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Monday, September 29, 2014

A First Class Exit All the Way - Almost...Saying Goodbye to Jamaica

It's been a fun and very quick week here on the island of Irie but now it's time to go home.

Check out goes smoothly, much better than check-in a week ago, and...just as we really start to get the hang of getting Tim into and out of the car...we put him in for one last trip back to the Montego Bay airport.

One last tip to the bellman who helped us pack the car and off we go.

Checking in at Hertz, the attendant tried to tell me there's a new scratch underneath the front bumper. I don't see anything different than when I picked it up but he keeps insisting. I tell him I've got enough travel insurance to buy the car three times over so go ahead and bill me...I don't care.

Suddenly, he's saying "no worries, I wasn't going to tell the office anyway."

So why bring it up? Was this a little payola scam in the making?  Don't know but he's sweet as pie after that and drives us...well, Tim and Letty the departure terminal. I had to walk because with our luggage, him, my wife and son, there was no more room in the little Corolla.

Going home from the Caribbean for us in L.A. is quite daunting. Unless you're traveling from Puerto Rico, there are no direct flights. It took us 20 hours to get here and it will be about 12 or 13 to get back home with a 3 hour layover in Dallas. Plus, you can see from above that we're leaving just in time as the sky's have opened up and drenched the airport with a thunderstorm.

I'm not looking forward to another, long day of waiting at the gate and squeezing into economy seats for hours on end. I'm going to see what I can do to alleviate it.

First up, I've booked us into Club Mobay, the VIP airport lounge at Sanger International Airport in Montego Bay. Once you've checked in with your airline, all you need to do is find one of the many Club Mobay information hosts at the airport or find their information counter. Admission is $30 if you prebook via their website, $35 at the door.

You're then escorted through a special line in security and taken to the club, who's entrance is about 50 feet from the American Airlines gate we'll be departing from in about 5 hours.

Downstairs, there is very comfortable, living room style seating with free wifi, many TV's, a light buffet, bar, view of the runway, spa, showers, a sports room (with TV's, next to the bar), and soundproofed kids play rooms. 

It's heaven down here and, frankly, I'm half wanting not to leave but leave we must. 

Another good thing I did was when checking in with the American Airlines automated kiosk, I checked for upgrades. Upgrading the Dallas to LAX portion of our flight to first class was a measely $110. 

Not only did this get us out of economy for the second half of our travel day, now our two checked bags were free.  I also told the gate agent that the porters who put Tim on the plane coming to Jamaica complained that the airline put us way back in the plane, making their job much harder and to ask if we could be moved forward.

The gate agent moved us up to the second row of coach which also meant an upgrade to the premium economy with more legroom and make it easier to move around.

After some great food, drink, and relaxation at Club Mobay, we were summoned to our flight (the club staff keeps you informed via announcements and a departure monitor). It was an easy flight to Dallas, where we splurged on a nice, pizza lunch with microbrews at Pizza Vino in terminal D. 

Next to Pizza Vino is the American Express Centurion Lounge. We didn't take advantage of it this time but for $50...or free, if you have a higher level of Amex card...American Express cardholders and their families can have the airport lounge experience we had in Jamaica.

Well rested, fed, and feeling good from our beer, we boarded into the third row of our flight back to LAX, reclined, enjoyed the cocktail service, and caught up on some sleep.

It was a very nice way to return home from a far-flung destination.

At LAX, it was a quick bus ride to our parking lot. Got in the car, turned the key, and...nothing.

Dead battery at a quarter past midnight. 

Oh, well. It was almost a perfect, first-class day. Time to call AAA and call this vacation over.

Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2014 - Letty Musick
All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 26, 2014

Hungry? The Food of Jamaica

Previously...Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Before I get too deep in this post, I know that little of what follows would be considered true Jamaican cuisine. It's just a tour of the selections we had while on an "all-you-can-eat" vacation with no limits on when or where we could dine.

Starting off in the buffet, we could mingle with the proletariat in the main buffet or stick with those in our wing in the Palmyra buffet.  On arrival, that's what we did...go to the Palmyra for dinner.  The nicer, a la carte restaurants would come later.

Breakfast was at the main buffet, which had a vast array of selections with an equally vast number of guests with large appetites. Beware if you get get behind the Russian guests when they put out the bacon tray, they can clean it out in about 30 seconds. Never seen such mounds of pig flesh on one plate in person before.

Still, the eggs were good and occasionally they would put out an offal dish (kidneys, hearts, livers, etc) that Letty enjoyed on the side.  The breads and donuts were also pretty delicious but watch out for the corned beef hash.

Lunch usually meant the snack bar at the beach.  Another extensive buffet awaits here, steps from the sand.

While you can munch to your heart's delight on burgers, hot dogs, and other usual suspects, the main attraction here is the jerk bar where you could get the juiciest jerk chicken and pork, with your choice of three sauces to put on it. While the crawfish looked real good, they weren't so good upon opening. Still, a lot of great food here. Jerk and rice were outstanding.

Although we had unlimited a la carte dining, we were only to make it three nights during the week. These are the nice, sit down and waiter serviced restaurants as opposed to the buffet. Each has a theme like Italian, Japanese, etc.

First was Dolce Vita, a long walk down to the beach from our room nextdoor to the jerk bar. The food was great, such as the saltimboca I had, above, which was more like a good steak with sauce.

Letty and Tim were fine with their pasta dishes.

Next up was Picasso, which was just downstairs from our room. The lighting wasn't as good for pictures of our entrees and neither was the food. While serviceable, it wasn't as good as Dolce Vita but the desserts were outstanding, like this cream puff dish Tim ordered.

The highlight of the week, though, was the Don Pablo restaurant. It's the gourmet selection of the a la carte lineup. They were a bit late in opening, however, and Tim and I had to wait outside until the staff decided to open up.

Once there, all was forgiven. The food was outstanding.  The talk of the resort was the incredibly delicious Chateaubriand that was carved table side and served with your choice of Roquefort or peppercorn sauce. I ordered mine rare with the peppercorn sauce. I still dream about that dish. 

For dessert I got the bananas flambe, which is prepared with a flourish tableside.

I'm not really a dessert person but I ordered it mainly for the show. On the other hand, I've had bananas Foster before but they are only a dim comparison to the sweet, rummy sauce burned up to perfection to go with that unbelievable warm banana taste. This was another outstanding dessert from an island full of them.

So, as you can see, you needn't worry that we'd be going hungry in our time on the island. While there were a few less that great food options here, they were easily avoidable and we had a great time feasting on Jamaica.

Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2014-Letty Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 22, 2014

Getting Out of the Water to See Jamaica

Yes, it's a beautiful pool and beach here at the Luxury and Gran Bahia Principe hotels and we could easily spend the whole week here but we want to see what's on the other side of that big wall and guard gate.

On arrival, we picked up a Toyota Corolla from Hertz. If you've seen our video about traveling without a wheelchair accessible vehicle or power chair, you'll know that we've got a pretty good system about putting Tim in the car without the wheelchair.

Well, that works here in America very well but, since we're used to the passenger sitting on the right, it doesn't work so well for us when the passenger sits on the left as they do here in Jamaica.

Watch the Video!

It's definitely like putting a square peg in a round hole but, with some effort, we manage.

Driving in Jamaica isn't too bad but occasionally, you'll come across someone doing ten miles an hour (pulling over to let traffic pass does not seem to ever enter the local drivers' minds here) or some speed demon behind you will whip by in a pass, no matter that a big truck or bus is coming the other way.  Avoiding night driving and being on your toes, attention-wise, is the antedote.

We have three destinations today...the town of Ocho Rios, find a roadside jerk stand, and the Green Grotto cave.

First off, it's about a 10 mile drive from our hotel to Ocho Rios. Along the way, we pass Dunn's River Falls (which offer only accessible platforms for wheelchair to watch others full price, by the way). We did this 25 years ago and Tim won't be able to climb so we keep driving.

Then, it's past the Dolphin Encounter...also inaccessible...with many tour buses and vans parked along the side of the road. A Kiwanis Club sign welcomes us to Ocho Rios where we make a lap around the town to find a place to park.

On the way, we pass the "crafts center," which even the locals call the flea market. Letty and I have bad memories from that place where the vendors are very tenacious and literally hands on to get you to buy stuff. It makes the hagglers in Tijuana look like amatuers. 

The second time around, we pull into a lot that advertises aprking for $120 (Jamaican, about a buck twenty) for an hour. When I ask the attendant if they accept U.S. money, he gives me a slip.

"Have one of the shopkeepers stamp that for you and you'll get two hours free."

The shops are quiet on this hot and humid day. The highlight is picking up some premium rum, jerk sauce, and some mixers at the supermarket anchoring the plaza. Letty picks up a swim wrap and some Jamaican flag flip-flops at another shop and that's about the extent of it, except some hawkers from the nearby flea market exhorting us to accompany them over there.

Nothing earth-shattering about the shopping or selection of goods here, so we get back in the car and head out.

Checking out the map from and recommendations from locals, we were originally going to try Scotchie's, a jerk stand near Ocho Rios, but after some hardcore wrestling Tim into the car, we go to another jerk stand on the map, the Ultimate Jerk Center in Discovery Bay simply because it's across the street from the Green Grotto, meaning that we would only have to get Tim out of the car one more time instead of twice.

A bar full of local taxi, truck, and bus drivers welcomes us as a server shows us to a table. It's open-air and we can occasionally hear the whine of a nearby windmill that's powering the place. In the restroom, the electric hand dryers only work when those blades are spinning.

We order some sodas and plates of jerk chicken and pork. My wife pronounces them delicious and authentic but they seem a bit dry to me.  Authentic or not, I think the beachside jerk bar back at the hotel makes a better meal.

A five minute cloudburst livens things up as we watch the staff scramble to hang curtains to keep the water out of the dining area.

Whatever we think about the food, it's fun to hang out with real locals for awhile instead of our fellow tourists back at the hotel.

After the meal, we walk across the street to the Grotto.  Several online resources noted that they had installed a wheelchair accessible trail into the cave.

The management at the Grotto informs me otherwise.  No accessible trail exists and, no, you cannot walk up to the entrance to take a picture without paying for admission.

My wife presses them on this by simply walking up to the entrance and a few minutes of negotiation with the management gets us an ok to go and take pictures. The lady at the ticket office even volunteers to man the camera to take the picture of the three of us, above.

We end up with a drive through the countryside, including a minute of watching the local fire brigade battle a roadside brush fire, some mediocre shopping in Ocho Rios, a fun meal at the Ultimate Jerk Center, before being disappointed that the one attraction we thought would be accessible turned out to be off-limits.

Still, it's an enjoyable day out and a change of pace from the all day eat-and-drinkathon at the hotel's pool and beach.

Copyright 2014-Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 19, 2014

Changing from Travel Mode to Vacation Mode in Jamaica

We left off in part 1 with challenges on getting the room we paid for on arrival at the Luxury Bahia Principe (LBP) in Runaway Bay, Jamaica. With that behind us, it's time for vacation...

Watch the Video!

25 years ago, my wife and I spent a week at Eden II not far from the spot we're at now. It was $1100 for each of us, all inclusive. This week is costing us $1300 each, not a bad rate of inflation over a quarter century.  Of course, back then much more was included in our all-inclusive experience: a tour to Dunn's River Falls, transportation into Ocho Rios for shopping, sailing, golfing...all which must have met the budget ax over time.

Here at the LBP, we still get all we can eat and drink...including a la carte dining at the resort's themed restaurants every day(the other side of the hotel just gets a couple of nights of a la carte during their stay)...a hour of water sports equipment checkout each day, entertainment, butler service (which we never used), and a few separate facilities (you can check out a more extensive list in part 1).

Dinner last night was at Dolce Vita, an Italian restaurant about a half mile walk from our room. It was good.  I had the saltimboca, which was more of a very good steak, and Tim and Letty had pasta dishes.

A common complaint here is that they keep the temperature too high inside the restaurants. For us coming from the north, it may feel warm but I think it's probably pretty comfortable for the locals that work here.

We're starting off by doing mornings at the pool and moving to the beach in the afternoon.  LBP has three pools that look like one, big, quarter mile long pool.  

Next to our building, the east end of the pool is reserved for the LBP guests and red-shirted security guards are there to enforce that.  Have a pink armband and you're OK. Any other color will get you deported to what we took to calling the riff raff pool.

Our special section also included our own bar with a slightly better selection of liquors and a better bartender but we could also float under the bridge into the riff raff pool and sidle up to the swim up bar. 

That was nice but I got tired of having to explain to the bartenders there how to make each drink I was ordering.  After a couple of days, we pretty much gave up on the swim up bar. Especially after a server on the other side named Kayann adopted us and brought us a tray of drinks every time we showed up to the pool without even asking.

Yes, for all the complaints I have about the front office staff, the front line staff were outstanding.

We take Tim to a wading platform on the riff raff side and gingerly...and not entirely successful...try to ease him into an inner tube.  We got it after much slipping and sliding.  Then, it was just a couple of hours lounging in the clear water with occasional cruises over to the Island of Happiness...our name for the swim up bar.

After a while, we made it to the end of the pool closest to our room and noticed that the pool got gradually shallower and shallower.  Hey, this is a giant ramp into the pool!  After that, getting Tim into the pool and his inner tube was just a matter of wheeling him in as far as his manual chair would go, popping the tube over his legs, standing him up, and letting go.

It made things much, much easier.

After the morning swim, we head over to the beach which is quite a hike away. Probably close to a mile from our room.

Again, the accessibility here is very good. Although quite a walk, it's a very smooth route for the wheelchair, including the hard-packed sand path that the utility vehicles used to service the bars along the beach. It makes for a good, accessible route to the beach for the chair.

The LBP has it's own private section so we set up a base station under a palapa and some trees.  A server keeps our glasses full of rum punch and we go for cooling laps in the warm water of the bay.

It's shallow and clear but I still can't get Tim to go in the water, especially after I show him a video of some stingrays that I took.

The hotel offers free loans of snorkeling equipment (again, quite a walk away from where we are sitting) but there's a $50 cash deposit required that you lose if you don't bring it back in an hour. I didn't know about the deposit and didn't bring $50 with me to the beach so I just bought a cheap pair of goggles from the gift shop and charged to the room.

The water was clear, maybe not quite as clear as when we went to Puerto Vallarta (Conchas Chinas beach) or Maui, but still the clearest we've yet seen in the Caribbean.

Along with the rays, we see an array of tropical fish on coral encrusted rocks and sea urchins. It's quite a sight.

We did adjust our schedule as the week went on to go to the beach in the mornings and migrating to the pool in the afternoons so we'd be as close to our room as possible at the end of the day when we've tired ourselves out.

The Jerk Bar was next to our beach so after a morning of swimming with the rays and the other guests, we regain our strength with heaping plates of Jamaica's national dish. 

It was incredibly delicious.

Hanging out at the beach and pool while drinking the day away was not the only adventures we had on the island. Stay tuned for part three where we strike out beyond the hotel's gate to see what mischief we can find.

Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Photos Copyright 2014 - Letty Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 15, 2014

Trying to Get to Jamaica is Trying

Twenty five years ago, my beautiful wife and I traveled to the island of Jamaica. Tim, being all of two years old at the time, stayed behind with my parents.

Watch the Video!

We went to Eden II, and all-inclusive that was eventually bought out by the Sandals chain. The particular property is today part of the Jewel family of resorts.

Back then, all-inclusive not only meant all the food and drink you could absorb but also tours, golf outings, and more. The entertainment offerings were endless (see our picture of Toga Party night, above. That's Letty and me on the right) and "no tipping" meant that the staff would actually refuse your offer of a gratuity.

It was a wonderful trip.

A quarter century later, we're returning. This time, Tim is now a Caribbean veteran but making his first landing on Jamaican soil.

While years ago, we could take a nonstop six and a half hour flight from LAX to Montego Bay, today it's a five hour layover in Miami before a hour and a half jump to the island (I was offered a 30 minute layover, which might have worked, but it's not prudent to actually plan for such a short change over) on American Airlines.

Arriving at Sangster International Airport, it's nice to see that the airport has installed jetways. It makes getting Tim off the plane and into his wheelchair easier.  A porter is assigned to take us through immigration.  Tim and Letty are allowed to bypass the line (one person can go with the wheechair) while I had to stand in the half-hour long line and face a very dour immigration examiner.  Don't really know what this achieves since we already have to wait for everybody on the plane to disembark before us...everybody else already has an advantage over us because of that.

Finally, clearing immigration we're ready to go!  Until we see the line for customs. Fortunately, this one moves faster and we're off to claim our rental car from Hertz.

There are wheelchair accessible taxis you can book ahead of time but there is a significant extra charge for an accessible taxi over a regular one.  It's also more expensive to hire one for an accessible tour over regular tour operators. In the end for us, it's about the same amount to rent a car. We do this so we can make our own tour and not be at the mercy of anyone else for transportation.

Here are two wheelchair accessible taxi and tour operators for you:

Ken's Wheelchair Service and Tours

Jamaica Exquisite Tours

It takes us just under an hour to arrive at our hotel, the Luxury Bahia Principe at Runaway Bay (LBP). The LBP is an annex to the Gran Bahia Principe that offers extra amenities such as butler service, unlimited a la carte dining, separate beach and pool facilities, private wifi lounge, and separate bar and buffet dining facilities to mention a few.

By the time we arrive, it's been about 20 hours since we left our home in California. We're tired, a bit cranky, and in need of showers and rest.  I just want a key to our room and to lay down.

That wouldn't be the LBP way, however. We paid for the Don Pablo experience (as they call it), by gosh, they're going to make sure we get it whether we want it or not. 

We're told to wait in the lobby for an escort. Twenty minutes later, the same guy says he can't find one so he escorts us to the exclusive LBP welcome center. There, we wait until there are five parties waiting to check in.

Champagne is handed out and a smartly fitted out representative shows us a package that we will get in our room. A printout of all our amenities and a map of the property will be given to us. Then she proceeds to read each one at a time, and explain each one. 

Really, I just want to go to the room. I can't even get my brain to sort out anything she's saying. Finally, she's done.  Now it's time to go to the room?

No...go into the adjacent lounge, have a cocktail, and someone will be along to escort you to your room shortly.

About ten minutes later, finally, a bell woman shows up with our luggage and takes us up to our room, only she takes us to a lesser wing with sub-par views. 

"This isn't the room we booked."

"It's all we have, we're all booked up."

"It's the nadir of the low season, it doesn't look to be that crowded. Surely, something else is available."

"You can request to be moved back downstairs."

When we get in the room, I tell her to just sit the bags down. I am not going to unpack until we get this straightened out.

Going back downstairs, I log onto the hotel's website while we're waiting to talk to somebody. I put in a request for 4 rooms (the maximum) for tonight to see what would happen. They have plenty of space available.

I bring this up to the rep, she says I'm wrong.  She shifts us to the reservations manager, who also says the same thing. My wife gets a little perturbed and says she feels like we're getting the run around. The manager assures us that she is doing her best to make us happy.

"It sure doesn't feel like it," comes the curt reply from my normally quiet spouse.

"Come back tomorrow morning at 10:30 to 11:00 and we'll see if we can find a better room for you."

Back upstairs, we find that in addition to the view, the shower drain is loose (creating an injury hazard), the shower door won't close (flooding the room when you took a shower), and the balcony door wouldn't lock, In addition, they outfitted the room for two guests instead of three (two towels, two washcloths, etc.).


One of the perks is unlimited dining at the themed a la carte restaurants. These are sit down, waiter served dining experiences as opposed to the buffet. You have to adhere to a dress code and many guests consider this a highlight of the trip.

"As a courtesy, we have made reservations for you for each night," we were told at check in.

They did, but not at times that were good for us so we went down at 8:00 the next morning, as instructed, to make changes that would suit us better. 

Those changes were made with no problems, then the woman said "you're the family that wants to be moved, correct?"

We affirmed that we were. "We have a room for you that is much better with the view you're looking for."  

Great! When can we move in?

"Change into your swimwear, bring your luggage down here, enjoy the day at the pool, and come back at 3:00."

Well, wasn't really planning to spend the whole day at the pool but we'll comply and see what happens.

At 3:20, we return. Damp, a bit sunburned, sweaty, and in serious need of a shower.

"The room is not ready yet."

"You said 3:00."

"Please...sit in the lounge, have a drink and we'll be with you shortly."

So three transient-looking people saunter over to the lounge among the newly arrived to wait for the next step. 

At 4:00, I wander back over and stand in front of the rep's desk. After a few minutes of pretending I'm not there, she asks if I'm waiting for her.

"I've been very patiently waiting for our new room all day. I think it's time something happened."

Without another word...not one...she picks up the phone, dials and asks "is 603 ready yet?"

When she hangs up, she says we'll be shown up to our room now.  

Finally, we're taken up to our new room, with a beautiful view of the pool and beach.  We unpack, shower, and get ready for our first dinner at the Italian a la carte restaurant.  It's been a long, trying 36-or-so hours since we left our house and gotten the room we paid for.

Stay tuned to see how the rest of the trip will shape up.

Copyright 2014 - All Rights Reserved
Darryl Musick

Photos Copyright 2014 - All Rights Reserved
Letty Musick