St. Thomas USVI, An American Paradise

St. Thomas was the very first Caribbean island I ever visited and that was over fifty years ago. Over the next couple of years I had reason to go back often and even today I get back to St. Thomas every couple of years. I also frequently return to those times on St. Thomas in my daydreams.

Frenchman’s reef

Back in those days a fifth of Cruzan or Brugal rum sold for 85¢ and it seemed like duty free was really almost free. The waterfront was packed with small island freighters advertising for cargo to places like Antigua, St. Lucia, Barts, Montserrat and other exotic islands. The beach at Megan’s Bay was so beautiful and often almost empty and it seemed to cast a spell over locals and tourists alike. Even so my favorite spot was a sandy cove east of Charlotte Amalie around a point of land. The beach was Morning Star with a great patio bar, changing rooms with lockers and a half dozen rooms right on the sand. The reef itself was a moderate swim from the shore and I spent hours floating over its coral heads – it was my first encounter with snorkeling a coral reef and I have been enchanted by them ever since.

Alley running up from the waterfront

Back in the sixties Charlotte Amalie was a vibrant town with a good nightlife and included a great club called Lion In The Sun. There were a number of talented musicians that played there including The Mamas and Papas before they became famous. On the waterfront was a cafe bar called The Green House where John Updike wrote a short story for The New Yorker titled In A Bar In Charlotte Amalie and it was a popular spot to sit and have a drink or two and watch people and boat traffic glide by. For a special evening we would end up at The Caribbean Hilton sitting high above town. I remember sitting out on the pool deck with a drink in hand and looking at the million lights of St. Thomas defining the shape of the island below. Off in the distance the few lights of St. John and the British Virgin Islands seemed to blend in the stars lighting up the night sky. Way off in the distance was the glow from the lights of Puerto Rico.

Morningstar beach

Much has changed since those days but a lot remains the same. Megans Bay is still one of the world’s best beaches. The Green House is still there but maybe a bit more refined. A massive complex has taken over Morning Star called Frenchman’s Reef Resort but the original beach and reef are still there. Blackbeard’s Castle Resort has become the new destination with its nearness to town with a cablecar riding up the hill from Havensight. No longer do island boats pick up freight on the waterfront and the duty free liquor and shopping aren’t exactly a steal anymore but they are still worthwhile. There is still much to recommend this island.

St. Croix is actually the largest Virgin island but it’s St. Thomas that attracts the crowds to the beach resorts, shopping and nightlife. In fact it is the central port for most eastern Caribbean cruise itineraries. The cruise ships visit and tie up at either Crown Bay east of Charlotte Amalie or The West Indian Company Dock next to Havensight just to the west of town. Getting into town from the Crown Bay, which used to be referred to as the Sub Base area, will require a taxi or one of the tourist buses unique to St. Thomas (currently $4 per person each way from either dock). There is a great walking trail along the water from the docks near Havensight, which goes thru the shops of Yacht Haven and into town. Yacht Haven is an upscale marina with a number of designer shops along with cafes, bars and a good grocery store. It’s also from Havensight where you catch the cablecar up to Blackbeard’s Castle Resort for a drink and to take in the views.

Megan’s Bay

In Charlotte Amalie the main downtown stretches about ten blocks east from the fort along the waterfront. The waterfront road is Veterens Highway and one block up is Kronprindsens Gade with dozens of alleys and streerts connecting the two. When in town take a walk down Creque’s Alley immortalized by the Mamas and Papas in their song by the same name. Stroll down the ten blocks of Kronprindsens Gade for some good duty free shopping or visit the shops, cafes and galleries in the many alleys with names like Drakes Passage. Because of treaties from the time the United States purchased the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. Croix still feature some of the best “duty free” shopping in the islands. The best duty free buys are European goods like Lladro, Rosenthal, Rolex, Dior, L’Occitane as well as duty free liquor where each person can bring back 5 liters duty free to the U.S. (see customs information here).

Frenchman’s Reef Resort

Take some time to get over to the far side of the island to visit Megan’s Bay, which is consistently named one of the world’s ten best beaches. My old favorite, Frenchman’s Reef beach is still a good choice and the reef is still there. The Frenchman’s Reef resort is also an excellent selection as a place to stay. We would also recommend a visit to the sea life park, Coral World, especially if you have younger children with you.

Docks near Havensight

You can also take a ferry  over to St. Johns for the day. St. Johns is the other US Virgin Island and is mostly preserved as a National Park. If you go, don’t forget your beach gear, mask and snorkel as St. John is famous for Trunk Bay with its beach and its laid out snorkeling trails. The shortest route is between Red Hook on St.Thomas and Cruz Bay on StJohn. That trip costs only $6.00 each way, takes approximately 20 minutes and runs hourly between 6:00 am and Midnight. A longer ferry route runs from downtown Charlotte Amalie to Cruz Bay on StJohn.



Hurricane Update: We stopped in St. Thomas just this January and while on the surface the island seems to be ready for business and is enjoying the return of the cruise liners there is still much that needs to be done. Unfortunately if you are planning on traveling there for a visit you need to be cautious. Many of the hotels are still closed and many that are open are booked by people from FEMA and construction companies. Attractions like Coral World and some water excursions will also need more time to be ready for visitors. While there are plenty of jewelry stores and duty free shops offering special deals just to bring shoppers back, there are a number of shortages that become quickly apparent. St. Thomas has always been famous for its duty free liqueur prices and its extra duty free allowance from U.S. Custom, but as of January, a number of famous outlets are not yet open and prices may not offer any real advantage over stateside prices.

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Be Cautious While traveling

About a month ago some young people we know were traveling with an aunt in Italy and suffered a serious pickpocket event. The aunt was carrying a handbag while they were out sightseeing and later discovered that her wallet was stolen. Inside was cash, credit cards and train tickets. Fortunately she had left her passport back at the hotel.

We have friends that have been living in Costa Rica for a number of years and one evening while walking down a San Jose street two young men on a motorbike grabbed her handbag. Unfortunately she hung on for a while and was dragged some distance down the block before losing the bag.

Three years ago while staying in Rome at a hotel that included breakfast there was an incident with a guests handbag. She had left it hooked over the back of her chair and went to get some food and when she returned to her table the bag was missing. I should note that this was a nice hotel and there were a number of guests in the breakfast room at the time.

While men are not immune to this sort of crime, it does seem that women and their handbags are frequent targets of pickpockets and purse-snatchers. A woman carrying a handbag in public is actually statistically a frequent target. Knowing this should be an opportunity to change your habits to reduce this risk.

Five tips to carrying a handbag in public:

1.     Do not carry all your cash and credit cards all the time in your handbag. Get in the habit of carrying only what you will need at that time so if you do lose your bag the loss is manageable.

2.     Be aware of your surroundings and avoid large crowds of people. If where you are makes you feel uncomfortable, leave the area as quickly as possible.

3.     When carrying a handbag is areas that have any suggestion of risk take special care in holding your bag.

a.     Do not leave the bag open where someone could easily reach inside.

b.     Carry it on a short strap with your arm thru the handle and over your shoulder.

c.     With the bag over your shoulder, keep it tucked against your body with your arm pinning it tightly in place.

d.     Always assume that there is someone near by waiting to grab your bag. Don’t leave it on a chair or table even if you are going to be just a few feet away.

e.     If you are on public transportation keep your bag in you grip. Do not set it on the seat next to you.

f.      If driving a car do not leave your bag just sitting on the seat next to you. If the passenger window is down it would only take a second for someone to reach inside and grab it. Even if the window is closed there are thugs that are capable of smashing a window and quickly grabbing a prize.

4.     Consider creating a fake wallet that can be used as a decoy in a snatch and grab or a mugging. Take an old wallet, put in just a few dollars and a couple of expired credit cards so that the thug will think he is getting what he wants while you flee.

5.     Try to blend in with your environment and don’t flash cash or a stack of credit cards in public. If you make yourself look like a prime target you are inviting an attempt.

I will admit that no matter how hard I try and blend in it always amazes me when people walk up and ask if I’m an American. All the same, to stay safe and in possession of your property you need to be pro-active and have situational awareness.

 

St. Kitts and Basseterre

Ballahoo and The Circus

On a cruise this past December we stopped in St. Kitts. It has been a number of years since we visited and a lot has changed. The center of town is The Circus with Berkeley Memorial in the middle of the circle. The Circus was the town’s focus, including nice arts and crafts shops and anchored by the Ballahoo restaurant. On this trip, the Ballahoo was still there, but the shops have been replaced by banks and commercial businesses.

Port Zante

It appears that the Port Zante area has expanded by a number of square blocks and that most of the Circus shops have relocated there. The Port Zante shopping center was developed by a partnership of private developers and the government over a decade ago and, in 2013, a cruise ship pier was opened. The success of the cruise ship project has initiated a pier expansion which will begin in 2018.

While Port Zante has its’ share of duty free regulars like Diamonds International it also has some real local gems that you should seek out. One of the island’s biggest successes over the years has been Caribelle Batik. Started in 1974 they have earned a reputation for quality clothing, wall hangings and accessories. The factory and main gift shop are located at Romney Manor but an outlet store can be found at the port.

While most Caribbean islands have their own rums with associated bragging rights, St. Kitt’s claim to fame has rested on a unique cane distillation. In the 1980s Baron Edmond de Rothschild established a distillery with the intent of creating a unique cane spirit more akin to vodka than rum. This clear, highly filtered spirit was named CSR for Cane Sugar Rothschild and developed a sizable following. In 1996 the distillery was sold to Demerara Rum the distillers of El Dorado in Guyana. Demerara has maintained a presence on St. Kitts and CSR is still blended and bottled here and remains associated with this island.

St. Georges Anglican Church

Points of interest in Basseterre include the National Museum near Port Zante and St. Georges Anglican Church a few blocks up the hill. The church’s outer walls are of heavy stone and the roof is covered in slate and its’ founding dates back to 1635.

Brimstone Hill Fortress

Sited on the southwest coast of St. Kitts, about 12 miles from town, is Brimstone Hill Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This fortification is a complex of walls, cannon placements and buildings established by the British in the sixteen hundreds to defend the island. It is also the largest fort in the Caribbean.

Cockleshell Bay

If you are looking for beaches, watersports and snorkeling, head out to the southeastern tip of the island to Cockleshell Bay and Turtle Beach. The area features nice beaches, windsurfing and excellent near-shore snorkeling. Cockleshell is a popular destination for locals for a day of beach, swimming and picnics. The beach is home to Reggae Beach Bar & Grill that serves good food and drinks. We prefer Turtle Beach for snorkeling but it does have less facilities nearby.

Ottley’s Plantation

On past trips to St. Kitts we have been lucky enough to travel out to Ottley’s Plantation Inn with local friends for either lunch or dinner. It is a great property that includes a number of guest rooms and an excellent restaurant. On this last visit we learned that Karen Keusch and the Lowells have sold the property but the web site assures everyone that, after the transition, the new owners have promised to keep up the tradition of quality and service.

If you are going to be spending some time on St. Kitts there is regular ferry service over to Nevis which is St. Kitts sister island. The trip is well worth the time as Nevis is less developed than St. kitts and has some really spectacular premium resorts including The Four Seasons .

 

 

 

 

 

A Day In Brunei

Royal Palace and new Water village

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Brunei is beautiful and modern. This is a small country (Sultanate) located on the north coast of Borneo and fueled by energy – oil (black gold) and natural gas. Bandar Seri Begawan, is the capital of the Sultanate of Brunei. It is also the location of the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. The mosque is considered one of the most beautiful in the Asia-Pacific region. It is a place of worship, a major historical site and the most famous tourist attraction of the country.

A conversation overheard on a bus in Brunei:

  • Canadian tourist – What form of government do you have here in Brunei?
  • Local young man – We have the Sultan and the Legislative Council.
  • Canadian tourist – So the Sultan is the head of government?
  • Local young man – Yes, he takes the role of Prime Minister
  • Canadian – How often do you have elections and are there a number of political parties?
  • Local young man – Oh, we don’t have parties or elections. The Sultan appoints each member of the council.
  • Canadian tourist– Does that much power concern you? Don’t you fear corruption?
  • Local young man – No. The Sultan would remove anyone that was corrupt.
  • Canadian tourist – But don’t the people want a say in what the country does?
  • Local young man – Why? We have the Sultan. He takes very good care of us…
Bandar Seri Begawan Mall

What makes this thinking possible is an average per capita income of over US$40,000. The government makes sizable amounts of money from oil, which it solely controls, along with large investments from that oil money worldwide.

Kampon Ayer water village

The Sultan does take care of his people. At one time a part of housing in Bandar Seri Begawan was in ramshackle water villages. But those picturesque houses on stilts standing out over the water had major problems. Sanitation was a serious issue so the Sultan has been replacing them with new water villages with modern sewage treatment and solid supports. He has also been providing virtually everyone in Brunei with a free education, health care and a guaranteed job. Also attractive free public housing is popping up all around the country.

New water village housing

Walking around in Bandar Seri Begawan is a pleasure. It is very safe. The city has a lot to see and the people are friendly. Although Standard Malay is the official language, English is widely spoken and understood.

 

There is a modern open-air market where a large gang of monkeys hang out looking for treats. There is a garden called the Eco-Corridor and, of course, the Grand Mosque. There are also boat trips out to the water village, Kampon Ayer. The city architecture is modern and boasts a large shopping mall. Interestingly, the mall is the first place where we ran into a store dedicated completely to Lego figures – you can find the likes of Darth Vader standing next to Homer and Marge Simpson and others.

Champers Barbados – Great Food, Great Scenery

On a trip this December we passed through Barbados and met up with some old friends. We joined them for lunch at Champers, one of our preferred restaurants on the island. Barbados is a favorite destination of ours and is particularly well known for the quality of its’ restaurants.

Champers is located on Skeetes Hill near Rockley Beach on the south coast, and rests on a point with commanding views of the sea and beach. Sitting on the main floor deck looking out at white

Champers main floor deck

sand, palm trees and ten shades of turquoise water you just know you are in paradise. The restaurant features great food, spectacular views and a very attentive staff, and you just can’t do much better for an elegant dinner or lunch while on the island.

We’ve never had a bad experience at Champers and this time was no exception. When in Barbados it’s a tradition to have flying fish, which I had

(fried with caper dressing) along with an appetizer of coconut shrimp with chili sauce, and both were excellent. Lunch was finished with an excellent warm bread pudding. My wife had West Indian shrimp curry with jasmine rice and grilled vegetables, also outstanding.

We were lucky enough to finish that day sitting on the porch of our friend’s house out at The Crane sipping famous Bajan Rum Punch.

Barbados Rum Punch Recipe:
  1. One part Sour (fresh squeezed lime juice*)
  2. Two parts Sweet (Demerara sugar**)
  3. Three parts Strong (Barbados Rum (Our preference is Mt. Gay Extra Old))
  4. Four parts Weak (Water)

Mix well and add a few drops of Angostura bitters. Pour over ice and add a bit of fresh grated nutmeg to each glass when serving

* Mexican or Key limes are preferred.

**Demerara is a type of raw cane sugar that has a large grain, hard texture, with a pale brown color. A substitute If you don’t have Dmerara sugar on hand, is to use an equal amount of granulated sugar and light brown sugar in its’ place.

Graffiti Around the World

I am not sure why but my camera is drawn to record graffiti as we travel. Some of it is incredible street art while much is just a defacing of public and private property.

Historic fortifications, Vigo Spain
Housing project, Crete

I have developed some opinions about why some places are rank with graffiti while others are completely devoid of it. My first belief has to do with how attractive a place is along with a natural reluctance in most people to deface real beauty. The exception of course involves a subculture that sees destroying a places intrinsic value and even natural beauty as a form of expressing hatred for the very place where they live and even the people they live with.

My second conclusion involves regional and local authority. Some places are either overwhelmed by the task of trying to

Ho Chi Minh City

prevent or punish street vandals and do not think the vandalism rises to the level of a serious enough crime to warrant strong punishment. In these circumstances the result is usually a growing blight on the community where the locals just learn to accept the problem as part of life.

Stangeland, Norway

The counterpoint to that is a strong local government where punishment is quick and serious enough to cause potential “artists” to reconsider their chances of arrest, jail or worse.

Graffiti is not new but has been around for thousands of years. Examples of graffiti have been unearthed from ancient Pompeii and Rome. One of the most common forms has been for protest but more and more recently it seems to have no real purpose other than to desecrate.

There are places where graffiti has been channeled into a socially acceptable art form where artists are celebrated and whole communities get involved in decorating walls and fences.In addition to the above there are economies where tourism is a major source of income to the community and tolerance for graffiti has a serious economic impact.

Western Europe seems to be an increasing target for graffiti and many locations seem to be helpless to stop it. Unlike graffiti in many places in the world, the canvas in Europe has often become churches, historic sites and public buildings.

Quebec
Stangeland, Norway

Often modern graffiti is becoming less political protest and more an ethnic challenge. It is becoming more and more common in the West to see Arabic writing as a major element of graffiti from Greece to Norway to Quebec along with counter graffiti.

Vietnam

Interesting that there are places in the world that are virtually graffiti free. It is rare to see it in rural areas of America, or in cities in Australia and New Zealand. I can’t say I noticed any in Amsterdam which is a very permissive culture  nor in Singapore. In the case of Singapore it probably has to do with a very harsh criminal code and strict enforcement. Even the fine for not flushing a public toilet in Singapore is S$200.

Graffiti on graffiti…

Anyone else a collector of graffiti? Care to share your thinking on this? Love to see what you found and where. E-mail us at TheIntentonalTraveler@gmx.com

Getting To Florida Cruise Ports

Florida Cruises – Getting There…

Florida has become one of the largest destinations in the U.S. for people taking cruises. While passengers come from all over the U.S. and even the world a large number come from the Southeast and especially Florida. The close proximity to the Florida ports offers a number of advantages to cruisers from the region but it also presents some interesting challenges. The following is as complete a rundown on how to get to your cruise ship regardless if you come by planes, trains or automobiles. Okay, maybe not trains.

Miami from the Port

Florida has four major cruise ports; The Port of Miami, Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale, Port Canaveral at Merritt Island (sometimes called the Orlando port) and Tampa. Each one has its own environment that makes getting to your cruise ship different for each port.

 

Flying In

Tampa

The port is some distance from the airport but there is generally a fixed taxi fare for the trip of about $25 (plus luggage fees and tip). There are also a number of shuttles as well but expect to pay between $15 and $20 per person for these. A cruise ship transfer at last check was over $15 per person.

Disney Cruise Shuttle

Orlando

The nearest major airport to Port Canaveral. Expect to pay over $100 for a taxi to the port which is a 47 mile trip. There are a number of shuttles that charge as little as $15 per person. Booking a transfer thru your cruise line can cost above $35 per person. At last check Disney offers a bus service from Orlando airport and hotels at Disney World to their cruises at $35 per guest.

Ft. Lauderdale

Port Everglades is only about 2 miles from the airport and while the airport taxi stand will usually quote a flat fare of $20 to the cruise ship if you go with the meter on, it should cost less and if you are going from the ship to the airport it should cost about $15 with tip (no delay exiting the port because of security). The cruise ships also offer transfers but they average $16 per person, which for two people makes a taxi the better choice.

Miami

If you are going from the Miami airport to the cruise terminal, current taxi charges are a $27 flat-rate fee. That’s not per person. So if you are traveling with a family of four, that’s just $7 per person (or $14 round-trip) — not a bad deal. Buying a transfer from your cruise line will cast around $17 per person though or $68 for four.

Rental Cars (In City)

Often people will fly into the port city a day or two early and if that is the case it is a good idea to rent a car. Depending on the city rentals can be very inexpensive and give more flexibility on how you get around. Be sure you check with the agency and make sure you can drop the car off near the port.

Miami

It is common in Miami for rental car agencies to allow a rental to be picked up at the airport and dropped off somewhere else in Miami. At between $25 and $40 a day this is a very economical way to get to the cruise port with the advantage of seeing some of Miami in the process. In the case of Avis and Budget*1 they both have drop-offs near the port with free shuttle service to your ship, which saves the cost of a short taxi ride.

Tampa

While it is possible to also pick up a rental car at the airport in Tampa and drop it in the city, there are no drop offs really near the port. When we come in to Tampa on a cruise it usually costs between $10 and $20 to get a taxi to the nearest rental car location.

Port Everglades

Ft. Lauderdale

Because the port and airport are so near each other, unless you plan on spending some time in the area before your cruise, there is little reason to rent a car. It is also worth noting that Avis and Alamo have free shuttles from their airport locations to Port Everglades and back (you must have a copy of the rental car reservation to board the shuttle though).

Orlando

It has become popular to rent a car for the one-way trips between Orlando or airport and Port Canaveral and the rental agencies have been very accommodating in recent years. A recent check showed three agencies (Avis, Budget and Alamo) offering cars between $50 and $75 per day for the one-way trip including free shuttles to the ships in Port Canaveral.

One Way Car Rentals

Even if you live within convenient driving distance to a port, sometimes port parking can become an expensive proposition. This is especially true if the cruise is longer than seven days. Except for the Orlando – Port Canaveral connection, one-way drop-off fees can make renting a car very expensive. The one notable exception to that is if you live near Orlando. Because Orlando is the number one destination in Florida the rental car companies are always trying to balance their inventories and are usually not charging drop-off fees between Orlando and major Florida cities. Renting a one-way car is our normal method of getting to and from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando. We have rented cars for as little as $29 from Orlando to Ft. Lauderdale. One trick is to make reservations way in advance and check the rate a few more times before the cruise.

Port Canaveral

Buses Etcetera

Back in the day buses were good, inexpensive transportation between cities and there still is a number of options for economical fares. MegaBus offers a one-way ticket from Orlando to Ft. Lauderdale for $26. The problem with them as with most bus service is that you have to get to their terminal and to your destination at the other end. This can be a major additional expense impacting the economy of bus transportation. We should also note that some people live in communities with active travel groups that normally arrange charter buses as part of a cruise package

Parking Near the Ports

Most parking structures inside the various ports are owned and operated by the ports and, on average, are fifty percent higher than private services near the port. Over the years there have been some interesting fights between these venues. Mostly it has been the ports trying to make it difficult for the private lots to compete and survive. Generally private enterprise finds a way.

Port Canaveral

Parking at the port garage inside the port is currently $17 per day and they charge for each portion of a day (that means full fare for the day you arrive and the day you leave). There are at least four dedicated private lots with shuttles near the port that average under $10 a day based on 24 hour days. There are also companies that contract with some local hotels for parking spaces and provide van service to and from the port.

Miami

Parking at the Port of Miami currently is $20 per 24 hour day with a daytime rate of $7. Because the port is located right in the heart of downtown Miami it is difficult to find reasonable rates nearby. There are a number of companies offering reduced rates but it would be recommended that you investigate where these lots are and how much security they provide.

Ft. Lauderdale

Parking inside Port Everglades currently is $15 per day but offers a location right next to the ships. Because the port is located near the airport there is a great deal of parking available in the area. There are official remote lots associated with the airport with shuttle service to the terminals as well as more than a few private lots not far away. Again it would be recommended that you investigate where these lots are and how much security they provide before reserving.

Notes & Links:

*1 Avis at Port of Miami with Shuttle to Cruise Ships. Address: 99 Southeast 2nd Street, (Cruise Ship Passengers Only), Miami, FL,33131. Phone: (1) 305-379-1317. Hours of Operation: Sun 8:00 AM – 2:00 PM; Mon – Fri 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM; Sat 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM

Miami Budget location with a free shuttle to the port. 89 SE 2nd St, Miami, Florida.

A Parking option at Port Canaveral

Shuttle from MCO to Canaveral 

Alamo Port Canaveral