Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Booking a room? Ask about fees

My visit last week to the Virgin Islands reminded me how those insidious "extra'' fees can add up.

One resort where I stayed imposed a $25 per day resort fee on top of the room rate. Add in taxes, and we're talking about some serious bucks.

Such resort fees aren't unusual -- but they are tantamount to a hidden surcharge, because hotels rarely tell you about them unless you ask specifically.

Which leads me to this advice: When you're booking a room, ask if there are any other fees involved, including resort fees, taxes, fuel surcharges and service fees. Most, but not all, hotel booking websites disclose this information, but sometimes it is in small print -- a good reason to invest in a phone call directly to the hotel or booking agency before you buy.

Also ask about cancellation fees. While most hotels will let you cancel late in the day if you book with them directly either on the phone or online, many discounted hotel booking sites require 24 hours notice, and some take the first night's fee if you cancel.

Surcharges don't only apply to hotels. Airlines levy them too -- as fuel surcharges, security taxes and hefty excess baggage fees. Be sure you've checked out the bottom line before you hit that "purchase'' button.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

St. Thomas sans cruise ship

Visiting St. Thomas on a cruise ship is a bustling experience; you usually end up checking out the jewelry and home wares, even if you resist the temptations of buying. Staying on the island is a more casual and leisurely experience, I’m learning.

I’m staying at one of a handful of bed-and-breakfast inns on the island. A Maine couple, Pam and Matt Eckstein, who have lived here since the mid 1990s, opened At Home in the Tropics last fall. The four-room inn is in a beautiful, breezy historic building just above the restaurants and shops of St. Thomas’ old quarter, and it’s seductively relaxing. Guest rooms, the porch and the pool overlook red roofs spilling down the hillside to the harbor, where sailboats bob on the bay. I could stay awhile.

Last night I checked out something else you’d never be able to do as a cruise passenger: Night Snorkeling with Homer.

Homer is a mainlander transplanted so long ago he can scarcely remember what it’s like to live up north. He clearly loves what he does; this night, he shares his enthusiasm with 10 snorkelers. Night fish are entirely different from the day ones, he told us, though we did spot a few familiars like parrotfish, who were burrowed into holes sleeping. (Do fish sleep? Apparently, yes!)

We’re pretty much all baby boomers, experienced in the water but not necessarily (in my case at least) truly hearty waterfolk. We swim in the easy, current-less waters of Secret Harbour, which turns out to have one of the better reefs I’ve seen on this trip. Armed with flashlights, we “hunt’’ through the corals and rocks, spotting an octopus, moray eel, lobster, stingray, squid and other night creatures.

Today: The historic sites I’ve missed on previous visits. And maybe just a little shopping.

This will be my last posting on this trip. Tomorrow I’ll be heading home. My full story about island hopping in America’s Caribbean runs in the May issue of our Travel magazine. If you miss it, it will be posted online at www.miamiherald.com/travel.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The nature of St. John

St. John is a rare combination of national park and tourist burg. The town of Cruz Bay has all the tourist amenities you could want -- expensive jewelry boutiques, casual clothing shops and plenty of breezy beachside bars -- without tipping into the overwhelm zone. But what really makes St. John unique is its untainted forests and snorkeler-friendly beaches -- all part of Virgin National Park.

The park celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and you can thank Laurance Rockefeller for that.

When the philanthropist cruised to the island in 1952, he was struck with its beauty. He bought up 5,000 acres, establishing Caneel Bay -- still a casually luxurious beachfront resort -- and donated most of the land for a national park, established in late 1956. Another 5,000-plus acres was added over the years, and today more of St. John is national park than not.

Development and building still encroach on the edges that Rockfeller didn't procure. But the rest is mangroves, woods and quarter-moon slices of beach fronting snorkeling waters so close to the shore that no boat is required.

If you're accustomed to Florida's wide beaches and the spectacular reefs of the Keys, you may be underawed. But this is still a unique and beautiful place. From the top of any hill the views are nigh-on staggering: Turquoise bays and watercolor-blue oceans rimmed by green hills and dotted with sailboats skimming the calm waters.

With frequent ferries from St. Thomas, many vacationers come over just for a day. Others stay rent villas or stay at one of the island's two big resorts -- Caneel Bay and the Westin Resort.

Many camp. The national park is home to two campsites, one at Cinnamon Bay and one at Maho Bay, known for it's eco-friendly practices. This means that St. John is affordable for families and backpackers ... a rarity in the Caribbean. Both camps offer screened, tented structures with cots, so you don't have to haul your own tent or sleep on the ground.

Regardless of where they are staying, most of the visitors I've chatted with are enjoying the island. One drawback: The divide between black and white is obvious here, and while it's still a generally friendly place to visit, it lacks the warmth I found earlier this week in St. Croix.

Tomorrow: On to St. Thomas.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Suggestions requested!

Got a fave restaurant in St. Thomas or St. John? Or some favorite snorkeling spot? Another suggestion? Please post your ideas here (click on "Post a Comment'' at the bottom of this entry) and let me know.

Soon, I'm also doing a reprise of last summer's driving trip. This time I'll stick with the state of Florida, checking out spring break spots for both families and college kids. Tell me about your faves; I'll try to stop!

Island hopping

When you're island hopping, getting there really is half the fun.

This morning I wandered around the historic town of Christiansted in St. Croix, then hopped a seaplane to St. Thomas. This isn't a puddle jumper; the seaplane holds 16 passengers plus luggage. It also affords spectacular views as turquoise water turns to deep blue, sailboat masts give way to mountains of St. Thomas. And while taking a ferry is fine, this is quicker, more convenient and costs about the same.

In St. Thomas, I hopped a ferry for the comfy Westin on St. John. This is the sailor's view, rather than the bird's outlook. Eddie, a boating bellman, pointed out the sites: Water Island, home to about 150 residents; Dog Island (no residents) and a funny little rock of any island called Frenchman's Cap that does, indeed, look like a pointy hat.

The breeze blew in as we flitted across the sea, past katches and beachside resorts and the landfill. Even in paradise, you've got to have a place to put your refuse.

Tonight and tomorrow: St. Johns and Virgin Island National Park. Gotta run; it's almost time for the daily iguana feeding.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A friendly place

My last trip was a vacation ... to Cameroon, in West Africa. It was an insightful, challenging, hard-core trip. Not what I'd recommend for a relaxing sojourn.

St. Croix is.

Most people come here to relax, play a little tennis or golf, snorkel or dive, and visit the island's historic sites. The languid pace is what drew Dan and Theresa Regan of Connecticut, who escaped the cold and threat of snow. Their travel agent recommended St. Croix. "We're so busy at home that we just wanted to relax,'' she told me, as she spent the morning on a snorkeling and beach tour.

The island is undergoing something of a renaissance. The town of Frederiksted -- which lost its cruise ships after hurricane devastation and then neglect -- has spruced up, and while only a handful of shops and restaurants are open, the place looks pretty. Two of the larger hotels, Carambola Beach and Divi, have either recently renovated or are in the process; Divi also has a new spa and a new wing of rooms right on the beach.

But there's another aspect to the island I hope never changes. The local people are really friendly -- not something you can say about every Caribbean island.

It's partly because there aren't more hotel rooms -- the island has about 1,000 -- and no short-visit cruise passengers. "As a businessman, you'd think we'd want a boatload of tourists every day,'' said Miles Sperber of Caribbean Sea Adventures. "But in retrospect it's a blessing that we had the hurricanes and lost the cruise ships. It's nicer. Most of our guests stay a week. On the cruise ship islands, they stay four hours, so there's no point even in getting to know them.''

St. Croix really is a place you can feel like family. Elizabeth Armstrong, third-generation owner of Buccaneer Resort, told me at breakfast that some of her guests have come for 30-plus years. One year at Christmas, a couple that had come for years suddenly canceled. She called to find out why; the man had lost his job. She invited them to come down anyway, as her guests. "They're part of the family,'' she told me. When they got back on their feet, you can be sure they came back to Buccaneer.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Hanging in St. Croix

Tourists and locals alike are crowded around, leaning in from a staircase to the second floor, craning for a view of the big event here on a Monday night: The crab races at the local brewpub.

They start around sunset, and before you know it, crabs with such venerated names as Mayor and Brewpub are going for the ... well, going for something. Not always toward the finish line, either. But that doesn't stop the restaurant-bar crowd on the Christiansted waterfront from cheering them on.

Not that this is a soused crowd. Sure, there are more than a few beers on tables, and a couple of Voodoo Juices, a local Cruzan rum concoction. But the crowd includes families, blue hairs, sunburned yachties, sun-deprived Yankees escaping the snow, and more than a few Danes. Everybody seems equally happy.

The Danes used to own St. Croix, along with the usual suspects: Brits, French, Dutch, Spanish, the Knights of Malta (O.K., not the usual suspects) and now, of course, the Americans. St. Croix passed to U.S. hands in 1927, and is now part of the American Caribbean.

This 82-square-mile island is the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. And though it was popular with foreign governments for its agriculturally rich lands, it's a bit less known by tourists than neighboring St. Thomas.

At first glance, it's both American -- there's actually an Office Depot outside of town, and no passport is required for U.S. visitors -- and Caribbean, with plenty of palms and waves lapping at the shore. The locals invariably are polite and well-spoken in that way you find in Canada and Seattle, but rarely in New York or Florida or California.

I'm staying at the Buccanneer, an historic resort with superb service and a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere...more Caribbean to me than the ultra-posh surrounds of a luxury resort, and more engaging.

Tomorrow I'll explore beyond Christiansted. For now, I'll listen to the lullaby of waves against the beach, and sleep deeply.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Heading for the USVI

There's been a lot of noise about the new passport requirements. As of January 23, if you're an American heading to Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean by air, you need a passport. (Drive tourists and cruise passengers will need passports by next year.)

If you travel or ever plan to, you should have a passport anyway. And given the travel habits of South Floridians -- we rank No. 2 in the nation as most likely to travel abroad, behind the San Francisco Bay area -- you'd think everyone here would have a passport already. But we know it's not true; my former supervisor, an otherwise savvy guy, just got his last year.

In case you're one of those who has been putting off getting your passport, you do have Caribbean options. Two island groups -- Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- are part of the U.S. and don't require a passport, though you do need your birth certificate and drivers license.

Both island groups have the advantage of island hopping. Puerto Rico boasts its main island (home to most resorts, rain forest and Old San Juan), plus the small islands of Vieques (yes, once home to a bombing range, but with terrific unspoiled beaches) and Culebra (even less visited.) Both are accessible by flight and ferry.

The U.S. Virgin Islands offers three distinct destinations: St. Thomas (a familiar haunt for cruise passengers), St. Croix (great snorkeling) and St. John (home to Virgin Islands National Park.)

My only visits to the USVI have been brief cruise-ship stops in St. Thomas. I decided it was time to explore. I'll be filing daily reports here on my blog as I travel to all three islands this week. I land Monday, and I'll make my first post that night. Follow along ... we can have island fever together. Much better than the flu.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Hot Europe deals

Here's a great deal if you can act quickly.

Vacation Europe and British Airways are offering a three-night package to London for $427 per person, double occupancy, plus $300 in taxes and fuel surcharges. When you consider that airfare alone to London often costs more, you can see that this is a good deal. And plenty of other cities are offered, including Rome (from $527), Dublin (from $519) and Paris (from $509).

Of course, there are caveats. As mentioned above, you'll need to pay about $300 more in taxes and surcharges. You have to travel mid-week. You'll be in coach - natch! - and you have to purchase by Feb. 15. The deal is good on trips through March 25.

Info: 800-780-2202, www.vacationeurope.com.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Coming soon: Another road trip!

Remember your first Spring Break trip? Or your most recent one?

I need your help. Early next month, I'm heading back out on the road for another -- short -- road trip to Florida's fave spring break spots. Some will be places you'd take kids; others may be place where a little more raucousness is the norm.

We want to hear about them all. You can post your suggestions here as a comment, or e-mail me directly at jwooldridge@MiamiHerald.com.

As for my first spring break, it was back in college. A scholarship student, I didn't have a lot of bucks to throw around. But some of my friends did, and one offered me a spot on his family's yacht moored in Fort Lauderdale. A gang of us piled in an ancient station wagon and headed south from Duke in a driving snowstorm.

Fort Lauderdale, it turned out, was heaven. The Elbow Room! Motels on A1A! The Beach! SUN!

As for the yacht: Yummy. But the quarters were a little too close for comfort -- especially after my designated sleeping space turned out to be the captain's bed. I demurred and went immediately to a motel room shared by eight other students. No wonder Fort Lauderdale threw out the kids and opted for families instead.