High Grade

I will never understand people who go to different countries and spend all of their time behind the walls of a resort.

OK, scratch that.

I absolutely understand people who go to Jamaica and never leave a resort. I just disagree with them quite intensely and feel the need to question their fears, motivations, and general attitudes toward people of different cultures and socio-economic levels. Because if you’re afraid of Jamaica (or Mexico, or any inner city in the United States) that’s on you. Yes, there’s crime in Jamaica. And in Mexico. And in my neighborhood. And even out in the mountains of Pennsyltucky.

There’s a whole world out there where people look and sound and think differently. That’s why you travel. It’s not a reason to stay away or lock yourself up in a resort.

So, down off my soapbox.

People will claim that they want a resort for the relaxation. All I will say is go to Treasure Beach. You’ll be really relaxed, verging on comatose. We’ve been twice at this point, and we’re trying to figure out whether we should ever bother going anywhere else on spring break. It’s that great.

About Treasure Beach

Treasure Beach is a series of bays on the south coast of Jamaica and describes itself as “the home of community tourism.” Their branding is accurate: it’s a treasure and you will feel like a part of the community.

The best known place in Treasure Beach is Jake’s Hotel, and that’s a pretty great claim to fame. It’s a really wonderful, quirky property that defines “boutique” while still being accessible to the community at large. If we were into hotels we’d stay there in a heartbeat, but even if you don’t like hotels it’s worth a stop because the food is good, the drinks are strong, and you will feel welcome.

The bays that make up Treasure Beach are, from west to east:

  • Billy’s Bay. We’ve seen this area primarily from the sea. There are lots of villas and some reasonably priced guest houses and cottages, but it’s a long walk to…
  • Frenchman’s Bay. This is the hub of beach activity, with a few hotels, some restaurants, and some world-class beach shacks for drinking and eating.

This is the BUSY bay of Treasure Beach, which gives you an idea of how peaceful it is.

  • Calabash Bay. A little quieter, with villas and guest houses and a lot of fishing boats.
  • Old Wharf. A quiet area full of villas, with a scalloped coastline that is wavy in some areas, sheltered in others.
  • Great Bay. We’ve never made it quite this far because it’s a really long walk, but it seems to take peacefulness to the next level.


Jamaica has two international airports, in Montego Bay and Kingston. You’ll want to go to Montego Bay for Treasure Beach (and for most other areas of Jamaica except for Kingston itself and maybe Portland Parish).

Getting to Treasure Beach takes a while–it’s a solid two hours from MBJ, going up and over the spine of the island and down along the beautiful, peaceful South coast. The closest big town is Black River, which goes back to the 17th century and has some relatively old surviving buildings, along with the area’s largest groceries and the river itself.

So how do you deal with this drive? Just contact Treasure Tours. In fact, just contact them for most things, they’ll hook you up and make sure you’re happy. They have a team of great drivers, will take you on tours, represent a bunch of villas and guesthouses…and they’ll keep checking in to make sure you’re having a great time. It’s a wonderful company. They will even arrange to have one of their drivers change money for you at a really good rate.

Accommodations are available at all price points from all of the usual suspects: VRBO, Airbnb, Booking.com, etc. But you can also zoom in on the Google maps and find a bunch of smaller places that can be worth checking into…Shakespeare Cottage, for example, is very centrally located, has rooms as low as $26 a night, and seems to have many repeat guests.

Our First Trip

In March 2016 we stayed at the Moringa Ingadi Village (hosted by Jayne), just a few minutes from Frenchman’s Bay. It was a wonderful place, quite new at the time, and just a great setup for a group of friends. We needed four bedrooms, so we took Frangipani House and the Moonflower Treehouse and we were quite happy with the accommodation. We had very comfortable rooms, several lovely gathering areas, and a fridge to hold the Red Stripe and mixers. Mission accomplished!

We spent our time eating, drinking, swimming, wandering, and adventuring. Moringa Ingadi is a five minute walk to Frenchman’s Bay so we went down every day and battled the waves (it was pretty rough that year), or varied the routine with a walk to the other bays, or took a tour. And of course we spent a lot of time eating and drinking, because Jamaica’s one of those places you could go to just for the food.

And speaking of food: go to Smurf’s. Treasure Beach has a bunch of restaurants, but for breakfast (and perhaps some dinners, and to have a cake baked for a special occasion), go to Smurf’s. Miss Dawn roasts her own Blue Mountain coffee in a cast iron skillet and serves ridiculously large Jamaican or U.S. breakfasts for around JA$650. And it’s delicious!




There are two big ones you really should do from Treasure Beach: YS Falls and the Appleton Distillery and the Black River and Pelican Bar. They’re both a pretty full day and are both absolutely worth it at about $50 a person for each day (with some extra for food, drinks, and admissions).

YS Falls is just a gorgeous place, with a bunch of waterfalls in the rainforest, a zipline, rope swings into the water, and some nice pools and decent food. The water is a little cold for me, so I spent my time wandering around looking at the plants and people watching.


It’s not too hard to combine with Appleton, which is fairly old and historic. They really know how to do a tour: they start you off with rum punch, then take you through the process with very engaging guides, and finish you off with a generous tasting session. We did buy some booze there, but it’s not absolutely necessary…and the amount you have to drink pretty much covers the cost of admission.


But the drive itself is great. On the way to the falls you pass through a village where the main business is selling spicy boiled shrimp. The plantation with the falls also is a working farm with cows and thoroughbred horses (which seem pretty happy in Jamaica!). Then between the falls and the distillery you pass through a bunch of villages and cane fields and drive down Bamboo Avenue which is just as nice as it sounds.


High Grade

So now we get into a really crazy and wonderful adventure. I’ve talked before about wanting to go to the Pelican Bar, which is driftwood held together with zip ties and rusty nails on a sandbar hundreds of yards offshore. You can just catch a ride on a boat out there, or you can combine it with a trip up the Black River.

Take my advice: go up the Black River. Make them take you all the way to Sister Lou’s for crabs. Sure, have a drink at the Pelican Bar on the way back, but the Black River is amazing.

But we didn’t really know all of that the first time we went, when we went with High Grade.

We asked Jayne and Carlisle the best way to do it, and they hooked us up with High Grade, their neighbor on Parottee Beach. Instead of grabbing a boat from Frenchman’s Bay, we got a ride up there and found High Grade…owner of an old wooden boat, proprietor of the world’s smallest beach bar, and sound system aficionado.



High Grade’s boat on Parottee Bay.

High Grade didn’t do this stuff often. He didn’t have a line of patter–and in fact, spoke mostly patois and very little English. But he had one of the most amazing bars I’ve ever been to:


After a lot of preparation and a few Red Stripes, we went up the Black River, looking at crocodiles and mangroves and some guys who were illegally spearfishing. We didn’t make it all the way up to Sister Lou’s, but we loved it.



Then we went out to the Pelican Bar, but the water was rough and they appeared to be closing up, so we just went back to High Grades for beer, fried fish, and the sunset.


And yes, we were the only people there.


It’sh Sho Bootiful

Oh, Tortola. So green, so steep, so lovely. So very, very boozy.

I’ve been going through pictures trying to find some good ones from Tortola and coming up short–which is odd, because it’s really quite photogenic. It’s the steepest of the Virgin Islands, going from sea level to over 1700 feet in almost no time, and with exactly the kinds of roads that the geography would imply. Crazy roads.

We hit pretty much every corner of it while we were there, so that’s not the reason either. We stayed on Cane Garden Bay, went out to both ends of the island, spent an hour or two in Road Town…so, we got around.

I think the reason it’s so poorly documented is that we were hung over.

I blame Cane Garden Bay. We stayed at a super budget but very comfortable apartment at Columbus Sun Set, which really worked well for us. A little too well, in fact. We often stay in places where you need to drive to go out for dinner, which tends to make you a little more cautious about your rum punch intake. By staying on Cane Garden Bay, we could walk down the beach to a bunch of different bars and restaurants, and so we did. Honestly, we are too old to bar crawl but we got into the spirit of things.

Thus the title of this post, which is now one of our many inside jokes. Staggering down the beach at night after hitting several bars, looking at the moon shining on the water and watching the boats bob around, I kept saying, “It’sh sho bootiful.” And it was.



Happy Returns

We love to try new places, but sometimes you’ve just gotta go where you know you’re going to have a great time. It happens on purpose, when you just don’t want to be thinking and planning. And it happens by accident, when you are thinking and planning and discover that your best, least expensive option is to go back to a place you love.

That’s why we went back to the British Virgin Islands in November 2015. It was just the best, cheapest thing we could do, with cheap airfare to St. Thomas and very reasonable lodging before the start of the high season.

We started with three nights on Virgin Gorda, because why not? Anytime you can go to Virgin Gorda you might as well just go to Virgin Gorda. We weren’t able to rent a dinghy and putter around the North Sound on our first trip, so we called in advance and reserved one, then booked a hotel room at Leverick Bay Resort & Marina.

I know what you’re thinking. A hotel room? Really? But it had a coffee maker and mini-fridge, was a hundred yards from the dinghy dock, and was only for three nights. And this was the view!


That island in the middle of the picture is Moskito Island, where the Obamas stayed a little over a year later.

Leverick is not the fanciest, but it’s a really fun place nonetheless.

  1. You can rent a dinghy or a bigger boat and do some adventuring.
  2. They have a really decent set of food options–fine dining upstairs, beach bar and casual restaurant downstairs. There’s even a really nice little store.
  3. All the rest of Virgin Gorda is 15 or 20 minutes away. It is not a big island!
  4. You can just sit on your balcony with a Carib and watch the boats go by.

So here’s what’s funny. We laboriously made our way to Virgin Gorda (such a beautiful ferry ride, but I fall asleep every time) and go down to the dock the next morning to confirm our dinghy rental. What did we end up doing? Cancelling the dinghy and booking an all-day, five stop snorkeling trip. What can we say? It was a really great deal. Something like $125 each and literally all day, 8:30 to around 4:30.

With that done, we went back to some of the better places on Virgin Gorda, especially Spring Bay.


Spring Bay has got the beautiful rock formations of the Baths, with about 10% of the people.

So, a side note: I have a tendency to be an annoyingly good orderer. Somehow I almost always manage to order the best thing on the menu, and for a certain kind of person (mainly my mom) it eventually becomes kind of annoying. On this particular trip I kept eating hot dogs for lunch, and every single time they were better than Buck’s order. The one at the Yacht Harbor that day was one of the better hot dogs ever (it really helps when you’ve got a good view).

The next day we started out from Virgin Gorda bright and early, stopped at first off of Cistern Point off of Cooper Island for a snorkel, and then went to Cooper Island for coffee and snacks. Love that place. Then we went to the Indians for snorkel number two. I think they’re probably the best snorkeling in the BVI (and maybe all of the Virgin Islands, including the U.S. ones).

Then for our third stop we had lunch at the infamous Willie T.  It’s currently busted up on the shore post-Hurricane Irma, but it had a long and storied history of drunken escapades.


People would strip and jump off the top deck. Yep.

From there it’s almost swimming distance to the caves on Norman Island, which is perhaps Treasure Island itself. Look it up, there was actual buried treasure! They get very crowded, but were much better than I expected.


Look, I’m in a cave!

We had two more stops, both of which were much more unexpected and uncrowded: Peter Island and Fallen Jerusalem. Of those, Fallen Jerusalem was the most wonderful and unexpected. It’s an uninhabited rocky island, near the Baths and very similar in feeling.


Fallen Jerusalem

In one bay fisherman used to stop and drop off all of their conch shells and there are huge mounts of them everywhere. There was no one else there. No one.

So that’s five stops, and what a day it was! We were waterlogged and exhausted, barely able to drag ourselves down to the beach bar for food. But the next day we were off for Tortola!

To be continued…

Italy: Habit-Forming

All travel is life-changing, even if it’s just in little ways. The new experiences and sights and smells and food make you come home a little different from when you started out. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to travel frequently, all those little changes really start to add up.

This is true for all travel, but it’s really noticeable when you drive around Italy for a week.

When Buck starting getting grumpy about not having any trips lined up and we started looking into alternatives to the Caribbean, I did my initial research by checking out a company my mom had used in the past, Gate 1. They do a lot of package tours (if it’s Tuesday it must be Turin type stuff), but they also do some packages for independent travelers where you get a flight, hotel, and rental car. It was really inexpensive so I bit, but we won’t do it again.

Why not? Because I’m a control freak. The whole idea of putting it all into someone else’s hands just bothers me. Plus, there were some weird issues…the airline changed our flight times and I didn’t find out until weeks later. Our hotel changed at the last minute. Stuff like that. Nevertheless, it really was an extremely inexpensive way to have a grand adventure and it’s hard to pass that up.

One of the main ways that they seem to make it inexpensive is that they fly in and out of Milan Malpensa (bad thought! best airport name ever) and you drive down to Tuscany. Malpensa seems have slightly less expensive flights from the U.S. than many of the alternatives. The other way they make it inexpensive is that you stay in Montecatini Terme–not Florence or Siena or a similar expensive city. It worked for us, at least for a short trip.

Driving in Italy

Many people seem to be intimidated by driving in Italy, but those people are probably afraid of just about everything. I loved driving in Italy. The drivers are great. The roads are great. The tunnels are great. They even have the best highway rest stops I ever expect to encounter.


This Autogrill spans the highway! It may not look exciting, but they actually have good food and serve your espresso in little china cups.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t study, or that you should drive everywhere. No matter what country you’re going to, you should always research signs, signals, everything. Just as an example, in Italy they have color coded parking spaces and if you park in a residents’ only spot you’re going to get a ticket. Good to know, right?

But the big thing to watch out for is ZTLs: Zona Traffico Limitado. Almost every city or town has limited traffic zones, marked by a big circle, and if you drive though you will get fined. If you then exit and drive through again at another spot, you’ll get fined again. So you need to pay attention, park on the outskirts, and walk–or take a train.

The other thing that’s interesting about driving in Italy is that enforcement is almost entirely by camera. They are watching you, and they will send you a ticket instead of pulling you over. If you’re in a rental car, they pass the ticket through the agency and it might be six months or a year later. It’s been more than a year, so I think we’re good!

The Drive Down

I’m talking a good game about driving in Italy here, but I have to admit that when we picked up our Peugeot 208 Diesel (a really great little car) I was a little intimidated. It was around 9 a.m. and we had been in a plane all night and our phones were on airplane mode. We ended up driving around the airport roundabouts a couple of times, taking the wrong exit, then backtracking the whole way and starting over. But once we were on the Autostrada it was amazing!

The main north-south highway has around six lanes in each direction when you’re near the major cities, and people absolutely follow the rules. No one hangs out texting and driving 45 miles an hour in the passing lanes. Trucks keep to the right. Everyone’s driving fast, but they’re driving well. It makes a big difference! We were so cautious that a Smartcar passed us, but by the end of the week I was hitting 135 km/hour and worrying about having a ticket mailed to me.

There are a bunch of different ways to go from Milan to Tuscany, and we did the oddball one both ways: we hopped off at Parma and headed through the mountains to the coast. I’m sure that heading down via Genoa and being along the coast for most of the trip is really cool, but the mountains were amazing.


Someday I need to drive in Germany for comparison, but Italian roads are the best I’ve driven. Their tunnels are absolutely spectacular. They’re long and twisty and you’re allowed to pass, but for some reason it feels easier to maintain your speed than it does in our many local tunnels.

Montecatini Terme

What an oddball town they put us up in! It’s a spa town (that’s what Terme means) that’s mostly relatively new. On the other hand, it’s on the main highway (and train line) that runs from Florence to Pisa. It’s really easy to get just about anywhere in central Tuscany from there, and that made it a great place to sleep.

We even spent one day wandering around Montecatini Terme and taking the funicolare up to Montecatini Alto, the ancient village. It was an incredible blast and makes me wonder why I don’t ride the inclines here in Pittsburgh. They’re really just funicolari!


View from the top


Funicolare Tracks


Yep, I’m going to be that person. The one who calls Florence Firenze.

We started fairly slowly on our first full day in Italy, a little beat up by travel and by the prior night’s wine. But we did manage to make it to Firenze for lunch at the Mercato Centrale (fun, tasty, and worth it, if a little touristy) and then walked for hours and hours. We didn’t bother with the Accademia or Uffizi, largely due to lack of patience with lines, but did get a great introduction to the pleasures of walking around a great Italian city, looking at sculpture, and eating gelato.


Very Florentine.


Brunelleschi’s Dome. You just turn a corner and there’s one of the most significant architectural and engineering achievements of all time.


Italy has the best graffiti.


Yep, there’s a lot of sculpture.


In the Palazzo Vecchio.


David’s bum.


So much smiting.


And raping.


Ponte Vecchio.


One of my favorite things! This window at Ferragamo holds the custom shoe forms they used for old time movie stars. Katharine Hepburn! Ingrid Bergman! And the shoes are gorgeous to this day, love the platform sandals at the top left.


More than once during this trip I wanted to stop, resign my job, and spend weeks just wandering the streets of a particular city. The feeling was strong in Siena. It was individual and eccentric in a way that few American cities manage (although we do live on a unique and eccentric place ourselves) and it generally just knocked me out.

We got there in a good way, too–driving through the heart of the Chianti region, looking at grape vines and olive trees.


Then when we got to the outskirts of Siena we got all fouled up, parked too soon and got lost, got back to the car and drove some more before managing to get a totally rockstar parking spot right outside the ZTL.

The whole place was just gorgeous, from the Campo to the Duomo. It’s small, but I could spend a lot of time wandering.


You can’t tell from the picture, but there’s a gorge around the old city and you need to cross a bridge to get there.


It just felt older than Florence.


Il Campo.


I have a habit of taking pictures of birds on statues. Wait until you see my pictures from Rome.


So yeah, this is a floor. To walk on.


Siena’s Duomo may be the most decorated building I’ve ever seen.


Saints, apostles, and a wolf suckling a couple of babies.


If your cathedral doesn’t have a cow or two it just isn’t doing it right.


A gelato a day? Maybe more than one.


Ah, Siena.


This is one of the lesser known cities in Tuscany (although that might be changing) and was one of our absolute favorites. It was just so great, even in an incredible downpour that kept us from renting bikes.

It was an easy half hour drive from Montecatini, we found a great parking spot, and we had a great lunch. So there’s three good things! And it was just really cool–it felt perhaps even more ancient than Siena, thanks to the watercourses and the piazza that was on the footprint of a Roman temple. And their Duomo was spectacular! I want to go back and wander around for days.


St. Michele. It’s a very see-through church.


Every column and pediment is different, just because.




Lucca is very proud of their tower with a tree on top.


Nowhere else had such mossy statues.


The watercourses had little footbridges. I LOVE little footbridges!


It was really, really wet.


One of my favorite sculptures ever. It shows what to do in each month. It seems that in February you fish, in March you prune trees, in May you go out marauding.


In September you stomp grapes, in December you kill a pig.


Lucca’s walls.

And There’s More!

This trip was so momentous in so many ways that I need to split it up. There will be more…and soon.

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.


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.

Weird Creatures and Strange Times: Virgin Gorda Trip Report, Part II

Things we have seen in the water that have not freaked us out: a good-sized reef shark. Any number of barracudas, some at close quarters. An enormous pure white ray in Mexico, around four feet across (and maybe seven feet long?), that matched its background so perfectly that the only way I saw it was the little puffs of sand that it stirred up as it hunted.

Things that drove us from the water fairly quickly? This.


Moon Jelly at Mountain Trunk Bay

And, strangely enough, this:

Mostly Virgin Gorda 268

Ginormous Lobster at Mahoe Bay

Yeah, I know moons are not a particularly dangerous jelly, but they do have a sting and there were quite a few out there. They’re incredibly photogenic but I really prefer to use the zoom! That lobster was a monster, king of the crustaceans, and it seemed to be in a big hurry to get somewhere that was right behind us.

Savannah Bay

On our first day we made a big circle of the island to get our bearings, stopping at Hog Heaven for barbecue, rum swizzles, and the view, then planted ourselves on Savannah Bay for a snorkel and a nap. The nap was a little tough because there were plenty of people partying on Sunday Funday, but it’s a big, beautiful beach and wasn’t even close to crowded.

It’s far from the best snorkeling on Virgin Gorda, but it was better than the best snorkeling in some other places…a really big reef, very close to shore, and very shallow. It makes for some good photography:

Baby Bar Jacks

Baby Bar Jacks

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Sea Fan ready for its closeup

One notable thing about Savannah Bay: it’s maybe the only place I’ve ever seen a lot of healthy staghorn coral. I came to snorkeling late, after the horrible mass-bleaching event of 2005, and the staghorns were hit hard. But look at this beauty! And it wasn’t the only one!

Hope those white tips aren't a bad sign

Hope those white tips aren’t a bad sign

And here’s a question for any fish expert reading this. What is this? Maybe 10 – 12 inches long, swam more by wriggling than flapping its pectoral fins, colors pretty accurate. I’ve been looking through the reef fish book and haven’t found it yet. Leave a comment and let me know.

Mystery fish

Mystery fish

I’m sure it’s not particularly rare, but it was a cool one.

Mahoe Bay

We absolutely loved this bay. If we were wealthy we’d have a tough time resisting a fancy villa there…it might be best to avoid staying there if you like to explore, because it’s a really special place. It’s a double reef, kind of a big horseshoe, and everything is at an oddly perfect depth. It’s deep enough not to worry about scraping yourself and damaging the coral, but it’s shallow enough to see everything clearly.

It’s also where we saw our first porcupinefish ever. I heard Buck yelling, “Kate! Come over here! There’s a fish that looks like a bulldog!” And sure enough, it was hanging out where we could see it and it didn’t run away.

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He was a pretty relaxed fish, maybe two feet?

Maybe the same guy, maybe not, a couple of days later

Maybe the same guy, maybe not, a couple of days later

And because we’re weird that way, it’s not really a vacation without sea turtles.

A very zippy little loggerhead

A very zippy little loggerhead

So yeah, Mahoe Bay’s amazing, but don’t stay there if you like to go adventuring, because you’ll never leave. Unless you’re afraid of 30-inch spiny lobsters:

Enough lobster for a family of four

Enough lobster to feed a family of four

Mountain Trunk Bay

The entire Nail Bay area, both Nail Bay itself and Mountain Trunk, kind of pissed us off. There’s a ton of construction on Nail Bay where they’re grading a hillside and building a new house. It was incredibly loud and it made me wonder whether the runoff is going to damage the reef. Mountain Trunk Bay had enough jellies to make us uncomfortable. In addition to the big moon jelly at the beginning of the post, there were a lot of little clear ones. I didn’t get stung. In fact, I never have had a real jellyfish sting—just the agua mala, but in Jamaica instead of Mexico. But that’s because I steer clear.

To top it all off, Mountain Trunk has dark sand that’s incredibly hot underfoot, which means that you have to wear your sandals to almost the edge of the water then kick them off and hop over the sand yelling ouch ouch ouch ouch.

That being said, it’s a beautiful bay and here’s what we saw before fleeing in terror: a fish wall.

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It was absolutely immense—maybe 40 or 50 feet long and 20 feet high. From the shore it looked like a reef!

Spring Bay

Spring Bay is one up from The Baths and is similarly full of huge granite boulders that form calm pools. It’s an absolutely gorgeous place to bask in the water and float around. In the main part of the bay heading toward The Baths the snorkeling’s pretty good; it’s full of the huge boulders and there are lots of fish and some nice elkhorn coral.

What can I say? There aren't many things that make me happier than a big school of blue tang.

What can I say? There aren’t many things that make me happier than a big school of blue tang.

We don’t have lots of underwater pictures from Spring Bay because I made a long video while tailing that school of blue tang up toward the point. This is part of my personal theory of snorkeling…I try not to be a snob about it, looking for rare fish and making lists. My two favorite things are big schools of blue tang and parrotfish, just because they make me happy. Virgin Gorda had lots of parrotfish so I could float around watching them peck away at the reef to my heart’s content. Seeing something a little bit more rare or exotic is really cool, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not necessary for my complete enjoyment.

Weird Creatures!

Devil’s Bay…aaah. So very lovely. Not a snorkeling beach, just placid turquoise water, perfect for basking. But also the place where we had an unpleasant experience with the weirdest creature we’ve ever encountered.

We walked down the trail rather than tangling with the Baths—plenty of rocks, but much more navigable. It’s lined with huge cacti and a really fun walk in general. Then, as we were basking away happily, like so…

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…something sharp poked me in the butt. “There’s something prickly in my bathing suit,” I told Buck. “I think you brushed against a cactus,” he said. And we bickered a little about it, because even though I’m clumsy I tend to avoid cacti after an unpleasant encounter with a prickly pear in New Mexico.

Finally I managed to pull this poky thing out of my bathing suit. It looked like a quarter-inch tube of glass…weird. And then I started to feel more of them. And then Buck started feeling them, too. We started to look suspiciously at the buoys and the boats off in the distance, wondering if it’s possible for boats to start shedding their fiberglass.

After spending some time on shore picking this stuff out of our rashguards and bathing suits (and wondering how the other people in the bay could stand being there, even if they did have a six-pack with them) we made our way back and had a drink at Top of the Baths, floating in the pool and picking bits of glass out of our suits. Devil’s Bay, indeed!

It would have remained a mystery except that I kept thinking about it and through the magic of Google found out what they were: sea butterflies! From Wikipedia:

They are rather difficult to observe, since the shell (when present) is mostly colorless, very fragile and usually less than 1 cm in length. Although their shell may be so fine as to be transparent, it is nevertheless calcareous;[4] their shells are bilaterally symmetric and can vary widely in shape: coiled, needle-like, triangular, globulous.

These were so fine as to be transparent, and they were definitely needle-like. Here’s what they look like picked out of your rashguard weeks later and put on a black background for contrast:

They were clear when we were there, but turned white after going through the laundry.

They were clear when we were there, but turned white after going through the laundry.

Sea butterflies! So now you know!

Strange Times

We’d been monitoring the weather, since even a low-key hurricane season bears watching when you’re in the Caribbean in July. And sure enough, Tropical Storm Bertha made its way up through the islands and arrived the day we were supposed to leave.

We checked in with Speedy’s and they said they would still be running. We thought of leaving for St. Thomas a day early and getting a room there, but we were enjoying Virgin Gorda too much so we just decided to go with the original plan.

Then, after one last day on Mahoe Bay, we got back to Bayview and found out that St. Thomas had closed the port as of 5:00 p.m. We weren’t getting there that way, no matter what. Luckily, our apartment had two more free nights and American Airlines provided free changes due to the weather, so we just decided to stay. As my mom wrote when we e-mailed to line up an extra day of dog sitting, “Well, it’s a new experience and at least you can say you’ve been through it.”

And it was the laziest day of our lives. We charged everything up, bought some extra groceries, beer, and mixers, and just spent the day on the porch watching the storm.

It wasn't that violent, but it was incredibly wet

It wasn’t that violent, but it was incredibly wet

Honestly, we’re just now getting over it, a month later. It turns out that spending a day doing nothing, while it sounds appealing, really isn’t good for you. It makes you foggy and the fogginess lasts like a nagging cold.

And Finally…

We loved this island. We will be back, and next time we will do more than just sit on the beach and go snorkeling. We’ll rent a dinghy and go snorkeling!



Virgin Gorda Trip Report: Wow

Wow. Yowza. Ooo-ee. OMFG. Holy s&%t.

That’s Virgin Gorda.

Yep, you just gaze and gaze

Hog Heaven: Decent BBQ, Strong Drinks, and this View

There are some places in the world that are literally stunning. Big chunks of the American Southwest, for example—it’s hard to even drive in Southern Utah without running off the road because you’re gaping at every turn. St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands is that way; the first time we went we spent all of our time with our mouths hanging open, gazing and gazing, and even though it’s a big wide world we had to return to actually experience it instead of just looking at it.

When I found cheap airfare to St. Thomas for my 50th birthday week I figured we might go to St. John again, but I’ve always had Virgin Gorda in the back of my mind. The second time we went to St. John we took a day trip over to see The Baths and it was pretty great, although climbing on rocks barefoot isn’t really my jam. We’d also gone over a year without using our passports, which is just unacceptable.

So Virgin Gorda it was, and it was a very good decision.

How We Got There

It’s a serious pain to get to from our fair city, involving either two flights and a looong ferry ride (which we did) or two big flights and a tiny plane for the last leg (which we may do the next time). All of our flights tend to leave at some ridiculous time like 5:30 but this one was at the luxurious hour of 7:00 a.m. Sounds good, but we went to a lovely wedding the night before and it felt more like 4:30. And even with a short layover and easy flights, 13 hours of travel is a lot of travel. But it does cut down on the number of gringos you run into when you’re there!

When we arrived at the ferry in downtown Charlotte Amalie they said it was going to be leaving at 4:30 instead of 4:00. There were no cruise ships in town so we walked along the harbor, stopping to look at the fishermen’s stand, and into town a bit. There were some food vendors set up as a fundraiser for a local elementary school so we had some nice fish, rice & peas, and johnnycakes while looking at the water then headed back and had our first Carib of many while waiting to board.

The ferry ride was amazing and beautiful. It passes by many of the gorgeous places in both the USVI and BVI. All along the North Shore of St. John I was saying, “There’s Salomon Bay. And hey, that’s Jumbie Bay, remember that? Oh, Cinnamon Bay and Whistling Cay, I always wanted to take a boat out there to snorkel. And Waterlemon Cay! We were there!”

I’m interested in Tortola cause it’s so incredibly hilly and so surrounded by sailboats, but I couldn’t find decent lodging in our budget. I’m pretty sure this is the marina at Nanny Cay.

So many boats!

So many boats! Or I guess they’re yachts, buncha fancypants

Customs was really easy. For some trips we’ve gone to a local Italian market the week before and bought seriously good salami and capicola and cheese for our beach sandwiches (freeze them and put them in a small cooler in a checked bag) and they just let us right through, no problem.

Where We Stayed

I have officially outdone myself. Bayview Vacation Apartments is the best value in lodging that I’ve ever found, and I’ve found many. It’s hard to even know where to begin…it’s huge, for one thing. They’re not apartments, they’re townhouses, with a full kitchen open to a real dining room, a sunken living room, a powder room, two big bedrooms, two renovated bathrooms. There are FOUR porches, two upstairs and two down. The bedrooms have air conditioning, which you absolutely need in July. And the housekeeper comes in three times a week!


Our Jimny in our own private parking space

So, my thinking on vacation housing. This blog is largely about how to go to the same places as rich people without being rich. Since transport costs are pretty much fixed, there are only a couple of ways to make that happen: sleeping and eating. Despite our middle-aged spread we are not people who have any particular interest in eating three huge meals every day, so eating is really not such a big deal. Lodging, however, can be outlandishly expensive.

We paid $570 for a week in our two bedroom, two-and-a-half bath townhouse. For that money we could have had one night at Little Dix Bay (a very lovely, ultra-luxurious resort). We could have had one night and maybe a few extra hours at my dream villa on Mahoe Bay, which has an outdoor ping pong table with wet bar (yes!!), a four-hole putting green, and a Zen garden. We could have even made it to 3.5 days at Guavaberry Spring Bay.

But here’s the thing about these gorgeous ocean-view properties: you just sleep in them. Well, you also fix breakfast and maybe hang out drinking rum punch after you get back from the beach. And the way you get an ocean view is to build on a hillside and keep the trees cut back, so the 90 degree sun is just beating down on you. In many ways the Bayview approach, with this amazingly beautiful garden, is more comfortable. Shade feels good.


It was also impeccably clean, newly renovated with fancy bathrooms, and within walking distance of the yacht harbor (which has restaurants, shops, and a supermarket). The owner was kind, friendly, and helpful. Absolutely highly recommended, and a peek at her reservations board showed that she probably doesn’t need to spend a lot of time marketing these days…pretty much no vacancy in peak season.

What We Did

What we thought we’d do:  rent a dinghy and boat around. Take the ferry to Anegada and try to see pink flamingos.

What we did: go to the beach. Snorkel. Repeat.

Here’s why:


That's Buck snorkeling

Savannah Bay, where we were pestered by beach chickens


Sorry, bad panorama

Mahoe Bay, the best overall

Shallow and floaty

Between Spring Bay and Little Trunk Bay, absolutely amazing

We spied on a fisherman

Mountain Trunk Bay

Pretty but deadly

Devils Bay

We are still wimps about rock climbing

The Baths

I think I’m going to have to break this up into two parts, it’s getting so long. I’ll try to get to it fairly quickly while it’s still top of mind, because it’s going to be time to start thinking about our next trip soon. But just as a preview, the next post will be titled “Weird Creatures and Strange Times.” Oh yes.

Mofongo, One and Done: Vieques Trip Report

It just doesn’t make any sense to go to Puerto Rico and skip the mofongo. Mashed fried plantains with bacon is your national dish? Sign me up!

Or so I thought.

Midway through our trip to Vieques over Memorial Day week this year we went up to Isabel Segunda for dinner. Man, is that town dead at night in the offseason—you might see someone riding around on a horse, but then again, you might not. We had already been up there once for dinner at Coqui Fire, but we were ready for some Puerto Rican food. We drove around looking for someplace that was actually open and finally went to Sabores (or Biekes Bistro, I can’t remember which).

Was the food good? Sure…we tried a variety, some fish, some chicken, some beef. I had skirt steak and mofongo and it was amazing that I actually survived the experience. Mofongo may be the heaviest thing that a human being can ingest and live. I almost couldn’t climb into the Jeep. Upon arrival at the rental house I went into the bedroom and groaned. The other person who had mofongo did the same.

You’re thinking, “Well, what did you expect? It’s fried plantain with bacon.” But people eat it daily! How do they survive? It’s a hot climate!

Anyway, on to the trip report.

Getting There, Getting Around

This was our first time in Puerto Rico, but I’m sure it won’t be our last. To get to Vieques or Culebra, its sister island, you need to take a small plane or the ferry. The ferries are supposedly incredibly unreliable and when we were booking the trip I was feeling fairly prosperous, so I booked us on the 15 minute flight from Ceiba airport. It’s about 45 minutes from San Juan, so we took an $80 cab ride down there, passing through areas that looked oddly like Queens but with palm trees (which makes sense when you think about it).

We had some time to kill so we hung around outside looking at birds and chilling with an island dog. I’m always a little ambivalent about island dogs—on one hand, every dog deserves to be loved, cherished, and cared for. On the other, they get to keep their balls, live on an island, and chase crabs. One of our first discoveries on this trip was that even an emaciated island dog hanging around the airport parking lot will turn its nose up at a Twizzler.  Hmm, may need to rethink our airplane snack of choice.

The plane is incredibly small and there’s a strict 25 pound weight limit on baggage. They even weigh you on the baggage scale to make sure you didn’t lie when you booked your tickets and to balance the load. We’re turning into small plane connoissuers and this one was a gem:

Air Flamenco

The wheels don’t retract!

We picked up our Jeep on arrival and you definitely need one on Vieques. The main roads are great, but getting to the good beaches is a little bit of an adventure even with high clearance and four wheel drive.

On the way back we took the ferry to Fajardo: cheap, scenic, pretty much on time. But we did the gringo thing (of course) and sat outside for the views, and the brand new eyeglasses inside my knapsack actually melted in the sun.

Vieques-Fajardo ferry

When ferries are good, they’re very very good

Where We Stayed

Vieques has two towns, Isabel Segunda and Esperanza. Isabel Segunda is larger and has more services: the ferry, the fisherman’s market, government offices. Esperanza on the other hand has the Malecon and tourist-oriented conveniences. We stayed at Casa Anolis in Esperanza and it was a great value: three bedrooms with absolutely essential air conditioning, a totally adequate kitchen, a great back porch with a view of the ocean, and lots of fruit trees in the yard. It also had a huge shower with water pressure that knocked you backwards, plenty of towels, and laundry on the porch (very useful when you’re limited to 25 pounds and bringing a laptop and snorkel gear). It was a good choice.

Food and Drink

Mofongo aside, Vieques is great for chow. There are food trucks on the road toward the beaches during offseason weekends and you can get great, reasonably priced empanadas (fish, shrimp, chicken, crab, conch) and pinchos (pork, chicken, shrimp).

We had a pretty great time at the grocery stores, too. We didn’t do a lot of cooking—one big breakfast, one dinner—but we did a lot of snacking and drinking. Of all of the island grocery stores we’ve shopped, nothing beats the great big Plaza Extra on St. Croix. It’s as big as a Costco! But the Morales supermarkets on Vieques are just fine, with good selections of booze and mixers, Goya wafer cookies, and fairly reasonably priced sunscreen.

Another thing Vieques does well is the fisherman’s market in Isabel Segunda. It’s a central location for buying fresh fish and lobster. There’s no heading to the beach and haggling with individual fisherman, you just show up in late morning and point at what you want. And it’s in a pretty spot:


The fisherman’s pier

Another crazy thing about Puerto Rico is the Gasolinas—little cocktail pouches like juice boxes for grown-ups. We found one in the freezer when we got there and there’s one in our freezer right now.

Beaches and Snorkeling

Vieques is the only island in the Caribbean on which huge tracts of land are closed to the public due to unexploded ordnance. That’s right—for 63 years the U.S. Navy used it as a bombing range and over 8,000 acres are still closed because there are bombs laying around. While it means that this land is going to be preserved forever because it belongs to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s appalling for the economic and physical health of the local population. They have elevated cancer rates (perhaps due to the depleted uranium in the shells) and the environmental disaster is no doubt affecting the tourist numbers.

Perhaps the best beach on the island, La Chiva (Blue Beach), is closed for at least six months because they’ve found unexploded bombs in and around the little cayo just offshore. This was a big disappointment, but we did hit a variety of other beaches: Sombe (or Sun Bay), Caracas (Red Beach), Navio, Media Luna, Punta Arenas (Green Beach), and the Rompeolas (the old Navy pier on the north side of the island).

Over time my standards for beaches have changed. I used to boogie board. I wanted surf. I’ve changed, and now I want to snorkel in calm, clear water. Most of the beaches on Vieques were a little rough and very cloudy (and we found a Portuguese Man O’War washed up on Navio and promptly left). That doesn’t mean that they weren’t fun and great, but we’ve turned into snorkeling snobs and the snorkeling on Vieques simply isn’t up to the standards of the U.S. Virgin Islands. That being said, I crossed a big one off my list:

They are so cool

A spotted eagle ray!

And Buck both a) saw and b) documented a hawksbill turtle hiding under a ledge at Punta Arenas:

 Adventures and Wildlife

We went to Vieques in large part for the bioluminescent bay and for a while we thought it might not happen. Formerly the most consistently bright bio bay in the world, Mosquito Bay went dark this winter. The jury’s still out on what caused it: unusually high tides, salinity, pH, runoff, or other human factors. Regardless, it’s a nightmare for the island. There’s graffiti everywhere saying “Save the Bay.” Tour sizes are now cut by 50%, and for now tours are available only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. They’re finally enforcing the rules about not swimming in the bay (which would be amazing, but sometimes you have to have less fun to avoid killing the things you love) but we found that they didn’t enforce the prohibition against bug spray. We didn’t do it, but people in our group were spraying down like crazy at the edge of the bay.

We set out on Sunday night down the incredibly bumpy road in an enormous van, which promptly got stuck in the muddy lot next to the bay. We hopped into two-man kayaks and spent around an hour.

If this is what the bay is like when it’s dark, I’m really sad we didn’t go a couple of years ago. Here’s what they don’t tell you: despite all of the Photoshopped pictures of an eerie blue glow, the dinoflagellates actually sparkle. It’s even trippier and weirder than I thought it was going to be and Buck kept saying “Stop paddling and put your hand in the water!”

In addition to the bio bay, Vieques was a hotbed of animal life. The island is full of seemingly wild paso fino horses, a small breed known for their pleasant gait. While most of them are owned by someone, they just wander around at will and you have to be careful while driving:

paso fino

Horses in the road


People—mostly young men—throw blankets on them and ride them around without stirrups just as basic transportation. Because none of them seem to be gelded, there are tons of baby horses tottering around on their incredibly long legs and lots of pregnant mama horses looking very uncomfortable. Also, because none of them seem to be gelded, there’s a lot of…tumescence going on.  I’m fine with never seeing an aroused male horse ever again, just saying.

The other crazy thing was the scarlet macaw. Our first morning there someone spotted it in a distant tree and we kept seeing it hanging around the neighborhood. They’re not native to Vieques, they’re mostly a Central American species, but perhaps someone had one as a pet and released it when it got inconveniently large. Once it was out it was definitely thriving, eating mangoes and carambola and generally ruling the neighborhood with an iron beak.

One morning we were out on the porch looking at it when it flew directly overhead and landed in our mango tree. It just hung around all morning and allowed us to look at it and get real close for photo ops. Absolutely amazing.

Well, hello to you too

Enough Already!

This is incredibly long and I admire you for reaching the end. Will we go back to Vieques? Maybe, but not for a very long time. There’s so much left to explore, even in Puerto Rico alone.  I want to see the Arecibo observatory and the El Yunque rainforest. I have always wanted to go to Culebra. If we were rich we’d do a crazy expedition to Isla Mona. Etc. But it was a blast and a totally worthy experiment in moving the group beach vacation to a more tropical climate.