Colombia’s Cartagena de Indias Tarts It Up Yet Keeps It Real

March 8, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Colombia, history, lodging, South America | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

When it comes to birthday parties in Latin America — these days at least — nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Yet here they were, a pretty young Colombian señorita and maybe a hundred or so of her family and friends, happily celebrating her quince (“Sweet 15”) in the walled garden of Cartagena de India‘s Palacio de la Inquisición, now a history museum, where once upon a time, hapless wretches were gleefully tortured by so-called Christians. Off to one side, yellow and white balloons tethered to a wooden gallows bobbed gaily in the sultry breeze.

This bemusing snippet of surrealism brought home for me what truly sets this walled Spanish colonial gem of a city — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — apart from others of its ilk, such as Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, Panama City’s old town, or the most splendid of all, Old Havana. Cartagena’s 16th-century ciudad amurallada (walled city) achieves by far the most felicitous balance of the bunch: a largely restored, amenity-laden living museum that’s truly living. By day I saw thousands of locals going about their daily lives — entrepreneurs selling cell-phone calls and recharges; vendors hawking coconuts, grapes, and more; office workers scurrying hither and thither. Rarely did I notice obvious tourists outside the occasional backpacker and of course in a few key spots like outdoor-café-thick Plaza Santo Domingo. At night, there was still plenty of street life until late into the night, which feels, incidentally, just about as safe as daytime; whatever you’ve heard about Colombia, in recent years the country has made great strides safety-wise, and especially in Cartagena.

Of course tourism has definitely made its mark; in just the past several years a veritable abundance of riches has sprung up in terms of restaurants (some of them elegant Nuevo Latino stars that could hold their own in New York, London, or Sydney), hotels, and shops (fortunately, the honky-tonk factor has so far been kept to a minimum on this front). The trend of the moment is the so-called “boutique” hotels occupying colonial-era townhouses of usually smallish size. Some, like the seven-room LM, are impeccably restored period pieces, while others have given their historic quarters contemporary twists. My own home base, the 24-room, two-month-old Anandá,  was obviously reaching for something of a Zen vibe, while others like Delirio (17 rooms) and the latest, Hotel Tcherassi (just seven, below right) have gone in the direction of white-toned minimalist-mod. Many have small pools, in courtyards or on rooftops, and high rates (most starting north — in some cases well north — of 400,000 pesos*), while several are more down-to-earth, such as the four-room Hotel Cochera de Hobo (also with a pool, albeit a teeny-weeny one, and starting at just US$80). There are also plenty of other options under US$100 a night, as well, by the way, and like Cochera de Hobo not all of them fetid hostels; personally, next time I plan to rent an apartment through a site like CartagenaApartments.com.

Oh, and about all those pools I mentioned? You might actually find them quite handy, because much of the year it’s effing sweltering down here.  You can break a sweat just by casually strolling a block, and after a visit to monumental San Felipe Fortress south of town I felt like I must be leaving a sluglike trail in my wake.

But hang in there, because the rewards are vast. Besides the aforementioned Palace of the Inquisition and San Felipe, you can explore a small but fascinating museum of gold and pre-Columbian culture; the Emerald Museum (emeralds being a big deal in Colombia, even if they’re mined in the interior, not on the coast); the offshore Rosario Islands with pristine beaches and fab seafood; the usual array of elaborate colonial churches; an interesting monastery south of town on a hill called La Popa; a onetime jail complex now occupied by tourist shops; and the colonial walls themselves.

But quite honestly, much of C-town’s allure is more than anything about just hanging out in this remarkable city.  Yes, the touts trying to pull you to the café tables in Plaza de Santo Domingo are un poquito annoying — but still, what a swell place to chill and watch the world stroll by the swelling buttocks of Fernando Botero’s Reclining Woman. Catch the sunset and a cerveza amid centuries-old cannons at the Café del Mar, perched atop the old city wall. Or have a street vendor hack you a cool natural drink out of a fresh coconut.

All this, plus some truly tasty dining at upscale spots like La Vitrola, Café San Pedro, and El Santísimo, mid-rangers like El Bistro, and a slew of budget-friendlies from contemporary Quiebra-Canto to many local holes in the wall (many of them surprisingly good), has me eagerly watching my airfare alerts for that magic SRS — Cartagena airport, through which I’m anxious to pass again ASAP.

*at press time, about US$212 / £140 / €155 / CA$218 / A$233 / ZAR1,566

photos: David Paul Appell, Hotel Tcherassi
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Suddenly Amid the Dominican Palms, A Spot of Olde Europe

February 26, 2010 at 8:02 am | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Dominican Republic | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

If you know the Caribbean and/or have been to the Dominican Republic, chances are you’ve at least heard of one of the islands’ odder (and the DR’s most popular) tourist attractions. Otherwise, coming across this ringer for some centuries-old southern European village on a clifftop over the Chavón River can be enough to make your jaw drop. Built in the early 1980s just outside the gracious south coast Dominican city of La Romana, Altos de Chavón rises above the mere ersatz attraction you might suspect; not only did the designers go well out of their way to faithfully recreate the look and feel of 16th-century Spain and Italy, but the complex is now also home to cultural institutions (including a respected design school affiliated with the New York City-based New School) that have enriched the island, its people, and even the region as a whole. It’s now under the aegis of the huge, upscale adjoining resort Casa de Campo, and besides some nifty photo ops, visitors wandering these cobblestone lanes will find some great shops for local crafts and antiques, Dominican and international restaurants, nightclubs, a very good museum of local archaeology, and a 5,000-seat ancient-Roman-style amphitheater featuring world headliners (in 2009, for example, Andrea Bocelli). More info: CasaDeCampo.com.do, Facebook.com/AltosDeChavon, AltosDeChavon.com.

How About a Theme With That Cruise?

February 24, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, cruising, gay/lesbian travel, Mexico | Leave a comment
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by Marcia R. Levin

Sixthman Elvis Presley cruiseEven as more ships turn into floating theme parks these days, savvy cruise line execs continue to look for new and ever more imaginative ways of keeping ’em coming back for more. Hence the ever-growing number of cruises organized around some kind of theme, whether art, health/fitness, history, photography, golf, politics, finances, baseball, comedy, singles, mystery novels, poker, wine, religion, the arts, nudism, paranormal activities, Star Trek, Twilight, and above all music. The single biggest niche of all may be gay and lesbian cruises, with numerous sailings all over the world and quite a few agencies and companies — like Atlantis, RSVP, and Olivia — dedicated solely to this market segment. Of these, the highest-profile is Rosie O’ Donnell’s  R Family Vacations aboard the Norwegian Dawn (subject of an Emmy-nominated HBO documentary in 2009); NCL’s Pride of America will host R Family’s “Hawaii Spring Break Cruise” to four islands March 27-April 3 (from $1,079 each for the first two persons in a cabin, $299 for the third and fourth).

No matter what their orientation or interests, theme cruises are popular with increasing numbers of passengers who find that sailing with people who share their interests really enhances their vacation experience.

Not that such offerings are new. Even back in the 1980s, Norwegian Cruise Line was offering sports-themed cruises with major-league ballplayers and other jocks mingling with passengers. Sports nuts loved hanging out and talking about batting or goal-line stances, golf clubs, or hoops technique.

These days theme cruises are just more numerous and diverse, whether organized by the lines themselves or put together by retail travel agents or special-interest groups with the assistance of travel agents. Sometimes an entire ship is chartered by a sponsoring group, but in most cases the theme-cruisers are part of a subgroup blocking space on a regular sailing. Either way, they’re big business — Howard Moses’  ThemeCruiseFinder.com lists more than 500 a year.

Occasionally they can even be a little controversial (even apart from Royal Caribbean’s September 19 “Tea Party Cruise”). Remember the recent dustup when Carnival hosted a cruise for “cougars” — older women prowling for younger men — and their fresh-faced male admirers? When the line declined to host another, Royal Caribbean International stepped in and said, “here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,” agreeing to Singles Travel Company‘s “2nd International Cougar Cruise” May 16-23 aboard Mariner of the Seas — from Los Angeles to Los Cabos, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta, starting at $659.

MSC cruise Suzanne Somers, Marcia Levin, Rick SassoI myself recently spent five days with 500 passengers on a women’s health and lifestyle cruise through the Caribbean aboard MSC Poesia where the marquee draw was actress/health guru/entrepreneur Suzanne Somers. Her daily presentations were packed with folks from all over the world, many of them lugging copies of her latest book, Knockout. I thoroughly enjoyed myself — and if there was anybody who didn’t get her picture taken with Suzanne at some point, I never met her (here at right is Suzanne with MSC North America president Rick Sasso and moi).

A quickie sampling of some other theme cruises hitting the high seas this spring:

Music Jazz, classical, polka, opera, rock, hip-hop, country — you name it, it’s afloat. “An Elvis cruise” (pictured at top right), says Andy Levine of Sixthman Cruises, “is always sold out.” Levine first booked a music cruise on Carnival Jubilee in 2001 and discovered that band devotees love hanging out with other fans in the convenient, laid-back environment cruise ships offer. On April 15,  Sixthman’s four-night “VH1 Best Cruise Ever” on Carnival Inspiration will sail from Tampa to Grand Cayman with rates starting at $799, and its “malt shop” cruise is slated for May 11-16 on the same ship out of Tampa, featuring Frankie Avalon, the Drifters, and Leslie Gore (also from $799).

Sports MSC regularly offers cruises with former pro baseball players who participate in trivia games and offer clinics — how about rubbing bats with the likes of Stan Bahnsen, Tony Taylor, Rico Petrocelli and Goran Thomas? MSC Poesia’s next baseball cruise leaves April 3 from Fort Lauderdale, with early-booking rates from $599 per person for seven nights. Others are scheduled for November 14 and December 5.

Health/Fitness How about a “Holistic Holiday at Sea”? Costa‘s Costa Fortuna sets sail March 21 from Fort Lauderdale through the Eastern Caribbean (USVI, Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos)  with some two dozen presenters including Marilu Henner, Dr. Neal Barnard, and Christina Pirello.

Antiquing The 11-day March 29 sailing of the Celebrity Equinox serves up “Dr. Lori, art historian and antiques media maven,” providing free appraisals for passengers’ old stuff (Celebrity will provide a list of items guests cannot bring on board). Fares start at $1,049.

Film The Queen Mary 2’s six-day transatlantic crossing beginning April 29 will feature two film documentarians as part of Cunard’s “Insight” program: Dori Berinstein (The Road to Broadway) and Judd Ehrlich (Mayor of the West Side). Fares start at $907 per person.

In Curaçao, A Different Kind of Vacation Experience

February 3, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, culture and museums, Curaçao | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

The “C” in the ABC islands of the Dutch West Indies does have dandy diving, dining, nightlife, and a few sweet strands. But for me, its single strongest suit is its fascinating culture, especially from its colonial days, including fairytale architecture and landhuizen (country estates) where you can dine or even overnight. Cultural exhibit A, however, has to be the museum and seasonal show offered by one of the Caribbean’s most special resorts, the 80-room Kurá Hulanda. The main complex, a quick stroll across the pontoon bridge from capital Willemstad, is a self-contained, cobblestone-paved “village” made up of gorgeously restored 18th- and 19th-century buildings (if you absolutely must stay on a beach, go for the newer, 74-room Lodge/Beach Club up on the north coast, and make use of the shuttle between the two). Despite the deluxe nature of both, good deals are available, with autumn rates starting at US$130 per night. But for us the centerpiece is the Museum Kurá Hulanda, also open to non-guests (15 ANG/US$9 per person; 9 ANG/US$6 for seniors and kids under 13; 13 ANG/US$7 for students). The collection is owner Jacob Gelt Dekker’s expertly curated homage to Curaçao’s Papiamento culture, focusing especially on its African roots and the slave trade; from October through April, an evening show is added to the mix. It was a moving and powerful experience for me, and I’ll bet it will also give a profound extra dimension to your own turn-n-burn vaycay.

Could Tourism Help Save Haiti?

January 23, 2010 at 11:43 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, cruising, Haiti, travel industry | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

The brouhaha that’s erupted in the past several days about the “questionable taste” of Royal Caribbean bringing its passengers to a leased beach at Labadee (aka Labadie), on Haiti‘s north coast, is a good example of the inevitable awkwardness in overlaying leisure tourism from generally wealthy countries onto an impoverished and shattered country where people are suffering and starving right outside gated resorts. For example, more than 20 percent of respondents to a CruiseCritic.com poll said that in the wake of the recent catastrophe they felt it was inappropriate to be enjoying themselves on the beach with such devastation and deprivation beyond the fence.

But consider: this juxtaposition is just a particularly extreme and in-our-faces example of the phenomenon already taking place every day of the year in countries from Mexico to Cuba to Senegal to the Philippines. Indeed, just across the border in the Dominican Republic, plenty of Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and others prosperous enough to afford an overseas vacation guiltlessly sip piña coladas and frolic in the surf while most Dominicans live lives of, shall we say, great simplicity — and certainly no foreign beach getaways. And yet, these tourists are providing crucial jobs that support a significant chunk of the DR’s population; I doubt most locals would be happy to see them go away.

Most Haitians themselves understand this, and similarly very much want the cruise ships and tourists in general to keep coming. In the meantime, one Cruise Critic respondent even suggested ways on the site’s message board that cruisers can go that extra mile to help while at Labadee, including:

– Add a few bucks to the asking price when buying souvenirs.
– Tip generously.
– Eat a big breakfast on the ship, bring a snack with you, and don’t partake of the lunch
served on the beach — the leftovers will be donated to the locals.
– Go on a shore excursion whose proceeds are earmarked for relief efforts.
– Bring T-shirts and whatever you think appropriate, and leave them for charity.

In addition, in a larger and longer-term sense, the extent of this month’s earthquake devastation has the potential, at long last, to lead to a more concerted and effective effort to move Haiti beyond the dead end in which it’s been stuck for generations — to start again from scratch, as it were.

And in this I do think tourism can play a significant role, because as I discovered first-hand in a visit a dozen years ago, in this area the country has more to offer than many outsiders suspect. And while Port-au-Prince is probably no-go for the foreseeable future, the rest of the country hasn’t been so affected by the quake, and from what I hear is largely still in business.

Like many Caribbean destinations, of course, there are miles and miles of lovely beaches — there’s a good reason why the cruise ships come to Labadee — and even several nice guesthouses and resorts along the western coast. There are colonial forts — the most impressive of which is La Citadelle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site up in the hills south of Cap-Haïtien, a city which itself has some fine old colonial architecture. Go in for some fine hiking and ecotourism in Parc Macaya national park. Sample some of the Caribbean’s finest rum, Barbancourt, and the tasty and distinctive local cuisine. Explore the fascinating world of voudou, which isn’t witchcraft but simply a hybrid of traditional African religions and Catholicism. And despite their poverty, most of the people I recall coming across years ago exhibited admirable dignity and warmth. All in all, that long-ago trip was one of my most memorable travel experiences.

So once the dust settles and the situation becomes a little more secure, I definitely plan to revisit Haiti and explore some of the areas I haven’t seen before. If you yourself don’t want to go that far, there are other ways to support peace and prosperity through travel and tourism — for example by writing to Choice Hotels to encourage the company to follow through on its plans to open two hotels in the charming Victorian south-coast town of Jacmel. This disaster, horrific as it is, can also be a great opportunity to rebuild a beautiful country and culture that has suffered long enough. And as travelers and citizens of the world, we have the opportunity to help in a direct and concrete way.

More info: TravelingHaiti.com.

photo: iStockphoto

The Caribbean’s Best Off-the-Beaten-Path Shopping

January 18, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Posted in Anguilla, Antigua/Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Dominican Republic, Martinique | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

Why in the world should you settle for all those cheesy malls and resort gift shops, the cruise-terminal complexes and hypercommercialized downtowns clogged with cookie-cutter perfume, watch, and T-shirt stores? If you know where to look, it’s still possible to find unique local products, atmosphere, or both. There are of course various straw markets and crafts centers on various islands, of course, but here are just a few of the other favorites I’ve come across in my years covering the Caribbean. And it’s just part one — part two is on the way!

Anguilla One of the Caribbean’s top sculptors, Cheddie Richardson is a world-class whiz at shaping wood, coral, bronze, and stone into graceful, sometimes haunting pieces depicting people and fauna. Get an eyeful out at Cheddie’s Carving Studio in The Cove, out on the island’s west end not far from Cap Jaluca and other resorts (he does commissions and sells other Anguilla artists and artisans, too).

Antigua Shopping-wise, if there’s one thing the Caribbean’s stuffed full of, it’s same-old-same-old jewelry shops. The Goldsmitty, part of the historic Redcliffe Quay complex in St. John’s, is one of the felicitous exceptions. Dutch expat Hans Smit has quite an imagination, and uses it to turn out unique gold pieces set with pearls and a slew of gems from diamonds to black opals.

The Bahamas You may’ve spotted those primary-colored Androsia batiks — cheerfully awash in sea critters, island flowers, butterflies, and more — for sale elsewhere in the Caribbean. But the mother workshop, now in its 37th year, is on Andros, the Bahamas’ largest Out Island, just outside Andros Town. Pop in for a tour and the best selection anywhere (outlets also on most other Bahamian isles). Another Out Island keeper is Great Abaco’s Conch Pearl Galleries in Marsh Harbour, which sells some great local arts and crafts but specializes, of course, in conch pearls — those pink little beauties from the queen conch that are among the world’s rarest baubles. And yes, I’m aware that technically the Bahamas aren’t part of the Caribbean.

Barbados In the island’s upper central highlands, Earthworks Pottery contains a cornucopia of colorful crockery with designs from understated to psychadelic, but all tropically inspired (you can stick it all in the microwave and dishwasher, too). The gallery also hawks a bunch of other great Bajan booty, from paintings to jams.

British Virgin Islands Yes, corals are endangered in parts of the Caribbean, but at The Coral Studio, up in the hills of Tortola, Fiona and David Dugdale use only that which washes up on shore to create elegant, delicate pieces — figurines, plates, clocks, boxes, and more — in various pastel colors and sometimes reminiscent of Wedgwood china (by appointment). For some funkier browsing, head to Tortola’s East End to bridge-connected Beef Island, where Aragorn’s Studio purveys not only Aragorn Dick-Read’s creative pottery and metal creations but also an array of edibles, traditional Carib Indian crafts, and more; demos and lessons are available, too.

Cayman Islands The Caymans famously excel in the quality and quantity of their marine life, and for evocative depictions thereof, a couple of Grand Cayman stalwarts offer different but equally compelling options. Artist/marine biologist/all-round personality Guy Harvey sells his vividly realistic paintings, prints, and sculptures at his imposing George Town gallery, and at the Sunset House Hotel south of town Cathy Church runs a dive/camera shop and gallery full of her stunning color and B/W photos and prints.

Dominican Republic All the resort areas — Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, etc. — have their little shops and malls, but for better options I recommend a visit to capital Santo Domingo, an easy day or overnight away. Examples include the colonial zone’s La Atarazana complex and L’Île au Trésor in the Plaza Conde building, where Parisian Patrick Leclerq creates exquisite jewelry using native Dominican amber and larimar, much of it pirate-themed. Outside SD, another must-see collection of shops at a touristy but high-quality ersatz “old Mediterranean” village out in La Romana, Altos de Chavón, including jewelry (some one-of-a-kind and/or custom made, especially out of larimar and amber, a Dominican specialty), artworks, crafts, clothing, housewares, furniture, cigars, coffee, linens, golf gear, and plenty more.

Martinique Don’t miss Le Village de la Poterie in Trois-Ilets, the small seaside town across the bay from Fort-de-France. In these red-brick buildings, front and center amid the various island crafts is of course the pottery, planters, and figurines shaped from the local red clay using traditional Carib and Arawak techniques and designs; demos are very much a part of the experience.

Keepin’ It Musically Real in San Juan’s Barrio

January 15, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Puerto Rico | Leave a comment
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by Tripatini staff

This past fall, the Latin Grammys were swept by a boricua duo of stepbrothers; tattooed René Pérez (aka “Residente”) and bearded Eduardo Cabra (“Visitante”) were nominated for and walked away with five awards including best urban album and recording of the year. Their act named after their family’s street in the Hato Rey section of Puerto Rico’s capital, the pair started getting major play on island radio in 2005 with a mix of hip-hop, reggaetón, and cumbia; they’ve also become known for their lefty, pro-independence politics. La Perla, winner of best short-form video, was filmed in the eponymous slum alongside Old San Juan and features an appearance by Panamanian salsa legend Rubén Blades. In it, Residente boasts, “I’ve had attitude since I was five,” and “I’m the black sheep of the entire flock.” Yo, yo, no kidding — but clearly, these dudes’
work has struck a nerve, and it’ll be interesting to see if they cross over like other less gritty Puerto Rican acts such as Marc Antony and Ricky Martin.

Tripatini Surveys Hot Destinations for 2010

December 28, 2009 at 11:03 am | Posted in Africa, Asia, Barbados, British Columbia, Canada, Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Central America, Colombia, Croatia, cruising, Cuba, Estonia, Europe, Florida, Honduras, Iceland, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macau, Mexico, Middle East, Montenegro, New Mexico, Panama, Rwanda, Slovenia, South Africa, South America, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, Suriname, Turkey, Turks and Caicos, United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe | 2 Comments
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by David Paul Appell

It’s that time when the travel-hungry are scouring the media for word of the coming year’s “it” spots. We can play that game too, so, besides popular perennials, here are 29 we see looming larger on twenty-ten’s worldwide vaycaydar:

U.S.A.
For Americans at least, tight times mean Florida will tempt folks sticking closer to home; better deals down south include  Fort Lauderdale and up north the Panhandle. The latter’s now marketed as the “Emerald Coast,” trying to softpedal the “Redneck Riviera” image; comparisons to Sardinia’s glam Costa Smeralda are laughable, but there are some fetching towns, inns, and some interesting attractions — but above all sugary beaches along a stretch including  Destin, Fort Walton, Apalachicola, St. Joe Beach, and Pensacola. Another hotspot due for a boost this year is Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is popping the corks for its 400th anniversary (and while you’re out here, add a couple of days to explore some cool nearby towns like Acoma Pueblo and Gallup.

CANADA
The big story this year is inevitably the province of British Columbia, with cool cities Vancouver and Victoria, stunning coastal and mountain scenery, eco/adventure tourism, and swell snow sports. The reason is, of course, is the attention focused on Vancouver and ski resort Whistler Blackcomb, hosting this February’s Winter Olympics.

MEXICO
The so-called Maya Riviera, on the Yucatan Peninsula’s Caribbean coast stretching southward from Cancun, continues evolving whether big luxury resorts, mass-market all-inclusives, exquisite small inns, or budget digs. Some also see a bump for Mexico City, whose pollution and security issues can be finessed with some common sense and which offers one of the world’s great urban experiences — and what other burg has not just a stunning Aztec pyramid complex (Teotihuacan) on its outskirts but several right in town — one smack in the middle of downtown?

THE CARIBBEAN
This winter/spring, more ships come online and cruising is likely to stay strong, thanks to heavy discounting. Beyond the usual suspects, keep your eye on buttoned-down Barbados,  where some resorts and dining spots have been updating of late, and scenic St. Lucia, with luxury properties coming online fairly recently (Jade Mountain, The Landings) or refurbing (Cap Maison); there’s also a movement toward sustainable — and less pricey — town and country tourism. Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos also keeps adding fab resorts without sacrificing its limin’ vibe. Finally, could this be the year for Cuba, when the self-defeating, un-American, yet stubborn travel ban is dropped or relaxed for all U.S. citizens? Hold not thy breath, but anything’s possible, and if it happens, go — unsavory regime notwithstanding, it’s one of the world’s great travel and cultural experiences.

EUROPE
Eastern Europe has been on a major upswing ever since the Berlin Wall fell. But even 20 year later, some destinations are still growing or even just emerging. Examples of the former include Croatia and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And lately we’re hearing more about Croatia’s neighbors, Slovenia and Montenegro. Both serve up stunning mountains with eco/adventure, historic cities and towns, and Adriatic seacoast with fine beach resorts. And this year, Montenegro welcomes AmanResorts’ fancy-schmancy Sveti Stefan, on an island of medieval architecture. On the western side of things, Icelands a nice land, with its superb eco/adventure, cool capital Reykjavik, short flight time from Europe and New York City, and some of the most affordable prices in years, thanks to the recent economic meltdown.

CENTRAL AMERICA / SOUTH AMERICA
In Central America, everybody’s jockeying to be “the next Costa Rica” — even El Salvador (who knew?). But watch Honduras; ’09 tourism plummeted due to its political crisis but should be back on track — and hungry — once the new elected government debuts in January. Highlights: Maya ruins, colonial towns, exceptional eco/adventure, world-class diving.  Panama, too, with great rainforest, beaches, one of the hemisphere’s loveliest colonial quarters (Panama City’s Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and barefoot Caribbean isles like Bocas del Toro and the San Blas, home to the autonomous Kuna Indians. In South America, Colombia‘s overall continuing security and economic progress will feed that diverse country’s tourism, especially to another colonial stunner, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, and happening capital Bogotá (whose colonial quarter’s also nothing to estornudar at). Rising on the radar is the continent’s smallest and only Dutch-speaking country, Suriname, a multi-culti charmer with a cute, sleepy little capital and some of the hemisphere’s most unspoiled eco offerings.

MIDDLE EAST
With the steam let out of Dubai, look to UAE capital Abu Dhabi, also developing a-plenty yet without sacrificing traditional culture and flavor. On the Mediterranean, with political crisis at bay for now, Lebanon is still rockin’ the casbah — well, at least Beirut is, while the beach resorts, Roman ruins, and even wine country outside the capital provide a lower-key counterpoint. Up on Turkey‘s “Turquise Coast,” meanwhile, a resort town and region called Dalaman is currently hot, for example outstripping Spain’s Majorca as among the Brits; allures include beaches, soft adventure, nightlife, and historic/archaeological sites.

ASIA
The tourism offerings in staid ol’ Singapore are getting something of a 2010 shot in the arm, with the elaborate, Vegas-style casino-resort Marina Bay Sands; the also elaborate Fullerton Heritage Complex crammed with shopping, dining, and lodging; and Sentosa Island’s Resorts World, with a Hard Rock Hotel and a Universal Studios theme park. Another “city-state” (now a semi-autonomous part of China) seeing some new action is Macau, where, again, it’s Vegas-style casinos that’ve been complementing the Portuguese colonial architecture and fueling a local boom. On a less glitzy, more laid-back note, since Sri Lanka ended its civil war last May, more travelers will be returning to its historic towns, Buddhist temples, and breathtaking beaches.

AFRICA
From Kruger Park to Cape Town to the winelands, South Africa is on the upswing again, thanks to interest generated by Hollywood hits like Invictus and District 9, and especially June’s soccer World Cup. Lower on the radar, the story of the year may well be the rebirth of safari tourism in Rwanda, 17 years after its genocide, and, believe it or not, Zimbabwe, despite still being a political and economic basket case.

Back This Winter: The Biggest Carnival Blowout You’ve Never Heard of, in Barranquilla, Colombia

December 9, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Colombia, festivals/celebrations, South America | Leave a comment
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by José Balido


Just a little more than nine weeks to go till pre-Lenten Carnaval time, and if you’re thinking of a warm getaway to the biggest party in the Latin world, Rio de Janeiro’s is always a rip-roaring crowd-pleaser — but it’s also massively mobbed, pretty pricey, and these days, to say the least, just a wee bit overcommercialized. For a taste of this annual revelry that’s both more affordable and closer to its folkloric roots (so much so that it’s on UNESCO’s World Heritage list), consider the second-largest Carnaval (in 2010, February 13-16), bringing more than a half-million people to Barranquilla, just down the Caribbean coast from historic Cartagena. This city of 1.7 million isn’t much to see most of the year — despite some nice historic homes, a small museum of city history and Carnaval lore, and historic bar-cum-eatery La Cueva, onetime hangout of Colombian literary legend Gabriel García Márquez and his circle. But come February, normal life shuts down, partying erupts, and city authorities and private Carnaval societies come together to throw parades with floats and costumed characters both traditional (gold- or white-faced, African-derived congos) and contemporary (Hugo Chávez, Barack Obama, hot chicas in skimpy outfits); you’re likely to have corn flour flung and water guns squirted at you, but everybody takes it in good humor. More info: CarnavalDeBarranquilla.com, CarnavalDeBarranquilla.net.

Cruise Deals Aplenty This Wave Season, With Both Sizzle & Savings

September 21, 2009 at 10:30 am | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, cruising, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by Marcia Levin

Costa Cruises is bringing its elegant "Atlantica" to the Caribbean -- and discounting big-time.

Costa Cruises is bringing its elegant "Atlantica" to the Caribbean -- and discounting big-time.

These days, if it sounds too good to be true, it must be an ad for a Caribbean cruise.

I’ve followed the cruise industry for many years, but thanks in part to oversupply and in part to the economic crunch, I’ve rarely seen the market so awash in high-quality yet good-value and even frankly cheap cruises, and I believe they’ll never be so readily available again. Whether early booking discounts, steep discounts or no extra cost for third and fourth guests in the same cabin, or last-minute Internet deals, the bargains are out there, and to expect to find even better prices in the future may be downright silly.

Bottom line: this season is pretty much an ideal time to choose to cruise.

Mix all the new cruise ships with their increased passenger capacity into a still shaky economy,  stir in the proliferation of drive-to “home ports” such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Charleston, Norfolk or Galveston for good measure, and you’ve got the recipe for great seagoing values (case in point: Carnival’s Fantasy is scheduled to start five-, six-, and seven-day itineraries from Charleston as of May 2010.)

Whether you’re after a budget cruise for singles, a luxurious and romantic sailing to exotic ports, the right setting for a family reunion, or a short R&R getaway, there’s an option or three for you. Looking for a long itinerary, a quickie, or a transatlantic crossing? Or how about a theme cruise? A Euro-ship making its North America debut this season, MSC’s Poesia offers theme cruises focusing on everything from poesía (poetry) to cooking to baseball. On a comedy-themed January 30 sailing out of Port Everglades, the packed roster at Poesia’s nightly comedy club will keep ’em in stitches through the Caribbean.

One of the best bargains on the ocean right now is Norwegian Cruise Line’s Sky, on three- and four-day itineraries from the Port of Miami to the Bahamas, with prices as low as $199 per person. The ship underwent refurbishment last spring, updating many public areas and new food stations in its popular Garden Café. Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines both offer similar short, affordable sails from several Florida ports.

The weeklong cruise sector is also awash in value (not to mention sought-after — the average length of cruises in 2008 was just over seven days). Most cruise mavens expect Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas to be the most popular new kid in town. She steams into home base Port Everglades in late November with a dance card of alternate Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries and never-before-seen amenities, from a shop selling cupcakes to an onboard water theater, along with the usual crowd-pleasing RC features like rock climbing and flow riding. This one definitely promises something of a sea change, so to speak, in cruising; right now, seven-nighters start at $1,399 per person, based on double occupancy.

Another key new player in the seven-day market is the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream, alternating Eastern and Western itineraries out of Port Canaveral from $599. In addition to the fleet’s first comedy club, it will debut the first outdoor laser shows on a North America-based cruise ship, melding the latest in splashy hi-tech with rock music to provide guests some unique and exciting nighttime entertainment.

Meanwhile, the 2,114-passenger Costa Atlantica, from the elegant European Costa Cruises and themed after the films of Federico Fellini, is visiting Port Everglades for the first time this winter, joining sister ship Costa Fortuna on weeklong Eastern and Western itineraries from an eye-popping $399. Another brand-new ship sailing from South Florida waters this season, albeit quite a bit pricier (nine days from $4,598), is Silversea‘s Italian-crewed Silver Spirit, with just 540 passengers; it makes its maiden voyage in January 2010 through the Caribbean, around South America, and up to Los Angeles.

Finally, besides MSC Poesia, a couple of ships will make their U.S. debuts at Port Everglades this winter. Seabourn‘s 450-passenger Odyssey (12 nights from $3,499) and Celebrity‘s Equinox — the one with the lawn on the roof — carrying 2,850 (10 nights from $999).

I trust I’ve made my point: For those who want and need to get away this winter and spring, there’s plenty of both deals and dazzle on the high seas. No matter what your budget, there’s virtually no excuse not to set sail in these next several months.

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