Friday, September 29, 2017

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...


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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.

Darryl
Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Photos Copyright 2014 - Letty Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

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.

Darryl
Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

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

Monday, September 25, 2017

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.


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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.

Darryl
Copyright 2014 - All Rights Reserved
Darryl Musick

Photos Copyright 2014 - All Rights Reserved
Letty Musick

Sunday, September 24, 2017

THE COCKTAIL HOUR: Jamaican Swimup Drinking Tour

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia
Marius Kallhardt under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

It's another sampling of Caribbean all-access, all-you-can-drink, all inclusive drinks, this time from the pools of the Luxury Bahia Principe and the Gran Bahia Principe in Runaway Bay, Jamaica.


Clearance Wine sale from $4.99 Shop Now


The entire resort boast nine bars, two of which are the swimup variety. In our end of the pool, there's also a poolside bar reserved for the guests of the Luxury Bahia side of things with waiter service to bring your cocktails to the pool.


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Since drinks are included in your room rate, you just ask and it shall be given up to you. Some guests take this to another extreme, since it's also unlimited, by bringing giant mugs...like you'd find in the Big Gulp section of your 7/11...and fill them to the brim with their favorite cocktail.

There's a certain logic to this since the drinks are served in fairly small glasses, making frequent trips to the bar a necessity. Other guests, like us, got around this by just ordering two drinks at once or asking for the large size so we wouldn't be interrupting our pool time so often.

The resort would also have a "drink of the day," a special tropical concoction that every bartender could whip up in an instant.  We had Jamican Sunrises, Summer Winds, Bob Marleys, Green Islands, and more. Just ask for the drink of the day and you'd be set.

In the video above, you can follow along as we sample some of these alcoholic delights plus Rum Runners, Mai Tais, Dacquiris, and what the bartender referred to as "don't worry about it, you'll like it." This became the No Worries.

Cheers!

Darryl

Friday, September 22, 2017

ROUTE 66 - Desert Photo and Video Essay


Watch the Video!


Our recent tour of the American Southwest ended over a fall weekend in Laughlin, Nevada. Coming home, we didn't want to deal with the Las Vegas traffic so we detoured along Route 66 through the desert and the community of Amboy, home of the Amboy Crater.  



Here are some pictures of that journey (be sure to check out the video too, at the top of this post)...



Coming into Needles, California with the Colorado River in the distance.


Another view of the river with jet skiers having some fun.


You don't need anything fancy to have fun at the river. Just pull over and jump in.


Along the Route in Needles, I'm guessing an old hotel or boarding house.



The Amboy Crater, a near perfect cinder cone from an ancient volcano.


A close up of some of the lava field surrounding the crater.


Another view of the crater.


...and one more view of the lava spreading across the desert.


Darryl
Copyright 2011 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

TRAVEL TIP: Making Sure You Get Your Money's Worth Out of Your "Budget" Hotel


A few years ago, my mom asked me to arrange a trip to New York for her (note: I am not a travel agent, I was just doing a favor for my mom...please don't ask me to book a trip for you).

"I want a cheap hotel," was the request she gave me.

I told her that "cheap" in New York...especially Manhattan...would be well north of $100 per night if she wanted her own bathroom.  She let me know that would be too much and to find something cheaper.

*sigh...*

An extensive search throughout the island of Manhattan revealed little. The best I could find was the Hotel Penn on sale at $109 per night.  Too much, find something cheaper came the command.

After much bickering and back-and-forth, I found a Howard Johnson's in East Orange, New Jersey for $49 per night (after a senior discount because $52 was too much).

The first night there, "How could you put me in this neighborhood? This is awful!"

She checked out and found better, more expensive, hotel that was more to her liking.

The problem here is that my mom was concerned about one thing, and one thing only - the price.  The money you spend on a hotel is one thing but you need to take in the whole picture to make sure you're getting the best value for your lodging.

What was wrong for my mom? The hotel was in a bad neighborhood and she didn't feel safe. It was cheap, but not a bargain by any stretch of the imagination.

So don't go on price alone to see if your hotel is a bargain.  Here are some things to consider...

As in my mom's case, check to see if the hotel you're interested in is in a good area. If you don't know what the good and bad areas are ahead of time, check review sites such as Tripadvisor.com and Yelp.com to help you out.


Are the rooms nice and big enough for you? The hotel website or travel sites like Expedia.com and Hotels.com can help you here. Pay attention to the description. Do you sleep on a king size bed at home? My wife and I do and a full size or double bed is just not going to cut it for us, we need at least a queen size to feel comfortable on.  Are you traveling with kids? Check to make sure there will be enough bedding for them too.  Many rooms now include sofabeds that can come in handy for kids to sleep on as well.


Will there be food included? A lot of hotels will throw a few snacks on the table in the lobby and call it breakfast...usually a "continental" breakfast. Some will include a full breakfast with cooked eggs, meat, fruit, breads, and more. In Bakersfield, I can pay $60 a night for a small room with little to no amenities at the Motel 6 or I can pay $80 a night for a suite at Springhill Suites that includes a full breakfast, among other goodies...which one is the better bargain?

Are there affordable restaurants in the area? Within walking distance? A check on Yelp.com will show you a map of the area, the restaurants nearby (with price points), and reviews.


Do you want to swim? It's pretty easy to find a pool in the United States, other countries might be a bit more of a challenge but think twice...is the weather going to be nice enough to pay a premium for it? Is it an indoor pool that might be filled with noisy kids, echoing off of the walls? Can you get a nice hotel without a pool for less? (Also note that in the U.S., at least, it is mandatory now for hotels and motels to have pool lifts for those with mobility issues)

Another consideration is how noisy a hotel is. This may be hard to ascertain before you get there but review sites can help out here. Also, pay attention to the description...exterior hallways are usually noisier than interior halls. A hotel I stayed at recently boasted about its hardwood floors which, we found out, amplified and echoed noise...carpet eats a lot of sound.

Beware of hotels that also "boost" the room to more than it is. A junior suite is usually just a room. We stayed in one that the only thing that made it a suite was a small, 3 foot tall wall between the bed and couch.' We've even had rooms listed as suites where it is just a room. Maybe a bit larger than normal, but just a room. Look for 'two room suites' in the description.

Lastly, look for extras included in the room that will make it cheaper or easier to go on vacation. A kitchenette with a stove and refrigerator will allow you to cook some of your meals, saving money on restaurants. A hair dryer means you can leave yours home...ditto with an ironing board and iron. Is parking included? Is there a resort fee? If so, what does it cover? One of the Holy Grails of hotel amenities is a washer and dryer in your room.

Hotel loyalty programs can come in handy, too, if you find a chain that you tend to stay in more than others. Hilton, a chain we're currently accumulating with, throws in a ever-expanding list of perks as you accumulate points like free premium wifi, free room upgrades, late checkout, free bottled water and snacks, extra points and free nights with extended stays as you work your way up the latter. 

Check with the hotel you're staying at and see about getting a loyalty account. They're free and can add up over time.

These are just a few things to consider when deciding what a bargain is in a hotel. Would a $60 room at the local Super 8 or TraveLodge be as good as paying $80 - 90 for a room that has some or all of the amenities listed above?

Keep that in mind when booking your next room.

-Darryl
Copyright 2012 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 18, 2017

LAUGHLIN, NEVADA - Part 2


We've been spending a couple of days in Laughlin, Nevada on the Colorado River next to Bullhead City, Arizona. See Part 1 of this report here.



The morning dawns bright here in Laughlin. Our room faces west, so we don’t get the sunrise there plus the heavy duty black out curtains make is seem like midnight until I crack them open a bit to see the sunshine.

Watch the Video!


The family crew slowly rises to meet the day. It’s breakfast at the Riverview Café, pretty much the best food we’ll find this weekend, and then off to the riverfront behind the hotel.



The USS Riverside offers narrated 90 minute cruises several times a day. We’re catching the 10:30 cruise, the first one offered. It’s ramped and wheelchair accessible, though only the interior cabin can be reached with a chair. Large windows there offer good views and the restrooms on board are not accessible…go before you go.



The cruise itself is a relaxing voyage about a mile north of the hotel to Davis Dam, which holds back Lake Mojave on the other side. Near the dam, we see a wheelchair accessible fishing platform jutting into the river on the Arizona side.



After the dam, the cruise goes south of Laughlin to the end of casino row before doubling back to the Riverside Hotel.


We take a drive over the bridge to Bullhead City to do a little shopping and to get some cheap gas. Today, it’s about 50 cents a gallon cheaper on the Arizona side than in Nevada and even more than that compared to California stations down in Needles.


Upon return, we’re up in our room, changing into our swim suits. Our big event this weekend is the Vince Gill concert that will be taking place in the resort’s temporary amphitheater.

The venue is actually some bleachers and folding chairs set up around a stage on the top level of the parking structure across the street. We called ahead and got seats stage right in the third row.



Looking out our windows, we can see the theater across the street. Viewing through binoculars, I see a tall man in a red polo shirt walking in. It’s the headliner, Vince Gill.

Taking a few minutes to see what’s going on, the band takes the stage and goes into their sound check for the evening concert. Opening the window, we can hear as well as see it and are treated to a little mini concert of about 5 songs.

After that, we head to the pool for a little relaxing.  It’s not too relaxing as the water is freezing.

I grab a pizza from the Pizza Hut in the lobby. We eat a little lunch and then Tim and I lose a few dollars at the roulette table while Letty shops.

Later, we go down for a pre-concert dinner. The fans have arrived and the lines stretch out of the Riverview Café and the buffet. Instead, we head upstairs to the Gourmet room… a very nice and expensive spot for dinner…where we dine on happy hour appetizers and have a few drinks.

After dinner, we walk over the bridge to the show. Wheelchair users get priority for the elevator. We have to wait about three loads before we can go up and get to our seats.



Our seats are very close to the stage, although some scaffolding provides minor blocking issues for Tim and me. Letty has an unobstructed view from her seat. We’re even closer to backstage…just an area cordoned off with a small barrier…where we see Mr. Gill getting ready to take the stage.



The show starts and off we go. It’s a very good concert, suffice it to say we’re big fans of Vince, and he plays his heart out for the crowd.



Security here isn’t so strict that they won’t let you take a picture so we get a few…



After the show, we’re able to meet some of the band and then Vince Gill himself.

All-in-all, completely worth it to come out here in the middle of the desert just to see a concert.

The next morning, we have one more breakfast at the Riverview and set out across the desert for the long trip home. Not wanting to hit all the tourists returning from Las Vegas on a Sunday afternoon in Barstow, we detour down Route 66, Amboy, and 29 Palms before joining Interstate 10 near Palm Springs  and going home.

Stay tuned for our Route 66 photo essay as we wrap up our journey.

Darryl
Copyright 2011 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved