Cuba Calling

Our 10th wedding anniversary was in 2016 and we wanted to celebrate with a trip, but weren’t comfortable leaving Camp behind. We also wanted to take advantage of travel while he could still fly as a lap baby. Where could we go that was somewhat adventurous but still a good family destination? The trip got postponed a year as we worked to figure this out. We first looked at various European itineraries but then decided against subjecting Camp to such a long flight. While he’s been a great traveler, having joined us on many flights and long drives, we just decided it would be more fun for everyone if we kept it shorter.

Aminda was getting restless to use her passport and to see a new country, which really limited our options for shorter flights.  When direct flights to Cuba became available up, we were ready to be among the first U.S. citizens to take advantage of it.

The timing felt opportune. Restrictions on Cuban citizens have been easing over the past few years, resulting in better services for travelers but not so much as to result in a complete character shift. Neither Starbucks nor McDonalds can be found in the country (open to civilians at least; there are said to be several U.S. chains located within the Guantanamo naval base), but who can say how much longer that will be the case.

Cuba was Cameron’s first international trip – a place with inconsistent WiFi where hardly anyone speaks English. To keep it easy (this was our anniversary celebration after all), we spent most of our nights at an all-inclusive resort. We’re normally not the all-inclusive types but this worked perfectly. The resort we chose was older, laid-back and un-crowded. We only had a couple days which filled easily at the beach and pool.

Booking our Cuba travel was a much different experience than we’re accustomed to. To book our domestic airfare we reserved flights with a tour agency based in Madrid who then booked the flight for us with an operator in Havana. The price of the domestic flight included airport transfers both directions at both the arrival and departure site.

They charged our credit card and in return e-mailed us a “voucher” with instructions to hand it to the “rep who will meet you at the airport.” The body of the e-mail instructed us to call the operator the day before the flight to reconfirm our airport transfer time and flight time. It all felt a little sketchy.

We flew from Ft. Lauderdale to Havana and then from Havana to Cayo Coco that same day. We thought we’d be stretched to kill time in the airport during our four hour layover, but that time was easily filled. First, it took an hour and a half to get our luggage. Then we had to load up the bags for a $10 taxi ride from the international to the domestic airport terminal.

Once we arrived at departures, I nervously handed my “voucher” to the agent, half expecting her to shove it back at me tell me it was bogus or I had failed to complete a few booking steps. Instead, we were quickly checked in and presented with a hand written boarding pass. Our waiting time passed quickly as Cameron was very popular with a couple of Cuban moms at the airport. Thankfully, our flight was the only one of the four departures that afternoon that was on time.

Ten of us debarked at Cayo Coco with the rest continuing on. We were promptly greeted by a friendly guide and five minutes later our luggage was hand-delivered. We boarded a comfortable, air conditioned sprinter van for the ride to our resort, where they knew our name upon arrival. All of my nerves dissipated, freeing us up to relax and enjoy our resort living. Cayo Coco boasted beautiful white sand beaches and warm ocean swimming. A private snorkeling tour cost us only $40 and we all enjoyed the Hobie Cat sail boat cruise out to the reef.

The resort was refreshingly kid friendly. Our snorkeling guide had a two year old daughter of his own and when our boat returned to shore, he expertly scooped up a sleeping Cameron and gently carried him safely to the beach.

Too soon we were back at the airport, jockeying for position in the chaotic boarding area as three departing flights were announced out once. The gate signage was a mess, leaving hundreds of passengers crammed into the departures area with no idea where they were going.

Finally, we arrived in Havana. With only 24 hours, we had to start exploring. Not being city people, we found one night to be plenty of time. The combination of heat, humidity and diesel fuel was draining.

First up was a walking tour of old town, wandering through grassy promenades, music-filled plazas and narrow cobblestone streets mirroring those of other Spanish colonial cities. Cameron got a reprieve from the stroller at a local playground, running and climbing with local families.

Our Air B&B was located in the residential neighborhood of Vedado, a short 10 minute drive from Old Town. Sunday morning was Mother’s Day and by 8a.m. the neighborhood was bustling. The street adjacent to our apartment was lined with flower vendors at the entrance to a large cemetery. Hundreds of families had come by foot to bring flowers to the graves. Other families were using the morning to grocery shop, loading huge bags of rice onto scooters and sorting through through the produce stands.

Our taxi rides included a couple of vintage cars, like a 1978 vintage Russian Lada with broken handles. We admired the beautifully maintained classic American Chevys and Fords (available at an additional cost or as a rental). We were fortunate to hang out with a couple of English speaking locals who gave us some insight into the complicated nation (yes, embarrassingly our Spanish is pretty minimal). While restrictions have been easing, such as the ability to travel out of the country and more opportunities for private business, these endeavors are hindered by restraints, particularly with the internet. Currently, internet is only available in hotels and public parks, complicating any travel or business arrangements. Locals are able to purchase new vehicles but are shut down by inflated prices.

Cuba was both a relaxing vacation and an exciting cultural experience. While our trip was short, we were happy for the opportunity and also excited to be heading back to Florida to finish our vacation in the Keys.

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5 Books that Inspire Travel & Adventure

January means it is time to start planning the year’s adventures, so here are a few suggestions to inspire. Disclaimer, this list is pretty much all Aminda’s (with one exception). It is also not an all-time favorites list, I wanted to stick to books that have been published within the last five years. I also wanted to represent several geographic regions. In putting this together, I realized I’m missing Asia, so I’ll be sure to look for something current for my reading list (Couple of my older favorites are Pearl of China and Foreign Babes in Beijing). All reading suggestions are welcome!

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by [Fedarko, Kevin]The Emerald Mile (U.S). This book is long. And jam packed with history. And feats of engineering. Ready to dive in? It also manages to deftly weave all of that education into a seat-of-your pants race against time down the Colorado River.  Josh, who is more of an audiobook guy, read all 400+ adventure-filled pages in just a few days.

The Syrian Jewelry Box (Middle East). There really are not many contemporary books out there that present the Middle East as a tourist destination, which makes this book compelling. The Syrian Jewelry Box is a memoir told through the eyes of a pre-teen girl discovering the beauty and mystique of Saudi Arabia and the surrounding region while living as part of an expatriate family.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu (South America). One part mystery, one part history, two parts “city-slicker-ventures-into-the-wild”, all parts funny. Be prepared to find yourself longing to grab your machete and depart on a way-off-the-beaten path adventure.

Circling the Sun (Africa) is a fictionalized telling of the life of Beryl Markham, first woman to make a solo East to West flight crossing of the Atlantic. Prior to that accomplishment, Beryl had already lived a full life of adventure in the gorgeous landscapes of Africa. I immediately had to follow this up by reading Beryl’s story in her own words in West with the Night. Both these books will inspire anyone to take chances and live life to the fullest.

Exposure to a Billionaire (Europe). This is definitely the oddity on this list. Encounters is a unique fictionalized autobiography about a corporate flight attendant enjoying the life of luxury provided by her occupation. It’s a light, fast read and a nice change of pace from the more rugged selections on this list. And who hasn’t fantasized even just a little bit about living the lifestyle of the rich and famous?

The Rest of Chile

Are you tired yet? We were!  A travel day was welcome after all that activity.

IMG_20150102_104612109We arrived back at Santiago, easily got a rental car on New Years Day (blessing) and we promptly headed for the beach! (it started calling to us during our rainy nights in our tent)  The drive was great until we hit the popular beach towns and found ourselves in grid-locked holiday traffic. IMG_20150102_081848254 An attempted escape from the traffic got us lost, but we finally found our way back to the freeway and made a beeline in the opposite direction, towards a little beach town recommended by our guide book.  We soon found ourselves at the dead end of a dirt road in the no-stoplight town of Quintay. Remarkably, we were also in front of a friendly, clean hotel with a perfect ocean view – we found our spot to thaw out for a couple nights.

Because it looks like the Italian flag
An Italiano sandwich.

Camping and flying had turned us into early risers,  which gave us the perfect beach. Up for a beach walk to the fishing village at the center of town gave us a chance to explore in peace while the tourists slept in.

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Valparaiso views

A path through a forest of eucalyptus trees brought us to a rocky beach with plenty of tide pools and cliffs to explore. The tourists gradually filled up the town, but we were no longer surrounded by Gringos, Quintay is primarily a summer destination for families from Santiago. When the afternoon sun got to be too much, we were only a short walk away from our room with a view, where we could enjoy a fresh lunch of avocado and tomato sandwiches. All that was missing was the mayonnaise to create a local special sandwich, the Italiano—so named because the combination represents the colors of the Italian flag.

IMG_20150106_154921After a thoroughly relaxing beach sojourn, we were off to Valparaiso the famous port city.  First, we had to make a quick stop. Quintay is so small there wasn’t a gas station, so when a tire became concerningly low, the only option was for Josh to change it.

Valparaiso is a chaotic, fast moving city requiring attentive team work to find our IMG_20150103_173812459way around – Aminda navigating with an old school paper map, and Josh busting out his mad skills in fast Chilian style city driving. Who needs a GPS?  Narrow, hilly one-way streets, filled with aggressive cabbies and prone to sudden dead ends. Driving consumed our morning until we secured a hostel and parking spot.

IMG_20150106_154826We chilled for a couple hours in our downtown hotel then hit the busy street by foot to explore this very cool, historic city, which was the most important Pacific-coast sea port until the Panama Canal opened in 1914. The city continues to battle the fallout from that major economic hit (not to mention a couple of earthquakes since then).

We walked and walked and walked in the warm IMG_20150106_154456temps to see street art around the downtown area, a UNESCO world heritage site.  We rode the Chilean funicular’s up and down the steep hill sides providing great views and close proximity to strangers.

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Lucas and Josh

That afternoon we connected with Lucas, a guide from Hernan’s outfit who makes Valprisio his home when not guiding in Patagonia. Lucas was the man, taking around to several more sites and giving us the low down on the area.  Better yet he took us to a place with great dinner with large servings for a good price, just the way we like it. Chorriillana is an amazing dish that piles grilled meat and fried egg on top of a huge plate of papas fritas. (We enjoyed digging into a vegetarian version.)

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Chorriillana… yum!
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Santiago park

It was time to head back towards Santiago, which meant our trip was quickly winding down. Wanting to postpone the inevitable, we took a quick detour into the Andes mountains which creates the eastern border of the city. The high-desert landscape was hot, but we camped, hiked and swam, as if at an adult-summer camp. We also discovered more amazing food in a little street cart that makes made-to-order, freshly deep-fried empanadas. Heaven!

Back in Santiago, our downtown hostel provided the perfect home base for our final few days of travel.  From there we walked to parks, architecture and markets. After Long walks in the sun (we are in shape now) through the crowded streets, we were ready to wind down with some more avocado sandwiches.

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Santiago art

Then all too soon, with tired feet and avocado-filled bellies we were off to the airport for our return journey.  Nice to be home and back on the grid, but those mountain peaks and glacier lakes are still with us.

Patagonia: Part 2

IMG_20141225_090610748After spending a mostly sleepless Christmas Eve in Natales, due to the partying around us, we boarded a bus early Christmas morning and bounced our way down a graded dirt road into the park.Once checked in at the park entrance, we quickly plopped our tent down at the campground in Los Torres and took off on a 12 miles day hike to see the triple granite spires that form the Park’s namesake (Towers of the Blue Sky). We were blessed with perfect weather and a nice alpine lake summit.IMG_20150106_174734

The route we planned to take is referred to as the “W.” It is popular because it combines backpacking and dayhiking to allow one to see all the highlights of the park. The red line on the this map outlines the route, and illustrates why it is know as the “W.”

W Circuit Map

Back at camp we dug into some curry, the first of the dehydrated backpackers meals that helped to save weight, beneficial when flying and in minimizing the load Aminda would be carrying with her pregnant belly. (all the fresh air, long walks and good sleep had her feeling great, a couple weeks into her 2nd trimester).

Chile-Argentina1415 053Asleep before the 10:30p.m. sunset (the region only gets about 6 hours of darkness

this time of year), we were well rested for day two, carrying our gear 9 miles to Camp Italiano, at the base of the French Valley.  The next day we charged up the French Valley for a nice long day hike Chile-Argentina1415 046passing glaciers and more granite domes of awesomeness along the way.

After our day hike, we kept going, moving on from the crowded campground.  While the dramatic landscape of the park provides a sense of remoteness, we were definitely not out in the back country. The main trails are very popular, especially this time of year. We could easily pass a hundred hikers in a day. Our trekking compadres were a diverse mix of ages coming from all over the world.Chile-Argentina1415 008

A nice downhill hike along a stunningly azure glacier lake brought us to Camp Grande. Despite it being a loud night, we slept well after our three full days of hiking, and got up ready to hike to Glacier Grey on day four.  Once at Grey, we hooked up with Hernan’s local guide service to take us kayaking on the glacier lake. This was another highlight of our trip – it was super fun kayaking around the floating iceberg calves, and getting up close and personal with the 100 square mile Glacier.Chile-Argentina1415 069Chile-Argentina1415 078

Back at camp we dealt with our first significant rainfall. Fortunately we still had some dehydrated food left for a hot meal and easy preparation. The rain also gave us an appreciation for the Park’s refugios. Trekkers who prefer not to camp have the option of staying in these small lodges along the trail. They gave us a nice place to hang out with a hot tea and warm fire during the rain.

Chile-Argentina1415 102A second day at Grey gave us time to hike up towards John Gardner pass where we were rewarded with king views of the majestic glacier. Face-numbing wind and gathering clouds ensured we didn’t linger too long at our viewpoint so we could make down the steep, muddy trail before the rain got heavy.

On day six we hit the return hike back to Camp Grande where a ferry and a bus (not at the same time) would take us back to Natales. From there, we reversed our trip back to Santiago, including a 6a.m. New Year’s Day flight, passing the tail end of the previous night’s parties on our way to the airport.

Chile-Argentina1415 013We’ve been asked which area of Patgonia we liked best – Argentina or Chile? Josh would say the highlight of his trip was Fitz Roy, which sways him towards Argentina. Aminda would be more diplomatic and say that they share similar scenery but are also unique and each worth a visit. The Park in Chile is bigger, so there is more to explore, but the Argentine side is very accessible and has great trails.

Chile-Argentina1415 024We’ve also been asked how the area compares to U.S. National Parks, or in other words “is it worth it?” When researching the trip, we found travelers who compared the Torres del Paine vistas to those of Yosemite. Neither of us would agree that anything at TdP would compare to the view of El Capitan as you enter the Valley. That’s a very special vista, that still hasn’t been matched. SO, while we didn’t really find that one single breathtaking scene, Torres is packed full of viewpoints around every corner – granite towers, glaciers, rivers and waterfalls, azure lakes… it just keeps going and going.

Patagonia: Part 1

Phoenix to Denver, 2 hours

Denver to Houston, 2 hours

Houston to Santiago, 9 hours

8 hour Layover

Santiago to Punta Arenas, 4 hours

Spend a night on the Magellan Strait

Van ride to Puerto Natales, 3 hours

Phew, we’ve arrived. In Puerto Natales, we’re now overlooking the Last Hope Sound, named by a Spanish explorer who felt it was his last chance at finding the Strait of Magellan. Feels like we’re at the end of the earth!

Across the sound, we can finally see, peeking out from behind the clouds, the peaks of Torres Del Paine National Park, the most popular destination in the southern Patagonia region shared by Chile and Argentina.

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Penguins on the Magellan Straight

Another two-hour bus trip would get us to the Park entrance the next morning, where we planned to spend the next 9-10 days, hiking in the foothills of snow-capped peaks and granite towers, amongst the glacier fed lakes, creeks and waterfalls.

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Puerto Natales mascot

Surrounded by ocean and exposed to Antarctic winds, the area experiences harsh, unpredictable weather systems. We packed accordingly, expecting strong winds and rain. What we didn’t prepare for was all of that, plus below average temperatures (in the 40’s instead of 50’s – 60’s) and a chance of snow flurries (keep in mind this is late spring/early summer in South America). We were on vacation, after all, not an expedition. Be gone snow!

The trees grow a little sideways in windy Patagonia
The trees grow a little sideways in windy Patagonia

 

 

 

 

 

 

And how did we end up in Patagonia for our Christmas vacation? Aminda has two weeks off over the holidays, which makes it difficult not to take advantage of the opportunity to go far away. Several prospects were considered, including Chile, which we discovered when researching South American rock climbing areas.IMG_20141228_083644710_HDR

Then, last summer Josh found himself working alongside two Chilean-based guides who were spending their off-season working in California. He found Hernan and Alvaro, to be amazingly enthusiastic salesmen of their beloved Patagonia. Any rare moment of down time was an opportunity for these dudes to show off pictures and tell stories about the wild and beautiful land of southern Patagonia. All it took was a Google images search to convince Aminda. Patagonia it was.

And so, less than six months later, it was with Alvaro who we found ourselves, having a beer and lamenting the unseasonably terrible weather threatening our vacation. Should we continue with our plans and hope for the best? Should we try to wait out the weather? If so, where would we wait, given how far out-of-the way we had already traveled to our current destination?

There was only one answer. Argentine Patagonia would require another full day of travel via bus, but our reward was a perfect five-day forecast. So, after a night at Hernan’s comfortable and welcoming Kau Lodge, we were off to Argentina. (Hernan is well known in the region for being a visionary and leader in developing tourism in the area. He helped us out a lot with our logistics.)

The trip to Argentina required two long border stops as each passenger was stamped out and then in to the neighboring country. On our bus we met four separate parties coming who had planned treks in Torres del Paine over the previous few days. All of them had either cut their time short, or left without starting due to the bad weather. We felt for them but appreciated the validation of our hasty decision.

Our long days of travel were quickly forgotten as soon as we glimpsed this iconic skyline.

Logo

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Each morning in the town of El Chalten, a small, laid back town in the foothills of Argentine Patagonia which served as a base for our explorations, trekkers head out from their campsites and hostels, stop at the bakery for the day’s rations, then continue until the road ends, continuing on as the trails of Los Glaciares National Park.IMG_20141222_060726841_HDRIMG_20141220_133142858_HDR

 

 

 

 

The three days we spent here included a highlight of our entire trip, the hike up to the base of the Fitz Roy, an iconic mountaineering route. Jagged granite towers, straight out of the glacier, presiding over azure lakes. The fierce winds and light rains helped us acclimate for the days ahead.

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Yes, the granite faces spoke to the climbers in us… but the alpine-style climbing here is a little more of a project than we wanted to take on. Not to mention that the amount of gear required and the time needed to wait out good weather would have prohibited us from seeing anything else. This video captures the process.

For us west-coasters, used to the alpine peaks of the Rockies and Sierra, it was remarkable to find these alpine-like vistas without the lung-busting hikes of being at elevation. In Argentina, we barely hiked over 4000 feet, while in Chile, being right on the Pacific, we were usually at 500-1000 feet.

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Fitz Roy

After our detour to Argentina,we were greeted back in Natales, Chile with an improved forecast and much more optimism about the next segment of our trip to Torres Del Paine Park.

Our original goal was to hike the full circle around the Park, taking 8-10 days to do the 70-mile loop. But after three days of hiking in Argentina, our motivation waned, so we again adjusted our plans and set out on a shorter, 6-day route.

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El Chalten, Argentina

 

Chillin’ in Costa Rica

Spring break in Costa Rica was so relaxing and uneventful, it doesn’t seem to even merit a blog post. No major highs and lows like we’ve experienced in other trips- just completely chill, or as the local Ticos say, “Pura Vida.” Guess that’s why Costa Rica is such a popular destination.

Josh had already been in Costa Rica for more than two weeks, working and hanging out until Aminda could join him. The area he had been staying was in the hot, dry north (at the end of the dry season, so was looking pretty scortched). So as soon as he picked up her up at the Liberia airport, we headed straight to the mountains that are home to the Monteverde and Santa Elena rainforest preserves. (we stayed at the Pension Santa Elena, value priced with a great staff).

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Where better to cool off than one of the lush, tropical, cloud forests that are so synonymous with Costa Rica?
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Our trusty rental car, a cute little Suzuki 4WD, which helped us get around on the many unpaved roads.

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This black guan, which is in the turkey family, noisily crashes through the trees, even though it does not look graceful enough to even balance itself in a tree.

We enjoyed a couple days hiking around… ultimately deciding against a guided activity like ziplining, canyoneering or mountain biking… which would probably be fun but unfortunately our standards are pretty high when it comes to activities we don’t usually have to pay for. But we really did enjoy the well-signed trails that allowed for independent travel in the forests. Our last visit to the rainforest was a heavily guided excursion. (we fully appreciated the guide, since there were no trails and we weren’t about to go wandering around the Amazon on our own). And we understood that without a guide we might miss out on seeing some wildlife and on some fun facts about the local flora and fauna, but we traded that for the opportunity to just be alone in the forest.

Once Josh’s body temperature had returned to normal, we headed back down to the beach, and the warm ocean waves we came to play in. Our first beach town was Malpais, a surfing destination for beautiful, young travelers from around the world, like the trio of Swedish girls and Australian guys who were seemingly destined to be staying at the same hostel at the same time. (The Tranquilo, where we finished off our days in comfy hammocks)

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The trip to Malpais, required a breezy ferry ride on which we picked up a hitchhiker, a local expat who entertained us with his perspective of local culture and stories of expat life.
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How does such a cute face produce such a big, scary howl?

The waves here were a little big for us non-surfers, so we entertained ourselves with standup paddleboarding, snorkeling and swimming. And watching howler and cappucine monkeys frolic, in the beautiful Cabo Blanco preserve, where a forested trail leads to a secluded beach.

Our final stop on the way back to Liberia was Samara, where we entertained ourselves surfing the mellow breaks. (and hammock time at the beautiful Tico Adventure Lodge)

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nuestra playa privada

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Costa Rica Map

Here is a map of our loop, which made a great week. There are plenty of options to add stops, like at the Arenal volcano or the Barra Honda caves.

Yes, we did take a roundabout way between Malpais and Samara. the direct route is a rough 4WD road. Our car may have been OK, but it was making a funny noise by that time and we didn’t want to take the risk.

From Peru to Puerto Rico

Streets of San Juan

After returning from Peru, we had just enough time to say hello to our home before departing on our next adventure trip.  The beautiful city of San Juan Puerto Rico awaited, as the departure point for our 7-night Caribbean Cruise.

Since we hadn’t really pictured ourselves cruising any time before our own 40th anniversary, we were pretty surprised by how much we enjoyed it. Sure, we expected to enjoy the time with family, good food and beautiful island, but it took us a couple days to adjust to the crowds, lines, the dress code and strict schedule. Soon we relaxed, got into the groove and thoroughly enjoyed our days full of snorkeling, surfing, hiking, kayaking and biking— followed by a four course meal.

We know there probably isn’t much new to be written about cruising—but we figured we’d put together a top 10 favorite cruise moments from two non-cruisers.

1. Reminiscing about our Colorado River trips, while falling asleep to the soothing rocking boat.

2. Walking a mile from the taxi line at theBarbados port to take a cheap local transportation to the beach. We squeezed in and joined the party, jamming to the loud reggae tunes.

  1. surf shop owner, Brian Talma

3. Of course, a bunch of awkward pasty Americans can never dream of obtaining the coolness factor inherent to being a Barbadan. So, how awesome to meet someone who even the locals think is cool— an ex-pro windsurfer who now owns a surf shop.

  1. Speedo counting became a sport on the internationally popular beaches. Winning the count was on St. Kitts, where Josh enjoyed watching a bunch of sun burnt Germans play beach volleyball… all sporting Speedos.
  2. Escaping the cheese. While we certainly found plenty of enjoyable on-board entertainment—moves, comedy shows, water slide— we also took great pains to stay far from the dark side of ship entertainment— like the hairy chest contests, macerena dances and bingo night.
  3. Josh enjoyed a special bonding moment during a partner stretch at a fitness center class. He got to squeeze the leg of the instructor, a British guy showing off his shaved legs with some short shorts.
  4. We did the walk of shame as the last people to board the ship before departure. And found out that they really take that departure time seriously. Because they seriously want you on that ship as much as possible so you’ll spend more money.hiking on St. Lucia
  5. 8. They take it so seriously that they make the service staff stand out on the deck and watch the last people board so that for the rest of your night, your room steward and dinner server can remind you how close you came to being left behind.
  6. 9. That’s just how attentive the service staff on ships are and because they were so wonderful, Aminda refrained from asking them stupid guest questions. You know, like “what do you do with the ice sculptures after they melt?” or what time is the midnight buffet?”
  7. The best part of the trip may be the fact that Aminda’s parents went ziplining. And snorkeling. It’s pretty rad that they’re still trying new adventures.