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, November 29, 2012

Paradise Reconfirmed: 
St. John, U. S. Virgin Islands

Last Saturday while en route from St. Thomas to JFK on an American Airlines flight, I struck up a conversation with a woman of my vintage (mid-sixties) seated next to me.  Like my family and me, she was going home after a week on St. John, the smallest of the three United States Virgin Islands, which sits just a few miles from St. Thomas.  

It turned out she was extremely well-traveled, also just like me and my family, and we got into an enthusiastic discussion about places we'd been and enjoyed.  We agreed that we were especially keen on South Africa (notably the Kruger National Park) and Africa in general.  She offered great advice for visiting the mountain gorilla park in Rawanda.  

Soon our conversation turned to various tropical islands and countries with exceptional beaches and reefs for snorkeling: Fiji, Hawai'i, Moorea (Tahiti), the Seychelles (she'd been; I hadn't), Mauritius (I'd been; she hadn't), Thailand, Great Barrier Reef (Australia), Belize, Costa Rica, Barbados, Cancun, Grand Cayman, The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, St. John, and others.

Suddenly she turned to me and said, "You know, I guess I never really thought about it, but I don't believe there are any more beautiful beaches on earth that are so accessible for swimming and snorkeling than Maho Bay, Trunk Bay, and Cinnamon Bay on St. John.  Do you?"

I had to admit she was probably right.  I can make a great case for the sheer beauty of other beaches.  The entire Pacific coast of the United States is breathtakingly beautiful, but I wouldn't call even the Southern California beaches ideal for swimming, let alone snorkeling.  Rio's Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are gorgeous, but they are more a backdrop for beautiful bodies than they are family swim beaches.  Ditto for the French and Italian Rivieras.  One can make a strong argument in favor of my native North Carolina's Outer Banks beaches or the white sugar sands of Florida's Redneck Riviera, both of which are great for swimming. 

But none of those are good for swimming AND snorkeling.  At Maho, Cinnamon, and Trunk Bays on St. John, the beaches are tropical picture post cards of brilliant white sands, crystal clear blue water, and swaying palm trees, all framed by the steep green mountainous terrain that defines the island.  Within a few feet of the water's edge, fish and other sea life teem in abundance among a variety of soft and hard coral.  If tropical island natural beauty, swimming, snorkeling, relaxing, and reading a good book while sipping a rum punch appeal to you, I recommend St. John.  

Of course there are some catches; nothing's easy, after all, let alone inexpensive.  St. John is mainly a destination for the one percent.  That said, we have stayed three times now at the cheapest place on the island, Maho Bay Eco-Camp.  At $85/night (off season), it can't be beat for economy-minded families who don't mind their rustic tent cabins and communal ablution blocks.  Prices for St. John accommodation options beyond the eco-camp tend to jump into the stratosphere and beyond.  One can easily pay $12,000-25,000 per week for a fancy "villa" perched on one of the island's many steep mountains with a spectacular, if far-removed, view of the ocean.  Prices for places modestly tucked into valleys with no water view are considerably less.  In either case, however, beach access is dependent upon having a rental car.  

Rental car agencies are all local on St. John (no Avis or Hertz), but my experiences with several have been good.  A Ford Escape rents for around $540 per week, all in, plus gas.  
All car rental offices are within an easy walk from the Cruz Bay passenger ferry dock.  

Spencer's Car Rental, for instance, is trustworthy and reliable, and the oldest on the island.  If you rent from Spencer's, ask for Carmilla.  She's usually at the bar across the street drinking beer and enjoying the Reggae music.  

There is currently just one gas station on the entire island, and prices are roughly double what they are in North Carolina.  

It is not advisable or allowed to take a rental car off St. John via the car ferry, nor is it allowed to bring a rental car onto St. John from St. Thomas via the car ferry.  Doing so risks a huge fine from the rental car company.  Prices for car rentals are the same on both islands, so there would be no cost advantage doing so, anyway.  

Then there's the logistics challenge of getting to St. John in the first place.  It's only 12.8 miles from Cruz Bay, its main town where the ferry docks, to the far end of the island, and not so much as 100 feet are flat.  St. John roads and highways, such as they are, all go straight up and straight down.  Thus there is no airport on St. John.  All commercial flights from the mainland go to St. Thomas.  From there travelers bound for St. John share a taxi van for about $15 each (including luggage) to Red Hook on the far side of St. Thomas (can take an hour during AM/PM peaks).  Passenger ferries run hourly between Red Hook on St. Thomas and Cruz Bay on St. John, a fast and cheap 20 minute trip.

Flights to St. Thomas (STT is the airport code) aren't cheap, either, but round trip air fares can be found for less than $500 if booked well in advance.

I'll write more next week about our recent experiences getting to St. John and the specific experience of being there.  For us, it was the perfect way to spend Thanksgiving with the kids.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Calm (Weekend) Before the Storm

Months ago my wife and I planned a late October family weekend in New York City based on a teacher workday Friday on our kids' school calendar.  Flying up from Raleigh on a Friday morning rather than Saturday adds a third day to enjoy America's greatest city.  Little did we know that it would be the weekend before Frankenstorm devastated the metro area.

Looking at the photos and videos of Hurricane Sandy's destruction and the inundation of lower Manhattan this week, we couldn't help remarking again and again: "We were just there last week where that picture was taken."  "That's the subway line we rode to Chinatown."  "We walked down that street now strewn with debris and mud just last Saturday."

Our trip was remarkably laid back and relaxing from start to finish.  Despite pouring rain in Raleigh and New York on Friday, October 19, our cramped American Eagle CRJ was on time leaving RDU and arriving LaGuardia Airport.  When does that ever happen on a flight to or from LGA, let alone when the weather is bad?

We were stunned, however, by the mobs of passengers snaking through the security line at 5:50 AM at Raleigh/Durham.  Even with my Elite line privileges, things moved slowly.  Good thing we had arrived early (for just this contingency).  

When we reached the extremely busy TSA personnel working the portals, I was pleased at how cheerful and professional they all seemed.  It's amazing how an upbeat mood can make the security screen experience so much more tolerable.  

Once our plane landed and pulled into its Concourse C gate at LGA, AA quickly and efficiently retrieved the gate-checked luggage, including ours, and we were heading for the exit by 8:45 AM.  

Rather than take a cab into Manhattan we had decided to make an adventure of it by taking public transportation.  We first located the MTA ticket machines (in the next terminal) and purchased four $10 Metro tickets (which give you a bonus: $10.70 worth of travel).  Of course my family of four needed four tickets, and I was perplexed that I was prohibited from using the same credit card for more than two consecutive transactions to buy the Metro Cards--no doubt a security measure.  I had to insert a second credit card for the third and fourth Metro cards.

Our NY Metro Map indicated that we'd need to take the M60 bus from LaGuardia over to Astoria Boulevard ($2.25 each for the bus ride) and then walk a half block to the N/Q subway.  Our M60 bus driver told us the Metro Card would automatically know that we were transferring from the bus to the subway and would not charge us again.  But he was wrong.  Another $2.25 was deducted from each card for the N line subway.  An MTA supervisor later told me that the transfer DOES work going from the subway to the bus, but NOT from the bus to subway.  He just scratched his head and laughed when I asked him to explain the logic of that rule and admitted it was nonsense.

Thus the trip from LGA to Midtown Manhattan cost $4.50 per person times four people = $18, still a big savings over a taxi ($30-50).  We boarded the train and clanked into the city intending to get off at 49th Street, which was just a block from our hotel.  However, it was raining, and our train stopped permanently at 59th Street on account of a stalled train ahead of us.  We were told it was one of the new subway trainsets that stopped working (as opposed to our train, which was almost 100 years old) and that the new ones frequently break down when it rains.

I will say this about the MTA:  They kept us better informed of the reason for the delay and what to expect than most airlines do about their flights.  By this time, though, it had been 75 minutes since we departed LGA on the bus, and we decided to walk the 12 blocks to our hotel.  

Peeved but determined, and with luggage in tow, we power-walked in the rain those long blocks to the Hilton Garden Inn on 8th Avenue near 49th Street.  I was wet and tired by the time we arrived at 10:30 AM.  Naturally our rooms weren't ready so early, but the very courteous HGI staff took my mobile number and promised to phone me when we could get the key.  We left our luggage with the bellman and took off for Rockefeller Center where the kids wanted to ice-skate.

A word about why we chose the Hilton Garden Inn:  We'd intended to stay at the Hampton Inn a block north on 8th because we'd had a great experience there last year at a fair rate, and because it provided an ample free breakfast, unlike the HGI.  Our search, though, had shown appalling rates of $550-650 per night at both the Hampton and the HGI for that particular weekend.  To avoid spending $1200-1500 on hotel rooms, I used Hilton Honors points for the HGI.  The Hampton showed zero availability on points.  I overheard a front desk clerk at the HGI tell someone on Friday that they had no rooms for sale the entire weekend, so I guess we were lucky to snag a free room at either property.

The rain poured, and we bought a poncho and umbrella at the NBC Store.  The hotel called to report that our room was ready (before noon).  The ice rink was drenched and uninviting, and we headed back to the hotel, stopping only at a little Italian hole in the wall on 49th (Bella Napoli, between 5th and 6th) for a bite of lunch.  What a meal!  While the kids devoured house-made pizza, I relished a tagliatelle with olive oil, garlic, and wild mushrooms that was out of this world.  I’d go back for it.  

Up since 4:30 that Friday morning, we were tired and sleepy after lunch and had a long afternoon nap while the rains fell incessantly outside our second floor window.  Room 212 had been well-stocked with earplugs in case the street noise bothered us, which it didn't, nor did the constant rumble of the subways running beneath 8th Avenue.  I don't think I can recall a hotel room supplying earplugs before, at least not in America.  The room was well-appointed and roomy (noticeably bigger than the expensive Marriott Washington room two weeks ago), with a large HD flatscreen, microwave, fridge, and it was adequately sound-proofed.

Clouds were thinning by late afternoon as we stirred ourselves to take the subway down to the Village for dinner and then to see the evergreen "Stomp" at the Orpheum.  The kids loved it!  We had some trouble using our Metro Cards in the card readers both ways on the subway.  An MTA ticket seller had to remotely open a gate for me at one point.

Back at the Hilton Garden Inn the subways rumbled all night, providing a reassuring vibration to our New York City experience, and we slept like babes.  The skies were clear and beautiful Saturday morning, and the air crisp and cool: a perfect day to walk the City.

And walk we did for most of the day. The kids skated at Rock Center as they love to do; we visited FAO Schwarz; then we lunched in the park at the Central Park Zoo café (don't go unless you crave mediocre fast food at sky-high prices).  Our kids had endless fun running around on the rocks in the park after lunch.  As the afternoon waned, we walked across to Lincoln Center and saw the Big Apple Circus in the temporary tent set up between the opera and ballet theaters (recommended). 

Another subway took us after the circus from Lincoln Center to Chinatown where we enjoyed excellent dumplings at the Shanghai Café (100 Mott Street).  We used up the last money on our four Metro Cards returning by subway again to 49th Street and marveled at nearby Times Square on a Saturday night before we walked back to our hotel.  

Sunday morning we slept in, packed leisurely, and grabbed a taxi to LaGuardia for our itty-bitty AA jet home to Raleigh.  

All in all, we didn't do much.  It was a very low key weekend, and very relaxing.  The City embraced us, and we took comfort in her.

As we took off and circled around Manhattan, the view of the island and its skyscrapers was marvelous.  I was glued to my window seat, as I have been my entire life on scores of flights in and out of NYC.  I've never become jaded by the sight, but I have probably taken it for granted that New York and the greater metro area surrounding it would always be there, grand and immovable, much like the Rocky Mountains.  My confidence in that absolute certainty was shaken this week when I saw New York and New Jersey drowned by the storm.  I wish its citizens a speedy recovery to normalcy.