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.

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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.