked Lucy (one of the Social Directors) who showed us to our room, gave us our orientation, and always seemed to be around with a smile and a humorous comment. Enold, at the main bar, re-introduced us to the wonders of the Black Russian, but made with Blue Mountain Coffee Liquer. Numerous bartenders made variations on rum drinks and others (Monica was a bit tough to please but they kept trying). Everyone had a smile and a "Good Morning" or whatever as we passed. The Clothing Optional Area One of the areas in which GL Negril met our requirements was in what seemed in advance a low-key clothing optional area. Both of us wished to try nude sunbathing and swimming, but in a low pressure environment in which we could adapt at our own rate or even stay dressed if we were uncomfortable. From our advance research GL Negril seemed to meet this requirement. The actuality was exactly what we were looking for. The clothing optional beach and pool area is big enough with enough areas of beach and plantings that you can be as secluded or social as you wish. Thus, early in our stay we undressed for our end of the beach but wrapped a towel around to go to the bar. By the end of our stay we showered nude at the outdoor shower in the pool and bar area shower and only covered up if there seemed to be many clothed persons around. The dress of the people in the c/o area ranged from nude couples to couples in which one was and one wasn't, and people who removed nothing. People who wished to socialize gravitated to the bar area, but those who didn't had plenty of room on the rest of the beach, and in the water, to be alone. The c/o area was never crowded. At the most I counted about two dozen people in the beach area at one time. Early in the morning (before 8:00 a.m.) and at the cocktail hour (5:00 to 6:00 p.m.) we had the area completely to ourselves. Even when all two dozen people were in the water floating on the raft/cushions (a blissful activity) no one ever bumped into another, or even came within several yards! If you are someone who has considered nude sunbathing or swimming, this is the place to try it. I've been a swimmer all my life, and spent almost too much of it in speedos and other swimsuits. The feeling of swimming without is extremely liberating; I swear I swam faster than I have in years the first time I went in nude. Also, sunbathing is much more comfortable without a wet suit wrapped around you (duh!). My wife feels much the same way, and loves our much reduced tan lines (be careful to use an adequate sunscreen!) And at this resort you can get up in the morning, walk out your door and walk into the water with "no problem". You can also do the same thing to cool off in the evening before bed! We did both nearly every day and loved every minute of it. Summary This is hardly an objective review of GL Negril. We needed a vacation alone together in the right environment and this resort met or exceeded our needs and expectations in every respect. We will definitely be back, as soon as we can find another place to send our kids!
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