A Travellerspoint blog

March 2015

Rodney Bay - Vieux Fort - London - Bristol

It's goodbye to sunshine, Caribbean warmth, traffic free roads and nightly cocktails


View St Lucia 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Our flight doesn't leave until 20:30 this evening, so we have some decisions to make this morning. We can either stay in the hotel until late afternoon and take advantage of the free lunch (or rather pre-paid; there is no such thing as a free lunch); or we can take the long way round to the airport doing some sightseeing on the way. We decide on the latter. I get easily restless and bored, and we have to check out of the hotel by 11:00, so we can't really go anywhere too far in the morning; and having a sunbed for the day is out of the question unless you get up at 05:00 and secure it with a towel.

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We check out of the hotel soon after breakfast and make our way along the west coast rather than taking the main road across the island. There are some beautiful vistas of the rugged coastline along the way.

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Just outside Anse la Raye, we stop at a woodcarving place where we have a lovely long chat with the owner of the workshop – he explains how a university education from England is the most coveted here in St Lucia, way above any others, including the US. Canada is the second best he reckons. Who are we to argue.

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We choose a smallish but somewhat unusual piece for our collection - partly because of the price of the work, partly because we are running out of space for the masks on the walls at home.

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Cape Moule a Chique

From this small peninsula in the far south of the island – with an awesome road leading up the steep hillside – the view is pretty spectacular in every direction.

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Maria Island, a wildlife reserve only accessible by boat and a steep scramble to get ashore.

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Vieux Fort Town - parts of which were the most unsavoury areas we have come across on all our travels criss-crossing St Lucia.

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Hewannorra International Airport

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Vieux Fort Lighthouse is said to be the highest lighthouse in the Caribbean and the second highest in the world at 730ft above sea level. Built in 1912, the lighthouse is no longer in operation.

Naturally we kept an eye out for birds while on the peninsula.

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Grey Kingbird

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American Kestrel

Having driven through the somewhat grotty town of Vieux Fort, we were keen to find somewhere else to stop for lunch. We spot this resort hotel from the top of the hill and decide to head for that for a nice, long, leisurely lunch.

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When we get there, we find that it is an All-Inclusive resort, and the restaurant is not open to non-residents. Time for Plan B. Not sure what Plan B is, so we drive along the coast until we find a cute little rustic beach shack which is also a kite-surfing school. It's a cool, popular, laid back place, set amongst mature trees right on the beach.

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We order a lunch of fish fillet baguettes and the most enormous “basket of fries” I have ever seen – enough for at least six people. I can't even finish the fish sandwich, let alone the fries.

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We stay a while, just chilling with a cool drink, watching the kite surfers out on the bay, the birds in the trees and the dog in the shade, then walk along the beach taking photos. Life is good.

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Carib Grackle

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Antillean Crested Hummingbird

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Tropical Mockingbird

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Makoté Mangrove

With still some time to kill before the flight, we head further along the coast to some mangroves we noticed on the map. This really is off the beaten track, if you can call it a track. Once again we are grateful for the four-wheel drive.

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The mangroves may be remote, but they certainly aren't unspoilt. Judging by the amount of rubbish strewn around and I would say this is a popular BBQ place for local youngsters at the weekend. The beach is not a sunbathing place for sure, with huge amounts of sea weed washed up on the sand.

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I have mentioned several times before how incredibly chilled the St Lucians are. The handover ceremony for the hire car proves just how laid back they are: leave the car in the airport car park, unlocked, with the paperwork and key under the mat.

And there ends another holiday. St Lucia was not how I expected it – good and bad – but thoroughly enjoyable all the same. The All-Inclusive concept and the hotel was way better than I feared, the bird watching a little disappointing, although we did notch up 31 different species in the end, 10 of which were new to us. Would we go again? No. Not because we didn't like it, but because there isn't enough here to warrant a second visit. Would we recommend it? Most definitely!

Posted by Grete Howard 04:33 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Mamiku Gardens

Flowers, birds, butterflies, lizards. And chocolate ice cream.

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Mamiku Gardens

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After finding Millet Reserve closed yesterday, I was concerned about whether Mamiku would be open or not today, but thankfully it is. We are today's first visitors and the guy in the entrance booth comments on the size of my lens. When he hears I am interested in bird watching, he points out the endemic St Lucia Warbler in a tree right inside gate. One more ticked off the list.

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The gardens are nicely laid out on a hillside with well defined paths and a self-guide to all the trees, bushes and herbs from a pamphlet which ties up numbers on the plants with explanations and facts in the leaflet.

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One of the gardeners proudly approaches us to show off their hummingbird nest – hummingbirds are not exactly big birds, and their babies are so unbelievably tiny!

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I am seriously impressed by perfectly formed nest and the amount of accurate and detailed work that has gone in to create it. Clever little things those tiny hummers.

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Mum is hanging around keeping a close eye on her babies.

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On the veranda of the little restaurant, we share a snack with a bullfinch. I had no idea birds enjoyed chocolate ice cream too!

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The lizard is less impressed with the offerings.

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More birds flit around the tables and trees surrounding the café, with special mention to the Red Eyed Vireo which is a new one to us, making the ninth new bird for our “Life List” on this trip. Not a massive amount but still quite exciting.

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Red Eyed Vireo

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Carib Grackle

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Lesser Antillean Bullfinch (female)

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lesser Antillean Bullfinch (male)

We wander up and down the shaded paths which meander around the grounds, admiring the orchids, bougainvillea and other pretty flowers.

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Later we come across a group of mixed nationality cruise tourists. One guest looks at my camera equipment – I am rather laden with not only the 100-400mm on my EOS5DIII around my neck, but also the EOS6D with a Tokina 18-28mm – and quips “You could have traded all that in and got an iPhone, you know.” I grab my mobile from my pocket and hold it up, replying: “like this you mean?” We all chuckle.

We come across a pile of stones representing “Grandpa's House” according to a sign nearby. The house belonged to Henry Shingleton Smith (affectionately known as Grandpa) and was supposedly built in the 1700s. Henry spent most of his life farming this land, mostly coconuts. Henry died in 1948 from pneumonia/malaria, and his son Michael (the current owner of the estate) continued to live in the house until 1952. The last paragraph on the sign amuses me: “Since then, the house has been left relatively uninhabited” Hmm, really?

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I could easily spend all day wandering around the grounds, sitting on one of the many benches dotted around the gardens or in the café with a cool drink watching the birds, but we have a relatively long drive right across the island to get back for our last night in St Lucia.

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:41 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Grand Bois Forest

A drive in the country

semi-overcast 30 °C
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Millet Bird Sanctuary
There are many nature trails in St Lucia, and there is one I particularly want to see due to its high concentration - and ease of spotting – endemic and other birds found on the island: The Millet Trail.

As I have said before, road signs are almost non-existent and maps do not show enough detail; but again we have a pretty good idea about where to find the trail. The road is not too bad (for this country anyway), and when we see signs for Millet School we know we must be getting close. In fact, we find the trail without too much trouble, only a couple of wrong turns this time.

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We also find that the trail is closed. A group of local youths hanging around near the junction offer to show us the (unofficial) trail. We decline as the main reason for coming here is the birds (the kids have no birding knowledge) and the feeding station for said birds – which are inside the fenced off area.

Oh well. We decide to drive into the surrounding forest area instead. Play it by ear and see what we can find.

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Grand Bois Forest

The road becomes more interesting the further into the forest we drive. We meet a timber truck soon after turning off the main road, but no other traffic. There is just us.

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At one stage half the road has been washed away in a landslide, but in typical laid back St Lucian style, there are no warning signs, no safety rails and we just drive by as far away from the crumbling edge as we can possibly make it.

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The road is flanked by some awesome ferns the size of trees, and although it is a fabulous drive; there isn't much to photograph.

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Then I see a movement from the corner of my eye. I beg David to stop the car and to my amazement there is actually small area to pull over just along the road. I get out and start walking. The movement I saw is a hummingbird (Purple Throated Carib) and he is still around.

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Standing still, he seems to perform for me – flitting here and there, from branch to branch, all around me, sticking his tongue out, looking around, landing on a branch straight above my head, then heading for a heliconia to suck its nectar. And then he is gone.

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Can you see his tongue?

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The whole show lasts for about twenty minutes and is absolutely breathtaking. Totally wild, in an area rarely frequented by people, let alone tourists. Awesome!

Banana Plantations

The growing of bananas is big business in St Lucia, and all over the island you see these large fields with blue plastic bags used to keep pests away from the fruit. Much of the production is organic and large signs boasting “Proud to supply Sainsbury's with Fair Trade Bananas” can be seen along the road side.

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We arrive back at the hotel just in time for a (very) late lunch which becomes even later because the restaurant is so busy. Today must be changeover day for tourists, as we see many more people dressed in travel clothes than we normally do, and even a simple dish of a salad takes over an hour to arrive. The pregnant waitress – who looks like she is way too young to be expecting a baby – is very embarrassed about the delay and keeps apologising.

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We spend what is left of the afternoon chilling before the Manager's Cocktail Party this evening. Every week the hotel arranges an evening for the guests to meet the staff – who are very sociable, mingling and chatting with the customers to ensure everyone is having a good time and enjoying their stay.

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The cocktail party is also a platform for local artists and vendors to come and display their wares. I am interested in a carved mask to add to my collection, but find the ones here to be more tourist tack than local art. I will wait.

Posted by Grete Howard 11:08 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Soufriére

Caribbean's only drive-in volcano

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View St Lucia 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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And today for something completely different. Renting a car is one of the best things we did here in St Lucia – not only has it given us the freedom to do what we want when we want it; it has also saved us tons of money. Take the trip today to Soufriére for instance, if we were to take this as an excursion from the hotel, it would cost us $120 each! For the two of us, that is not far short of the cost of the hire car for the week.

Anse la Raye

Heading down the coast, we pass through small fishing villages where life goes on as it has done for decades - long before the all-inclusive tourists or cruise day-visitors arrived. Clapper-board houses line the narrow streets, fish and fruit markets spill out on the narrow pavements, and people sit on their porch watching life go by.

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We stop a few times along the way at view points overlooking particularly scenic stretches of coastline, or as here, one of the fishing villages which line the shore.

Canaries

Canaries is also known locally as 'Kanawe' and means Amerindian cooking. The small town was founded in the 18th century by the French and until the late 1960s, was only accessible by boat.

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At each of these view points, stalls selling souvenirs have sprung up, often with self appointed “guides” who will tell you a little bit about what you are seeing, in the hope that you will feel obliged to buy something. The highlight of this stop, however, is not so much the view or the tat for sale, but overhearing a St Lucian trying to explain cricket to a bunch of Germans. I'm afraid most of it fell on deaf ears.

Pitons

Although they appear to be standing side by side, the 750m high peaks are in fact on either side of the bay, with three miles separating them. In 1997, the Pitons National Park was declared a UNESCO Heritage site and they are the symbol of St Lucia, appearing on many local goods such as the very pleasant beer by the same name.

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Soufriére

The town of Soufriére got its name from the sulphur mining in the 19th century and is now a quaint village with a sleepy feel.

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The village is a favourite destination for themed boat trips carrying tourists on day trips from their hotels.

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Sulphur Springs Park

The springs were formerly an active volcano which last erupted in 1780, although the last major seismic activity was some 40,000 years ago. Are we due for another any time soon?

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The crater dome of the volcano has collapsed, forming a huge caldera and hotter than boiling sulphur (at 170 °C) still billows from cracks in the walls, and bubbling muds fills murky pools.

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Drive-in Volcano
It is billed as “the Caribbean's only drive-in volcano” - does that mean there are other drive-in volcanoes elsewhere in the world? Until I came here, I really wondered how that worked in reality – I had seen photos of the volcano from Google Earth, but that didn't make me any wiser.

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In reality, after paying your entrance fee, you drive up and park along the side of the road next to the active area. Like most tourist sites in St Lucia, there are no formal arrangements, and everything is very laid back. You do, however, get a guide. Up until a few years ago, you were able to walk in amongst the cracks in the rocks and bubbling pools, but after a fatal accident, the whole area has now been made much more secure and an elevated wooden walkway takes you safely along the sides of the bubbling mud pools, naturally hot waterfalls and fissures with steaming sulphur.

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When thinking of a “volcano”, the first thing that springs to my mind is a cone shaped mountain with a caldera at the top that you can look into after climbing its steep and slippery scree walls. Here the whole area is a caldera, and it is open on one side towards the ocean, so it doesn't look like my traditional image of a volcano.

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Anse Chastanet

Having read about this place on a birding forum, I ams keen to head out to the hotel of the same name for lunch. The narrow, winding, potholed, forest track leading here is an experience in itself, no wonder most tourists arrive here by water taxi!

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The restaurant is set right on the beach and the food is superb. We opt for the dish of the day which is pan seared mahi on a bed of pineapple couscous with a beurre blanc. Easily the best fish lunch on the whole trip!

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As I'd hoped, we have a few birds to entertain us, including the endemic Lesser Antillean Pewee, and two of the three hummingbirds found on the island:

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Green Throated Carib

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Bananaquit

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Zenaida Dove

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Lesser Antillean Pewee

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Antillean Crested Hummingbird

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Grassland Yellow Finch

Castries

St Lucia's capital city has around 70,000 inhabitants. Most of the city’s historic buildings were destroyed by major fires between 1785 and 1948, but there are still some ramshackle backstreet areas where life appears not to have changed in over a hundred years. On our way back to Rodney Bay, we stop on a hill overlooking the town to get a good view.

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We have noticed a huge difference in the atmosphere of the town when there is a cruise ship in port, as well as the number of people of course. The more I see the huge cruise ships, the more I am put off by that kind of holiday; but each to their own. Today the town is quiet.

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While enjoying a little pre-dinner drink on the balcony, I overlook the window of some French guests who also do not know that net curtains become see-through after dark when there are lights on inside. I am beginning to feel like a voyeur!

Posted by Grete Howard 04:11 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Martinique

There's a reason why the boat is called "Wave Rider"

semi-overcast 29 °C
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An early start this morning for a day trip to the neighbouring island of Martinique. Despite the marina being just around the corner from our hotel, we are one of the last to board. We manage to find a seat at the front of the catamaran, fairly protected from the wind and the spray – the latter of which doesn't become evident until we leave the sheltered area around the marina.

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You know it is going to be a rough crossing when you overhear the captain say: “oh huh, it's a bit choppy out there”.

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This day trip is obviously billed to appeal to those people who are staying in all-inclusive resorts, who don't want to miss out on their cocktails, and as soon as we get on board a young girl comes around with rum punches, and a light breakfast is available inside. Nice friendly crew, although at times it leaves me with a “hi-dee-hi” feeling of being a holiday camp with enforced jollity. Fortunately it is not overdone and once we're on the open seas we can't hear anything over the loudspeakers anyway.

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On the way out of the marina we get a good view of Pigeon Island, and the fort at the top of the hill.

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We are followed for a while by a couple of beautiful Red Bill Tropicbirds with their long, elegant tails.

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A school of flying fish perform near the boat, using their wing-like fins to glide over the water for a considerable distance. The average “flight” of a flying fish is around 50 metres and they are able to stay out of the water for up to 40 seconds. Quite impressive!

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One by one passengers make their way inside as they get drenched by the spray coming over the front and side each time the catamaran slams down into the swells. The video below just shows a very light dusting, as I really don't want to damage another lens – salt water and cameras don't mix well.

Apart from the odd Brown Booby hanging above the boat, there really isn't much to see until we get near to Martinique.

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As we approach land, Fort-de-France (Martinique's capital and our destination) looks very much larger and more commercialised then any town in St Lucia.

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===Martinique===
Martinique is an overseas region of France, and an integral part of the French Republic as well as being a member of the European Union. They speak French and the currency is the Euro. Damn! If I'd known I was going to be visiting the Eurozone, I would have brought some Euros with me as I do have a few stashed away at home. Not that I am really thinking of buying anything.

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Our first stop on arrival in Martinique, is the cruise terminal Duty Free shopping area. Here people rush off to get their cheap cigarettes, alcohol and perfume; while we don't even bother to look at what they are offering for sale apart from picking up a couple of post cards. No stamps available though, but the lady explains to me where the post office is in town. Or at least I think that's what she is telling me; my French is almost non-existent.

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One of the conditions of being able to buy goods without paying excise duty on them, is that you return immediately to you ship. So once everyone is back on board (a few did get somewhat carried away in the store and didn't quite make the allocated return time) we travel the very short distance from here to the main dock, which is conveniently situated right in the middle of the town.

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As part of the day trip, a guided tour of the town has been arranged, starting with the “craft market”, which turns out to be a warehouse on the docks themselves, packed full of souvenir stalls, through which we are herded like cattle. So far our time on Martinique has been exactly how I have always feared cruise ship visits would be, and I am not impressed! We walk from the waterfront area up the side streets through the town. The whole area is tatty, run down and totally devoid of charm.

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Our second stop on the walking tour is the St Louis Cathedral, a late 19th-century Romanesque Revival church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The original cathedral was built in 1657, but it, and the subsequent five cathedrals built on this site, has been destroyed by various natural disasters that have plagued Martinique over the years. The current structure dates back to 1895 and was built with an iron frame in order to withstand these calamities – but of course is now totally rusty!. Hence it is currently covered in scaffolding. The church's main claim to fame is that it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, and as far as I can see, its only redeeming feature.

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In fact, I get more excited about the reflection of the church in the modern glass building behind it.

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The tour is led by one of the crew from the boat, and although she is very sweet, she lacks enthusiasm and knowledge about her subject, reading the information from a small notebook. We decide to opt out of the rest of the trip - which includes the library and another shopping stop at the spice market - to go in search of the Post Office and a pair of swimming shorts for David instead.

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We find the post office. Closed. We ask in a couple of small souvenir shops if they sell stamps. They don't, and they cannot understand why the post office is shut. Great! We have more luck with David's swimming shorts, and fortunately he can pay by credit card so doesn't need to change any money into Euros.

Unfortunately the fort by the entrance to the wharf is also closed, so we rather dejectedly return to the boat where a BBQ lunch is being served. And guess what? They've run out of chips! The burger is nice though.

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Fort St Louis

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We are joined by a shirt-less pot bellied Scotsman who is around 4ft 6in tall with facial hair in places where no human should have facial hair. Like his appearance, he has a clown-like personality, and I am not sure whether it is a good or a bad thing that I can't understand most of what he says.

From Fort-de-France we make our way along the coast, and the biggest excitement of the day so far is seeing a Marine sea-rescue exercise. A man is lowered from a helicopter into the water and picked up by others in a rubber dinghy – like something out of a James Bond movie.

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At the black sandy bay of Anse Noire, we have free time to swim, snorkel, sunbathe or just chill.

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The snorkelling is extremely well organised, with everyone provided with an inflatable buoyancy aid (great idea!) which not only helps those swimmers who are less than confident in deep water (such as David), but it also helps the crew to keep track of where everyone is. Not only do they have a lead snorkeller at the front, one of the crew members goes out in a kayak to keep an eye on everyone – I am very impressed with this set up and their attention to health and safety.

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Rocher du Diamant

During the Napoleonic wars, the British built fortifications on the top of this "island" and hoisted two 18-pounder cannons to the summit! Looking at the sides of the rock, this seems like a physical impossibility! 120 men were stationed here, with caves on the Rock serving as sleeping quarters for the men; the officers used tents. For two years the rock was the stronghold of the British before being captured by the French. It has now been handed over to the local birds.

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The 175m high basalt island - Diamond Rock - gets its name from the reflections that its sides cast at certain hours of the day, which evoke images of a precious stone. In reality, the glistening white material is guano – bird poop!

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On the way over, people were fighting to get the front seats on the outside deck of the boat. For the return crossing, there is only four of us out there. Such wimps! There are an awful lot of green faces during the crossing, and a few hasty visits to the facilities. OK, so it is pretty rough, and we do get absolutely soaked to the skin, but it is a lot of fun!

Trying to get some pictures of the Brown Boobies hanging on the thermals above the boat is challenging to say the least! Not only the usual complications of trying to photograph flying birds; attempting to hold the camera steady with a long lens attached when I am bobbing up and down on the ocean, is more miss than hit.

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Having recently read this story about photographer Dawn Kish who ended up looking rather battered and bruised after encountering rough waters, I am a trying very hard to be careful not to hit myself in the face with the camera in the process.

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I finally manage to get a few decent shots of the Boobies.

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We return to the hotel tired and windblown, and although we both enjoyed our day trip to Martinique, I can't say it was good value at $200 per person. I did, however, come back with more than I bargained for: a sunburn! I obviously did not take into account the reflection of the sun on the water. Plenty of moisturiser and the red will turn to brown in a couple of days.

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When David orders a cocktail called “Kiss Sex Goodbye”, I realise it isn't going to be my night. Our favourite waitress, Cathy, teases him about it relentlessly.

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I am not sure whether she is showing off her exhibitionist side, or if she has just lost her common sense, but one of the single girls in the hotel goes back to her room which is on the ground floor right next to the restaurant. From where I (and numerous others) am sitting, I get a perfect view when she changes her clothes as she hasn't bothered to draw the curtains. No pictures of that, sorry.

Cathy (the waitress) confirms that the Jerk Chicken is spicy and she is somewhat taken back when I tell her to ask the chef for extra chilli. When she brings the dish out, she jokes about getting me a large jug of water.

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The chicken, like everything else we have eaten at this hotel, is lovely, but even with the extra chilli I would say it is still only a 5-6 on the Grete Scale of Spiciness.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:07 Archived in Martinique Comments (0)

Cotton Bay and Union Nature Trail / Mini Zoo

Getting lost is half the fun


View St Lucia 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

It always takes a while to get used to “Island Time” where there is no rush, people are perpetually laid-back and time-keeping is an alien concept. One of the German guests in the hotel really has not adapted to this mentality yet, as she tries to storm the breakfast gates when the restaurant does not open at 07:30 as advertised. The otherwise friendly staff are not amused by her thunderous face (really not a pretty look), and they still carry on regardless, taking no notice of her. Take a chill-pill woman!

After a half-hour “fitness massage” (which in reality is nothing more than a hard rub and does little to alleviate David's continuing bad back), we grab our gear and head for the hills. The higher we climb, the worse the road becomes. I have seen smoother dried-up riverbeds. Thank goodness for the four-wheel drive and great tyres!

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Travelling at slower-than-walking pace has its advantages as we spot a few birds along the way:

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Common Ground Dove

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Cattle Egret

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Mangrove Cuckoo

Cotton Bay

Beginning to think that we are somewhat geographically misplaced, we are happy when we finally come across some road construction workers toiling away in the tropical heat. “Which way to Cotton Bay”? They put us right. Just around the corner is a nice, smooth road, which in fact would have taken us directly to the bay without the need for the last hour-and-a-half of off-roading; but I bet it wouldn't have been as much fun!

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Cotton Bay is a small crescent shaped bay which is a haven for horse riders and kite surfers, with the occasional jet-skiier thrown in for a little excitement. The riders look like they are having a lot of fun, riding bare-backed and bikini-clad into the ocean.

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Lots of trees shade the beach, with some perfectly placed branches for chilling.

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There is even some eye-candy for us women too.

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Overhead, brown boobies circle, occasionally dipping in the water to pick up some lunch. After strolling the length of the bay, we decide we too are in need of some refreshments, and a rustic beach café provides just the place. We are joined by a friendly and inquisitive Lesser Antillean Bullfinch which flits between the tables, chairs and serving counter.

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Having quenched my thirst, I head around the corner to check out a wooded area for some more birds. A beach salesman approaches me eagerly, and seems somewhat surprised when I explain my quest. “You looking for birds”? he says, puzzled, then “there's one”. I look in the direction of his pointing finger and see a grackle on a branch high above me – a bird which is found on every street and in every garden on the island, much as sparrows are back home. “There's another” the salesman volunteers, pointing to a fast flitting black shape between the trees. Hoping I'd be eternally grateful and repay his generous birding tips by buying some tacky souvenir from his stall, he continues to point out grackles to me for the next ten minutes. His sales ploy isn't working and we decide to head off for some more exploring.

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Turning off the main road, we find ourselves driving past some amazingly luxurious villas. The road, however, leads to a dead end. And the next road. And one more.

Although distances are not great - St Lucia is only about 28 miles long and 14 miles wide – driving times are usually much longer than they would be if covering the same distance at home. There is basically only one main road on the island, plus a number of tracks in various degrees of good, bad and bloody awful state. We soon find ourselves in the middle of nowhere (red arrow on map below), having come from Cotton Bay (blue arrow) and wanting to get to Rodney Bay on the north west coast. After five of the roads end in nothing, we eventually approach a woman waiting at a bus stop on a five way road junction: "which direction to Rodney Bay"? We know approximately where we are from the name of the school, but as we are on the highest point of the ridge, and all roads lead downhill from here, it is hard to judge which way to go to get back to the hotel.

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We make it back in time for lunch, which seems to take forever to arrive. The fish burger is worth waiting for though, this is none of your 'regurgitated, reshaped, covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried' stuff, what I get is a plain, steamed fish fillet on a toasted bap, smothered in fresh salsa.

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The lunchtime menu is somewhat limited in the blu Hotel, and does not change the whole week we are there. It is more than adequate, however, and having tried every single item listed, I can confirm it is all good!

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After a short rest we head for Union Nature Trail and Mini Zoo. We have been unable to find a decent street map of the island and road signs are almost non-existent, but we have a general idea of where the Nature Trail is located from the Forestry Commission website. We find Union village (as identified from the name of a school. Again.) so realise we must be in the correct general area. The website suggests the trail is just off the main road, with a large visitor's building. It certainly isn’t obvious. When it becomes clear that we have driven way too far, we try to turn the car around – not easy on these single track roads – and venture down a few of the little side roads off the main drag. When we find they all take us to a residential area, we finally give in and ask a young chap on the side of the road if he can direct us to the Union Nature Trail. He looks at me blankly, but when I mention Mini-Zoo, his eyes light up in recognition. “Down that way, turn right, then left and left again” he tells us, pointing right. Not sure whether his verbal directions or pointing hands are correct, I look at him quizzically. “Left, left” he repeats, this time pointing in the correct direction. OK, so that is settled then.

The car park for the trail has half a dozen cars in it, so we are confident we have come to the right place. We wander in through the open gate towards the Visitors Centre and ticket booth. Locked. No-one about. We shout out. No-one home. We try the doors upstairs. Nothing. The toilet doors are open however, so at least we can use the facilities.

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We decide to walk around the zoo anyway expecting the person in charge to just come over to us when they arrive back so that we can purchase our entrance ticket. The zoo really is “mini”, and consists of half a dozen aviary style cages, although the first thing we see is a wild merlin sitting on a tree stump.

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The cages contain animals such as the St Lucia Iguana, terrapins, agouti and the indigenous St Lucia Parrot, but it is very hard to photograph any of them as the netting is very fine and you can't get close to the cages.

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The whole thing is very sad and depressing (although the animals appear well fed and in good condition), and I am not sorry when no-one turns up and we can just leave. We never do find the hiking trail, so we give up and go back to the hotel for a cocktail (or five) instead.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:58 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Pigeon Island

The first day in Paradise is not going too well

semi-overcast 30 °C
View St Lucia 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I think I have finally caught up with my sleep, as I slept really well – and long – last night. David, unfortunately, woke up with a really bad back this morning. Not a good start to the trip. We try to book a massage for later, but the masseuse is not in today.

At breakfast I am dying to approach the lady from last night to see how her night out went, but I don't want to admit I was eavesdropping on her conversation. She doesn't look like 'the cat who got the cream', so maybe the evening wasn't as successful as all that after all.

Time to head out to explore the island; but first, I want to take some photos of the hotel and the view from the elevated walkway outside our door.

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I pick up my camera, point it in the right direction, and freeze in shock as my lens is obviously not attached properly and immediately crashes to the hard, tiled floor. I can only watch in horror. I pick the lens up and try to re-attach it to the camera body, but have no joy. The mounting plate has been damaged by the fall, and the lens no longer fits! Bugger. If the holiday didn't start well with David's bad back, it certainly doesn't seem to be getting any better.

I take the injured equipment back inside and check out my other lenses. I have a 16-28mm lens which will do for any wide angles I want to shoot, and the 100-400mm for birds and other distance shots. I don't, however, have anything covering the main, everyday shooting range, between 28mm wide angle and 100mm telephoto. This could be a challenge.... Oh well, I will just have to work with what I've got.

Pigeon Island

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We head for Pigeon Island, a short drive northwards. Pigeon Island is a National landmark, full of civil, military and maritime history and is run by St Lucia National Trust. It once was an island – hence the name – but during the early 1970s a broad causeway was constructed, linking the island to the mainland. The island started life as a hang-out of pirates (although no sign whatsoever of Johnny Depp there unfortunately), and later became a military stronghold for the French, English and Americans at different times. During the late 1900s, the island was used for quarantine and grazing land for animals; and later as a whaling station. Now it is a much-visited national landmark with hiking trails, beaches, ruined historical buildings and a very rustic restaurant.

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One of our reasons for choosing St Lucia as a destination, was to see and photograph tropical birds. Pigeon Island is quite a good place for this, and as we make our way along the coastal path, we spot a few local species:

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American Kestrel

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Grey Kingbird

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Zenaida Dove

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Shiny Cowbird

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Brown Booby

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Tropical Mockingbird

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Bananaquit

Jambe de Bois Restaurant
Bird watching is hot work, and we stop for a milk shake in the quaint restaurant, named after a pirate called Francois Leclerc, better known in the region as “Jambe de Bois” because of his wooden leg. The restaurant was opened in 1947 by an Englishwoman called Mrs Josset Agnes Huskinson, who ten years prior had signed a lease with the Government for the use of Pigeon Island. Josset, a vivacious and unforgettable character, was an actress with the D'Oyle Carte Opera Company, and had a worldwide reputation for her charm and hospitality. Often she would entertain over a hundred guests here with frequent visitors from neighbouring Martinique. The restaurant is built using driftwood and other bits of wood from various ships.

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Snuba
From the restaurant overlook tourists partaking in the sport of “snuba” - basically a form of scuba diving, but instead of carrying a tank on your back, the tube from your mask is attached to a tank which floats on the surface of the water. The theory is that you walk off the beach and just carry on walking, under water, being able to breathe through the tubes. I like the idea of it, but as someone who is unable to sink, if I carried on walking I would just float to the surface. It looked fun though.

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Josset's House
This is all that remains of the private house of Josset Huskinson after it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1980. Despite relinquishing her lease, Josset retained an acre of land on the southern secluded part of Pigeon Island, where she was allowed to live out her days. She returned to England in 1976, aged 89, after a forty year romance with her tropical paradise. She died just a year later.

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Lime Kilns
During one of the British occupations of Pigeon Island in the 1800s (the British and French fought fiercely over St Lucia, and captured and recaptured St Lucia seven times each), a number of lime kilns were built. Lime was used as a binding agent for all masonry work and was made from coral and shells which were piled up and set on fire. The subsequent powder and ash was mixed with water, egg and straw to form a binding agent.

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Soldiers' Barracks
The Peace of Brede recognised French Sovereignty in St Lucia in 1667, but the colonial struggle between Britain and France continued well into the 1800s, although fighting was interrupted by short term treaties and peace settlements. These barracks were built to hold 60 men when the French fortified Pigeon Island in 1763, but were damaged by hurricanes in 1817 and again in 1824.

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We really enjoyed Pigeon Island, finding it peaceful, tranquil and delightful. Not so the group of middle aged Americans we were following back to the exit apparently: “I f****g hate this place”. “They should f****g rename it Hell Island”. “You would have to have a f****g death wish to want to come here”. When she started to talk about the toilets and how wet her “f****g ass felt” I was glad they went one way (to the bar) while we returned to our car.

Rodney Bay

On the way back to the hotel, we stop in the small town of Rodney Bay for a quick stroll among the tourist shops and bars. We have no sooner stepped out of the car, when we are approached by a smartly dressed young man who claims to be hungry and complains he doesn't have any money to buy food. The more we say “no” to his begging, the more aggressive he becomes. We eventually manage to shake him off, but it doesn't take long for another one to replace him. “Hi, I recognise you from your hotel” he starts off. Yeah, right... my scamming radar pricks up, but I initially give him the benefit of the doubt. However, when after a bit of chit chat he continues “I shall see you later, but first I need to take my boys for a game of cricket but I can't afford to buy a new ball, could you...?” At that point I just walk off with a dismissive wave as I hate being taken for a fool.

These two individuals leave a bad taste in my mouth, so we cut the walk short, just calling in the bottle store on the way back to the car to pick up some ciders. Unfortunately they are not locally made – in fact they are produced in Denmark – but David doesn't seem to mind.

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After BBQ dinner we stay for a while listening to the steel band before going to bed. Another day over, hopefully tomorrow will be better in terms of David's back and no more accidents.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:23 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

London Gatwick - Rodney Bay, St Lucia

We're here!

semi-overcast 27 °C
View St Lucia 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I didn't sleep at all well last night, but feel some better after a full English breakfast. As I said yesterday, the airport is literally a one minute walk from our hotel, although once inside, we have to take the little train from the North Terminal to the South, which is where our flight departs from. There is no queue for the bag drop, and when our gate is announced we board the flight immediately. Much better than being kept in a holding pen for 20 minutes. Every time I have to squeeze myself into one of the tiny seats in the economy cabin of an aircraft, I say “never again, I am tired of travelling cattle class”. Of course, I soon forget the discomfort when I start researching the next trip and see the difference in price for the larger, more comfortable seats. What's nine hours of discomfort out of a week anyway? The seat may be one inch shorter than my legs and two inches narrower than my hips; but the friendliness of the crew makes up for it. Always smiling, always genial, and nothing is too much trouble. When they come round with tea and coffee after the meal, David asks: “Do you have any hot chocolate”? “No, but I can make you one. Just give me five minutes”.

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Despite being trapped in the seat like a sardine in a can, I still manage around four hours 'sleep'. I even miss the take-off. Again.

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Castries from the air

At St Lucia Hewanorra International Airport, there is quite a long walk from the plane – initially across the tarmac, then along the outside of the terminal building. The lengthy queue for the immigration soon disappears and in no time we have the luggage and we are ushered through the customs area with a dismissive wave. Outside is the usual hustle and bustle of Arrivals, and we eventually spot the young lady holding up a sign saying: DAVID HOWARD.

The formalities for the hire car seem to take longer than getting through immigration and customs, but it is probably because I am eager to get on the way. The 4WD Suzuki is small, but adequate and goes well. The roads from the airport to our hotel take us right across the country from the south-east to the north-west. In better condition that I expected, the road is reasonably smooth, but very hilly and winding. Welcome to St Lucia!

After a couple of hours we pull up at the hotel and as I walk towards the entrance, a uniformed chap with a clipboard and a friendly smile asks tentatively: “Mrs Howard?” After exchanging greetings and welcoming us to the blu St Lucia Hotel, he goes on to enquire: “Can I get you a rum punch Mrs Howard”? It seems they know me already. I like this place.

The room is very pleasant, quite spacious and has a lovely balcony overlooking the restaurant, with the pool behind. Perfect for those sundowners.

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After a couple of relaxing rum punches on the balcony and a very refreshing shower, we go down for dinner. As I said before we left home, I was very concerned about the hotel, and in particular, the other guests. I need not have worried – this is a different world to the last all-inclusive resort we stayed in back in 2009 in Dominican Republic! The restaurant has an a la carte menu rather than the dreaded buffet; the guests are quiet and sedate, no raucous bars, no loud muzak, and smoking is not allowed anywhere within the hotel grounds. Phew. So far so good.

In the bar I overhear a conversation between a middle-aged woman who appears to be travelling on her own and some other guests. Apparently she met "a really nice man" on the beach this afternoon who she is meeting up with later on for him to take her 'somewhere nice'. Sounds very interesting. After a lovely fish dinner (battered grey snapper in ginger sauce), chosen from a limited but more than adequate menu and served by extremely friendly waiting staff, we retire to bed. It's been a long day.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:31 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (1)

Bristol - Gatwick

We're on our way!

semi-overcast 8 °C

As we have an early morning flight, we thought we'd travel up to Gatwick the night before and stay overnight in a hotel close to the airport, and you certainly can't get much closer than Premier Inn at the North Terminal – it is literally across the road from the terminal entrance, within the airport itself.

David drops me off at the front door and goes off to park the car in the long term car park – the hotel itself may be cheap (especially considering its position), but their car parking charges sure ain't! Trying to negotiate two main bags, my camera bag and a hand bag; I am somewhat confused in the hotel “lobby”, as there does not appear to be a reception desk there. Nor any other desk. In fact, there is no furniture whatsoever. I can't be the only one who has been a little flummoxed by this, as a uniformed “meeter-and-greeter” is directing everyone to the lifts to reach the check-in area two floors up. OK

I use the expression “check in area” rather than “reception”, as this place is very modern and high tech and doesn't in fact have a “reception” in the traditional sense, just a row of self service check in machines like are now often found in airports.

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You enter your surname and the computer brings up all your other details. It is quick and painless and spews out a couple of room card keys. I leave one with the attendant for when David arrives back, and head for the lift to take the luggage to the room.

Our room number is 324, so I press the 3 button in the lift. As there is only me in the lift, I don't have too much trouble wheeling both the bags out when the lift stops. I look for the familiar signs pointing which direction room number 324 is, but again this hotel has managed to confuse me – all the room numbers start with 7. It appears the lift completely missed the third floor and went straight to number seven. Oh well, maybe I didn't press the right button.

I wait for another lift to come, so that I can go back down to the correct floor. Despite there being three lifts, it seems to take ages, with a couple of lifts going straight past the floor on their way down from a higher elevation. Oh well, maybe I didn't press the button hard enough. I press it again, and eventually a lift does turn up. I get in and make sure I press the 3 button. It doesn't stop at the third floor, however, it goes straight down to the ground floor again. This time I know for sure that I did not make a mistake! I am not too keen on lifts at the best of times – not only do I suffer from claustrophobia, I was also sexually assaulted in a lift as a teenager – so this isn't exactly building up my confidence.

Finally. The lift and I are both on the third floor. After dumping the bags and ringing David to tell him where to collect the key from when he arrives, I go down to book a table at the restaurant for tonight's dinner. I press 0. The lift goes up to floor 6. A couple of other guests get in and they press 0. The lift goes straight to the correct floor. This is getting personal.

On the way back up again I get in a lift with a woman in a wheelchair and her carer. I am relieved when a staff member presses the buttons for us: floors number 3 and 6, as this time we surely will get to the correct floors. No such luck. The lift decides it wants to go to floor -2, despite there not being anyone on that floor awaiting the lift.
Eventually I get to my right floor, via levels 9 and 6. Thank goodness we are leaving this psycho lift behind!

At dinner we chat with Antony, the Venezuelan waiter, about travel in general and the political situation in his home country in particular. I order a starter after dinner instead of a dessert – a lovely baked Camembert served with sweet onion marmalade and a couple of cute little mini-baguettes.

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Our table overlooks the short term car park at the terminal, so we can watch the cars driving down and down the spiral exit. Oh, the excitement of a world traveller!

Posted by Grete Howard 07:20 Archived in England Comments (0)

Finally time for another trip

Caribbean bound

overcast

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I think this trip can best be described as a consolation prize, after not being able to go to Eritrea as planned in February because the visa didn't turn up in time. (Incidentally, the visa still hasn't arrived, some four months after applying. We were obviously not meant to go to Eritrea.) We haven't had a “proper” holiday since September last year, and the next one is not until June, so we were both getting itchy feet.

We wanted something relatively easy, something that didn't require too much planning. Somewhere that has a reasonable selection of birds which can be seen fairly easily independently. The Caribbean appealed to us both and we looked into going back to Tobago; but as our favourite hotel was fully booked all though March, we decided that we wanted to travel somewhere we had not been before instead. Hence we are now off to St Lucia on an all-inclusive holiday.

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Some of you may remember our week in the Dominican Republic in 2009, “affectionately” dubbed the Chav Safari. I said then I would never again do an all-inclusive resort holiday to the Caribbean.

Until now.

It is the same old story with St Lucia as it was with the Dominican Republic – the price for All Inclusive was too tempting. We are getting the flight, hotel and all food and drink for less than the cost of buying the flight alone. It's a no-brainer.

Wish us luck.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:14 Archived in England Comments (4)

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