Archive for the ‘Caribbean’ Category

Belize, Central America by Julie Harris

By jharris   Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Cave Tubing – Blue Hole National Park

Today we met our tour guide Omar Deras at the entrance to St. Herman’s Cave in the Blue Hole National Park.  St. Herman’s Cave is of great archaeological interest. It was used by the Maya during the Classic Period up to 2,000 years ago.  The ancient Maya believed that caves, particularly those with rivers flowing through and out of them, were entrances to the underworld, Xibalba.  We saw remains of pottery vessels which were used for the collection of Zuh uy Ha (virgin water) from driping speleothems, actively growing stalactites.  There were also charred remains of pots which were used to catch and burn blood sacrifices to the rain god Chaak during droughts.  The blood was collected during bloodletting ceremonies in which priests and elders would pierce their tongues or foreskins.  No evidence of human sacrifice has been found in this cave, unlike some others in Belize and Guatemala.  All of the pottery pieces found in the cave have been shards, since the ancient Mayans believe that it was necessary to smash sacrificial vessels to release the spirits within.  All those items are now studied by the Department of Archaeology in Belmopan.  This cave system has been carved out of limestone by the Sibun River.

We hiked up the cave, looking at the various formations and artifacts, then drifted slowly down the river for about an hour.  We didn’t see or hear another soul for the entire tubing trip.  We then hiked back up through the river to the entrance.  We completely lost track of time and space for the 2 1/2 hour expedition.  It was a jolt emerging into the tropical sunlight after so long underground.

We saw a few cave-dwelling animals during the trip, such as this short-tailed bat.  There were several species of bat flying throughout the cave during out trip.  They roost in holes, or “pots” in the ceiling carved out by their acidic urine eroding the limestone.  There was a large, active colony of cave swallows at the entrance to the cave.  There were also many camel crickets as well as their main predator, scorpion spiders or whip spiders, which are actually not spiders, but arachnids closely related to scorpions, but without the stinger.  They are harmless, despite their fierce appearance, and Omar even picked a large one up to demonstrate.  Mary was not amused.

After the tubing trip we stopped by the inland Blue Hole for a quick swim.  The Blue Hole (not to be confused with the much large and deeper oceanic Blue Hole located int the barrier reef), is a formation where the river upwells into a limestone sinkhole, then travels as a daylight river for a hundred feet or so, then dives back down into another cave system.  The hole itself is about twenty five feet deep and crystal clear.  Our visit coincided with a huge group of army ants, which livened things up.  Despite their large numbers they were very orderly, so it wasn’t too difficult to step over their trails.  John learned that they have painful stings when he decided that it would be a good idea to flick them into the Blue Hole for the waiting tilapia to snap up.  They found a red-rumped tarantula with an egg sac and forced her out of her hole.  She was still struggling to escape when we left.  It was the only time I’ve ever felt sorry for a spider.  The highlight of the stop was a large purple-crowned fairy hummingbird taking a bath in the river just below the Hole.  The emerald, white and black hummingbird repeatedly hovered right at the river surface and buzzed in the water, their form of bathing.  She then perched on a branch and preened herself.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Chaa Creek and Xunantunich

Today we visited the Cayo District in the western part of Belize close to the Guatemalan border.  As we drove from the coast to the west, we were marveled by the beautiful hills and mountains rich in green dense jungle.  From the humblest of beginnings Chaa Creek Cottages has grown into a 365 acre private nature reserve offering a range of exciting, educational adventures, expeditions and cultural experiences. The Natural History Centre, Butterfly Farm, Conference Centre, Macal River Camp bungalows, Rainforest Medicine Trail, Organic Maya Farm, eco-friendly Hilltop Spa and swimming pool are linked by miles of beautiful jungle trails perfect for bird watching, mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, or just strolling through a pristine rainforest. The canoes remain the most popular way to explore the river and enjoy scenic excursions into San Ignacio Town.  The Chaa Creek region has been a hub of Maya civilisation for thousands of years.   They are now internationally recognised for providing an authentic Maya experience, and already this year played host to leading Mayanist and author Dr Mark Van Stone as well as a team from National Geographic magazine. Throughout 2012 they will be offering unique Maya tours, presentations, events and activities, culminating in the grand Winter Solstice celebrations on December 21.  They offer the Reef and Rainforest Tour where you can combine a true Caribbean getaway with a Maya experience.

Lunch was served by beautiful Mayan ladies dressed in white dresses with bright floral accents.  The dishes were typical of the Latin culture.

Salbutes stuffed with pico de gallo, cabbage, and chicken.
Ceviche with plantain chips.
Chicken soup with cabbage and potatoes.

Xunantanich, located in the Cayo District is the tallest Mayan Ruin in Belize.

We made the steep, but short, climb to the top of “El Castillo.” This vantage point provides a breathtaking, 360 degree, panoramic view over the jungle canopy of the Macal, Mopan and Belize River valleys, as well as a vast area of the Guatemalan Peten District, which is only a few miles away. You will also get a close look at the restored portions of two unique stucco friezes, which appear on the east and west sides of the upper portion of the pyramid.
Located in the Cayo District in western Belize, Xunantunich is easily accessible. Most of the lodging facilities in the area offer day trips to the site, which is very popular with all tourists in the region.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Almond Beach and Iris’ Sunny Side Up

Almond Beach is a beautiful property in Hopkins, a small coastal village.  This area has not become overdeveloped and is quiet in the evenings.  Perfect for a family getaway or couple’s honeymoon.  A Garifuna population inhabits the town and these friendly people staff the resort.
These pictures give you an idea of the flora and the fauna that surrounds you.

We are staying on the top floor of this incredible villa.

These are individual cabanas located directly on the beach.

A boat dock directly in the front of the property takes you on snorkeling and fishing trips to the nearby South Water Caye and Glover’s Reef.

The view from our veranda and an iguana friend that sunbathed in front of our porch each day.

Yesterday we ate a delicious lunch at Iris’s Sunny Side Up, a small restaurant in Hopkins village.  The previous owner, Iris, started the restaurant 16 years ago with no running water or electricity.  She still lives upstairs but the restaurant is now owned by a South African woman.  She kept Iris’ name.

Lightly fried Snapper fingers with a ginger sauce and new potatoes.
Fried plantains and black beans with Chicken curry and vegetable.
Iris’s Sunny Side Up

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


On our way to Hopkins from the airport in Belize City, we stopped at the Baboon Sanctuary in the small town of Burrel Boom.  The Belizeans call the indigenous Howler Monkeys “Baboons”.  There is an area of protected land where conservationists and residents cooperate to create a wonderful habitat for the Howlers.  Residents allow the trees and vegetation to grow so the Howlers have plenty to eat.  Our guide, Robert showed us where a family of Baboons were feeding and the mother and two babies came down from the trees to eat bananas from his palm.  The mother had her hands on Mary’s head in eager anticipation of the treat.  The father was very upset and howled severely until I finally told everyone to move out.

The tree cutter ants are amazing.  They are much bigger than our ants in the states.  They travel in large groups transporting leaves from plants in the jungle to their hill.  They spit on the leaves and a fungus grows provided them a source of food.  The males have huge fangs which can be used as stitches when people get a cut in the jungle.  They create huge trails when they are foraging through the jungle.  We tried not to step in the trails.

The cashew plant is used to make cashews like the ones we eat at home.  They make wine from the fruit of the cashew tree.  It is heard to be very strong in alcohol content.  The picture below is a lovely cashew tree with people relaxing under it’s shade.

While we were on the tour, a local boy did some dirt bike stunts.  He was so cute that I couldn’t resist taking his picture.  The Belizeans are very friendly and warm people.  The official language is English, but many speak Creole and Spanish.

We finally arrived at Almond Beach in Hopkins.  This is a beautiful Spanish style property with clay tile roofs and mahogany interiors.  Upon arrival to our room, we found these swans made of towels and fresh flowers on our bed as well as on the kid’s bunkbeds. More pics of the property to come.

Disney on the ‘High Seas’

By vmastroianni   Thursday, March 29th, 2012

What cruise line could possibly think of having fireworks (yes, fireworks!) at sea, a pirate dance party on the pool deck, Captain Jack’s special appearance, a water slide flowing across both sides of the ship and even OVER the edge? Of course, it’s Disney, with the entrance of its new ship into the fleet, the ‘Disney Dream’.
The Dream welcomes guests onboard with all the latest in technology and design, but brings back the elegance and the ‘grandness’ of ships from the past with its sweeping staircases, nautical theme and colors, attention to every detail, and of course, everyone’s favorite Disney characters.
From the staff, to the food, to the amenities, Disney has gone all out in creating their beautiful new ship. The staff displays Disney’s commitment to excellent service with a friendly smile. The food is served to perfection, both in taste and in appearance, and the staterooms have all the features that one would expect when traveling at sea….and more! With the most comfortable bedding on the high seas, great bath products (H2O), iPod docks/alarm clocks, flat screen TV’s, excellent storage space, innovative WAVE phones for guest use onboard to keep in touch with the family, and the list goes on and on.
Entertainment onboard will amaze both adults and kids. With Disney characters participating in daily activities and leading the way in evening stage shows, the themes will delight adults and kids alike. Characters show up in all areas of the ship all day and night, whether you’re playing sports in the outdoor sports court, or walking to dinner through the main lobby area, they’re always entertaining and making guests smile. The stage shows are creative and colorful and will make cruisers of all ages smile: ‘The Golden Mickeys’, ‘Villians Tonight,’ and ‘Believe’ are each the beginning of a fun and festive night at sea.
A visit to the islands onboard The Dream would not be complete without a stop at Castaway Cay. The Disney-owned island offers everyone the opportunity to relax and unwind in a safe, extremely clean environment, and also explore and be active at the same time. With bike rentals and trails, a lookout tower with binoculars, watersports equipment rentals, excursions, beach bar service and food service, scavenger hunts and yoga, the choices are endless. The three beach areas (watersports, family beach, and “adults only”) everyone can find their own special place. And if you’re looking for some ‘special’ pampering, beach cabanas can be rented for the day ($499/family cabana, $399/adults only cabana). Renters are spoiled with beach butlers, food and beverage service, non-motorized watersports equipment, safe, refrigerators, towels, hammocks, and a comfortable seating area.
Disney’s Dining experience onboard is also a very unique experience. With three restaurants and ‘rotational dining’ each guest will be able to experience every dining venue onboard. The dining rooms hold surprises for all! And, of course, two specialty restaurants (Remy and Palo) serve the best French and Italian cuisine that you would expect from any 5-star restaurant.
Whether you’re a Disney-lover or not, the Disney cruise experience will not disappoint; the only thing missing is a casino, but with every other surprise that you find onboard, you may only realize this when you are returning home from the trip!

Gansevoort, Turks and Caicos Islands

By vmastroianni   Friday, September 30th, 2011

With so many beautiful islands in the Caribbean, it could be difficult to decide which one is my favorite, but in that search it’s easy to determine that Turks & Caicos Islands ranks at the top of my list. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be a guest at the new Gansevoort Hotel on Grace Bay Beach in Provo, Turks & Caicos Islands and found the hotel and the island to have the perfect blend of activity, relaxation, and fun! With beautiful Grace Bay Beach stretching for miles, amazingly clear turquoise waters, and first-class resorts, there’s nothing more one can ask for in an island destination.
I had the pleasure of staying at the fabulous new Gansevoort Hotel, which is nothing short of spectacular! From the ‘street-side’ it’s an unimposing structure that might not strike someone as a luxury resort, but once inside you quickly get that ‘vibe’ and find out just how special it is. The hotel has a small reception area that leads out to a perfectly-positioned infinity edge pool with plenty of ‘cozy’ loungers. The 91 suites are in 3 buildings that surround the pool, and the design throughout the resort and the units is “ultra-chic” and modern. What I thought was one of the nicest features of my one bedroom suite (and there were MANY!) were the full glass-panel walls of the full-size balcony, which allows for a fully unobstructed oceanview from both the bedroom and living room areas of the unit. Of course the suite was filled with great gadgets (Bose Soundock, electronic controls for window blinds, modern appliances and fixtures, 2 flat-screen TV’s), wonderful amenities, and a soaking tub in the bathroom that fills from a faucet/hole in the ceiling!
Each morning the beach crew prepared the beach beds ($25/day) and the chaise lounges & umbrellas. The beach is never crowded, and as clean as any beach can possibly be! The beach butlers are always ready to deliver your drinks and food right to your position in the sand! The pool area is never too crowded, and the seating is around the pool is very unique (island platforms within the pool itself with loungers).
Of course, a trip to Turks & Caicos Islands is never complete without a boat excursion of some sort. Our 4-hour snorkel excursion was operated by Caicos Dream Tours. Our group of 12 was picked up right on the beach by a crew of 3 on a beautiful catamaran. We had the opportunity to snorkel in 2 locations, pick up conch shells, and then stop at an unspoiled beach area called ‘Iguana Island’ where they prepared a fresh conch salad while everyone explored the area and played in the perfectly clear waters. At the end of our excursion we were dropped us off at ‘da Conch Shack’ for a casual seafood lunch. It was a great end to a perfect little ‘side trip’.
Gansevoort’s spa (Exhale) services were also top-notch. Although the spa itself is not too elaborate, the spa services were second to none! I had a 50-minute ‘Signature Masssage’ and it was the ABSOLUTE best that I have ever had! The spa is always busy, and the prices are very reasonable for a luxury 5-star resort.
For a wonderful dining experience, Bagatelle Bistro offer French Mediterranean cuisine (poolside) or you can arrange for an intimate dinner for 2 on the beach or in any special location that a guest prefers (even on one of the pool ‘islands’!). A great buffet breakfast is served in Bagatelle’s in the morning, and the Beach Bar & Grill is conveniently only a few steps away from the pool. Of course, lunch can also be served right to your seat in the sand!
Whether you’re looking for a place to unwind, or spend some quality time with someone, or even a great ‘girl’s getaway’, the Gansevoort will surely fit the bill!