Know Before You Go – International Version

Most people who take vacations perform some type of research in advance of the trip.  Few people are as spontaneous to just pack a suitcase, purchase a ticket and book a hotel room.  However, most people generally only research the hotel where they are interested in staying, which airline carrier has the best schedule and most economically priced ticket to get them to their destination, and how much the total trip will cost.  But, there are other factors that one should take into consideration before even purchasing a ticket or booking a flight and accommodations, especially if you are not one to watch the news, read the paper or listen to the radio for current events.  It is advisable to have a thorough understanding of the destination prior to making a final decision on where to vacation.

Part of one’s research should include obtaining information regarding the entry and exit requirements, culture, customs and laws of your desired destination, as well as any specific events that may take place during your visit.  Unearthing this information does not require a law degree or detective’s badge.  There are several resources that you can use to find out the basic information.  The US State Department posts travel advisories on their website that are updated frequently and provide security information on various foreign territories.  The website also provides information pertaining to health warnings and outbreaks in a particular international territory.  There is also an option to register your travel plans with the agency (DoS), so that they can provide assistance to you in event that adverse situation take place during your visit abroad.

Another resource that one can use to obtain country specific information on your desired destination is the country’s official tourism website.  Most websites contain information that provides information on the exit and entry requirements, currency (money), culture, customs and laws, in addition to providing information regarding accommodations, list of events and activities, and recommendations for places to dine.  As with any destination (foreign or domestic) it is highly recommended that you verify the information, especially regarding the accommodations, with at least two other sources.  Sometimes the hotel or restaurant descriptions may not accurately depict the true nature of the property or establishment.  The point of the tourism board is to get visitors to come the country.  Why most tourism board websites are typically spot on with regard to their descriptions, others blur the lines on overstating the facts.

Information on the internet is perhaps the easiest way to find out information; however, you can also obtain much-needed details on an international destination from a native of the country at a traveling expo.  During the year there are numerous traveling expos that feature performances, cooking demonstrations and informational booths highlighting various countries.  One such expo is the Travel and Adventure Expo (do an internet search for specific information).  This is an expo that is open to the public, for a nominal fee, and allows visitors to get up close and personal with the representatives from the participating tourism boards.  This is your opportunity to ask any and every question that your heart desires.  Keep in mind that the participants are representing their country and must paint the country in a positive light, so you will probably not hear anything bad about a particular destination.  However, if you are able to get the representative alone and ask them to shoot straight, most representatives will tell you where to avoid, what tourist traps to look out for, and how to save money while in country.  The wealth of information you can glean from the expo is priceless.

The last method that one can use to obtain background information on a particular country?  The library.  There are several books, guides and other resources available to get the information you need.  While you may not get the type of up-to-date information from various websites and at expos, you will be able to obtain information pertaining to customs and the culture of the country you wish to visit.  That information rarely changes.

Bottom line- researching your destination ahead of time is the best way to ensure that you will have a great vacation, filled with great memories!

Lime, Piton, and a birthday

Imagine climbing a fort where you can see all of the lushness that one caribbean island can hold.  Picture yourself on a high-speed boat destined for the island’s inactive volcano where you will be treated to a spa treatment from nature.  Close your eyes and listen to the sweet, sweet sounds of water trickling down from a hot spring as you behold all that was created by the hand of God.  What an amazing dream, this vision of paradise.  This heaven on earth.  Oh, if such a place really existed what would one give to actually spend a day there?  Well, such a place does exist and it only requires one to hop on a plan and journey to the very beautiful island of St. Lucia.

St. Lucia is a small caribbean treasure located an hour or so away from Barbados and Trinidad and only about 20 minutes from Martinique.  Most of the major US carriers offer transport to the island on a daily basis and fly into the island’s southernmost airport (UVF).  This airport is approximately an hour and one half away from the majority of the hotels in the northern part of the island.  There is another airport (SLU) which is closer to the northern destinations, right outside of Castries; however, it primarily caters to the local caribbean carriers (e.g. LIAT, Caribbean airlines, etc.).  One this to note is that the ride from the southern region to the northern region is not for the fant of heart.  In December of 2013 there was a really bad storm and it washed out several sections of the major roads leading to the northern hotels.  As such, what is typically a two lane road for most of the trip, bottlenecks to one lane.  Additionally, as you are traversing the mountainous trek, you will notice that there are no guardrails and you are looking straight down.  Yikes!!  Wish I would have know that before going.  I had flashbacks of traveling to the silver mines in Taxco, Mexico and boy was that ride a doozy also.

Thank God I survived the ride and made it to my temporary abode located in Rodney Bay.  Rodney Bay is a pretty central location which is home to the Dockyard, the Marina, a duty-free shopping center and several restaurants, bars and clubs.  The property that I selected is a quaint family owned hotel, located near the Rodney Bay Mall and the local grocery store.  They offered complimentary breakfast each morning, provided a $100 resort credit that could be used for food and beverages, and free internet access throughout the property.  Upon my arrival to the property I was offered a complimentary welcome cocktail; however, I was so car sick from the ride to the hotel, I declined.  Keep in mind that I have NEVER met a welcome cocktail that I did not like.  So for me to turn down a cocktail, you know I was not feeling well at all.  I was given the keys to my room and promptly guided to the room where I took a moment to refresh from the day’s travels.

One of my new friends from my Carnival adventure linked me up with her friend (Izzy) who happens to reside on the island.  From the time I departed the airport until the time I arrived at my hotel, I tried to reach Izzy, but was having problems contacting her.  However, I could contact my family and friends back home with no problem.  Go figure.  Anyway, Izzy finally got in touch with me and arranged to have one of her friends come pick me up and bring me to Dockyard where they were liming at a local bar.  The Heineken and Piton were flowing like water; however, I just indulged in water and a couple of berry blasts.  We spent several hours at the bar chatting with several of Izzy’s friends and just enjoying the night.  Shortly before 10p.m. we headed out to the Gros Islet Friday Night party.  Gros Islet was only a five minute drive from where we were located.

The Gros Islet Friday Night party can be best described as part block party, part lime, and part food festival.  You basically walk the street, patronize the various food venders and enjoy the music blaring over the huge speakers in the street.  Dancing as if no one is looking is optional.  But, of course that tends to happen as the drinks start to flow.  During our time at Gros Islet we grabbed a few drinks (still water and berry blast for me, although Izzy insisted that I try “the drink they serve their kids”- Shandy) and purchased grilled fish from one of the local food tents.  Apparently this was one of the more food vendors as it took approximately 30 minutes for us to get our orders.  We headed back to the car and then went on to the Marina to lime with a few of Izzy’s friends where we stayed for approximately and hour.

The following day I was awaken by the bright light filling my hotel room—  at 5:30a.m.  I was so amazed to see the sun up so early in the morning.  Of course along with the sun were all of the other creatures in nature.  Birds singing, flies flying and bees buzzing.  Since it was way too early to do anything I kindly closed the curtains and threw the covers back over my head.  Around 8:00 I received a call from Izzy stating that she going to complete a few errands and then come scoop me up for a trip to Castries in an hour or so for a traditional St. Lucian breakfast.  Yay!  I was finally going to have cocoa tea (after all, I did my homework and know that this was something that was oh so very St. Lucian).

True to her word Izzy came to pick me up within the hour and we took an hour long ride to the town of Castries- home of the famous spice market.  Any and every spice that you could ever think of was available in this market.  We found one of the local vendors and settled down for a breakfast that consisted of cocoa tea and saltfish stuffed in baked bread.  Well, at lease that is what I had.  Izzy is a meat eater so of course she had something similar, but with meat (at least that is what it looked like).  The rain started to fall shortly after our arrival and we finished up our breakfast and headed to the market that was inside of the hangar.  I took a few moments to browse around before we headed back outside.  Prior to leaving the area, I purchased a set of spices to bring home with me and Izzy purchased some local fruit for me to try.  Our day in Castries continued with a little more sightseeing in the local area, complete with a trip to a lookout area across the street from the governor’s home.  A few more stops to capture some photos and we were headed back to Rodney Bay where Izzy prepared to cover a pre-carnival event and I went back to the hotel to hang out.

Sunday morning started with me having breakfast in the hotel and sitting out on the patio outside of my room listening to music and enjoying the sun.  Some time around mid-morning I received a call from Izzy stating that they were coming to pick me up to go hike the fort.  The “they” would be Izzy, her son and one of best friends Simone.  Since we were hiking, I was a great thing that I actually remembered to pack my tennis shoes.  I changed clothing and awaited my pick up.  We ended up parking at Agnes’ bar on the beach where Izzy grabbed her Heineken, Simone grabbed a Piton and I had a berry blast (Izzy’s son had a capri sun).  We then walked over to the fort to begin the hike which was quite easy to say the least.  Sitting atop of the fort you could see for miles.  Just looking at the ocean below made me a bit sad that I would soon have to leave this island paradise.  We sat atop of the fort and just enjoyed each others company for approximately an hour before heading back to Agnes’ bar for the evening.

When we returned to the bar there was a dj playing everything from reggae to soca to hip hop to R&B.  We settled in a table and the beers really started flowing.  The liming was in fully swing.  The night was spent listening to the music, dancing, laughing and singing along.  I was especially enjoying the evening because it was the day before my birthday, so this was the pre-birthday celebration.  We ended the night by taking a dip into the ocean, enjoying the night sky and each others company.

The next day was of course the best day EVER- my birthday.  I started the day off by having my special gratitude moment for being able to see one more day.  Then I prepared for a very special outing, courtesy of Benny Tours (bennytours.com) and had breakfast at my hotel prior to meeting up with tour group at Sandals.  Simone picked me up at my hotel at 8:15a.m. and we made it to the departure site within 10 minutes where I waited for the boat to dock.  Once the boat arrived we headed for the town of Soufriere which was our primary destination to enjoy a mud bath in the inactive volcano.  After covering ourselves in the mud, we headed down to the hot springs for a final rinse off.  How totally relaxing could this possibly be?  Totally relaxing.  You are in the middle of all of the tropical greenery sitting in the warm waters, rinsing off the mud that you (or someone else) had just lathered all over your body.  I did not want to leave— at all.  This was too perfect.

After leaving the hot springs, we journeyed back to our awaiting boat where we stopped by one of the local beaches for some relaxation and snorkeling for about 30 minutes.  The final destination was lunch at Harmony Beach Restaurant/Bar (harmonyyachtservices.com/restaurant)  which overlooks the ocean.  This family owned restaurant laid out a feast for us which included rice, chicken, fish, plantains, salad and some local fruit punch.  The food was AWESOME and the setting was just the perfect way for me to celebrate my birthday.  The day was capped off by enjoying the sounds of some local creole music while cruising back up to Sandal as high speed.

I could go on and on with story after story about how much I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to St. Lucia, but it just would not do it justice.  This is one place that you have to visit to actually experience the beauty and splendor of the island.  Although I do not believe in endorsements, I highly recommend using Benny Tours to fulfill your island tour needs.  They are professional and quite entertaining and the trip will definitely be worth the money.  I also recommend dining at Harmony Beach Restaurant/Bar as the food is EXCELLENT.  I also recommend visiting Agnes’ bar on the beach area between the fort and Sandals resort.

Bottom line- St. Lucia is awesome and I look forward to my return visit in May 2015 God willing.

Turn Down for What

Well, today is the eve of the THE most awesome month of the year and I have decided to take a detour with the blog today.  Instead of offering valuable travel tips, sharing my plans for an upcoming trip, or offering suggestions for staying safe while traveling, I am dedicating today’s post to all of the wonderful people who celebrate their birthdays in July.  Cancers are some of the most innovative, intelligent, hard working and loyal people on the face of the earth.  So, it is with great pride and honor that I raise a glass (or two, or four, or heck a whole bottle) to my peeps.  Enjoy your special birthday greeting on the link  cancerian birthday wish