Liquid luggage still causing grief

An abbreviated version of this story ran in the Toronto Star on November 12, 2011.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Five years later and travellers are still learning the hard way.

It was 2006 when British police uncovered a plot to smuggle explosives disguised as drinks onto transatlantic flights.  Ever since, tougher security checks and 100-millilitre limits on liquids allowed onto planes have been in place, but every day travellers have to surrender duty-free liquor and perfumes.

Toronto Pearson and Miami-Dade, the largest hub for the Caribbean, see many seizures, though the problem is global. Many victims are used to direct flights, unaware that changing planes can mean a second security screening.

I saw a livid woman lose her rum in Miami recently and learned of another case minutes later. I and another man would have lost out too if not for a friendly airport worker watching for people with duty-free bags.

Canadian and U.S. officials said they can’t provide specific data, but Mathieu Larocque of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) estimated the total in this country is twice 2010’s 355,000 seizures of dangerous objects such as knives.

Sari Koshetz of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) denied that any confiscations take place. “Passengers are given the opportunity to check their liquids or voluntarily abandon the items,” he said.

Whatever you call it, lost-bottle totals are down a lot since 2007, but still too high according to the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) and the Miami-Dade Aviation Department (MDAD).

In 2007, angry travellers and huge stockpiles at Miami prompted emergency meetings with airlines, cruise operators, security officials and duty-free shops. Educational campaigns followed, but it wasn’t enough, said Lauren Stover, of MDAD’s security and communications department.

“This was an issue we really tried to get a grip on,” Stover said.  “It was very frustrating for us to see our passengers have to abandon perfumes and liquors upon having to re-enter the TSA checkpoints.”

Stover said cruise operators and the U.S. duty-free shop industry vowed to tackle the issue from the purchase end, “but it is a more international than local problem, and that’s where I ran into a dead end.”

She said the TSA has approved tamper-proof bags that might ease matters when widely available. But Larocque said bags have also caused problems for people arriving from Europe, having been issued ones that don’t meet Canadian standards.

As for duty-free sales to out-bound passengers, Scott Armstrong of the GTAA says shops in Toronto should check boarding passes and tickets before completing a sale to ensure customers won’t be disappointed.

Elizabeth Scotton, chief commercial officer for Jamaica’s Montego Bay airport, says departing passengers should be warned of the rules by airlines, airport officials and duty-free staff.

People on that recent St. Maarten-Miami-Toronto journey say they don’t remember being warned. The St. Maarten airport and its duty-free shop didn’t respond to interview requests.

Terrilyn Kunopaski, editor of the TravelHotNews website, was a recent victim in Miami. Upon learning she’d lose her bottles, she offered to check a bag.  “Too late,” she was told, before presenting a gift of vodka and guavaberry-rum liqueur to an American Airlines employee.

Then, as if to salt the wound, at the gate she was told the bag she’d carried onto three flights in the previous six days was too big and would have to be checked after all.

“Still breaks my heart to think about it,” Kunopaski said.

 

FACTBOX

–  If you buy on a ship or duty-free island, wrap bottles in clothes and check in the bag. Hard luggage is recommended.

–  If you’re changing planes and plan to buy at the departure lounge, check a suitcase. You’ll have access to it to stow the bottle after clearing customs. You then check in the bag and go through security.

– Don’t assume in-flight duty-free buys are safe. If a change of planes awaits, you’re the same as anyone purchasing in a departure lounge.

– If departing Canadian airports with U.S. customs, or flying to Canada via the U.S. from Aruba, Bahamas, Bermuda and Ireland, you might not face a second screening. But experts advise you to confirm. As a rule, check a bag if you’re carrying bottles and changing planes.

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.

 

In Seattle, coffee is a form of art

Something’s brewing in the markets and the bars and even atop the Space Needle, and it’s not your average Joe

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star’s travel section on February 4, 2010. Prices will undoubtedly be a little out of date. The Chocolate Box’s wine bar has since opened, too.

Jackie McCallum shows Cindy Strohmier how to pour a latte at Caffe D'Arte on the Savor Seattle coffee and chocolate tour.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

SEATTLE – “Listen, this is important. Before we pour, you have to be sure the foam and the espresso are the same consistency, ” Jackie McCallum says. “They both have to be silky smooth.”

McCallum is jovial and patient as she shows Cindy Strohmier of Duvall, Wash., how to make a heart-shaped pattern atop a latte at Caffe D’Arte, but there’s a hint of an intensity that might serve her well at an international barista competition she plans to enter next fall.

“Let’s face it, I’m a coffee nerd, ” McCallum says after a demonstration for a caffeine culture walking tour in central Seattle.

A coffee nerd? Well, at least in Seattle, McCallum won’t be lonely.

The Pike Public Market on the waterfront is said to be the clear No. 1 tourist attraction in Washington state, but caffeinated creativity seems to infuse everything about this area. And it goes much deeper than the fact that this city is where the global Starbucks empire (including its Seattle’s Best division) got started.

The Sky City restaurant at the Space Needle, a lasting symbol of the 1962 World’s Fair, has shaken off its “Denny’s in the Sky” reputation with an acclaimed and popular new local menu that includes braised short ribs that have been marinated in coffee for 24 hours.

Go into Oliver’s at the Mayflower Hotel and bartender Patrick Donnelly will insist you try his trademark cocktail, an espresso-based concoction called the Seattle Flatliner.

Big with customers of the Cheese Cellar at Fisher Plaza near the Space Needle and at Beecher’s near the public market is something called Barely Buzz, a hand-rubbed coffee-and-lavender-flavoured creation that took the American Cheese Society’s top honours in 2007 and 2008.

“It’s actually made in Idaho, ” says Dennis Nelson of the Cheese Cellar, “but a lot of its popularity stems from Seattle. It’s a perfect fit here.”

There’s also a long list of confectioners and dessert places that work with coffee. The Chocolate Box, which doesn’t make its own products but selects and markets what it considers the best of the Seattle area, will soon open a bar dedicated to matching wines with chocolate and coffee-based foods.

Despite all the caffeine, Seattle drivers seem unusually patient and courteous. The coffee shops also seem to be friendly places where strangers are more than willing to engage you in conversation.

One morning at Seattle Coffee Works, near the market, upon learning a Canadian was present, a group of sports fans wanted to know about the chances NHL hockey might replace the departed NBA team.

Twenty-four hours later, in a Tully’s (a Seattle-based coffee chain that hasn’t expanded beyond the West Coast) there’s intense discussion among people reading newspaper coverage of a decision by big local employer Boeing to shift much of its 787 Dreamliner production to South Carolina.

There’s anger, but also expressions of confidence that creativity and coffee will deliver new jobs and wealth.

“New inventions will create new work. You’ll build on the fact that this is Microsoft town, Starbucks town, ” says Barrett Young, a software designer and “caffeine junkie” visiting from Los Angeles “for business and pleasure.”

Young tells a tale about Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz discovering a great cup of coffee in New York made using something called a Clover machine.

Upon returning to Seattle, Schultz apparently told an assistant to learn everything about Clover technology and arrange a flight so he could check it out first-hand.

“Turns out, he didn’t need a flight, ” Young says. “They could get over to Clover (in Seattle’s Ballard neighbourhood) by cab. There’s lots going on in this town, but a lot of it revolves around high tech and good coffee.”

Starbucks has since bought the fledgling Clover operation and is rolling out the new machines in various locations.

Caroline Hinchliff, who guides a coffee and chocolate tour for an outfit called Savor Seattle, tells a similar version of the Clover story. Hinchliff is passionate about coffee and big on her city’s history and its role in pop culture.

“It’s a shame, but there is no Cafe Nervosa, ” Hinchliff says of the spot where the Crane brothers would have meet in the TV sitcom, Frasier. “For Niles, it was ‘grande half-caf latte with a whisper of cinnamon, ‘” she tells a group of eight from Boston, Mississippi, Alaska, Toronto, northern California and locals from the Puget Sound area.

Hinchliff says there’s no consensus on how coffee became so deeply rooted in Seattle’s culture.

“Some say it’s because we have so many Scandinavians, ” she says. “They can’t get enough coffee in Finland and Sweden. Some people attribute it to the amount of rain we get – the need for a pickup with the lack of sunshine.”

She has a picture of a Filipino coffee-bean stall at the market from more than a century ago, but says that as late as the 1970s, it was the lack of good coffee in Seattle that inspired a trio of locals to found what we now know as Starbucks.

As for the future, she says she’s certain there are lots of new ideas and ventures in the works, pointing to Seattle Coffee Works, a collaboration of local roasters, and to small independent shops, which are everywhere throughout Seattle’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods.

“We have people coming from all around the world for coffee,” she says. “I can’t be totally certain about the past, but I’m sure there’s a great future.”

As for the present, Seattle is a fun city and a great place to grab a cup.

JUST THE FACTS

  • Do one of the coffee tours. If you’re going to be in town a few days, take the Savor Seattle one at the start of your trip. At $69 (U.S.) it may seem expensive, but with the samples, the trip on the monorail and up the Space Needle, as well as the long list of places where associated discounts are good for up to 10 days, it can be a deal.
  • The Warwick Hotel is in a handy part of town, walking distance for most of the central city. It’s certainly not five-star, but it was a clean, reasonably priced and the staff were friendly and helpful.
  • The light rail line linking downtown with the SeaTac airport will make Torontonians envious, even after we get our Pearson-Union service operational. Despite providing lots of stops along the way, it’s fast and inexpensive — $2.50.
  • The city transit system provides very good bus service for an American city. Service in the core is free between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. The downtown transit tunnel that brings light rail and buses together is an innovation that more cities should look into.