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!

Kaua’i by helicopter: Working down that bucket list!

A helicopter is the only way to experience the magnificence of the Napali Coast in Kauai in this expansive way.

The lure of the Hawaiian Islands was never stronger than when Patty was nine years old.  Her grade five teacher returned from Christmas vacation with slides and stories from her Hawaii trip, and one awe-struck little girl was hooked.  So began a childhood obsession with travel advertisements and brochures.  In those days – long before we could click our way to information – Patty filled out those little forms that were invariably included in travel advertising.  In due course the brochures and posters arrived, and Patty began her collection – all the while creating a kind of childhood bucket list.  These days, as we move ever closer to those retirement years (a few years yet, though), together we’ve created our own list of places to go and things to do.  Hawaii was on Patty’s early bucket list – and seeing the islands by helicopter was on our current one.  Check off Kaua’i by helicopter!

Up in the clouds over Kauai, the 'garden island'

This was our second trip to Hawaii.  The first one was some fifteen years ago when we whisked ourselves and our then eight-year-old son Ian off to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary.  Oahu (Waikiki and Honolulu) and Maui were our destinations then – Oahu, Kaua’i and the ‘Big Island’ (Hawaii) were on the agenda this year.

When you head to the islands, you usually have some things that are must-do’s on the list.  Fifteen years ago a luau was on the list (we accomplished that and found our little family threesome to be the only ones not on their honeymoons at a table of some 20 or so revelers that evening!).  As more seasoned and discerning travelers at this point in our lives, we decided to forego the pig roast this time in favor of a few other delights – among them was the desire to do Kaua’i and the Big Island by helicopter.

The Blue Hawaiian staff prepare the helicopter for our embarkation! Yikes, they're not even turnng off the rotors!

Art has been in the offshore medical business for almost thirty (!) years at this stage.  That means that over the years he has been required to undergo helicopter-ditching training.  Among other things, this involves being strapped into a chopper’s seat while the training cockpit simulates an emergency landing on water.  The general course of events in that kind of scenario is that when the blades touch the water, the helicopter flips so that the passengers are now under water.  The situation is simulated in the training, but the water is very real.  Art was actually required to be able to unfasten a seatbelt and shoulder harness and push open a window while the cockpit rapidly filled with dark, murky water, and then swim to the surface.  It would be enough to make most people run screaming from offshore activities all together.  But he didn’t, although he never did have to put this part of the training to use (thankfully).  He did have occasion to fly in choppers to remote locations, however.  Patty on the other hand, had never set foot inside a chopper.  Blue Hawaiian Helicopters was to provide her with her first experience.

Like a well-oiled machine (pun intended), the Blue Hawaiian folks have their system down to a science.  For us it started with buying the tickets (yes, it’s expensive) through the hotel’s concierge who asked us our weights.  “They need it to calculate fuel etc.,” said the concierge.  “Then they’ll weigh you again when you get there.  It’ll flash up on a screen…”  What horror!

She laughed and told us that she was joking.  But when we arrived at the Blue Hawaiian office a few days later, they did, indeed, weigh each of us.  It did not, however, flash up anywhere much to everyone’s relief.  We’re an odd bunch about our weight, aren’t we?  It’s a bit like asking someone how much money he or she makes – but we digress.

The weights were used to determine total weight for the individual choppers and the seating arrangements so that weight could be distributed.

We chose the bigger and nicer of the two types of choppers they offered.  We flew in an Eco-Star that takes a pilot and six passengers with individual seats rather than bench seating.  After the weigh-in, we watched a safety video and were then helped with our inflatable life vests that we were required to wear around our waists.  Then, we were off to board the helicopter.

In Kaua’i (the office is in Lihue) we were loaded into a van and driven the five minutes to the airport where we awaited the return of the helicopters and were assigned our numbers.  We would board without the helicopters even turning off their rotors and we each needed to be in the right place for boarding.   We followed the instructions and were off.

The Discerning Travelers came home from Kauai with some extraordinary memories etched in their brains!

The Blue Hawaiian pilot was extremely capable and personable as he expertly lifted the chopper from its pad and began his narration of the tour.  It was clear that he loved his job and we were the happy beneficiaries.

They call Kauai the ‘garden isle’ and as you soar above the magnificent Napali Coast the reasons are clear: breathtaking mountains, verdant valleys, awe-inspiring waterfalls.  There really is no other way to get any real sense of the island.

If you have five minutes, join us on our tour…

Stonehenge: Mystical or just mysterious?

Stonehenge on a dull morning in July

It had always been on Art’s list of places to see before you die.  It was on mine as well, I’ll admit, but it wasn’t as high up on the priority list. Always the opportunist, though, when I noticed that it was possible to take a side trip to Stonehenge on the way from London to board the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton, I decided that it was now or never.  And so we made the pilgrimage to Stonehenge.

As we drove through the countryside from London, our driver waxed rapturously about the “feeling” of standing there near the stones of unknown origin (make no mistake, despite what you’ve read, no one really knows why they were placed there.  Indeed, the Druid connection has actually been disproven, information that came as a surprise to me and that alien theory – the scholars don’t believe it!).  The fact that the stones were brought somehow from far afield is, however, impressive.  The driver called it eerie, unusual and unique; so we were ready to be wowed.

We parked in the designated parking lot across the road from the stone circle which is widely enclosed by a chain-link fence.  We then walked to the entrance which led to an underground pedestrian walkway (actually under the road) so that no cars came close to the site.  After picking up our audio-self-tour headsets (a necessity if you really want to learn anything at all), we made our way to the first stop on the audio-tour.  It was early in the day  (highly recommended) so that there were few others around.  This is the best way to experience these places in my opinion.  By the time we were leaving about an hour later, the place was really filling up (that was 11 am).

So we did the tour around the circle.  And we waited for the “feeling.”  I’m sorry to say that the tour was very interesting, but to tell you the truth, we were all (wife, husband, 22-year-old son) underwhelmed by the experience.  We never really did feel the mysticism and we were very surprised at how small the stones really are.  I’m not sure what we expected, but this wasn’t it.  That said, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the experience.

Discerning travelers that we are, we booked this private tour/transfer through the online service London Tool-Kit which I used twice on this trip.  It’s an aggregator for a wide variety of service providers.  Paid for in advance, the private tour began at our hotel in London and took the detour to Stonehenge on the Salisbury plain on the way to Southampton.  The drive to Stonehenge (almost 90 miles west of London) takes just under 2 hours.  The drive from Stonehenge to the cruise terminal in Southampton was an hour.

With the tourists milling about, you can get a better sense of the size.

The Queen Mary 2: Cross another one off the bucket list

Our masks for the masquerade ball. Be sure to take your own. Our son was in Venice a month before the voyage and picked these up for us.

We weren’t supposed to set foot on a ship this summer – but let’s just say the timing worked out impeccably and there we were in late July, stepping onto the gangway of the Queen Mary 2 for one of her classic transatlantic voyages.

And what a beauty she is!

As I counted on my fingers, it occurred to me that this was our tenth cruise on a total of six different cruise lines.  Six!  I think that makes us credible commentators on the comparative experiences.  What I really hate is those Readers’ Choice lists each year in the travel magazines, several of which I otherwise find useful and informative.  Readers vote on their favorite cruise line for example and there is no way of knowing if they have ever traveled on any other to be able to make such a statement via their voting.  After our first cruise many years ago (on Carnival) we would have said it was our favorite.  Today, we have so much more experience and wouldn’t be caught dead on Carnival.

So, back to the Queen Mary 2.  Decorated in tastefully elegant art deco style (my personal favorite), she is a true ocean-going beauty.  We’re told that she was the first purpose-built ocean liner (in contrast to a cruise ship) that had been built in 50 years.  That means that she’s built for the North Atlantic crossing rather than for fun-in-the-sun stuff.  The décor, inside and out, is understated, just the way we like it, with a few eye-popping wall murals and scads of wonderful artwork and photographs of the storied history of Cunard Line.

The hall outside our suite.

In an attempt to recreate the trans-Atlantic crossings of yesteryear, Cunard has done its best on this seven-day voyage from Southampton to New York to evoke the time of the great sailings.  To that end, the entertainment is refined and relatively low key.  There are, however, four formal (read black-tie formal) and one informal (read cocktail dresses) on this voyage, unusual for such a short time but reminiscent of what it was like in bygone years.  So, if you do not like to get dressed up, find another ship to take you where you want to go.  Those of us who chose the experience just as it was sold do not want you there!  The truth is that there were very few people who did not dress up as “required”, but there were evening venues for those who chose more casual approaches to dining – they were not, however, allowed in the dining rooms and had to pay a surcharge to be served in the casual dining space.

This brings me to dining rooms – or should I say classes of service.  Cunard is the only line in service today that actually has three classes of service (although you won’t see this verbiage in their literature. (Others have diffeerent level of service, but this does not extend to the same level.  I’ll tell you about the suite life on other lines in later posts.)

They have the Britannia class with its large (and truly beautiful) dining room with traditional two-seating dining. There is also an option in Britannia to have a more open dining experience (for a price) and this is called Britannia Club.  The accommodations are the same, the dining is different.

If you choose to travel in what I would call a small suite, you will choose Princess Grill accommodations and will dine in the Princess Grill.  Much smaller and more intimate than Britannia, the Princess Grill provides you with a table to which you can go any time the dining room is open (breakfast, lunch & diner): it is always yours.

If you choose the larger suite accommodation, you will choose Queen’s Grill and you will dine in the Queen’s Grill (same table arrangement as the Princess Grill).  This is what we chose.  So any comments I make from here on in are related to being in what others might call first-class.

The suite was beautiful as the photos show.  The service was impeccable.  The experience was divine.  We will go on Cunard again – when the itinerary is right.

A picture is worth a thousand words…

The Veuve Clicquot champagne bar

About a half of the suite bathroom

The living area of our Queen's Grill suite

Queen Mary 2 art gallery