Chillin’ in Jamaica Mon

As happens more often than you might think, in February I suddenly realized we had some hotel nights that would expire quickly if we didn’t use them.  Elliott and I each have a Chase Hyatt card, and each of those credit cards awarded us two nights at a Hyatt hotel after we met a certain spend requirement.  In the past the banks were often willing to extend the expiration dates on unused certificates, but they are no longer doing this for the most part.  Several years ago we had the cards and used our free nights at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, which we absolutely loved.  But this year we had no plans to go to Hawaii before the hotel nights’ expiration date, and since Chase was no longer willing to extend the expiration date, we had to find another option.

I quickly researched the best Hyatts at which to use the award nights issued by Chase.  Sometimes there are restrictions on how you can use free nights such as these, so I wanted to make sure I knew the rules before getting excited about any specific properties.  To my surprise, I found that Hyatt all-inclusive properties are included in those you can book with the Chase free night certificates, and Hyatt has all-inclusives in Jamaica and Mexico – both of which are about mid-way between our two home bases of Ecuador and Philadelphia.

I booked four nights for us at the adults-only Hyatt Zilara in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The Hyatt Ziva is the next door “twin hotel” that accommodates families, and we would have access to both.  I knew we wouldn’t leave the property, but didn’t feel too guilty since we’ve been to Jamaica before (and seen a couple of the sites).  I tried not to do too much research on the property since I love surprises, but I did read that this particular one had a full schedule of activities.  Since I don’t sit still for too long at one time, I was psyched.

When we arrived we were checked in right away.  We went right up to our room and were tickled to see my name on the TV on the wall!

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My own personal welcome!

The room was spacious and gorgeous, with a desk, love seat, table and chair and bed with white linens.

It had a mini-bar in which everything was included, so we were sure to follow the advice someone had given us to take the snacks each day!

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I’m takin’ the snacks, yo!

The bathroom had a huge tub, separate tiled shower, terry-cloth robes and lots of toiletries, including a mini scrubby thingy!

And we had a balcony with an outdoor lounge/bed, table and chair, and views of the pools and sand and ocean beyond.  We were going to like this place!

Normally, I would have wanted to jump right into a pool or the ocean, but the weather was not what we expected.  There were such strong winds that despite the temperature, it felt too chilly to go in water, even for me.  The hot tubs were barely warmer than the pools, so it wasn’t even tempting to go in them!  We were hungry though, so we had lunch at Blue Grill by Calypzo, a beachfront grill serving fresh seafood.  We sat for a while on one of the swinging chairs on the beach and just relaxed.  We had a bean bag toss, and then went inside and pretended our bathtub was the hot tub since the actual hot tub was too cold.  That night we had some of the best mozzarella sticks at FuZion, the Asian Grill!  (Go figure…)

The next day we slept in and I had an amazing jerk chicken burrito at Jamaican Rootz by Horizon.

I walked along all of the beaches scoping out a few good spots for Elliott to do yoga.  While he did some yoga I tested out each swimming area on the various beaches.  None of them were great; I tried finding the deepest one, and as they got deeper, they had more seaweed.  Once Elliott finished yoga-fying, we did have fun bobbing in the water, ducking under the waves and throwing seaweed at one another.

That evening we went back to the gym and did a new workout.  Dinner at the Italian restaurant Di Roza that night was actually our least favorite meal.  The caprese salad and bruschetta were both very good, and the pesto gnocci was so delicious I was tempted to order more.  But they forgot to make the pizza I had ordered, and it wasn’t finished until Elliott was just about finished with his parmesan crusted tenderloin.  Once the pizza arrived, I didn’t even enjoy it – the bleu cheese (or goat, or gorgonzola) totally overpowered the other cheeses, to the point where I didn’t like the taste at all!

On Day 3 we sat by the Ziva pool.

I did the 11am Aqua Gym but I did it outside of the pool because the water felt too cold to go in!  I worked up a sweat though so when the class was more-or-less finished I did dip in the pool quickly.  At 12pm we took the Reggae class together.  Elliott found a few moves he liked and said he wants to incorporate them into his future dance moves.  After lunch at Choicez, we went back to the beach we had sat on for a long time yesterday.  After relaxing we went for a beach walk and played bean bags again.   I went swimming in the ocean again and Elliott joined me for a few minutes.

When we got back to our room, we had another welcome message – this time for Elliott:

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We had dinner at Brazil (a Brazilian steakhouse), and headed to the gym for another workout.

On our fourth day I joined the Reggae dance class by the pool which was a lot of fun and Elliott joined me part way through.  We had lunch inside our hotel at Urban Heat by Flavorz.  We finally got to sit on these cool “pretzel stick” chairs (sorry, no photo!).  I tried a new drink – Planter’s Punch – which I liked a lot.  It tasted great and was extremely visually appealing, with the drink color changing ever so slightly from top to bottom.  It looked like a red-orange sunset!  For lunch I had a beet salad and a salmon dish – both were absolutely delicious.

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Afterwards I went swimming in the Zilara pool for the first time!  I first swam in the lower pool, then went exploring the upper pool and the long narrow parts that go along the first floor junior suites with lounge chairs in the pool.  Later we went to the gym together and did another kick-butt workout – you’ve got to burn off all those included food and drink calories somehow!

We went to Choicez for dinner.  It was Moroccan Food which Elliott really likes and the live entertainment show was going on outside, so we asked to sit outside so we could listen and half-watch.  There was a great steel drum band playing on the stage.  The drummers were also dancing at times which was impressive, and at the end, they came out one at a time and did some amazing break-dancing and gymnastics-type moves.  We walked back to Zilara and found a fire pit just for us, and sat for a little while.  The fire pits at night were one of our favorite features of the resort, and sitting by them after dinner had become a nightly ritual.

On our last day we had to check out early so I set an alarm for 6:10am!  I was determined to have some pool time and enjoy our last morning before leaving.  I got us packed and headed out at 7:30 and claimed us some awesome chairs right next to the pool.  It was the nicest day since we had arrived!  We both went to the yoga class on the boardwalk leading to the gazebo.  I was impressed – there were a bunch of people, the instructor had us do some tough poses, and the class lasted an hour long.  I was happy!

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A great spot for a yoga class.

Afterwards we ate breakfast just across the way at the Blue Grill by Calypso – it was fitting as our first meal had been there too.  After breakfast we went back to the pool and we went swimming one last time.  Then we sat at the pool bar and ordered our last drinks – a Dark & Stormy for him, and a Bob Marley for me.  It was so much fun, finally sitting on those in-the-pool bar stools and enjoying drinks in the sun!  I went for one last swim under all the waterfalls as I said goodbye to the Hyatt Zilara.

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Love the waterfalls.

We packed the rest of our things and went downstairs for the free shuttle, hoping one day we can return again!

The Perfect Cruise

Almost 18 months prior, I had booked an exciting 16-night Royal Caribbean cruise from Venice to Dubai via the Suez Canal.  At $22pp/night plus taxes, who could resist?  But as the departure time grew close, we realized the cruise itself was the only thing that was going to be a good deal.  The one-way airfares were going to cost a fortune – even with my travel miles and expertise!  We had a heart-to-heart and came to the conclusion that after all of travel we had done in 2016, our primary goal in December was simply some major relaxation.

And so it came to pass that we found ourselves on a 12-night Royal Caribbean cruise on the Grandeur of the Seas, round-trip, out of Baltimore.  Maybe not quite as exciting as the original plan, but it fit the budget, didn’t require airfare, and had plenty of R-E-L-A-X-A-T-I-O-N written all over it.  Elliott was thrilled that he could pack a million pairs of cufflinks and shoes, throw all of the luggage in the car, and not have to worry about airline baggage restrictions.

01 car full of luggage

Leaving Philly with all of Elliott’s shoes, cufflinks, and dress shirts.

We really didn’t have any expectations; we simply relished the idea of warm weather, calm blue seas, and not having to cook for a while.  We started out with three days at sea, as we left the cold North and headed down to the Caribbean.

 

It only took about a day and a half to get to the warm weather, which really surprised and pleased us!  I was out swimming in the pool before I knew it.

01a Relaxing in the pool

It’s my favorite place to be.

That wasn’t the only surprise, however; the entire cruise turned out to be one, big, happy surprise.  In those first three sea days, we went to Ballroom and Latin dance lessons, and found there were many more dancers onboard than we are used to.  What a treat!  We got to know many of the other dancers, and traded moves and inspiration night after night.  In addition, the onboard dance instructor loved dance so much, she offered free private lessons to anyone who wanted them.  What?!!  Unheard of!  We took her up on her offer more than once and added a few new beautiful moves to our Waltz and Foxtrot.

I had sadly assumed that since we were on a cruise, any holiday spirit would be totally forgotten for 12 days; it was, after all, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas!  I was wrong and couldn’t have been more pleased.  In the beginning of the cruise, there wasn’t much to remind us of the holidays other than the decorations a few passengers had hung on their cabin doors (which were really cute).  As the days passed, we’d hear a Christmas song here and there, then a Christmas tree was put up in the atrium… then at the end of the cruise some of the crew wore Santa hats!  We found it was the perfect amount of holiday spirit without being in-your-face or overwhelming.

 

There were a lot of fun activities onboard.  One night I joined in the fun for a rendition of an old favorite, Family Feud.  My team was terrible, but somehow made a comeback in the last minute (perhaps due to the fact that the last question was worth 3x the points?!).

 

Another night, we celebrated the ship’s 20th birthday with a big celebration and ship-shaped cake in the atrium.

 

Watch the balloons fall!

The itinerary was a fabulous one, and at the same time, an itinerary about which we felt very relaxed.  We had been to all of the ports before, so we didn’t feel pressured to do a lot on each one.  On our first port of St. Thomas, we walked around a bit and went shopping.  For those of you who don’t know, St. Thomas has many jewelry bargains; and it’s one place where I feel very lucky to have a husband who likes to shop!

04 More jewels from St. Thomas

Happy with my St. Thomas souvenir.

On Dominica, we didn’t even get off the ship, preferring to have a relaxing day of our own “at sea” and having the ship mostly to ourselves.  We did see a gorgeous rainbow from our ship:)

08 Rainbow over Dominica

Rainbow over Dominica.

In Bridgetown, Barbados, to the shock of the locals we walked a whole half hour to a local beach.  We spent a blissful afternoon relaxing under a poisonous(!) tree and swimming.

 

In Castries, St. Lucia, we got off the ship and walked around the town for a few minutes.  We didn’t feel the need to do much more, as we honeymooned there, and had a 10th anniversary trip there a few years ago.  Plus, we were on the wrong end of the island, in our opinion!

 

The most fun and adventure we had on land came the next day, on Saint Martin.  We made our way by local transportation (always fun) to Maho Beach, which is next to the Princess Juliana International Airport.  Maho Beach is directly under the flight path of the planes, so you can stand under them as they come in for a landing.  Pretty cool!

 

See a plane come in for landing yourself!

It is so close to the runway that you can stand on it and feel the jet blast of the planes taking off.  Should you though?  Well, I guess each person has to make that determination for him/herself…

 

Elliott was smart like most of the people standing there and ran to the side when the blast got to strong; unfortunately I simply tried to run away from the blast, going further onto the beach and into the ocean.  Warning: don’t do what I did!  Not only did the bare skin on my back get totally sandblasted, every time I popped up out of the water to see if it was over yet, more sand got pelted into my head and hair.  Not a fun experience!

60 Sandblast

Run, Forrest, run!

Sandblasting and all, we had a fabulous time on this cruise.  So much so, that we did something we’ve never done before; we booked the same exact cruise for 2017, while still on the 2016 sailing!  I’m not saying it would be perfect for everyone, but this appeared to be the perfect cruise for us.  And we’re really looking forward to this year’s version:)

Back to Trinidad (But Not Really)

How likely is it that we end up in not one but two places called Trinidad within three months? We wanted to get out and see more of Cuba than just Havana, so we decided on the little town of Trinidad even though the only connection to the island we visited in January was the name. To get to Trinidad, we opted for a collective instead of a bus. Collectivos in Cuba are shared taxis. The driver will wait until a full carload of people are going to the same destination before heading out. Downside: we had to wait almost 30 whole minutes(!) until he was ready. Upside: We made the journey in a 1948 Chevy Fleetmaster. We had debated taking a tour of Havana in a classic car just to ride in one, and now we got to do it for less money and much more time. (Trinidad is about four hours from Havana).

Upon arrival to Trinidad, we got a taste of just how pervasive the socialist regime is in Cuba. You see, our hostel owner in Havana offered to hold some of our stuff for us while we took this side trip. Among the items we chose to leave were our passports. No big deal, they were locked up, and we know all the data from memory. Once we got to Trinidad, however, the (very nice) lady who ran our B&B said she couldn’t host us unless we had our physical passports. She explained that she was afraid of the government officials who might come to her house at any time and demand to see the passports of everyone staying there.

Her mother (who also ran a B&B) said the same thing. She wanted to help, but everyone she called said the same thing; they weren’t willing to take the risk. She tried to have our passports sent from Havana, but wasn’t able to arrange that either.  Her advice to us: Since it was too late in the day to catch a bus back to Havana, we could sleep in the bus terminal, and go back the next day. Finally she called an acquaintance who was new to hosting people in Trinidad, and didn’t know that she needed to collect our passports. We were advised not to tell her since ignorance of the rules really is the best excuse in Cuba.

We were also advised not to stay out late, not to talk to people in the streets, and not to be too obvious about where we were staying. It turns out we needn’t have worried. Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage town, and was overrun with white, mostly European tourists. We were just a couple more faces in the crowd. And our single guest room with its queen-sized bed, air conditioner, and private bathroom was a welcome change from our hostel in La Habana.

We couldn’t just sit around our first night, so we went a-walkin’ through the town in search of food and photo ops. We found both. Trinidad wears its UNESCO-ness (UNESCOsity?) well.

As for food, trust Stephanie to sniff out a great pizza deal. She found us a tiny little hole-in-the-wall with $1 personal pizzas to go. They were so good, we sat right there on the curb and ate them, promising the guy we would be back the next day.

As with many small Latin towns, the main focal point of Trinidad is a church – Iglesia de San Francisco to be exact. We toured a Spanish-only Museum of the revolution on the ground floor before climbing the belfry for a wonderful view of Trinidad and the surrounding countryside.

0402-02 Iglesia de San Francisco

Iglesia de San Francisco

Other stops that day included the central square (Plaza Mayor), The Museo de Ciudad (City Museum), which featured another fantastic rooftop view, a free art gallery, the escalinera (stairs) where we had gone salsa dancing under the stars the night before, some shopping, and a giant mojito for Stephanie.

0402-16 Plaza Mayor (and of course, a church)

Plaza Mayor (and of course, a church)

A mighty mojito

A mighty mojito

We got wind of a five-star hotel that allows anyone to use their pool, so we hiked uphill to the outskirts of town and spent the afternoon swimming and relaxing. Round the day off with some locally-made ice cream, and I’d say you have a pretty perfect day.

For our next day, we had planned to spend most of the day taking a train tour of the local countryside. Due to an embarrassing alarm clock accident, however, we woke up too late to catch the only train. Being the seasoned travelers that we are though, we shifted gears on the fly, and headed to the local beach – the highly recommended Playa Ancon. BONUS: another classic car ride. Woo hoo!

Playa Ancon was not quite as nice as Playas del Este in Havana, but still nice enough for us to unilaterally declare that Cuba has beautiful beaches. We found a tree to park under, and took turns snoozing, swimming in the warm Caribbean water, and walking along the sand. I even went for a run. (Fitness, y’all!)

It was Day Four, and this time, we got up in time for our train. The tour went through the nearby Valle de los Ingenios where the primary crop is sugar. The train itself, which used to be steam-driven, was an old-style open air train. The wooden cars and the lack of windows and doors gave it an old-west kind of feel, and let us feel like we were really a part of the countryside.

0404-07 Is that really what we look like

Is that really what we look like?

Our first stop was the tiny town of Ignaza which seemed to consist of a train depot, a restaurant, 11,000 craft vendors, and a G-I-A-N-T bell tower. Naturally, we had to climb to the top of it.

0404-21 Yeah, I think we'll climb that

Yeah, I think we’ll climb that

An hour further down the track took us to the end of the line – an hacienda called Guachinango. This working farm also had a restaurant and a whole bunch of chickens. The big draw for us, however, was the river which was a ten minute walk past banana groves. It was so hot, that rather than just wade barefoot in the river like others, I stripped off my shirt and sat down in the shallow water.

0404-40 Hey man, it's hot!

Hey man, it’s hot!

On our last day in Trinidad, we slept in, *finally* made it back for more cheap pizzas, and had some famous Copelia’s ice cream before catching a ’53 Chevy back to Havana.

0405-09 Our sweet ride back to Havana - a '53 Chevy

Our sweet ride back to La Habana

0405-10 How else would you know

How else would you know?

Havana Ball

OK, so by now the U.S. is allowing its citizens to visit Cuba. BUT…when we booked this trip ten months ago, it was still all kinds of illegal.  This was the real reason for our trip to Panama.  As of our visit, there were still no direct flights to Cuba. In addition, Americans were unable to travel to Cuba from any country that has U.S. customs agents at its airports, so Canada was out.  But we’re not about 60-year-old politics; we’ve got a world to experience!  So off we went.

A few days before our departure, I casually asked Stephanie if we would be able to use credit cards there. Good thing I did!  Thanks to the U.S. embargo, Cuba is almost completely disconnected from the international financial system. Translation: American credit, debit and ATM cards would not work. We also found that Cuba charges a 10% service charge to exchange American dollars – in addition to whatever commission charge or bad exchange rate they’re giving us.

While in Panama, we estimated what we’d need for our trip, and traded dollars for Euros to avoid the penalty.  Bad move. It turned out that between the exchange rate in Panama and the exchange rate in Cuba, we might as well have brought our U.S. greenbacks with us.  At least it took us less than two minutes to see our first vintage American cars.

We took a shared taxi from the airport, and marveled at all the old cars. American cars stopped arriving in Cuba in the early 60s, and the Cubanos have really maintained these vintage monsters from the 40s & 50s. At least 40% of the cars in Cuba are a good 50 years old.  It’s like going to a classic car show.  The old cars against the backdrop of old buildings makes you feel like you just stepped back in time to the 1950s.

The famed '57 Chevy Bel Air (in purple for Stephanie)

The famed ’57 Chevy Bel Air (in purple for Stephanie)

We had initially wanted to couchsurf in Cuba, but we learned that in order to have people stay with you, you have to be licensed by the government and pay a hefty monthly fee – whether or not you actually have guests.  As a result, everyone charges.  There’s no escaping it. We hooked up with a nice guy on couchsurfing, who directed us to a hostel that only charged $8 per night.  Not bad when everyone else charges $25.

For those of you who say to us “I wish we could travel like you do,” this might be one of those moments to rethink that.  Our room had four sets of bunk beds, and they were all full.  It also had fans, but no AC in the humid, 90 degree weather.  The bunk beds were no big deal; fortunately, Stephanie and I can fit together in a single, so we had the upper bunk for our stuff, and the lower bunk for us.  The bigger problem by far was sharing a room with snorers.  (Pro tip: If you snore, try NOT sleeping on your back. You’ll just keep the rest of us up.)  Also, and we’re not sure if this is normal or not, but the hostel kept losing water, which meant there was often no way to cool off even if you were willing to hop in the shower!  Anyway, our hostel owner was nice. She didn’t speak a lick of English, but she did keep our laptops under lock-and-key for us.

After dropping our stuff at our hostel, we grabbed a couple of $1 milkshakes, and walked along the Malecon (waterfront) to Old Havana.  The best part is that there isn’t a single chain hotel or restaurant anywhere! No Starbucks, no KFC, no Marriott, no Subway. This is what life was like before the corporations took over.

On our first full day, we really hit Havana hard (English-language guidebook courtesy of our hostel). We walked down Calle Obispo and just took it all in.  Stephanie hates when I compare the real world to Disney World, but you can see where Pirates of the Caribbean drew some of its inspiration.

It was here that we made one of our best discoveries about Cuba and finally understood why the hostels there don’t bother to open their kitchens for use by us backpackers.  The food is cheap.  I mean really cheap.  We ended up getting a couple of burgers for 32 cents each.  Hot dogs were 24 cents, and we topped it off with hand-made guava ice cream for 12 cents a cone. Jackpot!

Guava ice cream for 12 cents!

Guava ice cream for 12 cents!

That being said, you have to know how to find the really really cheap food.  Cuba still uses two currencies, and it’s the places that take the older, no-longer-official currency that have the cheap eats.  Don’t have the old currency?  No worries.  Just hand over the new ‘Convertible’Pesos and you’ll get change in the old Monedad Nacional (National money).

Yeah, yeah, we also did some cultural stuff.  We saw Ernest Hemingway’s favorite hangout for mojitos  – “El Bodeguita del Mundo.”  (I question the cultural value of this just a wee bit – Stephanie.)

17 Ernest Hemingway came here for the mojitos
We saw the Florida hotel, and Johnson’s drugstore restored to the way they were in the late 1800s.

We took in Cathedrals, old plazas and the waterfront.

Yay, fountain for me at Parque Guayasamín

Yay, fountain for Stephanie at Parque Guayasamín

We even went to a “chocolate museum,” which was really just a pricey chocolate café with a few vintage exhibits in glass cases.   It was okay though, since Stephanie mostly cared about eating the chocolate anyway.

We opted to check out the car museum, but if you ever go to La Habana (the Spanish name of the city), you can totally skip it. It was a warehouse with about 20 cars (not all of which were old), and barely any information on any of them. Here are some pics anyway…

There is also live music anywhere that people are eating.  This band caught me filming so I had to tip them…

VIDEO – Live Music in La Habana

The real surprise came on the day we took a $5 bus (roundtrip) to the beaches at Playas del Este.  This beach just outside of Havana is one of the most stunning we have ever seen.  Picture in your mind a stereotypical Caribbean beach.  You know, sugary white sand, crystal blue water, palm trees full of coconuts leaning out over the ocean.  That’s exactly what this beach looks like. Amazing considering how close it is to a large city.

Yep, that about sums it up

Yep, that about sums it up

That night, we met up with our friend, Juan, from couchsurfing. From him we learned a lot about Cuba, and the real effects of the Socialist government.  For example, the average wage of a government worker is $22 per month! There are entrees at the Cheesecake Factory that cost more than that! Citizens were not allowed to own cell phones until about five years ago.  And don’t even get me started on the lack of internet access for these poor people.

(Okay, I got myself started.)  There’s no such thing as free WiFi or in-home WiFi service anywhere – it’s all paid for by the minute.  But so many sites are blocked, Juan said the people just don’t know much about the outside world.  He’s a programmer so he gets access to many things the average person does not.

We got an idea of what the information stream is truly like when he told us about Obama’s visit there.  Apparently the people liked him, and Juan saw his speeches on YouTube.  But the average person doesn’t see that, and the government felt threatened by Obama’s popularity.  So they altered the speeches when they quoted them in newspapers – and that’s what the average person saw.

Cuba was a real-life cultural experience in so many ways.  I’m extremely grateful for the freedoms I often take for granted. I’m also really glad we got to visit Cuba before American franchises and tourists change everything about Havana. No doubt about it though, the expanded tourism will mean a better quality of life for the Cuban people, and that’s a good thing.

38 La Habana

Flora, Fauna and Fun in Port of Spain, Trinidad

Our visit to Trinidad & Tobago this January was definitely one of those unplanned, off-the-cuff type of trips.  Last summer one of my favorite hotel reward programs, Club Carlson, was ending its buy 1 get 1 free award night program for credit card holders.  Elliott and I had tons of hotel points, so I booked a bunch of hotels for the next two year period, in order to use up all of our points with that program while they still got us hotels at 50% off the award point price!

The Radisson in Port of Spain, Trinidad was one of those hotels, and Trinidad & Tobago, a small country consisting of two islands in the southern Caribbean, sounded very appealing.  Trinidad & Tobago is so far south that it looks to be a stone’s throw away from Venezuela.  We booked our tickets last year and figured we’d take lots of beach-y stuff for a super relaxing beach destination.

Only when we got there did we find that our hotel was located across the street from the cruise port in Port of Spain, Trinidad.  Whereas outside the lobby there was a nice little pool and relaxing patio area, it was not even close to what I’d call a beach destination!  (We were consoled by a plate full of little cakes in our room waiting for us.)  We wanted to see what Trinidad had to offer.  So we tucked most of our bathing suits back in our bags, put on some shorts, and started exploring.

 

Luckily, Port of Spain was very walkable.  Unfortunately, our hotel staff neglected to mention that we were located on the border of the worst part of town.  What looked like a nice double-wide street with a huge median containing a park area, turned out to be a somewhat dangerous area.  We didn’t find out the hard way or first-hand; but after three nights of being warned by locals as we walked down this road (named “Independence Square” no less!), and the last warning having come from some policemen driving their local beat, we figured we ought to ask the employees at the front desk if all of town was this dangerous.  They pulled out a map and showed us several other areas which are considered much safer – all within walking distance.

We first visited the free Royal Botanical Gardens.  We walked there from our hotel, on the way taking some photos of the Magnificent Seven – a row of old houses and mansions that are slowly being restored.

 

At the gardens we found beautiful grounds with pretty flowering trees to give us a respite from the heat.  We followed the walking paths, trying to avoid any large groups coming from the cruise ship that was in town.  We enjoyed seeing flowers we’re familiar with from visiting Hawaii, some air plants and Spanish moss, and several different types of orchids.

There was also a pretty fountain, and a small cemetery where former governors of Trinidad are buried.

 

Next to the Botanic Gardens was the Emperor Zoo, so we spent some time there as well.

One of the highlights included flamingoes who were all puffed up, trying to attract mates – I had never seen that before.  There was also a threesome (mother and two babies) of white Bengal Tigers – we had never seen those either!  They were just gorgeous.  They let us pay $1.50 to feed the giraffes out of our hands – fun!  Last but not least, we watched the lion and tiger each devour a huge hunk of raw meat at meal time.  It was really cute watching the tiger lick her meat over and over like it was a child!

The next day we visited the National Museum & Art Gallery, which I would describe as “a little random but interesting.”  We learned about the history of Trinidad & Tobago as a sugar and rum exporter, as well as the very sad realities of the slave-trade.  Trinidad is also rich in tar and natural gas which they export as well.  The displays and details of the huge machinery was a bit on the technical side, but interesting nonetheless.

We also learned about one of the most fascinating aspects of Trinidad and Tobago – her people.  Being a colony that was passed around a bit, there are the obligatory Europeans in the mix, but they make up less than 5% of the population.  After the slave trade collapsed, the plantation owners (remember those Europeans we talked about?) were annoyed to lose their free labor.  They lured hundreds of thousands of Indian people over with the promise of a better life, and promptly made them indentured servants (which was basically one very small step away from slavery).  So today the majority of the people are of African and Indian descent.  After marrying into each other’s cultures for over 150 years, I can honestly say that the blend of the two ethnicities has yielded one of the most beautiful  peoples we have ever encountered.

One exciting thing that was happening on Trinidad while we were there, especially for Elliott, was the International Soca Monarch Semi Finals.  Soca, short for the “Soul of Calypso,” is a type of music that blends Calypso with reggae, funk, and Indian music, and sets it all to toe-tapping rhythms.  Think of it as Caribbean pop music.  (It’s actually more popular in the Caribbean than Reggae.)  Each year, in the lead up to Carnival, Soca acts from all over the world compete in Trinidad for the title of International Soca Monarch.  We were able to walk to the event and get tickets at the door, so we figured why not?  We love attending new and different events when we travel, and you don’t have to twist Elliott’s arm to get him to go see live music.

It was a blast.  There were over 35 bands competing in the semifinals (the “semis,” as it’s known,) and for one low ticket price, there was music scheduled from 6:00 pm until 2:00 am.  The place was filled with locals, whom I think got a kick out of the fact that we were there.

There were flag crews were out in full force.  It’s their job to be on or in front of the stage and wave large flags to support their favorite acts.  The music was jumping, the flags were waving, the local beer was flowing, and there was a lot of positive energy.  Elliott came away with a dozen new bands to check out, but was disappointed to learn that his favorite act of the show didn’t win the title.  You can listen to Chuck Gordon’s “No Jumbie Vibes” here.

Total Relaxation

If you read our last post, you know we were ready. Ready for a full eight nights of total and utter relaxation at an all-inclusive in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. I’d found us a great deal through LivingSocial for (get ready) the Lifestyle Crown Residence Suites – aka The Residence Suites at Lifestyle Holidays Vacation Resort. Wow – what a mouthful!

The Food
Speaking of mouthfuls, we all do tend to think of food when we talk about all-inclusives. So I might as well talk about that first. Wait – should I even try to talk about the food given that Elliott is the real foodie in our relationship? Oh well, given he’s not here, I’ll just come out and say the food was awesome. There were many different style restaurants and each night our hotel staff would make a reservation for us at a new restaurant. My two favorites were the Mexican place and the Brazilian Steakhouse. Wow I wish we could have gone back to that steakhouse!

Um, I just realized I don’t have any photos of the food.  Well, this ought to get the point across:

the food

The Drinks
Unlike at our last all-inclusive, which by the way is the only other all-inclusive we’ve been too, we did not have a hard time getting out money’s worth out of the drinks. Of course, that may have been due to Elliott’s decision to set a goal for the number of drinks we had to consume, and his regular updates on how we were doing with our “daily average.” Due to this new approach of his, there may have been one or two afternoons or evenings (or mornings) where one or both of us slight over-imbibed.

The Resort
Okay, yes, I should have talked about the resort first. But we’re here now. As soon as we checked in, they gave us an upgrade, not just for our room but for our actual building / area. We got moved into the Presidential Suites, and that sounded pretty cool. Take a look at our enormous room, with the enormous Jacuzzi bath!  I loved that thing.

We had an actual couch on our huge private balcony:

The resort was large with three main pool complexes for us guests. There were golf carts with drivers waiting to take us from complex to complex, but we quickly learned that the best way to avoid sales pitches for timeshare ownership plans was to walk everywhere. Anyway, after a day or two we had figured out that our pool complex at the Presidential Suites was the quiet area, and the other two pool complexes where the places to be for peppy music and activities.

I can’t forget to mention the beach areas. There were several of these as well but even as VIPs we were only allowed to access two beach areas (many are reserved for people who “own”). At the beach area we visited the first day, we were excited to find full-on beds on the beach with curtains around them for privacy! The next day, when we went to the VIP beach, we realized we hadn’t seen jack. This beach had *swinging* beds as well as a bar and bar service TO your swinging bed!!

28a Cheek to cheek

All this luxury made it hard to get motivated to get out of the beds and go down the steps to the actual beach and water, lol. But we did, and we even walked along the water’s edge a couple times to check out shells and what lay beyond our fancy resort (mostly little shacks selling stuff, but one day we came upon some young boys who had just come out of the water with a huge haul in their fishing nets).

The Activities
I know I’ve used the term “total relaxation” a couple of times, but anyone who knows me knows I can only sit still for so long. I do love sitting on a lounge chair (or in this case bed) by the pool all day long, but I also like jumping up occasionally and doing things. This place had plenty to offer.

There were two gyms we checked out a few times, mainly later on in our stay when all the food we’d been eating was completely catching up with us! Despite the ungodly warm thermostat setting in the one gym, we were impressed with the equipment. In the other gym, Elliott met a fellow cross-fitter (read: super crazy gym enthusiast if you don’t know what cross-fit is) and actually joined in with her for some of her workouts! He was sorry the next day.

The activities by the various pools were a little more interesting. We participating in yoga, stretching, and abdominal workout routines, and I somehow got roped into TEACHING a yoga/stretching class one morning – no idea how that happened! In the afternoons there were all kinds of things going on, from pool aerobics to bar-tending competitions to run-in-a-huge-inflatable-ball-across-the-pool competitions. One day there was even a “fair” where we played Carnival-type games to earn tickets which we could use at the end of the day to bid for prizes. And some of the competitions yielded prizes as well.

You can check out some video of our crazy inflatable ball experience here (Elliott) and here (Stephanie), in addition to these photos!

Ironically, we ended up with two bottles of Dominican Rum. Ironic because 1) we don’t drink much hard liquor and 2) we weren’t able to bring liquids over 3oz in size back to the US this time since we weren’t checking bags. We traded some rum for coffee and gave the rest away. (We were pretty popular when we did that.)

The Entertainment
Each night there was a show of some sort. We didn’t go to all of them but we went to a bunch and they were fun. Before each show there would be a mini entertainment bit of some sort. One night we walked in just a few minutes before the main show, and caught the last five minutes of the pre-show. It was a movie theme song guessing game. Wouldn’t you know it – my trivia expert of a husband got 6 out of 6 right and stole the trophy out from all those people who had been playing the whole time! (More rum!) He felt a little guilty but really proud.

81 Movie trivia Q1 - Superman

Elliott steals the (pre) show

We just loved the local, cultural song and dance shows. The singing and dancing were wonderful and the costumes were superb.

84 We must be the stars of the show

Of course Elliott’s #1 was the Michael Jackson show! This little male impersonator did a really good job with MJ’s signature dance moves. Elliott was itching to take photos with the guy, then to get home and practice his own MJ moves.

The only night when we weren’t crazy about the “entertainment” was the night of the “VIP Party.” First of all, as far as we could tell, everyone was invited – so I don’t think it was actually a VIP Party. Secondly, it meant all the usual restaurants were closed, and our only food option was at this party. Thirdly, the food wasn’t very good. And it was crowded, making it hard to even get your food to your table before it was freezing… I could go on. But why? It was a great trip. And we simply left the party early and made it a quiet night for two.

Overall, the entertainment was a lot of fun, but we learned the best way to entertain ourselves on an all-inclusive vacation, of course, was to just relax!