Cuba’s changing fast; don’t miss the boat

This story was first published in The Globe and Mail on Dec. 29, 2014

By STEPHEN WICKENS

At Plaza de la Revolucion the tourist waits, peers up the road, lowers the camera and waits some more. He wants a classic American car for his shot of the monument to Jose Marti, a 19th-century poet, freedom fighter and all-round Cuban hero. But for what seems like ages, we see only Hyundais, Geelys and sputtering Ladas.

“Yanqui tanks” still abound, many serving as gleaming cabs in tourist areas. But locals say half the fleet has been scrapped or cannibalized for parts since the Soviet empire collapsed; newer imports are easier to maintain. It’s just one indicator of how rapidly things have changed since Raul Castro replaced brother Fidel in 2008. Cubans with means or overseas relatives can buy and sell real estate as well as cars. Half a million people run their own businesses, triple the 2011 total.

Now, with the United States preparing to normalize relations and end a decades-long embargo, the trickle of visiting Americans could become a torrent some time in the not-too-distant future. So if you want to see one of socialism’s last outposts, act now – and consider doing so on a cruise.

Yes, even the cruise industry, which Fidel despised, has a beachhead. Though big U.S.-owned ships remain banned, Calgary-based Cuba Cruise launched weekly circumnavigations of the island last winter with the 162-metre, 1,200-passenger Louis Cristal. It targets Canadians with, among other things, its Alberta Prime Steakhouse and familiar beers. The crew is multicultural and the on-board variety troupe combines Montreal-based Cirque Fantastique with Cuban entertainers assembled by the National Theatre director.

Greece-based Variety Cruises took last winter off to arrange new food and land-tour suppliers, and renovate the Pan Orama – a 54-metre, 50-passenger yacht. Much more intimate than Cuba Cruise, it resumed its week-long trips between Havana and Cienfuegos on Nov. 29.

All-inclusive resorts have their place, but can’t deliver the complete Cuba, which is the Caribbean’s largest and most diverse country (nearly as big as our three Maritime provinces, more populous than the four Western ones combined). Cuba is more than sun and sand: It has a rich history (150 years of battles for independence from Spain, the United States and Russia) and regional cultures, some stuck in a horse-drawn time warp.

Cruises that tour the island naturally let you experience more of it – and provide entry to places where tourists are still a novelty. Take one of the stops I experienced on Cuba Cruise last winter: After mooring at a long-abandoned pier in Antilla last January, we were greeted by waving, cheering locals. Turns out the arrival of the ship was such a novelty the mayor had declared a civic holiday for the Louis Cristal’s first visit the previous month.

It was just one memorable moment from a couple of week-long cruises I enjoyed during the past two winters. Other highlights include:

Cienfuegos, a south-coast town where Soviet-era factories blend with ornate French and Spanish architecture. It is lively and fun to explore on foot; don’t miss Teatro Tomas Terry, a lovely concert hall built in the 1880s on the town square. A side trip from Cienfuegos (offered by both cruises) to Trinidad de Cuba, a town founded on sugar processing which is celebrating its 500th anniversary this winter. It’s a hot spot for musicians and dancers.

Santiago, Cuba’s No. 2 city, which feels like a cross of southern Europe and New Orleans. It’s the birthplace of Afro-Cuban culture, Castro’s revolution and Bacardi rum, and also home to San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders helped finish off a war against the Spanish in 1898, starting what’s considered a 60-year U.S. occupation.

Castillo San Pedro de la Roca del Morro, the Caribbean’s most impressive fort. UNESCO calls this fortress, which has guarded Santiago’s harbour for more than 300 years, the best Spanish military architecture in the Americas.

Punta Frances, which is on my top-five beaches list. It’s beautiful, remote and unspoiled, and if I had to bet, I’d say it’s the beach most likely to get wrecked next.

Cuba obviously needs change. Few things highlight socialist dysfunction better than engineers and professors cleaning resort rooms because that’s where the money is made. The country proudly trains doctors for the world – many of its physicians played major roles in the Ebola fight – but having clean washrooms back home seems not to be a priority.

“Cuba will retain its independent streak no matter how much it reopens to Americans,” former U.S. presidential adviser and Time correspondent Nathaniel Lande, told me over drinks on the Pan Orama’s aft deck. Lande, whose dad was Hemingway’s doctor, first visited Cuba as a boy in the 1940s. But he thinks Canadians should explore while they still have special status as the biggest source of Cuban tourism.

“Tell people to get to Cuba fast, before us Americans wreck it,” he says – only partly in jest.

IF YOU GO

Booking Cuba Cruise’s cruise-only package starts at $652 per person. Air-land-cruise packages start at $852 per person. Both prices do not include fees and taxes. Check for specials through yourcubacruise.com or a travel agent.

IF YOU GO

Money: Cuba Cruise uses Canadian dollars; Variety’s main currency is the euro. On land, you need convertible unit pesos (CUCs). Exchange booths are easy to find, and for now you’re still smarter buying in loonies than with U.S. dollars. Few Cubans even accept greenbacks.

Health: You need proof of travel health insurance for Cuba. Even if your credit card provides it, get a confirmation letter. When exploring on shore, take hand sanitizer and paper to washrooms. If you’re prone to seasickness, consider packing nausea pills or patches.

The writer was a guest of Cuba Cruise and Variety Cruises. They did not review or approve this article.

Accidental tourist attractions spice up an underrated Caribbean gem

The oft-overlooked island of Grenada has everything that winter-weary Canadians might want from a sun vacation, but with a few spectacular bonuses

Vicissitudes by sculptor/diver Jason de Caires Taylor is part of an underwater art installation that made National Geographic’s list of “Earth’s 25 Most Awesome Places.”

Vicissitudes by sculptor/diver Jason de Caires Taylor is part of an underwater art installation that made National Geographic’s list of “Earth’s 25 Most Awesome Places.”

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on October 20, 2012

By Stephen Wickens

Aside from the cows and egrets, Pearls Airport sits deserted.

It’s not in Grenada’s guidebooks and not listed on today’s itinerary. But it’s a highlight nonetheless and everyone on the bus wants off to see the Cuban planes, abandoned to scavengers and the elements since the 1983 U.S.-led invasion.

“It should be a national monument,” says Mandoo Seales, a passionate guide who prefers “rescue” to “invasion” when speaking of Operation Urgent Fury, a Reagan Doctrine strike that snuffed a 4½-year experiment with revolutionary Marxism.

“It’s an archeological site. We shouldn’t let it deteriorate further.”

Ex-U.S. soldiers prompted Seales’ first tours to this 1940s-vintage airport, shut since 1984. “I bring lots of people here now,” he says. “All kinds are fascinated.”

Cuban planes have been left to rot at old Pearls Airport since a 1983 U.S.-led invasion of Grenada snuffed an experiment with revolutionary Marxism.

It’s funny how the accidental tourist attractions are often the best. And Grenada has others, including the Underwater Sculpture Park and Levera Beach leatherback turtle sanctuary.

British sculptor/diver Jason de Caires Taylor originally pitched the underwater park to Grenadians as art that might help restore coral reefs. It succeeded on both counts, with new growth gradually completing the statuary. Now Taylor’s creation is on National Geographic’s list of “Earth’s 25 Most Awesome Places” and Mexican officials have commissioned him to produce a larger version in Cancun.

I’ll be back at this underwater park, though next time, instead of snorkeling, I’ll have scuba certification and a serious underwater camera.

The leatherback project, meanwhile, was hatched to help save a remarkable species from extinction, even if it meant disruption for locals who had relied on meat and eggs from Earth’s largest sea turtles.

“We now earn revenue from people coming to see this (April to August),” says Kimron Redhead, a supervisor on the project, launched in 1999. “There are definitely more turtles again,” he says. “You can only sell a turtle or her eggs once, but tourists come back again and again.”

And it turns out that the resurgent turtle population has helped the local tuna fishery because leatherbacks feed on jellyfish who had been decimating schools of baby tuna.

Trying to snap photos of the egg-laying can be problematic as leatherbacks work at night and flash photography has to be banned because it would interrupt the mood for mama turtles. But usable photos or not, the awe seemed unanimous the night I visited.

It's tough to shoot pictures of turtles laying eggs, but if you're lucky, a mona monkey might just pose for you in Grenada.

“I must have shot 100 pictures and they’ll all be rubbish,” Ben Carroll of London, England, says, echoing others among us.

“But it hardly matters. The hair on my neck was standing. Seeing how hard she worked to dig a hole, lay the eggs and cover them. That last turtle must have been six feet. Getting to stroke the shell, that’s powerful.”

If you want casinos and nightlife, Grenada’s not for you. But it offers most of what winter-weary Canadians want from sun vacations – with several bonuses. It’s also easily reached from Toronto since Caribbean Airlines launched year-round non-stop service.

Despite being a volcanic island, it has white-sand beaches, including Grand Anse, a regular on Caribbean best-of lists. Because Grenada has just 1,200 hotel rooms, beaches aren’t crowded, even in high season.

It’s a generally affordable island, though, like the expensive ones, crime rates are low and litter is scarce. Once you’ve seen the bountiful gardens, you’ll know why Grenada’s worst finish in 13 years at England’s famed Chelsea Flower Show has been silver.

“It’s like a lusher, much-less-developed Barbados,” says Carroll, who also raved about rainforest hiking in the island’s interior.

Grenadian cuisine is interesting, too, no surprise for “the spice island.” Nutmeg is the big export (though still down 50 per cent since tree damage from 2004’s Hurricane Ivan), but there are constant mealtime reminders of the endless list of spices and fruits that grow here.

Like most Caribbean islands, there are colonial forts for history buffs, but Grenada’s have seen recent combat – battles people still calmly debate, even as the Cuban planes rot.

Graffiti remains on Grenada, thanking the U.S. for leading Operation Urgent Fury in 1983.

Locals seem to see both sides of their place in Cold War history. There’s no clamour to revive socialism, but under the current prime minister – who spent two years as a political prisoner when Communists ruled – the airport was renamed for Maurice Bishop, who led the 1979 revolution.

You’ll hear tales of corruption and brutal autocracy under Bishop, sometimes from the same people who credit him for steep rises in literacy rates and the creation of real healthcare. There’s still graffiti thanking the Americans, though some locals seem convinced the chaos and bloodshed used to justify sending in troops was initiated by a Central Intelligence Agency-driven destabilization campaign, ostensibly led by Bishop’s deputy.

And no matter how real the fears were in the Reagan White House, we’ll never know for sure if the Soviet Empire ever planned to attack the Americas from that Cuban-built runway beside the Maurice Bishop terminal building. But with the Cold War mostly just historical curiosity, we do know the landing strip is plenty long enough for jet-loads of tourists.

JUST THE FACTS

ARRIVING: Caribbean Airlines flies non-stop from Toronto on Thursdays and Saturdays year-round. Air Canada Vacations has seasonal non-stops and Sunwing operates charters.

SLEEPING: The Blue Horizons is excellent if you don’t mind a 300-metre walk to the beach. Mount Cinnamon and Spice Island  are great spots right on Grand Anse beach. LaSource will soon reopen as a Sandals Resort.

DINING: Even if you don’t stay at Blue Horizons, visit the resort’s La Belle Creole restaurant. The menu changes daily, but it’s outstanding. Other recommendations are BB’s Crabback (bbscrabback.co.uk), The Aquarium (aquarium-grenada.com) and Dodgy Dock (truebluebay.com/resort-facilities/details/dodgy-dock-restaurant).

DOING: The rainforest hike to the interior waterfalls is big fun, but expect to get muddy (grenadatours.com/hikes.htm). Also  worthwhile are tours of the organic chocolate operation (grenadachocolate.com) and the old water-wheel-driven River Antoine rum distillery, though be careful with the high-test fire-water (grenadaexplorer.com/tip/rumfactory).

Big carriers’ executives should fly back in time with Caribbean Airlines

Surprisingly good service in economy class comes as a blast from the past

Don't let the armrest ashtrays spook you. There's no smoking on Caribbean Airlines flights, just surprisingly good economy class service reminiscent of an era when you could light up.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Ashtrays in the armrests? That’s a tad unsettling in 2012.

Sure, Boeing still manufactures the venerable 737-800, but this was clearly a high-mileage model. So, as a travel writer mostly used to big North American carriers, I figured I better take notes on my first  Caribbean Airlines adventure.

What a surprise I got.

Before leaving for the airport, I double-checked that my Toronto-Trinidad and Trinidad-Guyana flights hadn’t been delayed. Maybe I was thinking of the old “island time” cliché, even though I’ve been to Caribbean countries often enough to know that’s increasingly an unfair stereotype.

So I didn’t consider it unusual that Caribbean took off right on time, even as would-be Air Canada travelers were suffering the effects of a pilots’ “sickout.”

However, once we were airborne, strange things started to happen.

Clearly we weren’t merely flying to Port of Spain in a jet whose interior evoked the feel of a pre-Internet world or the last days of the Cold War. We’d actually gone back in time to a civilized era in air travel.

There was leg room in economy and a flight attendant (dare I call her a stewardess) offered free ear-buds for the movie. The in-flight magazine, Caribbean Beat, had several stories worth reading from start to finish.

Then they fed us dinner, honest. No charge.

Haute cuisine? No, not by a long stretch. But it was a reasonably pleasant chicken and rice dish that hit the spot. It even came with dessert, a bag of plantain chips and a small Kit Kat bar.

Blankets and plllows? No charge. Beer? Four bucks a can.

The flight attendants were attentive and friendly, maybe because they weren’t obligated to sell duty-free stuff to passengers and process credit-card transactions. Crew announcements didn’t seem to come from the usual, cloying PR scripts.

Trinidad-based Caribbean Airlines was officially incorporated in 2006. The company, which also operates Air Jamaica as a sister brand, is a descendant of BWIA, formerly British West Indian Airways. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, the safety record is quite good.

So far, after four flights (two legs each way for a recent Caribbean Tourism Organization conference in Georgetown, Guyana) all departed on time and one even arrived quite early due to a tailwind. Nobody has lost my luggage.

The journalist’s quest for quibbles had to settle for:

– Engine noise drowned out the captain’s announcements on one flight.

– The entertainment system is little more than a few small overhead screens and one channel. Caribbean Essence, the in-house production, has an irritatingly promotional feel and on the Georgetown-Port of Spain flight, everyone in the cabin had to listen. The guy next to me, trying to read a book, was also unhappy about the show.

– The garish green upholstery in some planes reminded me of cushions in the student lounge at university back in the early 1980s.

Anyway, I’ll fly Caribbean again soon for a trip both to Grenada and back in time.

It would be nice if the executives of the big North American carriers came along to see how they once brought a little class to economy class.

 

An award the Accra Beach should share with its Barbadian neighbours

I and at least two others within a bun’s toss were pleased to see the Accra Beach Hotel honoured at the closing banquet of a recent Caribbean Tourism Organization conference in Guyana.

The official wording of the press release said “the Sustainable Accommodation Award went to the Accra Beach Hotel and Spa in Barbados for positively impacting the local supply chain and community whilst minimizing negative environmental impact, and contributing to conservation of local culture.”

I’m trying to learn more about what this all means and I have emails out to CTO staff. But as a travel journalist who also writes about urbanism, it’s great to see the CTO’s 13th annual Sustainable Tourism Conference recognize that walkable, vibrant communities are just as important to vacation spots as they are in our home cities.

On a basic level, my wife and I had a great stay at Accra Beach a few months back. The price was reasonable, our room and the beach were excellent, staff were friendly and, as a bonus for active people who like to swim lengths, the pool was among the best I’ve found in the Caribbean.

But Accra and the Rockley Beach area proved to be special because the resort is so well integrated within a thriving stretch of shops, services and restaurants patronized by both locals and tourists. This is a case where tourists are really strengthening the local economy and where the local businesses are really contributing to the tourism experience.

The virtuous cycle has benefits beyond the bottom lines of business. All day and into the evening there are eyes on the street and feet on the sidewalks, as urbanist Jane Jacobs would have pointed out. This is probably not a place where a mugger would want to ply his trade and the pedestrian instinctively senses that.

This mingling of locals and tourists adds much to a vacation experience on a human level. And when vacationers feel safe out walking beyond their hotels, they don’t need to rent cars or take cabs anywhere near as often.

Contrast that with the experience of an all-inclusive compound or a resort on a lovely but isolated stretch of beach.

When we talk of sustainable travel, we often hear about initiatives to protect rainforests or minimize waste from cruise ships. We talk of finding ways to offset the carbon emissions of jets or make solar and wind power viable for resorts and their small island countries. These are all good and important subjects. But on the south coast of Barbados, something as simple as a comfortable environment for pedestrian interaction illustrates sustainability and environmentalism at its organic best.

Cheers, to the Accra Beach, but please share this honour with your many neighbours.

Six Things To Do in Barbados

The water is warm and the beaches are great, but there's much more to a vacation in Barbados.

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on March 16, 2012

By STEPHEN WICKENS

BARBADOS — Most of the Caribbean will suffice if all you want are beaches and sunshine, warm weather and cold drinks. But Barbados — despite the longer flight and the higher-than-average costs for winter sun vacations — is particularly popular with Canadians again, and not just because of our dollar’s strength. This is an island where it’s safe and enjoyable to walk, explore and do things. Here are six suggestions:

If you thrive on crowds, Friday and Saturdays at Oistins are for you. But the fish is just as fresh and tasty Monday to Thursday.

GO FISH: It’s not a question of whether you should hit the Oistins Fish Fry, but when. If you thrive on crowds and bustle, and you’re willing to endure traffic, lineups and some noise, Friday and Saturday nights are for you. If an excellent and inexpensive dinner is your priority, go to this south-shore fishing village Monday to Thursday evenings. Either time, you’ll find locals and tourists of all ages mingling. There’s a marketplace, dancing and exuberant games of dominoes.

Bajans were long aware they had a wondrous world of stalactites, stalagmites and crystal clear underwater streams below the hills in the heart of the country, but it wasn't until the 1970s, led by a Danish speleologist, that Harrison's Cave was seriously explored and mapped.

GO UNDERGROUND: Okay, you will be dripped upon and you might hear cave aficionados argue that better can be found in New Zealand, Vietnam, Iran or Croatia. But Harrison’s Cave makes several world top-10 lists for good reason. If you’ve never seen stalactites and stalagmites up close, this is a great opportunity. The 2.3-kilometre stretch of caverns deep below the heart of Barbados wasn’t fully mapped till the 1970s. These days, the caverns are accessible by a small train. It’s a deal at $30 (U.S.) for a 90-minute tour, and it could be a great way to cool off if you’ve had too much sun.

The blend of nature, art and whimsy at Anthony Hunte's gardens will soothe your soul.

UNEXPECTED EDEN: Even if you’re not the botanical gardens type, your soul deserves a trip to Hunte’s Gardens. Two couples at my hotel enthusiastically thanked me for the recommendation. For $10 you’ll get an engaging conversation with the eccentric Anthony Hunte, who serves up flora, artistic landscaping, classical music, sculpture and Zen-like calm seven days a week. You can also grab a rum punch at Hunte’s whimsical house, formerly a horse stable on part of the old sugar plantation. But before you book your Barbados trip, visit huntesgardensbarbados.com to ensure he’ll be around. He plans to travel this year and will close up when he’s away.

 

Bert's Bar is a gathering place for Canadians, especially hockey fans. The pizza, burgers and daiquiris are excellent. That's Bert in the red shirt, with a group of students from the Ottawa area

HOCKEY NIGHT IN BARBADOS: The Accra/Rockley Beach area is popular in part because you can easily walk to lots of stores and restaurants. A local favourite with Canadians is Bert’s Bar, where every night is hockey night. There are 26 flat-screen TVs, cold Banks beer on tap and excellent pizza, burgers and daiquiris. Even if you’re not a hockey nut, you’re bound to end up in a conversation about some person or place back home in Canada. The Ottawa Senators now own Bert’s, but Bert, the original owner going back to 1976, runs the joint. You’ll find him on the end bar stool, eyes on the game.

Ryan Adamson pours a Bajan Green Monkey for visitors who've just taken the Mount Gay tour.

YO HO HO  … : Barbados prides itself on being the birthplace of rum, and Mount Gay, the world’s oldest brand, runs interesting tours of its facilities around the island, complete with samples (barbados.org/mountgay.htm). St. Nicholas Abbey also produces outstanding rum and provides an interesting tour. But to really experience Barbados, you have to hit the rum shops. There are 1,500 of these little pubs on the island (more than one for every 200 residents). Though not everyone  will be drinking rum — or even alcoholic bevvies — the rum shops are great places for gabbing with the friendly locals and most places offer good, inexpensive meals.

Many residents consider green monkeys to be pests. Tourists love to snap pictures of them.

HIT THE ROAD: You need to see the rugged east coast to appreciate the island. You can do that and snorkel with greenback turtles, shoot pictures of the green monkeys and have lunch and drinks on a Tiami catamaran in just one day with Island Safari. You might want to check out one of the other tour services if your back can’t handle bouncing around in the back of a Land Rover. Or you could just do the sea part of the trip, with additional reef snorkeling through Tiami Catamaran cruises.

Rock formations near the town of Bathsheba: No trip to Barbados is complete without at least a day trip to the island's rugged and picturesque east coast.

Memories of the revolution live on in Anguilla’s Caribbean paradise

The Dune Preserve, ranked by CNN as the world's best beach bar, sits atop remarkably soft sand.

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on March 3, 2012
By STEPHEN WICKENS
RENDEZVOUS BAY, ANGUILLA—Shortly after the best mahi-mahi I’ve had in 25 years of Caribbean visits, I’m strolling in moonlight on white sand softer than I’d ever imagined possible. Quite the first impression.

 

The next morning, over breakfast after playing CuisinArt Resort’s Greg Norman signature golf course — azure waters and St. Martin’s hills in the background — it’s clear why celebrities and executives flock here.

Funny thing, though, despite the opulence and setting, the best part of my trip turned out to be listening to locals, especially when they talk of Anguilla’s pre-tourism days and its revolution.

Germaine Harrigan, the first Anguillian I met, isn’t old enough to recall gunshots. But aboard the ferry to the island, she proudly explains that Ronald Webster, leader of the 1967 uprising, is a great uncle. “Nearly everyone has friends and family who’ll talk about it. The St. Kitts police were kicked off the island and the British invaded two years later,” says Harrigan, a New York resident returning to visit her mom. “Ronald’s still alive.”

Brothers Lyndon and Lyle Connor, the boat’s operators, mention their dad patrolled beaches. “The older heads can tell plenty,” Lyndon says. “It was a proud time.” Cabbie Colin Connor, 61, picks me up at the ferry and continues my education. He was 17 when he rolled oil drums onto the dirt runway to prevent St. Kitts from landing troops.

Outsiders who know the tale tend to be amused by the farce. Many bullets fired, mostly at the police station. Nobody dead.

When British paratroopers landed in 1969, U.K. papers dubbed it “the Bay of Piglets” and opposition members howled as Harold Wilson’s government was congratulated for finding a manageable foe (things weren’t going so well in Rhodesia). But it was all serious for Anguillians. To liberate themselves after nearly 150 years of what they deemed neglect and abuse at the hands of St. Kitts, they risked lives or jail for treason. Locals will tell you they weren’t eligible to be police officers in their own country, and that foreign aid for rebuilding after Hurricane Donna in 1960 went missing on St. Kitts.

The last straw was in 1967, when Britain created the independent state of St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla. “Anguillians view it as if an abusive babysitter had been given complete custody,” said Colin Rickards, a late Torontonian who covered the invasion for British newspapers.

Gilligan’s Island was already prime-time history but, like Robinson Crusoe, Anguilla was primitive as can be. “Even in the 1970s, people had to go to St. Martin or St. Kitts to see electricity, telephones, flush toilets, paved roads,” says national museum curator Colville Petty, who was a 16-year-old teacher when revolution erupted. “We saw jets in the sky, but for us, after dark, we needed kerosene or the moon for light.”

The British were greeted as tardy liberators just two years after ostensibly giving the island independence from the empire. Anguillians just wanted to be free of St. Kitts and its leader Robert Bradshaw. Locals still spit out Bradshaw’s name.

Of course, locals will also remind you their ancestors had long been independent out of necessity. Slaves were left behind when 18th-century plantations failed due to thin soils and sparse rain. People grew veggies, built boats, fished and traded with nearby islands. In the 20th century, droughts and famine forced some to work on other islands and send home the pay.

Among charges against Bradshaw is that remittance cheques and medical supplies were held back by St. Kitts, which ran the mail.

"All my songs are about the revolution," Dune Preserve owner and reggae artist Bankie Banx says. Banx's beach bar is a magnet for celebrities, though he says he doesn't know who they are.

At the Dune Preserve, a beach bar recently featured on ABC-TV’s The Bachelor, owner Bankie Banx would rather talk of paratroopers landing in his mom’s backyard 42 years ago than current celebrities who come for a drink.

“I don’t even know who the movie stars are,” says Banx, back from recording his 13th album in Jamaica. “My drummer was one who was rounded up and put in a St. Kitts jail. All my songs are about the revolution.”

Less than 30 years ago, embarrassed Britons were still scrambling to bring Anguilla and its 6,000 people into the 20th century. Now there are 14,000, and not all are happy with Britain – especially during annual budget talks. There’s still that independent streak. There’s talk of breaking with the U.K.

So, enjoy the beaches, rated the Caribbean’s best by Britain’s Daily Telegraph and Travel Channel. Visit the beach bars (Banx’s is No. 1 on CNN’s list of the world’s 50 best). Stay in luxury at CuisinArt, which has 20 chefs, cooking classes and a spa that’s among Conde Nast’s favourites. Or try Paradise Cove, a friendly resort targeting more middle-class travellers.

Whatever you do, just remember to take time to talk with the locals.

Stephen Wickens is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

————————-

JUST THE FACTS

ARRIVING: Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing fly direct to St. Maarten. From there you can take Air Anguilla for $105 (U.S.) each way or are variety of fast (20-minute) ferry options. GB Express, which looks after airport-to-dock connections, charges $105 round trip and staff are fun. Visit aircanadavacations.com and authenticcaribbeanholidays.com for deals.

SLEEPING: Air Canada Vacations offers flight-ferry-hotel packages from about $1,600 for Anacaona Boutique Hotel. Rooms at Paradise Cove start at $250 a night. The five-star Cap Juluca starts above $600 a night and there are villas that will run about $10,000 a week. Extensive accommodation listings are at anguillahta.com

DINING: The island specializes in high-end cuisine and extensive wine cellars. Many menus don’t bother with prices. Ask locals for a list of the best places for the dining experience and you’ll hear Veya, Jacala and Hibernia. You can also find good ribs, chicken and seafood meals for under $15 at roadside caters and beach barbecue huts. Hungry’s Food Van is  recommended.

DOING: Anguilla brags about its lack of casinos and its ban on jetskis. Hotels provide snorkeling gear, but they’ll arrange day trips to reefs teeming with fish of many colours. Moonsplash is a four-day reggae festival around the full moon each March at Bankie Banx’s Dune Preserve. Celebrity spotting is big and Sandy Ground is a nightlife hub, with Johnno’s and Pumphouse good for live music. Ask your hotel about Anguilla After Dark, a designated-driver service for $15 a night. Many hotels have tennis courts and there’s an academy at Blowing Point. There’s only one golf course, at CuisinArt, but it’s outstanding.

WEB SURFING: Most of what you need to know is at ivisitanguilla.com, anguillaguide.com or anguilla-beaches.com. Go to anguillarising.com for fun history links and to learn about filmmaker Gary Rodrigues’ feature project.

Increasingly self-confident Barbados takes time to mourn

While preparing to bury a much-loved prime minister, Caribbean island also gives thanks to Thompson’s mentor for emphasizing a quality education system
This story first appeared in the Toronto Star foreign news section on October 29, 2010
By STEPHEN WICKENS

Olive Estwick was one of the pilgrims who came for a piece of the rock that came from the grave where David Thompson would be buried.

ST. JOHN’S PARISH, BARBADOS—Olive Estwick isn’t asked for an explanation but offers one anyway.

“It’s for my great-grandson,” the tearful 73-year-old says, holding up a softball-sized piece of coral rock from the pile beside a grave where the late prime minister David Thompson will be buried Wednesday. “This will always be in our family.”

Estwick is one of several pilgrims to the St. John’s parish church cemetery on a sweltering afternoon. In what would otherwise be a sleepy, idyllic setting near the edge of a cliff facing the Atlantic, gravediggers kick up a jackhammer racket and rocks they chuck to the pile become souvenirs.

A period of national mourning was declared in Barbados after Thompson died from pancreatic cancer Oct. 23, seven months after being diagnosed. Flags are half-staff, some people wear black ribbons and it seems nearly every Barbadian you speak with gets moist around the eyes when talking of him. But pursue the conversation a bit longer and you’ll often hear expressions of a rising national self-confidence.

One moment it’s a tragic tale of three young girls who don’t have a dad anymore, or a lament for a country that has lost a great leader just as he was getting started. Thompson, who became PM in 2008, was only 48.

But the locals also seem eager to tell Canadians this Caribbean island is on the verge of becoming a first-world nation. Even before your flight lands at Grantley Adams airport, you might have heard Barbados has public health care like Canada and a public education system that has placed literacy rates among the world’s best — 99.7 per cent. Stable governments and relatively low crime rates are also a source of pride.

Frank Anderson, returning to Barbados after doing temporary work in Canada, says his country’s rising living standards are “in many ways the legacy of Errol Barrow, our first prime minister after independence in 1966.”

Anderson explains that part of the sadness about Thompson’s death is his link with Barrow (who was a close and longtime friend of Pierre Trudeau). “Not only are (Barrow and Thompson) the only two people to have represented St. John’s parish in Parliament since independence in 1966, Thompson was Barrow’s protegé in the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).”

Barrow, who also died in office, in 1987, had a dream — that quality public education, free to all, would make the former British colony a first-world nation providing opportunity for all, no matter how poor. The seemingly widespread belief is Thompson lived nearly long enough to see it happen; that a real middle class has quietly emerged.

“It’s not just high schools; university is free for Bajans,” Anderson says. “These kids aren’t just students at university, they were raised in educated homes.”

Rosa Alleyne, who works for an ad agency in the United States but returned to Barbados last week to visit relatives, speaks of “a new optimism despite the mourning and the recession” in the lineup at a south coast convenience store. “I live in San Francisco, but kids I went to school with are getting good jobs without leaving the country,” she said. “Go take a look at the new suburbs north of Bridgetown. It’s not foreigners buying those houses and they’re as nice as newer subdivisions in the States.”

Though tributes to Thompson dominate media coverage, the release this week of Transparency International’s 2010 report is also big news. Barbados is now ranked second to Canada for the lowest levels of corruption in the western hemisphere.

“It’s a small country that always punches above its weight,” says Ezra Catwell, of Invest Barbados, a government agency that promotes both direct foreign investment and Barbadian companies to the world.

A longstanding emphasis on transparency and rule of law, the educated workforce and the country’s tax treaties with many countries are popular with businesses. Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank and CIBC have long had big presences here. A tour of a plant owned by Florida-based Lenstec is impressive. The company began in Barbados in 1995 as a straight manufacturer of precision synthetic lenses used in cataract surgery. It has expanded several times and is now developing product lines that are being shipped around the world.

Cardiology and in vitro fertilization clinics are seen as evidence of a nascent medical tourism industry. There’s also a software cluster in Bridgetown.

The crime rate is almost certainly low by Caribbean standards, though independent, verifiable comparisons are hard to find. The 2009 United Nations Human Development Index ranks Barbados third in the Western Hemisphere behind Canada and the U.S., but evidence of poverty is still not difficult to find.

Governments in recent years have pushed diversification. Sugar was king for most of the island’s history, but exports are down 70 per cent since the 1960s. Tourism will continue to be relied upon heavily, but it’s seasonal and vulnerable to economic cycles.

“We’re past the point where we can compete as a low-cost jurisdiction,” says Darcy Boyce, minister of immigration, energy and communications under new Prime Minister Freundel Stuart. “Our wages are not low by Caribbean standards. We have to go for high value,” he says in an interview, promising the government will spend heavily on new health care and biotech labs in the near future and that green energy technology will be a priority.

“I hope the world will view us as a first-world country by 2020; in some ways we’re already there,” said Boyce.

In the meantime, confident as they may be, Barbadians clearly are in mourning as they gear up for the state funeral. Thompson touched citizens with a radio address shortly before his death; he didn’t want to be on TV because he didn’t want his appearance to detract from his parting message.

Kenmore Lynch, wearing a black ribbon while working on the front desk at the Hilton becomes choked up while trying to speak of Thompson’s commitment to “transparency and accountability. He prepared the government and he left us a road map.”

And back at the gravesite, Olive Estwick talks of Thompson as “a great young man.

“He loved people. He came to my retirement; he came to my great-grandson’s christening.”

“Please take a piece of rock back to Canada. Save it for your great-grandson.”

Statia is a little island that might restore your faith in human nature

The Quill volcano hasn't erupted for 1,700 years, but it looms over Oranjestad.

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on December 15, 2011. I’d love to learn to scuba dive and head back to St. Eustatius.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

ORANJESTAD, ST. EUSTATIUS—If you’re a dreamer prone to losing a wallet in a crowded bar, this is your Caribbean island.

And if you come to Statia — an affectionate local name for this outpost of the Dutch kingdom — visit Franky’s. It’s fun, meals are excellent and affordable, and staff and patrons may bolster your faith in mankind, as they did mine.

“You see?” a laughing Lennox Roach says as he drives me — complete with wallet, cards and cash — back to my hotel.

If you run into shipping agent Lennox Roach on Statia, say hi for me. He's a cool guy.

After the night’s first exit, a customer spied my wallet under a chair and gave it to the bartender. Upon my frantic return, owner Franky Gibbs held it aloft, grinning broadly.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Roach says. “That’s Statia, my friend!”

Earlier, I’d gently chided Roach, a Trinidad-born, Venezuela-raised shipping agent who had the apparent naivete to claim his adopted land is crime-free. I still say crimeless Utopias are impossible, human nature being what it is. But I know now that Statia’s special, and not just because locals leave cars unlocked, keys in the ignition.

It seems the world must have long bypassed this island, and the ruins of Oranjestad’s exotic past are further proof. Surf rolls into kilometres of tumbledown warehouses, while up the cliff sunlight bathes the interiors of a Dutch Reformed Church and the Western Hemisphere’s second-oldest synagogue.

Ruins of the Honem Dalim synagogue are impressive. Jewish merchants played a key role in Statia golden age.

Clearly, this obscure place was once important.

“As a boy, I played pirates down there,” historian Walter Hellebrand says, pointing from the heights of Fort Oranje to the beach and stone walls that housed cannons when Europeans continually fought over Statia. (From 1636 to 1815, flags changed 22 times.)

“Conquests of Statia were front-page news in Europe,” says Hellebrand, a former documentary filmmaker who came home to focus on the story of his birthplace. “This was the Caribbean’s busiest port. Now, nobody’s even heard of the place.”

Statia rose under the Dutch as a free port and hub for repackaging, allowing businesses to circumvent the mercantilist era’s restrictions on trade beyond one’s empire.

“Plantation owners and European manufacturers loved that you could buy or sell anything here, quickly, anytime you wanted,” Hellebrand says. “The warehouses were stocked with every imaginable product. It’s been called Pompeii of the Caribbean, because of the ruin. I’d compare it more to Carthage.”

Statia was a gathering place for the emerging West, with a population at least three times the current 3,500. Many languages were spoken, and a significant Jewish community contributed greatly to Statia’s boom.

Strolling the upper town with Hellebrand, the island’s director of monuments, it’s tough not to think of former inhabitants. Pirates and spies, prostitutes and barkeeps, soldiers, sailors and slaves knew these streets. Little imagination is needed to sense the ghosts.

But Statia was also where Americans acquired arms for their revolution, which indirectly scuttled Statia.

“It’s ironic,” Hellebrand says. “Our national holiday (Statia Day) celebrates, in part, the salute given an American ship (Nov. 16, 1776). It’s considered the first foreign recognition of U.S. independence, but within 40 years, the very establishment of the free-trading U.S. made us obsolete. We fell off the map.”

Being bypassed has advantages. Hellebrand, Roach and others say if trade had continued or mass tourism had come, relics of the past would have been destroyed for redevelopment.

“Statia’s not for everyone,” Roach says. “Our hotels are all small, but guests get to know their hosts,” he says, mentioning Scotty Newton of Statia Lodge, who picked me up at the airport, and Laura and Win (Piechutzki) at the Kings Well resort, where macaws visit guests at breakfast.

Macaws were introduced to the island by the owners of the Kings Well resort, but they've naturalized.

Statia attracts 4,000 tourists a year, mostly European divers. But there’s growth. The Old Gin House, a hotel and restaurant in a former sugar mill, and Mazinga on the Bay, a gift shop and gathering place rebuilt from ruins, have triggered waterfront interest. Many hike the Quill volcano’s rainforest crater or take in views from the rim.

Statia is also a rare pedestrian-friendly island, and not just due to a lack of crime. There aren’t many cars and I never saw one go faster than 30 km/h. They can’t and they don’t have to.

Hellebrand, meanwhile, says he has nothing against a company that wants to expand a largely hidden oil terminal into a visible area of Statia, “but the plan isn’t necessary and I think most people want to focus on tourism for economic expansion.

“We’ll never be into mass tourism, but we’re unique,” he says. “We’ll never have big cruise ships and white sand beaches, which is fine. We don’t have the infrastructure for mass tourism, but we have a beautiful, well-kept secret.”

JUST THE FACTS

ARRIVING WestJet, Air Canada and Sunwing fly direct to St. Maarten. From there, it’s a 20-minute flight on Winair. Flight-hotel packages can be booked through statiaholiday.com, operated by Authentic Caribbean Holidays, for about $1,600 (all prices U.S.).

SLEEPING There are no big resorts. Country Inn near Zeelandia Beach starts at $50 (U.S.) a night. Housekeeping bungalows at Statia Lodge are $140 and include Wi-Fi and a light breakfast. The Old Gin House, a beautifully restored sugar mill, is $147 to $330 a night. Links to hotels and restaurants are at statiatourism.com.

DINING If there’s an expensive restaurant on the island I couldn’t find it. Smoke Alley does steak and lobster, and has lots of specials. Blue Bead specializes in French and Italian. Original Fruit Tree and Super Burger (not just a burger joint) are good and affordable for lunch or dinner.

GETTING AROUND Nearly everything is so close you probably won’t need a car. Hotels tend to look after rides to and from the airport, though locals walk. If you pick Statia Lodge, you might want to rent a scooter for $20 a day.

DOING It’s a quiet island that’s big with scuba divers, who come from around the world to the marine national park. Hike the Quill volcano, but definitely hire a guide at statiapark.org, especially if you want to descend into the rain-forested crater (full day at $90). Historical walking tours of Oranjestad, for a suggested donation of $10, leave from the museum steustatiushistory.org. Cool Corner is fun for conversation and beer, but the Chinese food wasn’t great. There are only a couple of beaches and the dark volcanic sand gets hot. Currents off Atlantic side make swimming dangerous.

French flair and Dutch treats

St. Martin and St. Maarten are two distinct nations basking in Caribbean sunshine on either side of the world’s shortest undefended border 

Historic Fort Louis stands guard over Marigot, the French-side capital. The 17th-century courthouse (top) in Philipsburg, the Dutch-side capital, may be the most photographed building on the island. (Stephen Wickens photos)

 

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on February, 18, 2006. The new airport and the Westin Hotel have since been completed and some specifics in the story, such as prices, will be out of date. Since 2010, when the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved, St. Maarten has been a constituent country within the Dutch Kingdom. Since 2007, St. Martin has been a separate “collectivite” of France, rather than a part of Guadeloupe. Reconstruction was has finally begun at Mullet Bay Beach Club. 

By STEPHEN WICKENS

BAIE NETTLE, ST. MARTIN — In Dutch St. Maarten, they really want your business.

Here on the French side of the island? Well, not so much.

Generalizations are always dangerous. But visitors who spend much time crossing what may be the world’s shortest undefended border will probably notice much more than differences in currency and language, phone numbers and the shape of electrical plugs.

It’s rare to find a small island with so much variety (at 37 square miles, it’s about one-seventh the size of Toronto). If you don’t want anything other than a North American-style vacation with casinos, nightlife and the option of fast food, load up on U.S. dollars and stay on the Dutch side, which is part of the Netherlands Antilles. It’s where your flight will land, and nearly everyone speaks English.

But if you prefer European insouciance, a good night’s sleep and a particular emphasis on good food, load up on euros and head for the other side, part of France’s department of Guadeloupe. Here, the gas station convenience store offers great pastries, tiny groceterias have huge cheese counters and even a beachside snack bar offers a long list of gourmet salads. Just be forewarned: all of this can come with attitude — and a little Gauloise smoke with your breakfast.

“Oh, the French are always trying to be so different,” William Bell says half-jokingly of the island’s split personality. Bell, a former member of the Netherlands Antilles volleyball team, considers himself Dutch. But his wife is from the French side and their two multilingual sons must eventually choose to become citizens of the Antilles or of France and the European Union.

There are, naturally, things common to both sides apart from reliable weather: It’s the only entirely duty-free island in the Caribbean, and shopaholics make parking difficult in both Marigot and Philipsburg (the French- and Dutch-side capitals, respectively).

The island is also very cosmopolitan, considering there are fewer than 100,000 residents. You’ll hear boasts of 77 to 135 nationalities here. And, while it’s said that quality dining was once the preserve of the French side, things have clearly evened out. Restaurants aren’t cheap — entrées run from $48 to $60, especially in the touristy areas of Marigot — but not one meal disappointed over the course of my one-week stay.

The cultural divide, however, is very clear. When I call St. Maarten’s Toronto office, a representative picks up messages on her Christmas break. In five calls to the French side’s Montreal office, I’m twice forgotten on hold.

Once on the island, a Dutch-side official is again eager to help by providing a tour of the whole island, including the French side. As for his French counterpart, it takes repeated phone calls to make appointments he doesn’t keep.

D’Jackson Suriam laughs upon hearing of my ordeal. “It’s not just you,” says the owner of Madinina, a Creole restaurant at Baie Nettlé. “I am French and I prefer it here on the French side. But the Dutch, they know how to make it easy for you to start a business …  or spend your money.”

Maybe that’s why the Dutch side is booming. Cramped and antiquated Princess Juliana Airport is getting a new terminal and runway extension, slated for completion in July. Condo, time-share and hotel construction appears to be everywhere on the Dutch lowlands in the southwest (with the exception of the Mullet Bay Beach Club, ruined by Hurricane Luis in 1995 and not yet rebuilt because of a legal battle). A new Westin hotel is going up at Dawn Beach, while redevelopment of the waterfront continues at Philipsburg.

Philipsburg has also made a name for itself in international yachting. The Heineken Regatta ensures both sides of the island are hopping in early March. The 12-metre challenge and its fleet of former America’s Cup boats has become a year-round sports fantasy camp for sailors.

Still, the French side isn’t entirely sleepy. Construction around Marigot’s harbour is aimed at luring wealthy mega-yacht owners, and many locals hope development will be spurred by a recent agreement to make St. Martin a separate department of France by 2008, a move that will allow Marigot to deal directly with Paris rather than having to go through Guadeloupe.

And in many respects, the laid-back approach to tourism in Gallic St. Martin is what appeals to both guests and residents. On his tour of the island, William Bell of the Dutch tourism office spends nearly as much time showing off the charms of the French side — scenic undeveloped areas in the northeast, the street-side restaurants of a picturesque former fishing village called Grand Case, and clothing-optional Orient Beach.

“I don’t mind that you prefer staying on the French side,” Mr. Bell tells me. “Lot’s of people like its style, without any fast food. But I know lots of people will prefer the Dutch nightlife. Either way, with the split personality and the hilly scenery on such a small island, there’s really nothing else like it in the Caribbean.”

JUST THE FACTS 

  • Air Canada, Westjet and Sunwing all fly directly from Toronto. Cheaper fares can be had on U.S. carriers, if you’re willing to switch planes at an American hub airport.
  • Take a day trip to Tintamarre, an uninhabited flat island east of St. Martin. It’s now a nature preserve with pristine beaches, great snorkelling and endangered species. It was once a mini-kingdom with its own currency. A battle is brewing over plans for an onsite wind farm.
  • Do the Fort Louis and the “On the Trail of the Arawaks” tour with biologist-geologist-archeologist-historian Christophe Henocq. The museum, which is going into a former prison from the 1700s, is a little hokey, but Henocq is a passionate and entertaining leader.
  • For more activities on both sides of the island check out this link or this link
  • St. Maarten/St. Martin is a hub for the northeastern Caribbean, and a short hop to other destinations such as St. Barthelemy, Saba, St. Eustatius and Anguilla. Day trips to Anguilla by ferry are popular, but remember to bring your passport.

 

A prayer for Bermuda tourism

Nation that pioneered the era of modern vacationing pines for good old days 

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 23, 2011. Johnny Barnes is still going strong, but Princess and Caravan cruise lines have since slashed their visits to Bermuda.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Johnny Barnes may now be as much of a Bermuda icon as those shorts that make otherwise serious men look like cub masters.

HAMILTON, BERMUDA – Johnny Barnes rises before the sun every weekday and walks three kilometres to Crow Lane roundabout.

There, from 5 to 10 a.m., the 87-year-old waves and blows kisses, often yelling, “Bless you, have a wonderful day.” Commuters enthusiastically honk and wave back, a few yelling things such as, “Johnny! We love you.”

The show of affection has gone on for nearly three decades, rain or shine. So when a doctor’s appointment recently forced him to miss a day, media outlets and the police were flooded with phone calls.

Barnes might now be as much of an icon in Bermuda as those shorts that make otherwise serious men look like Cub masters. Even tourists make the pilgrimage to Johnny’s corner these days.

“I used to think he was nuts,” cab driver Robbie Powell says. “But now the whole country treasures Johnny. There’s already a great statue of him, though it probably won’t be moved to the roundabout till after he’s gone.”

Stop and talk with Barnes and he’ll pray for you. On this early April day, he joins hands with a couple of Canadians and beseeches God to grant us, among other things, a safe trip home. But maybe, with a national debate raging and page one of the Bermuda Sun declaring this the “Last chance to save tourism,” Barnes’s prayers should focus on luring more visitors to this sub-tropical Atlantic Ocean paradise a 1,000 kilometres off the North Carolina coast.

Bermuda is renowned among those who love to fish for marlin, tuna and barracuda. It’s a mecca for divers seeking shipwrecks and coral reefs to explore. If you love historic forts, litter-free streets, golf, luxury accommodations, friendly service and gorgeous beaches, it may be the place for you.

But if you must soak up the sun on those beaches, wait till mid-April, when the return of summer-like weather is heralded by migrating humpback whales and sightings of an iconic bird, the Bermuda longtail. And if you’re less than wealthy, consider housekeeping accommodations and trips to the supermarket so you can cook some of your meals.

Bermuda is many things, but it’s not a Caribbean destination for winter sun seekers and it’s not cheap. Those are probably the key underlying causes of the angst gripping an island that in some ways pioneered the era of modern tourism.

It fell off the radar for most Canadians when the loonie plumbed record depths in the 1980s and ‘90s. Though many have returned and our dollar is worth more than the greenback (to which Bermuda’s dollar is pegged, one to one), prices can sting like the Portuguese man o’ war you’ll be warned of on some of the pink sand beaches.

“We’re counting on Canadians; Canada is our second largest market,” William Griffith, the island’s tourism director said at a conference on sustainable travel put on by the Caribbean Tourism Organization. “Your strong dollar and the fact WestJet started competing with Air Canada has had an impact.”

Overall visitor totals have rebounded slightly since the worst of the recession that began in 2008, and the Canadian total rose 22 per cent in 2010. But politicians, industry people and media are conducting a surprisingly frank and open debate for a tourist destination—and with good reason.

Since the 1980s, trips to the island are off more than 50 per cent while 83 hotels have closed. Tourism remains the No. 2 industry behind financial services, but now accounts for less than 5 per cent of overall economic activity.

Mark Twain helped popularize Bermuda as a pioneering tourism destination, but in recent decades visitor totals have plunged.

An exhibit at the National Museum, part of the renovated Royal Navy Dockyard, views the heyday of tourism as something very much in the past.

“When the music changes, so must the dance,” Bermuda’s Canadian-born, McGill-educated Premier Paula Cox says. “Our tourism infrastructure became, in many cases, outdated.”

Things are costly on the island partly because it’s so remote and small. It’s the sixth-densest nation on earth (No. 8 if you include Vatican City and Monaco) and unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, it has no high-rises to speak of. Except for fish and a few vegetables, food is imported. Along with the land shortage, real estate values have soared in recent decades on a flood of insurance company money and wealth from people seeking favourable tax treatment.

Whether it’s worthwhile for the island to spice up its nightlife, add casinos or reach a little bit down-market is part of the current debate.

But one thing is certain, the extremely wealthy have first dibs on where to vacation, and you don’t have to be on this island long to know why so many still choose Bermuda.

JUST THE FACTS

ARRIVING: Served by WestJet and Air Canada, it’s only a 2½-hour flight from Toronto.

SLEEPING: Fairmont’s Princess and the Rosedon are jewels in Hamilton, the capital city. For a wide range of more modestly priced guest houses, B&Bs and housekeeping units, try this link. More than a dozen hotels are offering every third night free in April, every fourth night in May and every fifth in June.

DINING: Supermarket prices are higher than Toronto, but a good option if you feel pinched in restaurants. If you ask locals picks for reasonably priced restaurants, you will undoubtedly hear Mad Hatters and the Lemon Tree Café, both in Hamilton. At the west end of the island, the Frog and Onion’s home brew beers and pub style food are a hit. If you’re at the nearby Bonefish, ask for Bermudian-style fish, even if it’s not on the menu. It comes in a white sauce that is surprisingly light (too bad about the overdone veggies it came with). Most places charge a gratuity up front. It’s usually 15-17 per cent, meaning you’re not expected to tip. The splurge: The Waterlot Inn has been serving great filet mignon since 1670. If you’re in the Waterlot, check out the wine list: it’s a tome with offerings worth up to $1,500 a bottle.

DRINKING: The Dark and Stormy, considered the national cocktail, is one part Gosling’s Black Seal rum and two parts Barritt’s ginger beer. The “Rum Swizzle” combines dark and light rums with orange and pineapple juice, fresh lime, grenadine and Angostura bitters.

GETTING AROUND: Most roads lack sidewalks, so pedestrians should remember to walk facing into traffic, which in Bermuda is on the right side. Cars were not legal until 1946, and they’re still restricted – one per household. Tourists may not rent them. Mopeds and scooters are an option. Service provided by hard-to-miss pink buses is good. Tokens are $2.50 each. Taxis and ferries are also big parts of the transportation system.

DOING: If you have time, clear skies and the energy to climb the 185 steps, Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse, built in 1846, is a great place to survey the hook-shaped island. But no map of the place is complete without the surrounding rings of reefs, some of which were still islands that provided initial refuge for shipwrecked first residents (clearly, the seas are rising). It’s believed there are as many as 300 wrecks in the vicinity.

Scooters are common on Bermuda, but that piece of litter beside it is an extreme rarity.

DON’T MISS: St. George, the original capital, is the oldest English city in the Western Hemisphere and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. In centuries hence, if people look for great landmarks of the British Empire the way modern man looks at relics of Rome, Bermuda and its many forts may be viewed as the best example. The Royal Navy Dockyard has been transformed for tourists in recent years, complete with facilities for mega cruise ships. It’s a history buff’s delight and artist Graham Foster’s four-wall mural in the Commissioner’s building is stunning. Fort St. Catherine, at the island’s east end is the best of the forts. Also, make to time to walk the streets of Hamilton, a place where pieces of public sculpture outnumber pieces of litter. Even the indigents use the trash bins.