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St. Lucia/Sandals Report May 07

Sandals/St. Lucia - this report is long and pretty detailed.

I will start by saying that our trip to St. Lucia was fantastic. My wife and I loved this island and would recommend highly for those considering a trip to the Caribbean. I tend to make ALL travel arrangements myself but for this trip I diverted and used a Sandals rep to book the hotel and Serenity Vacations and Tours for all island excursions. I can’t say enough about Serenity. They are highly professional and provide service at the highest level. I only wish I had found them sooner. More about them and contact information to follow. For a frame of reference, my wife and I are in our mid-thirties and we have traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Caribbean. We went in mid May 2007 and it didn’t rain the entire time we were there.

We departed DFW on a Saturday at 6am to connect in Miami for our flight in to UVF airport in St. Lucia. I travel a lot and I am used to airports but be aware, Miami can be a long walk between gates and we had just under an hour connection time. AA was on time, which is great, but they were already boarding our plane by the time we got there. If you are slow or you travel from a market with a high frequency of flight delays, I would be careful with that kind of connection. My wife and I always travel carry on, so we can be flexible if need be and because we carry on, I have never lost a bag.

We arrived at UVF at 2pm. UVF is on the South side of the island, closest to Soufriere. 40 miles from Castries. UVF is a small airport and baggage claim, customs and immigration is all in the same room. Its very easy and they were very expeditious. However, I have heard that often flights land in close proximity and that the lines can get backed up. We were upfront on the plane so from the time we deplaned to the time we left the immigration desk was about 5 minutes. Upon leaving the immigration desk, you will immediately be met by locals who want to carry your bags. Since most people are being met by the hotel bus or travel agency bus, they try to pass themselves off as employees of the hotels or travel companies; they aren’t. The distance between the immigration desk and bus depot is about 40 feet. Unless you need your bags carried 40 feet, just tell them “No” and they will leave you alone. (Which is pretty much the case around the island as well.)

Right outside the airport is where most people will meet their transportation. Since I have read extensively about the nightmare drive from the North side to the South side and vice versa, we booked a helicopter transfer. I can’t say enough about how great this is. I had Serenity book our reservation with St. Lucia Helicopters and they are the only heli company on the island. www.stluciahelicopters.com Sandals does have a free transfer but it’s a long drive on windy roads and you are packed in with all the Sandals guests. If you want to avoid that, then the helicopter is your option. After I checked in with the Sandals desk to let them know we arrived, we were met by the heli rep right outside the airport and we waited about ten minutes before the other heli passengers collected their bags. Luckily, there were only 4 of us (the heli holds six) so we were able to take our luggage with us. However, if they have full heli, they transport your luggage to the hotel for you. We landed on the private heli pad at the Charles airport where we paid $240 for two. A taxi meets you there to take you to your hotel directly. That’s another $25 and is paid separately. Most of the resorts are within 15-20 minutes of Charles depending on traffic. St Lucia Helicopters sets the taxi up so you don’t have to wait. All said, we were at the hotel about an hour after the plane landed. To drive that distance to most of the hotels would be between 2 and 3 hours, depending on traffic.

Upon arrival to the Sandals Grande, we were met at the entrance by hotel staff that walked us directly to the concierge check-in, which is a separate room on the 3rd floor of the hotel. This is for those who book a concierge level. (Butler level rooms do check in at your room) This was nice because we had nice lounge chairs and full bar with a view of the pool while we waited for the check in process. Its quiet and comfortable and you can ask questions, check the reservation book for the restaurants, and get activity information and so on without being or feeling rushed. (Another bonus for arriving a couple hours in advance of those who take the bus transfer.) I was told that the first thing I should do is make reservations at the restaurant that require them. Most do not require this. As it turns out, we were not able to get any times we wanted at the restaurants we wanted which was quite disappointing. I let them know I thought that was quite unreasonable seeing how I wasn’t even in my room yet and I already couldn’t eat at some of the places I wanted to. You cannot book these reservations until you are on property. (more on dining later)

We were shown to our room which was not in the building I had originally asked for. I had requested a room as far from the pool as possible in another building and was assured by the Sandals rep that it was taken care of. I did this so we would have quiet from the pool. I was aggravated but we stayed put because I was not in the mood to change rooms. As it turns out, we made a great decision and I think we had the best view at the resort. Our room was room 415. Now, we got the ocean front concierge room and I can’t imagine not having the view. For those who don’t care, the lower cost rooms are the exact same, but with a view of the gardens. Additionally, the ocean front are on the top level of each building but there are elevators and stairs on each side which are not that bad at all to climb up and down. With that level room you get the concierge service which basically means you get easier check-in, room service and the concierge desk to help with any reservations or activities. You already know we could not get a reservation for dinner and if you want to book activities, the concierge will only direct you to the activities desk or the excursion desk. So, for that level room, you are basically paying more for the view and the option to have room service. Having said that, we only had room service once but we did have the minibar restocked twice with beer. Which they responded quite quickly to. And speaking of beer: almost the only beer you can get on the island is Piton (the local beer), Heineken and Guinness. At Sandals, that’s the case for sure. Additionally, we spoke with others who were booked in the Rondoval suites and although you have a private plunge pool, you share a fence with another suite so the idea of privacy is somewhat lost. They don’t really tell you that upfront.

Our room was clean, the bed was just fine, the balcony was large and very nice and the view spectacular. We found the resort to be very well maintained. The gardens were manicured nicely, the beach was clean and the pool was balanced properly. On occasion we had to wait a few minutes to get a drink at the bars but nothing I would complain about. My fear there would be noise all night was totally off base since the pool bar closes at 5pm and everybody retires for rest or dinner soon after. The resort was so quiet at night that often I felt like we were alone. I wouldn’t say the clientele were mostly honeymooners although there were plenty. There are two pools away from the main pool that are quite nice if you want to relax without noise. One is in front of building 3 and the other is in front of 7&8. The one in front of building 3 is the lovers pool as they call it seemed entirely removed. You do have to hike a bit for a drink. All beaches in St. Lucia are public property, however, Sandals makes a tremendous effort to keep their portion clean. There are people on the beach selling excursions and activities but if you don’t want to partake, a simple “No Thanks” will keep them at bay. During our stay there were maybe 4-5 guys doing that. I never felt it was obtrusive or annoying. However, Sandals security is always a stones throw away if there is a problem. We had no problem getting a lounge chair by the pool or a tent on the beach but for that I would get up early to secure it. Not that early. Maybe 9am for the tent on the beach. But by 10am there are people bellying up to the bar getting things started. We never had to wait longer than 5 minutes to be seated for dinner.

The activities desk on the beach is the spot for making scuba reservations, renting the hobie cats, waterskiing or tubing and snorkeling. One of the main reasons we chose Sandals is because the scuba is all-inclusive. I have to say I have been diving for a long time and the dive shop at the St. Lucia Grande is the most professional outfit I have ever been diving with. If you are a diver you need look no further.

Here is how they do it:
Upon checking in at the scuba shop, they will insist on reviewing your dive log. If you have not been diving within 12 months, they will make you take the skills test in the pool and the written test and they will charge you $70 to do it. I wouldn’t want to pay $70 to relearn dive tables. I saw it happen and the guy argued but they insisted. They wont take the chance for liability reasons. So, if you have not been diving within 12 months, I would falsify a dive in your log if you don’t want to take the skills test. If you have a problem with that, then take the test. They allow one dive outing (2 dives) per day, per guest and one dive is at 8am and the other is at 1:30p. On Sunday, there is just a very shallow dive at 11am. You cannot reserve until arrival at the resort but once there, I had no problems at all getting the days and time I wanted. In fact, there were never more that 8 people on any dive and most of the time, only 6. They do a different dive spot everyday and they usually know in advance which day will be where, weather permitting. So, if you want to dive under the Pitons for example, you can plan that in advance. The boat is at 30+ foot twin engine that seemed fairly new and I always had at least 3k psi per dive. Plenty of room and they served food and beverage on board in between and after dives. A nice touch. One downside, the boat does have a private toilet but there was no toilet paper and it’s a pump flush. So good luck with that. The diving was not the best in the world but I enjoyed it tremendously. The downside is the visibility is about 50-60 feet, the coral is not bursting with color but the wildlife was quite good. We were lucky enough to see plenty of turtles, rays, skates, lobster, eels and one octopus. And of course, fish.

Additional activities are easy to book. Many people enjoy the tubing as the boat glides you right in to the beach. The next group boards the tube and they take off again. We didn’t especially want to take a hobie cat out on our own as the winds were high the day we wanted to do it. So, a Sandals activities coordinator was happy to take us out and show us the ropes. There was water aerobics and beach volleyball but NO snorkeling from the beach. At least, they wont rent you snorkel gear for the beach. Only off the boat.

The Food: My wife and I both read reviews on the food at the Sandals Resorts in St. Lucia and of course they range across the board. I consider myself somewhat of a foodie, and I was more than pleased with the quality and amount of food at Sandals on St. Lucia. If food is not your main concern, you will be very pleased. Is it the best food on the planet, of course not. But, its pretty damn good for the amount of people they have to prepare for on a daily basis. And we didn’t even eat at the two places requiring reservations. I am going out on a limb here, but my wife and I spent 10 days in Italy two years ago and the meal we ate at Marios, rivaled the food we had in Italy. No offense to Italy. And we were two of about 10 people in the whole place. It was nice that there were no crowds. It was dark and quiet and good. One of the places requiring reservations is the Japanese style hibachi place called Kimonos that from what we heard, if you have been to one before, it’s the same thing. Nothing to lose sleep over missing. The spot called Barefoot on the Beach was great for lunch. The Jerk chicken is fantastic and we had a great dinner there as well. Be pushy for a table closest to the ocean or otherwise you will be seated where they want you. Speaking of the wait staff. Some have said that the wait staff at these resorts are not friendly. I would agree with that but they do a good job and that’s what counts. And it’s not everyone. The folks at Josephines were very nice and friendly and very laid back. I had to ask to have my order taken about 10 minutes after I got my coffee. That’s the way they roll. No big deal. The breakfast was great. Unless you don’t like homemade waffles, pancakes, omelets, fresh fruit and cereal, crispy bacon, smoothies and fresh bread. At the Josephines the crepes were tremendous but expect a wait during rush hour, as the place is quite small. We ate at The Pier for appetizers before Marios and we didn’t care for the menu there as much. But if you really like fish, you will like The Pier. Also, the English Pub is fun for late night boozing and eating and they have the pool tables in there. Which we seemed to gravitate towards. The food at the pub is average but I didn’t expect much there. I stuck with the cheese fries and my wife liked the French fries after some beers.

The Spa: just when you thought it couldn’t get better. The therapists are exceptional and very professional. I have had a thousand massages and I rank the two I had here in the top 5. As did my wife. The spa itself was OK. Nothing special. The changing rooms and showers were average to below average and the cold plunge pool was warm. The steam room is outside near the heated spa and takes some time to get going. It’s not on all the time. The first massage started 30 minutes after our scheduled time which I was not happy with. They informed me they had several guests who were running late throughout the day and they were just slightly back up. The second one was about 10 minutes short of the 80 minutes I paid for. I took that up with the concierge at check out and they spotted 10% off the bill. That may seem overboard, but if you look at the rates you will understand why. There was one glitch. I made reservations for spa treatments prior to arriving through the 800 number on the website. When we got there, I called the spa to confirm our appointment and they did not have us booked. I rebooked on site and settled the bill at departure. Upon receiving my credit card statement, they inadvertently charged me for the original reservation. It took 7 phone calls and 5 different people to resolve it, but once I got the right people on the phone, it was no problem. I should have had Serenity handle it from the beginning and there would have been no problem. But you would think by actually calling Sandals, they could handle that. It wasn’t the resort; it was the booking agent on the 800 number.

The day after our arrival we went for the last night of the St. Lucia Jazz Festival. The festival was on Pidgeon Island, within a 5 minute walk from the Sandals and something you should do on your own. You don’t need the tour but its worth going to see. Isaac Hayes and Natalie Cole were the finale of the festival and we had fun relaxing on the grass as we watched the people and listened to the jazz. A good start to the week even though Isaac Hayes was very boring.

Serenity Vacations and Tours: After several failed attempts to make reservations with tour companies directly in St. Lucia, I called Serenity at 866 766 0794. you can also reach them at 758 450 4525. I spoke with John who turns out owns the company. He was very helpful and when I hung up, I felt like I had known the guy for years. I had read their website www.serenitytvl.com and I wanted to customize a couple of excursions that were not normally offered. He assured me he was the guy to handle the task and that Serenity offers a unique service, the ambassador program. The way it works is you have an ambassador assigned to you during your stay that guides your tours if needed, handles transportation, sets reservations for tours and just generally takes care of anything and everything you may need. Like a concierge. Although I had already booked my hotel, they are a one stop shop taking care of everything from the time you book your hotel and airfare to the second you depart. For our demands and plans, this was exactly what I wanted. John and Sherma, our ambassador, came to the resort to meet us on our second morning there they just wanted to make introductions and to make sure we didn’t need anything and to confirm our excursions. I thought that was great. From that point, while on St. Lucia, they would be our go to guys for anything we needed. Sandals has an excursion desk you can use but its very cookie cutter. They will not alter schedules or satisfy personal itinerary requests. If you want to veer from the standard, you have to go to an outside company. The costs for the excursions are typically the same across the tour companies including Sandals, who farms most of the tours out to other companies anyway.

My wife and I wanted to take a private car from Sandals down the coast of St. Lucia, with a guide, making all the necessary stops, quickly, at places of interest without the busload of tourists that would normally accompany you. Stops included Gros Islet, Castries, a banana plantation; a small, local bakery where they make the best bread, overlooks of Soufriere, Canaries the waterfalls and then finally Soufriere. Our Serenity ambassador, Sherma, would serve as our guide. We enjoyed this time tremendously and mainly because we went at our pace. Our final stop was at the base of the Gros Piton where we checked in at the information shack and secured a guide. Ten minutes later we were on our way up. To arrange a hiking guide on your own in advance, call 758 459 9748. All hikes require a guide and there is a small charge plus its customary to tip the guide as well.

A little bit about hiking the Pitons that you should know in case you desire to climb. I had read the hike was strenuous or moderate. To me, that would seem fairly easy. I am 32 with an athletic build and I exercise 5-7 hours a week. My wife is in similar condition. So, no problem. Not exactly. The hike is 3000 feet almost straight up. The trail (if you can call it that) is maintained but much of the hike requires scaling large boulders or stair stepping root outcroppings and so on. This trail only slightly winds around the mountain, with the most part heading straight up. I would say it’s not a good hike for a first timer unless you want to spend the better part of the day doing it. Which we didn’t, but we went fast.

Now, if you expect some great payoff at the end of this somewhat grueling adventure, you will be let down. On a pristine day, you can see St. Vincent and Martinique, but even the guide admitted that is rare. With our luck, clouds and haze had moved in during the ascent so our view permitted barely a glimpse of the ocean from the top. In addition, there are only 3 lookouts on the mountain. One, half -way up, the other two at the top. The mountain is so dense that you have no view on the trail, other than vegetation. The two at the top are on opposite sides of the mountain and require 20 minutes hike between them. The first look out faces the island with no view of the Petit Piton and only a slight view of the ocean. (a complete waste of time even on a clear day) The view I wanted to see was the Petit Piton rising up out of the ocean with the possibility of seeing Martinique. I got a view of the Piton but the haze killed the buzz. I also realized that the view from the halfway point (approx. 2000 ft.) was as good or better than the view from the top. There is less haze half way up and the difference in view between 2000ft and 3000ft at 3 miles distance is negligible.

For the experience, I would do this hike but only to the half way point, only on a clear day and I would ask the guide to forego the 20 minute diversion at the beginning to see a large rock where the islanders used to live. My wife and I both had a tremendously sore back and feet but mainly do to our tennis shoes. (I was told tennis shoes were sufficient but you really need hiking boots) All in all, my wife and I got up and down in 31/2 hours. For reference, our guide can do it in 2:15 but she lives on the mountain and the group we saw at the top took 3 hours just to get to the top. For an equally impressive view without any hiking you can have lunch or drinks at the Dasheen Restaurant, which is actually at about 1000 feet next to the Pitons. The views from here are excellent and the food is good. The lunch will cost $20 per person. If you plan to hike to the top, I would carry a minimum two quarts of water per person. And some powerbars.

After we came down the mountain in a somewhat disheveled state, we met Sherma, and boarded our van to take us to the Soufriere marina. There we boarded a 20 foot schooner and went south back towards Sandals. We had a few beers along the way as we stopped by all the sights including the bat cave, Rodney Bay, Canaries and Gros Islet Marina. It was nice to have a private boat for the return trip although it was rough out in the open water. On the way back, we decided we wanted to go to the spa so we called John on his cell and he arranged the treatments with Sandals upon our return. While cruising thru Castries Bay we got up close and personal to the docked cruise ships, which was pretty cool. Its been a while since my last cruise and I forgot how big those suckers are.

The following day we took a day trip to St. Vincent and The Grenadines for some sailing. St. Vincent and The Grenadines is a must-do while on vacation in St. Lucia. All the arrangements were made by Serenity and everything went smoothly. We were picked up early where we were transferred to the CHARLES airport. From there, we boarded a 9-passenger plane with several other couples vacationing on the island. We flew 45 minutes over St. Vincent to Union Island where we had our passport stamped and boarded a dinghy for the ride to the Pirate Ship. Now, we had planned on a Catamaran with a smaller group of people, around 6-8. (There was a small miscommunication but now you can choose the style vessel you prefer) The Pirate Ship held about 25 and at the outset, sounds extremely corny. However, it turned out to be quite fun to sail on the open water on that size ship. Turns out they used this boat in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and had the pictures to prove it. Although it was not what we had in mind, it turned out to be tons of fun and we met some very nice people. All the sailing vessels depart from Union Island for the same day sailing route. We stopped at 3 different Islands with the highlight being the Tobago Cays and Palm Island. You can spend time there snorkeling with the sea turtles or just relaxing on the beach. There were plenty of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks on board and the lunch they served was fantastic. Seriously, everyone was quire impressed with the food seeing as they cooked it below deck. At the end of the day we flew back right over the Pitons and our Serenity driver was waiting at the airport to take us to the hotel. Later that night, Sherma called to make sure everything went well and that we were taken care of. A very nice touch of service to end the day.

Our last local excursion from the hotel was pretty aggressive as well. We wanted to see the Anse le Ray fish Fry and the Gros Islet street Party, and they occur on the same night. We asked Sherma to give us a guided tour of the fun and she set up all the transportation. We left about 6pm for the hour drive to Anse le Ray. We drank a few beers along the way and talked with our new friend Sherma and her father, who was our driver for the night. It was nice to have a driver because once we got there, it seemed very difficult to find parking in the small town. We were dropped off and picked up when it was time to leave.

The fish fry was great and it was nice to see the locals in action. Although many tourists join the fish fry, it does not feel touristy at all. There is no worry for crime as this seems to be a family event for the locals. The locals set up tents and tables where you buy some drinks and fresh fried fish and crab and fries and meat skewers and the like. The bigger ones have menus and servers. Between about 7p and 9p it can get crowded as the event is only one block long. Good thing we had Sherma with us because she ran in to a cousin who is a police officer and he helped us to commandeer a table on the beach at one of the better tents. She even helped us get our food and drinks quickly. She ate with us and we really enjoyed the people watching, food and company.

Once we finished there we got back in the van and drove back to Gros Islet for the Street Party. (Jump Up) This was an entirely different scene. This was reminiscent of Mardi Gras without the parades. A large crowd, packed in to a couple of streets where DJ’s play and the locals dance. On the night we were there, it seemed somewhat unsafe although nothing in particular occurred to make me think that. Just me being somewhat uncomfortable in the surroundings. This is mainly young kids in their 20’s cutting loose on a Friday night with some loud music and beer in the street. I would not recommend this outing to anyone and I cannot at all blame Sherma as I insisted on seeing this spectacle. Either way, I saw it, we spent 30 minutes there and that was enough before we went back to the hotel. Don’t waste your time.

We made it back to the resort in time for the Friday midnight buffet and that was one of the only disappointments we had with Sandals. We got back at 5 minutes past twelve and the staff was already cleaning up. We found out that the midnight buffet is actually at 11:30p and once the crowd subsides, they close up shop. I had heard great things about this, especially the lobster. I was told that once they run out of the lobster, that’s it, no more. So if you aren’t there early, you luck out. From the looks of it, I wouldn’t bother unless you normally stay up that late. I have read where others had a better experience with the buffet.

On our last day, we had Serenity arrange a pick up for us to the airport because the Sandals bus leaves 3 plus hours before the flight. After having already been to that airport for the Grenadine trip and knowing it was a 15 minute drive, I chose to have a few last beers at the lobby bar with the ocean in sight, rather than crammed in a bus with loads of travelers only to sit in the humid, no A/C airport. That was good decision and we were picked up 11/2 hours before the flight and still had time to sit and wait at the airport before boarding.

Since my wife and I carry-on our luggage, we don’t have much room to bring things home. Usually that’s not a problem, although this time it was. I had to have the Baron’s Jerk Seasoning Sandals uses. You can buy it in 8oz bottles at the hotel. I bought one bottle along with some Banana Ketchup and took it with me in my carry on. I expected to get it confiscated and that’s exactly what happened. Oh well. But I wanted to get some. After looking extensively on-line for this specific kind and not finding it, I emailed Sherma at Serenity and asked her to ship some to me. I sent her some money and she graciously picked some up. However, we ran in to a problem. Neither the local post office nor FedEx would ship the seasoning. They both claimed they have new rules in place for liquid shipments from St. Lucia to the U.S. Of course, for $200 they would do it. Not really worth it for 5 8oz bottles of seasoning worth $30. So, after Sherma going to a lot of trouble to get this to me, John at Serenity called me and said they had decided it just wasn’t worth it. I agreed and thanked him endlessly for the effort and of course, for the effort Sherma made, which went well beyond the call of duty.

Overall, St. Lucia is an amazing place and the people we met there were very cordial. Having an “Ambassador” like Sherma made the trip so effortless and enjoyable. I truly think Serenity Tours and Vacations has a unique corner on the tourism market and any additional fees they charge are worth not having to deal with making any arrangements yourself. It really is peace of mind knowing your requests are being handled by responsible and trustworthy people. If you would like to see my pictures of the resort, you can visit my website at www.cason-photography.com Click on the Gallery and then Travel. From there, you can select St. Lucia and there you have it. I made sure to include several of the resort just for this post. And the view from our room.

Also, if you have questions that you would like a quick response to, you can contact me at chris.cason@mac.com. I don’t always have time to check the travel sites.

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