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Caribbean Travel Roundup
Paul Graveline, Editor
Februray 1, 1995
CONTENTS FOR FEBRUARY 1995
1/ Island News
2/ Press Releases
Dive Guides from Matilda Teitge Puerto Rico Events
3/ Journeys for February 1995
Bahamas: Paradise Island by Kathleen Orchant
BVI: Bareboat Chartering by Shawn and Ross Weintraub
Cancun by William Bush
Cancun by Bernie Hirsch
Cayman Islands by James Spindler
Cuba: Walking Tour of Old Havana by Andrew Coe
St. Barths by Jonathan Miller
St. Croix By Vicki Luciano
St. John by Maureen Sullivan
St. John by Josh Frankel
St. Martin by Maryjane Schude
St. Martin by Hettie Maidman
About Our Contributors:
Andy Coe's article, Cuba: Havana Walking Tour, is an except from his new book "The Passport Guide to Cuba". The book itself contains almost 100 photos, most in color, and 13 maps. He has also included essays on special topics--cigars, rum, the US mafia--and nine excerpts from the great writers on Cuba, such as Jose Marti and Hemingway. It's availabel from NTC Publishing Co., 4255 W Touhy Ave., Lincolnwood, IL 60646-1975. His work is copyrighted and used here with his permission.
1/ ISLAND NEWS
NEWS WRAP-UP FOR JANUARY 1995
From now on I'll try to provide a brief wrap-up of major events in the region each month. As this is mostly based on reports from the BBC and VOA short-wave broadcasts, it quite possible something will be missed. If you have news which you think the readers would be interested in hearing, then please contact the editor through one of the channels mentioned at the end of the newsletter.
In late January there were significant demonstrations in the capital St. Johns against the imposition of taxes. It seems that the opposition is also suggesting the possibility of a general strike in the future.
On Jan. 6 BWIA was privatized with the sale of the Trinidad based airline to a private group headed by an American business person. Apparently full details of the sale were not made public and there is some opposition in Trinidad to the sale. The government appears to have retained certain veto powers over the operations and three is worry that with more emphasis on the more popular tourist routes Trinidad will lose in the overall deal. All sides, including opponents of this particular deal, stress that they are in favor of a privatization and increased BWIA efficiency. It just this particular deal that is of concern.
In addition LIAT went private in early January. The shares will first be offered to regional business people and then to employees. There have been no offers from non Caribbean carriers for a piece of the actions as yet.
BRITISH GOVERNMENT CHANGES POLICY
In what may be a significant change of policy, the British government has decided to further their ties in the Caribbean with the more economically developed Spanish speaking areas like Puerto Rico and Venezuela. The U.K. government is seeking to shift their expenditures in the region from aid to their dependencies to programs that will help them integrate trade with the rest of the Caribbean and eventually, it is assumed, into the NAFTA. This is a major shift in policy from the days when Britain supplied what were essentially subsidies to their territories. Hence, British dependencies will have to me more conscious of competitive practice and more outward looking.
CASINO GAMBLING BEING CONSIDERED
Both Barbados and Jamaica are seriously considering permitting casino gambling. There seems to be a lot of games of chance already being conducted on the islands such as country wide lotteries etc. so there is some optimism that in the future casinos will be permitted. It seems that most of the applications to construct new hotels come with a stipulation that a casinos be included.
By late January Jamaica had voted casino gambling down and at least one hotel developer had decided to scale back a Montego bay project because of that decision. Barbados was still debating the its merits.
Watch for the Greenpeace's "Rainbow Warrior" to be in the region. The organization is trying to make Caribbean governments aware that dangerous nuclear waste will be shipped through the region in the 95.
Political turmoil dominated 94. After close election, political squabbles broke out. A number of apparently drug related or political killings took place and there was a major jail break. In November there was a meeting to unite various factions with an election being called for in 1995.
2/ PRESS RELEASES
Matilda Teitge passes along the follwong information about Hubers Dive Guidses. She mentiones that this informtion was written by Mariner's Treasure Chest, A Div. of Blue Lagoon Adventures, Inc.
(1) Best Dives of the Caribbean by Jon & Joyce Huber
The Huber's sequel to the Best Dives of the Western Hemisphere is their *newest* dive travel guide, the Best Dives of the Caribbean. Included is dive information for over 30 Caribbean Islands. In-depth coverage of what to see and do, where to stay and where to dive in: Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, Belize, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands (Tortola, Virgin Gorda & Anegada), Caymans, Cozumel, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadelope, Bay Islands (Utila, Guanaja & Roatan), Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Kitts, Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Maarten/St. Martin, St. Vincent, the Grenadines, Tobago & the United States Virgin Islands (St. John, St. Thomas & St. Croix). Best Dives of the Caribbean contains information on how to plan your scuba trip, as well as information on snorkeling, sharks, handicapped divers tips, packing tips, restaurants, money-saving tour packages and scuba diving certification agencies.
Included are detailed reports on the best :
Color and black & white photos, maps.......$15.95
(2)Best Dives of the Western Hemisphere by Jon & Joyce Huber
In this superb dive travel book, the Best Dives of the Western Hemisphere, over 200 sites for the best diving are nominated by the top divemasters in each location. In-depth coverage of what to see and do, where to stay and where to dive in: the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, BeIize, Bonaire, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Catalina Island (California), Cayman Islands, Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary, Cozumel, Curacao, Florida Keys, Guadeloupe, Hawaii, Turks & Caicos and US Virgin Islands. Best Dives of the Western Hemisphere contains information on how to plan your scuba trip, as well as information on liveaboards, snorkeling, underwater photo tips, sharks, night diving, first aid and scuba diving certification agencies.
Some examples of sites reviewed: five starfishes for La Dania's Leap in Bonaire; five starfishes for Trinity Caves, Grand Cayman; four starfishes for snorkeling site Sharkfin Rock, Hawaii; five starfishes for The Arches, South Caicos; three Starfishes for The Carolina wreck dive, Brazil; five starfishes for The Barrier Reef & four starfishes for the atoll The Blue Hole, Belize; four starfishes for The Fishbowl, Berry Islands, Bahamas and five starfishes for Current Cut, Eleuthera, Bahamas.
After reading Best Dives of the Western Hemisphere, I want to don my dive gear and board a plane so that I can go diving and experience as many of these great Western Hemisphere dive destinations! .........$17.95
(3) Diving Bonaire
Covered in this excellent Bonaire dive travel guide are fifty eight of the best dive sites in Bonaire and Klein. Included are detailed information on marine life, dive resorts, restaurants, the island's history & scenery above and below the water. Maps/color photos, 132 pages.......$18.95
(4) Diving Cozumel
The Mexican island of Cozumel is one of the Caribbean's best dive destinations. Detailed descriptions of the underwater terrain & marine life are included for 30 of the top shore & boat dives on the island. Includes information on reef profiles, fish & invertebrates. Sightseeing, hotels & restaurants on Cozumel and the nearby Yucatan Peninsula are covered in this dive travel guide....................$18.95
(5) Diving Club Med
Featured are the following ten Club Med diving destinations: Buccaneer's Creek, Martinique; St. Lucia, West Indies; Turkoise, Turks & Caicos, Columbus Isle, Bahamas; Eleuthera, Bahamas; Cancun, Mexico; Sonora Bay, Mexico; Playa Blanca, Mexico; Moorea, French Polynesia and the cruise ship Club Med 1. Included are detailed descriptions of the topography & marine life of the most popular Club Med dive & snorkeling sites. For each of these locations, the atmosphere of the Club Med village is detailed. Maps/color photos, 128 pages..............$18.95
Best Dives of the Caribbean is $15.95, Best Dives of the Western Hemisphere is $17.95 and Diving Bonaire, Diving Cozumel & Diving Club Med are $18.95 each. All dive travel guides are available from Mariners Treasure Chest, a Division of Blue Lagoon Adventures, Inc. Please add $3.50 P&H for one book & .50 for each additional book ordered. Please send a check or money order payable to Mariners Treasure Chest, P.O. Box 107, Bayville, NY 11709. For Connecticut, New Jersey & New York residents, please add 8.5% sales tax.
If you want to be put on our mailing list for our Winter 1995 catalog of other great dive travel books & videos that we offer, please send your name & address to:
Mariners Treasure Chest
P.O. Box 107
Bayville, NY 11709
Puerto Rico Events
2/16-19 Arroyo's Shanchez Carnival --Costumes float etc. in the southern town of Arroyo includes day and night events.
2/17-19 15th Coffee Harvest Festival -- folklore music - floats etc. in Maricao, 1 hour east of Mayaguez , in the center of the coffee growing region. 2/21 Homenale a Rafael "Kaki" Torrens - Fundaction del la Opera at the Performing Arts Center.
2/22-28 Carnival Ponce. Floats, parades Etc. live music includes the folkloric rhythms of the plena which originated in Africa. Call 809-800-4141
Other P.R. Carnivals: San German, San Juan, Salinas, Vega Alta
2/24-26 Classical ballet La Fille mal Gardee by the Ballet Concierto Dance Co. at Performing Arts Center, San Juan 809-724-4747.
3/ JOURNEYS FOR FEBRUARY 1995
Bahamas: Paradise Island by Kathleen Orchant
We just got back from Paradise Island & had a wonderful time during our 4 days/3 nights. Went via Apple from BWI and everything went pretty much as they said it would.
We used the Holiday Inn Pirates Cove and found it to be a clean and comfortable place to stay (although the beds could be a little firmer!!). It's nothing luxurious but is certainly quite comfortable.
The pool area is very nice and the beach is quite gorgeous-found it nicer than the beach at other PI places such as the Atlantis and Radisson Grand. It's a great beach for kids as the cove is very protected and, thus, calm. We snorkeled there twice with mixed results (bad and good) as both days we tried it was quite windy.
Dined at Passin Jacks in the Nassau Harbor Club and it offered good food, good service and reasonable prices with a decent view of the waterfront. Food down there is VERY EXPENSIVE as you should expect dinner with a beer or glass of wine to run $25-30 bucks a head.
Also dined at Piccadilly's in downtown Nassau and found it to be good in terms of service and atmosphere while also being somewhat reasonably priced.
We also stopped by the Poop Deck and it's a great spot-quite lively and good food and service.
We played "tourist" in downtown Nassau but were underwhelmed as it's and odd mix between the merchants of the straw market contrasted with those within the duty free shops. Neither impressed us as the straw market can be depressing because of the obvious poverty these people live in and under. The duty free shops did nothing for us but maybe we just don't have tastes that match what they're selling. We also did Corral World and it's a mixed bag as it's a bit run down but some of the displays and activities (feeding the stingrays) were great.
We also did the Queen's Steps, Fort Fincastle and so forth and stood in awe of the half dozen cruise ships in the harbor. They are impressive.
Also did a great snorkeling trip out to Rose Island via Bahama Dive Shop. They've got some terrific trips and are very competitive in terms of their price. The guys on the boat were great.
We spent our last afternoon touring Atlantis and it's quite a sight. Very impressive pools, aquatic displays and so forth. The place is huge!!! But they've got lots of folks tending to you and the conversations we had with folks who stayed there was positive. Its beach is OK but they're working on it but I don't see how they can stop the Radisson from throwing its shadow on the beach! The Atlantis is worth visiting -definitely!
The beach at the Holiday Inn was the nicest we saw on PI although its next door neighbor (Paradise Cove-just out front of Paradis Paradise)is also quite nice. So, we'd do it again in a heartbeat but I think I'd try Cable Beach. Say this only because of logistics-getting to and from PI can be expensive via the water taxi and/or taxis every time you want to get off PI. Dining on PI is limited to the hotels and is very, very expensive. cable Beach offers the seventy five cent buses to and from Nassau. It also seems that lower cost eating is more available at Cable Beach.
But that Pirates Cove Beach-it's truly a beauty! Guess we'll need more time next time and try both areas!!!!
BVI: Bareboat Chartering by Shawn and Ross Weintraub
This is a letter we have sent to those who like us have researched bareboat chartering in the BVIs. Hope you find some good information.
Driving in the BVI's wasn't something we wanted to try, so I don't have much info on car/jeep rentals. One comment I can make is you'll be best off with 4wheel drive.
RESTAURANTS (on shore):
Tortola's West End is beautiful. Some of the most noted restaurants on the island are located there. We ate dinner at The Sugar Mill, a restaurant owned by a couple(Jinx and Jefferson Morgan) who are writers for Bon Appetit magazine. They serve a sort of French/West Indian cuisine, and have an excellent wine list. We were told that The Apple and Sebastian's are other good choices. The Verandah at the Mooring's Treasure Isle Resort is decent but quite. The restaurant at the Mariner Inn is as good and quite a bit livelier. Try a Roti. Look for the Limin' Times weekly newsletter for local happenings and entertainment.
We tend to visit grocery stores on most vacations. The best one we found was The Ample Hamper in Soper's Hole, West End. Everything on the islands is imported (with the exception of fish and some meats) so expect prices to be higher than we see in the States. We provisioned our boat with a lot of items we packed from home: pasta, tuna, and our favorite snacks. We also found our that we could carry a small cooler on the plane and through customs without a problem. We packed a premade frozen stew, some chicken wings, and a steak. If you're fussy about quality, or afraid of high prices you may want to pack a few things. Also, the Riteway Supermarkets (downtown Tortola and Paseo Estate near the Moorings Mariner Inn) are pretty well stocked with the basics. Their booze was less expensive than TICO Distributors. Next trip we plan to let the Ample Hamper do most of our provisioning and start sailing earlier.
Prices for alcohol tend to be the opposite of the food. Wines from France are much cheaper than California, so you'll see different brands. Rum is probably the best value. We found it to be cheaper that the water! Try a "Pain Killer" at any bar! Please bring me home some more $6.95 bottles of Pusser's.
We rented a Mooring's Oceanis 352. Just the two of us. No problem handling it, but more hands make for less work. If we were a foursome I would get a 38 of 43. 3 couples should get nothing less than a 43. Four can definitely survive a 51 (four separate cabins with heads, no problem). There are two different layouts of the 352. If getting that boat ask for a straight through galley rather than a corner galley. The head on the straight through is huge (5 people could shower together). We were barely able to squeeze into ours (only if one person sits down). The Moorings were excellent. I have done 30+ charters and found them to be top notch. Worth the extra money. One day the switch on our anchor windlass broke (lifting 90' of chain wasn't much fun).
The next morning, they met us and replaced it, no problem.
In the Bight on Norman Island we went to the William Thornton, a fake pirate ship for drinks). Looked like fun for a very casual dinner. In Trellis Bay, Beef Island (next to the airport) we dined at the Conch Shell Point Restaurant. The Dawson family serves rich, delicious food. We stopped at the Last Resort on Bellamy Cay for drinks. They had a casual buffet that looked OK. Finding the waitress to pay the bill was next to impossible. Go after 9 PM if you want live entertainment. The Baths were packed and difficult to anchor. Plan to go very early or you might as well skip it. Other have docked in Spanishtown and gone by taxi. On Virgin Gorda we spent most of our time in Gorda Sound. We heard there are several places to eat in Spanishtown. Two mentioned to us were Little Dix Bay Resort, and The Olde Yard Inn. The cool bar is The Bath & Turtle. We had a fabulous buffet at Pusser's Leverick Bay Resort. On Thanksgiving we were ripped off by the $30 buffet at the Bitter End Yacht Club. The resort is nice but overpriced. We later found out that the Pirates Cove Bar on the little cay across from the bar was the place to go. If you get to Jost van Dyke stop in Great Harbor and visit Foxy's. Very "touristy" but worth the stop. We ate one of the best meals ever at Harris' Place in Little Harbor, Jost Van Dyke. Fresh Caribbean lobster, side dishes and a beer for $25 per person. Water taxi is $20 roundtrip from Great Harbor. Ask for Bun at the bakery behind the Government Building, very fast boat. We stopped in Soper's Hole, West End for lunch. Very picturesque. Wish we had stay longer.
Snorkeling is incredible. Try to do a day trip to The Caves on Norman Island. You can swim into the caves! You can only get there by boat, so try to make sure your boat has a swim platform of some kind. Your inexperienced friends will thank you. Also near The Caves are The Indians, four rock pillars with excellent snorkeling. Both stops could be done on a day sail from West End.
The Baths are the most famous spot to snorkel. Only bring what you want to carry, because there's no place to leave anything. You'll also need reef shoes or old sneakers to protect your feet. All around Gorda Sound is exceptional snorkeling, if you venture up that way: Necker Island, Saba Rock, Eustatia Sound, and Mosquito Island. On St. Thomas don't miss Coki Beach. Cooper Island is another nice day trip, with good reefs for snorkeling. They also offer other watersports and there is access to a beach.
To save money we rented equipment ($150 each) to bring on the boat. We used the dive shop located at the Moorings Mariner Inn (they and all the dive shop operators we met for refills were a little daffy). We ended up diving at the Indians (little rocks of Pelican Island, west of Peter), the Chimney on the
west side of Great Dog and the wreck of the Rhone. Anchoring/mooring, getting the equipment in and out of the lazarette, getting set up, in the water, navigating the reef, finding you boat, getting back in, getting equipment off, rinsed, and stowed before raising anchor and sailing/motoring to the evening's anchorage turned out to be a pain. The snorkeling is as good if not better than the diving. It's easier, quicker and gets you to your anchorage earlier. Next time we plan to keep the sailing and diving separate. Maybe we would take a lay day from sailing and go on an expensive rendezvous dive. The lack of a hassle is almost worth it.
Little Dix Bay Resort - didn't visit, heard this is quite lux
Pusser's Leverick Bay Resort - casual, not many facilities
Bitter End Yacht Club - very nice
Peter Island Yacht Club - big time snobby
Biras Creek - wow, breathtaking views of 3 seas, exclusive
I can't say much about St. Thomas. I've only stopped for the day on a cruise ship. We did hear that Charlotte Amalie isn't safe at night. This strongly contrasts the BVI's where our boat didn't need a key to start the motor! If you're at a resort area I'm sure you'll be fine.
Don't try to do too much. We had 3 to 4 activities planned per day. Next trip we are taking things a little slower, relax more. Take others with you to share the work and fun. Get in to anchorages early in the day (1 to 3 PM).
Late arrivals don't get mooring buoys and have to anchor. The $15 rental is well worth the restful sleep you will have. Keep sailing trips and dive trips separate. In the BVIs, snorkel rather than scuba dive. Quicker, easier and almost as beautiful.
Cancun By William Bush
We just got back from Jack Tar Village in Cancun. The hotel is next door to the Ritz Carlton. I believe Jack Tar bought it in September when it was called something like Vista Playa De Oreo. Since we got bumped by Club America we ended up here. We were originally booked at Club Oasis Akumal but with only five days left to go we were informed that we would not be able to get our destination so we went to this property sight-unseen.
Let me say first of all that we have been to Grand Lido in Jamaica twice, so we did not expect a Cancun all-inclusive to measure up to that. It didn't, but Jack Tar wasn't all bad. The rooms are very nice, bigger than average with king size beds available, television, and a usable verandah. They charge $11 US per night to upgrade to ocean view, which we did. All meals were buffet style unless you made reservations in the al a carte restaurant. We ate there only one time as you had to make a reservation between 9am an 1pm and we usually forgot to do so. After 1:00pm you had to wait for another day, regardless of whether they were full or not. And, it's only open about every other day. The service in this restaurant was good and the presentation, flaming deserts and the like, was nice. But the food was only fair. I had the fillet mignon and it was approximately the size of a salisbury steak. I ordered a bottle of California champagne (extra cost) from the wine list and was told that they were out and were offering me a bottle of Mexican champagne, "at the same price". I declined.
The buffet meals were very good at breakfast and lunch. Dinner was usually a bit disappointing due to the quality of the cuts of meat they served. With only 175 rooms and adequate space and staff, we never had to wait in line to eat.
The drinks were generally quite good although I found it ironic that they can't seem to make a decent margarita, which was surprising since we were, after all, in Mexico. Also, they only had one scotch - Queen Anne - which was barely passable, only one beer - Corona, and if you wanted something exotic like Canadian whiskey, forget it. There were four bars, one at the pool area, one swim up bar, one on the beach, and one in the lobby. Although you could get a drink any time from 10:00am to 1:00am, there were seldom more than two bars open at the same time.
There was little in the way of entertainment. And what there was wasn't very good. On "Toga Night" (yep, believe it or not), the evening consisted of some rather loud parlor games on the beach including a combination of musical chairs and a scavenger hunt. We chose to watch this from our balcony. The next night there was an outdoor concert about 150 yards down the beach featuring Tito Puente. We listened to some of it from our balcony before retiring. Imagine our surprise when we were awakened by booming fireworks that was the finale of the concert. Although we had the best seat for fireworks ever, we concluded that the concert must have run long since it was 1:45am!
Jack Tar's staff is friendly and helpful. As I mentioned before, they don't do all-inclusive as well as they do in Jamaica, but if you are flexible, it's a good resort to lay on the beach, play volleyball or shuffle board, or maybe take a day trip to Tulum or Chichen Itza. Here's my favorite story. We wondered what they would do for dinner on Christmas. To our surprise, it was (DRUM ROLL), CHINESE night! Complete with waiters in Chinese hats and the Chinese lanterns, and Mexican made chop suey. We couldn't understand this, but what the heck, we had a great vacation at a modest price so who is complaining. Met a lot of nice people. The beach is fantastic, and the water is fantastic!
Cancun by Bernie Hirsch
I just got back from Cancun, my second time. Two years ago stayed at the Club Med, this time at the Omni. First, the peso. Worst rate 4, best 5.3, average 4.5-5. The prices were somewhat inflated over two years ago, but not that much. We had no problem finding cheap meals, local goods, etc. The hotel quoted in $US, so inflation is a definite factor in hotel prices. You do lock in the peso rate the day you check in, so any fluctuations after that float.
TRANSPORTATION - bus, 2.5 pesos. You can get picked up in 30 seconds flat from anywhere along the hotel strip or downtown. Cab, 5-35 pesos. 5 pesos is a 2-6 block trip. 10-15 pesos is 2-5 of miles (Omni to the Kukulcan Plaza, Caracol, etc). 20 pesos is all the way from the Omni (south end of the strip) to downtown. 35 pesos is from the hotel to the airport. You'll end up paying more than this from the airport to the hotel, because there's more of a monopoly, and you only get 4.5 pesos to the dollar at the airport. The shuttle buses from the airport cost $US7/each, and take about 8 people to the hotels. I did this, and it was fine. I don't recommend driving. There's plenty of good public transportation, you have to buy insurance, and the laws in Mexico make you guilty until proven innocent in case of an accident. When getting into a cab, negotiate the price first!
FOOD: Ate at the Coral Reef in the Fiesta Americana Coral Beach - five stars. Cost, about $US50-60 for two. Ate at the Dolce Vita for Italian food twice. Cost, about $50 with wine, $30 without. My girlfriend didn't really like the fettucine, liked the Olive Garden better. I enjoyed the chicken parmessan. I give it 3.5 stars. Nice atmosphere, service varied based on server. Ate at Perico's for Mexican. A fun, wild place. A good place if it's your birthday, etc. 4 stars. Cost, $20-30 for two (that includes an appetizer, entrees, and 45 beers). Most of the hotels have theme nights like on a cruise ship. We didn't eat at the Omni except for breakfast. $US6 or N$27 for all you can eat breakfast buffet on the beach. Very good. 4 stars.
HOTEL - we lucked out at the Omni!!! Used a AAA discount, got a 50% discount on a US$230/night room. US$115/night rate (N$632) for a king, non-smoking ocean view. They were overbooked, so they gave us a FREE UPGRADE to a master suite!
It was gigantic. Two floors, winding staircase, jacuzzi hot tub, two 25" TV's, both floors had balconies overlooking the ocean, bar area, two bathrooms.
Marble floors, bathrobes, hair dryer, soaps. It had to be 1500 square feet. Can you believe it? We thought we'd died and gone to heaven. Most of the hotels along the strip (12 miles long) looked beautiful. It's pretty hard to go wrong. I particularly liked the Fiesta Americana Condesa lobby. It was open to the outside, and very Caribbean.
PHONE - if you need to call home, use the international direct dial method at the hotel. Dial 9 for an outside line, then 95 area code + phone #. A 3-5 minute call costs about US$5-7. If you use an operator, it's more like US$2030, plus a $4 hotel charge.
TIPS - I speak some Spanish, studied for four years in high school. Buy a $13 Berlitz TR-2201 Spanish-English translator from Walmart. I used it 50 times a day. Not only does it translate words and phrases back and forth, it also converts currency and units of measure. Invaluable tool. I sold mine the last day to a cab driver for what I paid (minus trade for the cab ride). Don't snorkel at Isle Mujeres (walk to the lighthouse at the south end instead), do it at the reef off of Club Med. All the beaches are government owned in Cancun, so take a bus to the Westin Regina, rent some snorkel gear at the pool, walk to Club Med reef along beach. TAKE TENNIS SHOES. Sharp rocks to walk over. Always barter for everything you buy, it's expected. Offer half of the initial price. Start to walk out if the price isn't low enough. See my second part of this note.
MONEY EXCHANGING - if you see a line, generally they're giving good rates. If you don't, steer clear. The best rates are at the banks downtown and outside of the malls. The Bankcomer bank next to Caracol Plaza and another bank just down the street from there near the Dunkin Donuts were giving N$5.2/US$1. Also bank downtown. The very best way to get money is to have a VISA or M/C, and use the bank machines outside most banks and plazas. Make sure you know your Personal ID Number. You'll usually get the best international rate this way for the pesos advanced. My hotel (Omni) was giving N$4.5/US$1. Use your credit card whenever possible. They will charge you in pesos, and the rate will get exchanged by VISA or M/C at the international rates (always the best). All of the hotels and most restaurants accept credit, and also the stores in the malls. The street shops usually don't take credit. Bring pesos, and bargain down the price.
OK, here's the scoop on swimming with the dolphins in Cancun. Two places allow it, Isle Mujeres and Xcaret. Isle charges $72, and Xcaret $60. I just got back yesterday from a week in Cancun, and my girlfriend and I swam with dolphins in Xcaret. Take notes, cause this is definitely the way to do it... All over Cancun, guys try to sell you discounts to day trips by listening to a time share pitch at one of the resorts or hotels. At the Plaza Caracol, there's a little store that offered us two FREE trips to Xcaret (value $70/each) and a free breakfast buffet by giving 90 minutes of our time at the Royal Mayan resort next to the Omni. I'm so glad we did it! A nice guy named Luiz showed us around the Mayan, we got a great breakfast, and an hour later we were out of there with our two tickets. I gave them $10 dollar deposit which I got back when I got to the Mayan. The great thing about this deal is that the Xcaret trip from the Mayan leaves at 7:30 (we went on Monday, 1/16). We got to Xcaret just after it opened at 8:30, and we were the first bus there, beating dozens of other buses coming from other hotels, etc. We RAN to the dolphin area, which is by the lagoon. Follow the signs to the "Beach - Playa," not "Dolphins Delphines" and you'll shave off a couple of minutes (it's more direct). There are three times to swim with the dolphins, 11:30, 1:30 and 3:30. Even though we did all this, the 11:30 was already full and the 1:30 was half full. This is the time we got. Pay in pesos, not dollars. They only give 4 pesos to the dollar at Xcaret, and by using pesos (N$240) it actually only costs about $48 US (instead of $60 because we bought pesos at 5.2 to the dollar. They also have a deal for $20 or N$80 to get just the educational program, which is included when you swim. Here's what you do: Put on headphones, listen to the live sound of the dolphins being picked up by a microphone. Then there's a 15 minute audio program about dolphins (in English or Spanish). Next, you put on a life jacket, split into two groups of about 6 per group, and get in the water with the dolphins. There are a total of 6 dolphins for the two groups. They feed the dolphins fish as you slowly swim around a big caged area, all the time petting the dolphins, rubbing their stomachs, etc. They don't want you putting your hands on the fins, blow hole, or in their mouth, and you're not supposed to hug them because it frightens them. Everything else is fine. This takes about 20 minutes. Next, the dolphins are actually trained to push you through the water for about 100 feet. You don't have to wear a life jacket for this. You lean forward, keep your legs straight behind you, and when the trainers blow their whistle, two dolphins come up behind you and push you as fast as a motor boat. You MAKE A WAKE! It was so cool!!! Lastly, your group lines up in the water, and the dolphins are trained to jump out of the water over your head twice.
They had a photographer and video man taking pictures of the whole thing. $8 or N$32 for 8 x 10 photos, and $30 or N$120 for the video. We bought the video and 4 photos. Also a gold dolphin ring for $50, t-shirts, etc. Bring an underwater disposable camera.
XCARET You can horseback ride to the beach for US$20 or N$80 (naturally, pay in pesos). It's an hour ride, and you go through some lush jungle to the ocean. Wonderful underground swimming. This was my second Xcaret trip. To rent snorkel gear at the park, it's US$6. Bring your own water and snacks. You're fine as long as you don't bring a cooler. Bring a towel and money.
SHOPPING - most of the street vendors sell the same stuff. Lots of onyx items like chess sets ($10-20), book ends, pyramids, ash trays, candle holders, dolphins, domino sets, etc. Hard wood carvings of dolphins and sharks. Leather goods like hand bags and carrying bags, wallets, sandals, belts, jackets.
Silver items like earrings, rings, bracelets, necklaces. I'd be careful buying these items off the street, even if they say .925 (% of silver). Buy these items from the more reputable (and expensive) mall stores. They also sell inexpensive blankets, T-shirts, puppets, shawls, Mexican dresses. Always bargain with the street shops, and try to get close to half of the original asking price. Become indignant or laugh at the initial price. If you speak Spanish (I do) this helps, but most of the merchants speak at least some English (like: "check it out", "what you want to buy?", "you like that, I make you good price", "almost free", "passan" (this means the plural of enter, or come on in).
Have a great time in Cancun. The Mexican people are all very nice to Americans, and most speak some English (some quite well). Tip everyone like you would here (except you don't have to tip the cab drivers). I never drank the water, always preferring to play it safe with bottled drinks. If you don't want ice, say "sin hielo" (pron. EE-AY-LOW). Remember gracias (thanks), por favor (please), como esta usted (how are you), muy bien (very well), ola (hello), and cuantos pesos (how much). If they say "le gusta" it means "you like this? You say "si" or "no". Hope this all helps some. Adios, and have a great trip!
Cayman Islands by James Spindler
My family (2 oldsters, 48 my 18 year old daughter, 16 year old son and his 16 year old friend) just returned from a week at Grand Cayman It was our first trip and will not be our last (next Christmas, if the kids have their way.)
We stayed at the Reef and it was adequate - excellent beach with some pretty good close-in beach snorkeling once the water calmed down. Our three bedroom condo had two baths and was supposed to have twin beds in one bedroom but didn't so my son had to sleep on the couch - not a pretty sight. Only had one TV and nowhere for the grown-ups to go (at least inside) when the kids were doing their thing. But, all in all, adequate. We are looking for next year but the more upscale places like Lacovia are already booked or require at least two weeks and we like to have Christmas at home and the kid's school vacation starts the day after New Years Day. So if anyone has any suggestions for a one week stay beginning the day after Christmas with 3 real bedrooms on 7 Mile Beach, please let me know.
Diving: The kids dived (dove?) 3-4 days with Ollen Miller and it couldn't have been better. We met another family on his boat that you recommended so it was like built-in friends. I would recommend Ollen to any skill level divers - my kids were novices and he had them at 60 feet the first dive and down to 115 feet. I'm glad we didn't know it at the time, but we had total confidence in Ollen and all worked out well. We also went on a snorkel trip to Sting Ray City and the reefs and it was fun, but the kids weren't too interested in snorkeling after they had been "down" Their conclusion: "Olden rules!"
Dining-Night Life- the kids hoofed it down to the Holiday Inn almost every night and came home with a bunch of Barefoot Man CDs so they had a great time totally safe There was a $10CI/head cover charge on New Years Eve which kept the crowds down but free the other nights. A walk in the moonlight was enough night life for the oldsters. We ate most breakfasts at the condo and didn't find groceries at all expensive for a resort type area. Restaurants included The Cracked Conch (twice) excellent service - good food with conch every way it can be prepared. The Crow's Nest excellent ambiance, excellent food - served 1&1/2 grilled lobster tails as a special - almost too much lobster - a nice touch was two dignified gentlemen cats that made the rounds, never begged but graciously ate any morsels you might care to contribute.
THE LOBSTER POT Wonderful harbor view, classy food and service - watched the fresh catch being prepared for the evening meal.
RICHARD FISH - Local type place - low prices - informal - try the Stew Conch or the white conch chowder WHITEHALL BAY (or something Whitehall) Nice airy place overlooking the harbor - excellent grouper and chips
LONE STAR - Not too impressed - fun place for the kids but food only so-so hamburgers ordered medium well were still mooing and had to be sent back
EATS CAFE - yuck, unanimously
BRITTANIA - golf course restaurant at the Hyatt - we missed the Sunday brunch by 20 minutes so it was a compromise - not really bad, but the conch fritters were raw inside and my conch chowder was the size of a demitasse cup Other Attractions: Turtle Farm - OK for about 15 minutes Hell - don't bother.
Shopping - OK in Georgetown but not when the Boat People are there.
Getting Around: I had to go out and practice driving our Toyota LiteAce on the left side but did OK. Upgrade from a Daihatsu minivan - without a doubt the most unroadworthy vehicle in the free world. A wonderful trip - next year - 3br/ 3bath/ 1wk after Christmas on the beach
Cuba: Walking Tour of Old Havana by Andrew Coe.
For some areas, like the labyrinth that is Old Havana, it is easiest to walk.
If you do not have a rental car, the easiest option is to take a taxi. The two main taxi services are Turistaxi (tel 79-1940 or 79-8828) and the less expensive Panataxi (tel 81- 0153 or 81-4142). Turistaxi, whose machista (Cuban for 'macho') drivers cruise down Havana's streets like they own them, has stands at every tourist hotel. Panataxi operates mainly by radio call, but also has stands a half block east of the Plaza de la Catedral and at Calles 17 and L in Vedado (at the gas station). Both taxi services offer special hourly and long distance rates. You also see peso taxis on Havana's streets; these run fixed routes, only accept pesos and generally do not allow tourists.
Havana's buses, called 'guaguas', used to be the easiest and cheapest way to travel. Unfortunately, they run rarely--the wait is often an hour or more-- and the fight to get on resembles a rugby match involving both sexes and all ages. The fare is only 10 to 40 centavos, but for tourists any savings is erased by the time and pain involved. Many Cubans now travel by bicycle; you can share the experience by renting one from Panaciclos (same phone numbers as Panataxi). Bicycle accidents are now one of the leading causes of death in Cuba, so extreme caution should be taken on Havana's streets.
Plaza de Armas
Our tour starts where it all began: at the west side of Havana Bay.
At the eastern end of the Malecon, the road turns south along the harbor and becomes Av Carlos M. de Cespedes, better known as Av del Puerto. On the right are a series of grass-covered squares containing monuments and fountains that end at a four-sided fort called the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (1558-1577).
This site was originally Havana's first plaza, and the present structure is an amplification of the city's first fort, the Castillo de la Fuerza. Although its designers used the most advanced designs of the time, the fort was quickly criticized because it was easily dominated by the hills across the harbor. The critics were proved correct when French pirates successfully raided Havana. Until 1762, its main use was as the seat of Cuba's colonial governors.
The fort ($1 admission) now houses rotating exhibitions of modern ceramics that clash with the severe stone setting. However, a tour of the building is worth it; you enter via a drawbridge over a moat and pass through the six-metersthick (9.5 feet) walls. There is a good view of the port from the battlements. From the center of the fort rises a 17th century tower topped with a bronze weathervane in the form of an Indian woman. Called La Giraldilla, she is now the symbol of Havana (she is also a replica; the original is in the Museo de la Ciudad de Habana). A nearby dock is the embarkation point for ferries across the harbor to the town of Casablanca.
We now walk a few steps inland from the fort entrance to the Plaza de Armas. In the 16th century, it was originally called the Plaza de la Iglesia because on it stood Havana's main church (demolished in the 18th century); the plaza soon became a parade ground for the Real Fuerza's troops and took on its present name. For its first two centuries, the Plaza de Armas was a rustic, weed- filled square with little charm. After 1750, the government began building a series of elegant administration buildings around the plaza and filling the interior with trees, benches and fountains.
For most of the 19th century, the plaza was Havana's most elegant meeting point, the pride of the city. As money and wealth moved out of Old Havana early in this century, the plaza and its buildings became dilapidated and semiabandoned. Restoration began in 1935, and today the Plaza de Armas is one of the most beautiful squares in Cuba. In the center is a statue of the rebel leader Carlos Manuel de Cespedes; this monument replaces one of King Ferdinand VII of Spain that, insulting patriotic sensibilities, stood here until 1955.
A ceiba tree at the northeast corner of the plaza is traditionally the site of Havana's founding. In 1754 a memorial column was erected here, and in 1828 it was replaced by a small, Greco-Roman structure known as El Templete. You enter El Templete's small courtyard through a gate and inside you find a ceiba that is supposedly fourth in a direct line of descent from the original (the others were blown down by hurricanes). On December 17, the anniversary of Havana's founding, thousands of habaneros line up for the custom of making a wish and walking three times around the tree while touching the trunk--the wish will come true. Six columns hold up the facade of El Templete.
Inside are three large paintings by Jean-Baptiste Vernay (1784-1833) that illustrate, from the left, Havana's first council meeting, the inauguration of El Templete and the first mass in Havana. El Templete shares the east side of the park with the Palacio del Conde Santovenia, an early 19th century mansion that later became the Santa Isabel Hotel. It is now under renovation.
Returning to the north side of the plaza, after the fort you come to the dark limestone Palacio del Segundo Cabo. Completed in 1772, this sober, baroque building was originally the post office and then housed a number of governmental offices before becoming the seat of the Senate in the first two decades after independence. It is now the Cuban Institute of Books and houses the Bella Habana bookstore (good selection, dollars only) on the ground floor. The two-story courtyard is worth a look.
Continuing west, the west side of the plaza is occupied by the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (1776-91). It was home to the captain-general, Cuba's colonial governor, and rumor has it that the wooden paving on the street in front was to muffle carriage wheels so as not to interrupt his sleep. From independence until 1920, this fine baroque limestone edifice acted as the Presidential Palace and then served as Municipal Palace until the Revolution. Today it houses the office of the city historian, important historical archives and the Museum of the City of Havana ($2).
In the charming courtyard are relics from excavations in the building's basements, including a mysterious metal casket with a sword decorating the lid. A monument to the right commemorates a leading Havana debutante who in 1557 died at this spot as the result of a tragic arquebus accident. In one corner stands a huge pot, called a tinajon, which held rainwater, and you may also peek into tunnels in which ran water for the city's baths. A room to one side contains an excellent collection of 18th century religious art, including silver and many sculptures.
A stairway leads up to the apartments, a series of luxurious rooms that hold a number of the most important relics of Cuban history. The first room houses uniforms of colonial and rebel officers and many 19th century weapons, including an ingenious rebel cannon made from leather. Next you enter a long, very well air-conditioned hall whose walls hold portraits of all the most important fighters for independence. Here is the first Cuban flag (1850)--much like today's--whose design symbolizes: 'red of blood, blue of sea, white of sky and star of triumph.' Many other rebel flags are also displayed, as well as the personal articles of Cuban fighters for independence, including Maximo Gomez's death mask and Antonio Maceo's boat. A candle always burns in the memory of the heroes.
Another room is devoted to the struggle against imperialism, i.e. the United States and the dictator Batista. Here lies 'The Eagle of Imperialism;' that is, the broken wings of the U.S.S. Maine monument that was partially destroyed in the early post-Revolutionary euphoria. Further chambers include a huge dining room filled with ornate ceramics given to the captain-generals, a throne room for the King of Spain (he never used it), a ballroom called the Hall of Mirrors, a music room and a chapel.
The south side of the Plaza de Armas is lined with a number of very old businesses. Starting at the corner of Oficios and heading west, these are the Cafe Habanero, the La Mina restaurant and the Casa del Agua 'La Tinaja,' where habaneros used to buy their drinking water during the early colonial era.
Calle Obispo, the pedestrian-only street which begins along the south side of the square, is Old Havana's main thoroughfare. Calle Oficio, which heads south from the middle of the plaza, is worth a quick stroll. A half block south on the right is the 17th century Casa del Obispo (Oficios 8), the original residence of Havana's bishop and now the Museum of Numismatics.
The next building south, the Colegio San Ambrosio (18th century), originally a religious school, houses the Casa del Arabe, a museum of Arab art and culture with a second floor restaurant. It also contains a prayer room which is the only space dedicated to Islamic worship in Cuba. Across the street is the Auto Museum, which exhibits a diverse collection of cars, from a 1902 Cadillac to a white Rolls Royce.
Returning to the plaza, we now head west on Calle Obispo. Until the city burst its walls in the late 19th century, Obispo was the center of Havana's business and social life and the site of the most elegant shops and hotels. One of the latter, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, stands one block west at the corner of Obispo and Mercaderes. Originally the mansion of an 18th century marquis, the building was expanded in the 19th century and converted into a hotel. Its most famous resident was Ernest Hemingway, who during the 1930's had a number of long stays in Room 511, where he was trying to escape from his wife. It was here in 1939 that he began writing 'For Whom the Bell Tolls,' his novel of the Spanish Civil War. Supposedly unchanged since his departure for the Finca Vigia (see South of Havana section), the room is now a Hemingway shrine ($1 admission), preserving his typewriter, a model of his boat, an empty bottle of Chivas Regal and a few other artifacts.
One block south on Mercaderes, there are a number of sights worth a quick detour. A few steps down on the left is the Torre de Marfil, a Chinese restaurant that is better known for its decor than its food. Opposite, a stairway climbs up to the Casa de Puerto Rico, which houses a small but interesting exhibition of Cuban cigar paraphernalia, like wrappers and humidors.
At the northeast corner of Mercaderes and Obrapia stands the Casa de la Obra Pia, an early 17th century mansion--then the finest residence in the city-- that was renovated in 1780. Inside the fine baroque entry is a museum with a diverse collection. Two rooms are dedicated to Alejo Carpentier, the great 20th century Cuban writer, and include the Volkswagen bug in which he negotiated Paris (his home for most of this life). The other exhibits are devoted to the Spanish king Charles III.
Across Obrapia is the Casa de Africa, the most important museum and gallery in Cuba dedicated to Africa and Cuba's African heritage. In addition to possessing a huge collection of artifacts from 26 African nations and many objects used in Afro-Cuban ritual, the museum also houses a study center and library and stages dance and music performances on the most important Santeria festival days. This is a must for those interested in Afro-Cuban culture.
Diagonally across Mercaderes stands the Casa de Benito Juarez, a museum of Mexican art and culture largely donated by the Mexican government.
Plaza de la Catedral
Returning to Obispo, you continue west one block, past the drab Ministry of Education building, turn right on Calle San Ignacio and walk two blocks to the Plaza de la Catedral. Just after you cross Calle O'Reilly (named after a Spanish general), you enter a pedestrian-only block usually jammed with artists and craftsmen. This area has always attracted artists, but since it became legal for Cubans to hold dollars in 1993, they have flocked here to sell their wares to tourists. Some of the arts and crafts are very high quality, and bargaining is common.
The north end of the block opens onto the Plaza de la Catedral. Originally a swamp (its first name was Plaza of the Swamp), it was later drained and became the terminus for the Chorro aqueduct, the first Spanish aqueduct in the New World. The plaza remained something of a slum until the 18th century, when the Cathedral and a number of baroque mansions were built around its circumference. Today this cobblestoned square preserves a charming colonial ambiance and some of the finest architecture in Cuba.
The Cathedral of Havana (1748-1777) dominates the north end of the plaza. The Jesuits began construction of this edifice, but they were expelled in 1767, and the final stages were completed under orders of the King of Spain. In 1789, Havana's main church was transferred here from the Plaza de Armas, and a decade later it was named a Cathedral (Cuba's first Cathedral is in Santiago). The elegant facade, constructed in the style of the Italian baroque, was once far more ornate, but weather and political turmoil have washed away much of the detailing.
The larger tower on the right is the bell tower, now silent. The plain stone interior has also been stripped of much of its finery but still possesses a stern grandeur. Two rows of four stone columns separate the nave from the aisles. A huge chandelier hangs from the dome, and wood and gold retables line the aisles. The altar is capped with an elaborate marble and onyx dome that shields a statue of the Virgin Mary. The Cathedral is open to visitors Monday through Friday 9-11 am and 2:30-6 PM and Sunday mornings 9-11 am; masses are held Saturdays at 6:30 PM, Sundays at 10:30 am and Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:00 PM.
Returning to the plaza, the first building on the colonnaded east side is the Casa de (1737) now housing the Education Museum. Next you come to the Palacio del Marquess de Arcs (1741), an aristocratic residence that later became the post office and then an art school. Today it houses the Taller Experimental de Habana, a graphic arts workshop and gallery.
The south side of the square is occupied by one of the oldest mansions in the city, the Casa de Louis , which was begun in the 17th century. The interior patio is particularly attractive. The building is now home to the Museo de Carte Colonial, containing a large collection of Cuban-made decorative arts from the earliest days until 1900. Rooms are devoted to architectural elements, carriages, glassware (including stained glass) and lots and lots of furniture. The little alley just to the west of the museum is the del Chorro, the site of the first aqueduct, now marked by a plaque and a small fountain.
The first building on the west side of the plaza is the Casa de Beanos (House of Baths), a 19th century mansion that takes its name from the water tank that earlier stood here. The building contains the Victor Manuel, an art gallery.
Next you come to Casa del Marquess de Aquas Clara (1751-77), another mansion that is home to the El Patio Restaurant, a good stop to rest for a drink or a meal under the colonnade or in the patio. Another dining option is the famous del Medico restaurant (founded 1942) a half block west of the Cathedral at #207 Calle . This narrow, three-story restaurant is renowned for its ground floor bar--a favorite haunt of Hemingway and many other writers, musicians and politicians--and for the Cuban food served above. The also saw the invention of the , Cuba's national cocktail, a delicious mixture of rum, soda water, sugar and mint.
The restaurants walls are covered from floor to ceiling with graffiti, while the autographs of the more famous, like Salvador , are preserved in frames. Perhaps the most well- known is Ernest advertisement: 'My in La , My Daiquiri in El Floridita' with his signature below. Unfortunately, this motto was apparently concocted in order to increase the traffic at both restaurants.
A half block west of the , you come to Calle Cuba; three blocks to the right (north) stands the Palacio Pedroso, now the Palacio de Artesania. When this formidable mansion was built, it verged on the waterfront, which is now on the other side of the park. Its lovely interior patio has been converted into a colonial mall where vendors make and sell crafts--dolls, hats, leather goods, clothing, weavings, etc.--and you can also have coffee and buy rum and cigars.
In the plaza in front of this building stands a piece of the old city wall. To the left, the park contains an amphitheater where occasional concerts and political events are staged. The palace faces on Calle Tacon which marked the original border of the waterfront.
Calle Obispo and Calle Cuba
Beyond the region of the Plaza de Armas and the Plaza de la Catedral, Old Havana's more obscure sights are more widely scattered. An excursion in search of them is definitely worthwhile, because Old Havana's streets have a picturesque, almost medieval quality. Skinny dogs slink down the narrow streets, people call up to friends' windows, music blares out a doorway, water drips from a balcony, planks prop up a deteriorating facade, an underground network of food and alcohol vendors plies their illegal trades, the people hustle to survive.
Many of Old Havana's buildings were once one-family mansions; over the last century, they have been converted into decrepit apartment houses for dozens of families. Their roofs are a maze of jury-rigged pipes and water tanks. Inside, colonial-style rooms with 5.5 meter (18 foot) ceilings have been converted into barbacoas, two rooms with 2.5 meter (8 foot) ceilings; the name come from the Cuban Indian style house on stilts. The extra weight has threatened many buildings with collapse.
One obligatory excursion is to walk Calle Obispo from the Plaza de Armas nine blocks west to its terminus at the Plazuela de Albear near the El Floridita restaurant. Despite hard times, Obispo is the most vital street in Old Havana, nearly always filled with people during the day (watch out for pickpockets) and lined with crafts stores, galleries and peso-only fast food restaurants.
Three blocks west of the Plaza de Armas at the corner of Calle Cuba, you come to the old National Bank of Cuba building (early 1900's), now the State Committee of Finances offices. The basement of this massive neo- classical edifice houses the Museum of Finance, which is dedicated to a Revolutionary history of finance from the colonial days through Che Guevara, the bank's president in the early days of the Revolution. The high point of the exhibit is a peek into the massive vault that once held most of Cuba's gold bullion.
Diagonally across the corner you see the dignified, dark stone Casa de Joaquin Gomez (1836). Originally built as a magnificent home for an wealthy merchant, this building later housed a bank and now is home to the Palacio de Turismo, supposedly open 24 hours. Just inside the door are a travel agency on the left and a souvenir store opposite. The covered interior patio houses more souvenir stands, a tobacco shop and a cafe.
Five blocks further west on Obispo, you come to Calle Villegas, where you can turn left (south) and walk two blocks to the small Plaza del Cristo. This area was developed in 1640 and quickly attracted homes of the elite, including the bishop, whose house stands at the west end of the square at the corner of Calles Bernaza and Brasil.
In the 19th century, the plaza was home to the Mercado del Cristo; today, the main reason to visit is the small but charming Iglesia Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje (1755). Twin towers flank the symmetrical baroque facade, which is topped with a unique woven iron cross. The nave is covered with a decaying but still beautiful mudejar ceiling held up by plain stone columns. The church takes its name ('Holy Christ of the Good Voyage') from the crucifix that is supposed to protect travellers and sailors.
Returning to the intersection of Calles Obispo and Cuba, you will find that Calle Cuba is the most fruitful route for a trip through the labyrinth that is southern Old Havana. Three blocks south of Obispo you come to the Iglesia de San Francisco, originally the Iglesia de San Agustin (1608), at the corner of Calles Cuba and Amargura. The baroque facade is the only remnant of the original decor; the interior was redone in the neo-classical style after the church was taken over by the Franciscans in 1842.
The old convent just to the south was renovated in ornate, 19th century style and converted into the Antiguo Academia de Ciencias. The original home of Cuba's Academy of Sciences, this building now houses the Carlos J. Finlay Historical Museum of Sciences, with exhibits on Cuban science and medicine, a library and an archive. A large exhibition is dedicated to the life and personal effects of Carlos J. Finlay, the scientist who discovered that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes.
A half block to the south you arrive at Calle Brasil; from here it is worth taking a quick excursion one block to the right (east) to the Plaza Vieja. This plaza was built in the late 16th century but remained more or less a swamp until it was finally drained in the late 17th century. Havana's wealthy began constructing their palaces here--seven colonnaded 18th century mansions remain-and the plaza became the center of city life. In 1835, the Cristina Market was opened in the plaza, reconfirming the area's eminence. Unfortunately, the plaza was closed in the early 1900's, and the area began to drift toward its present depressed state. In the 1950's an ugly underground parking garage was built in the plaza's center.
Today the plaza is worth a quick stroll to see the decrepit glories of the past. Lovers of art nouveau will admire the Hotel Palacio (1907) at the plaza's southeast corner, once one of the city's finest and now rapidly deteriorating. The Casa del los Condes Jaruco (1733-37) at the southwest corner is now the Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales, a cultural space that stages concerts and art shows and sells handicrafts. Calle Muralla heading west from here will return you to Calle Cuba.
Continuing south one block, you come to the Antiguo Convento de Santa Clara (1638-44) a massive building between Calles Sol and Luz. This was the first convent in Cuba, built to protect the flowers of the aristocracy from marauding sailors. The nuns sold the convent in 1919 and moved to the suburbs; unfortunately for visitors, they took most of the religious decorations with them, so all you see are the bare walls.
By 1981, the convent was in ruins; that year it became home to the National Center of Conservation, Restoration and Museology, which directs all efforts to restore Cuba's crumbling patrimony. You can tour their studios and labs and see the progress of the restoration of their own buildings. The interior garden is filled with a variety of Cuban medicinal plants and trees.
Walking one block south, you arrive at the Iglesia del Espiritu Santo (1640) at the corner of Cuba and Acosta. The oldest church in Havana, it was originally built by free blacks and then expanded about 30 years later. The interior is simple, with a long nave and one side aisle lined with dark wood and gold retables. To the left there is a statue of Santa Barbara, the Catholic saint associated in Santeria with the Chango, the god of lightning and thunder; both saint and god celebrate December 4th as their feast day.
Continuing south, in two blocks you come to the Iglesia de la Merced at the corner of the street of the same name. This church was begun in 1755 and only completed in 1904; much of the money was donated by Afro-Cuban religious groups. The interior is ornate, with blue and gold trompe l'oeil frescoes, murals on the ceilings and neo-classical retables. On the left a chapel lined with fake stalactites is dedicated to Nuestra Senora de Lourdes. The domed main altar holds a statue of the Virgen de la Merced; stairs circle behind so you can see the statue up close.
In Santeria this Virgin is a representation of the god Obatala, who is symbolized by white cloth. Obatala devotees dressed all in white can often be seen at their prayers here. The Virgin's feast day, September 24, is shared by Obatala, and that day thousands cram into the church to celebrate. Smaller celebrations are held on the 24th day of the other months. Parishioners state that this church is much more popular than the Cathedral.
From here you can walk to the next corner, Calle Leonor Perez and head left (west) six blocks to the Casa Natal de Jose Marti, the 19th century house in which Cuba's national hero was born on January 28, 1853. The exhibits include a personal belongings, a collection of his writings and a history of his life. From here, it is a few steps west to the Av de Belgica, which marks the border of Old Havana. To the right and left across the avenue, you can see pieces of the original city wall.
Directly in front of you stand the twin towers of the semi-Venetian-style Central Railway Station (1912). In the waiting room sits an 1843 locomotive that ran the Matanzas route. North of the station, Cubans without tickets wait days in lines under the colonnades for the chance to buy one.
St. Barths by Jonathan Miller
We just returned from eleven days on St. Barth. As always, our trip was successful in getting our batteries recharged for another year or so. There's a lot to cover, so forgive the rambling nature of these notes.
New construction-- From a drive around the island it appear that most new construction is in the Point Milou area, especially near the Hotel Christopher. The old Tom Beach Hotel on St. Jean is now the new Tom Beach Hotel. It looks like it is almost ready to open--as of 12/29 they were already serving lunch and drinks by the pool. We walked by there the first and last days of our stay, and it was definitely the most rapid pace on a construction project (for St. Barth) that I have ever seen.
Cruise Ships-- Perhaps the hottest debate regards cruise ships. It seemed like there were one or two cruise ships every day. When the ships arrive, Gustavia becomes very crowded. The taxis drop the day trippers off at various popular sites, including St. Jean and Shell Beach. One day we drove to Shell Beach. I have never seen more than 15-20 people at that beach at any time. On that day there must have been over 100 people at the beach. I was told by a resident of St. Barth that even the shop owners are divided about the decision to allow more cruise ships to arrive at St. Barth. The government gets 20 francs per each passenger who comes ashore.
Restaurants-- We made our usual list of favorites--Marigot Bay Club, Le Patio, and Mayas, and Chez Francine for lunch (which is now open for dinner). A couple of new places deserve mention. L'Entrepont on the other side of the harbor serves very good Italian cuisine. It is across the street from L'Escale. The prices were reasonable. For lunch one day we went to Le Bistro des Arts, which is on the harbor close to La Marine. We had pizza that was very good. Although Mayas was and still is our favorite, it was extremely difficult to get a reservation. We had planned to go there on Christmas Eve, but the place had already been booked for a week. It took us three days to finally get a reservation for our last night on the island.
We ate at Le Patio twice--the food was very good. In the little room where they have the miniature pool table is a book that you can sign and write comments about the restaurant. Look carefully and you will see notes written by Christie Brinkley, James Michener and Steve Winwood. Of course there are more notes written by the lesser knowns of the world. We have always made reservations for dinner dining, but now we try to make reservations for lunch. We have noticed that a reservation is taken as a measure of respect, and you will almost always get better service and a better table than those without reservations.
One day at Chez Francine, we had a lunch reservation for 1:00. When we arrived, Valerie explained that the couple at our table were finishing their desserts and coffee. When they had not finished by 1:15, management moved the couple to a back table, cleared the table by the beach and put us there. This was somewhat embarrassing, but was quickly forgotten.
Every time we go to St. Barth we are anxious to see if the changes on the island since our last trip are sending the island in the wrong direction. Other than the increase in cruise ships, I am happy to report that most of the changes have been either positive, or at least neutral. Sure, there are more cars and more traffic, but the traffic jams are infrequent and of short duration. We did see shops selling "Hard Rock Cafe--St. Barth" T-shirts, but (thank goodness) there are no Burger Kings, Pizza Huts and Kentucky Frieds as you might see on other islands.
The airport has expanded to allow more room for checking baggage. As for grocery stores, Match (across from airport) always had a good supply of fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, poultry and fish. We finally made it to La Cave in Marigot. If you like wine, this is definitely the place to go. The prices were reasonable, and the clerk was very helpful. On my first trip to La Cave, I purchased a white burgundy and a Bordeaux, based on the clerk's advice. Both wines were less than 70 francs each, and they were delicious. I returned several days later and purchased a case of the Bordeaux.
As far as beaches, we spent time at Columbier, St. Jean, Saline and Marigot. Columbier still has the best snorkeling off the beach, but the walk gets a little more difficult as I get older. As an alternative, we snorkeled off of Marigot Beach on the side near the Marigot Bay Club restaurant. If you swim out about 100 feet you can see a nice assortment of fish, and the water is almost always very calm.
This trip was the first time that I paid any attention to the prices of real estate--no, unless I win the lottery I'll be stuck in central Texas for a long time--but the packet of information I received from Sibarth had some good information regarding purchasing real estate. The info stated that most listings are in the range of $800,000 to $2,000,000. French lenders will finance some purchases, but in general they will finance only approximately 50% of the price. We always stay at "Les Terrasses" a condominium project up the hill overlooking St. Jean. While there, we met a man from Switzerland who was considering purchasing a condo in that complex. These condos are nothing fancy, but are comfortable and in good shape. My new friend told me that he was looking at three units in the price range of $125,000 to $200,000.
In addition to his imminent purchase of property, my friend (who had a French pilot's license) was getting certified in order to fly planes in and out of St. Barth. To get certification, he had to find an authorized instructor to fly on his training flights. On the last day we were there, he made 8 landings--5 landings on runway 10 which starts at the bottom of the hill, and 3 landings on runway 28 (what I always called coming in the back door).
We met another couple at Les Terrasses, Bob and Ralph (Ralph's real name is Alice) from New Jersey. Bob is a yacht salesman. We all went down to the harbor at night and looked at the mega yachts--according to Bob, several of the yachts we saw cost in excess of $25 million. Despite the fact that these yachts are the ultimate in luxury and prestige, it seems like an awful lot of money to sit on a boat in the harbor, rock back and forth and sniff diesel fumes.
Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day on St. Barth are really special. On Christmas Eve, Gustavia is very busy and alive. We attended the Christmas carol service at the Anglican Church. But on Christmas Day, the island is very quiet and peaceful. Stores are closed, not much traffic, and many restaurants are open only for dinner. All in all, a nice way to spend a Christmas day, and to reflect on the good things in life.
St. Croix By Vicki Luciano
Will have to start out with announcing we finally found our second home on the island! After looking for two years, we finally found our new home.
This year was "celeb" year for us so to speak. Saw VP Gore arrive while waiting for our plane from STT to STX and then met one of the anchors from CNN with his wife and son at the Domino Club. We made two trips to see the beer drinking pigs this time and besides the CNN "star" met two people from Columbus. Truly a small world.
Our trip started with finding our neighbors from Columbus waiting for us (they were supposed to be in Aruba) so we did much with them. The most marvelous being the most outstanding dining experience of our 8 years on STX at Picnic in Paradise. If there is such a thing as perfection that was it. Marvelous food, perfect service, ambiance to die for! Other dining joys included: Indies , Banana Bay, On the Beach (many times), West End Beach Club (Mary's cheeseburgers are still the best), Stars of the West and Motown for West Indian delights, No Name (several times), and Renee's. Geez sounds like all we did is eat.
For the second year I went to "Christmas Spoken Here" at The Botanical Gardens. Bought many wonderful island made gifts for friends and family, strolled through the gardens (in the rain no less) and marveled at the musical talents of the high school choruses.
The new pier in F'sted is beautiful. One day we had THREE ships in. Obviously word had spread about how great the beach is around Cottages by the Sea. I've not seen that many people on the beach, in total, in all our 8 years! Oh sure, I went out amongst them answering questions, giving directions, and generally to doing a promo. To the person, they were most impressed and couldn't believe they'd not heard of STX before. "Ya'll come back now, ya hear?" I was most pleased to find several new gold designs in Sonya's, Goldworker, Cruzan Gold, and others. Of course, Java Wraps and From the Gecko had several new clothing designs with my name all over them---good thing we had an empty suitcase with us.
The legislature was unable to get enough votes to finalize the gambling referendum, so we have to wait for the new legislature to come in...oh boy, here we go again. I'm sure there are a ton of things I can't recall at the moment.
St. John by Maureen Sullivan
We spent a week on St. John. We stayed at Lavender Hill Estates condos. The condo was very nice and VERY well-equipped. The location is very good (about a 5 minute walk down the hill to Cruz Bay).
We rented a jeep for 3 days and explored the entire island. All the jeep companies seemed to have the same rate--$55/day. Since the condo did not have any beach chairs, I rented a chair from Cruz Bay watersports for $40/week (expensive, but worth it to me).
The weather was SUPERB, about 85-90 in the daytime, but about 70 at night. The condo did have an air conditioner in the bedroom, but we never used it because the nighttime trade winds were beautiful.
We snorkeled at Mayo, Francis, Trunk, Hawknest, Cinnamon, and Caneel. In the past, we have always felt that Trunk Bay was too crowded and over snorkeled, but this trip the snorkeling at the underwater trail really was excellent. We also found the snorkeling at Caneel's main beach to be very good, but we sat on chairs when we got out of the water and were told we couldn't by the Caneel police. It was annoying since there must have been 100 empty chairs!! I did remind them that this was a national park.
We ate dinner at Lime Inn on Wednesday night for their all-you-cam eat Shrimp feast. It was great, but we had to wait an hour for a table. There is a disco across the street from Lime Inn and it starts at 9:00 or 9:15 PM. Once the music started, we couldn't even hear ourselves speak. I would go earlier next time.
We also ate at Cafe Roma, which we enjoyed and The Fish Trap, which we enjoyed a lot. In fact, we tried to go back to Fish Trap, but they are closed on Monday, which was our last night.
Twice we bought chicken from native ladies who cook on the side of the road.
One was all the way out at the end of the island, past Coral Bay. It is called "Vie's Garlic Chicken". It was great. The other was Shella's Pot, right in the park in Cruz Bay. She did barbecue chicken with red beans and rice. It is great to do on a night you feel like just hanging around and not going out. We just warmed the dinners in the microwave and made a salad. Barracuda Bistro is wonderful for breakfast. It is in the Waterfront shopping center in Cruz Bay.
We had a wonderful week, but it ended too fast. We would go back in a minute if we could and rent the same condo.
St. John by Josh Frankel
I recently completed a 9 day stay on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Following are my personal observations about the resort at which I stayed (the Hyatt), the activities that are available, the restaurants, and anything else that happens to come to mind. I hope anyone planning a trip to St. John will find this file useful.
Getting there. The trip to St. John is a 3 hour, 20 minute flight from New York's JFK to the St. Thomas airport. From the airport you need to make travel arrangements, or have them made for you, to get to the island of St. John. If staying at the Hyatt, they should take care of your transfers ($65/person roundtrip transfers). You must get transportation into the main St. Thomas town of Charlotte Amalie or to the eastern tip of the island, Red Hook. You can get a ferry from either location to St. John. The ferry from Charlotte Amalie is a 45 minute ride, from Red Hook it is about 20 minutes.
A little about activities. There is no golf on St. John; nor is there gambling. There is also limited nightlife. Things generally wind down by about 11:00 PM. This is an island for those who truly want their minds to turn to mush, and I don't say that at all in a negative way - it's an island for those who just want to kick back and relax.
The Hyatt - The Hyatt on St. John is a first class operation, from soup to nuts. I can't say enough about it. There was NOTHING ,in my opinion, that was lacking in any aspect of their innkeeping. They have a hospitality suite at the airport at which you do a pre check-in. They take your bags at that point, and you don't see them again until you're in the comfort of your room. They provide ground service to Red Hook, and ferry service from there right to a dock on Hyatt property. The entire process of getting to the Hyatt is a piece of cake. The grounds are beautiful, I suggest a room on an upper floor of a higher "Hillside" building (I was in Bldg 25) because some of these rooms provide EXTRAORDINARY views of the bay and the sun setting in the west. The grounds are immaculate, the pool is constantly being cleaned, and the paths near the beach are always being swept of excess sand. The personnel at the Hyatt were friendly to a flaw, the customer was always right, they were very eager to please and catered to the slightest whim. The Hyatt offers EVERYTHING. They've got windsurfers, kayaks, Sun Kats, beach volleyball, a beautiful pool, a gym, massage therapy, snorkel sails, sunset sails, etc., etc. There just aren't enough hours in the day. I know I sound like an ad for Hyatt, but believe me, I couldn't have been happier staying there. If they have one drawback, and I use that word reluctantly, it's that their beach does not measure up to the other beaches on the island, which are truly spectacular. But, it is certainly acceptable as a beach worthy of laying out on and catching some rays. Furthermore, there is a full food and bar menu available to you as you lounge around in supine bliss. The walk to town (Cruz Bay) is not long in distance, but you must climb a STEEP, and I do mean STEEP, hill to make it. I did it once, but decided not to do it again. Cabs are always available out front, and will take you to town for $2.50/person.
Car Rental. I STRONGLY suggest a car rental for at least a 24 hour period. The island is very small, you can travel every road in under two hours, and there are beaches that just MUST be seen. With a simple map of the island, you can start a trip from town and cruise around the north side, stopping at various "photo op" sites that have been set up along the mountainside. You can then stop at the various beaches as you come to them, Hawksnest first, then Trunk Bay, etc. I am not of the opinion that anyone needs a car on the island for the duration of their stay, but it certainly is a must for a period of time. BTW, as far as I could tell, there is not one traffic light on the entire island. I'm assuming if there was one, it would be in the "main" town of Cruz Bay, and I am sure there wasn't one there.
Scuba and Snorkel. These islands are quite possible best known for the scuba and snorkel opportunities that come with crystal clear blue waters and tranquil seas. Trunk Bay is probably the most popular spot on the island, as it has the "underwater snorkel trail," which is literally what it is - a trail which you follow while snorkeling, with markers embedded in the sea floor describing various items that you may be looking at or fish that you may see in your travels. It's actually quite remarkable. I would also suggest a "snorkel sail" - one leaves from the Hyatt daily (about $45/person). The sail will take you to more secluded snorkeling spots off the beaten path (there'll only be a dozen of you snorkeling instead of 30 near the beach.)<g>
Shopping on St. Thomas. This can be done in 1/2 day to a full day. I STRONGLY make the following recommendation: Shop on St. Thomas only AFTER checking St. Thomas' incoming cruise ship schedule. You want to shop on St. Thomas on the day the LEAST number of cruise ships are docking. The ships dock early, at about 7:00 AM, and the more ships are in, the more crowded the narrow streets and stores of Charlotte Amalie will be. I shopped on St. Thomas on a day when only 1 cruise ship was in port, and it was a very wise move on my part - the following day several ships were coming in with almost 7,000 passengers. Don't forget that you've got to leave at least 45 minutes each way to get back and forth.
The restaurants. Before my trip, I posted a message in Section 10 asking for input on the restaurants of St. John. The responses I got were very much on target, in my opinion. Following are my own personal opinions of the various restaurants I tried.
Chateau Bordeaux ++++ Bordeaux Mountain - The ultimate St. John eating experience. This restaurant MUST be tried when on St. John. For starters, the view is absolutely captivating, as the restaurant is in the crook of a hairpin turn on Bordeaux mountain. There were, by my count, only about 12 tables in the place, and an outdoor patio with some tables and a bar with seats that run along two sides of the patio facing outward toward the sea and the surrounding islands. If dining indoors, try to get a table next to one of the large bay windows, because although the view is beautiful from any table, sitting next to the window is where you really get your money's worth. The food is nothing short of exceptional, and the presentation is equally as striking. The service was very polite and attentive, and you are made to feel right at home as you dine on an outstanding meal while taking in one of the most breath- taking views I can recall. About a 20 minute ride from Cruz Bay. Expect to pay about $80-90 per couple without drinks for dinner.
Paradiso ++++ Mongoose Junction - IMO, the best food in Cruz Bay, and second on the island only to Chateau Bordeaux. Dining is indoors or outdoors. The view is nothing to speak of, but the food is exceptional. During my stay in St. John, this was the only restaurant I chose to eat at twice. (I would have eaten twice at Chateau Bordeaux, but it was too much of a hike to get there a second time.) Expect to pay about $75 per couple without drinks for dinner.
The Lime Inn +++ Really enjoyed both the food and the atmosphere at this place. The host was particularly friendly, coming around more than once to be sure that everything was OK. Perhaps that was due to the fact that there was an island-wide power outage just after we sat down to have our dinner, and my girlfriend and I wound up eating what was literally a candlelight meal. The staff handled the situation with an incredible amount of ease, and everything went off without a hitch. The lights finally came on just as we got desert, but what probably would have been a disaster at any stateside restaurant was actually a bonus down at the Lime Inn. The food was good and the mood festive. The restaurant has no view, as it's on one of Cruz Bay's inner streets, but don't let that sway you. Definitely get to this place once at least. Expect to pay about $65-70 per couple without drinks for dinner.
Equator (at Caneel Bay) ++++ - Caneel Bay is arguably one of the most beautiful properties in the Caribbean, and the Equator restaurant is situated above the property, overlooking much of it as well as the Bay. Try to get a table on the perimeter (along the rail) for the best view. The menu contains extremely unusual items that are expertly prepared and presented. The deserts at Equator were among the best I had while on the island. Service was extremely attentive and friendly. Expect to pay $85 dollars per couple without drinks.
Cafe Roma +++ - Solid Italian food in a lively indoor environment characterized this busy restaurant. The menu had many interesting items, all reasonably price. The restaurant has no view, as it is on one of Cruz Bay's inner streets, but it is also worth a trip, and is probably the best "pure" Italian on the island. Expect to spend about $60 per couple without drinks.
Saychelles +++ - Wharfside Village - Indoor or outdoor dining practically on the beach in the Wharfside Village mall. The food is good - they seem to specialize in fish, which is a favorite of mine - although just about everything on the menu seemed appetizing. Expect to go for about $70 per couple on dinner without drinks.
Pussers - Wharfside Village - While I did not have a meal here, I did have drinks on their "Crows Nest" - the third floor of Wharfside Village overlooking the Bay and the boat traffic. I recommend at least a drink and some finger foods at this restaurant, but I got mixed responses when I inquired about meals here in the Forum.
Miscellany. Wednesday and Friday seem to be the big nights out in Cruz Bay (which means that maybe things'll go past midnight). Fred's Bar Restaurant Disco is the most active place I saw, with live music and locals dancing up a storm.
St. Martin by Maryjane Schude
Apple Vacations/American Airlines is a great way to get to St. Maarten/ St. Martin. The trip was booked about 4 months in advance, which is good because high season time it is very booked. We went November 13 - November 20. Hotels will over book rooms. The people that will get these rooms are ones that book way ahead of time and the others will get moved to different hotels at check in. The flight leaves Chicago with a small layover in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A plane change at San Juan with a 45 minute flight to St. Maarten (Dutch side). You will need a passport for arrival and departure. There is also a $10 per person departure tax. You will need to have the receipts to leave the Island at the airport.
It is divided up into two sections, The Dutch side (Netherlands Antilles) and the French side (French West Indies). Most Americans stay on the Dutch side because it is a bit cheaper and the casinos are only on the Dutch side. Both sides use U.S currency. Don't expect to see a tropical paradise when you roam around the Island. It is a poor Island and most people live with chickens, goats and dogs roaming around their yards. Stray dogs are everywhere on the Dutch side.
We stayed on the Dutch side on the southern end by Philipsburg (capital of the Dutch side) at Little Bay. Philipsburg is where you go shopping and it has some restaurants and a few night spots. DON'T go into Philipsburg on Tuesdays or the day that they arrive, it's when all the big cruise ships dock. The street (Front Street) is blocked off and it looks like there are little ants everywhere because it's so crowded. The shopping in Philipsburg has mostly souvenirs, jewelry (a lot) and liquor (duty free) shops. There are linens there if you are interested, but it is imported in, like everything else. There is not much that is made there, except a local fruit called Guavaberry for a liquor and maybe cane sugar or sea salt.
Marigot is the French side capital. It has an outdoor market area, souvenir, duty free and French clothes stores. All prices are fairly close to ours. It kind of reminds you of the New Orleans. A lot of French go there to vacation.
Depending on how you spend your money, around $1500 is a safe amount to take and you'll probably bring some back (unless you gamble quite a bit!) Travelers checks are accepted and it is wise to get denominations of 20's and 50's. Higher amounts are harder to cash, even at your hotels, except at casinos.
We stayed at a 4 star or "4 apple" resort called Divi Little Bay at Little Bay. We enjoyed it. It was clean and comfortable. We weren't in our room very much anyway. Wherever you go, ask for the king bed, ocean view, refrigerator in the room. The refrigerator was for buying soda or snacks, which is a bit cheaper and nice, than always going to the restaurants. We didn't watch much TV, but some rooms only got black and white (we got color) and this bothered some men who were on their honeymoon, go figure. If you are offered a room safe, get it, because you can put your travelers check, passports and other small valuables in it while you are not in the room. Then you don't have to worry about anything.
The cost of the trip included, flight, hotel, shuttle to and from airport in St. Maarten/St. Marten, and all taxes, except a departure tax leaving . The departure tax is $10.00 for each person. I would recommend reserving a car from Budget. We went all over the island to a different place everyday and it was worth it. It is optional to get additional coverage at $9.50 per day. We were told that if something happened to the car, that you would most likely have to stay in St. Maarten/St. Marten to get it fixed or just end up with a lot of problems. The car rental without extra coverage was about $168.00 for the week.
Remember to take your international calling card. If you don't, any calls home will cost at least $4.00 to connect and $4.00 per minute, ouch!
The dress is very casual anytime, anywhere. Beach attire and fun summer clothes. Take a pair of beach shoes or thongs. Optional nude beaches are available, fun to see if you can stomach them (Orient beach, Cupecoy Beach both on the upper French side). You will be asked constantly if you want your hair braided by the locals. I didn't do it, but a lot of people did. It cost about $2.00 a braid, but not my style.
Night time is very casual. Go to dinner at one of the many outdoor restaurants on the Island and then go to a casino. We went to Port De Pleasance (Sheraton Resort) for the casino (Mont. de Fortune) and dinner, the Atlantic casino, Mullet Bay Casino, and a few others. All have restaurants nearby. Food can be about $25 to $100 per couple for dinner. Lunch about $10 to $30 per couple depending on your appetite and drinking habits.
Cheer's cafe by the Julian airport is a good place for sandwiches, burgers, etc. Port De Pleasance has two good restaurants medium priced. Marigot has some great reasonably priced restaurants on the port by the ships (good French food and great thin crust pizzas. There is also a good Mexican restaurant right by the airport (forgot the name). Your hotel will have some happy hours or manager parties. You will also get coupons for casinos, a few restaurants and jewelry stores.
Clean beach towels are offered daily to guests at most hotels, pick up usually starts at 8:00 am and drop off by 8:00 PM. Chairs are free for guests at your hotel, they can be rented cheaply at other beaches. The sun is very hot there and be very careful. We used sun screen 15 all week long with a lip protection of 15. We still got a bit burnt with those on. Take a hat and sunglasses just to be sure. We only stayed out one full day in the sun at the end of the week. The water is great, but salt water is hard on the suit, skin and hair.
Rentals items are everywhere if you're into sporting activities. Jet skies, Wave runners, boats, snorkel and diving equipment. There are boat rides to other islands, horseback riding - 2 hours riding on the beach with stops for swimming and whatever, but go in the a.m.
The airport gets crowed, so you will need to be there 2 hours before your flight leaves. Customs in San Juan on the way back is not too bad, it shouldn't take long to go through it.
We enjoyed it and would go back again!
St. Martin by Hettie Maidman
This report will cover my first week. I was on my own until "M" arrived on 12/24. I was a little concerned about this solo experience prior to leaving but once I arrived at Royal Islander the concerns turned to where to go with the many women who arrived ahead of their men.
Our "women only" week was great. We shopped, talked, ate, talked, exercised, talked....the days flew by. As a single female I found that it was a safe, easy and a very enjoyable beginning to the vacation. The women I hooked up with were also interested in eating in "lesser" type places such as Cheri's, Rum Boat, the marina in Marigot, and other casual places. My restaurant reports will cover this in detail.
The weather was perfect except for one night of torrential rain. There was little humidity and glorious blue skies all day. Temps never got above 84.
Here's a shopping up-date.
Touch of Gold is indeed minus a considerable portion of it's pre-Xmas inventory thanks in part to the invasion of Hettie's army of friends from Royal Islander. We shopped heavily in the first week of our visit (the "women only" week) and by X-mas eve the showcases were bare. Personally I did just fine, thank you. Naturally I upgraded my tennis bracelet (not in my original plans) to a more contemporary style instead of the "S" kind I had from last year. It's almost like rent-a-jewel since I don't seem to keep what I have very long !! I also got three other bracelets; one is a diamond and link type, very unusual, also a cabochon sapphire and diamond one from Touch of Gold. As if that wasn't enough I bought a sapphire ring and Omega necklace from Heeru also. At Angelique I got a novelty bracelet that has a leather band and assorted slides that are interchangeable to put on it. Back to Touch of Gold. The people I introduced to Heeru were all impressed with one thing. Heeru. She is so sincere and different from everyone on the street. My friends all had regular haunts elsewhere on the street until now. She converted them all to Touch of Gold shoppers. The new store is breath-taking but Heeru remains loyal to her little alley-way shop.
When something is needed from the new store, she sends for it or has the customer bring it themselves. As for other shopping, I bought Moschino at La Romana and a bit of Gucci. Got to keep up images for the folks at home.
While I'm at it, I'll mention that since I ate out every one of the 20 nights I'll go into detail in the next couple of reports. I will say that Rainbow was NOT up to its usual standards and at least 10 other regulars I spoke to were disappointed. Some friends went there twice and were very sorry they did.
Along the same lines we were not thrilled with Don Camillo in Marigot. We were made to feel like extras in a bad movie.
General news: Spadaro is back on the island. He arrived at Royal Islander on 12/21 in a limo to begin his house-arrest. The next day we watched from the beach as he was taken to his yacht by his son and a tow rope. Some "housearrest"! We should all suffer on a 60 foot floating jail with gourmet food if that is punishment.
Restaurants will be discussed by dates since that's how I kept notes. During the first week, pre-arrival of "M", I went to Cheri's with friends on the first night. Chicken seemed to be everyone's choice. The grilled selections were the better dishes. I spent $15.00 w/tip & a glass of wine. Next two nights were at the marina in Marigot for pizza and pasta at Brasserie de la Gare. Average cost was about &14.00 per person. "M" and I also had lunch there. All meals were very good. Dinner on Thurs. was at the Rum Boat at the Maho Beach hotel. Better than average burgers at $6.95. Next night at Cheri's again. Lousy pasta. First night with "M" at Saratoga. I had roast beef and he had grilled yellow tuna. We had a bottle of wine for $35.00 and split appetizer and dessert. Total $120.00 w/tip. X-mas dinner at La Rosa. Veal Chop and shrimp fra diavalo, couple of drinks & dessert; $75.00. Excellent as usual. Next was Thai Garden in Sandy Ground near Marigot. "M" had Lemon Grass soup for $7.00 and we each had the dinner "special" (a few options from the regular menu) at $20.00 We had a drink apiece. $63.00. Highly recommended.
On 12/27 we went to Paradise Cafe, I had sirloin & "M" had filet. He also had onion soup. We had a drink each w/dinner. $61.00 with tip. A bargain for a good steak dinner. The next night was at Don Camillo in Marigot with another couple. What a bummer! We were seated next to the door and very close to a party of at least 20 of the owner's closest friends and relatives. After at least 30 minutes we finally had our order taken. The food was OK, as I recall, but the service was so poor that I suggest avoiding the establishment unless you are well known there. We spent $82.00 per couple for the insult.
Next was Spartaco, a personal favorite. No disappointment here. We shared an appetizer of angel-hair pasta w/lobster in tomato cream sauce (excellent); I had saute snapper in leek sauce and "M" had rack of lamb. We shared strawberry tart, had a drink and coffee. Total w/tip, $100.00.
So far, the stand-outs are La Rosa, Saratoga, and Spartaco. Given that, we're off to LaRosa again for New Year's Eve. The reservation was made months in advance. As we learned later, this was a good idea. Again, a wonderful meal, no set menu, no rush to get us out and altogether, very enjoyable. I had filet and "M" had his usual shrimp fra diavalo. We shared a Caesar salad (as we did the first time) and had one dessert, a couple of drinks and coffee. $87.00 w/tip; A true bargain on that night and an exceptional value no matter where one spends New Year's Eve. That's all for now.
New Year's Day at Don Carlos for excellent grilled lobster tail. We shared an appetizer of Caribbean crab cakes and both of us had the lobster, a couple of drinks and coffee. Total $80.00 w/tip. The meal was so good that we returned a few days later for "M" to have the lobster again. I had a good strip sirloin. This time the total was $56.00; no appetizer, no coffee. Rainbow was our next adventure. We had originally planned to go there early in the trip but canceled due to bad reviews from trusted friends. We realized that we should find out for ourselves and off we went. Well, our friends were right. The veal chop was smaller that usual and my grilled shrimp were large enough but tough and covered with a spicy sauce that seemed overpowering. We had tart tatin for dessert, $12.00 for that and they ran out of ice cream and substituted heavy cream for the topping. We had one wine, one drink and 2 coffees. $130.00. That wouldn't be out of line if the food was up to par. We will think again before booking Rainbow.
A good follow-up was La Laguna the next night. I had excellent veal parmigiana and "M" had, as usual, shrimp fra diavalo. With a few drinks added the bill was $63.00. We had enough veal left for 2 lunches.
We are not lunch eaters but there were a few days when we made exceptions.
After a long morning at Touch of Gold we stopped at Ric's Place on the main street in P'burg. The owner greeted us, remembered us and recommended the Nacho Grande for 2, and Nacho GRANDE it was! The dish arrived on a platter big enough to hold a small turkey and was heaped with ground beef, guacomole, sour cream, tomatoes, cheese, and about 500 nacho chips. I think it could serve 6 people easily. We barely made a dent in the $7.95 lunch. Go hungry. If that isn't to your liking, they have great burgers and "Phila." cheese steaks. Another fun lunch was a Johnno's in Anguilla.
Sorry, I forgot two dinners that are worth mentioning. I did leave out a few boring meals. We took a friend to Cafe Toscano, a new Italian bistro at Maho Beach shopping plaza on the upper level. It's a joint venture with the owners of Spartaco and Le Perroquet. The 3 of us shared an appetizer of grilled marinated vegetables, served cold and more like an antipasto. Very tasty. "M" had veal marsala and Friend and I had pasta w/fresh baby clams. Everything was presented beautifully and was delicious. Dessert was special too. Tiro miso and tartufo (the best) were shared by the 3 of us with enough to go around. We had wine by the glass. Total $125.00.
Another standout meal was the Cupecoy Cafe. It was very beautiful, although in an out-of-the way location. We were one of two occupied tables. The owner and wait- staff were very attentive. The rolls were the best we had anywhere, baked on site. The rack of lamb was superb and "M" loved his roasted duck breast. I think we spent about $90.00 total with a drink each, salad appetizer and tip. This place could be a winner if they advertise.
This is as good a time as any to comment about Tutta Pasta. It has opened but, during the busy X-mas week it was unprepared for the mad rush. Friends took their 3 hungry children and waited over an hour for their food which arrived cold. A large party left without being served. Hopefully, the staff has gotten it's act together and it will be a success for Steadman and his wife. He was thrilled when we stopped in to say hi but we did not return to dine there based on what our friends said. Maybe next time.
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