Can you cheat on a region?

So it’s been years since I’ve posted. Literally. My bad.

This creates a teachable moment about the power of habit that I’ll try to keep in mind, but it also reminds me why I suddenly stopped: I cheated on the Caribbean.

Shortly after we got back from Culebra, Buck started to get a little antsy because we didn’t have any trips planned. And when I say “shortly,” I mean a week or two. So I pulled up ITA Software and started getting busy and found nothing. I mean, it was going to be $800 to go almost anywhere we hadn’t been before. Bonaire or Curacao? Ouch. Barbados? Very pricey. Cayman Brac? Truly, outlandishly expensive. Name an island and it was going to drain the coffers.

In a grumpy mood, I said “We could just go to Italy if it’s going to cost this much.” And so we did! Because I still had it in my head that this blog was about tropical beaches, I didn’t write about the process or about the trip. And then I got out of the habit.

So now I want to refocus on this and get caught up. Here’s what I’ll cover before our next trip (To Guadeloupe! It’s France, but with limpid turquoise water!):

  • Italy
  • Camping at Cape Henlopen, Delaware
  • A second trip to the BVI
  • Treasure Beach, Jamaica
  • Baja California
  • Another trip to Italy

There have been a bunch of other cool things–there are some new discount airlines, we’ve done a lot in Western Pennsylvania (and even West Virginia), yada yada.

I’m now formally repurposing I Felt Like A Gringo to cover all travel, even if it’s just a weekend at a local lake. Because that can still be interesting and service-y if you do it right, and I’m arrogant enough to think that I do it right. So there.

More to come, and not in two years. Maybe not even two days.

Culebra Trip Report: Golf Cart Paradise

In a nutshell: this island is super-duper fun. But if you want details, read on!

We were on Culebra in March and had an absolute blast. It’s a perfect mixture in a variety of ways: it’s very small but has enough activities to keep you busy for a week. It’s relatively undeveloped but has plenty of variety in terms of accommodation and restaurants. It’s incredibly laid-back and relaxing, but offers amazing outdoor adventures.

We’d go back.

Getting There and Getting Around

In an earlier post I discussed the massive analytical task of figuring out what combination of big-plane flights and little-plane flights and ferries will get you to Culebra within a reasonable timeframe and budget. Even though we usually love ferry rides we took a little (tiny!) plane back and forth from San Juan and it was absolutely worth every penny, particularly for anyone who isn’t afraid of flying. It was the most exciting plane ride of our lives.

Culebra Plane

Leaving from San Juan, you fly down the northern coast of Puerto Rico, then make the crossing to Culebra by flying over a bunch of cays and turquoise water. The approach to the airport is over Flamenco Beach and between two mountains, then you bank sharply and land. The exciting part? It was windy. Very windy. The pilot had to judge exactly how much wind was coming from what direction and let it blow us onto the runway! We saw another plane land shortly after ours and it actually bounced a few times.

And for getting around…there’s a lot of debate on Culebra travel forums about Jeeps versus golf cart, and here’s my two cents. Unless you’re staying miles out of town or on a road where Jeeps are specifically recommended, or unless you have a large group that includes very young children, go with the golf cart.

  1. It’s cheaper and more environmentally sound.
  2. Parking is scarce and tight…unless you’re in a golf cart. Then you can squeeze in almost anywhere!
  3. It is incredibly, ridiculously fun.

I had a huge, goofy grin on my face every time I got behind the wheel. And we did go pretty much everywhere in that thing, including the steepest roads with the biggest potholes. In the rain. I want one.

SO MUCH FUN

Buck fastening the GoPro to the canopy. Check out the cooler fastened with bungie cords, our cargo carrier!

Where We Stayed

We stayed in Green Villas Seastar in the Punta Aloe neighborhood, a mile or so down the road from the pueblo overlooking Ensenada Honda. I’ve already reviewed it on HomeAway, but I’ll talk a little bit more about Culebra lodging  in general. For the budget traveler who doesn’t need stuff like pools and marble tiles, Culebra is a great place. There are lots of reasonably priced places with kitchenettes, and most of them have nice water views. Our view was seriously world class, and even though we had some bug issues I’d definitely consider staying there again because a) this view and b) what a fantastic location! It was exactly the right distance from the pueblo: far enough, but still close.

Nice porch!

My office for the week.

It was a great apartment for a porch lover (which I am) because the outdoor square footage may have been higher than the indoor, and because we had a visiting rooster:

Porch poultry

Porch Poultry

What We Ate

Let me just say this up front: I get four weeks of vacation every year, and for the rest of my career I’d be happy to spend one of them stuffing my face in Puerto Rico. And when my career is over, I’d be happy to spend the coldest months there, gaining weight.

We didn’t bother with fine dining even though there were a couple of places that qualified. We were happiest eating tacos and fish and churrasco. And sandwiches and street food. Frankly, it is pretty much my ideal diet, especially when there are a lot of strong drinks thrown into the mix.

Flamenco Beach has a cluster of food kioskos that sell Puerto Rican street food like pinchos and pastellitos, plus sandwiches and pizzas and beer and stuff like sunscreen and refrigerator magnets. My favorite thing there was the helado man:

Helado de parche

If I had a Star Trek transporter I’d go get one RIGHT NOW.

Helados are like Italian ices, but you can get them in a huge cone. There was a cart at the beach that had coconut and mango and guava and passionfruit. This one is a helado de parcha (passionfruit) but I’d like to go back (tomorrow would be nice!) and get half parcha and half guayaba (guava).

We enjoyed our dinners at Zaco’s Tacos (go for anything derived from pig) and the Dinghy Dock. Frankly, the Dinghy Dock had good food but really exceptional cocktails, so teetotalers might not like it so much. But it’s a great place to eat and drink and look at the water and throw your mahi scraps to the lurking tarpon:

Food, drink, and wildlife

Food, drink, and wildlife

Strangely enough, despite the location, we may have liked their churrasco and mashed potatoes better than anything else on the menu.

The real gem, though, was the local bakery, Pan Deli. It gets crowded at breakfast because they sell delicious breakfast sandwiches and one of the best breakfast pastries ever: quesitos! Puff pastry stuffed with cream cheese, then drizzled with syrup or sugar or something that gets all crunchy. Oh my god, so delicious. Pan Deli also sells enormous inexpensive sandwiches that are great to pack up and eat at the beach. So, so good.

Beaches, Snorkeling, and Adventures

Culebra has beaches that rival the best you’ll find anywhere, and Playa Flamenco deserves every bit of its reputation. It is an absolutely stunning, huge horseshoe of white sand with water exactly the color that you’d expect in a tropical paradise.

Our weather was far from perfect—some rain most days, lots of wind, and very rough water. We spent a lot of time at Playa Melones because it seemed calmer and less rainy than other beaches, and we also hit Playa Tamarindo (both grande and pequeño).  As usual, the rockier beaches had much better snorkeling than the postcard beaches.

Big chunks of Culebra are a national wildlife preserve, with no fishing and no development. It shows under the water—lots of healthy reef, mostly featuring the biggest, most colorful seafan forests we’ve ever seen.

About 20 feet off the beach at Playa Tamarindo Grande.

About 20 feet off the beach at Playa Tamarindo Grande.

Seriously, there were seafans everywhere, as far as the eye could see, except when there were also hard corals or when it switched to seagrass to make the turtles happy. And they take their turtles seriously in Culebra. Every beach had a “don’t pester the turtles” sign in English and Spanish.

Seriously, don't bother the turtles. Please.

Seriously, don’t bother the turtles. Please.

There were a bunch of places we didn’t go because of rough seas, but we spent an afternoon kayaking out to Cayo Luis Pena without landing out there because of high surf. I’d love to go back sometime like June, when the seas would probably be calmer, to swim and snorkel at Playa Zoni and Culebrita and Carlos Rosario without taking our lives in our hands. Kayak rentals are really reasonable, by the way—$45 for a double for half a day.

Weather aside, we really didn’t get skunked on snorkeling at all. Aside from the seafans, just check out these grey angelfish!

Culebra 241

I’ve never seen two together at once, and these seemed to be buddies. I love their blue lips.

And to sum it all up…

Culebra has an interesting history—after being used as target practice for decades they kicked the Navy out in the 1970s through sheer force of will and nonviolent protest—and a really unique atmosphere. Everyone who lives there, whether they were born there or got there last month, is incredibly proud of it. They’re proud of their unspoiled beaches, their mangroves, their turtles, their murals. They are really happy when you agree that it’s nicer than Vieques (“it’s more like the big island,” they say). It’s the kind of place where a little eccentricity is  more than accepted. It’s welcomed. It’s celebrated.

I’d love to go back.

Camping in the Caribbean, Part One: U.S. Virgin Islands

Circus tents!

It’s a church camp, unfortunately…but with that view and a few circus tents I could get religion.

The very first time we went to the Caribbean we camped at the Cinnamon Bay campground in Virgin Islands National Park, on the superlative island of St. John. It was a life-changing experience, to say the least—we spent five days truly stunned by beauty, our jaws agape, and have been back to the region multiple times every year since. We haven’t camped in the islands since then, but lately I’ve been thinking about going back because it was really great. Twenty yards from a perfect beach, amazing forest sounds, deer, iguana, hermit crabs scuttling around the undergrowth, geckos chilling on the tent…what’s not to like? On many islands it’s as close as you’re going to be able to get to the beach, and there’s nothing more romantic than taking a late night stroll on the sand looking for shooting stars with your sweetie.

Plus there’s the cheapness. Even if you have to check extra bags you’re going to be saving some serious bucks. At Cinnamon Bay we spent a lot of time gazing at the (kind of tacky, IMHO) faux-Tuscan mansions on Peter Bay. We were on the same island. Swimming in the same water, although we were sleeping closer to it. We were spending around $55 a night (at that time, it’s gone up) instead of $2500 or more.

It’s my strong belief that travel should be more egalitarian. If you can save up for the airfare, that’s pretty much always going to be the biggest part of your budget. If you need to sleep in a tent, at least you’re sleeping in a tent somewhere really cool. So put some money aside each payday and just go.

So, without further ado, here is the first post of many on places to camp in the Caribbean. At some of them you need to bring everything. Others have tents (or Airstream trailers!) set up for you. Some of them are “eco-cabins.” Every single one of them will give you a truer, more authentic, more interesting experience than even the most luxurious resort.

  • Cinnamon Bay Campground, St. John: Cabins, platform tents, baresites, group camping. Cabins and platform tents come with basic cooking equipment and propane stoves; baresites can rent that stuff. There’s a store, a restaurant, and watersports on site, on the longest beach on the prettiest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Look out, the showers aren’t heated!
  • Concordia Eco-Resort, St. John: The Maho Bay Resort on St. John pioneered sustainable tent-cabins, but unfortunately someone else owned the land and they were kicked out a couple of years ago. The same person developed the Concordia resort in a very secluded spot on the other side of the island. It’s not cheap (higher than our usual even in the offseason) but if you want to see how it’s done this would be a great place to try.
  • Virgin Islands Campground, Water Island: Also not cheap by our stringent standards, but pretty nice. Water Island is just off of St. Thomas with regular ferries, but seems to be a world away from what is a fairly urbanized island.
  • Cane Bay Campground, St. Croix: When we went to St. Croix we considered this option very carefully: nice little screened cabins extremely close to a gorgeous beach, perfect for snorkeling, diving, and liming. These people also run a kayaking company for trips to the Salt River Bio Bay.
  • Ridge to Reef Farm, St. Croix: Stay in a tent or cabin on an organic farm in the tropics. They say you can volunteer to work on the farm…not sure whether it’s expected that you’ll be an unpaid farmhand. If you don’t spend much time weeding in your real life, you might love it.
  • Mt. Victory Camp Eco-Lodge, St. Croix: Another really cool group of cabins with baresite camping available. St. Croix rocks. These people run workshops on tropical skills and survival, which could be interesting, I guess?

Culebra Planning Update

As a travel blogger I’m a bust. The best bloggers are committed. They post all the damn time. I guess that’s just not me. And I’m not going to make any excuses about all of the other things happening in my life because I spend at least a half hour every day just wasting time.

Now, on to this post.

Villa Fulladoza was all booked so we went with Seastar at the Green Villas. I’m pretty excited about it…the owner has been friendly and helpful and knocked a night’s rent off the price, which is very satisfying to my inner frugal person.

And the more I think about Culebra the happier I am about where we’re heading. It’s the island that Puerto Ricans go to for a day or a weekend when they want to get away from it all. Try to wrap your head around that one: where do people who live in a tropical paradise go when they need a minibreak? Culebra, as it turns out. (There were also a bunch of people from Puerto Rico anchored off of Virgin Gorda when we were there.)

We’ve also finalized our transportation plans. When I booked the trip I thought we would be able to rent a Volkswagen Thing. I have wanted a Thing since before I could drive. I’m totally comfortable with driving a rickety stick-shift vehicle in mountainous terrain–after all, I spend a lot of time in Pittsburgh in an uninspected 1998 Golf–but they’ve stopped renting the Things! I guess they got to the point where they couldn’t keep them on the road. I am very disappointed that we’re six months too late. But we are renting a golf cart! I am foolishly excited about this. It’s the next best thing, really.

If you ever want to go to Culebra (or Vieques, for that matter), there are only two ways to get there unless you charter a yacht: ferry or eight-seat puddle-jumper. The ferry is the budget option: it costs less than $10 after an $80 cab ride to Fajardo. There are frequent delays and you can get bumped because it’s really there for the people who live on the islands (after all, every now and then you need to go to a real store). Even so, we would have taken the ferry because ferries are fun, but the times just weren’t working for us. The afternoon ferry was a little too early and then we would have had to have waited until 7:00 p.m. and gotten there after dark. Coming back, the only ferry that would have worked was for commuters and left at some ungodly hour like 6:00 a.m.

So we’re flying. There are three airlines serving the offshore islands, and they all fly from three separate airports (San Juan’s big airport, Isla Grande in San Juan, and Ceiba outside Fajardo). These are the three airlines, in case you ever want to go:

This was a surprisingly difficult analytical task that worked best with a spreadsheet. What combination of flight schedules, airports, and airlines would get us to and from Culebra at the best times and at a reasonable price? There were hundreds of possible combinations but we ended up buying tickets on Vieques Air Link from Isla Grande for the arrival date and Cape Air to SJU for departure.

So now we’re less than a month out and all we’ve got to do is wait. We’re passing the time by thinking about excursions (definitely want to go to Culebrita, might want to kayak to Cayo Luis Peña) and food. I am dying for pinchos and empanadas.

 

Culebra Part III: Villa Fulladoza

I’m still investigating Culebra properties to amuse myself as the weather in Pennsylvania veers wildly between unbearable and less unbearable. Villa Fulladoza checks off a lot of boxes.villafulladoza

Really, really oceanfront? Check. Convenient location in case we have too many rum punches? Uh huh. Excellent outdoor space for lounging with coffee in the morning and a drink after the beach? Oh my, yes. Incredibly inexpensive? Yep.

There are some things I don’t love about it. It’s more hotel-like than most places we stay, with seven apartments instead of just a few, and that might make it noisy or otherwise annoying. Reviews of their WiFi are less than stellar and it’s a necessity for me at this point. But it’s still in our top three and the view and handy location (and ridiculously cheerful colors) may win out.

House of the Day: Another Spectacular View on Culebra

Saved by the bell! Casa Cima del Mundo rented for our week probably around the time that I was writing the last blog post. Now I don’t need to go through all of that agita about spending too much on a place to sleep and can get on with the usual task of finding cool places for $100 a night or less.

Next up, Seastar. It seems pretty basic, but man what a view:

punta aloe

One of the things I’m loving about Culebra research is that there are so many places in our price range with absolutely incredible, million dollar views. More to come!

House of the Day: Casa Cima del Mundo, Culebra

I am in the midst of an ethical dilemma. Well, that may be putting it too strongly. A quandary? It’s my word of the day.

Here’s the question: if you pride yourself on only staying in the most reasonably priced accommodations everywhere you go, what do you do when you find the perfect place and it’s over your self-imposed budget? ‘Cause I found the place and it’s way more than we usually spend (and way less than many people spend).

It’s Casa Cima del Mundo on Culebra.

cimadelmundo

Cima del Mundo means Top of the World. Yep.

There are a bunch of reasons that I’m considering it.

  1. The views, duh.
  2. It’s a dodecahedron! I’m a fool for round (or round-ish) houses.
  3. Dishwasher!
  4. Nice little office area, already equipped.
  5. Maybe the best reviews I’ve ever read that I haven’t written myself.
  6. Puerto Rico’s relatively reasonable anyway, so we have a little room to splurge. (Not the best reason.)

It’s actually quite reasonable at $150 a night and it’s just my foolish pride that makes me even think twice. I’ve got more from Culebra to post soon.

For the Eccentric Millionaire: Rainforest Lodge for Sale

I really, really want to go to Dominica. What a crazy island! So volcanic that it has a boiling lake (which requires a very strenuous hike, guide recommended). So volcanic that you can snorkel in the ocean over volcanic vents that make it feel like champagne. Plus there’s a cottage industry that I can really get behind: roadside rum shops that sell homemade medicinal booze infusions for almost any ailment you can name (especially sobriety).

There’s so much rainforest-y fun—soaking in natural hot springs, hiking to waterfalls, swimming through river gorges. You’d almost be selling yourself short if you had a sea view.

I highly recommend this site to research places to stay. The only thing that makes me sad is that some of the best places are closed…including this crazy place that’s for sale near the village of Wotten Waven, which is known for its natural hot springs. I can’t embed their images to show it off, but you really should click through while the listing is up. Here’s a description:

….over 17 acres of partly forested land at a cool altitude of around 1,500 feet, bordering the sparkling River Blanc.

This spa features seven stone tubs that are fed by natural, healing, hot water. Three are on the situated along the clear, clean, rushing River Blanc. There are also large reception lobby with bamboo facade, which includes a restaurant with lovely polished hardwood floors which can seat up to 30 guests, kitchen and washroom.

The property also includes three double cabins, two deluxe cabins, a massage cabana, large open pavilion for aerobics….

This community is quite unique with its geothermal qualities. This location has several natural features – bubbling mud geysers, hot springs, crystal sulphur cavern and a 100ft waterfall.

The only problem? At US$773,000 it’s hard to see how you’d ever be able break even, let alone make a profit. One of the many cool things about Dominica is that it’s hard to find accommodation over $100 a night.

But if you’re an eccentric millionaire who wants your very own bubbling mud geyser, I’ve found your place!

More on Dominica to follow…

Stuff That Works: The Grand Trunk Parasheet

A new topic, since this blog is service-y and all that: gear that actually does what it’s supposed to do and is worth the money.

For a long time our primary beach was Cape May, New Jersey. And during that time, we usually plopped ourselves down on an old quilt from my bed.

Now that was fine in many ways. It was pretty, for one thing. The patchwork really looked good in Cape May, which takes old-timey-ness to its ultimate, borderline kitschy extension. It was soft and comfortable, since it had been on my bed for years.

But it doesn’t work if you’re taking a plane to the beach! We’d need an entire suitcase at $50 roundtrip just to bring the blanket. So we reverted to beach towels.

Beach towels are great…for fluffing up a big, wet, hairy dog. They’re bulky and they stay wet and sand sticks to them and never lets go. The loopy side is pretty much velcro, after all.

Prompted by a recommendation on an online forum I found a good deal on a Grand Trunk Parasheet and it is one of the best things I’ve purchased in a lifetime of excessive consumption.

On my laptop, for scale

On my laptop, for scale

Smaller than a towel, sand shakes right off, stuffs into its own pocket, weighs a few ounces, handy for sheltering fragile stuff in your suitcase, dries almost instantly, and easy to throw in the wash. If you load the corner pockets up with sand it stays put in a brisk wind. In a little over a year it’s been to the Turks & Caicos, Mexico, the Jersey Shore, St. Croix, Vieques, and Virgin Gorda. It’s been shat upon by birds more than once. We’ve slept on it, snacked on it, read books on it, and sat drying in the sun gazing at the water. It works.

House of the Day: Folichon, Treasure Beach

I’ve already talked about loving Jamaica, although spending four days on the Negril cliffs drinking Red Stripe doesn’t really count as knowing the country. But those four days were truly spectacular, and not just for the scenery (beautiful), the water temperature (absolutely perfect), or the food (wow).

I hate to generalize about people and places. Jamaica is in some ways a very sad place that makes you realize exactly how unfair the world can be and exactly how much middle-class Americans are some of the luckiest people to have ever lived. While you’re complaining about the price of gasoline for your larger-than-necessary vehicle, there are people living in garden sheds in a hurricane zone.

That being said, Jamaica was amazing for its truly unique, distinct local culture. We weren’t in a big resort, but I’m sure if we were we wouldn’t mistake it for a big resort somewhere like Punta Cana or Mexico. For one thing, those places don’t have weird reggae muzak wafting over your beach loungers. But really, it was the people. We didn’t feel like everyone was just tolerating the gringos because they were getting paid. They were happy to just hang out. It’s a culture of chatting and dominoes. Even the many hustlers would chat a bit as they tried to sell you something (usually weed).

One night in Negril we walked down the cliff road and grabbed some grilled chicken at the side of the road and ate it at a picnic table while looking through the window of a local bar where everyone was watching the high school soccer championships on television. They were all acting like Western Pennsylvania football fans, who will watch the game on any level, pee wee to pro, and scream at the field or TV. There was just something about it that made me happy.

So, leaving aside the inherent moral difficulties of generalizing about entire cultures, I want to go back to Jamaica.

This time, we want to go a little farther off the beaten path, to Treasure Beach. It’s a series of bays on the south coast, about two and a half hours from Montego Bay. It’s where you catch boats for the Pelican Bar. There are some small uber-chic small hotels, lots of inexpensive guesthouses, and a nice selection of rental villas.

For a large group, Folichon may offer the best value: beachfront, two wings, and crazy vintage architecture.

They're big on faux-Moorish architecture in Treasure Beach, which is fine by me.

They’re big on faux-Moorish architecture in Treasure Beach, which is fine by me.

There’s one thing that weirds me out about it: a cook/housekeeper is included in the cost. All you have to do is pay for the food (and tip generously). This is a common arrangement in Jamaican villas and I’m sure most people love it. My first big objection: I love the food in Jamaica and I’d probably prefer exploring every single restaurant in the area. Second big thing: would we have to be sociable and dressed first thing in the morning? Third: would we have to decide what and when to eat 24 hours in advance?

Maybe we’re just so used to bare bones travel that we wouldn’t know how to act when luxury is included in the budget cost!

I have a couple more small places picked out in Treasure Beach, and last week I found airfare for $355 in November. If Buck didn’t have a big work thing at exactly that time, we’d be there in a heartbeat.