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Monday, February 15, 2010

St. Lucia

St. Lucia

I wanted to go to Costa Rica for a week in February, but didn't try to book the flights until January at which point they looked too expensive. Instead, we decided to book the time off work (in advance) and book a destination at the last minute. I watched flight prices for the week prior to our vacation, and they did drop considerably as the date neared, so everything looked okay. But on the Tuesday before our Saturday vacation, prices "for everything" were still too high. There were some cheap canned flight/resort deals, but when it came down to it, that's not what either of us wanted. We ended up paying big money for a Monday-Monday (instead of Saturday-Saturday) departing from Montréal (instead of Ottawa). The flights came with a week an inland hotel, and I was just going to accept that, but Amanda (bless her) sent out a hundred emails on Saturday morning (while I was coding evilgoblin.com) and we got a spot at the Oasis Marigot -- five nights in a sea-side cottage and two nights on a sail boat. Perfect.

I stayed up until 3am Saturday finishing phase one of evilgobin cleanup (take the working code of ver4 and re-architect it so that it's good enough to build on), and Sunday I cleaned the house and packed. We left the house at 3pm, drove to Montréal airport, checked in at aloft hotel (which included parking the car for the week), and had dinner at St. Hubert's (a short drive away, but without directions we wandered though Dorval for a long time). Back at the hotel we watched figure skating Olympics, saw (not live) the first Canadian at-home gold medal and had a great night. Next morning, Amanda "lost" her wallet (actually it was on the night-stand beside the phone) which caused some unpacking and re-packing and general unhappiness. But the juice/croissant/fruit breakfast provided by the hotel put us back in good spirits.

The shuttle got us to the airport in no time. We flew Air Canada 1810 YUL-UVF departing 9:05am. Self check-in was easy except for figuring out how to put the stickers on the bags, and there was a ~10 minute line up at the baggage drop-off. Security had almost no line, but they took more time than usual looking at the bags in the x-ray machine, and my boots and rings set off the metal detectors so I got the "detailed" screening. Finally on the plane, our seats were separated by several rows, but the ride was good. There was almost no waiting on-plane before take-off or after landing. We deplaned via stairs, but it was much quicker than boarding because we were able to use both the front and rear exits. There was ~15min wait at customs and we were met at the exit by a taxi (8-person mini-van) driver named Ed who had been booked for us by the Oasis Marigot. He was really great. The drive took about an hour, but he showed us on a map where we were going and talked the whole way about what we were seeing and answered all our questions about St. Lucia. It cost $70us but we gave him $80.

The Oasis had suggested a taxi rather than a rental because "it's hard to find" but I think we could have done it ourselves with a decent map. That said, I really appreciated Ed's commentary and avoiding the stress of driving on the left after a long flight, so no regrets. At the end of the road we were (eventually) met by the Oasis' water taxi that took us and our luggage across the bay and were shown to our room (which was fantastic). To get up the hill side they have a trolley which is a great idea considering our luggage. I asked, and was told that both the trolley and the no-road-access are not common in St. Lucia.

There is some shared space (with a pool) outside our room (ocean cottage four aka Large Floor Plan 4) where we met Yan and Dean from Kingston Ontario (they'd arrived the previous day). They advised us that the restaurant at the bottom of the hill (Doolittle's) had a special on: "Lady with a flower in her hair accompanied by a gentleman gets her meal for free". We were starved so we ditched our stuff, picked a flower and made our way down, but the kitchen wouldn't open for another hour. We had drinks while we waited and I talked the bartender into fast-tracking us some chicken fingers from the kitchen. He was great. He brought me a second bottle of beer (Piton) without asking and didn't charge us for it or for the chicken fingers. Dinner was fairly good but it took a very long time and we were both exhausted after the walk back to our cottage. We slept almost twelve hours.

Next morning was another beautiful day. I went to the office to check-in. The lady there (Nahdjla) was great, she set me up with a car rental and talked them down to $75us from $85us. She also gave me the lay of the land and confirmed our boat pickup/drop-off. She was really good at summarizing at the end of a booking phone call so that it was obvious what both parties had agreed to. Afterwards, I picked up Amanda and we headed down to the public ferry and bought two 4day passes. On the other side (which has road access) we had lunch at a bakery on the shore (again expensive for average quality food). Afterwards we spent $200ec at the grocery store and took the loot back to our flat. It has a nice little kitchen (actually bigger than our kitchen back home) well stocked with pots, cutlery, etc, but lacking in some critical respects: salt, pepper, matches (to light the gas range). Also the propane tank (under the sink) had a safety switch in the off position. So it took some figuring. We scored matches from the neighbors and used the toaster to light them.

I cannot stress enough how beautiful this bay is.

Anyway, after stowing the groceries we went down to the beach. It's small but pleasant enough. The guy in charge of the chairs (which are free for tenants) said: "Your lady told me that she likes the ganja". I replied: "Oh. No thanks. We don't need that." To which he countered: "No? You don't need no cocaine?". I think in the remainder of the trip we were offered marijuana five or six more times and cocaine a second time. People in St. Lucia are forward but not too pushy and are easily dealt with if you are polite but firm.

After setting up Amanda with a beach chair, I snorkeled around the little swimming area for a while (which was relatively barren and polluted) and eventually found lots of fish, anemones and urchin type things around a little rock jetty that marked the left boundary of the swimming area. That was neat and I spent a long time staring at them. Afterwards we retired back to our cabin, but on the way I checked at the office to see if it is permitted to climb the hill. It turns out that the land behind the Oasis Marigot is a nature preserve and there is a trail to the summit. So I changed clothes, grabbed my camera and set off.

I was surprised to discover that the Oasis is enclosed in a razor-wire fence. I don't know if that keeps out animals or criminals. There are two little gates that you though. During the day they are left ajar. I assume they're shut in the evening. They can only be opened from the inside, so don't stay out past dark! The trail was a good climb (and pleasantly deserted) but there wasn't much to see. I did find a tiny bird's nest and on the way down ventured off the track several meters and found a giant caterpillar (maybe 11cm long, 2cm thick). The view from the top was fairly spectacular, but not really much better than from our cottage. And there were millions of tiny insects (which may or may not bite) flowing past me on the prevailing winds, so I didn't stick around for long.

At the grocery store, I had picked up a few bottles of Piton (their local lager, quite good) and a bottle of "Guinness Foreign Extra" which sadly tastes like a cross between real Guinness and tobacco juice. Yuck. Amanda made fruit, cheese, shredded cucumber and garlic-butter-pasta for dinner, then we played a game of scrabble which neither of us could finish because we played our words so densely.

Next morning we had muesli for breakfast and footed our gear over to the parking lot for our 9am meet with Jeanine from Avis. She arrived after a few minutes wait (early, I'm fairly sure) and I filled out our the rental agreement on the trunk of the car. With insurance, etc. it came to ~$100us/day (as promised), was a Nissan automatic, was shockingly scratched and dented, and had a big red sticker on the inside reminding you to drive on the left and to put it in 2nd when going down steep hills. Along with the rental, you must purchase a driver's permit, but she didn't have it with her. We arranged for it to be left at a nearby hotel. A driver was coming to pick her up and he'd have it with him.

So with that settled, we embarked on our crazy adventure. The driving is tricky. Its on the left, narrow, steep, windy and most intersections aren't posted. We went the wrong way that the first turn and were advised by an old man to turn around and "Go to the shanty, turn left, then at the other shanty, turn right". We drove (through much bedlam) to Anse Le Raye, Canaries, and on to Soufrière where people on the very narrow downtown streets continually offered directions (presumably wanting a dollar). By following other touristy cars we found ourselves on the way out of town and at the "Drive-in Volcano". It was interesting to see but was definitely a tourist trap. It was very crowded and we felt thoroughly corralled.

We got directions from two different staff at the Volcano (back through town) to the Diamond Waterfall, but when we arrived, it was thick with cruise boat tourists -- literally an infinite line of people standing three abreast. The ticket lady said they'd be all gone in a few hours so we drove back through town, parked at the waterfront and walked past "local's territory" to the beach (which was rocky and strewn with garbage). We persevered around the point and were rewarded with a great view of The Pitons and proper beach (although still quite rocky). After relaxing for a while we decided to head back to search for ice cream. I stopped at the car and re-applied sun-screen (having already burnt the tops of my feet). We picked up supplies at a local grocery store but no ice cream (because they only sold large tubs). Back at the Diamond Waterfall we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. It's definitely worth the visit when the crowds aren't there. We took our time wandering the paths and just sat around several times.

The drive home was relatively uneventful. We stopped at a few road-side lookouts. Back in Marigot we again took a wrong turn and had to be advised by a local: "Hey Papa, wrong way!" Before the long climb back to our cottage we took a swim at the beach and I started stared some more at the fish clustered around the rocks. Then back at our cottage we took a short dip in the pool to wash off the salt. After a rest we cleaned up than went to Chateau Mygo for dinner. It was characteristically expensive and took ~2.5 hours but was really superb. Amanda had scallops and I Had fried fish. That doesn't sound too exciting but let me assure you it was excellent.

I've forgotten to mention that each of us had picked up a variety of bug bites, mostly around the feet and ankles. So before dinner and again before bed, we started putting on DEET, and that seemed to significantly reduce the problem. There's nothing like scratching mosquito bites on sun burnt feet.

Next morning (Thursday 18th) we had muesli again and it was another beautiful day. But quelle disaster, I'd lost the car keys. I'm normally a very careful person and this sort of thing doesn't happen to me. I double searched the room, checked the path to the car and back and decided they must have been in my shorts pocket when I went swimming, and were irrevocably lost in the sea. I asked around but no one had found any keys, so I got Nahdjla to phone Avis for me and ask for another pair. They said that the spare keys were in another facility and they'd find them and call back with a quote (for delivery cost). So I agreed to check back with her later and fetched Amanda from the house so I could snorkel for the keys. Unbelievably, I swam right to them. They were beside an urchin beneath a buoy that I had been looking at the other day. Hooray! This un-ruined my day. I ran back to advise Nahdjla.

Amanda and I had egg salad sandwiches for lunch before driving to Castries. The drive north is much easier than the drive south. The roads are wider, less windy, less steep, less fast. But Castries is a city and there were three huge cruise ships in the harbour. After some sweating and swearing we found a multi-level car park and walked around the markets. After driving, I was in no mood for shopping, but I did my best not to grouch on Amanda's parade. Seeing my eminent collapse, she stopped us at a grocery store and scored me some Snapple and two bananas. Then we drove on to Rodney Bay and went swimming at their beach. It's nice but not as good as Varadero or Manual Antonio for that matter.

After our swim we walked the length of the beach and back and got a look at the free-with-the-flights hotel: very depressing. I much prefer Marigot Bay. On the way home we had to punch through some rush-hour traffic, but got back to the Oasis in time to watch the last light fade from the horizon. We had a quick swim in the pool, then Amanda cooked and amazing meal: carrots, orca, garlic potatoes, fried fish. But she had a stomach ache, so I ate alone.

There is a lot I love about Marigot Bay, but it has its faults. There are mosquitoes. Although I never saw them I had ten or twelve nasty bites to remember them by. There is hot water but the water pressure (both hot and cold) is bad. When you run the tap or flush the toilet or take a shower it comes in fits and bursts as though the pump is drawing air. The birds are pretty but there is a lot of forest noise all night and the walkway lights shine into your room so that it's never dark enough for proper sleeping. The bed is large but is hard and you can feel the springs and despite its hardness passes all your partner's slightest movements to you as little earthquakes, almost as efficiently as a waterbed. Also, I hate the pillows.

Anyway, for whatever reason (I blame the pillows), I woke up mid week with a stiff neck. And Thursday night it got so much worse that I couldn't sleep. Near morning I took some Advil and switched to a towel for a pillow and the situation improved but I was largely incapacitated until noon.

After lunch we drove out to Barre de L'Isle, which is an Inland hike along a ridge and up a mountain. The ridge was beautiful and breezy and the mountain (steep hill) was a very difficult climb but a great adventure. The views were nice but not spectacular. The value was in the journey.

Back home after a leisurely dip in the pool, Amanda made dinner and we packed for the boat. We read some of "The Last Chronicle of Barset" together (Amanda caught up to me the previous night), and went to bed. I slept with a towel for a pillow again which helped but next morning my next was still quite stiff.

Saturday was another beautiful day. I met Avis at 9:30am to return the car. They were on time and the process was easy. I stopped at the bank to pickup some cash and luckily they were open. Unluckily, the only way to get cash (I have TD debit and visa) is as a cash advance on a visa (which collects interest immediately) plus a bank fee of $20ec. Hotels and restaurants take visa but everyone else (taxi, park admission, ferry, grocery store) requires cash (us or ec). So after waiting forever in line, getting the bad news, trying (rejected) my debit card in the ABM, waiting again forever in line trying (rejected) my visa in the ABM (fee is only $5ec if you use the ABM), I eventually got $200ec form the bank teller (after handing over Visa, Driver's License, foreign address, local address, and signing ~nine times).

In the mean time, Amanda's attempts to email the Girl Guides were frustrated by repeated IE crashes. We were both late so she brought down all the luggage all by herself (therefore super pissed). But finally we were on the boat and under sail to Pigeon Island in Rodney Bay.

The journey by boat is very different and much better then the journey by car. Our skipper "Mike" (born and raised in Marigot Bay) anchored near Pigeon Island and motored us in (via little rubber dingy) and we agreed to meet at 3pm. We paid entrance (it's a national park), used the washroom, had an excellent lunch (Roti) and climbed the hill, which has an unbelievably great view. Then motored back to the boat, went for a swim and sailed back to Marigot Bay.

We were both pretty burnt but not yet incapacitated (I actually bummed some sunscreen from a Brit on Pigeon Island beach). Three things we were short on: Cash, Sunscreen, Water. On the sail home we saw a pirate ship "The Unicorn", a big turtle, and the green flash as the sun dipped below the horizon.

Mike dropped us off at the Chateau Mygo and arranged to meet us in the morning. We had drinks and dinner and Amanda read aloud from "The Last Chronicle of Barset". She's the best.

Later in the evening we met a great couple from Lunenburg who run a bed and breakfast there. We got the ferry to take us back to our boat (a distance of maybe 20m) for $10ec. We pretty much went straight to bed.

Next morning Skipper Mike was very drunk. I didn't notice at first (when he boated us to shore where we bough two Pain aux Chocolat and 4.5L of water and a baguette). But it was obvious to both of us, and he mentioned it as he boated us to the Oasis side. We agreed to met him at 10am (so that he could sleep it off) and Amanda went to the office to use the internet (and finish off the Girl Guide emails).

10am came and went with no skipper. I found him passed out and snoring on one of the lounge chairs on the beach. I spoke to him but he didn't wake. I spoke and nudged him several times, and finally he came-to. Eventually we were under sail (downwind) to Soufrière. He did most of the steering asleep, which is to say lounging in the back of the boat until the sails made a lot of noise at which signal he would nudge the wheel with his feet. But he did keep us on course and it was a beautiful day.

We went snorkeling near Jade Mountain (~$1500/night) north of Soufrière and saw lots of neat fish and motored in to Soufrière, tied up at the pier and walked to the Hummingbird for a late lunch. We also bought take-away sandwiches for dinner. They were characteristically slow and had trouble with the visa lines (had to take an imprint). So we didn't get back to the boat until ~5pm. We motored back to Marigot Bay (although I think we could have made just as good time sailing). The sun set as we went and the stars were out by our journey's end. It was very beautiful. Mike left us on the boat, and I re-packed our gear. Before bed we played a game of scrabble and read aloud. I slept with a proper pillow and had my first restful sleep all week.

In the morning, Mike (sober) boated us to shore and we bought water and two chocolate twists and two Pain aux Chocolat from the bakery and relaxed on the beach. Amanda read aloud for most of the morning. It was another beautiful day. I went on an adventure down the rocky shore of the bay until I found a large rock outcrop which I climbed. Then back at the beach we went for a swim and met a nice couple from New York with whom we shared a cab to the airport (organized by Nahdjla). At the top of the hill out of the bay we stopped for ice cream. At the airport, I remembered my customs form just before we checked our bags (which was lucky because it was in one of the bags). Past security we bought a delicious lunch and were soon on the plane. All US flights had to do a second security screening but since our was a direct to Montréal, we just waked though.

There was considerable turbulence on the flight home, but I like that. The Montréal airport was smooth and efficient with short lines. We were pretty exhausted and Amanda (bless her) drove us the two hours home to Ottawa. To bed after midnight, and straight to work in the morning. Ouch.

St. Lucia is a great country. I had a great time. But for inland adventures, I think I prefer Costa Rica. However I would like to meet a skipper I could live with and go on a Bahamas sailing trip for a few weeks or a month where all nights and most meals are spent on the boat.

Cost

USD From Past Trips                        $39.00
Air Canada Flights                      $2,075.88
Oasis Marigot                           $1,960.92
Cash Bought in Ottawa                     $384.35
St. Hubert in Montreal                     $44.27
Aloft Montreal Airport hotel & parking    $148.18
Airplane lunch                              $7.00
Doo Littles (bar)                           $9.21
Doo Littles (dinner)                       $52.91
Bakery (Discovery at Marigot Bay)          $26.76
Car Rental (sundrive)                     $349.79
Dress in Castries                          $18.95
Chateau Mygo (diner)                      $107.64
Snooty Agouti (pigeon island lunch)        $35.85
Bakery (Discovery at Marigot Bay)          $12.29
Chateau Mygo (diner)                      $109.85
Visa Cash Advance                          $88.14
Cash Advance Fee                            $2.50
Cash Advance Interest                       $0.24
Hummingbird Resturant (lunch & dinner)     $84.93
Bakery (Discovery at Marigot Bay)          $13.08
St. Lucia Airport Lunch                    $24.83
McDonald's in Quebec                       $13.51

Total: $5,610.08 = $701.26/day

Accu-Rate in Ottawa:                   200usd for 214.19cad
Accu-Rate in Ottawa:                   400ec  for 170.16cad @ 0.4254
Bank in St. Lucia, visa cash advance:  220ec  for  88.14cad @ 0.40063
(but the bank keeps 20ec of that as a fee)

Everyone accepted USD, but some people quoted $10us to $20ec  (2.0:1)
                          while others quoted $20us to $50ec  (2.5:1)

So I think the conclusion is:
- Bring lots of EC cash bought in Canada
- Try to use visa to pay for everything
- Bring some extra US if your EC runs out