25 March, 2014

Coming home via Dallas...

We only stayed in Dallas Texas because it's one of Qantas' two departure points for longhaul flights back to Australia. Our AA flights from Curacao was uneventful, and the transit in Miami was comfortable because enough time had been allowed for the interminably slow US immigration and customs process. We were intrigued at Miami customs because it was effectively another immigration check - the officer there had no interest in our baggage, but went through our passports and officiously asked why we had been to various middle eastern countries (6 years ago!).

Being of a certain age, our main interest in Dallas was, of course, the place of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1963, at Dealey Plaza. The two spots where JFK's car was in the presidential motorcade are marked on Elm Street with modest painted crosses. Rather irreverently, tourists dodge waves of traffic to have their photos taken standing on the crosses. Memorials to JFK now surround the plaza, and the 6th Floor of the adjacent Texas School Book Depository building has been converted to an excellent and very moving museum. This is the location from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy.

View across Elm St to the Texas School Depository Building. President Kennedy was shot from the right hand window in the second top floor.

We were a little surprised to see that the Depository Building museum is not a national monument. Instead, the museum is run by the Dallas County Historical Foundation as a charitable organisation. It is a very commercial enterprise, and deals with a lot of visitors. We queued for about an hour to get in. No photographs are permitted. There is a gift shop selling all manner of imitation Kennedy memorabilia, even copies of Jackie's jewellry! The museum chronicles JFK's entire life, and judging from the young age of most of the visitors, this is where they learn about the President. The actual corner where Oswald hid and fired his rifle is glassed off with storage boxes piled up as they were in 1963, and from adjacent windows you can see exactly his vantage point. Monitors at these windows recreate the motorcade. It's really well done!

We've lived though all the conspiracy theories associated with Kennedy's assassination, but this visit posed some new questions for us. Having studied Oswald's vanatge point, we wondered why he didn't shoot Kennedy when he had an excellent forward view of him as the car turned into N Houston St. Kennedy's car was further away and moving away where Oswald shot him in Elm Street.

Apart from the tourists milling around Dealey Plaza, downtown Dallas is as quiet as a morgue on weekends. No one lives here. The city has not discovered how residents bring life and safety to a CBD. The city is full of grand buildings and nice boulevards, but we didn't see any apartment blocks (and certainly no houses) within miles of the centre. There are almost no shops. In the entire city, on Sunday afternoon, we could only find one open cafe, notably called Weekend Coffee. The small historical district provides relief with several restaurants and bars, which we patronised.

Our Qantas flight left Dallas at 10pm in the dark, and arrived in Brisbane before the sun came up, the entire 17 hour flight being in darkness. Somehow, we must have picked the wrong day for a direct flight to Sydney. The stopover in Brisbane is annoying after such a long flight - we had to take all hand-luggage off, together with passports and boarding passes, for a security check in Brisbane. Even though MH370 had just disappeared, and Asian passengers travelling on European passports were suspected, no-one at Brisbane airport bothered to compare our passport photos with our faces, but they were very concerned about any lipstick we were carrying. Good to see Brisbane airport security is focused on the important matters!

14 March, 2014

The Caribbean Oscars...

We've just had the Oscars, so we've desided to award our prizes for the best performance in various aspects of our stay in the Caribbean...

Best Hotel

This was a tough award to decide, because some of our hotels were spacious resorts, and some were jammed into inner-cities, so the comparison is not apples with apples.

  • Stonefield Estate in St. Lucia would be a strong contender due to its fabulous view, generous balcony, private plunge pool and outdoor shower, but its facilities are a little rundown, there was no TV, the resturant was too limited and the hot water failed regularly. The outdoor shower here rates an honourable mention.
  • La Pagerie, a fine modern establishment in a busy town in Martinique, is let down by its petty regulations, practically no off-street parking and no hot water. Its live entertainment was a real bonus.
  • Sugar Ridge in Antigua is a great and modern resort with two impressive pools and restaurants. Our room in a villa of 4 units had a tiny private plunge pool and a nice balcony, but did have (that Caribbean trait,) poor hot water.
  • Sugar Mill in Tortola wins the prize for best restaurant, but our room was too quaint, had no TV and only luke-warm water. The balcony was inadequate.
  • W at Vieques is a serious contender with a very spacious room in an ultra-modern and very chic resort. W is let down by luke warm water, a rocky beach, a restaurant requiring bookings and Fawlty Towers type performance when you finally got a table.
  • Avila in Curacao is another strong contender, a modern resort on a great but we suspect artificially enhanced beach. The shower water was hot! The location was great. Trouble is the resort was just too crowded, and petty regulations were frustrating. Our room had minor faults which were reported but not rectified.

But our prize goes to El Convento in Old San Juan. This old and compact inner-city hotel was just perfect, full of character and interest, with numerous dining choices within and nearby. No view, no beach of course, but we had a great room, with a kitchenette, safe, and high flow hot water! There was a pool and a jacuzzi on the roof. This is a great place to stay.

The centuries old El Convento Hotel in Old San Juan was our selection for the best hotel we stayed at in the Caribbean.

Generally, in our experience, the good Caribbean hotels we stayed at provide WiFi as part of the package (something Australian hotels could adopt) but don't have guest (coin-operated) laundries. Laundromats in town were hard to find too, and were then open only in odd hours. Breakfasts may or may not be included. Tea/coffee making, refrigerators are safes are highly desirable but not universal. None, including El Convento, had a microwave oven in the room. Most but not all had fitness centres, and all have swimming pools. They include free parking, but sometimes there's not ebough spots. Best Rental Car

The award for the best rental car goes to the brand new and bright red Jeep Wrangler we got from Island Rentals on Vieques in Puerto Rico. The roads on Caribbean islands are typically potholed and rough, and this was probably the most suitable vehicle we had for that type of terrain. Honourable mention should go to the Suzuki Grande Vitara we had on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, also a great car for steep and rough roads.

The registration plate on our Vieques rental Jeep shows the iconic fortifications and sentry boxes of Old San Juan.

The least suitable car we rented was a sports-modified Misubishi Lancer from Avis on St. Lucia. This ridiculous car had spoilers and wings totally unsuited to the extraordinarily rough roads that country has to offer, and its protrusions made it doubly difficult to negotiate deep potholes and ridges, and bumps, which proliferated on the roads.

Worst Traffic

It's hard to believe that traffic could ever be a major problem on tiny Caribbean islands, but Martinique excelled itself and it took us 90 minutes to travel 10km to the airport on our departure day. We had observed this traffic situation on previous days, so we avoided it, but could not do so on the last day. A nightmare in a manual-transmission rental. Fortunately, we allowed plenty of time and didn't burn out the clutch, but we had to get up very early!

Longest Petrol Queue

There was no competition for this award - it went to the only open gas station on the island of Vieques. It took us three trips before we could make a successful purchase. The first time, after queueing for 30 minutes, and being second in line, the station abrubtly closed to clear the way for a tanker which had come off the ferry from the "big island" and was going to top up supplies. Over an hour later, we came back to join the queue gain, but we discovered that the station was still closed. Two hours later, we were successful, with only a very short queue.

Gasoline shortages on Vieques are quite common, apparently. The arrival of the tanker was a cause for comment and some celebration amongst the locals.

Steepest Roads

This award is a tie between St. Lucia and Tortola, where terrifyingly steep stretches are quite common, coupled by exceedingly tight and blind hairpin bends. The Caribbean islands that we drove on were variably hilly and mountainous, but these two were the most extreme, and share the prize.

Lookout & bar over Cane Garden Bay in Tortola. The scary downhills from here to the bay, and Apple Bay, helped Tortola share the prize for the steepest roads.

Weirdest Driving Experience

Driving everywhere in the Caribbean required us to quickly adapt between the two sides of the road. However, the weirdest combination was in Tortola where they adopt the British practice of keeping left, but all vehicles are left-hand-drive, imported from the USA. Gives the drivers a very good view of the edges of the road!

Best Beach

Of course, beaches are a combination of things, like the sand, the water, the surf, facilities, even access, and diferent people will weight these factors differently. But on our assessment, our best beach was Turners on Antigua, based on the colour of its water and the colour and fineness of its sand. It has no surf. Also, we could go to Turners before breakfast and be the only people on the beach.

Turner's Beach on Antigua was our favourite location for early morning swims. Later in the day, bars and restaurants opened, lounge chairs were rented, and crowds built up. On cruise ship days, it was best to go elsewhere.

If clear, beautiful water was the main criterion, then a Curacao beach would win the prize, but they just lost out because of the broken coral underfoot. We believe the clear water and the lack of sand are related, and we can well understand why Curacao is such a diving paradise.

Honourable mention goes to Caracas Bay on Vieques. This beach is so nice that we'd drive from one side of the island to the other just for a pre-breakfast swim. It's attractions were clean sand, clear water and a slight surf. Even early in the morning, this popular beach had a few other people on it.

Prettiest Marina

The Caribbean is replete with marinas, but most of those we saw were pretty scruffy places. The one that stood out and gets this award is Sopers Hole on Tortola. The water at Sopers Hole is crystal clear blue, but also the marina buildings themselves are tidy and well maintained, and quite pretty to boot. This was a very busy marina, lots of yachting activity, tourist cruises and shopping/eating possibilities.

View of Sopers Hole in Tortola, winning our prize for the prettiest marina of the many we saw.

Best Attraction

We almost didn't visit Nelson's Dockyard in Antigua, but when we did, we realised it is one of the great attractions of the Caribbean, and wins our award. This Victorian relic used to house the British Navy and is named after Admiral Horatio Nelson who had tenure here. It is now managed as a National Park, and is kept alive by being a working marina as well as a tourist attraction with interpretative signage, restaurants and bars. A stunning place to visit!

Just one of many historic ruins at Nelson's Dockyard. The cobbled ramp is an orginal use to haul goods up out of the water.

A very honourable mention has to go to the Queen Emma Bridge in Willemstad, Curacao. It's a pontoon bridge which is pulled aside to make way for vessels from yachts up to giant cruise ships and super-tankers. The frequent traffic and its location downtown makes the bridge a unique and fascinating tourist attraction.

And another mention goes to the cruise ships we saw everywhere. Our itinerary was intended to avoid cruise ships and their passengers, but it was impossible. Any maybe just as well, because it was truly fascinating to see these gigantic floating blocks of flats being manoeuvered and parked in tiny harbours. On disgorging their cargo, we saw the entire nature of each location change, only to return to its more languid natural self when the ships pulled out.

Cruise ships dominated every destination. Here we see one sailing out past the opened Queen Emma Bridge in Curacao, past another moored at the Mega Pier.

Best Coffee

Coffee is grown in the Caribbean, and they are proud of it, but finding decent espresso and cappucino (to our Aussie taste) was quite difficult. Lots of places offer cappucinos, but they often don't cut the mustard, mostly being too weak or milky. Our award for the best cappucino goes to Cafe Don Ruiz in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Our favourite cafe, with the best cappucino in the Caribbean, was this one in Old San Juan.

Best Food

We were disappointed at how poor the food was in some locations, in particular St. Lucia and (very surprisingly) Martinique, where the French tourists seemed to quite happy to eat uninteresting meals. We have decided to split this award into two categories...

  • Best island - Curacao. Avila food was good, but we also easily found nearby restaurants with excellent quality meals. We ate better in Curacao than anywhere else.
  • Best meal - Sugar Mill, Tortola. Grilled fresh lobster was a weekly special at the already excellent restaurant at Sugar Mill, and it was exquisite. We even shared this meal with Richard Branson. The special Valentines Day menu at Carmichaels at Sugar Ridge, Antigua was also very good, but not up to the standard of Sugar Mill.

We had our best Caribbean meal at the Sugar Mill (Tortola) restaurant. The gazebo shown here was a great location for quiet relaxation after breakfast, with a cuppa, and views over the sea.

Best Island

All the islands were good in some ways, and added considerably to our knowledge and enjoyment of the diversity of the Caribbean. Basically, they all share the same history - the original inhabitants, Amerindians, were pretty well destroyed by the mostly Spanish invaders of the 15-16th Centuries, who then established plantations and, needing cheap labour, kidnapped Africans and established slave trading. This is the background everywhere, and we were pleased to appreciate this view of the Caribbean.

We were visiting in the here and now, and our objectives were to relax and enjoy the current ambience of the islands. Because of the diversity, it is impossible to select a single winner, but our favourites are:-

  • Old San Juan: not strictly an island at all, but a huge surprise and a great delight. Fabulous downtown and fortifications.
  • Antigua: great beaches, easy to get around when you work out where you're going.
  • Curacao: the clearest, blue-est water, very civilised, easy to get around.

10 March, 2014

The Cote d'Azur of Curacao!

Our last stop on this Caribbean journey was Curacao. This island was always going to to be the odd man out in our itinerary. Our other five islands have all been in one arc of islands separating the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean, but Curacao is in its own cluster of three (together with Aruba and Bonaire, collectively known as ABC) well inside the Caribbean Sea and really very close to Venezuela in South America. This distance is only about 60km.

As such, our route to get here was circuitous, a 2.5 hour flight from San Juan to Miami, followed by another more or less in the opposite direction, back to Curacao. Those sectors, together with a 3 hour layover in Miami, meant a long day's travelling. But Miami airport is very modern, very large, and quite interesting as airports go, what with its multitude of shops and the Skytrain between terminals. Both hops were with American Airways, and so (thankfully) we were able to check our luggage through.

A favourite spot for tourists' photos in Punda, Willemstad.

Curacao is the odd man out in other respects. It is hotter here than we experienced on the other islands, and drier too. Other islands were quite tropical, with a storm or two on most days, we have seen almost no rain here at all, and indeed the island is dry and dusty. No lush tropical vegetation, no rainforests. Instead (we discovered on our driving) the undeveloped countryside is rather desert-like. The soil looks poor, nothing is being grown except cactuses and other prickly desert plants.

Our brand new but mechanically weak BVD rental car posing in front of cactii, typical flora in the bush on the island of Curacao.

Curacao had no gold and not much water, and was therefore uninteresting to the Spanish, leaving the way open for the Dutch whose culture now predominates here. The architecture is Dutch, the language is Dutch, although English is widely spoken and there is a local brew called Papiamento, dating from the slave era. Driving is on the right, and the currency is a Nederlands Antilles Guilder. US$ are widely accepted, and indeed can be optionally dispensed from ATMs. Britain has occupied Curacao twice over the centuries (only for 10 years total), and there is nothing much British about this place. Today, the country is independent, but (since 2010) is part of an alliance called the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The iconic skyline of Punda as seen from Otrobanda is the image which appears on Curacao's registration plates.

Mural depicting the slave era, at the Kura Hulanda Hotel, Willemstad. The Dutch colonialists made Curacao one of the major slave trading centres of the Caribbean.

Our hotel is the Avila, and it seems to be a home away from home for Dutch tourists seeking warmer climes. Almost all guests here are Dutch - we were here days before we heard any other language being spoken. It seems that like the French gravitate to Martinique to be comfortable amongst their own, so do the Dutch to this island and this hotel. By our observations, many seem to never leave the grounds of the hotel, but we know why they come. Where in Holland can you spend dawn to dusk in your swimming togs, cop a lot of sunshine, and never get cold? The Dutch here are very enthusiastic sunbakers, and don't know anything about hats. When they get home, they will be envied for their tans.

View of Sint Anna Baai and Punda through a loop-hole in Fort Rif which has been redeveloped into a shopping and cafe mall by the Renaissance Hotel.

The Avila site contains a place of some historical significance. One of its buildings is the Octagon, once a refuge for Simon Bolivar when he was hiding after precipitating a failed independence movement in Venezuela. Bolivar was a pivotal diplomat and fighter in Latin America's struggle for independence from the Spanish empire in the early 1800's. The Octagon is now a museum.

The Octagon Museum at Hotel Avila was a refuge for Simon Bolivar.

Being hot, dry and dusty, and also windy, Curacao seems vulnerable to major litter problems. The only outdoor places free of litter are where there is intensive effort to clean up. We had breakfast one morning in an outdoor cafe in Punda. Litter was scattered everywhere, and then we noticed why. Plastic cups and paper wrappings stand no chance of staying where they are put, and they blow around everywhere. The people don't help - garbage bins are largely ignored. Guests in our hotel are no better - they leave litter everywhere, expecting the staff to pick it up. Are they this untidy at home?

Seawater just doesn't get any clearer or bluer than this. At Playa Forti, on the north-west coast.

Playa Lagun is a tiny but popular beach north-west of Willemstad. The water is perfectly clear, but the "sand" is broken coral and very hard underfoot.

Without doubt, the highlight of Curacao, and one of the reasons we included this out of the way island on our itinerary, is the Queen Emma Bridge in the capital, Willemstad. This is a humble pedestrian bridge maybe only 2m high, floating on pontoons. It connects the two CBD halves of Punda and Otrobanda across Sint Anna Baai. What makes this bridge unique is that it opens! The biggest oil tankers and cruise ships have to get past this bridge and enter Shotegatt, a large harbour which forms the basis of Curacao's economy, oil refining. The brige opens by pivoting at one end, with the other end dragged in an arc to the side of the waterway by a large outboard motor. When the Bridge is opened, pedestrians can still get across because two ferries start up. Watching the bridge open and close, watching the giant ships pass through, is an enduring pleasure - luckily there are several strategically positioned cafes, so this activity can be done at length and in comfort!

The pontoons of the Queen Emma Bridge, looking across to Otrobanda.

The infinity pool and artificial beach at the Renaissance Hotel has a fine view of Willemstad's Mega-Pier, usually occupied by cruise ships.

Tourists, including us, watching a departing cruise ship in comfort and lubricated by pina coladas and mojitos.

For the big ships, Queen Emma opens fully, and docks on the Otrobanda side of the waterway. However, more often, when a pilot boat or a yacht want to get through, the "captain" of the bridge only opens it a crack, and holds it in midstream. Whether its a full opening or a half opening, pedestrians can be trapped on the bridge for a while, contrary to the rules, no doubt. When it's a full opening, the wait may be half an hour or longer, so more care is taken to clear the bridge. Warnings of openings are by a system of bells, sirens and flags, but they seem to be in a state of partial disrepair.

Ferries get pedestrians across Sint Anna Baai when the pontoon bridge has been pulled aside.

After dark, the Queen Emma Bridge (shown here whilst closing) is illuminated.

Scuba diving is one of the main tourist attractions on Curacao, and we have discovered why. The water is the clearest we have seen on the entire Caribbean trip, and that is saying something! There are no big rivers here to wash sediment into the ocean, and the beaches are broken coral rather than sand. We think these two factors are contributing to the crystal clarity of the sea water. The water at the beaches is also extraordinarily clear and blue, but the approach is very hard on the feet, and most people wear reef shoes. The beach surface at Avila is the best we saw on the island, and we suspect that they have imported a lot of sand to create it. Probably the other major hotels and resorts have done the same.

Crystal clear blue waters as seen along the coast at Playa Grande near Westpunt.

Pier and rowboat in perfectly clear water at Playa Grande.

Private enterprise seems to have hijacked access to the best beach accesses, Avila being a prime example. There's nothing really to stop public access, but the whole layout discourages casual vistors. Other gated hotels and resorts appear to be the same. At one place we saw, at Westpunt, the water was so clear it was agonising, but the best access was via a ladder off a dive boat pier - only $5 required. There are totally public beaches, like Playa Lagun and Playa Bayo - the water is glorious, but the broken coral underfoot is offputting. That's only a problem for tourists coming from the land of perfect beaches like us - the locals are used to coping!

Crowds enjoying public Baya Beach on a sunny weekend. Every family appears to have a barbeque going, mostly chicken being grilled.

Young people making good use of a spare oil tanker's mooring at Baya Beach in Caracas Bay.

Up near Westpunt, the coast seems to be a series of tiny coves and coral beaches tucked into stretches of rocky cliffs. As you go towards the north-western tip of Curacao (we were looking for a lighthouse, but never found it), development disappears and we found several blowholes which, while not large, were quite spectacular, and made satisfying "whoosh" sounds. They were approachable across treacherous pumice-like rock platforms and you could bathe in the cooling spray to escape the almost opressive heat.

Getting soaked by the spray from a blowhole through rocky platforms at Westpunt.

Avila is a perfectly located hotel, being within walking distance of Punda, and near many very nice restaurants of which we sampled several. Our main problem was establishing whether and when they were open. Signage seemed to be inaccurate and irrelevant, but in our week here, we found the best approach was not to plan ahead, but to simply show up at a new place which was manifestly open for business. We found some great meals this way. We particularly liked Roozendaals, No. 5 and Ginger, and, such is the way good restaurants are run here, we met and talked to the boss at each one. Avila's restaurants have good food too, so all in all, Curacao was our best dining experience on this Caribbean tour.

Sunset view from Avila to downtown Willemstad.

The walk/drive into Punda is through the area called Pietermaai. It follows the rocky coast and the suburb seems to be in a state of metamorphosis. Many fine old properties are in a state of complete dereliction, others are in excellent condition and in use as boutique hotels, offices, restaurants etc. Signage suggests that the area was completely rundown only ablout 10-15 years ago (but the hotel has been running here for 60 years). The process of urban renewal seems to be moving at a glacial pace however. Many ambitious projects appear to have stalled.

A renovated building in Penstraat, Willemstad.

Revolutionary grafitti is used to decorated dilapidated housing in Pietermaai, Willemstad.

Our rental car on Curacao was a BVD F5 from Budget. They told us it was a Toyota, but the internet says BVD is a Chinese company, and they promote themselves as "Better Value Driving". The car is brand new, and equipped with all the latest electronic wizardry, but its drive train is very clunky, and at only 4000km, we think it needs some major attention. A long life is not forecast! The island is about 60km long, maybe 20km wide, and we have explored much of it. Lonely Planet warned us that signposting was rare and faded, but that is obsolete information. We could see three generations of route markings, and the latest is excellent. The roads are equal to the best we have seen in the Caribbean too.

A dive boat getting ready to go near Westpunt. Climb down that ladder into the clearest water imaginable.

Unusually colorful bird watching over us drinking two refreshing Quenchers at the Kura Hulanda Beach Club.

Curacao benefits from having industry as well as tourism. The country refines much of nearby Venzuela's oil. We don't know why Venezuela doesn't do its own refining, maybe poorer ports. maybe wanting to export the environmental hazards, but this industry has provided much wealth and employment for the locals. Refineries occupy most of the shore around Shotegatt, effectively a city within a city. With the passage of oil and gas tankers and daily cruise ships past the Queen Emma Bridge, there is neverending entertainment in Willemstad.

Oil tanker being assisted out of Schottgat through its narrow entrance, Sint Anna Baai.

Other much smaller vessels have to pass that bridge. Curacao doesn't seem to grow much (infertile soil, as mentioned), but there is a steady stream of little traders from Venezuela which sell fresh fruit and groceries directly from their boats at what is called the floating market. This is a busy scene, and we notice the vendors live and sleep on their tiny craft, using hammocks. The floating market is directly opposite the Willemstad customs office, and this particular trading environment seems to be a mutually beneficial situation for both countries.

Fresh fruit and vegies are sold right off the Venezuelan boats in Willemstad's floating market.

Boats in the floating market lined up against their stalls at the entrance to Waaigat.

Fresh fish transaction at the floating market in Willemstad.

A Venzuelan boat leaving the floating market and heading home, passing down Sint Anne Baai.

Curacao's cosmopolitan nature is most evident when in Willemstad. Here, many more languages than Dutch are overheard. Mainly, it's Spanish. Spanish is the language of the Venezuelan floating market. There are also a lot of tourists from South America, which is logical because it's so close. Cruise ships bring a lot of American and European visitors, and it occurs to us that one way a city is pushed to being multilingual is to receive a lot of visitors speaking foreign tongues. If you want to sell to them, speak their language!

The Glockenspiel in Punda plays different tunes on the hour.

We were fortunate to be in Curacao during Carnaval! We are familiar with this festval in Rio de Janiero, but smaller scale versions take place thoughout Latin America, and Curacao adopts it with great gusto. The annual Carnaval lasts months, but the two parades over three days while we were here constituted its grand finale. The parades are loud and colourful, featuring motorised floats (whose main purpose seems to be to carry huge generators and speakers), live or recorded music, and hundreds of themed dancers behind each float. It's just like Sydney's Mardi Gras, but without the political messages. Floats seem to be sponsored by alcohol or telecom companies. We watched from the Queen Emma Bridge.

Float with magic mushrooms in the Curacao Carvaval parade.

Making their way home over the pontoon bridge after the Carnaval parade.

What Carnival did seem to do was disrupt the already arcane opening times for businesses and restaurants, including in Avila (not to mention the fitness centre!), so we could never tell when a particular place or venue was going to be open or not. People would give us conflicting information, and so we just settled down to a routine of visiting businesses we could see were open. Not a single business put up temporary signs to indicate their holiday hours, you just had to guess.

A tugboat manoevering a large cruise ship nearby is no reason to interrupt a selfie straight into the setting sun.

Avila could have been the best hotel we have stayed at on this trip, what with its great facilities, rooms and restaurants. Unfortunately, the hotel has expanded progressively over the years, and it has now outgrown its two beaches and pool. At peak times, these areas are hust to crowded. Also, the hotel has let itself down by being excessively bureaucratic. Petty restrictions are posted on signs, and sometimes just discovered. Maybe worse, some rules are not enforced which reduces the hotel's overall credibility. A rule prohibiting hanging towels and wet clothing on balcony railings is widely ignored. The hotel could have helped this requirement by supplying good airers, as La Pagerie did in Martinique.

It's just too crowded on the Avila Hotel beach at busy times. Too many guests, not enough beach.

We saw this guy drinking the local liquor at the Avila bar, several afternoons.

Another eminently sensible but totally unenforced rule is that pool and beach lounges cannot be reserved. This rule is universally ignored - early in the morning towels and sometimes personal items are strategically placed, sometimes only to be returned to much later. Some folk were reserving multiple lounges in preparation for morning and afternoon sun. Because demand exceeds supply, this means that all lounges are spoken for by about 9am. These are clearly first world problems, but we were irritated by one couple who we saw, dressed in street clothes, reserving the two prime lounges on the beach. Later, we saw them shopping in town. So, 5 hours after they reserved the lounges, we decided to use them. We folded their towels and put them aside. They weren't too happy, when they eventually arrived, but their arguments were deflated when we told them they had been seen shopping in Punda! We won the day, but suspect that our failure to respect probably well-established European beach protocols is a serious infraction, and we have been reported to the King of Holland.

Avila Hotel, with Clare occupying the sole shady spot on the beach! We defied protocol and ignored the towels reserving the lounges for over 5 hours!

Curacao may be close to our favourite destination on this Caribbean trip. It is a tussle with Antigua, but Curacao is easy to be in, easy to get around, great restaurants and fabulously clear water. The sand on the beaches is a negative, but staying at Avila compensated for that problem. Our week here was a great pleasure!

A large cruise ship blots out the skyline of Punda in Willemstad. This ship will be towed backwards out of the strait by a tugboat.

03 March, 2014

Puerto Rico's Old San Juan - Perfecto!

Christopher Columbus, who first sighted Puerto Rico on his second trip in 1493, is well recognised in Old San Juan.

Prior to planning for this trip, all we knew about Puerto Rico was from watching West Side Story maybe 40 years ago! Now we've stayed on Vieques and in San Juan, we think this American outpost may well be the unexpected highlight of our whole Caribbean journey. San Juan is not only the oldest European settlement in the USA, the little peninsula known as Old (Veijo) San Juan must be one of the most photogenic cities in the world. We didn't even leave it to look at new San Juan!

The modest San Juan Bautista Cathedral, just up a short hill from the San Juan gate. 17C arrivals would visit this church to give thanks for a safe journey. Devotees come to the cathedral to see the tomb of Ponce de Leon and the body of martyr St. Pio.

This design and colour scheme is typical of many chapels in Old San Juan.

The narrow streets of Old San Juan are packed with colorful old buildings and parked cars.

Our hotel was El Convento, originally a Carmelite convent dating back to the 1600's. This hotel is fantastic! It's on the 100m long hill up from the San Juan Gate where VIPs used to enter the city through its fortified walls and climb up to the San Juan Bautista Cathedral to give thanks for a safe journey. The hotel is full of character, as you would expect. It has been renovated, of course, but in period style so as not to lose any of its magnificent ambience. Our "superior" room was in the same vein, with all the required mod-cons including that feature missing from every other Caribbean hotel, genuine hot water a decent flow and pressure. El Convento has no beach, and has no view, but as an inner-city hotel with charm, it delivers the full package! It even has tiny pool and a hot tub on the roof, and a guest laundry. It provides a turn-down service in the evening, with chocolates on the pillow. What a hotel!

Our digs, the Gran Hotel, El Convento, dates to 1651 and was the world's first Carmelite Convent.

The view from our hotel window down the Escalinata de las Monjas.

Cool and breezy inside the courtyard at El Convento Hotel.

Three distinct features give Old San Juan its fabulous appeal, the incredible fortifications, the magnificent buildings and the narrow cobblestoned streets.

Newer dwellings outside the Old San Juan fortifications don't match the excellence of those inside.

Under Ponce de Leon, the Spanish established a colony in San Juan in 1508, and 25 years later, they commenced building incredible fortifications which eventually completely ringed the city and effectively protected the entrance to a great deep water harbour. It would take 250 years to complete. San Juan withstood multiple attacks by the English and Dutch, but finally fell into American hands after its war with Spain in 1898.

The symbol of Puerto Rico, which appears on car registration plates, is the sentry box which helped the Spanish protect its most strategic asset in the Caribbean.

Old San Juan is famous for the sentry boxes at dozens of locations on the Spanish fortifications. This one, seen from the Santa Maria Magdalina de Pazzis cemetery, enjoys divine protection.

For our part, we have never seen more complete and better preserved fortifications anywhere. The many sentry boxes are the iconic emblems of all of Puerto Rico, but also, you can clearly observe maybe hundreds of embrasures (wedge shaped slots cut in the tops of walls to give shooters access while protecting them at the same time), casemates (storage and quarters), bastions (protrusions in the walls to give defenders a better view of attackers). There are well preserved loopholes (for protected shooting), wells (holding a year's supply of water) and moats (for trapping the enemy). Collectively, these add up to an amzing historical site, now in the hands of te US National Parks Service, which, by our observations over many trips, always does a magnificent job at conservation, education and managed access.

Roughly, Old San Juan is a grid of about 9 streets running east-west, and 9 running north-south. Every one of these blocks is packed with buildings so magnificent they dare the camera to capture them, but but in itself is a great challenge because the streets are so narrow. Many of the buildings are as old as the fortifications, most are in good order and condition, freshly painted in rich pastels, but others are in various stages of dereliction. The run down places have often been the target of revolutionary graffiti and attractive in a different way.

The entire precinct of Old San Juan is packed with gloriously decorated, centuries old buildings, all impossible to photograph with good perpective due to very narrow streets.

Residence in Calle del Christo at dusk.

Many houses feature fine ceramic artworks near their front doors.

Night time in Calle del Cristo, with the Cristo Chapel showing at the bottom of the hill.

Art Deco is strong in Old San Juan. This lovely example is the Banco Popular seen from the waterfront.

We saw many groups of school children resting in shady places, this one in the plaza between our hotel and the Cathedral.

The grand but stark courtyard of the Ballaja which houses the Museo de las Americas and also our favourite coffee shop, the Cafe Don Ruiz.

Just another magnificent Old San Juan building, impossible to photograph with good perspective due to the narrow streets.

The surface of almost every street is paved with blue oxidised cobblestones. These are rich with character and the intensity of the blue colour is sometimes quite remarkable. Vehicles travelling over the cobblestones make a delightful rumble and give pedestrians good warning of their approach. The city officers who must have chosen to maintain the cobblestones made a very good decision!

Brightly coloured buildings and cobblestoned streets provide our lasting memories of Old San Juan.

Old San Juan is a busy hub for cruise ships. We couldn't work out whether ships were calling in here as part of an itinerary, or if the city was the terminus for Caribbean cruises. But the effect was the same - the presence of a cruise ship brings a new buzz to Old San Juan as passengers (or soon-to-be passsengers, or ex-passengers) take tours and roam the streets and fortifications.

The fortiifications which originally defended Puerto Rico from English, Dutch and maybe American invaders now welcomes them in the form of gigantic floating apartment blocks.

Old San Juan is rich with bars, cafes and restaurants, and we had no trouble finding meals outside the hotel. The only problem was making the decision! Our great hotel spoiled our appetite somewhat by turning on free wine and cheese every evening. How many hotels do that these days? This function was very well attended by hotel guests as you can imagine - we even met a couple of Aussies (from the Gold Coast) there. We don't think many Australians come to the Caribbean, but when you say that to someone, it turns out that maybe there are more than we think!

This property is uniquely decorated with colorful puppets.

This ceiling fan in a cemetery mason's workshop is done cooling!

Old San Juan is very Spanish, but also very American, just like Miami. All the familiar fast food stores are here, CVS and Walgreens drug-stores are in town, and we could get Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Unlike most of the rest of the Caribbean, San Juan operates with American efficiency, but boils with Spanish culture and charm - a thoroughly delightful city to visit, and a highlight of our Caribbean holiday.

San Juan has a thriving arts culture, with numerous galleries and exhibitions.

Not all buildings in Old San Juan are in good order and condition. Like many derelicts, this one has lost its roof.