The Crane, Barbados: A promise kept

2005
Our brief glmpse of The Crane in 2005.

It was 2005 and we were on our way to Antigua for a week of relaxation at the St. James’s Club.  Who knew that even in the early 21st century the airport on this beautiful Caribbean island didn’t have a landing guidance system that would safely land an aircraft in the fog?  In fact, who knew that Caribbean islands had fog?

After the third attempt and pull-up, it was clear to us that there was a problem.  The first stop after that was the island of Guadeloupe for fuel.  Sitting at the front of the aircraft, we got as far as the top of the steps to look out the open door and breathe in the warm, tropical air – and then we were off to Antigua again.  But to no avail.  The weather was just too bad so we would have to spend the night in Barbados.  We could hear the groans all around us.  Well, we thought, an adventure.

It was a credit to Air Canada that they were able to find overnight accommodation for everyone on a Saturday night in February within an hour or two.  We were among the lucky – or at least we chose to think that!

We were taken to The Crane, a residential (read: condo) resort on the rugged east coast of the island.  Since it was so late, the restaurant was closed – but the manager on duty roused the cook who got out of his bed and came to make hamburgers for the dozen or so of us who hadn’t eaten in so long we couldn’t quite remember at that point.  In the dark it was difficult to tell what the resort was like – but the next morning, it was clear that this was a place we would want to return to at some later date.  We made a promise to ourselves and kept it.

Overlooking the rugged Atlantic

Last winter’s cold temperatures here on the east coast of Canada sent us fleeing once again to a Caribbean cruise, and this time it was one that would leave from Bridgetown, Barbados.  So, before we boarded the Silver Cloud, we spent three days exploring The Crane.

Built on a rugged bluff above an extraordinary white sand beach, The Crane is billed as the oldest resort in the Caribbean.  Don’t be fooled, though.  The old mansion that was expanded into a hotel that opened in 1887 is still part of its charm and houses the spa and a few rooms.  But the rest of the place is a series of charming new buildings housing extraordinary suites/apartments – just the kind of place discerning travelers would love.

We booked ourselves into a one-bedroom suite because we had remembered the junior suite we had been housed in that fateful night years before.  And the rooms were just as lovely as we remembered with their four-poster mahogany beds, breathtakingly spacious bathrooms, breezy white cotton-covered sofas, dining room, kitchen, laundry and the list goes on.

Grand Jetee

The property itself has several wonderful pools. The oldest pool overlooks the beach and is just the kind of place where, if you squint just a little, you can picture early 20th century guests sitting about with parasols, fanning themselves daintily.  Throughout the property there are several wonderful pieces of sculpture.  One is a life-size bronze statue called Grande Jetee and if you know anything about ballet, you’ll recognize the form.  As parents of a son who is a ballet dancer, we were quite taken with it the first time we saw it and even more so the second time around.

There is a series of little shops and restaurants around a kind of town square within the complex and it houses, among other boutiques, a convenience shop.  We noted that many of the guests seemed to be buying stapes no doubt to use for their own meals in their residences.  As a result, the restaurants were practically empty most of the time.

One of the restaurants on the property, Zen, offers a Japanese-Thai menu and was the #1 Zagat-rated restaurant in Barbados in 2009 and 2010.  Its setting overlooking the Crane Beach, often counted among the world’s most beautiful, is something not to be missed.   But don’t forget the pizzeria onsite as well!

A series of connected pools

The pool area was practically deserted – many of the ground floor suites have their own plunge pools and it seemed that many guests simply stayed on their own lovely lanais.  We had a sense of privacy and luxury everywhere we looked.

We truly enjoyed our three days at The Crane, but did think that a longer visit would be a bit too laid back for us.  The resort isn’t within walking distance of anything and we do get a bit bored sitting around a pool all day!  That said we could use a few pool days right about now and certainly would go back to the Crane if we ever take another cruise out of Barbados. We kept our promise to return – and The Crane kept its promise – the promise it offered on one brief encounter.

Crane Beach from the resort above (there is an elevator and a staircase leading down — an up!)

Some photos of our suite…

Part of the wonderful bathroom in the suite
The bedroom of our suite at The Crane, Barbados

Good things come in small packages: A small-ship cruise

A picture is worth a thousand words - The Silver Cloud (on the right!)

For many people, bigger is better.  For us discerning travelers…not so much.  When the ship Oasis of the Seas launched in 2009, we took one look at its specs (close to 6000 passengers) and knew immediately it wasn’t for us.  The largest ship we’d been on at that time was just slightly over 2000 passengers, and we knew that was quite large enough.  But we wanted to go smaller.  So we looked to the self-described “six-star” experience.

It’s wonderful to be at that point in our lives (nudging ever closer to retirement and yet still with significant cash flow) so that we can travel in a way that allows us to be a bit more discerning than we used to be – because, self-described or not, the so-called six-star cruise lines cost.  And for us, there is one place where bigger is better when it comes to getting on a cruise ship; that place is the size of the stateroom.

On the occasion of our twentieth wedding anniversary some years ago, we decided to treat ourselves to a Royal Suite on a Celebrity cruise ship and we’ve never been able to go back to a smaller stateroom.  So, we are looking for value when we choose an experience.  In the case of moving to smaller ships, we first tried Regent – first the Navigator (490 passengers) and then the Mariner (700 passengers)[1] – then ended up earlier this year on a Silversea ship, the Silver Cloud with all of 296 passengers.  What an experience that was!  Even if you can’t afford a Silversea cruise, or a Silver suite on board, come along with us and we’ll tell you what it’s like.

Art in the suite dining room

We boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown, Barbados at the cruise terminal.  We were greeted not by the usual line-ups and booths that face you when you go aboard a larger ship in places like Fort Lauderdale; rather there was a table with three of the ship’s personnel to greet us with our documents and a wave us to the pier.  Once on board, with a glass of champagne in hand, we had our ID photos taken and were whisked to our suite.

What made the ship so different than previous experiences was that you could stand in the bar at one end of the ship and look down its one corridor and see to the other end.  Then, as you walked along the corridors past occasionally open doors of suites (every stateroom aboard is at least a small suite) and see out both sides of the ship: there are no interior cabins; everyone has an outside suite and some 90% have verandahs.

Patty in the suite living room

The ship’s itinerary took us to several islands that we had never visited before either as an island vacation or as a cruise ship port.  These included Dominica, Bequia and St. Bart’s.  Some islands just don’t have the capability for one reason or another, to host the larger ships, so smaller is better when it comes to accessing them as ports.

We prefer just the two of us for dining companions on any given cruise ship.  In fact, when ships have set dinner times and tables, if we can’t be guaranteed a table for two, we won’t book.  We’ve been burned in the past by having to spend a meal or two in the company of loud wind-bags who like to hear themselves talk – not our idea of a relaxing meal.  On these small ships you just arrive at the dining room any time during dining hours and ask to be seated.  In our case, our requests each evening for a table-for-two were never a problem (unlike a previous experience on a Regent ship when the maître d’ simply could not seem to understand precisely what a table-for-two meant).  Despite our  preference for ‘twosomeness’ in dining, the ship is small enough that you would have to stay in your suite the entire cruise to not come in contact with just about everyone on board some time during the 10 days.  The amazing thing was that we found ourselves in the company of some 250 like-minded people.  These were people who could afford to travel well, but who were looking for an experience that assured them they had spent their money well.  They were not disappointed in this experience, nor were we.

One aspect of travel aboard these six-star ships a traveler needs to know is that people dress.  Some of the lines (Regent for example) have really moved away from truly formal evenings, however, every night on the Silver Cloud was like a cocktail party with cocktail attire expected – and you would certainly stick out if you chose not to dress up a bit.

Our invitation to dine with the Captain of the Silver Cloud

Of course, the food was wonderful and these are all-inclusive experiences.  Not once does a bar tender ask you to sign a bill.  There is no passing over your room key for anything to be added to your bill (except spa services and if you choose wines off the sommelier’s premium list).  Wine, drinks, and gratuities – they are all included in the price.

The entertainment was fairly low-key and yet there was always something to keep us amused.  We would not, however, like to have too many days at sea on such a small ship.  This kind of a cruise where there are five or six lovely ports to explore is the ideal way in our view to experience all the perks of small-ship cruising.

We ended up sharing our van and driver with several passengers from another larger cruise ship who were stranded at a beach on the island of St. Kitts.  When they asked us which ship we were from and we mentioned the Silver Cloud, one of them asked us what it was like on board such a small ship.  “I  heard that everything is included and you have a butler,” he said.  We nodded.  He sighed.  “I’m going on one of those someday,” he said.  “It looks like a private yacht.”  Couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

Bequia
Bequia

One perfect day – on the Med

The stern view from the perfect perch

I was sitting in our charter boat, sipping a glass of champagne and trying to see if I could bottle up the memory of this one perfect day so that I could take it out once in a while and relive it when I needed to.  Being able to do that takes really being in the moment – and a great still and video camera doesn’t hurt!

So, how did we get there that day?  It was last July and we were visiting our son in the south of France (we’ve often said that the main purpose of having children is for their entertainment value – and we have that in spades with our son who is a dancer with Les Ballets do Monte Carlo – yes, that Monte Carlo, Monaco).

We had seen along that part of the Riviera from Roquebrune just bordering Monaco to the east, as far as Cannes in the west as we visited from time to time on foot and by car.  Now, we wanted to see it all from the water.  So, as any discerning travelers would do, we started our research online.  We usually find that asking our friends is a recipe for disaster – many of them, as well-heeled as they might be – are unwilling to pay a bit more to get a bit more.  We are not.

To say that there are a lot of boat charter companies operating on the French Riviera would be a considerable understatement.  We narrowed the search down and emailed several.  The most personalized service, with the most interesting possibilities for planning our perfect day came from Boatbookings.com.  They were efficient and knew exactly how to provide us with what we were looking for (and they all speak English which made it so much easier!).  We settled on a 35-foot cruiser with a captain and catered lunch for an eight-hour cruise.

A glimpse of Monte Carlo -- from the harbor.

The young captain picked us up at the pier in Cap d’Ail where we always stay, and off we went for the day.  We stopped to anchor twice during the day – once for swimming off the boat, and once for our picnic lunch on board.  Of course, part of the perfection of the day was a result of the stellar weather – it could not have been nicer – or more luxurious.

In our continuing search for those luxurious experiences, this is one that will go down in our books as worth every penny (and euro) we spent.  It’s an experience that we’ll remember forever.

The value of luxury: The “six-star” experience

For several years now, we’ve been grappling with the question of what constitutes luxury.  As discerning travelers, we are interested more in refinement than luxury per se since most people seem to think if something is expensive, it constitutes luxury.  But that isn’t necessarily so.

A couple of years ago, we embarked on our first “six-star” (their marketing literature said it – we didn’t) luxury cruise.  While on board, we thought it might be a good opportunity to ask a few of these very well-heeled travelers what constitutes luxury for them.  Not one of those we asked mentioned anything about expensive items; rather they were focused on  experiences that for them were luxurious. For example, one of the women who could buy and sell the best of us, said that for her, luxury would be having someone to wash her hair for her every day.  Another said that to have fresh sheets on her bed every day is a luxury.  Others had similar opinions.  What all of these had in common was sensuality, if you must know.   More importantly it gave us a notion of what luxury means these days: a luxurious  experience.  In that spirit, we decided to embark on a journey of finding those luxurious experiences.

The Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay in California is set on a rugged bluff overlooking the Pacific.

A September wedding in San Francisco this year inspired us to take a few days afterwards and head down the coast for a road trip.  Our first stop was the Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay.

This hotel is a quick hop from San Francisco and we decided that its ocean front location and rugged coastline beauty might make it worth the splurge.  It was (sort of).

There is no doubt that the hotel is beautiful but we’ve been to many beautiful hotels.  What would make this a luxurious experience for us?

Would it be the resort grounds? They are very nice, but no nicer than any other nice resort has to offer in a lower price range. How about the restaurants?  The restaurants on the property have wonderful ocean views and the food is well-prepared and served – but perhaps not earth-shattering.  The rooms?  The room was beautifully appointed but no more than what we come to expect.  The bathroom started veer into the luxurious – marble from top to bottom, a spacious walk-in shower, a fabulous Jacuzzi.  Rooms on the ground floor have fire pits which are nice, and for some might constitute a luxurious experience.

For us, the thing that made this a luxurious experience wasn’t the bricks and mortar, though.  The most outstanding feature of this Ritz Carlton property is their staff.   Every single one of them we encountered from the outdoor bar staff to the valets who parked our car were terrifically well trained and made it their business to learn our names.  It was one of those little touches that makes you feel special – and if an experience doesn’t make you feel special, then in our books it isn’t luxury.  The Ritz Carlton motto is “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”, and this experience drove home to us that it is more than a motto: it is a way of life for their staff.  For example, it was also such a nice touch to find the valets had cleaned the windshield of our rental vehicle, and there were two bottles of water already in the cup holders awaiting us when we got in the next morning to continue our road trip down the California coast.

The experience made us wonder, though, about the “value” of this luxury hotel.  We concluded that its price tag, exactly twice what we had paid a night at the Stanford Court (Marriott Renaissance property) in downtown San Francisco the night before, was perhaps not worth it.  Marriott staff around the world are well-schooled in hosptiality as well.  All we can say is that our gut impression of the relative value is that the Ritz Carlton name may imply luxury; you don’t necessarily have to pay this much for a luxurious experience.