Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Maho Bay Camps, St. John, USVI: 
Summer Camp For Adults

On the advice of friends who like adventurous travel as much as we do, we booked a week at the unique Maho Bay Camps in the middle of the St. John National Park (U. S. Virgin Islands). Our two kids in tow (ages 13 and 8, and seasoned travelers who also like adventures), we arrived on St. John a few days before Christmas.

We knew that the camp would be a bit primitive, but my first impressions were poor.  I admit that I tend to find fault where others may not when it comes to travel, and this experience was no exception.  My feelings about and for Maho Bay Camps evolved from one end of the spectrum (dislike) to the other (like) over the course of our week.  Here is a sampling of what I wrote to friends via my BlackBerry from beginning to end:

"We are in a small, primitive tent cabin for 7 nights in Maho Bay Camp, St. John, USVI in the middle of the national park. Things are FAR from perfect or even tolerable, especially for $170/nt (high season rates). Power keeps going out, monsoon rains deluge us, louts in nearby tents are yelling & screaming until 2a without regard for their neighbors, & prices for everything exceed those in Tahiti, for God's sake. The electricity was constant there, too, unlike here. And this is only our second morning. Wish we could fly home today, quite honestly.

"We are below the driveway - tent B10. Power was on & off all night. It rained so hard & so long (from 9p until after 4a) that I thought the monsoon had come.

"None of that bothered us that much. But by far the most irritating problem were the loud drunks (all young) in nearby tents who were talking & laughing at the top of their lungs until after 130a. If this happens again, we will have to move because the Maho Bay Camps staff obviously don't police it.

"Toilets are a long way away. And now the power is out (again) all over the island. They say it's not uncommon to lose power & that it is not likely to be back on until tomorrow some time. The entire island is dark. Not pleasant for what we are paying. Seems like Venezuela where I paid $10/nt & didn't care if the power went off for that price.
"EXPENSIVE! More so than even Moorea. We are eating kid meals tonight (chicken tenders) to avoid another hundred dollar very ordinary dinner here at the camp like last night. A 5-hour combo sail and snorkeling trip on the sloop "Pepper" cost us $380 today. Didn't see many fish but enjoyed the sailing & their rum!

"Walked down the aptly-named f***ing Goat Trail to Big Maho Bay for a stiff sundowner - beautiful! But then had to drag my fat ass back up the Goat Trail in the dark while half lit - not so fun. I like the many stairs and boardwalks in the camp per se, but not the treacherous, slimy, slippery, muddy Goat Trail. 

"Forgot to mention that the rain was so intense at times that it seeped through the membrane of the tent & splattered me in the face as I lay on my back in the pitch black darkness (because the power was out again) marveling at the torrent. 100 percent humidity means our wet stuff is still wet after being hung up to dry overnight (inside, of course). 

"All these experiences are tolerable or even pleasant except the sleep deprivation caused by loud neighbors.  
[Author's note:  To their credit, Maho Bay Camp staff patrolled our area the following night and kept things quiet after the 10:00 PM quiet time cutoff.]

"Snorkeling is FABULOUS EVERYWHERE!  We snorkeled at 9 different locations here & all were memorable (Little Maho Bay, Big Maho Bay, Trunk Bay, Hawksnest Bay, Francis Bay, Mary Point, Leinster Bay, Waterlemon Cay & Whistling Cay).

"A close-up of Little Maho Bay. Way in the background is Tortola, British Virgin Islands & in the foreground is a good view of the yellow sloop "Pepper," a modern boat designed like a typical 19th century Virgin Island sailboat once in common use. We went sailing & snorkeling on this boat. 

"We snorkeled from Little Maho Bay to Big Maho Bay & return this PM & saw an great variety of fish & 4 large green turtles, the turtles not 3 ft below us feeding on grass. Rented a car today to give us freedom to go to Waterlemon Bay, Trunk Bay, & other great snorkeling spots on St. John. Love the island!

"Had a superb pork ribs lunch this noon at Uncle Joe's Barbecue in Cruz Bay washed down by a cold Presidente!

"We went snorkeling again at Trunk Bay this morning & on the reef off Annaberg (Leinster Bay) this afternoon.  Both excellent viewing but the water's still murky & a bit cold.

"Believe me, I am enjoying the rum. 

"The common ablution block that contains the toilets is a long hike up many flights of stairs on the boardwalk built through the forest.  But I don't know why I bother traipsing up there at night.  I was told by several guys that the heavy nightly rains hide the sound of relieving themselves over the side of the deck onto the forest floor in the wee hours after too much rum.  I'll bet that makes the iguanas scurry away in a hurry.

"Vie's Snack Shack at East End today for lunch ($12 for conch fritters, $10 for scrumptious garlic fried chicken with rice & beans and Johnny cake) after swimming all morn at Trunk Bay (we got there early & beat the crowds). Also downed 2 Presidente pilsners at lunch. Now to Big Maho before sunset for more snorkeling. Bad news: Shelia's Pot in Cruz Bay has closed, along with her T shirts. They ran all the ladies selling stuff out of the dockside parking lot. 

"We found the Lime Inn Restaurant in Cruz Bay & had a wonderful lunch of shrimp cocktail (our 8 year old daughter consumed 2 orders), spicy peel'n'eat shrimp (Ruth & I each had an order), 2 beers, a Mojito, & 2 desserts. Total came to $99 before tip!.  And the Lime Inn is a modest place!  I was shocked.

We chatted with owner Chris Meyer who told us she & her husband started the Lime Inn Restaurant 27 yrs ago, making it the oldest in Cruz Bay. She told us Sheila (of Sheila's Pot fame) only cooks now during Carnivale.

"I've never been through so many hundred dollar bills so fast.  The C-notes are flying out of my pocket to pay for every meal.  Good thing I brought a wad of cash.

"Everything here is out of sight except for the rum.  Booze is dirt cheap.  Example:  I bought 2 large bottles of premium Mount Gay Rum (made in Barbados) for $25.

"As much as I hate to admit it, Maho Bay Camps, in the middle of Virgin Island National Park (Laurence Rockefeller donated 2/3s of St. John to make up the Park in 1956), is wonderful. Yes, it is primitive (beyond rustic), in fact very much like an adult summer camp, but the primitivo aspects have grown on Ruth & me (more so than the kids, who miss having an in-cabin toilet & shower).  In fact we have moved from dislike to ambivalence to adoration of the natural beauty of the camp. 

"We were sold on the island (St. John) the first day. This place is idyllic. But it took us most of the week to become enamored with Maho Bay Camps, & we are hoping to come back in low season (June) when rates are $80/nt as opposed to $170/nt now in high season. 

"We've had a wonderful time on St. John & can't wait to come back. But still can't get over the fact that food is outrageous: a modest breakfast this morning (before catching the ferry to St. Thomas) at an outdoor, somewhat seedy local restaurant in Cruz Bay (main town on St. John) was $68 before adding a tip. Gas is $4.40/gal. which isn't too bad considering. Our 4WD Dodge Nitro rental car was $90/day including tax.

"At St. Thomas airport to go home, I was also surprised to be asked for documented proof that our kids were our kids. Good thing I brought our passports despite assurances that passports are not necessary here in the U. S. Virgin Islands. Home a bit after midnight if our Delta flights are on time."

So that's the story.  We ended up liking Maho Bay Camps very much, but it is definitely an acquired taste.  Each tent is made of wood suspended off the forest floor and has basic electricity for lights, as well as a box fan.  There were 2 receptacles in our tent cabin, one of which I used to charge my BlackBerry.  The roof appeared to be a plasticized canvas stretched tightly over the wood frame of the small cabin.  Each tent cabin comes with 2 single beds that can be pushed together, plus a rustic sofa that be made into a bed.  We also had a fold-out cot and mattress for our youngest.

Each cabin at Maho has its own small porch or deck with a clothesline for drying things out (when it's not raining).  It rained six nights out of seven, but never during the day (just like my experience of living for several months in Hawaii.)  Every tent cabin comes with dishes and silverware, a Coleman cooler (you buy the ice to keep things cold), and a propane Coleman camp stove that worked well.

Tent cabin life above the forest floor in the National Park reminded me of the Disney movie "Swiss Family Robinson" (for readers old enough to recall that classic).  The weather was mid-eighties days and mid-seventies nights.  We needed only the sheet and a light cover to stay comfortable and sleep well.

The Maho Bay Camps restaurant was very good.  The chef came from a well-known Cruz Bay restaurant.  We enjoyed delicacies like duck on Christmas Day.  Breakfasts were delicious.  Prices at the restaurant were like food prices everywhere on the island: through the roof but no worse (or better) than anywhere else.

There are many activities (sailing, scuba, snorkeling, etc.) offered at Maho, just like any top-rated resort.  The Maho Bay staff are well-trained and eager to make guests happy.  We didn't encounter even one sourpuss among them.

Parking for rental cars brought in by guests is free and adequate.

The views from Maho Bay Camp can't be beat, even at the luxurious Caneel Bay Resort.  Being in the middle of the national park overlooking Little Maho Bay and Big Maho Bay with its own private access direct to both world-class beaches and world-class coral reef snorkeling spots gives the camp a tremendous advantage, proving the old real estate adage that it's all about "location, location, location."  We adjusted to the rusticity because we looked all over the island and could not beat the location!

Here's what a local real estate agent told me about the camp and St. John when I complained during the first few days:

"Don't blame the island, mon.  Maho Bay Camps is a taste to be acquired, although not by me. ... It's true the power outages have been bad for the past six months and there has been lots of rain (payback, I guess, for a mild hurricane season.)"

Despite the bad start, we are now hooked on St. John.  We are definitely planning to return in June or July (assuming we can find good airfares).  After I've had a few days to reflect on our experience--we just got home late last night--I will write a few more impressions and details.  Overall, though, our advice about St. John is: Go!

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Trip I Didn't Take

About a week ago, just as I was preparing to fly from Raleigh to Madison, Wisconsin to visit dear friends, our 13 year old son was came down out of the blue with severe pains in his stomach and abdomen.  He'd gone to bed with no precursor symptoms that anything was wrong, and we were baffled.  We rushed him to our pediatrician, who in turn sent us to the ER. 

After spending all day in a tiny, claustrophobic, windowless room in our hospital's pediatric ER unit going through a number of tests, a surgeon surmised his appendix had gone wonky.  By 4:00 PM our son was having an emergency appendectomy.  Just in time, too, since it was on the verge of rupturing.  But since it had not burst, the procedure was performed laparoscopically with just three small incisions. 

Our son spent one night in the hospital before we took him home.  The morning we checked him out was the morning I was to have flown to Madison.  

During the agonizing anxiety of uncertainty while my son writhed in pain in the ER the day before, I discovered on an emotional level what every parent knows intellectually: that there can be no worse experience than watching helplessly when one's child is in pain, not knowing what is the matter, and feeling helpless to make it better.  While in this state of dread, I had of course called American Airlines and cancelled my reservation to fly to Madison.

My ticket was, as almost all are these days, in a nonrefundable fare class.  After I explained my reason for cancelling, the American reservation agent complimented me for canceling in advance.  She said that if I had not phoned, and simply not showed up, that I would have lost my entire $318.80 round trip fare.  But as I had let them know beforehand, AA would penalize me only the requisite $150 change fee. 

Though drained physically and spiritually, I asked AA about their policy for medical emergencies.  The rez agent, even though reached through the AA Executive Platinum line, was quick (and polite) to point out that she had no authority to make an exception and suggested I write to AA Customer Service.  At my request she notated the record to show we'd had the conversation and why I was cancelling.  

I spent the next few days tending to our son's well-being.  As he bounced back to health (as only the young can), however, I decided to call American Airlines again about the change fee.  It bothered me that any airline would not forgive such an unexpected event.  As far as I can recall, this is the only time in my life that I have asked for a pass due to a medical emergency.   

Once again I phoned the AA Executive Platinum lines, and again I got a polite agent who demurred to Customer Service.  Luckily, he offered to patch me through to speak to a CS person by phone rather than by email or letter.  

After waiting 42 minutes on hold, I spoke to a very kind and efficient American Airlines Customer Service agent who compared my record locator to the notes in it and my verbal explanation.  No doubt he also took into account my Million Miler status and the fact that I'd been an AAdvantage member since the program was launched in 1981.  He put me through to a supervisor within two minutes of our being connected.  

The Supervisor spent less than one minute on the phone.  She apparently looked over the record notes and decided to give me a voucher for the full $318.80 based on the circumstances.  I offered to email a scanned copy of the hospital paperwork, but she said she trusted me and that wouldn't be necessary.  She was polite and warm-hearted.  I was impressed with the sincere timbre of her voice.    She was well-chosen for the difficult role she plays at the airline.

I was even more impressed with her action to forgive the $150 penalty on the strength of my word.  42 minutes of waiting plus two minutes with the first CS agent and one minute with the CS supervisor yielded a fair result.   

Within five minutes AA had generated an email documenting my credit.  It must be used on another AA flight within 12 months, but that won't be a problem.  I intend to reschedule my reservation to Madison for January or February.  Meantime, I am very grateful to American Airlines for doing the right thing, especially during their bankruptcy and reorganization.  Their action reinforces my loyalty.

Our son is already back to normal with no aftereffects other than having a friend (and his parents) help him carry his heavy backpack full of books to and from school.  He can't lift anything heavy for a few weeks, but we are amazed at how fast he has recovered.  American will also benefit from his business, since he has had his own AAdvantage account since he was a baby, and he, too, will be flying on American again soon.  He knows what AA did for me, so the good will generated by American in forgiving the change fee will be generational.