Planning a Caribbean Vacation
What you'll find in this article: Caribbean trip planning advice, St. Lucia restaurants, St. Lucia hotels and resorts, snorkeling, and other activities in St. Lucia
After three years of law school and several grueling weeks preparing for the bar exam, Jenny Meader and Heather McKinney, of Little Rock, Ark., are ready for some R&R. Both are in their early thirties, having worked for several years before heading back to school, and are looking to steer clear of a spring break bacchanal. "We're planning a Caribbean vacation before we become responsible adults again," Jenny wrote to us. "No more briefing, no more blue books, no more teacher's dirty looks."
Heather and Jenny have hefty loans to pay off and hope to keep expenses to a minimum, with a budget of $2,500 each for about five nights. "We'd like to leave sometime around April 7, when the bar exam results come out," says Jenny. "The trip will either be a celebratory one, because we passed, or one where we find a new career selling seashells by the seashore."
Picking the right island is the first task. We start by asking what they see when they imagine their ideal locale. "Sandy beaches," Jenny responds, "with clean, clear water, friendly locals, and good food." Heather adds that they'd also like to do some hiking. "Being near the beach and the rain forest would be amazing," she says. "We intend to go hiking and snorkeling." The island also has to be a safe, stress-free place for single women. And finally, they're looking for a stylish, welcoming place to stay with air-conditioning and, ideally, a kitchenette.
It's a tall order, especially considering their money constraints and the fact that they're traveling at the tail end of high season. We first suggest St. John, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Not only is the island mostly undeveloped, two-thirds of it is a national park, with fantastic beaches and easy day hikes. But there are a few drawbacks. St. John is popular for cruise ship excursions, and well-known beaches such as Trunk Bay can get crowded. More cons: St. John doesn't have a true, classic rain forest with towering old trees; and, perhaps most critically, inexpensive rooms with A/C are scarce.
Jenny is intrigued with what she's heard about the "Nature Island" of Dominica. It certainly has a legitimate rain forest, along with challenging hikes at altitudes high enough to keep mosquitoes at bay. There aren't a lot of tourists, which sounds good, but they stay away largely for the same reasons Heather and Jenny might--the beaches are either rocky or too far from the hotels they'd find most comfortable. And the main town, Roseau, is full of old, worn-looking buildings and might be a turnoff.
While discussing the options, Jenny and Heather discover their priorities don't entirely match. "I'm sold on Dominica," says Jenny, "but Heather doesn't want to give up the beaches. Is there someplace that's a cross between Dominica and the Virgin Islands?"
The solution is St. Lucia, famous for the two giant oceanside peaks known as the Pitons, with wonderful white-sand beaches and a variety of accommodations. We recommend staying in the shadow of Petit Piton, at the southern end of the island, near the fishing village of Soufrière. There are plenty of beaches and hiking opportunities, and it's away from the traffic and large hotels of capital city Castries. Before they settle on the Soufrière area, we offer up another choice on St. Lucia's east side, the Fox Grove Inn, which rents hotel rooms and apartments, only some of which have air-conditioning. And considering the location, they'd definitely need to rent a car, something they'd rather not do, at least not for the entire vacation.
Upscale Soufrière resorts such as Anse Chastanet and Ladera are out of Jenny and Heather's price range, but might be worth visiting for a meal or a swim. At our suggestion, they consider two retreats in the mountains outside town, Crystals Guest Cottages and Stonefield Estate Villa Resort. Jenny and Heather are instantly infatuated with the latter's 19 villas--with kitchens--spread over 26 acres; paths trace lines among the mango trees and other greenery. "It seems to be exactly what we want," says Heather. "It's away from the bustle, and how could we not be excited about the amazing views?" They especially like that airport pickup is included in their package, and that all guests can ride a daily shuttle into Soufrière and to the beach at the Jalousie Plantation resort, each about ten minutes away. They decide to delay their trip until after April 15, when the resort's rates drop. And then they splurge, going for a package that includes massages and a larger, ocean-view villa. "The regular deluxe suite was sold out for our dates, so we upgraded to the luxury suite," says Jenny. "We get our own private swimming pool!"
Finding reasonable airfare winds up being fairly easy, in part because Jenny and Heather shifted their dates to after spring break. A few Internet searches make it apparent that U.S. Airways has the best fares out of Little Rock: $630 round trip, with stops in Charlotte and Barbados, about $100 less than other carriers for the same dates. Satisfied with that rate, they decide against trying to save some cash by flying out of a bigger hub such as Memphis or Dallas; it isn't worth the trouble.
"We definitely want to experience some of the local culture, especially in terms of cuisine," says Jenny. Camilla's, an unpretentious, second-story restaurant with balconies overlooking downtown Soufrière, has excellent dinners (lobster thermidor, creole chicken), as well as burgers, sandwiches, and salads for lunch. The Stonefield's own Mango Tree restaurant specializes in fresh seafood, and every Thursday night hosts a fun barbecue ($35).
To stock their kitchen, Jenny and Heather will need to take the shuttle into Soufrière and walk to the markets on Bay Street, a block off the waterfront. They'll find all the basics, as well as island vegetables such as dasheen (similar to a potato) and callaloo (for a delicious spinach-like soup).
Jenny and Heather will want to get out of the Soufrière area at some point and are leaving the option open to rent a car for a day or two. While most agencies are at or near the airports, Ben's West Coast Jeeps and Taxi Services is in Soufrière and rents cars from $60 a day. (Foreigners on St. Lucia have to get a $21 driving permit, purchased through the rental agency.) With a car, Jenny and Heather can drive to the weekly party known as Friday Fish Fry, when the village of Anse La Raye closes off several streets, and fresh seafood and lobsters are grilled to the beat of Caribbean music. (A cab from Stonefield will cost about $30 per person each way, so it's cheaper to rent a car.)
They could also drive to the Enbas Saut Waterfall Trail, which leads through rain forest and over steep steps to falls that double as a popular swimming hole. Lucky hikers catch a glimpse of St. Lucia's rare national bird, the Amazona versicolor. Even at a good pace, hiking the entire Edmund Rainforest Trail, not far from Enbas Saut, can take three hours. But the walking is easy and straightforward, and it's not essential to do the entire hike to spot orchids and bromeliads clinging to trees, along with occasional panoramas of the coast and St. Lucia's tallest peak, Mount Gimie.
Deep into the planning, after they've booked airfare and plotted a day-by-day itinerary, the women conclude that five nights just isn't going to cut it. "We're concerned that we won't be able to do everything we want," says Jenny. "So we're thinking about staying two more nights." Changing their flights means $100 more per person--not the end of the world. They stick with Stonefield for five nights, but want something less expensive for the two extra nights, perhaps even camping. Then they book a hotel in northern St. Lucia that they had dismissed earlier: Coco Kreole, where rates start at $85. "It's an inexpensive way to extend our stay," says Heather. "And the location, near all the action in Rodney Bay, gives us a nice change of pace after Stonefield." Making a vacation longer is hardly against the law--and returning to life as responsible adults can wait.
Jenny and Heather will enjoy a Rainbow Reef snorkeling package, free of charge, thanks to St. Lucia's luxurious Anse Chastanet resort. The package includes an excursion to nearby reefs and a plantation lunch with creole specialties. A water taxi picks the ladies up and drops them off at the Soufrière port. Bring an underwater camera!
How Was Your Trip?
The Reazer family, who we coached in July/August on a 25-day road trip, loved staying in unusual places, like this yurt in Oregon's Fort Stevens State Park. "It had a futon, bunk beds, and heat--which we really needed," says mom Laura.
Sir Richard Branson
Window or aisle? When forced to make the choice, I prefer aisle. This lets me get up and move around the cabin without bothering anyone. I find this is one of the best way to meet interesting people. The last thing I ate from a minibar?I try to stay away from the minibar, because it's my experience that once you start into a minibar, it's hard to stop. But, there are occasions when I have a certain craving, or am just plain hungry. At those times, I usually have every intention of staying healthy, planning to choose some nuts, or fruit juice. More often than not, I usually end up eating the chocolate. I won't leave home without... My cell phone. It lets me travel whenever I have to, and still be connected to all the businesses. But it is the most important item for me, because it is my lifeline to my family. No matter where I am, I can speak to them throughout the day, letting me stay more than in touch. The best trip I've ever taken? And why? My trip on Virgin Atlantic's inaugural flight in 1984. It was the first step in building what I've always known was possible--an airline that provides great service at a great value. My dream trip? My dream trip is into space. I'm planning to launch with Virgin Galactic in just a few years. The movie or book that inspired me to pack my bags? Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything. I recommend this book as a must read for everyone. My greatest travel pet peeve? My greatest travel pet peeve is when luggage takes forever to come out into the baggage area. I hate waiting, especially at that point when I just want to get off and start my trip, or I'm anxious to get home. How I deal with jetlag? I don't believe in jetlag. It's mind over matter. Working out, eating right, drinking water, getting enough sleep, and good living is the way to deal with jetlag. And, I must say, if you fly the right airline, it isn't an issue. If I could travel with any living person... Nelson Mandela. I'll never go back to ____________ And why? I never say never when it comes to traveling. If I love a place, I can't wait to go back. If I don't love a place, I'll go back to find what I missed. If I could be anywhere right now... With my kids.
Trip Coach: Spain, Portugal, and the Azores
When Sally Leiderman and Bob Woodcock got married in September, they weren't compelled to rush off on a honeymoon. For one thing, this is a second marriage for the 50-somethings from the Philadelphia suburb of Conshohocken. For another, Bob's a nurse-anesthetist and finds it hard to take time off from work. "My sister and her husband gave us a fabulous wedding present," says Sally. "A gift certificate for one week at a time-share anywhere in the world." Sally and Bob are dedicating two weeks in February to their trip. They're interested in "history, politics, music, architecture, and the everyday life of people," Sally tells us, and both have a passion for food. They decided on Spain because Bob speaks Spanish and Sally fell in love with the country a few years ago while visiting her daughter, who was studying in Salamanca. Bob is especially excited because they are tacking on a visit to the Azores islands, the Portuguese territory where his grandmother was born and raised. "I'm pretty good at travel planning, but I got frustrated," says Sally. "There was little information on the Azores, and we couldn't figure out where to choose a time-share in Spain." We advise the couple that Catalonia, the northeastern part of Spain centered on Barcelona, seems like a perfect location for them. They're traveling first to Barcelona using frequent-flier miles; for most other connections we're steering them to Azores Express, a U.S.-based tour operator that sells flights on SATA, the island chain's major carrier. After struggling to find anything available near Barcelona through the time-share company RCI, Sally and Bob have decided to stay at a two-bedroom ocean-view condo about an hour's drive from the city. The resort, just outside Tarragona, a working port known for its well-preserved Roman ruins, is in a tourist development called Estival Park, which has a big theme park nearby. That kind of amusement doesn't appeal to Sally and Bob, but the locale, within easy reach of Barcelona and plenty of towns worth checking out, works nicely. Driving and parking in Barcelona is difficult, so Sally and Bob can use Plaça de les Glòries MetroPark, a park-and-ride, and then take public transportation into the city (onaparcar.bcn.es, $6). "I remember everything in my life with regard to food," says Bob. He's certain to love Barcelona. The hottest neighborhood, El Born, is full of innovative restaurants, along with a few traditional spots to eat. At Cal Pep, a hidden Catalan tapas bar, locals fight for seats at the counter to watch chefs frying artichokes, steaming clams, and flipping tortillas (potato omelets). The snacks and drinks at Dulcinea, a 1940s granja (chocolate shop) on a pedestrian-only street in the nearby Gothic Quarter, warm up patrons on chilly winter afternoons. The thick hot chocolate is best enjoyed with a dollop of nata (whipped cream) and melindros, the Spanish version of the madeleine. Sally asks us about any Jewish historical sites worth visiting. An hour northeast of Barcelona is Girona, noted for having one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe. Amid the medieval walls and narrow streets dotted with restaurants, bookstores, and galleries is a former synagogue that serves as the Museum of Jewish History. There's a collection of Hebrew headstones that date from the 12th century, along with medieval jewelry and a commemorative stone from Girona's 14th-century temple. "When I travel, I'm a participator," says Bob, an amateur chef who plans to do a fair amount of cooking in their condo. "I like to see the goings-on in a community, the way people interact over food, like at farmers' markets." About 45 minutes from Tarragona is Vilafranca, a market town and the capital of the Penedès wine country, which is famous for producing the sparkling wine known as cava. The Saturday-morning market is the region's best, and other markets are held throughout the week (there's a schedule at ajvilafranca.es). In addition, the Museu del Vi displays old wine bottles and other winemaking equipment in a 12th-century palace. "That's definitely Bob's kind of thing," says Sally. Just outside Vilafranca, Sally and Bob can tour the vineyards and cava cellar and sample wines at Parés Baltà, family-owned since 1790. Unusually, two women--the owners' wives--are the winemakers. Another option is driving to Valls, a town known for its char-grilled calçots, leek-like onions. They'll just miss the Calçotada festival in late January, but there are many fine places in town, including gourmet restaurant Masia Bou, to enjoy the calçots, usually served as a messy first course. Patrons dip them into a giant bowl of romesco sauce--garlic, hazelnuts, almonds, and piquillo peppers. The couple wants to visit San Sebastian, the Basque Country's culinary center, but since the drive is at least five hours, we suggest staying a night in the city at the Pension Itxasoa. "If it's clean and safe with a good bed, it'll be fine," says Sally. The Itxasoa is that and more, with ocean views and an old-quarter location. Nearby, there are plenty of bars--on Calle 31 de Agosto, in particular--with great pintxos, the Basque equivalent of tapas; the bite-size treats at Bar Bergara, a 20-minute walk from the old quarter, are so elaborate they resemble mini Christmas gifts. The easiest way for Sally and Bob to get to the Azores is via Lisbon, so they're flying there from Barcelona (on Spanair, for only $62) to spend a couple of nights at another nice pension, Residencial Geres, before heading on to the islands. Bob plays traditional mountain music on banjo, guitar, and mandolin, and wants to hear fado songs, which are said to reflect Portugal's soul. The touristy fado clubs in Lisbon are easy to find, but for something more special, A Tasca do Chico is a great hole-in-the-wall bar where singers might include taxi drivers and waiters. "We also like quirky museums," says Sally, which prompts us to mention the Marionette Museum, with more than 800 puppets. As it turns out, Sally used to put on marionette shows. First up in the Azores is the main hub, São Miguel. The island's Furnas Lake, in a forest of bamboo and Japanese red cedar, is perfect for a romantic walk, even if the smell of sulfur permeates the air (it's within a volcanic crater). At 12:30 p.m., locals remove pots of cozido, a meat-and-vegetable stew cooked in the steaming earth. "It sounds like something my grandmother would make," says Bob. Their lodging is the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, which has a fantastic restaurant. "I like seeing how things are made," says Bob. "As a kid, I always loved field trips to factories." He's likely to enjoy the Fábrica de Chá Gorreana, the island's oldest tea factory, in business since the late 1800s. Bob's grandmother changed her name before emigrating to the U.S., and no one in the family knows her original surname, so he doesn't expect to find where she lived on their final stop, Flores. "We'd still like to learn about her roots," says Bob. "The food, festivals, traditions, and culture on the island." They have a few days to do just that, after checking into Aldeia da Cuada, a 19th-century village with cobblestone paths and ocean views that's been transformed into 13 black-basalt guest cottages. Each unit has a kitchen, so perhaps Bob can whip up one of his grandmother's favorite dishes. Surprise! "I'd love to surprise Bob with a culinary class," says Sally. And thanks to Barcelona's Cook & Taste, the newlyweds will get just that: a half-day, hands-on workshop focused on regional cooking, free of charge. Transportation Azores Express 800/762-9995, azores-express.com Spanair spanair.com, Barcelona to Lisbon, $62 Lodging Pension Itxasoa calle San Juan 14, San Sebastian, 011-34/943-430-086, doubles from $57 Pensao Residencial Geres Calçada do Garcia 6, Lisbon, 011-351/218-810-497, doubles from $65 Terra Nostra Garden Hotel Rua Padre José Jacinto Botelho 5, São Miguel, 011-351/296-549-090, bensaude.pt, doubles from $104, cozido dinner $21 Aldeia da Cuada Flores, 011-351/292-590-040, aldeiadacuada.com, cottages from $53 Food Dulcinea Petrixol 2, Barcelona, 011-34/933-026-824, hot chocolate $3.20 Cal Pep Plaça des les Olles 8, Barcelona, 011-34/933-107-961, closed Sundays, tapas from $2.30 Cook & Taste La Rambla 58, 3rd floor, Barcelona, 011-34/933-021-320, cookandtaste.net, half-day workshop $60 Bar Bergara General Artetxe 8, San Sebastian, 011-34/943-275-026, pintxos from $2.50 Masia Bou Carretera de Lleida, Valls, 011-34/933-026-824, calçots $16 Activities Museum of Jewish History Força 8, Girona, 011-34/972-216-761, $2.50 Museu del Vi Plaça Jaume, Vilafranca del Penedès, 011-34/938-900-582, $3.50 Parés Baltà near Vilafranca, 011-34/938-901-399, paresbalta.com, tour and tasting from $7 (make reservations) Marionette Museum Rua da Esperança 146, Lisbon, 011-351/213-942-810, $3 Fábrica de Chá Gorreana 304 Gorreana de Cima, São Miguel, 011-351/296-442-349, chagorreana.acores.com Nightlife A Tasca do Chico Rua Diário de Notícias 39, Lisbon, 011-351/965-059-670 How was your trip? "We had a wonderful honeymoon in Turkey," says Kristi Barnes, with husband Dave, who we coached on a trip back in September. "Cappadocia was unusual and breathtaking. The 'fairy chimney' formations are truly spectacular."
Ski Condos for Slackers
Rather than let units go unfilled in their prime season, ski-condo owners post discounted prices online to entice spontaneous folks (and procrastinators) to book at the last minute. Prices dip lower as the deadline approaches. "I tell my friends to search about a week in advance," says Tony Lopes, manager of Ownerdirect.com, which lists condo rentals all over the world, including at many ski resorts. Ownerdirect.com is heavy on British Columbia properties (600 units at the Whistler and Big White resorts alone), and has a good selection for the rest of Canada and the U.S. In one of its Rock Bottom Specials, which are discounted by at least 40 percent, a two-bedroom unit in Park City, Utah, dropped from $120 to $60 a night. Resortquest.com represents 17,000 condos and house rentals in North America--and you can search the site by activity (skiing, golf, etc.). Under its Hot Deals & Special Offers tab are last-minute incentives such as 20 percent off, free gas cards, or a free fourth night. At 11thhour.com, a clearinghouse for all-inclusive packages, cruises, and vacation rentals, a condo that's usually $699 per week can cost $499. Or go to a site that's strictly for skiers: Lastminuteskicondo.com. It lists offers from condo owners at 15 Colorado resorts and a handful of mountains in Montana, Utah, and the eastern U.S. Some sites focus on specific ski towns. Aspensnowmassonsale.com lists down-to-the-wire offers--seven days ahead at the most, sometimes for 50 percent off--on condos, hotel rooms, and house rentals in the Aspen-Snowmass area. Vailonsale.com works exactly like the Aspen site, but with deals in Vail, Colo. Visitbreck.com, for skiers heading to Breckenridge, Colo., has a Hot Deals section, which commonly features 10 percent discounts and third- or fourth-night-free offers, as well as an option for bidding at the last minute. You bid for available units during the two-week window prior to arrival; if your price is accepted, you have 24 hours before you must commit. But read the fine print before agreeing to any offer: A cleaning fee might be added later, and "slopeside" can be a relative term. Also, the trade-off for getting a deal is that cancellations and changes usually aren't allowed.
1. Pack a few paper place mats. They can be useful anywhere there's an outdoor shower. By stepping onto a place mat after a bush shower in Botswana, I managed to keep my feet clean and avoided getting dirt in my clothes. Sandy S. Hogan, Las Vegas, Nev. 2. Don't assume a single room costs less than a double one. If you're traveling solo, compare prices. I recently booked a hotel in Spain online and noticed that rates were the same whether I booked a single or a double, but the single was much smaller and its bathroom had only a small shower stall and no tub. Don Carne, Lansing, Mich. 3. Postcards are helpful when there's a language barrier. Finding anything in Tokyo is difficult when you don't speak Japanese, so here's what I suggest: Buy postcards of the places you want to see; an English description of the landmark is usually found on the back. Show the postcard to a taxi driver and he'll take you to the spot. Jim Dinsmore, Northridge, Calif. 4. Carry the exact change for public transportation. In Venice, we were annoyed when a vaporetto (water taxi) ticket-taker refused to give us our 3 euros change. Later, we discovered that if you don't have the exact fare, ticket agents make no promises about giving change. Dana Hunting, Seattle, Wash. 5. If you're renting a car in England, remove the left front hubcap. The last time we were in England, I met another American at the car rental agency. He had just returned his rental and was annoyed he had to pay for a missing hubcap. He said that between negotiating the narrow roads, having the steering wheel on the right side of the car, and driving on the left side of the road, he couldn't judge exactly where the left front wheel was. As a result, he repeatedly hit the curb and eventually knocked off a hubcap. Later that trip, while visiting Hadrian's Wall, I noticed many cars in the parking lot were missing hubcaps. Sure enough, most of the drivers were Americans! I'm glad I had taken my new friend's advice and put mine in the trunk. Bernard Hershkowitz, Commack, N.Y. You can find more tips in the December 2005/January 2006 issue of Budget Travel magazine.