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 20, 2012

St. John Bliss, Part 1

You gotta love St. John to make the effort to get there because it's not that easy.  As I wrote in my earlier post, visiting the island involves first flying to its larger sister in the U. S. Virgin Islands archipelago, St. Thomas (STT airport code).  Tiny, mountainous St. John has no airport even for itty-bitty planes.  

Once on the ground in St. Thomas, one must get to a ferry terminal that offers service to St. John. Finally on St. John, despite it being just 13 miles long, you have to pay for expensive taxis or rental cars to get around.  There are few reasonably-priced accommodations.  Food and drink are not cheap, and the one gas station on the island commands a hefty premium when refilling a rental car.  But it's still worth the trouble, time, and expense; there are no more beautiful beaches on earth than along the north coast, and I've seen a great many of the world's finest beaches.

Back to the ferry options from St. Thomas to St. John:  There are two ferry terminals, one in downtown Charlotte Amalie which offers intermittent service, and the second in Red Hook which offers service at the top of each hour from early morning up to midnight most days.  Charlotte Amalie is a short cab ride from the airport, but the ferry is costlier and takes longer, not to mention fewer daily sailings.  

We prefer the certainty of the hourly ferries from Red Hook, so we shell out the $15 per person (including luggage) for the sometimes long cab ride from STT airport to Red Hook.  In bad traffic that route can take over an hour, though 40-45 minutes is normal.  

Even if we arrive just after a ferry has departed, our island holiday starts at the bar there drinking a couple of rum punches or an El Presidente pilsener while waiting 50 minutes for the next ferry.  Heck, you can even bring your booze or beer aboard the boat if you ask the bartender for a plastic cup.

For our recent visit over Thanksgiving week, however, we arrived way too late to make the last Red Hook ferry, forcing us to stay overnight in a Best Western at the airport.  Having seen the property on previous trips, I knew we could walk there and save a cab fare.  In the end, though, I showed my ignorance by doing so.

We were tired from the long flights and hoofed it around an unnecessary loop for twenty minutes before finally departing the airport.  Once on the exit road that parallels the single runway and looking back, we realized that we could have saved ourselves fifteen minutes by cutting through the parking lot.  Nonetheless, my wife and I were proud of ourselves for saving a few bucks and demonstrating to our two kids (ages 13 and 9) how to be resourceful.

The gaudy Best Western sign soon hove into view through my sweat-stained glasses, and, glad to have made it, I stopped in the lobby to catch my breath before showing my reservation to the single desk clerk on duty late at night.  I knew something was amiss when he started puzzling over my name and began punching his computer keyboard.    With apologies, he told us that we were at the wrong Best Western property.

"What?!" I exclaimed.  "There's only one Best Western, and this is IT!"  The clerk patiently explained that this was a common problem.  In fact there are two Best Western Hotels near the STT airport; ours was down the road another mile or two, he wasn't sure just how far, and his property was slammed.  He even offered to drive us there, seeing how tired, exhausted, and sweaty we all were.  But just then a big family arrived from the airport in a cab and had to be checked in, and so the clerk was distracted.  We opted to keep walking.

Another 20 minutes or so on foot down the highway, and we were finally within sight of the second Best Western.  Who knew?!  If I'd taken a cab, I could have saved almost an hour.  

After checking into our very ordinary room (which isn't even worth describing), it was past midnight.  Nonetheless, my wife and I were determined to use the welcome drink coupons after the tiresome confusion of finding the hotel.  We grabbed two tasty rum punches at the beach bar just as it was closing and took the frosty glasses back to our room.  After gulping them down greedily, sleep overcame us quickly.  Our kids had hit the hay soon after reaching the room.  As I drifted off I reflected sadly that I'd paid $210 for this small space to lay our heads for less than six hours.  Oh well, I rationalized, such is the price of a tropical beach vacation.

The few hours of sleep did us all a world of good, and we had checked out, grabbed a cab, and reached Red Hook the following morning in time to board the 9:00 AM ferry for Cruz Bay, St. John. The twenty minute boat ride gave us time to get in the right island mood.  We stopped across the small ferry dock square to eat at our favorite Cruz Bay breakfast spot, JJ's Texas Coast Cafe.   

While waiting for our food, I walked the short block over to Spencer's Rental Car to get the contract paperwork out of the way.  I was still in multi-tasking mode, not yet having spun down my gyro to simple bliss mode.  

I wasn't too pleased to find that Carmilla, the colorful old native-born gal who runs Spencer's part time while she pursues her full-time profession downing cold brews at the always-open reggae bar across the street, had raised the rate for a Ford Escape from $75 to $85 per day.  Maybe the cost of beer had gone up at the bar, I thought.  

Whatever, Carmilla surely wasn't interested in answering my question about the overnight 13% rate increase, and instead cackled at me to check the car for damages before taking it.  As I marked the various scrapes and dents on the rental car contract, I again reflected that such is the price of a tropical beach vacation.  Best not to ask too many questions; just pay and go and enjoy.

The short eight mile drive from Cruz Bay to Maho Bay Eco-Camps is without argument one of the most spectacular on earth, with one stunning sugar sand beach bay overlook after another along the road: Caneel Bay, Hawk's Nest Bay, Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, Big Maho Bay, Little Maho Bay, and Francis Bay.  We never tire of the drive, all part of the magic of St. John.  Somewhere along that road I slipped into semi-bliss mode.

Maho Bay Eco-Camps had reserved tent cabin A7 for us, a long walk down the endless boardwalk under the tree canopy.  Our reward was a gorgeous view of Big Maho Bay with several big iguanas placidly munching leaves around the cabin.  A quick change into bathing suits, and we were off to the beach to snorkel Little Maho and Big Maho Bays.  

My wife and I were looking for the big Green Turtles that munch on the short sea grass in Big Maho, and we weren't disappointed.  The first turtle we saw was massive, the biggest we'd ever seen.  I guessed its weight at near 300 pounds.  As I was floating in the crystal-clear water just six feet above it, I realized I was finally in full-tropical-island-deep-bliss mode.  Aaaah!  There's nothing like that feeling of relaxation.

And that was all before lunch on our first day.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Getting There Was Half the Fun

In the days when the great North Atlantic ocean liners steamed between Europe and New York City, getting there was indeed half the fun.  Voyages lasted fours days to a week, and those who could afford a First Class stateroom made lifetime memories hobnobbing  with counts, baronesses, the occasional crown prince, and top business tycoons while feasting on unending courses of Sevruga and Beluga caviar from the Black Sea, the finest French pâté, and bottomless cases of Krug, Bollinger, and other Premier Cru Champagnes.  John Maxtone-Graham's 1972 The Only Way To Cross is the definitive tribute to the era of trans-Atlantic steamer service from the 1840s to the end in the early 1970s.  Maxtone-Graham's tome captures the magic of the times; it is factual, witty, and utterly fascinating.  If, like me, you have spent decades being unceremoniously herded into narrow aluminum tubes that hurtle through the air with minimalist service en route, you will read it and weep.  (Amazon sells used copies of The Only Way To Cross for as little as $4.00 delivered; I highly recommend it.)

The enigmatic Henry J. Tillman is credited with quipping that "The saying 'Getting there is half the fun' became obsolete with the advent of commercial airlines."  Boeing's 707 and 747 certainly killed the Atlantic ocean liners, and travel comfort and style has never been the same since.  Not even Singapore Air's vaulted First Class service is worthy of a comparative description.

These days my air travel wishes are severely practical:  Just get me and my family there in one piece and on the advertised, with minimal hassle at the airports.  As little as I now ask, it doesn't often happen.  But it did recently on bankrupt American Airlines through two of its hubs, and over the busy Thanksgiving week, no less.  This seemingly mundane accomplishment is worth a tip of my hat in gratitude.

For our week in St. John, I booked AA from RDU through Miami to St. Thomas (STT) going out, and STT/JFK/RDU returning.  The only trouble on the entire trip was at home before we left.  I could not get the system to print out one of our four boarding passes for the second leg (MIA/STT).  Oddly, the system checked us all in and printed all four boarding passes for the first leg, but only three boarding passes for the second leg.  A phone call to the Exec Platinum desk didn't get the job done, either.  I had to wait until we were through security at RDU and in the Admirals Club before an AA agent could coax the last boarding pass to print.

The staff at the Admirals Clubs in both RDU and MIA were cordial and helpful, as were the gate agents in both airports and the on-board crews on both legs.  Both flights were over-booked, and yet both left on time and arrived early (to MIA) or on time (to STT). 

En route every coach passenger was served twice.  The seats on the 737 to Miami (10CDEF) were very cramped, and row 10 had no window, but the friendly flight attendants and early arrival more than made up for the temporary discomfort.

By contrast, we were in the "Main Cabin Extra" section (years ago AA called it "More Room Throughout Coach") between MIA and STT in seats 13CDEF with loads of leg room.  Again, the friendly on-board staff and keeping to the schedule made the flight a pleasant experience.

Homeward bound on the Sunday after Thanksgiving after a wonderful week on St. John, I was concerned that bankrupt American's operation might melt down, especially since we were connecting through JFK, notorious for slowdowns and misery.  Happily, AA 404 was dead on time leaving St. Thomas and arriving Kennedy, with more friendly service en route.  I noted that our international 757 had sleeper seats installed up front, though we were once again ensconced in the Main Cabin Extra seats in row 16.  Our coach seats were plenty roomy, however, and our kids enjoyed a movie on the way to New York.

It's been some time since I was in American's refurbished Terminal 8 at JFK, and I was impressed.  The concourse feels good, and the enormous Admirals Club boasted a fine, friendly staff who catered to our kids.  The place was extra clean, too (always noticed, and always appreciated).

Our last leg, JFK/RDU, was on a tiny Eagle RJ (AA 4423), but it, too, left and arrived on time, despite the usual interminable JFK runway wait to take off (obviously time built into the schedule).  I breathed a sigh of relief when we bumped down at RDU, and reflected how amazing it was that we had four such good flights. 

Going to the islands and returning home, I was reading The Only Way To Cross, inevitably inviting comparison between old and contemporary modes of travel.  Our four-flight jaunt was a cattle car service in contrast to the pre-jet glory days of ocean travel in luxury and leisure.  Getting there sure isn't half the fun any more, yet I felt gratified, satisfied, and content that the air service operation functioned as expected on this trip.  When I get the basics these days, that's enough for me.