Thursday, February 18, 2016

Southern Caribbean - Day 6 - Basseterre, St. Kitts

Well I am just over a week late in posting this but between trying to enjoy the vacation and the severely weak internet on the cruise ship I was unable to keep up with the live posts.  Will try to plan better for the next adventure (spoiler alert - Denver and Breckenridge Ski Weekend coming soon).

On Thursday we docked in the capital of St. Kitts, Basseterre.  We opted for a ship excursion in the morning, with a local company called Kantours, to try SNUBA and left the afternoon free to either chill on the beach or explore the town, depending on weather and how we felt.  For anyone who has not yet tried SNUBA, I highly recommend it.  It is essentially snorkeling, but instead of wearing a snorkel and being limited to only going down about 6 inches in the water, you have a mouthpiece connected to a 15 ft hose, connected to air tanks on a raft floating on the water.  Therefore, you are sort of SCUBA diving, but you don't have to wear the tanks or worry about your oxygen.  Its a great way for someone who loves to snorkel but is afraid to try SCUBA or has issues equalizing your ears in the depths, because you can choose to stay near the surface or ask for more weight in your belt which will help sink you towards the bottom.

We were a total of 6 for SNUBA that morning, so Tom and I went first with the other couple.  We have done SNUBA a few times before so we immediately asked for weight and stayed on the bottom for the whole 45 minutes of the underwater adventure.  The instructor was great and although the site we were at was murky and therefore not ideal for viewing fish and coral, our highlight was seeing 2 huge sea turtles from about 5 feet away!  Not sure exactly how deep we were, but I would say about 10-15'.  Our companions were new to SNUBA and they both took some time to getting OK with the concept of breathing underwater.  He opted to stay near the surface the whole time and she eventually made her way to the sea bed by the end.  Breathing underwater has never been off putting for me, but I can understand how it would throw people off, especially because you only breathe through your mouth.

While Pete and Ellen took their turn, the four of us lounged in the chaise chairs along Carambola Beach and the guys gallantly went on an adventure to the nearby clubhouse to procure glasses of rum punch.  I mean it was 10 am so we were already behind on the vacation day drinking...

We returned to the ship via transfer from the Kantours tour company, and then spoke to some of the taxi drivers along the pier to get quotes on an afternoon trip to the nearby Brimstone Hill Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  After a quick change on the ship, we met with Joseph, known locally as 'the historian', on the pier who led us to his thankfully air conditioned van, and we drove about 30 minutes along the coast to reach the fort.  Built between 1690-1790, it sits on a shelf created by the volcano under the island and is constructed out of brimstone blocks, hence the name.  It has an incredible vantage of the waterways connecting St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat.  Although it was not a formidable offensive capability, it was considering a stronghold and a lookout to help secure the first large, deep water port that was established after Columbus arrived in the region.  Much of the fort has been restored with displays on military life in the tropics, accommodations, rations, and health care.  There are some places that were not yet restored so you also could see what things looked like without regular upkeep, i.e. dungeon so full of mold that I could only stick my head in before the nauseous smell sent me running.   Our guide Joseph gave us great narration along the drive to prepare for the visit, helped us spot the local and prolific monkey population, and then left us free for about an hour to explore at our own pace, read the ample signs, and watch a mediocre video that explained the history and prominence of the fort.  I highly recommend a visit if you are free for a couple of hours.  I think we paid $20pp for the taxi, plus $10pp entry to the fort.  Note that the sun is strong and it is breezy, so dress in light colors but not short skirts, and bring water with you.

Burn some calories on the uphill climb from the parking lot to the fort entrance

Entrance to the inner keep and parade grounds, complete with bridge and moat

Note the incredible view in the background of the volcano on the island of Montserrat

By the time we returned to the pier it was past 2 pm and we were past ready for lunch.  Taking recommendations from our driver in the morning, we tried Lemongrass, a Caribbean/Asian fusion restaurant across from the pier.  We sat on the second floor balcony and enjoyed people watching in the town square while relaxing in the shade with a nice sea breeze.  We split curried shrimp and the steamed whole snapper which we had been told was the local catch and quite delicious.  Tom was in charge of deboning the fish, having closely watched the waiter on the ship perform this with surgical precision at the dinner table the previous night.  Food was excellent and the service was good if you are looking for someplace to eat that is just steps from the ship.

We made it back on board in time for late afternoon trivia then relaxed poolside or on the balcony until dinner time.  After dinner we caught the magic show which was interesting and yet we are all so disenchanted with these shows nowadays because we know its not really magic but they never explain how the tricks are done.  The performer was really great with slight of hand and cards in particular.  We then turned in to get ready for Friday which is the last port of call in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.

Southern Caribbean - Day 5 - Roseau, Dominica

Wednesday we docked on the small island of Dominica (pronounced dom-muh-NEE-kah) like the name Dominque but with an extra syllable on the end).  It is a small island about 29 miles long and 15 miles wide.  All four of us took a third party excursion to go snorkeling, cave swimming, and hiking to a waterfall.  In short it was a great, but rainy day and we loved getting to know the interior of this small but resilient country.

We met our group at 8:45 am just off the pier and they had clear directions on where to find the representatives.  We were in a van of 8 cruisers with a guide, Kasha and a driver, Asha.  The day started with a snorkeling tour of champagne reef, an area where the volcanic activity under the island causes warm gases to flow through the reef so there are tiny channels of bubbles that you can actually swim through!  Tons of great fish, eels, and other aquatic life.  After an hour on the reef we swam back to shore, dried off, and piled back in the van for a 15 min drive to stop #2.

Titou Gorge might have been the highlight of the whole trip.  Unfortunately we have no photos because the waterproof camera has died!  We stripped down to just swimsuits, water shoes, and float belts and after a short walk we then walked down some stairs into a very cold river that flowed down a waterfall and into a cave/gorge.  We swam up river through the cavern to the base of the falls and then using a life ring and some rope, our guides pulled us through the base of the falls to a pocket next to the falls.  It was freezing but exhilarating and very cool!  Since we don't have pics, here is a screenshot from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean - Dean Mans Chest which was filmed here.  Therefore I have unofficially swam with Johnny Depp now!

I should mention that all day it was overcast and raining but in strokes of good luck, every time we drive between spots, it poured, and when we got out for an activity it lessened or stopped.  Raincoats came in handy today!

After the gorge we dried off and drove about 20 min to an area called Trafalgar Falls.  A 10 min hike and some stairs took us to the two falls.  The island survived a bad tropical storm this fall which left 30 dead, whole villages buried in mud, washed out roads, and the thermal springs at the base of these falls were also destroyed.  The people of the island are very resilient and are working hard to rebuild and continue to encourage tourism to help restore what was lost.

One of the coolest things we saw was the hydroelectric system which supplies 40% of the islands power.  In a feat of timeless engineering the pipeline is built from wood, like a 20 mile long barrel.

Overall it was a great day and we liked getting to see the interior and learn more about the islanders from our guides.  Bumping Tours was excellent and I would highly recommend them for any excursion.

We finished the night with dinner in the modern restaurant which tries to make food fun.  iPads are the menus and everything is fusion or served in a playful manner.  The dessert menu was a puzzle cube you had to open in various ways to see all the options.  My favorite dish was the disco shrimp and the sushi lollipops with crab meat that were covered in Doritos dust.  Group consensus was that it was fun to try but not a repeat.  To cap off the night, literally, we won at majority rules trivia and each got baseball caps!  In this game they ask a question and you write down what you think the majority of the purple in the room will respond.  Example - what kind of pet would be cool to have, but a pain to keep?  Answer: Monkey.  Ellen and Pete were the heavy hitters here and supplied nearly every answer we gave.  Hats off to them!

Thursday we are in St. Kitts 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Southern Caribbean - Day 4 - Fort de France, Martinique

Tuesday morning we docked on the French island of Martinique, one of the largest islands in the Southern Caribbean.  A member of the EU, the island is on the euro and all the inhabitants speak French and we had been forewarned that English although English may be spoken by some it is not to be assumed everyone will speak it and much like in France, the locals expect you to at least try to speak their language first.  That meant that Pete and I were translators for the day!

Tom and I had breakfast on the balcony and then met our group at 8:30 am for a morning of kayaking in the mangroves.  We booked the tour though the ship and overall we would give it 3/5 stars.  A nice excursion but we did not see much wildlife in the mangroves, didn't have the opportunity to explore on our own in the kayaks, and the flotilla of 15+ kayaks would have been better split into small groups.  That being said, our guide was great and spoke English and taught us about the mangrove.  We paddled through a channel in the middle of the mangrove island so it was a nice slow pace so you could look around.  

[Sorry no kayaking or beach photos since the waterproof camera seems to have died!]

We then boarded the boat that took us out to the mangroves and stopped at St Marin nearby for 30 min.  I had read great things about the beaches here, but was unimpressed with the small beachhead and overcrowdedness.  There is a ferry that runs from where our cruise ship docked to three beach areas at least 1x per hour and it seemed easy to use, yet from what I saw I could not recommend the beaches.

We returned to the ship around 1 pm, enjoying some cake and the local cocktail called ti ponge (tee-ponj) which is a pinch of sugar in the raw with a squeeze of lime muddled in 2-3 fingers of local rum.  We preferred the mellowed dark rum which is barrel aged over the clear which had a strong bite to it.  We liked the mix best with some juice in it as well so it was more of a punch and less of a shot that you sipped.

Tom and I quickly changed back on board the ship and although we had missed our original meetup time with his parents, we called their room and luckily they were still here! Pete and Ellen had relaxed on the ship in the morning and after we missed our appointed meetup time they made a valiant attempt to hire a taxi to the botanical gardens but after negotiations in both French and English resulted is too steep a price and realizing they had forgotten to bring a credit card, they returned to their rooms for money and that is when we called so it was perfect timing!

All four of us met on the pier and walked into town for a late lunch and some exploring.  We walked about 7 minutes to the covered market which sells fruits, vegetables, spices, spirits, souvenirs and has restaurants lining the balcony and back end.  We scoped out the options and settled on Chez Carole which I had read in several reviews online.  

This is the point where Tom said if he did not have a French speaker he would have gone elsewhere for lunch.  Note that some friends of ours are clearly more adventurous than Tom in this regard and although the didn't speak any French they are nearby and just pointed at the menu and ate what was served.  The menu is all in French and although the proprietor, Carole, spoke English, the rest of the wait staff spoke French so we did our best to translate menu options to our companions, practice our French when ordering and asking for refills and just enjoyed the experience.  It was a prix fixe menu so you got a drink, an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert, or could order anything a la carte.  We started with more ti ponge (with extra fruit juice), a fish beinget and salad, then shared 3 entrĂ©es- chicken colombo (curry chicken), conch fricassee, and prawns.  All served with lentils and rice.  It was all delicious, but none of us particularly like conch so that was not a favorite.  We finished by splitting an order of coconut flan which was denser than flan as we know it, almost like a rice pudding thickness, but quite flavorful.

After lunch we drifted through the market, decided we didn't want to have our bags searched by TSA when we tried to bring home spices, and hit the streets in search of sunscreen and pastries.  Found the sunscreen at a nearby convenience store and stopped for pastry at a shop we passed coming from the pier.  When Tom and I visited France on our trip in 2014, he went to Normandy for the day and didn't get the chance to eat fresh pastry.  I told him how you could taste the butter and it was different from a croissant anywhere in the US.  We decided on a pain au chocolat (think chocolate filled croissant) and a pomme/framboise chaussette (apple raspberry turnover).  Both were delicious and we all split them as we walked back to the pier.  

My sun hat had been looking pathetic lately so when some sun bonnets caught my eye in the shops along the pier I stopped to peruse and settled on a new one with a strong brim.  It looked perfect with my white eyelet dress and I think I can swap out the ribbons for different looks in the future.

                            Old Hat

                           New Hat

We finished the day with some rounds of trivia, reading and sunning on the balcony, and dinner in the main dining room.  Dinner was unimpressive last night, as was our wait staff service, but that was the first time all week we were not happy with the food or dining experience.

Wednesday we dock in Dominca (dom- eh-NEE-ka).

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Southern Caribbean - Day 2&3 - Tortola, BVI

Monday we docked on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.  The four of us had booked a semi private boat charter with Aristocat Charters and were in for a day of sailing and snorkeling.

After a little confusion on following the directions from the pier to the boat in the marina [note to self to write them better walking directions to give their cruise guests] we boarded the Lionheart and set off by 9 am with a total of 14 pax and 2 crew.  Captains Luke and Scott were outstanding - friendly, capable, customer service oriented.  We sailed for about 45 minutes across the channel to Norman Island.  Tom and Ellen sat our front on the netting suspended between the pontoons where you got great views and the salty spray breeze.  Pete and I opted for the back where it was less bumpy and we could talk to the Captain and some other guests about the region. Highlight of the sail out was passing the yacht currently taping the Bravo TV show "Below Deck".  It's the ridiculous kind of trashy reality tv where we all know it's not real, but we love it anyways, especially Tom.

We stopped for 45 min at Norman Island for snorkeling.  Aristocat Charters provided the fins and masks and noodles to float on if desired.  We brought our own snorkels and masks but borrowed some fins and headed out to the reef. There were tons of fish, some coral, huge sea urchins, and best of all almost no one else there!

After getting back on board we sailed for about 20 min to a nearby cove with a beach where we grabbed a bouy to tie off and we were given an hour of free time while they prepared lunch.  Tom hopped in the water and made a brave first ever attempt at paddle boarding.  He took to it right away and impressed all the others on board with his balance.  They asked me if he was really athletic and all I could do was laugh.  I followed him into the water and swam to the beach doing an Australian crawl so that I could carry beers for us and my hat in my free hand.  Again, all the guests on board commented that their wives would never do that for them, LOL.  Ellen joined me and we drank on the beach while she tried paddle boarding with some coaching from Tom.  I also tried, but stayed kneeling, knowing that my balance was not good on solid ground.

After an hour of paddling and swimming lunch was served as a large buffet spread in the cabin.  All of it was delicious and it was accompanied by all you can drink soda, beer, rum punch, and dark and stormy mixed drinks (ginger beer and rum).  After lunch we sailed for another 20 min to The Indians where we snorkels for a half hour.  All four of us agreed that this was the top snorkeling we have ever done, including Hawaii and the Western Caribbean because of the plethora of fish and the colors.

We sailed back, arriving about 30 min before all aboard.  After a long day in the sun and all that rum, everyone headed straight back to the ship for showers and naps.  We dressed up for dinner as it was Velntine's Day and the onboard dress code called for 'evening chic'.  We had reservations in the French restaurant onboard where everything was delicious, albeit service was slower than desired.  My favorites were the crab and salmon parfait starter, venison with red cabbage and the cheese course before dessert.

All in all it was a great day and I was the only one who got too much sun (although I blame the husband/cabana boy since everywhere I applied it I didn't burn).

Monday we spent at sea and there is nothing significant to report - breakfast on the balcony, slept in, watched a top chef cooking challeneg in the theater, lunch, trivia, cocktails, dinner.  Pete and Ellen have been sampling all the musical venues/artists on board so I will have them dictate a review later.

Tuesday we are in Fort de France, Martinique which is a French speaking country so Pete and I are on duty for all conversation!  

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Southern Caribbean - Day 1 - Travel and Embarkation

Saturday morning we set off with our in laws for a week long adventure to the Southern Caribbean.  We chose to sail out of San Juan, Puerto Rico on the Celebrity Summit as it had great ports of call, and minimized sea days since you are already "there" when you embark.

The flight from DC was about 4 hours and we watched some movies in Amazon instant video and slept most of the flight.  DC was 18 degrees F and snowy when we left, so first act upon landing was to change into our tropical attire we had packed in the carry on.

Tip: Anytime you travel, but especially for a cruise pack 24 hrs worth of clothes, meds, and a swimsuit in your carry on so that if your bag is delayed and the ship sails, or if your bag doesn't immediately get delivered to your cabin, you can enjoy all the activities on board.

Note for SJU that you cannot enter any baggage claim areas from outside - only way in is from the gates, so plan to meet your party out side by the taxi stand at a specific terminal, and set contingency plans for if not here by X then proceed without us because cell phone service on Verizon was sub par while AT&T was good.

We met up with my in laws at their terminal and got a Taxi Touristico to the cruise terminal.  The taxis are either metered or flat rate, and the taxi stand agent will ask your destination, get a headcount and luggage count, and write the destination and total amount due on the slip of paper for you so it's really easy.  It was $25 for all 4 of us and luggage (plus tip) for the <15 min ride to the pier.  Super easy and a much better rate than paying the cruise line for a transfer which is usually $15-25 pp.

Embarkation was relatively easy at the terminal - Tom and I had our bags tagged and taken by the porter, were checked in and in our room changing into swim gear within a 10 min window!  We opted for a room with balcony on deck 6 and love it!

We spent the afternoon sunning by the upper deck and enjoying the warm salty water of the Thalassotherapy Pool.  Afterward we changed and did an early dinner in the main dining room, Cosmopolitan, before the mandatory muster drill at 7:45 pm.  Dinner was very good - we tried almost half the menu between the four of us.  Highlights included the mushroom soup, roasted beets with feta and tomato, and the beef spring roll. Entrees were fine, the home style porkchop being the standout.  The drill lasted about 45 min and it is very apparent that after some recent maritime disasters around the world the cruise lines and staff are taking safety very seriously and want the guests to know what to do.

Tom and I turned in early since we had been up at 5 am to make our flight.  First port of call on Sunday is Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.  We will spend Valentine's Day snorkeling and sailing ⛵️

Friday, February 5, 2016

Why I kept my head down at Create & Cultivate Dallas

[Author's note: Normally this blog will be devoted to travel posts only, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about a recent conference I attended to help inspire me and grow by business.  The usual travel fodder will be back next week.]

The last weekend of January I took a weekend trip to Dallas, Texas to attend Create & Cultivate, a conference for women entrepreneurs in the digital space.  The experience was a whirlwind of networking, beautiful decor, inspirational speakers, and motivating conversations.  Over 400 women attended, not including the speakers, mentors, and organizers.  After the event, the Create & Cultivate team posted pictures on Facebook and while flipping through I came across this photo which made me pause -

Why I kept my head down at Create & Cultivate Dallas - by 72 Hours To Go

Stop and look at it for a moment

What do you see?

Bright eyes, delighted expressions, cameras snapping away....

and one girl with her head down in a sea of smiling, wide eyed faces.

That's me.

There were 200 women in my track for the conference, and I am the only one in the crowd not looking at the panelists.  I've got my head down and I am taking notes.  So why did I keep my head down at Create & Cultivate?  Because I mean business.

I signed up for this conference in the fall before I had even started this site.  I had a passion for travel and planning and had been dreaming about doing something with it for the longest time and when I saw the conference signup it was a catalyst for me to finally do something.  I made a plan that if I signed up I had to start a website, post at least 2 itineraries, purchase business cards, and create an Instagram account before the conference took place.  Create & Cultivate Dallas was a forcing mechanism for me, and when I got to the conference itself I kept that drive going.  I kept my head down during almost every panel.  Sure I looked up enough to take in my surroundings, catch a glimpse of some of my favorite writers in the digital space, and appreciate the fabulous decor and pop ups shops, but I focused on listening and capturing information I would need when I got home.  Admiring how others look and think and act will only get you so far, and for me the power of the conference was in the takeaways.  I took pages of notes!  Quotes that inspired, ideas for posts, successes and failures of the speakers, and 6 months or a year from now I have the power to look back at those notes for guidance on where to go next, or pride on how far I have come in seeing the items I was concerned with at the start of this venture.  This photo captures the side of me that is structured and detail oriented and why I think I have a unique voice to contribute to this crowded world of travel writing.  Because with less than 72 hours to go somewhere, you have to pay attention to the details in planning and learn to appreciate beauty in quick moments of pleasure.

Here are some of the best snippets from the conference that stuck with me:
On creating an anonymous brand:  "A brand lasts a lot longer than a face." -- Sophie Max of Beyond the Mag
On success: "Negative comments are better than none at all because it means they took the time to care and we are forcing people to think and engage in something." -- Betches
On gaining followers: "Use the analytics within tools like Pinterest.  Find out where people already are discovering you and make the connection bonds stronger there."  --Julia Engel of Gal Meets Glam
On knowing your audience: "Use google analytics to know their age, their gender, their salary then make a picture of your average user in your mind.  We shop for our style and their price point." -- Lunchpails and Lipstick 
On using Pinterest to drive readers to your site: "Only 15% of pinterest users actually pin new content - most just repin things they find by searching.  If you are someone who regularly pins new content you are considered a power pinner and the Pinterest algorithms will automatically boost your content in searches."  -- Amy Locurto of Living Locurto 
And that is why I kept my head down at Create & Cultivate, and will continue to keep my head down when it comes to 72 Hours To Go.  But I am going to put this photo up on my desk, so I can look up and remember why I started and why I know I can succeed.