Ruby Princess – Day 4 – St. Martin


I went up on deck, with my camera this time, as we sailed into St. Martin/ St. Maarten.  I had forgotten how hilly and beautiful this island is.        

As we came closer to the pier, I could see the other ships in port, including Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas.  It was next to one of the Carnival ships and it is HUGE!            

I tried to get a shot from the side, but could not fit it into on frame.  We had decided to go to Orient Beach because Pam wanted to do some parasailing.  I remembered Orient Beach from my first trip toSt. Martin years ago.  When you exit the port area, there are waiting areas for the various destinations you might want to visit while on island.  You just find the appropriate sign, get in line, and soon you are in a taxi or little bus and on your way.  Very well organized.  The drive was about 30 minutes through the countryside and neighborhoods of St. Martin.  I always enjoy seeing the local houses and businesses along the way.

The taxi dropped us by Bikini Beach and we headed off to get some chairs and umbrellas – $18 for 2 chairs with an umbrella which I think is pretty reasonable.  Pam was anxious to get to parasailing, but I wanted a beer or 2 first.  I got a bucket of beer, and by the time I had half Pam had convinced me to just go check it out.  We went over to the closest Parasailing place and were told they only had room for 2 more that day so if we could pay now we’d be next out to the boat.  We understood that to mean that they were booked up for the day, and if we wanted to go we had better go now.  So we went back for our money and got the life jackets on and were told that we would be taken to the boat by jet ski.  Alright!  Parasailing and a jet ski ride with a hunky guy for $50 – seems like a deal to me.  It was really windy this day and the waves were pretty big.  Pam got motioned out for the first jet ski and she managed to get up on it and one big wave hit her, she rode that one out, when the next wave came in the ski had turned sideways and over she went.  Oh, boy, it’s funny when it happens to someone else, but I’m going to be next.  Finally both she and the driver were onboard and headed out to the boat.  Another guy motioned me out and he got me on the back, gave it a little gas while he pulled himself up, which seemed to work a little better.  It was a pretty bumpy ride out to the boat, but having owned my own jet ski years ago, I always enjoy the ride.

When I got to the boat I realized that there were about 3 parties ahead of us still to parasail.  Ok, so we get a little boat tour along with our jet ski ride and parasailing excursion.  It turned out to be fun though because everyone on the boat was happy and fun, and we got to watch several people before our turn which made me a little more comfortable.  Unfortunately, our friends who were taking pictures from shore had no way of knowing when it was our turn so the pictures are of random people parasailing. 

Pam went first, I felt it was a good sign that she was still smiling when she came back onboard.  Finally it was my turn.  I’d been told by a friend years ago that parasailing is fun going up and coming down, but kind of boring when you’re up there.  That is pretty accurate.  It an interesting sensation going off of the boat – a little scary.  When you get up in the air, it’s interesting to look around at the surrounding islands and you can see a lot.  I felt sort of suspended in the air – like I wasn’t moving, but I could see the boat moving below.  Then they are reeling you in.  This is a little nerve racking because you can hear the harness creaking, it makes you think about what you’ve been hanging from for the last 10 minutes or so.  The 2 guys running this operation liked to give us a little dip into the water before bringing us all the way in.  There was a father with his teenage daughter who went a couple of people before us who lifted their feet and ended up going almost under the water.  This seemed to encourage our guys to dip us all a little more than they had been doing.  I definitely got wet – but it was fun and very refreshing.  Finally I was back on the boat and before long back on the jet ski heading back to shore.  My driver this time was a little better at threading his way through the waves so it wasn’t quite so bumpy most of the way in, but when we turned towards shore it got pretty rough again.  Getting off that jet ski was a challenge and I even hit the edge a bit with by behind as I got into the water.  I’m glad I finally parasailed, but don’t think it is something I need to do again.

We spent the rest of the afternoon playing in the water, drinking beer and relaxing.  There were quite a few vendors on the beach.  I did buy a blouse that I could use as a bathing suit cover up, but I have plenty of tote bags and island jewelry from previous trips.  There was a water trampoline a ways out.  Pam and I swam out to it.  My niece and great nephew soon joined us and she commented that she hoped no one came out to collect their $5 (or was it $10?).  What?  On the side of the trampoline in big letters there was a $ sign with either 5 or 10 after it so apparently at some time someone was charging for you to use this.  We hung out there for awhile, but it got a bit hot, and I basically rolled off back into the water and headed back to shore.  That was a pretty good swim with that rough water, but I LOVE the Caribbean water.  This was a great day – just what I want when I’m cruising theCaribbean.

Eventually we decided we should head back to the ship.  No problem getting a taxi (in fact, we had 2 drivers almost come to blows over us). 

We did not do any shopping, although the driver did stop so people could get off and go intoPhillipsburgand shop.  We opted to go back to the ship, rinse the sand off, and enjoy the ships amenities.

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Aren’t Travel Agents Extinct?


I’m asked a version of this question at every social or networking event when asked what I do.  People wonder how I compete with the Internet.  I consider myself much more than a travel agent – I’m more of a travel “concierge” or personal vacation planner for my clients.  Even though I really don’t consider the Internet as my competition, I do like to stay informed on what is happening in the industry overall. 

I was listening to the radio recently and I heard one of the large online travel agency’s commercials, and their tag line was “Where You Book Matters”.  I found myself surprised to agree with them for once!  Although for different reasons than they were stating.  They were touting their low hotel prices, but I wondered, what really matters to consumers these days?  Is it truly the lowest possible price, or is it value? 

I hear it in commercials all the time – “we have the lowest prices”, “if you don’t shop here, you’ll be sorry” and so forth.  Which tells me that consumers ARE looking for the lowest price on everything.  Times are tough and we need to save money wherever we can.  I’m the same way, but I’ve come to realize that, especially when times are tough, I need to get the best value for my money.  If you’re buying laundry detergent and one store has your brand for $2 less than another, you get the better value by purchasing at the store with the lower price (unless you have to spend $2 worth of gas to get there).  But if you’re purchasing a vacation is price really the only distinction that matters?

What DOES matter to you?  Is it price alone?  Value?  The experience?  By using a qualified travel agent who asks questions to find out exactly what does matter to you, you should have a better experience.  You will have an advocate for you in case there is a problem during your trip.  Your agent should be knowledgeable about the destination you are considering.  She should ask you the purpose of your vacation, what kind of experience you want, what sort of resorts you have stayed in previously, etc.  She should advise you about the differences in the resorts that you ask about, about the category of the room, about the amenities included in the price.  For instance, many hotels have Oceanview room categories, but that doesn’t mean the same thing at each hotel.  In one hotel an Oceanview is truly what it says – you can see the ocean from the window or balcony.  In others, Oceanview means you get a peek of the ocean if you lean over your balcony – if you want the full view you need to book the Deluxe Oceanview.  If an Oceanview is important to you, you want to make sure you book the right category. 

 

Is the resort planning a renovation during the time of your vacation?  Will the pool be closed?  The restaurant?  These are details your travel agent should know, but that online booking engine won’t tell you about.  And, in most cases you won’t pay more for a travel agent’s services for the same itinerary.  Imagine that – a better vacation experience, with personalized service, for the same price as the online agency offers!  Now that is truly valuable! 

Another thing I noticed recently was the cancellation policy of the travel agency division of a large local company.  I’m one of those that likes to read the fine print, and I saw that for hotel only bookings the deposit is $100 per person.  Very reasonable.  However, if you cancel anytime after 48 hours from making that deposit you lose the full $100 per person, even if the hotel’s policy says you can cancel up until the day of arrival.  I have no problem with a travel agency having a cancellation or change fee policy, because we get paid by commission and have spent some time with you and should be paid.  But, if you book online with them and then decide to cancel, do they really need $200 of your money just to process the cancellation?  There were other penalties as well and some other policies that would give me pause if I were booking with them, including charges for changes that were higher than I usually I felt they should be for a more or less do it yourself booking company. 

It DOES matter where you book your travel.  The next time you need to make travel plans what I ask you to think about is “What matters to YOU”?  Consider calling a travel professional and comparing what they can do for you to what you are finding yourself. 

Ask why you should work with them.  For example, I specialize in tropical destinations.  I have earned my Caribbean Destination Specialist certification from The Travel Institute.  I have taken courses from the tourist boards for many Caribbean Islands, as well as several cruise lines.  I’ve taken courses offered by several resorts to learn more in depth information about them.  I’m also a Hawaii and Mexico Destination Specialist and have studied several areas of Mexico in depth.  I have taken many webinars from the Hawaii Visitors Bureau to learn more about the islands.  I have visited about 12 Caribbean islands, some several times.  I’ve visited both Hawaii & Mexico several times, touring different areas.  This is just a short list of my qualifications – the kinds of continuing education I do to keep myself current and up to date so that I can make sure my clients have their Perfect Vacation in Paradise.  A good travel professional does the same no matter what their specialty is. 

Here’s to your next Vacation being Perfect for YOU no matter where your Paradise may be.

Jamaica again!


I was going through some of the stories I’ve written for my blog and realized that I never published this one.  It was a little series I did – I think this is the 4th (and last, for now) installment. 

About a year later I took another trip to Negril.  This time I went by myself.  I had some personal decisions to ponder and what better place than Negril, Jamaica?  I always feel so renewed when I’m there.  I felt comfortable visiting there by myself because I had a few friends there and I had met a couple of people on Jamaicans.com who would be there the same week.

Sienna & Solomon of Talk of the Town Tours were picking up some other people at the airport so I got a ride with them.  How wonderful to see my friends again after almost 2 years.  (If you ever go to Jamaica, please contact them for tours or airport transfers – they are the most wonderful people I’ve ever met on vacation!  Be sure to tell them that Beth in Seattle recommended them.) 

I started my stay at the West end of the beach at Travellers Beach Resort.  My first order of business was to go for a swim.  Then a nice cold Red Stripe and some food.  I had an early night – that red-eye flight always does me in but I prefer it to spending a whole day traveling. 

       

I spent a couple of days at Travellers.  This is a pretty good location if you want to be near town.  They have some very nice rooms – I was in one of the little cottages, but I wouldn’t recommend them – they were very tiny.  I spent my days walking the beach and meeting up with my new friends from Jamaicans.com.  Turns out one of the couples that I had been communicating with lived only about 5 miles from me.  They have turned into good friends. 

Later in the week I moved to Yellowbird.  This is a very budget property, but I really liked it.  They have regular hotel rooms with refrigerators; a bunk room with a shared bathroom; a kitchen that everyone can use if they want.  They also have 2 bedroom units in duplexes.  In these units you go in the front door and have a living room on one end, dining room at the other and a kitchen in the middle.  This big room is screened in with louvers and a couple of fans for cooling.  The furniture and appliances are pretty old, but I found it to be comfortable. 

           

There are 2 bedrooms, each with their own locking door.  Again, there are screens with louvers into the living area.  The bedrooms have 2 double beds, a small dresser, air conditioning and their own bathroom.  

The security was very good here and also there is a fence across about 2/3rds of the property between the beach and the property.  This way you can sun yourself on the sand among the palm trees without being bothered by the vendors on the beach.  The bar is nearby, as are the soothing waters of the Caribbean Sea! 

I really enjoyed traveling by myself.  I met a lot of wonderful people and everyone wants to take care of you when you are alone.  I got invited to dinner a lot.  

I hired a driver to take me out and about a couple of days.  Tommy was wonderful.  We went up to Benji’s at Roaring River one day.  It was so peaceful and beautiful.  We spent several hours there.  Unfortunately Benji had to leave shortly after we arrived – but he did have time to cook us our Ital lunch. 

                     

A couple of days later we went down to Treasure Beach.  I wanted to check out Jake’s for some clients who were interested in staying there.  What an incredibly beautiful and peaceful place!  If you really want peace and quiet this would be a great place to spend a week.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. 

              

I also toured several other small properties including the Grand Pineapple which was very cute.  What a fabulous bargain this is – as part of the Sandals family it is a bargain all-inclusive right in the center of Seven Mile Beach.   I also toured Coco la Palm and Legends.  I think there were a couple of others, but they don’t come to mind right now.

As always, this week went by much too quickly.  I love Jamaica and can’t wait to get back, but I know that I need to visit other Caribbean islands too.  So, my next trip, hopefully soon, will be to another of these beautiful islands.

Jamaica “haute” Cuisine


I just got my new issue of Caribbean Travel & Life yesterday.  I love this magazine, since the Caribbean is truly Paradise to me!  One of my favorite destinations is Jamaica – I love the people, the beauty of the island – mountains and beaches, and the food.  There is an article in the May issue of CT&L about how the Caribbean in general is working to be more of a draw for foodies.  The food is fabulous, but not attractive (their words, not mine). 

The article focused on Round Hill Hotel & Villas and how they are reconstructing some traditional dishes to make turn them into more “haute cuisine”.  I have to say, the traditional method of cooking is fine with me.  They also stress how local ingredients are used, for instance using conch rather than importing escargot from France; yams & yucca from local farmers (they sometimes even offer loans for equipment) instead of russet potatoes; and they also grow some of their own herbs, beans and tomatoes.

Although they are working on elevating “road food” to make it more pleasing to the eye, they compete annually with 15 hotels to create the best dishes using traditional methods – 2 coal pots and a “pan” (one end of a 55 gallon drum). 

For those of you who don’t receive the magazine you can go to their website and get a trial issue.  If you love the Caribbean and consider it Paradise, you will be hooked and waiting every month for the new issue.

Should You Take A Cruise??


Almost everyone I talk with who has taken a cruise has absolutely loved it! In fact, cruise vacations have the highest satisfaction rate of any type of vacation!  Once in awhile though, I come across someone who says “I guess we just aren’t cruise people.” Generally after asking them a few questions about why they feel that way, the reality is that they were on the wrong cruise for them. So, how do you know that YOU are on the RIGHT cruise?

  • Destination – there are literally hundreds of ports of call for cruise ships around the world. Most people think of the Caribbean, Alaska, Europe, Hawaii and the Mediterranean. Within these destinations there are probably 100 or more ports of call. There are cruises to Asia, Australia, South America and the South Pacific. What about River Cruises – in Europe, China, Russia and the US. Picking the right Itinerary with the right Ports of Call is very important.
  • Cruise Line – Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has 23 cruise lines as members. I know of several others, such as Cruise West, which offer wonderful experiences and itineraries even though they are not members of CLIA. Does the cruise line you choose really make a difference? If you crave quiet spaces where you can relax with your book and end up on a cruise line with non stop action all over the ship, or vice versa – the answer is YES, the line you choose can have a big impact on your vacation experience.
  • Ship – OK, you’ve found the destination you would like to visit, you’ve chosen the cruise line – does the ship really make any difference? In some cases you won’t have a choice – if you want to go to Aruba on Royal Caribbean there may only be one ship that goes there. But if you want to go to the Eastern Caribbean on Royal Caribbean, and you don’t really care which islands you visit, you may be able to choose between a ship that carries 1900 passengers and one that carries 3400. Or, you may only want to sail on small ships with around 500 passengers (or fewer). In this case you may choose your destination after researching which cruise lines offer smaller ships.  
  • Cabin Selection – you say your cabin selection doesn’t really matter because you won’t be in there that much? Well, you may not spend a lot of time in there, but while you’re waiting for your spouse to shower and dress for dinner would you rather be sitting on your bed in an inside cabin with no window or sitting on a lounge chair on your balcony sipping a glass of wine and watching the sunset?  Besides the decision of whether to get an Interior, Oceanview, Verandah or Suite – should you be in the front of the ship, the back, the middle?
  • Timing – the time of year you go can impact your enjoyment of the trip quite a lot as well. If you really want to go to Alaska, but hate the cold, you probably don’t want to go at the beginning of May. If your cruise is a once in a lifetime vacation and you have a specific Caribbean island you don’t want to miss, you don’t want to go during Hurricane season when your itinerary could be changed due to storm activity. Number of nights is important as well – as a first time cruiser a shorter cruise may be best to be sure you are “a cruise person”.

These are all important things to take into account when planning your cruise vacation. There are many more, such as what is the occasion for the cruise? Is it a family reunion with a large age range of passengers; your Honeymoon; a girlfriend getaway; an affinity club? Where is the ship sailing from? How much time do you have for your vacation? Do you want a themed cruise? Do you want a lot of cultural activities that tie into the destination?

These are all decisions that a qualified travel agent can help you make.

And now is a great time to book your cruise vacation!  There are lots of specials going on – lowered deposits, special amenities, special pricing and more.  This makes for a wonderful family or group vacation.  And the best thing is that there is no risk!  I know the economy is a little scary right now.  With a cruise vacation your deposit is fully refundable up until the time you make your final payment (usually 60 days prior to cruising).  You can protect yourself even more by taking out travel insurance – some policies cover you for job loss or allow you to cancel for any reason almost up until the day you sail!

Bon Voyage!

Whew – I passed – what a relief!


Sorry I’ve been absent for awhile.  I’ve been studying for my Caribbean Destination Specialist.  I took the test Thursday evening and passed with 98%!!

I was so worried.  There are over 400 pages of text to study and I’ve only been to about 11 of the destinations out of the 36 they cover.  I was part of a study group of travel agents in my local chapter of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.  We started studying about 8 months ago – meeting every 4 – 6 weeks to review the material.  I had missed a couple of group sessions when I was out of town and was concerned that I would not retain that information as well.

I re-read all of the study guides, took and re-took the quiz for each chapter.  This is a closed book test with a proctor to keep you from cheating.  When I took the test it seemed much easier than I had expected.  I am just so relieved.

During my studies I found even MORE places that I want to see before I die!  There are several islands that I really had no interest in before studying this, but learning more about their history and topography made me feel I needed to visit. 

One destination that I would love to visit soon, althouth technically in the Atlantic (it was covered in our text) is Bermuda.  At the top of my list of islands I haven’t been to is St. Lucia and Grenada  – who wouldn’t want to go to the Spice Island?  (ok, I’ll admit, I met several wonderful people from Grenada on my last cruise and they all encouraged me to visit).  Places I’ve been to and want to go back to are Dominica and Antigua.  I could go on, but I can only get to so many places in the next year or so. 

I’m also thinking that I need to get some groups together for yacht vacations around the Virgin Islands, and also the Grenadines.  That seems like the best way to be able to see as much of these beautiful places as possible.

I will get back to posting later.  I just wanted to check in and let you know where I’ve been.

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”    Gilbert K. Chesterton