New Year's in Turks and Caicos

Is it too late to talk about New Year's? Oh well. It has taken me some time to get this post together (thanks stomach bug).

Anyway...

One week after my friends and I put down a deposit on a place in Orient Bay, St Martin (SXM), Hurricane Irma hit. 

 

I was crushed--and not just for myself. SXM is a special place and it has been awful to know that the people there are suffering as they work to rebuild. Last year, two friends and I spent a full week on SXM and it was such a relaxing trip. I came back relaxed, a little tan and ready to start a new year.

 

While our rental was apparently fine, the real estate agency admitted that the surrounding area had been devastated with restaurants leveled and supply deliveries slowed.

My friends and I struggled to agree on a new destination. Flights were expensive, just about everywhere, as were accommodations. Our plans fell apart.

And then one of my terrific friends, Christy, made a suggestion: Turks & Caicos (TCI). She had gone there on her honeymoon, and was under the impression that their hurricane damage was minimal. Soon after, I searched flights, found one for $350 and talked to my friends. Ultimately three of us-Adrienne, Christine and me-went to TCI for five nights--that is until stormy weather in NYC added a sixth night for two of us.

Here are some tips if you are thinking of visiting Turks & Caicos.

 

Accommodations

We stayed at La Vista Azul and which was my fault. When we were ready to book in November, AirBNB options were thoroughly depleted, and hotels were either pretty cheap or exorbitantly expensive (like $2000-$10000 per night). Because only two of us were confirmed to travel at this point, I recommended that we book the conservative option: $1575 for five nights.

While the hotel was fine-ish, the location was not ideal and we spent a lot of money on taxis (more on that later) before renting a car for two days. Vista Azul is in Turtle Cove and Grace Bay is really where you want to stay. Additionally Vista Azul is most definitely not a resort-style experience. The two rooftop pools are small and mostly shaded each afternoon. 

Our other conservative option, Ports of Call, was about $2200 for the same time period. It's the same approximate class as Vista Azul, but the Grace Bay location is so much better. You can walk to the beach, grocery store, shops, etc. Our only walkable option was Naughty Gull which was cute and convenient if pricey (an extra shot of espresso in your latte? That will be $4.).

If the price is right, stay at Grace Bay Club, Sands (where Adrienne and I stayed when our flights home were canceled), Villa Renaissance or pretty much anywhere in that strip.

Beaches

They're beautiful, pure and simple. Because we weren't staying at a beachfront Grace Bay property, it was a little awkward figuring out how to stage the perfect beach day: chairs, umbrellas, food and drink.

In Orient Bay, SXM, most of the accommodations aren't beachfront so everyone rents chairs and umbrellas from the little beach bars and restaurants. Then you order food and drink from their servers at your leisure, and you get access to their restrooms and wifi. It's a great set-up.

Grace Bay beaches all have public access, which is wonderful, but the various resorts didn't seem to know what to do when we asked if we could use or rent their chairs and umbrellas. Ultimately it worked out but no one tried to sell us food or drink. Missed opportunity!

There are, of course, lots of beaches beyond Grace Bay but our schedule of excursions didn't allow for a ton of exploration. Next time!

Activities

Adrienne and Christine hit a home run booking our excursions. They were terrific! We did a sunset horseback ride on the Blue Hills Beach through Unique Tours. It was a lot of fun. We also took Island Vibes' full-day BBQ tour on a catamaran. Our captains, Dondre and Big Mike were terrific. 

We visited uninhabited beaches and saw how conch is harvested. We also saw the abandoned Mandarin Oriental property. Wild!

 

Transportation

Taxis are expensive in TCI. When three of us traveled together, the trip from our hotel three miles to Grace Bay for time at the beach or dinner would run $10 per person. Given that rental cars can be found on Priceline et al for ~$40 per day, a rental car is a good investment, particularly if you're not staying in Grace Bay or if you want to explore more. My friends had a pretty easy time driving on the other side of the road--there isn't much traffic on TCI.

Rental cars in the Caribbean tend to be beaters so between that and the insurance you get through any travel-focused credit card, buying the car company's insurance isn't a must.

 

Food and Drink

TCI is a good Caribbean destination for dining, but I kept comparing them to the restaurants of SXM, which were largely more budget friendly for the same quality. TCI highlights included Coyaba and Coco Bistro.

On New Year's Eve, we started the night at Infiniti before moving on to Ricky's Flamingo Cafe. Ricky's ended up being a highlight between the bonfire, the fireworks and the opportunity to meet locals. Don't miss it.

 

Something to keep in mind: a lot of TCI spots do NOT engage in continuous service a la restaurants in the US. Additionally, bars where tourists tend to go often close down earlier than we're used to. If you want a late night, befriend a local!

The Verdict

Would I go back to TCI? While my heart is still in St. Martin, until the island is truly ready for visitors, I will absolutely make plans to return to Turks & Caicos.

Surprises from Italy

I didn't expect Rome to be so charming. Someone said that spending three nights there was too long.

Roma

 

I was told Venice would be impossible to navigate, and smelly too.

People said Pisa wasn't worth more than a drive-by.

And so on.

What a joy it was to be surprised by all I experienced in Italy, and to come away with my own experiences and recommendations.


Let's back up for a moment. Mom and I were supposed to go to Italy in 2016. About a month before we were supposed to depart, the tumor was discovered.

My doctor said I could travel before my surgery, but Mom was reluctant.

"I'm not traveling with you--you're a ticking time bomb!" Mom said.

(She is probably going to be mad at me for sharing this so please keep in mind that I am sharing this for comic effect. Mostly.)

We postponed the trip, lost money* and I had surgery. There was a two month-ish acute recovery period. I survived. We agreed to figure out a new trip for 2017 once I was in the clear health-wise. And I more or less am. Yay.

But when we looked at the Abercrombie & Kent offering for 2017, the Italy tour dates weren't ideal. Mom wanted to stick with a Fall trip so she could continue her quest to make the LPGA tour... I mean, win her golf club's ladies' league.

(Sidebar: she and her golf partner actually did win the league so the sacrifice was apparently worthwhile.)

We bickered for a while. Mom put restrictions on places she would go. She vetoed Croatia.

"But it's like undiscovered Italy, kinda!" I said, but she was unswayed.

I feel confident that within the next two or three years. all of her friends will be going to Croatia and she'll ask me why we haven't yet gone there.

I advocated for France - wine! cheese! - but Mom still holds a grudge against the country for not supporting George Bush (I KNOW). Meanwhile she still drinks only Grey Goose vodka which is very much French.

Mom in Florence

 

(It's possible she may make me remove this paragraph and photo so please enjoy them while you can.)

Time passed. At the very last minute, we ended up going to Italy on the 2017 version of this A&K itinerary.


You don't need me to recap the trip day by day - that would be boring - so here are a few bits that were special to me.

 

In Rome, we dined as a group in the apartment of Barbara Beni. The food and company were spectacular, and I loved seeing how a Roman lives her modern life in an ancient village. While our meal was arranged for our group, you can purchase seats at her wonderful dinners here. Visiting her neighborhood, charming Trastevere, was an added bonus.

Overall, I thought the food of Rome was the best of the trip--it's surely responsible for at least half of the pasta weight I gained. Now that I'm home, I'll be studying Katie Parla's Tasting Rome in an effort to revisit the wonderful pastas. Sadly a cold prevented me from meeting the author in person.

 

In Florence we dined at La Giostra one night and La Grotta Guelfa another; both were terrific in their own way. We also took a cooking class which was lots of fun. 

Oh, and the designer outlets outside Florence are absolutely worth the trip if you like to shop. I bought myself some presents at Gucci.

Visiting Siena for a few hours was a treat. I would love to go back. 

I spent part of my birthday climbing the stairs of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If tickets are available when you visit, I recommend you go up the funhouse-like tower. It's good exercise and the view from the top is worthwhile. Somehow my mother and the mother of a friend I made on the tour spotted us on the top before we saw them on the ground.

Cinque Terre was spectacular. Like much of Italy, it's a photographer's dream. My favorite lunch of the trip took place in Manarola and I am still marveling over the story of Bormida, a village accessible only by a 1500 step staircase.

On our way to Venice, we stopped in Modena to learn about balsamic vinegar at Acetaia Paltrinieri. Our lunch there featured balsamico on everything from grana padano to risotto to gelato. I loved it. Also I met some goats.

Our tour ended in Venice, one of the most unique cities in the world. The key to navigating this beautiful place to know your hotel's position in relation to the Rialto Bridge. If you can keep track of that, it's more difficult to get lost. Plus my maps app was way more helpful than I had been told to expect.

And truly, there would be worse things than getting lost in Venice.

I can't wait to go back.

 

*To be honest, I'm still frustrated with Abercrombie & Kent for how they treated us when I shared my news. They put on terrific tours, but if you book with them, you NEED travel insurance in case anything like an incidentaloma shows up.

At least 2016 ended well!

 

When my friend, also named Jennifer, asked if I'd be interested in returning to beautiful St Martin, I practically shouted "YES!"

Four of us vacationed there in July and it was wonderful. SXM is a beautiful island that is easy to get to from NYC.

After everything, it felt like a good time to treat myself.

I was thrilled to spend the last days of 2016 in paradise - and the first days of 2017 too.

For this trip, I went for seven decadent nights and it made such a difference. I felt the most relaxed that I have in months. And when I came back to NYC, I honestly felt more or less normal, something that I didn't always feel after the surgery.

 


A few of you asked for tips on travel to St. Martin so here they are!

The first decision you'll likely face is where to stay. Before you decide Dutch side versus French, think hotel versus house or apartment. The island is small enough that you'll almost certainly spend time experiencing both Dutch Sint Maarten and French St. Martin.

Image via sintmaartenvacation.com

Image via sintmaartenvacation.com

Where To Stay

For both SXM vacations, my friends and I stayed in apartments in Orient Bay (Baie Orientale). For the New Year's trip, we rented a two-bedroom duplex from Sprimbarth, a real estate agency we found on TripAdvisor and had a great experience. 

Apartments have been a great choice for us: more space, the ability to cook a bit (if desired) and better economics. 

If hotels are more your speed, there are many options. The Westin Dawn Beach has gorgeous grounds and, I assume, rooms. Incidentally, the property also has apartments for rent, however because they only allow Saturday-Saturday stays (no exceptions!) we looked elsewhere. While I haven't visited this luxe hotel, I have heard great things.

What to Do

We were seeking R&R more so than adventure. We read (I loved this book), swam, sunned, napped and drank a lot of rosé.

After a few days lounging on our gorgeous "home" beach, we did spend a day on Mullet Bay Beach and really enjoyed the change of scene. Mullet Bay featured bigger waves, a population that included lots of locals and proximity to landing airplanes which made for fun photos. 

 

We took a wrong turn on our way to Mullet Bay but it came with the reward of finding this tiny beach.

While St. Martin has plenty to do, we opted to make a day trip to St Barths. Same-day ferries between St. Martin and St. Barths are NOT available every day so it pays to plan ahead (thanks for that, JG!).

I am someone who has always enjoyed being on the water, HOWEVER the sea was very rough on the fourty-five minute sail. All three of us felt...not good. There's funny video from the trip on my YouTube SXM playlist.

One other thing you should know if you visit St. Barths during the high season: cabs can be very difficult to find. Smart vacationers hire taxi drivers for the duration of their stay during the holidays. As such, when it was time to leave Eden Roc for the ferry terminal, we couldn't find an available taxi.

So we hitchhiked. Sorry Mom!

Our savior, a lovely French woman, spoke no English and collectively we speak maybe thirty words of French. But we managed.

Where We Ate

St. Martin likes to think of itself as the culinary capital of the Caribbean. And it's definitely a contender. Our favorites included La Table d'Antoine (Orient Bay), Le Piment (also Orient Bay), and Bistrot Caraibes. We enjoyed dinner at Coco Beach on New Year's Eve.

In the morning, we sampled pastries throughout Orient Bay, and I tried in vain to find a Starbucks-style iced latte. Oh well...no place is perfect.

 

So far, so good (and Emirates Air is terrific)

We are approximately 4000 miles into the trip, 56k feet above Hungary. There are a little less than five hours to go until we arrive at our initial destination, Dubai.

Emirates as an airline has impressed thus far. The amount of information we can access from our seat back consoles continues to blow my mind. Whether it's the data I mentioned above or the ability to switch between cameras mounted on three parts of the plane (during takeoff, I switched between the pilots' view, the underbelly and the tail--incredible), I am not feeling any of the disorientation I do when I fly domestically.

In the seven hours since departing JFK, we have been fed twice already. First there was a bean and corn salad, entree of chicken, lamb or vegetarian tagine AND chocolate mousse. Later came a French bread pizza. Oh, and wine is complimentary. My friend Julie and I have tried two of their white whine options so far.

This *could* be why I have a little headache.

Maybe more sleep would be a good idea. Thus far, I have slept approximately two hours. The middle seat between Julie and me is open, thank goodness. We are comfortable and entertained. 

The tv, film, music and internet options have made sleep an afterthought, even for me. And I take sleep seriously! But there's Downton episodes and Catching Fire and lots of other movies I've missed and I'm finding them all hard to ignore.

Additionally, excitement about all of the new experiences I will soon have has me feeling like a kid on Christmas Eve. For now, sleep can wait.

What I am NOT taking to Kenya

A few friends have asked what I'm taking with me to Kenya when I depart on July 11.

I think the more interesting question would be about what I'm leaving behind.

That list includes:

  • Make-up
  • A hair dryer
  • A purse
  • Dresses or cute clothes of any kind
  • Shoes other than sneakers and a pair of flip flops
  • Jewelry
  • My laptop

On any other trip, most of these items would be going in my suitcase. I might even need to check a bag. But for this ten day trip, I'm taking a carryon and a backpack, the latter of which I plan to use for my day-to-day moving around. 

One luxury item? My iPad full of books and maybe a movie or two to supplement the airlines' offerings.

This shouldn't be a big deal, but I suppose I have become high(er?) maintenance through the years. As a result, I am really excited to see how a stripped-down version of myself fares on this trip.