Travel blog written by an average traveler that focuses on "real" experiences. Not quite budget, not quite luxury. Real.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Falling in love with Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Part Two).

Travelers/Trip Type: My Husband And I
Method of Travel: Air
Would I Return: Next Time With Kids In Tow

My second visit to Old San Juan was for yet another cruise. Are you starting to notice a trend here? I must admit, I was anxious to return because I had fallen in love on my first visit and I was curious to see if I would have the same reaction on subsequent visits. This time we were smart and allowed for a day both before AND after our cruise to explore. We also decided to extend our exploration out a bit to include the Condado area of San Juan rather than just Old San Juan.

We arrived at the Marriott San Juan Resort & Stellaris Casino ($20 cab ride from airport) at 3:15 am due to a delay in Dallas (surprise, surprise). Fortunately, during our delay I had called the hotel directly to let them know about our late arrival so we didn't have any problems when we checked in (apparently in Puerto Rico they clear all of their reservations at midnight. They also give the  best rooms on a first come first serve basis). It was obvious this maneuver had paid off the moment we saw our high-floor ocean-view room.  It was a pleasant surprise because I had booked via Priceline and was only expecting a basic room.
Even though it was the wee hours of the morning at this point, we were both giddy with excitement so we decided to take a quick walk around the block in order to quell our energy enough to sleep. The first thing that immediately struck me was how hot and humid it was at 3:30 am.  I remembered that it had been humid on our last visit, but to be sweating at this hour of the morning was crazy! The second thing that made an impression on me during our middle of the night stroll was the sheer amount of activity at that hour. It was absolutely incredible how many people were out and about with no sign of wrapping things up for the night. Puerto Rico really does have a thriving nightlife! Another notable observation about Puerto Rico is the fact that everyone dresses up when they go out. If you are a t-shirt and jeans kind of person you will definately look out of place if you head out for a drink after dark. The women, in particular, are gorgeous and the fact that they are all wearing nice dresses and sexy high heels makes them even more stunning. Which leads me to another observation, the women of Puerto Rico LOVE their high heels. I am not sure where they are buying all of their amazing heels from (because I didn't see a single shoe store on either visit) but every woman in Puerto Rico wears sexy and unique heels wherever they go (whether it be a family stroll to the park, going to work or maneuvering the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan on a night out). I've never seen anything like it. Young or old, beautiful or plain Jane, dressed up or dressed down, you'd better believe that woman will be wearing some incredible heels!

We managed to get a few hours of sleep that night but our excitement wouldn't let us sleep in too much. By 10:00 am we were laying by the pool and working on our tans. It was unbearable to lay there in the sun because of the intense heat and humidity so we packed things up and headed to the beach for a swim in the ocean! An example of the humidity can be observed in the above picture. It took quite a while for my camera to finally aclimate to the humidity so our first pictures had a haze to them. Behind us you can see the beach where we swam (behind the Marriott). Swimming was incredible! The waves were perfect (big enough to "ride in" to the shore but not big enough to be scary), the water was the perfect temperature and the sand was awesome (no rocks or shells to cut your feet on). If I would have known that it would be our best swimming of the trip I would have swam much longer because I thoroughly enjoy swimming in the ocean when the conditions are this perfect. A walk further down the beach resulted in an area that wasn't as great for swimming (due to the large rocks) but perfect for pictures (below). So beautiful!

As for the Marriott San Juan Resort & Stellaris Casino: Overall I was very pleased with our hotel and I would definately stay on another occasion. The check-in and check-out process was seamless, our room was impeccable with a comfortable bed and great view, the pool area was wonderful with several beautiful pools, ample lounge chairs and sufficient towels, and of course the beach was absolutely perfect. In addition the common areas were quite nice with comfortable seating and available shopping vendors. The numerous games and activities down by the pool would be perfect for accompanying children.

For lunch we followed a tip I had learned on $40 A Day With Rachel Ray which was to ask for food recommendations from people whose job starts with a "b". From her experience bartenders, bellhops, baristas, etc.... are exceptionally savvy regarding the wonderful local hotspots that offer great food at affordable prices. So far this advice has panned out nicely. We were referred to Cafe de Angels (above right) by our bellhop which was only a few blocks up Ashford Ave from the Marriott. We were instructed to try the mofungo which is one of the local specialties. We knew nothing about mofongu other than it was some sort of mashed plantains, but decided to give it a try. It was amazing! I must admit that when it arrived  we were almost too scared to try it  because of how it looked (bottom right). If you can get past the initial sight of it and can bring yourself to actually place your fork inside your mouth, you definately won't regret it. We ordered ours with skirt steak but the grouper comes highly recommended so we will be sure to try that next time. And trust me, there WILL be a next time.

After lunch we walked up an down Ashford Ave in an attempt to walk off some of the food we had just devoured. The area was so much different than I expected. Ashford Ave (above) is one of the major streets of Condado yet it was so peaceful. The minimal traffic, friendly people and beautiful scenery made it a very enjoyable walk. I was even able to do some shopping as there were various merchants scattered throughout the area. What more can a girl want?

After a wonderful morning in Condado we headed to the pier to begin our embarkation process. Once the logistics were taken care of we immediately set off to explore Old San Juan once again. The verdict? Still in love..... Everything was just as I remembered it, the same charm, the same beauty, the same hidden gems, the same friendly people, the same wonderful food..... The only thing that seemed different from our last experience was the horrendous traffic. FYI, don't ever drive in Old San Juan. You will literally spend all of your time sitting in traffic or trying to find a parking spot. It was Sunday (just as it was on our prior visit) but for some reason it was much busier. Perhaps everyone else is falling in love with Old San Juan as well!

We spent the afternoon weaving up and down all of the streets, getting lost in the magic of Old San Juan. Once again we found the craft fair on calle Paseo de la Princessa but I was somewhat disappointed in the inventory compared to our last visit. Of course I still managed to find a few things to purchase. Wink, wink.  Instead of turning around and walking back the way we came (like on our last visit), we decided to keep walking towards the beautiful fountain at the end of the street. At this point we discovered a wonderful pathway (above and right) which eventually led us to the San Juan Gate and back into the heart of old San Juan. It was a lovely walk along the waterfront for just the two of us to enjoy. That's yet another treasure of this city, no matter how many people are around you can always find a special little place to sneak away for either solitude or to enjoy another's company.

The beautifully colored buildings and petal strewn cobblestone streets were the perfect subjects for my camera lens as we wandered around (below). Once we were back amongst the stores and restaurants we began our search for a careta (mask) to add to my collection. Of course we found everything BUT a careta. In particular, I found some beautiful paintings that I decided to come back for on our return trip (once I knew how much space I would have in my suitcase). Our final stop before heading back to our ship was at Barrachina (on calle Fortaleza) for one of their famous pina coladas (they were invented here). I am definately a pina colada person. My husband? Not so much. Suffice to say they were amazing and we both thoroughly enjoyed our drinks. They were pretty stiff though so watch out! I highly recommend stopping in here for at least a drink, there's a beautiful courtyard with seating on one side and an inside restaurant with a long bar on the other. If you go in-between meal times you will be able to enjoy the nice ambiance all to yourself like we did while sitting at the bar. Supposedly they will even store your luggage here if that's something you are needing. This is a free service but I'm sure they are expecting you to purchase something in return.

Our visit after our cruise began with us taking a cab ride ($15) to the northern edge of Old San Juan so that we could check in to our "hotel". I must warn you that if you take a cab from the pier to anywhere in Old San Juan your driver may be a little perturbed because it will not only be a smaller fare (versus going to the airport) but it will also result in him having to go to the back of the long line of cabs at the cruise ship dock. I felt bad but at the same time there was no way I was lugging all of our bags a mile uphill.

If you are looking for an interesting, pleasant and affordable place to stay in Old San Juan,  The Gallery Inn is the place (below). It's about as far away from the cruise ship dock in Old San Juan as you can get, in fact the wall for the infamous La Perla district (above) is on the other side of the street (which I find interesting in itself). The Gallery is definately the most unique place I have ever stayed with it's extremely eclectic decor. The various parrots perched throughout the property help to complete the look. Not only is it interesting, but it's also very inviting. The owners make you feel right at "home" and even though I am not very artsy or musical I enjoyed the place very much. The music room and art classes would definately appeal to those who are. The wine deck on top of the property offers some of the best views in Old San Juan. And yes, I did feel safe even with the dangerous ghetto only steps away. When you are inside the property you are transported into a beautiful tranquil world of relaxation and when you are outside the property and walking across the street there's a slight mixture of fear and mystery which I found strangely exciting. With that said, I never felt overly uneasy as the two worlds pretty much keep to themselves. Unfortunately I can't give a review of the breakfast because we had an early flight. I'm sure it's wonderfully delicious!

After exploring the northern part of Old San Juan we finally settled on El Jibori for lunch. It's a "locals" restaurant with delicious Puerto Rican food. The only drawback was the lack of air conditioning, but you actually start to get used to the constant sweating after a while. The food was great but it did not rival Cafe de Angels in Condado, particularly when referring to the mofungo. While our food started to settle, we walked over to El Morro to watch hundreds of Puerto Rican children fly their kites in the huge fields that make up the foreground of the fortress. Many other children enjoyed spashing around in the fountain across the street. I couldn't help but imagine the fun that my own children would have in Old San Juan.

After relaxing at our B&B, and re-visiting Barrachina for a delicious grouper accompanied by another pair of pina coladas,  I had one final agenda. Remember those paintings that I didn't get because I was going to wait until our return trip? Big mistake! After repeatedly dragging my husband up and down the streets I finally had to throw in the towel and admit that I had no idea where that particular store was. I was so disappointed! I had already picked out where on my walls I wanted those pictures to hang. Moral of the story: If you see something you like in Old San Juan, GET IT because you may never find that store again. Lackadasical strolls without agendas don't meld well with mazes of streets and dizzying heat. Eventually things start to look the same if you're not paying close attention. There are worse things I suppose. To me it just means that I have to make yet another return trip. Perhaps the next time I will have the kiddos in tow and we'll extend our exploration zone out even further. Yeah, I'm liking this idea!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Falling in love with Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Part One).

Travelers/Trip Type: My Husband And I
Method of Travel: Air
Would I Return: As Often As I Can!

Meandering through the cobblestone streets in Old San Juan is truly a gift. Brightly painted buildings line the streets and various plants adorn nearly every balcony. There are so many gems to find in this compact little area that it's almost certain you'll find a new favorite with each new venture. The excitement of these potential discoveries and the warmth of the wonderful people are what made me fall in love with Old San Juan.

Visiting Old San Juan for the first time was a truly memorable experience. The cab ride to our hotel proved to be our first adventure as we sped through the narrow, flooded streets (the remnants of a passing tropical storm). Because we had arrived in the evening, the cover of darkness added additonal mystery to the unknown locale and I breathed an audible sigh of relief when we finally arrived at our hotel, the Sheraton Old San Juan Resort & Casino. Our primary reason for selecting this hotel was its close proximity to the cruise ship dock. We were set to depart on a 7-day southern Caribbean cruise the following afternoon and we wanted things to be as convenient as possible. I found this hotel to be somewhat of a disappointment considering our final bill approached $200 for one night (the hotel taxes here are quite tremendous). I can't put my finger on anything in particular to complain about, I guess I was just expecting something fancier for the price (and the fact that it was a Sheraton). The location, however, was ideal for us and there was a nice rooftop pool that offered great views of Old San Juan.  I would recommend this hotel to first time cruisers because of it's close location to the pier, but once you are familiar with the area it's much more attractive to stay in the heart of Old San Juan rather than tourist central (aka the Sheraton).

We quickly deposited our things and eagerly set off to find a place for dinner. After zigzaging through the streets we finally stumbled across Sultra 61 Cafe and Bar. It was a nice little "hole in the wall" cafe with a very relaxed atmosphere and friendly staff. For being a "hole in the wall" it sure wasn't cheap. It seemed that prices in general were a little high for dinner throughout the area. The highlight of the meal for me was the salad which included some fantastic grated cheese (goat?) and some seriously amazing salsa dressing. Oh what I wouldn't do for that recipe..... Now, I must clarify that I am NOT a salad person; at least not in the States I'm not. However, the two most amazing salads that I have ever eaten have been in the Caribbean (the other was in St. Lucia) so when I am in this part of the world I no longer skip salads like I usually do. After dinner we called it a night and got some much needed rest.

Because we had to begin our boarding process in the early afternoon, we got up bright and early to spend the morning exploring Old San Juan. Map in hand, we set out to find La Bombonera for breakfast (259 calle San Francisco). I had read about it being a popular spot for the locals so I knew I wanted to check it out. At first glance it didn't appear to be much different than back home (except for the fact that half the menu was in Spanish), but once we got our scrambled eggs, toast and milkshakes we noticed that it was definately not what we were used to. The bread was completely different (albeit exceptional), and so was the milkshake. It was a nice, simple breakfast without a lot of fuss. La Bombonera is mostly famous for their fresh pastries but after already indulging in a milkshake we decided to pass on them for the moment. On my next visit I plan on combining a hearty breakfast with dessert by ordering a mallorca (eggs, bacon, and cheese sandwiched between two pastries and covered with powdered sugar) but my stomach wasn't up for it on this particular morning.

After a satisfying breakfast we continued west on calle San Francisco and eventually north up calle Del Cristo to get to El Morro, San Felipe Castle (above). We spent at least an hour just wandering around and admiring the grounds. This is a MUST DO attraction! Not only is it strikingly beautiful against the gorgeous blue sky and equally blue ocean, but it's also fascinating to learn about its history. One piece of advice though: GO IN THE MORNING! It was only 9 am (in mid September) by this point and the the sun was already incredibly intense and was accompanied by the most insane humidity I have ever experienced. I could not imagine doing this attraction later in the day as there is an extreme amount of walking with minimal shade.  And ladies, don't even bother putting makeup on because you will sweat it off in literally 10 minutes. Just put on some cute shades and lip gloss and off you go.

After exploring El Morro we headed back to the center of town, seeking refuge in shade under various balconies and awnings when available. It was a Sunday morning and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The few people we did pass were friendly locals who welcomed us with warm smiles and gentle greetings. Some asked us if we needed directions, while others warned us not to go near La Perla (which is a dangerous drug infested neighborhood just on the other side of the wall near El Morro). My favorite local, however, was an older gentleman who interrupted his glorious Spanish singing only long enough to give us a toothy smile before continuing on his way. No hurry. No worries. Not a care in the world. At that moment I felt the very same way. The soothing sound of church music from the nearby cathedral served as our soundtrack as we wandered around Old San Juan with no real agenda. In this case it was the journey rather than the destination that was incredible and we were content enjoying whatever we happened to stumble across. Some of those things included a peek inside the beautiful cathedral itself, as well as enjoying a local park known as Parque De Las Palomas, (above right) where thousands of pigeons made their homes in the cement walls and trees. The local children would squeal with delight as they chased the pigeons around the park. My only worry at that point was getting pooped on, which was a legitimate concern considering the sheer number of pigeons. The park was located on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean so we were blessed with a stunning view in addition to the lively entertainment.  As we continued back down the hill towards the pier we found calle Paseo de la Princesa (on the other side of the wall from the park) which led us to an outdoor marketplace (entrance shown below). It was a really fun and festive atmosphere with music, dancing and lots of  talented artisans selling their crafts. I was able to pick up some amazing handcrafted souvineers at incredible prices! There were plenty of street vendors selling popcorn, piraguas (shaved ice) and various other food items to quell any hunger pains, however we were too hot to even think about eating.

After briefly watching the locals happily dance in the street, and buying as many souvineers as we could carry, we walked back to our hotel to grab our things and continued across the street to the pier to begin our embarkation process. I couldn't believe that I was actually feeling sad to leave, especially since I had only spent a portion of the day in Old San Juan. But this is a special, special place, I didn't need a lot of time to know that. I had fallen in love with Old San Juan. And my only consolation for leaving was knowing that I would definately be back.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Rock City: Hide & Seek Mecca

Travelers/Trip Type: Family Trip (Husband & 2 Young kiddos)
Method of Travel: Car
Would I Return: Definately

Hide-and-seek is a game that children of all ages seem to enjoy and my kids are no exception. In fact it seems that everywhere we go my 3-year old and 5-year old beg me to play. Most of the time there aren't many hiding places so it's more of a nuisance than anything. That is definately not the case at my next special location. You could literally play for hours and not run out of hiding spots. So where is this hide-and-seek mecca you ask? Well it's practically in my backyard. It's known as Rock City and it's located near Minneapolis, Kansas.

We didn't set out to Rock City looking to play hide and seek. Instead we were already in the area and were looking for a quick little side trip. I was intrigued by the prospect that there could be something referred to as  "Rock City" in the middle of the plains. I mean it's completely flat here, where would they come from? I learned that Rock City is comprised of  huge sandstone concretions created by Dakota sandstone that was deposited when Kansas was covered by an inland sea. Apparently there is no other place in the world where there are so many concretions of such a giant size. Cool. Even cooler? Real dinosaur bones were found in a nearby field and are on display at the Ottawa County Museum in Minneapolis. When we arrived, however,  all historical facts went out the window as the four of us enjoyed the simple pleasure of running around and exploring. There are over 200 giant rocks and they are spread out in an area the size of two football fields. What began as trying to find "Giant's Chair", "Turtle", "Donut Hole", "Kissing Lips", "Coffin" and many more cleverly named rocks (there's a map with a list of all the names) eventually evolved into one incredible game of hide and seek. I can honestly say I've never had more fun playing with my kids. In fact I kind of felt like a kid myself for a moment which was completely exhilirating!

We visited Rock City in January so the gift shop was closed (it's only open May-Sept from 9-5 pm). To pay our admission we simply deposited our money ($3 for adults, $0.50 for kids) into a little box outside the gift shop. Sure, we could have left without paying (there wasn't anyone there) but I felt like our experience was definately worth $7. I've been to MUCH more expensive attractions and not left feeling as satisfied as I did leaving here. It was simple, good quality family time at it's very best! To get here from the south take the K-18 exit from I-70 or continue going straight from I-135. Drive 10 miles north and then head west on K-18 for 4 miles. Head north on K-106 until you see the turn for Rock City. There will be tiny signs along the way but I wouldn't rely on them as they are incredibly small and easy to miss. From the north just head south on K-81, then south on K-106 (through Minneapolis) until you see the turn. I sincerely hope that you have as much fun as we did!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Vintage charm for old friends in Palm Springs!

Travelers/Trip Type: Girls' Trip!
Method Of Travel: Air, Car
Would I Return: Probably, If I Had A Good Reason.....

Anytime that I can sneak away for a few days on a girls' trip I definately jump on the opportunity. Now that I am (for the most part) a stay-at-home mom these trips are especially valuable in maintaining my identity outside of being a mommy. My most recent trip was to Palm Springs where I met up with a few friends, some of whom I have not seen for over fifteen years. Wow, I feel old now! Due to the company I was with, we probably would have had an amazing time just about anywhere but I did find Palm Springs to be quite charming.

I flew in to San Diego so that I could drive over to Palm Springs with a close friend. We chose an indirect route so that we could pay a visit to the stinky Salton Sea (above top). I had read that in it's heyday people flocked to it's shores to vacation in expensive summer homes along the beach. That time has since passed. I suppose once dead fish started littering the shores and the stench started to resemble that of a sewer it lost it's appeal (above bottom). Strangely enough it appealed enough to us to warrant an hour detour on our way to Palm Springs to see it. We pulled in to the town of Desert Shores at the first available street and drove all the way to the end of the road so that we could get to the "sea". Desert Shores has a strange feel to it, deserted yet not abandoned. It wasn't like what I had read about on the other side of the "sea"  (Bombay Beach) where everything was completely abandoned, but other than one car passing through we didn't see a soul the entire time we were there. We saw evidence of people but no people (right). It was weird.

Once in Palm Springs the two of us met up with another friend and indulged ourselves at the Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel with massages/facials and a soak in their hot mineral pools. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this place in particular as it was just average but I would recommend pampering yourself somewhere in Desert Hot Springs while on your trip.  The treatments weren't bad they just weren't top notch. I'm used to getting massages in a dark room with soothing music playing softly in the background whereas this massage room was drenched in sunlight and had static music coming out of the broken speakers. The massage itself was pretty amazing though so it almost negated the annoying setting.  The common areas and pool area of this hotel had a nice retro ambiance to it which we enjoyed.  In fact, we noticed these vintage touches throughout Palm Springs. Nothing screamed retro but rather the perfect amount of  "old school" charm without it being cheesy.

In order to shave off some expenses we shared a room at the Vagabond Inn located at the very south end of S. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs. I would highly recommend this hotel if you are looking for a quality budget hotel. It's definately not fancy but it's clean, has a friendly staff and offers a wonderful array of amenities such as a nice complimentary breakfast, an inviting pool area, a free wi-fi connection and a fridge and microwave in each room. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the beds are comfortable, however, I didn't wake up with a sore back which is more than I can say for many other places I've stayed. It's a bit far to walk downtown but if you have a car it's actually in the perfect location. Because it's located off the main street it has less traffic and is therefore quieter and more relaxing, but yet it has easy access to anywhere you want to go. I especially love the scenery! There are lots of palm trees surrounding the hotel (above) and it's perched right at the base of a mountain (also above). The ONLY reason why I would not stay here again is if I didn't have a car and wanted to be located right downtown (in this case I would look at the Hyatt or the Spa Resort Casino) but I would have to be willing to spend much more money.

Our main activity during our trip was exploring Joshua Tree National Park with two additional friends who met us there. Fortunately for us one of our friends was an experienced climber so we got the inside scoop on all of the interesting spots to hike and climb. I was able to climb up the face of a rock (with ropes) for the first time because of his expertise and equipment (above left). I think this particular rock was called Cyclops because it had a big "eye" in the top that we were able to look out of (after a ridiculously scary climb up the back side with NO ROPES). My favorite spot, however, was called the Hall of Horrors (above right). It's a narrow pathway through the rocks which involves scrambling up and down and squeezing in some pretty tight places to get through. It was made even more difficult due to the melting snow puddles which made some places inpassible and resulted in us having to find alterior routes. That being said, it was still a treat to witness the desert foliage in stark contrast to the bright white snow (below).

Not only were we blessed with an experienced tour guide but our other friend (his wife) prepared an amazing picnic lunch for us. We had several different cheeses and crackers, a wonderful curry chicken salad with endive leaves and the most amazing pound cake ever with wine marinated apricots to accompany it. Simply divine. When I heard that she was bringing lunch I knew we were in for a treat because I had read many of her posts at Let's just say that I was not disappointed! If you want to create an elevated dining experience with a touch of down home comfort all wrapped up with simple elegance you should check out some of her posts.

Another activity worth mentioning (which can be enjoyed by persons of any age) is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. It's kind of spendy at $23.25 (for adults) but it's worth doing at least once because it offers some incredible views (right). FYI, it's damn cold up there so please dress appropriately. It was downright frigid in February and I would imagine it would be pretty cold year round because of the high elevation. We knew we were in trouble when we witnessed groups headed up wearing all of their winter gear and carrying sleds. Let's just say that we were not donning our winter attire! Yikes!

What I love about Palm Springs is that it feels like a big city and a small town all at the same time. The downtown area is inviting and offers a number of different shops and restaurants to choose from. We ate three very different cuisines during our stay and all three were fantastic. Las Casuelas was a wonderful Mexican restaurant which had the most incredible salsa ever. I seriously ate two bowls of chips and salsa before I even got my entree and I usually don't even touch that stuff. The portions were gigantic and the prices were quite reasonable. The toasty heaters made our wonderful outdoor table absolutely perfect! Excellente! Kalura Trattoria was a delicious Italian restaurant that offered such an extensive list of choices that it was hard to choose. Everyone ended up happy with their selections and we all had a wonderful time. The prices were average and the atmosphere was exceptional (we sat inside). Our final restaurant was called Pepper's Thai Cuisine. It was my first time trying Thai food so I was a little leery but up for the adventure. Wow, where have I been?!?!?! The lunch special did not disappoint with a soup and wonderful mixed plate but it was the dessert that was something special. Ohhhh. I WANT IT NOW! I ordered the fried bananas drizzled with chocolate accompanied by a scoop each of coconut and green tea icecream. I die. The green tea icecream was the best icecream I have ever eaten! Seriously, it sounds horrible but it was amazing! I must stop thinking about it or I will go into a deep depression because I am nowhere near a restaurant offering it..... The prices were super affordable and if I ever go back to Palm Springs I will no doubt be going back here. One more thing, make sure you have to go to the bathroom. They are the most gorgeous bathrooms I have ever seen. Who knew?

So let me reiterate the things I loved about Palm Springs. I loved the fact that it felt like a small town but yet had all the offerings of a big city. I loved the copious amounts of palm trees and the mountains in the distance. I loved the farmer's market up by Joshua Tree National Park where we got delicious blood oranges and Japanese apple pears. I loved the Art Fair downtown where I picked up a unique vase. I loved all of the funky shops and amazing restaurants that lined Palm Canyon Drive. And finally, although you may find this strange, I loved all of the wind turbines surrounding the city (especially at sunset). For some reason I find them to be quite striking. So yes, I loved all of these things and would enjoy them again if I returned, but there are so many other cool places to explore that I would be okay if I never came back.  But if I did, I would tear up some green tea icecream!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Good vibes in the beautiful St. Lucia!

Travelers/Trip Type: My Husband And I
Method Of Travel: Air, Cruise Ship
Would I Return: In A Hearbeat!

Whenever I travel to a new place I almost immediately pick up a vibe from the location, sometimes it puts me on edge (for no particular reason) and sometimes I am instantly put at ease. The latter was the case when I visited St. Lucia for the first time. It is for this reason, along with the fact that it's incredibly lush, the beaches are amazing, and the people are fantastic that I have classified St. Lucia as my favorite (overall) Caribbean island.

Many of the islands that dot the Caribbean are very poor and host a rougher crowd (away from the towering resorts and exquisite hotels) and it is in these particular areas that I tend to feel uneasy and sometimes downright scared. For example, when I visited the island of Dominica we were specifically told not to go into town (Roseau) and not to accept rides from any taxis without the appropriate sticker or we were at risk for kidnapping and/or robbery. Okay, this is not the type of place that makes me want to relax and enjoy my vacation. In Mexico, there are  guards with machine guns. Again, not very comforting. Additionally, even though I have never been to Jamaica, I have heard too many stories from friends and family about how unsafe they felt when they ventured away from the security of the resorts. I don't know about you but I don't want to be confined to a resort the entire trip,  regardless of how beautiful it is. I want the opportunity to integrate myself into the local scene so that I can absorb as much as possible about the true essence of the place that I am visiting (without fearing for my life). In St. Lucia, even though there were many areas of extreme poverty, I never once felt uncomfortable.

I have been to St. Lucia twice but unfortunately only for one day (on each trip) as our stops were part of a southern Caribbean cruise. On our first trip we wanted to get an overview of the island so we did a land and sea combo trip (booked through the cruise) to cover as much ground as possible in a short amount of time. We started off by snaking through the capital city of Castries, then we headed up the mountain and into the jungle, stopping at many scenic overlooks and towns such as Anse La Reye, Canary and then finally Soufriere. If curvy roads bother you then you definately do not want to make this drive!  It was crazy because we would be in the middle of nowhere and then someone would suddenly appear with goods to sell. My favorites were the man with the giant python around his neck (allowing you to take pictures with the snake for a small fee) and the local craftswomen who sold their hand sewn dolls through the windows of the bus (right). It's wierd because in other parts of the Caribbean you feel hassled by vendors coming up to you with their wares, but in St. Lucia you almost feel blessed that they gave you the opportunity to buy their stuff. They weren't pushy at all so maybe that's the difference.

As we approached Soufriere, we were blessed with a magnificant view of the pitons. Wow! We had to put our piton viewing on hold for a minute though as our next stop was Sulfer Springs. Supposedly it's the only active volcano that you can drive into. It was neat to see all of the bubbling water (above top)  but the stinkometer was on extreme high so if you are sensitive to smell you may want to avoid this attraction. Our final stop before driving into Soufriere was the Botanical Gardens where we were able to view all of the beautiful plants and trees of St. Lucia (above bottom). If you go, make sure you walk to the end of the trail to view the waterfall. Finally, we headed to Soufriere where we boarded our catamaran and indulged in a wonderful creole lunch with the glorious pitons as our backdrop. The highlight of the meal for me (along with the view) was the breadfruit cake salad. It was amazing! As we "cruised" the coast we were able to see all of the towns that we had previously driven through. It was neat to see them from a  different vantage point. We stopped at Anse Cochon (black sand beach) for a swim before continuing on to the beautiful Marigot Bay and then back to our ship.

On our second trip to St. Lucia we were celebrating our 10 year anniversary so we definately wanted to get away from the masses for a more intimate look at St. Lucia. We accomplished this by booking a tour through Serenity Tours called the "Day of Serenity Tour" which gave us a wonderful day at the Ti Kaye Village  Resort and Spa in the middle of the jungle. Our drive was 30-40 minutes through dense jungle, which included numerous switchback roads. I recalled this one town in particular called Anse La Raye (above and right top & bottom) from our former visit and knew I wanted to stop there along the way for some souvineer shopping (and our tour guide happily obliged). It's this quant little fishing village with a small row of local vendors selling their goods for really cheap prices. It's definately the best place to shop in St. Lucia if you are looking for something handcrafted to bring home. I have read that on friday nights they have a big fish fry there which I definately want to attend at some point in the future. Anse La Raye has the local flair that I love to experience and I was almost frustrated that we couldn't spend more time there.

Once at the "resort" we were able to relax the entire day. I say "resort" because it did not have the feel of a resort at all, in fact it felt very private, like our own private residence along the beach in the middle of the jungle (above). We were able to kayak to an even more private beach, followed by some amazing snorkeling and then sun tanning on comfortable chairs. The snorkeling was the best that I've ever seen, not so much because of the fish but because the coral was incredible looking with all different colors and shapes. I've never seen anything like it! It put Hanauma Bay (in Hawaii) to shame! It was a wonderful day to relax and enjoy each other's company in paradise.

After relaxing we were able to enjoy a lunch up in their restaurant on the top of the cliff looking down at the beach. It was super chic with white curtains blowing in the wind and we had the entire place to ourselves (above top). The food was outstanding! In particular, I remember the most amazing salad I've ever eaten and a wonderfully delicous banana split composed of various icecream flavors, including banana and pistaccio. Finally, we indulged ourselves with a couples massage in a private room overlooking the ocean (above bottom). We were able to pick our oils and then enjoy a delicious cold tea while they washed our feet and prepared us for our massage. It was the best spa experience I have ever had! They even had mirrors on the floor so that you could still see the ocean while you were laying down for your massage! The entire day was absolutely amazing and I would highly recommend this place to anyone. Couples, families, friends, you name it.... I will definately be returning, probably with my teenage daughters in tow (okay so it's gonna be a few years but they gotta be able to swim well enough to partake in all of the water activities). However, the next time that I return I will be staying for at least a week so that I can do it justice. The locals are amazingly friendly and there's so much more that I want to explore. These two short trips have only wet my appetite for discovering the wonderful St. Lucia!