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.
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!
It’s mid-April and here in the northern hemisphere the calendar says it’s spring. One look out our windows here in Toronto, however, tells a whole different story. We’ve been in the grips of a late-season ice storm for the past few days and it could not look more like winter out there. What better time to be thinking of Hong Kong and its current 25° C temperatures!
We’ve been actively planning this Asia trip for some time. It all began some time last year when, despite Asia having been on our travel bucket list for some time, we mused that perhaps we didn’t really need that 15-hour flight. When our son got wind of our thoughts on the subject he implored us not to give up the idea. In his view we HAD to visit Hong Kong and Tokyo at least. He had performed in both cities on various tours with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo a few years ago and told us that we’d love both experiences. So, we decided to take his advice and plan a trip that would include both.
We looked at land-tour options and those included a number of regional flights in China. We wondered if we really wanted to spend that much time in airports where we didn’t speak the language, and worse, couldn’t even read the language characters. That seemed like a bit of a drag to us, although we considered a Kensington private, guided tour, since we had used them before in Ireland and were more than satisfied. But there were other options. We could consider transportation between cities by ship.
As long-time readers know about us, cruise ships are really just comfortable methods of transportation for us usually. Okay, we sometimes do like an island hop in the Caribbean on a six-star ship, but in recent years, our “cruises” have been selected based on their itineraries. So, we decided to check out our favourite cruise lines to see what they offered in Asia.
We explored Oceania, Regent and Cunard. We even considered Holland America, although we haven’t travelled on them in years. It turns out that the vast majority of the itineraries on offer include one but not both of the must-see cities on our list – Hong Kong and Tokyo – and truth be told, most cruise lines don’t actually seem to go to Tokyo at all. Then we hit on Silversea. (You might remember that we sailed on Silversea’s new ship the Silver Muse in the fall down the western coast of South America – in actual fact, we had booked this Asia cruise even before we left for that one!)
Silversea was the only one we found that began in Hong Kong and ended in Tokyo. That was perfect: we could spend a few days in Hong Kong before sailing, then end with four or five days in Tokyo. So, we booked. One of the nice features of this itinerary was also that the ship spends two days in each of the important ports of call: Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka. It also offers a couple of mid-cruise land tours where you leave the ship for an overnight on shore so that you can explore places you couldn’t do in a single day. Next on the agenda – right after touching base with our long-time travel agent Angela (Maritime Travel) who booked our non-stop flights to and from our destination – was to plan how we would see the sights.
First, we looked at the cruise line’s own offerings. We decided to book their overland trip in Beijing. When the ship docks in Tianjin (the port for Beijing) we’ll be on the fast train into the city for touring. Then we stay overnight at the Four Season’s Hotel in Beijing. The next day we head to The Great Wall then back to meet the ship. Unlike the shore excursions which, on Silversea, you book in advance but pay for when you disembark the ship, this overland trip had to be paid for in advance. Done.
As we looked at the other offerings, it occurred to us that there were choices among them that would permit us to see as much of the stops as possible. So, we booked a number of excursions. Silversea’s shore excursions, in our experience, appear expensive to the untrained eye, but they do have fewer people on buses and are generally good value for the money. That took care of planning for Shanghai, Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto. That left us with our book-ends: Hong Kong and Tokyo.
Naturally we looked to Tours-by-Locals, our go-to company for private touring around the world.
Our private guide in Hong Kong has now arranged our transportation from the airport to our hotel on Hong Kong island, will provide us with a private tour of the city and arrange for our transportation to the pier. Our Tokyo guide has arranged three days of city touring and a day of touring outside the city – then will drop us at the airport after four days there. And all of this was arranged through Tours-by-Locals’ web site where we were able to arrange all the details which are personalized for us. Our Tokyo guide has even provided us with materials to help us acclimatize to Japanese culture as well as an extensive list of recommended reading. Well, we opted to prepare for this trip not through too much reading, but via two video-based courses.
We bought two courses from The Great Courses, a site that we’ve gone to throughout the years for a wide variety of educational programming: Foundations of Eastern Civilization (Craig G. Benjamin PhD), which was 48 half-hour lectures and Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (Mark J. Ravina PhD), 24 half-hour lectures. And yes, we watched every one of them.
Both professors are experts in their fields, but more important perhaps even than that is that their passion for their respective specialties is palpable in their terrific delivery. We didn’t take notes, but we feel that having done this in advance, we can more fully experience the history and culture of our Asian destinations. We’re looking forward to seeing in real life many of the places and experiences both shared with us.
Now that we’ve booked and finalized everything, and prepared our brains for new adventures, we’re just about ready to board that plane. We leave in five days. Hope you’ll come along with us!
How we dress when we travel is either a pointless consideration of the vain and frivolous among us, or it’s an important visual message that often conveys much more than we had planned. Discerning travelers know the answer: it is a significant factor in how travelers are perceived abroad. It is also, however – and perhaps even more important in some venues – a powerful influence on how travelers behave.
The web is full of articles on how to dress for a long flight, things you should never wear when traveling abroad (usually these are directed toward Americans), do’s and don’t’s of travel dressing, and what seems to be the most searched for type of travel dress piece: how to dress for a cruise. We would suggest that when people search for articles on how to dress for travel in general and cruises in particular, they want to know how to feel comfortable – both physically and psychologically. People who search for these answers care – as do we.
Throughout our years of travel via plane, train, car, ship, and on foot, we have observed that dressing is important in the following travel situations:
During airline travel: First, you need to be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean that you need to look like you just crawled out of bed with a hangover. Looking like you care often has the same effect on other people: they might just care about you should you run into difficulty. You can proclaim the superficiality of taking care when you travel, but there is ample evidence to support the contention that looking your best often helps to be treated well – like it or lump it. There is another important dressing guideline for air travel: dressing for the inevitable security check. We were once rushing through security to make a connection between Canada and the US onward and found ourselves in the security line behind a parent and teen-aged son. Said teen-aged son had clearly not received the memo about what a security screen would entail. He had layers upon layers of clothes that all had to be removed one at a time after going through the metal detector and back out of the metal detector. He had several chains around his neck, a chain holding his wallet to his trousers, and on and on. Not a pretty sight in any event, and we were purple with fury.
Touring cities: When we tour cities, we walk. That means footwear is our prime consideration, but it is not the only one. We prefer that our attire not scream “tourist”; this means that our footwear does not under any circumstances consist of white sneakers. Given the plethora of really lovely choices of walking shoes these days, it is puzzling to us how many people continue to wear these monstrosities. If you can afford to travel, you can afford a good-looking pair of walking shoes. As for clothing, it ought to be dictated by the weather and local customs. If you’re visiting Istanbul, for example, regardless of how hot it is, if you want to visit a mosque, you’re going to have to be respectful and dress the part. Check with the local tourist authorities for specifics so that you aren’t surprised by the posted signage. Women visiting conservative cities should always have a scarf in a handbag or around a neck for use as a head and shoulder cover.
On a cruise: When cruising, clothing needs to be dictated by itinerary
(for example, people on South Pacific cruises dress differently than on Mediterranean cruises), weather and your choice of cruise line (Carnival cruises has a decidedly different expectation of how one will dress than does Seabourn, for example) – they all have differing levels of casual and formal requirements. For example, we’ve cruised on a number of lines that still have formal nights as well as a few that have gone upscale casual or what they call country-club. Oceania comes immediately to mind and we’ll be going country-club casual for the upcoming Caribbean venture, but we need to mindful that this means cocktail dresses on most evenings! (We can’t comment on the cruises that let people into the dining room in T-shirts and ball caps – we don’t even want to be near those dining rooms. Not our style.)
Dining out: Oh how we wish that dining out was still considered to be a treat to be cherished and prepared for by dressing a bit better than one might at one’s own kitchen table. Of course, it matters what kind of restaurant you’re going to be choosing – fast-food outlets are not restaurants. Wear what you want there! No one will bat an eye. But even if you don’t really care what you wear, it might be fun to see dining out as an actual occasion when you’re traveling. Stepping it up a bit can be entertaining, and at the risk of repeating ourselves, you’ll be treated better. You can protest this as much as you want, but it’s a fact of life. For many people – including maître d’s – dressing up a bit is a sign of respect for self and others.
At the theatre: We’ve observed that the theatre is not what it used to
be. Just last week we attended a big musical in downtown Toronto at the Ed Mirvish Theatre and we felt as if we had wandered into the economy section of a cut-rate airline. The truth is that in some parts of the world you’ll actually feel out of place if you don’t dress up a bit – and note that ballets and operas tend to have a more dressed-up audience. We noticed this in London and Sydney at the Opera House in particular. Don’t leave them off your travel lists, though; attending theatre performances in foreign cities is a real pleasure.
Obviously, you can wear whatever you want. We have noticed, however, that some people do care how they dress in general and while traveling in particular. If all of this sounds as if you will have to lug multiple suitcases, you won’t. We travel with one suitcase each regardless of the length of the trip –a weekend, one week, five weeks – it matters not. One suitcase. (It will probably be very small for a weekend!).
On more than one occasion in the past we have referred to ourselves as (if you will pardon the expression) “cruise whores.” In other words, we are not monogamous – we cruise around so to speak. Despite the fact that we have never taken a cruise that we didn’t enjoy, we have been making our way around the industry (avoiding several specific lines because of personal experience and research). We might even describe our behavior as moving up the cruise food chain so to speak. Here’s our story.
We like to travel. We like to travel by plane, train (well, not train so much after that overnight “hotel train” between Paris and Barcelona a few years ago), limo, car, foot etc. We just like to experience new places. We sometimes stay in one place for a while; sometimes we stay only a day and move on, either by car or by ship. Despite the snotty travelers who are disdainful of the ‘travel’ value of a cruise, we do enjoy them. They are our way to sample many different places in the world, some of which we have returned to for longer visits. The point is that cruise travel is just one more way for us to see the world. We no longer book cruises just for that week in the sun in the middle of the winter. We’re not knocking that, but for us cruising has taken on another whole dimension.
The first cruise: Carnival
Our first cruise plans began much like any other family’s vacation plans. We had a young child, we wanted to escape the winter briefly, and we had only a week or two of winter vacation. So, we contacted our trusty travel agent (if you want to know why we use a travel agent, you might want to read Why you need a travel agent…really) who chose Carnival cruises for that first trip.
“I would never put you on Carnival if you were going by yourselves,” he said, knowing our tastes and preferences. “But since you’re taking a child, I’d recommend this to you.”
And so we booked a verandah cabin and made our way to Miami. Needless to say we had a wonderful time. This was in spite of the multitude of drunken spring-breakers who spent the entire cruise camped out on the deck, never once even making it into the dining room. The dining was therefore blissful! The kids’ club was a real treat for our young son, and we were introduced to a number of Caribbean islands that we had not at that time visited. We’ve been back many times since, but we have never returned to Carnival.
Why have we not returned to Carnival? You might ask. The reason is the same one that keeps us off NCL and Royal Caribbean: not our kind of experience. The glitzy décor, the loud passengers, the too-happy cruise directors, the big, showy performances nightly (OK unless you’ve seen a London West End show or been to Broadway in New York) – well, let’s just say that we’ve evolved. So it was on to Holland America.
Setting sail on Holland America
We sailed on Holland America three times, including our wonderful Christmas Cruise. We started out in what was then referred to as a Superior Verandah suite (now called the Signature Suite) for the size enhancement, but that began our upward move toward larger and larger suites. The next two cruises on HAL were in Deluxe Verandah suites (now called the Neptune Suite) and we would actually return to this line for the right itinerary.
Celebrity: Second time not up to expectations
We spent our twentieth wedding anniversary on the Celebrity Century in the Mediterranean. Splurging on a Royal suite, we didn’t realize that we were setting ourselves up for a few expensive vacations. After this kind of accommodation – and being in the Med – how could we ever return to a ‘normal’ cruise in the Caribbean in a regular stateroom? Well, we couldn’t. Our return to Celebrity was a couple of winters ago when we wanted to sail out of Puerto Rico; unfortunately, the experience didn’t meet our expectations despite the Jacuzzi on our large, private verandah on the Millennium(although we did enjoy ourselves as always).
Cruise lines always say they want to “exceed your expectations.” The problem with that is when your expectations, like ours evidently tend to be, are very high, it’s difficult if not impossible for the line to accomplish this. If a line can meet our expectations, we’re delighted. Exceed? Well maybe this upcoming one will (more about that later).
Moving up the cruise food chain: Regent Seven Seas
Our desire to move up in terms of luxury cruising (despite their “modern luxury” advertising tag line, Celebrity does not fall into this category: they would be considered premium) led us to Regent. We embarked on our first Regent cruise on the Navigator in a Navigator Suite (448 square feet) in Fort Lauderdale to set sail for a Western Caribbean cruise including Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, places we wanted to visit – or revisit in the case of Mexico.
Regent was our first so-called real luxury cruise experience, and the first one that is all-inclusive. This is a wonderful addition since you never have to take out your key card to sign for your drinks, and your suite is equipped with a well-stocked, included bar. If you don’t want to socialize, you simply pour yourself a drink and repair to your private verandah.
Overall, the cruise was wonderful. The Navigator was, up until that point in our lives, the smallest ship we’d ever been on: 490 passengers. We loved that part of the experience, but were unaware that Regent cruises from Florida carried a much higher number of older passengers. To be clear: we were in our fifties-sixties and were among the youngest dozen passengers on the ship! One evening we took a foray into the piano lounge to find it resembling the day room in a high-priced senior’s home!
Our next Regent experience was on the larger Mariner leaving from Monte Carlo onward to Venice. Our Penthouse suite was a bit smaller than the Navigator suite, but with its floor to ceiling windows we could sit inside when the weather in the Adriatic was cool and watch the shoreline as we cruised the fjords of Montenegro.
We will probably return to Regent someday.
Moving up again: Embarking on Silversea
After six days at the Crane Resort in Barbados, we boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown for a cruise to Fort Lauderdale. With a capacity of only 296 passengers, we were moving down again, even as we were moving up. And moving up we were.
The oldest ship in Silversea’s fleet, the Silver Cloud was nonetheless extraordinary. But more important than that, the service was impeccable. We truly thought we had died and gone to heaven. Little did we know that we were only part-way to heaven.
Our transatlantic voyage
Everyone should do it once. Of course we’re talking about a true transatlantic voyage on a real ocean liner – not a cruise ship. Three years ago we boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton and spent seven wonderful days at sea making our way across the North Atlantic to New York. What truly made this a step up even from Silversea was that we booked into a Queen’s Grill suite and found ourselves in a ship within a ship. Make no mistake: Cunard has three classes and Queen’s Grill is first class all the way.
With its private dining room and bar, the Queen’s Grill provides passengers with the best of both worlds: the intimacy of small ship service and the amenities and entertainment of a large ship.
Although we would not do a transatlantic voyage again, we will certainly return to Cunard for the right itinerary (there it is again: itinerary).
The pinnacle of luxury perhaps?
Last year we booked passage on a 204 passenger luxury cruise ship: the Seabourn Spirit. After almost a week at the luxurious property The House in Barbados, once again we sailed from Bridgetown. This time, however, it was to ports and islands where large ships can never go.
Everything about the Seabourn experience (caviar and champagne on the beach, anyone?) was above and beyond. The service was superb, as was the food and the accommodation. It truly was like a country club and we savored every minute of this super-luxury experience followed by six days in St. Martin. How could we possibly top that?
Onward and upward?
We aren’t sure we can top that last experience, but we’re going to try. Art is retiring from his private family medicine practice in a few weeks and we’re off to that ultimate, post-retirement reward.
After five days in Tahiti, we’ll board the Oceania Marina for almost three weeks meandering through French Polynesia, Samoa and the east coast of Australia, ending with five days in Sydney. Why Oceania?
Last winter while in St. Martin following the Seabourn experience, we dined one evening with fellow passengers from the Spirit. They asked us if we’d ever sailed on Oceania. We had not. Given that they had just disembarked from a Seabourn cruise which they enjoyed, we had to take seriously their recommendation that we give Oceania a try. But what we were really looking for was an itinerary that would take us to new places.
We hit on Oceania’s South Pacific cruise and the rest is history. Stay with us for a while and come along on that special vacation as we try live blogging and tweeting for the first time.