Chartering a Plane: What a way to go!

Chartering a Plane: What a way to go!

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to charter a small plane and fly off to somewhere wonderful with just you (and maybe one other person) and the pilot? Maybe you’ve been a bit like us and had this itch to have this experience at least once. And maybe you’re a bit like Art, who had a desire not only to charter a plane but also to fly into a particular airport. That airport is on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. How, you might ask, did he figure out he wanted to do this?

 Anyone who has been following along with us on our discerning travel experience for some years will know that we have taken more than a few cruises. And you’ll also know that we’ve spent a few weeks cruising in the Caribbean, visiting many islands more than once. One island that’s often on cruise itineraries is the lovely St. Lucia, with its lush vegetation and its famous “Deux Pitons,” those iconic volcanic peaks. (We’ll show them to you in our next post when we charter a 42-foot catamaran in St. Lucia.) When you cruise past this island, you see these natural aspects of the island, but if you’re really astute, you’ll also see a runway―a runway at a small airport tucked between the hills.

This runway is at the airport near the capital Castries and is called the George F. L. Charles Airport (SLU). It’s the small airport that caters only to the inter-island carriers. Most international visitors arrive at Hewanorra International Airport (UVF), located on the southeast corner of the island, a good hour and a half drive from most of the nicest resorts. On our recent Caribbean adventure, we wanted to fly into SLU.

We began this holiday in Barbados, so all we needed was a flight from Bridgetown, Barbados, to Castries, St. Lucia, a 45-minute flight on a turbo-prop. But, of course, this trip was two years into the COVID pandemic. That meant that we would have to have negative COVID tests before we could receive a travel authorization for St. Lucia. So, we made a plan.

Art began researching private charters in the Caribbean and came up with a few reasonable possibilities. The fly in the ointment was that we weren’t prepared to pay the (large) fee upfront without knowing if we’d get that travel authorization. So, we made a contingency plan and asked our travel agent to book us a fully refundable ticket on InterCaribbean Airways on one of their 30-seaters so that we would at least have a way to get from Barbados to St. Lucia if our private charter didn’t work out.

One of the airline charter companies (Latitude Air Charters) was still able to provide a plane two days before when we finally received that travel authorization from St. Lucia, so we booked, paid in full, and cancelled our commercial flight. One can quite nicely justify such an extravagance, though, in the world of COVID―just imagine how much safer we would be on a private plane? Anyway, we booked it and were off.

As part of the booking, Art requested that his contact arrange a car to pick us up in Barbados to take us to the airport and another to meet in Castries. It was seamless.

As we neared the airport in Bridgetown, our driver called ahead so that there would be an agent right there to check us into our flight when we arrived two minutes later. It was 10:30 in the morning, and the airport was deserted. We knew that the international flights wouldn’t start arriving until some time after noon, and we would be long gone by then.

We checked in at the Mustique Airways counter and headed to security. Of course, we were the only passengers clearing security, so that wasn’t an issue.

After security, we entered the departure lounge, where we were to wait for the same person who had checked us in to arrive on the tarmac with a vehicle to drive us to our plane. What a feeling to be the only passengers there!

Before we knew it, we were at the plane, and the agent was putting our luggage in the small hold while the pilot did his final inspection. Then we were off.

There’s something special about this kind of personal adventure―something special about checking one very magical experience off our bucket list. As we took in everything―leaving the beaches of one island behind, crossing the Caribbean Sea and watching a new set of beaches edge into view―we knew how lucky we were.

And then, we began to make our approach to that runway. On the approach, it seems as if the plane will land in the ocean, but of course, it didn’t.

See that runway??

And if you want to come along on that flight with us and experience that approach, just click below for the video. You won’t regret it!

Dust off Those Passports: First (almost) Post-COVID Trip

Dust off Those Passports: First (almost) Post-COVID Trip

When we returned home from our winter getaway in early March of 2020, we could see the handwriting on the wall. With our medical backgrounds (Art’s forty-five years as a family physician helped), it was clear that the impending pandemic would put a damper on international travel for some time to come. We immediately cancelled our planned and booked Northern European adventure and settled in to ride out the travel restrictions. It never occurred to us at the time that it would be a full two years before we left the country again! But it finally happened.

Passports dusted!

In mid-2021, in a burst of optimism, we booked a two-week Caribbean cruise on Seabourn’s Odyssey, including three days before it in Barbados and three days after the cruise in St. Martin, then a few days in Florida to round it out. We had our flight to Barbados scheduled for early February 2022 booked and paid for. By October, when the final payment for the (expensive) cruise was due, we looked at the international situation and considered our options. Then reality struck―and it had nothing to do with COVID.

Facebook might have its shortcomings, but occasionally, you can stumble on a valuable piece of information. Patty trolls the cruise groups from time to time and happened to join a Seabourn group. One of the members posted about cancelling their cruise because they wouldn’t be permitted off the ship in many ports or only in a Seabourn shore excursion group. Well, that wasn’t going to happen for us. The thought of being stuck on a small ship―or even a larger ship―for two weeks (regardless of the high-quality service) or worse, stuck with disembarking only with other people was a non-starter for us. For us, a Caribbean cruise means taking a luxurious ship as transportation between islands where we like to meander off the ship in our own time and explore―alone. With the spectre of a group thing for weeks on end (never mind that COVID was still raging), we called our travel agent and cancelled. But we asked her not to do anything with the flights as yet. There were many moving pieces, but there was still hope.

First, we extended our three-day stay in Barbados to a week and booked a fully refundable ticket to St. Lucia (refundable because we had an idea for a personal charter―we’ll get to that in a later post). And why St. Lucia, you might ask? As it happens, we had spent our honeymoon thirty-five years ago in St. Lucia and hadn’t been back except for a few day trips off a ship. There is also a resort we wanted to discover, so we booked a week at the BodyHoliday, changed our original flight from St. Martin to Miami to St. Lucia-Miami, and extended our stay in Florida so we could leave our return flight as is. So, how did it go?

Marvellously! Notwithstanding the COVID hoops we had to jump through every time we changed locales, things could not have gone better.

The island of Barbados!

That first moment when we walked off the Air Canada flight in Bridgetown, Barbados, into the sultry heat of the Caribbean sun, we knew we had made the right decision not to put off our travels any longer. We had learned another tidbit of information from a FB site: Enterprising Barbados businesses were offering a “fast-track” service through Grantley-Adams airport. So, we booked the Five Star Fast Track service, paid in advance and were met before even entering the immigration hall by a lovely and personable, bright-pink-and black-clad woman who led us directly to another door where our QR codes indicating we had uploaded all our health documents (vaccination and PCR test results) to the Barbados government app were scanned. We then proceeded to the immigration desk, where there was no line and then through to pick up our bags. Our escort accompanied us the entire way to the waiting sedan we had also booked through fast-track services.

A half-hour ride up the coast to St. James Parish took us to The House, where we planned to stay for a week. It had been nine years since we last stayed at The House for a few days before a cruise.

We chose this property first and foremost because it is adults-only. It also has only thirty-four all-suite accommodation. The icing on the cake was that it is now owned by Marriott, where we enjoy Lifetime Platinum status, and this stay would award us points (although to date, we have not received them. Yet another story.)

The House has an interesting concept. There is no reception lobby, no concierge desk. There is a massive “living room” open to the air at both the front and the back, which also houses the dining area.

The living room at The House

We are greeted by an “ambassador” who plies us with rum punch (or anything else we want) and tells us what we can expect.

We take our key cards to our oceanfront suite on the main floor with its lanai just off the hot tub and find our luggage already there. You might wonder―as did we―whether it was a good idea to be on the main floor so close to “the action.” We had little to fear. Given the age and decorum of the guests (primarily British, thank heavens), there was no “action” to be found, only a Zen-like atmosphere and loads of relaxation.

Unlike on our last visit when we sampled the many options for fine dining on this part of the Barbadian coast, The House had become one of Marriott’s very first all-inclusive resorts. It seems that when they acquired Elegant Hotels a few years back, with its several Barbados properties, they added this amenity. Was it worth it? Well, it’s not a place for foodies, but we found the dining options very enjoyable.

Not much else has changed in the nine years since we first stayed there. The suites are still exactly the same as were the bathrooms, which need a serious upgrade. There is much to love about The House, and we will go back―after they do a renovation! We’ll tell you more when we compare the two resorts we visited on this trip in a near-future post.

Cruise Ports on Your Own: “Doing” Gustavia, St. Barth’s

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Lovely Gustavia

St. Barth’s – the very name conjures up pictures of powdery white sand beaches with photogenic celebrities cavorting in the surf, evenings at chi-chi cocktail bars and designer boutiques with that French je ne sais quoi. And so it is. But we’ve been to St. Barth’s twice now and have never once laid eyes on a single celebrity – major or minor. Gustavia is, however, a charming Caribbean cruise port that is worth exploring on your own.

 

The first time we set foot on the tiny island was a few years ago when we took our first Silversea cruise. St. Barth’s isn’t a regular cruise ship destination because it does not have any cruise ship dock or dockside facilities and it isn’t the kind of place that caters to the mega-ship passenger. You’ll find no trace of Señor Frog’s, Margaritaville or rafts of duty-free shops lining sweaty streets. Instead, you tender ashore to a tidy, sleepy well-heeled French town filled with the likes of Dior, Chanel and even a Longchamp Paris outpost. It’s lovely.

During that first visit, we had organized a car and driver to give us a tour of the island (which was, by the way ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1493) and drop us at Le Gaiac, the restaurant at the exclusive resort Le Toiny, a Relais and Chateaux property on the private, not-yet-developed southeastern coast of the island. It was a lovly, relaxing lunch. [Evidently the restaurant has been completely refurbished and is now referred to simply as Le Toiny Restaurant.]

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Beautiful vistas in St. Barth’s

 

For anyone who wants to see the island (which doesn’t take long since it’s only 25 square kilometres, not quite 10 square miles, in size) hiring a taxi at the pier would work just as well – and at considerably less expense than we spent arranging in advance. But on our recent visit this year, we decided to spend the time in little Gustavia.

Patty did have a goal in mind: when offered the opportunity to visit a French town or city, she makes her way to the nearest Pharmacie to discover the latest stash of French, drug-store skin-care products. She wasn’t disappointed. Even in this tiny French outpost, the Pharmacie was filled to brimming with the likes of LaRoche Posay, Embryolisse, Caudalie, Vichy and Nuxe to name a few.

We took a walk along the pretty, tree-lined streets around the edge of the tiny harbour where the lines of yachts bobbed in the gentle waves. We did a bit of window-shopping at Cartier, Eres, Chopard, Roberto Cavalli and Longchamp to name just a few of the shops we passed and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the French-imbued surroundings.

If you have two-and-a-half minutes, join us on our walk through Gustavia.

Finding our way in exotic Tahiti

Someone once said that traveling is the only thing you buy that makes you richer and as far as we’re concerned, no truer words were ever spoken. There is little doubt that we are richer by far from the past five weeks of travel in the South Pacific – beginning in Tahiti.

Just say the word to someone buried under a mountain of snow in the dead of winter and it conjures daydreams of palm trees, mysterious, mist-covered volcanoes in the distance and bungalows hovering over the azure blue of the South Pacific waters. All of these daydreams of ours came true.

Mysterious Moorea in the distance from the beach at Le Meridien.
Mysterious Moorea in the distance from the beach at Le Meridien.

We arrived in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti aboard an Air Tahiti Nui flight from Los Angeles. One of the best air travel experiences we have ever had, this airline is on our list of carriers to revisit whenever possible. We did our homework – visiting Seatguru, reading the reviews etc. as all discerning travelers do. We were traveling business class so expected extra room, better meals and perhaps some in-flight entertainment. What we were greeted by were refurbished planes with fully-reclinable seats, wonderful, flat-screen computers at every seat with a terrific selection of entertainment and on-board staff who were the nicest, most attractive, most efficient we’d seen since we traveled on Hawaiian Airlines two years ago. So when we arrived at our destination, we were already relaxed and in vacation mode.

The new in-flight entertainment system on Air Tahiti Nui. (We were in business class, but even economy has the screens.)
The new in-flight entertainment system on Air Tahiti Nui. (We were in business class, but even economy has the screens.)

We chose to stay at Le Meridien some fifteen minutes’ drive outside of Papeete rather than at the Intercontinental which had been initially recommended. This was partly because we didn’t really want to be that close to the city, and partly because the Intercontinental was offering only standard rooms. This was a special vacation and we opted for a Senior Suite. The hotel’s web site did not do it justice at all.

The hugely spacious two-room suite’s best feature as far as we were concerned was the huge terrace with 180 degree views – and the island of Moorea in the distance. Although many travelers like to search for the cheapest way to travel, we believe that you should look for luxury (for less if you can) that you can afford. The funny thing is that when we treat ourselves, we are never disappointed.

Exotic lotus blossoms in Tahiti
Exotic lotus blossoms in Tahiti

The first thing we noticed about Tahiti was how nice everyone was – smiling, attentive staff, eager to please. Then, of course, there was the water – so blue and so warm, warmer by far than even the Caribbean. So we had to see the island.

The hotel concierge helped us to arrange a private driver and car for a full-day, private circumnavigation of Tahiti Nui (Tahiti actually consists of two islands connected by a causeway: Tahiti Nui – which means larger; and Tahiti Iti – smaller and less navigable all around). Our driver was deeply versed in the flora and fauna of the island and took use to a number of truly wonderful gardens and grottos.

We lunched at the Paul Gauguin Restaurant sampling a number of local delicacies and visited Point Venus, the beach on Matavai Bay where Captain Cook came ashore in 1769, and where Marlon Brando (who later bought an atoll near Tahiti, built a house and lived) played Fletcher Christian in the 1960’s version of Mutiny on the Bounty, one of the movies we had watched on the plane!

While we were in Tahiti we walked the beaches, ate wonderful food and bought a Tahitian black pearl for Patty in Papeete. After five wonderful days, we embarked on our cruise.

Now that was interesting…

Art at the market in Papeete -- not to be missed when you visit.
Art at the market in Papeete — not to be missed when you visit.