Monday, July 20, 2009

Home Sweet Home!

After a very long day, that started at 4am with a drive the length of the island of St. Lucia with our favorite crazy driver, Steven.

Once again, we found ourselves at the head of the line of passengers waiting to enter security. Actually, we were the first in line as we waited for the security employees to arrive.  As we waited, we met a wonderful couple to share stories with.  Liz and Kevin were in St. Lucia on their honeymoon as well.  They first caught Barbie’s eye because she saw a UVA tag on one of their bags.  Then she saw that Kevin and I had the same wedding band.  Small world!

After waiting in the security line for a while we found out that Liz and Kevin are from Nashville, Tennessee.  Kevin is the Equipment Manager for the Tennessee State University Tigers.  Liz is an Athletic Trainer at Lipscomb University.  Kevin grew up in Northern Virginia so we shared a few stories about what it was like “back in the day” and what it looks like now.  Liz took a Master’s degree from UVA so we shared a few stories about Jefferson and Charlottesville as well.

We were finally able to make it from St.Lucia to Miami with minimal excitement.  Although most of the plane complained about the fact that we didn’t get to see the end of “Last Chance, Charlie.”  We need to rent that at home to see the conclusion.

I know that we didn’t travel to some remote hostile land, but every time I pass through the US passport control, I love hearing “welcome home” from the customs officer.  That phrase makes me smile every time, and this afternoon’s experience was no different.

When we left St. Lucia, our return flights had us staying in Miami for a 9 hour layover so that we could connect to a flight into Dulles that night.  However, once we arrived in Miami we headed to the American customer service desk to ask if we could change the the connecting flight to and earlier one headed to Reagan.  Thankfully we were able to make the change and reduce our layover to 3 hours.  Woo Hoo!

Once on the ground in Arlington we were able to get American to pay for a taxi to get us back to Dulles.  To make it even better, the taxi driver then agreed to just take us home as long as we could cover the fare from the airport to our place.  At that, we had a deal!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

No, seriously…we are stuck in St. Lucia!

So, after we checked-in on our flight and passed customs, we had to wait for more than an hour at the gate.  The overhead announcements repeatedly told us that we were on hold at the request of ground control in Miami.  In St. Lucia, we saw a storm rolling in, so no one really questioned it.

After some time eating lunch in the airport and shopping all of the duty-free stores, we were finally able to board the plane.  From there, we sat on the plane for another hour or so watching “Last Chance Charlie”.  Roughly half way through the movie the pilot came on and announce that our flight has been cancelled.  The pilot then explained the reason for our initial delay and the resulting cancellation had nothing to do with anything in Miami, but rather an FAA rule that limits the number of hours that a flight crew can work without a break.  Since the flights to St. Lucia are a simple “turn-around affair” the flight crew never spends the night there.  They just fly both ways in a given day.

The delay we experienced was because if a radio problem on the plane.  The ground crew was able to fix it, but while they were fixing it, the flight crew had to be on the plane which meant that this time was counted toward their “working hours”.  By the time the issue was fixed, the flight crew would exceed the maximum number of workable hours before arriving in Miami.  So, the only course of action was to give the flight crew time to take the minimum break away from the plane so that we could all fly again in the morning.

There we were, 200+ passengers who were told to spend an extra night in St. Lucia.  We expected everyone would be celebrating, but we saw something very different.  We saw most of the plan basically freaking out…some because they had kids at home that they wanted to talk to, others had jobs they felt they needed to return to in the morning, and yet others who it seemed just wanted to freak out.

From this point through the rest of the day and evening, the airport was nothing short of a comedy of errors.  I am certain that none of the American employees who worked in this airport had ever experienced a flight cancellation before.  I actually wondered how long it had been since this airport had experienced this because the airport was dark by the time we all had gotten off the plane.  (Yes, dark as in all of the lights had been turned off and all of the of the stores had been closed-up.)

As luck would have it, we were closest to the front of the line at the ticketing counter after getting our bag again.  That gave us a front row seat to the calamity that took place behind the counter.  It was more than 90 minutes before the 9 American employees were ready to begin talking to passengers.

American did offer to cover ground transportation from and back to the airport, and they did put all of the stranded passengers up in all-inclusive resorts for the night so that everyone would have dinner (and drinks).  We ended up being put up at the Almond Smuggler’s Cove on the north end of the island.  So, we jumped in a taxi with a few other couples who were staying at the same place and made the 2 hour drive up to Castries.  Our driver, Steven could be the first Lucian Nascar driver!  By the time we got to our destination all of the passengers were not only wide-awake, but completely silent as well.

It may have been the fact that we arrived at the Almond resort in the dark, or the fact that there was no table service in the only restaurant on the property (it was all buffet), or it may have been the small enclosed room above, but this place was a crap-hole!

Okay, in all reality my poor opinion of the Almond resort was formed in most part because of the 5-star experience that we had at Jade Mountain.

So, we ate some dinner and headed to bed to get a few hours of sleep before our favorite crazy Nascar taxi driver takes us back to the airport in the morning.

Jade Mountain Cries

This morning we woke up to a nice calm rain storm. We sent up to the Jade Club for one more breakfast there, and the entre staff told us that the rain was Jade Mountain crying because we were checking-out. The rain got heavier as we returned to our room and began to pack. The rain gave me an excellent opportunity to show exactly how much of our pool was exposed to the sun and why it was a place to take a cool dip.

After our last dip in the pool, we packed-up and had a parade of staff members come by our room to say good-bye. It was a really nice way to end our trip as each person who came to see us asked us one last time if there was anything they could do for us before we left. Several of those staff members helped us acquire mementos as we packed to make sure that we never forget the experiences we had at Jade Mountain. As we walked away from our room towards the reception area where we were first greeted with the cool mint towels, the property manager was waiting for us along with one of the properties Mercedes to take us back to the airport.

After our last goodbye we were driven to the airport by our driver Norbert. Just like Kinlee when we arrived, Norbert was full of information and helped share some more cultural nuances of St. Lucia as we made our way back to the airport. As we were driving through Soufriere we noticed a woman who looked like she was cleaning a large box of small limes. Barbie asked Norbert about her since we hadn’t seen any lime trees.

Norbert explained that they weren’t limes, but rather Ackee. Ackee is a small fruit that is native to most of the Caribbean. It is slightly smaller than a golf ball and perfectly round. The fruit is covered by a tight skin that you have to crack with your teeth. Once cracked, the skin pulls off easily and you can suck the contents into your mouth. This is where is get’s unusual. The pit in the center of the fruit it very large. So large that you have to scrape the flesh off with your teeth or tongue. The pit occupied more than 85% of the volume of the fruit. Very strange – kinda weird – totally delicious!

After Norbert dropped us off, I took the pictures below as we waited to check-in at the airport.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Botanical Gardens and a Caldera Volcano

This morning we had a wonderful breakfast in our sanctuary.  The main dish was fresh fruit crepes and they were phenomenal!  Following breakfast we made at lunch on the beach before making a trip to the town of Soufriere to visit a botanical garden and a love caldera volcano.  The picture above was taken from a lookout that sits above Soufriere.  This small town was at one time the capital city of St. Lucia until the last French colonial occupation of the island.  The architecture of the town square is almost exclusively French as a result and the own residents are very proud of this influence.  So proud that twice we heard tales of a guillotine that used to sit on the town square.  This position was chosen so that the blood of the “victims” would flow out to sea rather than pool in the town roads.  When you think about it, this was quite ingenious and creepy at the same time.  When I heard this I immediately thought about “Shark Week” which is just around the corner and the effect on the sea life where the blood came into the ocean.  Eek!

A caldera volcano is simply one where the top of the mountain collapses into a depression beneath it rather than exploding upward.  The white ash and sulfur in the image above is indicative of the land mass that collapsed.  Throughout the crater there are springs of sulfur water that maintain an average temperature in excess of 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

As we walked around the crater we were covered in a gentle rain shower.  We heard several tales of individuals who were walking on a layer of crust among these pools and fell in to their death.  Scary, yes.  But also impressive!  This experience was yet another one where we could appreciate and enjoy the power of nature and the effects that nature can have on man as well as the effects that man can have on nature.

From the volcano we made our way to the Diamond botanical garden and water fall.  This was something that we were very excited to see.  It was our first time in a real rain forest, and to make it even better…it was raining!

The colors that we saw in the garden were spectacular!  It was as though someone painted on a green canvas with some of the brightest and most vivid colors imaginable.  Unfortunately, pictures simply do not do the scene we saw justice.  The waterfall was only 35 feet high, but it was nothing short of majestic none-the-less.

When we returned to Jade Mountain we decided to have Indian food for dinner.  The natives of St. Lucia refer to themselves as Lucians, and the Lucians are very proud of the Indian culture that exists on their island.  When the British colonies no longer endorsed the African slave trade, they also stopped using African slave labor themselves.  However, they didn’t stop using slave labor entirely.  Instead, the English colonists brought slave labor to St. Lucia from India.

Eventually, the Indian slaves were also liberated and those that did not leave the island of St. Lucia blended their culture into the native culture just as the Africans had done before them.  I couldn’t help but notice the melting pot analogy that was very applicable among the Lucians.  However, there was a sense of pride among the Lucians as they told us about the circumstances that preceded the melting pot as well as the resulting cultural harmony that exists today.

Dinner was a wonderful experience.  The food was impeccable, in part because the kitchen had a tandoor oven which is used in traditional Indian food.  When we arrived for dinner and ordered the executive chef came out to our table to meet us.  he said that he wanted to meet the table responsible for ordering the two spiciest entrees on the menu.  After we explained our love of Indian food to him he invited us into the kitchen to meet his sous-chefs and show off their tandoor oven.

Through that meeting we learned that visitors to Jade Mountain come from Europe and the US almost exclusively.  Since the majority of guests come from Europe, the menus are designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator…which according to the kitchen staff means lots of “bland and spice-less food”.  We ate like royalty that night and received more attention than anyone else in the restaurant.  It was an experience like nothing else we have ever had in a restaurant.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Beach Life and Stargazing

This morning when I woke up I felt more rested than I can ever remember.  I am surprised at this because of the lack of a 4th wall in our sanctuary.  Although we are right near the beach, and we don’t really hear any “beach sounds”.  Instead, we hear things like a waterfall and birds chirping…I suppose those are more like “jungle sounds”.  I heard from our Major Domo’s that most guests at Jade Mountain typically take a night or two to get used to the sounds in the sanctuaries at night.

We had breakfast at the Jade Club again this morning and it was once  again fabulous.  The view from the dining room is incredible, but it pales in comparison to the food. We ate chocolate pancakes with a side of sliced mango, pineapple garnish and croissants with honey butter. 

After breakfast we made our way back down the beach.  However, this time we took Captain Ricky’s water taxi over to the second secluded private beach.

While at the beach we had lunch there.  It was quite a treat to have lunch on the beach since we were the only people within sight (other than the bar tender and the grill master).  All-in-all the middle of the day was filled with a nice mix of sun bathing, swimming and full service lunch.

We went back up to our sanctuary to drop off our camera and take a quick dip in our pool before heading back out for more.  When we got to the room we found a couple of surprises.  The swans above were on our bed with another kind poem from our Major Domo’s and a huge fruit platter.  All of the fruit was diced and carved on one platter, but there was enough there to have come from one entire pineapple, one honeydew melon, one cantaloupe, five bananas, and at least four guava.  We couldn’t have imagined a better way to refresh ourselves.

Adjacent to the beach is a private cove with some beautiful coral reefs that are only accessible to resort guests.  So, after polishing off our fruit platter we went back to the beach for some snorkeling.  The fish life there was incredible.  Less than 3 feet from the beach there were tons of small minnows.  As we swam along the beach headed toward the cove we swam by a 2 foot sea snake, a small squid and at least a dozen different types of small fish.

The water in the cove above is crystal clear and roughly 30 feet deep.  We swam in it for more than an hour.  We could have swam there all day, but as soon as we saw our first barracuda the desire to do so seemed to leave.  It didn’t seem threatening at all and we both saw it at the same time.  It was funny how the sight of a 3 foot long fish with sharp teeth made both of us pop our heads out of the water and say “I think we have had enough of the reef” at the same time.  So funny, that it took us a few minutes to stop laughing long enough to swim back to the beach.

After we got back from our snorkeling outing we cleaned up and went back to the Jade Club for another wonderful dinner.  After dinner we went up to the roof of the restaurant for what became a nightly ritual for us.  Stargazing!

The sky over Jade Mountain was like nothing we have ever seen before.  Besides the fact that we were looking at a sky further south that either of us had ever been before, we also had nearly no light pollution obstructing our view.  Since we were on the southwestern tip of the island, the closest source of light pollution was over the island of St. Vincent more than 20 miles away.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jade Mountain and the Jazzy Boat

We woke up feeling very rested.  There are no alarm clocks at Jade Mountain, but since our sanctuary didn’t have a 4th wall we woke up with the sun.  Kind of like camping…in a really, really nice 5-star tent.

We decided to head up to the Jade Club restaurant for breakfast.  After-all we had two wonderful meals already and we didn’t even leave our sanctuary yet.  The Jade Club is the nicest of the 6 restaurants on the property and it sit’s on the top of the Jade Mountain structure.  Just like the sanctuaries that guests stay in, the entire southern facing side of the Jade Club is without a wall.  You can see the island of St. Vincent just beyond the Pitons.

Our breakfast was everything we could have imagined.  Any type of fruit you could imagine was available and fresh!  As we were finishing our meal, Ajay came by to check on us and to make sure we had everything we wanted.  We happily said yes and that we were looking forward to soaking in the huge Jacuzzi tub tonight because we were planning on a long day of adventuring.

After heading back to our sanctuary to pick up our firefly phone we headed over to the reception building for a brief orientation of the property and services that are available.  The firefly is a simple cell phone that we were given to beckon our Major Domo’s.  When this phone was explained to us as we checked-in, we were amazed.  The idea was that with the Firefly we could get anything we needed anywhere on the island.  At first this seemed a little silly and over the top, but it quickly became a useful tool for anything from asking questions about island logistics to assistance with activity planning.  The firefly was also an easy method to request a shuttle bus to transport us from our sanctuary to the beach and vice versa.

After orientation we headed down to visit one of the two beaches on the property.  This beach is accessible by boat and foot only.  It is a private beach so it is not accessible by road.  The beach was covered in shade structures called “couscous huts” that had bar servers monitoring them.

After checking out the beach for the rest of the morning, we headed back up to the top of Jade Mountain for lunch.   The Jade Club once again blew our expectations away with wonderful food and excellent service.  Today we met another favorite personality at the Jade Club – Dwight.  Dwight was a very tall server who was always smiling and seemed to just enjoy having fun doing his job.  He would joke about asking for our autographs so that he could try and sell them on e-bay.

After lunch we went for a dip on the pool in our sanctuary before heading back down to the beach to take a ride on the “Jazzy Boat”.  This  was a 3 hour cruise around the south western corner of the island.  The cruise offered a live saxophone player, open bar and food.

On the Jazzy Boat we met another wonderful person who happened to be the captain of the boat.  “Captain Ricky” was a character that could have come straight out of a book or a movie!  We would later find out that Captain Ricky was responsible not only for the catamaran we were on, but also basically all watercraft at the property (water taxis, sailboats, and the scuba boat).  On this trip, Captain Ricky shared some insight with us that we were surprised to hear.  The waters to the south of St. Lucia are the deepest in the Caribbean ocean.  The short shelf that extends off the beaches quickly drops to a depth of more than 1000 feet less than a quarter mile away from the beach.  This was the reason for so much dark water in the area.

Below are some pictures from one the the absolute highlights of our trip.  We spotted these dolphins swimming in open water while on the Jazzy Boat.  In addition to these shots we also spent quite a bit of time hanging over the front of the boat with the dolphins swimming between the pontoons beneath us.  It was an absolutely beautiful experience!

This wonderful trip was followed by another trip to the Jade Club for a fabulous dinner and more music from the same saxophone player from the cruise while we ate.

When we returned to our sanctuary we were surprised to find that our Major Domo’s had drawn us a bath in the tub following our statement at breakfast.  This was a welcome sight that was enhanced by the turn-down service.  Turn-down service at Jade Mountain includes dropping the mosquito nets on the beds, lighting a bug coil, and leaving a romantic poem each night.  These poems are something that we were surprised to see and expect to hold very close to our hearts for a long time into the future.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Arrival in St. Lucia!

Our honeymoon started very early this morning.  Our flight left Dulles at 6am, and after a connection in Miami we arrived on the island of St. Lucia just after 2pm.  We technically changed time zones as we moved into the Atlantic time zone, but because the US was observing daylight savings time, our clocks didn’t need to change.  That took a little time to grasp after we were had been in the air for almost 6 hours.

Once we landed we didn’t know what to expect.  The airport was tiny!  Our 737 was the only plane there, and the air traffic control tower couldn’t have been higher than 40 feet.  We were anticipating that Barbie would be able to help navigate any language barriers since all of our ticketing information was written in English and Spanish.  Even when we landed the greeting announced in the cabin was in Spanish as “Bienvenideos a Santa Lucia”.  However, as soon as we got off the plane and entered the customs lines we realized that everything there was written in French.  It was at that moment that we both realized that our honeymoon was going to be in the French West Indies.  Duh!  We laughed for a while when we realized that we had gone so far without bothering to consider anything we learned in high school geography.

So, after a good long laugh and a friendly reception by the St. Lucian customs officials we met our driver.  His name was Kinlee and he was waiting for us with cold bottled water just outside of the baggage claim standing next to his Toyota 4Runner.  Kinlee was a nice man in his 50’s who possessed a wealth of knowledge that helped us get acclimated to the culture and history of St. Lucia.

After the 50 minute drive from the airport to Jade Mountain we were met by a greeting party as we arrived.  The greeting party consisted of the property manager, one of the reception staff members and a concierge.  They approached us with a tray of wet towels that at first glance appeared to be steamed.  We wondered why they would bring these as a welcome considering the tropical climate here…and then we got the strong scent of mint that accompanied them.  These were actually cool mint towels and they were awesome!

We walked straight from the car to our room to check-in there.  We were greeted at our door by Ajay who we would later find out was one of our Major Domo’s.  Ajay welcomed us into the room with a pair of Bentley’s.  A Bentley is a sweet drink that is very popular in St. Lucia.  Made with lime juice, grenadine and club soda, the one’s at Jade Mountain were also garnished with fresh sugar cane.  They were wonderfully refreshing and became an immediate favorite of ours.

The check-in process took less than 20 minutes, and during that time we ordered room-service for a late lunch.  This gave us an opportunity to sit back, soak-up and enjoy our room for a bit.  Jade Mountain offered a ton of activities for us to do, but at this moment we really had no desire to leave the room.  The view, the design, and of course the pool made our room (referred to as our sanctuary) everything we could have wanted.  As a result, we passed on venturing out to any of the 6 restaurants that were on property in lieu of more room service for dinner.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A new trend in Apple Stores?

I think it’s safe to say that we have all walked into an Apple Store and played with a couple of new fangled items for a bit.  Well, occasionally someone will put information on the computers that they forget to erase.  This could be an email address that they tried to send a message to, or an AIM account that they signed into but forgot to sign out of.  Well, these videos below were captured with the built-in iSight cameras at the Manhattan Apple Store.  I particularly enjoy watching the reactions of the people in the background.  :-)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Birthday USA!

Today we had a blast with another Independence Day outing! This year we spent the entire day at The Great Meadow where we not only got to see some fireworks, but plenty of day-time activities as well. In true Barbie & Zack fashion, we packed the car with enough tailgating supplies to share with anyone who stopped by. However, this year we totally fell in love with all of the food that we saw. The first slideshow below consists of just some of the food vendors that were there. Yummy!!

After a full afternoon of watching helicopter demonstrations, model rocket launches, radio controlled airplane fly-bys, punkin chunkin displays, a lot of live music and a ton of food we settled in for the fireworks.

I had been looking forward to the chance to take pictures of fireworks for almost a month because I had assembled an interesting method for the images below.  We used our Canon DSLR camera with an ultra-wide angle lens, mounted on a tripod with a remote shutter trigger.  It sounds complicated, but really isn’t when you see it.  We captured more than 400 images during the 30+ minute fireworks display, and below are some of the most beautiful.