Gary's Travel Blog

Now Playing: A Caribbean Getaway

September 1, 2011 - Miami Airport

The six am flight from Dulles International was as packed as all flights to anywhere and everywhere are in these times; it was comfortable, as Jeanne had the travel-agent-wit to pay a few extra bucks for two exit-row seats—AH HA and HURRAH, we enjoyed endless leg room.

Getting to the airport was more of an adventure than the flight: The four am shuttle driver at our invariable night-before-the-flight hotel, the Holiday Inn Dulles Expo, failed to materialize. Everything came to a standstill in anticipation; finally, at 4:20 Juan, a short Spaniard who appeared to be in his sixth decade, slipped into the breech. We arrived at Dulles to find yet another new terminal.

Airport security and I are never in sync. I strive to cooperate. As I stand in the long line I visualize: cell phone off and out of my pocket; my silver money clip to be placed in the plastic container with the cell phone and small WAWA back pack, paper money remains in my pocket; computer out of the carry case and placed in its very own container; shoes and belt in the first container. Be alert! Be ready. Remove shoes quickly, so as not to slow the line of impatient people behind me. “Put your sunglasses in a container,” (they were perched atop my white-haired head) a TSA woman said, as I approached the FULL BODY SCAN, a new experience. As I completed the palms-together-above your head exercise, another TSA woman looked at me pleasantly and said: “ We have a new rule: If you're over 75, you don't have to take off your shoes.” Now she tells me. Why is that? Because old folks can't put explosives in their shoes, like young Muslims lusting to blow up an airliner? No. I assume the “shoe rule” was changed because old folks were taking so much time when taking off their shoes, they plugged up the line flow like a beaver dam in a rapidly running creek.

Jeanne and I proceeded down an escalator to wait for a driver-less little tram, now so common in multi-terminaled airports. “My sun glasses,” I said. As both escalators were bringing passengers down, I sought out an elevator. At the level above, I walked back to the point where I had emerged from the grasp of the TSA agents, and said to the first one encountered: “I left my sunglasses.” Without uttering a sound, he walked away, I followed and we arrived at a stainless steel table. There were my sunglasses at rest and at peace waiting for me, having slid through the inspection machine in a small, round plastic dish.

We took our first nourishment of the day at a large Miami Airport cafeteria. As we ate, I noticed our “busboy,” a short Cuban man, hair and mustache carefully manicured, but wearing a dirty workplace-issued guayabera shirt, was on the down-slope of life. When Carlos approached our table, I spoke to him in Spanish and asked him his age. “Yo? El proximo Febrero, ochenta y dos,” he replied (82 in February). Watching him earlier, I had said to Jeanne:”not every Cuban who made it to Florida got rich.”

September 3, 2011 - The Palms at Pelican Cove, St. Croix

It is early. Before sitting to write, I peeked between the heavy drapes covering our sliding glass door facing the Caribbean Sea, a scant 20 yards in front of our concrete porch. Two pelicans were bobbing in Pelican Cove in unusually soft waves, as they quietly slid their way to our narrow beach.

St. Croix (at least the Christiansted end we have seen) is the antithesis of St. Thomas—and all of the Caribbean islands that cater to cruise ship revelers (Christiansted exists devoid of a cruise ship dock.) St. Croix, its residents and visitors, carry on without the presence of Diamonds International, Columbia Emeralds, Little Switzerland and the scores of franchised precious stone, high-end wrist watch and T-shirt shops and booze joints that seemingly smother the down-towns of other islands. It is as if St. Croix has yet to be discovered by the world-wide tourist industry; it is, however for all of its touch of originality, one of three U.S. Virgin Islands purchased from Denmark for $25 million in 1917.

Yesterday was Sunday. When we reached Christiansted, after a $10 ride in an ancient van, we found the town largely deserted. We meandered along the seaside boardwalk to one end; there we watched a cock rooster follow a gayly dressed woman into the seaplane passenger area, as if it were the woman's pet (chickens, we have noticed, roam freely throughout Christiansted.) As we wandered away from the seaplane port, we paused to check out the menus of two seaside restaurants offering Sunday brunches. After looking at one of the menus, Jeanne said: “That didn't turn me on.” We passed the Christiansted National Historic Site and decided to walk into the town away from the Sea. As we walked down Queen Cross street, we noticed an open cafe in a small courtyard on our right. There, we met Lisa, who after six years living and working on St. Thomas, is now the weekend manager and sole Sunday employee of Cafe Namaste—featuring, among other things, two signs urging clients not to feed the ever-present chickens. “It was time for a change,” Lisa said explaining her recent move to St Croix after six years on St. Thomas. “The pace here is so much more relaxed and laid back,” the very pleasant 33 year old Texan assured us. Lisa made us each an egg and meat bagel sandwich and we sat under an umbrella for a leisurely refueling (mine included two Caribe lager beers.) As Lisa was distracted closing the small cafe and, against all house rules, I flipped a piece of bagel to the scrawniest of the two courtyard chickens.

On our return to the Palms at Pelican Cove, the van-taxi driver and I got into a discussion about our ages. “I'll bet you $50 to your $20 that I'm older than you. He would have lost; he was a mere 72. He claimed that it was my beard that threw him off.

September 4, 2011 - The Palms at Pelican Cove, St. Croix

The custom in the American Virgin Islands is to drive on the left. I apparently considered it a custom and not a hard and fast rule. We rented a car for our last 24 hours on St Croix. Jeanne and I decided that we needed to see Frederiksted, on the other end of the island, before we wrapped up our St. Croix mini-exploration.

“STAY IN THE LEFT LANE,” Jeanne would loudly admonish, as I would sometimes swing into the right, particularly after turning a corner in our Tiny Toyota. The driving element of our day began when we were picked up by a lively 20 year old St Croixian, single mother who claimed to have lived in Florida, Baltimore and New York in the course of her young life; while we did paperwork at the local car rental joint, I noticed she bore a tongue pierced with a silver watcha-ma-doodle, perhaps my first live sighting of such adornment.

When not driving to and fro Frederiksted and taking time for a leasurely lunch at Polly's At The Pier therein, which concluded with an iced white chocolate mocca coffee concoction, I spent the day fantazing about acquiring St. Croix real estate, but before we leave Polly's: first, Polly is a bulldog; the business is located (sans the dog) in a former Frederiksted pier warehouse across the street from the one pier on the island large enough for cruise ships to roost; it is some sort of New Age emporium, featuring (from its advertising) Ghirardelli Frappes; Organic Egg Breakfasts; Light, healthy Wraps; Showcase Organic Salads and saving the best for last Frederik's Award-Winning Vegan Loveburger. Food was delicious (I passed on the loveburger), Sue the manager was bright-eyed and manicly happy. I assure you, the place was plenty funky.

Calabash Real Estate has a small detached office on the Palms at Pelican Cove grounds. Yesterday, while waiting for the rental car pickup. Jeanne and I walked in. Therein, we met Julie, the very substantial general manager of Palms at Pelican Cove; she had dropped in for a chat with Esther Joseph, Realtor. Julie has been resident on St. Croix for 27 years and experienced the good times and bad, including Hurricane Hugo, which laid bare every structure on the island. “It was sort of 'clean out time' on the island,” she said. “The C-130s came to take out those wanting to go and they went. The rest of us began rebuilding.” Esther said: “The aerial photos showed across the whole island nothing stood, just a bunch of sticks on the ground.”

“A condo sold recently for $99,000, in a building that three years ago you couldn't buy anything for less than $400,000; I tell you, it's a buyers market,” Esther said, and I was hooked. Upon given custody of the Tiny Toyota, Jeanne and I headed back to the Calabash office; there we continued the real estate conversation with Esther, before driving off—in the left lane—to Frederiksted. We went over condo and detached home prices. We discussed condo fees, cost of electricity (very high, “another mortgage,” Esther said), and renting out a unit when we would be “off island.” We drove around “Condo Row”, of which the Palms at Pelican Cove condos (affiliated with, but not owned by the hotel) is a centerpiece. We arranged to return in March for an extended stay to experience life on the island and find our piece of St. Croix sun and sand.

Last evening, Jeanne brought me back to reality: “You always need to own,” she began. “Why?” Why do we need the responsibilty of a mortgage, the upkeep, the threat of hurricanes?”, she asked. All we need to do is find places where we want to winter; we don't need to be saddled with ownership in one place; we'll probably go to different places.” My bubble burst.

Our total experience at the Palms at Pelican Cove has been calm, relaxing and flawless. The room and bath are large and confortable. We walk out of our room onto the porch and into the sand, a mere TWENTY YARDS FROM THE CARIBBEAN SEA. The service has been very good and the people pleasant and helpful. I give a tip of the Frink Fedora to the staff and management of the Palms At Pelican Cove.

Shortly after noon we fly to St. Martin to join our dear cousins, David and Judi Erickson. AND ANOTHER ADVENTURE BEGINS!

September 6, 2011 - Sint Maarten

We were putting our luggage into the back of the tiny Toyota. As I turned from the auto, a smiling St. Croixian woman dressed in a Palms at PC uniform and holding a broom said: “I hope you'll come back.” I thanked her, and she said: “My name is Mama G. If you are here on Sunday, I would like to take you to my church; it's an Evangelical church.” I raised my arms above my head and gently waved them. “Do you do this?” “Oh yes, and we sing,” she said. Mama G then explained that she had two adult children living “stateside, in California and Long Island.” Mama G waved as the tiny Toyota moved slowly toward the exit road.

My unexpected encounter with Mama G was a warm human conclusion to what had been an exceptionally fine sojourn at the Palms at Pelican Cove. If one is seeking a sea and sun holiday, sans the cruise ship passenger culture so prevalent on most Caribbean Isles, St. Croix should be near the top of the list of potential choices. If St. Croix pops-up as the selection, there are two Jewell Hollow Frinks willing to take the stand and testify to their very satisfying three days at the Palms at Pelican Cove, during our Caribbean September of 2012.

“The plane is on the ground, so you'll probably be leaving ahead of schedule,” said the Liat Airline counter lady. An airline that leaves ahead of departure time? Oh, yes, and it happened: one half hour ahead of schedule it was wheels-up on Liat Airline's daily flight St. Croix-St. Maarten. Aboard the small Canadian-made airliner, I told Jeanne: “Here I am, almost 80 and I have two firsts today: After hundreds of flights, this is the first one that has taken off a half hour ahead of schedule; second, this is the first flight where we have been the only white people aboard, including the pilots.”

Melia, a lovely young Guiana woman based in Antigua, was our flight attendant. When I asked her where in the Caribbean we could find a satisfactory four month winter rental for up to $2,000 a month, she asked “Two thousand U.S.? That's a lot of money. You could probably find something you'd like in Dominica.” Poof, and then we landed at Princess Juliana International Airport, on the Dutch end of Dutch-French Sint Maarten (Dutch) St. Martin (French.)

Our dear cousins, David and Judi Erickson, have rented for a month a very large penthouse (fifth floor) overlooking the airport on one side and a gargantuan kidney-shaped swimming pool, a small lagoon and the crystalline blue waters of the Caribbean Sea flowing west to the skyline, on the other. They have invited us to be their guests for a few days, until our Saturday return flights (to Miami, to Dulles International.)

September 8, 2011 - Sint Maartin

Our four days in Sint Maartin have evaporated. Today we fly home.

Dave and Judy, Jeanne and I, made a lunchtime excursion to Marigot, the principal town on the French side of the St. Martin. Differences between the Dutch and French jurisdictions are startling. In Sint Martin, glaring honky-tonk is replete: Juke-joints, hotels, condominium developments, restaurants, bars “adult entertainment” emporiums and small shops, all with garish signs attached, hawk virtually every object and service an aground cash-flush cruise ship passenger could legally desire. The French side is markedly more subdued.

“This reminds me of a French village,” I said to my three relatives in the rented Mazda, as we slowly moved down a vehicle-jammed street beside tiny, narrow, beige, wood-trimmed concrete homes crowding the sidewalk. After we parked facing the sea near the town center, the contrast to the Dutch side of the island became more apparent. There are, of course, commercial signs in Marigot, but they are restrained, neither glaring nor blinking, as they might have appeared in the 19th Century.

The Marigot town center contains a permanent concrete-roofed market, with stalls for produce vendors and other merchants. As we ambled to the market, we walked past a seller of music CDs. He had two speakers mounted high on collapsible poles; they blared Salsa rhythms so loudly that I feared for the man's hearing, as he sat serenely between the pulsating speakers waiting for the Latina sounds to lure customers to his CD-covered table. At a market stall, I purchased five large c ucumbers and a small bag of limes from a sleepy, island-woman green grocer. Then it was time for liquid refreshment and lunch.

Saint Martin (as opposed to Sint Martin) is an administrative part of continental France, similar to a continental French region; it uses the euro and, with the exception of the limited powers of the Territorial Council, is French governed.

Now that we have established that St. Martin is French, it follows as surely as sunset follows sunrise that French restaurants exist in Marigot, the largest town. Les Tocques is an long open-front brasserie in the center of town, across the street from the concrete-roofed market. We were quickly seated. Three Caribe beers and a Diet Coke began the event. Jeanne ordered, and partly consumed, a four-cheese pizza (the remainder returned with us to the apartment to be warmed and served during the cocktail hour.) David ate a Thai-beef salad.

Steak Tartare is a concoction of marinated raw beef, containing a raw egg, mustard, onion and capers. It is a French delicacy, and not widely lusted after beyond the bounds of that nation. Judy told of a family European vacation, many years in the past: “We were in Paris at a restaurant for dinner. My father said: 'Judy, you should try the Steak Tartare, given that you like your steak barely cooked at home.' I loved it.” I had enjoyed the dish in various French eateries in Washington, long ago when such emporiums abounded. Judy and I split a Steak Tartare order, which came with what else but French Fries. The Steak Tartare was very well assembled, with a hint of sweetness and a paucity of capers, which didn't allow them to overwhelm the orchestrated taste. We lingered over our luncheon, enjoying the ambiance of our French surroundings (one slender, cheek-kissing, well-coiffed woman—mother of two pre-teens—wore spike high-heals to accompany her skin-tight white jeans.) Then it was a return to the hooky tonk of Sint Martin.

September 17, 2011 - Jewell Hollow, Page Co. VA

During our sojourn in Sint Maarten, each morning at 8 a.m. Jeanne, Judy and Dave would walk to the beach. I would write. “It's wonderful,” Jeanne reported back the first morning, “there is no one there, just the three of us on a long beach.”

The second morning we were resident in the Sint Maarten penthouse, after the trio returned from their morning beach splash Dave announced: “We're going back to the beach for lunch.” And so we did. By noon, “the beach” had transformed into a hive of commercial activity: beach lounges and umbrellas lined the gentle curve of the shore, 15 feet from the edge of the tranquil sea. Further back from the water, a small wooden shack sheltered a woman selling bottled beer and taking orders for ribs and chicken, being cooked on an open fire, nearly hidden in a small palm grove to the side. “Are you Rosie,” I asked the woman, for a large painted sign over the street-side of the shack proclaimed the distaff name of the business. She demurred. Fifty people—more of less—in various stages of undress were sprawled on the lounges or bobbing in the benign surf in front of the shack. Beyond “Rosie's”, there were no other buildings in sight to mar this beachcomber's dream scene.

The following morning, upon the trio's return from the morning round-trip beach walk, Dave proclaimed: “Today, we find you some luggage,” (Jeanne and I feared our battered bag wouldn't make it back to Jewell Hollow) and soon off to the elevator—too small to convey all four of us in one descent—and out to the car we went. Our first stop was a huge, two-story Ace Hardware Store, where we checked prices. Then, it was on to Philipsburg, the largest town on the island and the hub of Sint Maarten commerce.

We parked at the far end of Front Street and then walked up the narrow street toward the center of town, passing the old wooden Methodist church, where a funeral—with a black hearse followed by a very long, gleaming white limousine were idling in the street—was coming to an end. As I paused, a man sitting on a stoop behind me volunteered: “That church is a hundred years old.”

Beyond the church, Front Street is a series of shops, with the addition of one small open tourist market and a casino. One of the shops on the right hand side of the street had three pieces of luggage in the door way. We examined one, then went inside the shop to find more pieces; one was a gaily patterned yellow and tan piece at twice the $50 price of the black bag we examined in the door well. We exited the store and proceeded further up Front Street, continuing our search. We found no suitable luggage and returned to the East Indian-owned shop and bought the first one we examined. “Where are you from,” I asked. “Mumbai,” he answered.

The luggage story continues: When we landed at Dulles International around midnight, the Chantilly-Dulles Expo Holiday Inn shuttle driver picked us up. When we arrived at our favorite Holiday Inn (we always overnight there before flying out of Dulles, because it is well maintained, service and restaurant are good, the shuttle is efficient and parking is gratis.) When the shuttle driver carried our new bag from the vehicle, he accidentally clipped off one of the rests behind the wheels. The next morning I went to the front desk to report the damage. Cyndy could not have been more pleasant or solicitous. Later she called the room and offered to take us to Target to obtain a new bag or to cancel our room cost for the night and give us $30 in cash; we chose the latter. We have since purchased a Samsonite bag and, hopefully, our ongoing luggage saga should be in remission for a spell.

Meanwhile, back on the French-Dutch island much was happening with the folks in the penthouse overlooking the Princess Juliana International Airport. Thursday evening Jeanne and Judy went to the nearby casino (Dave and I watched the action for a few minutes, went next door to the Hagen Daas ice cream joint for a dip, left the car for the women, walked home and went to bed.) Upon their return, we learned that Jeanne took the house for $32. playing penny slots and Judy won $300. at the roulette table.

Friday was arrival evening for Patti (widow of Jeanne's late brother Jack) and her husband Denny from Nebraska. Judy was ready with plenty of sausage pasta and garlic bread. I had enjoyed the cocktail hour earlier. I do remember that we had a discussion about boxed (shudder!) wine vs. the bottled version of the grape nectar. The evening family story-telling went on into the morning. Jeanne claims I had more rum after dinner drinks than I remember, but at that point I wasn't counting. Saturday afternoon we boarded an American Airlines plane for Miami (again with exit row seats that Jeanne had purchased for a pittance. Our week long sojourn in the sun had come to an end.

© 2012 Frink Media LLC. All Rights Reserved - Designed by A. Comer