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.

Naples (Florida): The road trip continues!

If you thought about getting in your car and heading west from the Florida Keys through the Everglades to the gulf coast, what would you expect to see? Crocodiles crossing the road? Panthers peeking out from behind mangrove swamp? Thick bush towering over the sides of the roadway? Well, that’s what we were expecting when we set out from Key Largo (first stop on the recent road trip) to Naples. Instead, what we saw were flat sawgrass marshes, mangrove marshes and lots of signs to beware of panther crossings. Oh, and then there was that line of traffic and no place to pass. But, then, that’s what road trips are all about.

We set out from Key Largo and the trip through Everglades National Park was actually quite a boring couple of hours. We arrived in Naples to find ourselves in automobile city. The traffic was unexpected and the fact that this is a city of cars not pedestrians really did surprise us. Since we are “walkers” (no, we do not have walkers), we found ourselves the only people out walking almost wherever we went except “downtown” where locals and tourists alike walked from the (many) parking lots to restaurants and the odd boutique. Surprising to us, that’s all there really is downtown.

Patty gets such a kick out of the “Florida style” ala Gretchen Scott (here) and the storied Lily Pulitzer. Not her style but quintessential Florida.

When we thought about Naples, and what we’d heard from people we know who winter there, we expected something more cosmopolitan than a town with a population of around 20,000 and miles upon miles of suburban sprawl. That explains the need for driving everywhere!

We, on the other hand, actually walked the kilometre-and-a-half from our hotel to the mall where there was – not kidding – no sidewalk or pedestrian access. Really! We had to tread in the roadway to even get near the place. But the parking lot was enormous! Clearly, they do not expect anyone to walk. And we walked much farther. It’s the only way to see a place. We did, however, join the locals by taking our car downtown so that we could walk in that area.

Downtown Naples

We drove down Gulfshore Boulevard to downtown (we walked the boulevard the next day) past incredible mansions.

We parked at 12th street then walked for two hours. The downtown is really just a few streets of small, upscale boutiques and some rather nice restaurants. We had lunch at the Ridgway Bar and Grill where the food was delicious and the outdoor, covered patio was a lovely way to sip a glass of wine with a leisurely lunch.

We walked to the Naples beach which is a very long public beach.

Naples beach

Unlike many tropical destinations, there are no hotels on the beach until you get much farther from the downtown area. Many lucky (and well-heeled) residents, though, do have beachfront houses and condos. There are lots of condos!

Three days in Naples was enough. On this road trip we have two and three-night stops. This one could have been two nights but we managed an extra 11 kilometers of walking on the extra day! Next stop: Sarasota.

One perfect day…in San Juan, Puerto Rico

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The old fort in San Juan

There is nothing quite as nice to us Torontonians as getting on an airplane and jetting off to warmer climes in mid-winter. It’s magical to arrive at your beachfront hotel and shed those winter layers – of clothes and cares. We’re just back from a few weeks of doing just that and we started our adventure in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For a bit of background…A place we’ve been to on several trips in the past, San Juan never loses its charm as both a bit of the Caribbean with an American flavour. It’s not quite that sleepy Caribbean hideaway, and yet it’s not Florida either.

Since Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the US, we are able to pre-clear US customs and immigration at Pearson Airport before leaving Toronto making our entry into Puerto Rico as smooth as any domestic flight. San Juan’s population is just shy of 400,000 making it a city about the size of Halifax (with its surrounding municipality) in Canada. What we like about it is the combination of the old San Juan which everyone photographs, the lovely beaches and the modern shopping experience at the Mall of San Juan, the upscale place for that shopping fix. But our perfect day does not include that modern-day mall experience…

The perfect day begins with breakfast at the San Juan Marriott in the Condado district. A beautiful residential district, the Condado is home to an array of wonderful (and not so wonderful) restaurants, hotels and above all, homes and condos. It’s not strictly tourists, but on this beautiful, sunny 27C day, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that! No matter, we’re heading into Old San Juan, a 5 km walk along Ashford Avenue which follows the beach on one side and the lagoon on the other. Not many people walk this way, so it’s perfect for us.

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Enjoying our 5k walk int Old San Juan

We’ve been to San Juan at least four times before, so its maze of streets in the old district are not such a mystery to us. We have a destination today, though. Patty has been putting off her flip-flop purchase until she could browse an actual Flipflop Shop. She usually buys them in Phillipsburg on the island of Sint Maarten, but our original cruise itinerary (which included her favourite flip-flop spot) changed, so we’re in search of the San Juan franchise. The shop is easy to find among the cobbled streets, and we are successful in our purchase.

After strolling the fabled streets, it’s time for lunch…and a beer which we drink only when the weather is hot. This is the day! We’re looking for the pub/tavern/restaurant where we have eaten on two previous visits. Since we don’t have an address and cannot actually remember its name (!), we have to rely on our memory of landmarks in the vicinity.

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We don’t think we’ll forget Nano’s again!

Without too much difficulty, we find Nano’s where the people are friendly (and speak English), the beer is cold and the club sandwiches delicious. Then it’s time to find a taxi back to the hotel. It’s now too hot to walk another 5 km!

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Beer…the great rehydrator!

The hot afternoon is a perfect time for a long walk along the Condado beach. In the past, we’ve been able to go for miles without ever leaving the beach. What we find today, though, is extensive erosion since Hurricane Maria so much so that at a certain point we actually have to leave the beach, take to the street, and rejoin it farther along. Such a shame, but the walk is relaxing nonetheless.

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One of the reasons we’ve chosen the San Juan Marriot this time (in addition to the fact that our Platinum status with Marriott keeps us coming back to their properties) is because we’re able to have an oceanfront balcony. The times we’ve been here before, we always stayed down the beach at La Concha, a Marriott Renaissance. We do love the vibe of a Renaissance, but on our last visit things seemed to be changing – and they don’t offer beachfront balconies. Since we’re here for six days, we wanted to be sure we have private outdoor space. So, later in the afternoon we sit with a glass of local rum and coke and listen to the waves crashing on shore – and they are, indeed, crashing.

Later we dress for dinner which we have booked for Seraphina, the Italian restaurant at La Concha where we eat outside, enjoying the lively street scene. Later in the week we’ll have Puerto Rican cuisine!

The next thing on our “agenda” will be a mixology class at Casa Bacardi tomorrow. Stay tuned!

So many beaches, so little time: The travel dreams of many

The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.
The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.

What is it about beaches?  When we want to conjure relaxing thoughts, we often find our minds wandering to the sounds of the waves rolling in and out, the wind, the seagulls.  There’s just something about them, and this world is full of extraordinary swaths of sand that beckon travelers.  Our recent return from the South Pacific and Australia with the plethora of beaches inspired us to pause and consider beaches we’ve walked – because, make no mistake about it , we prefer to walk a beach rather than lie on one – and beaches we’ll walk in the future.

Our most recent beach experience was Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia, the subject of our most recent video.  An urban beach, it really does go for miles and the boardwalk is a magnificent way to see it in its entirety.  And Manly did remind us a bit of Waikiki, which for all it has to recommend it, is not one of our very favorites.  So, we started to think, what were our favorite beaches?

Barbuda
Barbuda

A few years back we spent some time at the St. James’s Club, a wonderful resort in Antigua.  With its crescent-shaped beach within a lagoon, it offered many of the beach-side amenities everyone craves.  However, it wasn’t especially long, had little wave action and was bordered by the resort.  That trip, however, did take us to a beach that holds some our best beach memories.  We decided to take a trip to Barbuda.

We embarked the fast ferry, known to us now as “the vomit comet” (we were thankfully among the few who did not…well, you know) that beached itself along the deserted shores of the tiny island of Barbuda.  Although there are a couple of small, low-rise hotels along the beach, for the most part it was completely deserted.  We walked for kilometers in the sun listening to the sea roll in and out.  It was heaven.  Even now, years later, as we think about that day at the beach, we relax and breathe deeply.

Another of our favorites is the beach along the Condado in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Stretching for several kilometers along the high-end neighborhood of the Condado, it is long, wide and sparsely populated – or at least it has been on the several occasions we visited San Juan.  Despite the hotels along this beach being a drive from Old San Juan, their proximity to this beach (just walk out the back door) makes them our choice when visiting Puerto Rico.

The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin
The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin

Two other beaches that are among our favorites are on that list for a different reason.  Rather than a day-long beach walk, they both offer interesting perspectives.

The beach at the Crane Resort on Barbados is often listed among the best in the world.  Well, that is clearly a subjective assessment, but it is beautiful and its location on the wild Atlantic side of the island does make its roaring waves mesmerizing.  Add onto this the fact that you reach it via either a steep staircase or the elevator (!) and you can get a sense of the kind of beach it is.

The other interesting one that brings a smile to our faces is the beach in downtown Phillipsburg, St. Martin.  The locals have built a magnificent boardwalk that divides the beach from a string of shops and restaurants.  Many of the restaurants offer beach chairs and buckets of beer for a lazy day taking in the activities in the harbor.  The sand is soft and the sun is hot.

Speaking of sand, our final two memorable beaches are memorable both for their locations and for their sand – we use that word loosely!

Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France
Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France

In the south of France, the grains of sand on the beaches cannot really be described as grains at all.  They are pebbles.  The beachfront in Nice is wonderful for a variety of reasons.  It is bordered by a several-kilometers-long walkway where people stroll, cycle and roller-skate, as well as some of the most interesting beach-front restaurants where you can sit on a lounger and sip champagne to while away the day.

Finally, if you ever have a chance to visit Canada’s most easterly province, grab a sweater and take a trip to Topsail Beach just outside the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland & Labrador.  Sit for a moment in the bracing breeze and pick up a few beach rocks to skim into the waves.  Listen to the seagulls and remember what Dennis Wilson of Beach Boys fame once said:  “On the beach, you can live in bliss.”

Have a few minutes, come along to Manly Beach with us.