Travel Roulette

We had a great vacation in St. Lucia over the holidays, but boy–traveling these days isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m not talking about spending long hours in a mask, either. There is so much uncertainty about pretty much everything, plans can change on a dime, and you’ve got to be willing to endure some stress and be quick about making alternative arrangements if necessary.

Here are some of the things that make travel so difficult:

  • Departure COVID tests — Many overseas destinations, like St. Lucia, require them. Some people have experienced long lines to get tested; that was not a problem for us (we took one of the self-administered tests at the CVS drive-through pharmacy). Other than the basic unpleasantness of the test itself–I always think of the Vinnie Barbarino comment from the ’70s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!”–the main issue for us was trying to time the test to provide the results in time to meet the reporting requirements while also falling within the three days of departure time period. If you’re getting ready to travel, you’ll probably spend a fair amount of time checking your phone for results.
  • Flight cancellations — There were a lot of flight cancellations over the holidays, and you wonder how long the cancellation problems will continue. The cancellations seem totally random and unpredictable, and the airlines tend to rebook you as if there is no problem (or schedule disruption, or cost) iinvolved in your staying longer somewhere. We lucked out and didn’t experience a cancellation, but our travel partners did and had to stay an extra day. Fortunately, it didn’t mess up their plans too much. If you’re traveling, I’d recommend building a potential “cancellation day” into your travel plans.
  • Return COVID tests — In my view, the return COVID test is a lot more troubling than the departure test, especially if you are overseas. There are lots of reports of fully vaccinated people who faithfully followed mask rules and maintained prudent social distancing and still tested positive. Once that happens, even if you are asymptomatic, you’re looking at multiple days of quarantine, and in some places you apparently have to go to a special quarantine facility. When your departure test comes back negative, it is an enormous relief.
  • The condition of airports — Admittedly, our return flights yesterday probably were on one of the peak days of the holiday travel season. Still, the conditions were pretty grim. There not only were long lines, documentation issues, and lots of trying to understand what masked people were saying, but when we reached the U.S. the conditions at the Miami airport were pretty pathetic. Trash cans were full to the point of overflowing, lots of eating places seemed to be closed, and the restrooms didn’t exactly pass the white glove treatment. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that one of the levels of hell is eternity spent in a men’s restroom in a busy American airport during a hectic holiday travel day. I found myself wondering if the conditions were due to staffing shortages, which seems to be a problem with a lot of places right now.

We don’t have any travel on the horizon in the immediate future, and that’s probably a good thing. Perhaps, in a few months, the craziness will subside a bit

One Country’s Approach To COVID

Our trip to St. Lucia was the first time we’ve been out of the United States since the COVID pandemic turned the world topsy-turvy. It was interesting to see how a different country was dealing with the issues presented by a pandemic that still lingers after two years.

St. Lucia is one of those countries that requires a lot of documentation before you can enter. That’s totally understandable: it’s an island nation, and its health care facilities could be overwhelmed if there was a bad outbreak. The necessary paperwork includes vaccination cards and booster cards, on-line submission of travel authorization forms that have to be approved by the St. Lucia travel office, and proof of a negative COVID test that was taken within three days of your departure date. The three-day test and travel authorization approval can create some friction. You hope to get the test results quickly enough to transmit them to the travel office in plenty of time to get the approval.

In our case, we didn’t get the test results until the day before our departure and then hit a snag when the travel office asked us to retransmit data only a few hours before our early morning flight was scheduled to leave. That required us to do some scrambling at the airport, by calling the travel office to ask them to look at the resubmitted data and send a new authorization approval so that the airline could print it out on paper and we could take it as part of our packet of documentation. That started off our trip with a jolt of stress, but fortunately, thanks to the help of a friendly woman at the St. Lucia travel office, the very nice people behind the counter at American Airlines, and the fact that my uptight traveler ways caused us to get to the airport very early, we got the paperwork done and were on our way.

When we arrived in St. Lucia, we had to present all of our materials–vaccination and booster cards, printed travel authorization approval form, and negative test results–in the new first step of the arrival process. We waited in long lines as nurses wearing full COVID-proof garb, including face shields, went through the paperwork for each traveler and carefully examined the various materials. If you passed muster and were fully vaccinated, as we were, you were given a plastic wrist bracelet just like the kind you would get at an amusement park and told to wear it during your entire time in St. Lucia. (I’m not sure what was done with the unvaccinated.) Then, with bracelets on, we were directed to a different line for different officials to review our passports and other entrance forms.

On our drive from the airport to Ti Kaye we didn’t see any locals wearing masks or bracelets. At our resort, however, the staff always was masked, and the rule was for guests to wear masks in common areas, such as when you were entering the restaurants for lunch or dinner. At the upper restaurant, our wrist temperatures were taken and logged in a book whenever we showed up for breakfast and dinner, so somewhere there is a fulsome record of my temperature on each day of our stay. No one wore masks on the beach or poolside, and temperatures weren’t taken at the seaside grille where we had lunch.

The morning of the day before our departure we had another COVID test taken, by a nurse on site at Ti Kaye, and then got a document attesting that we had tested negative. We took that to the airport when we left. At the airport, we had our temperatures taken again and had to fill out an additional form attesting that we had tested negative, and then presented the airline desk with all of the paperwork (including our vaccination cards) in order to get our boarding passes. Whether it was the time involved in paperwork review or just the holiday travel crush, the airport featured long lines, and even though we got to the airport more than two hours before the flight we just barely caught our plane. When we finally got back to Columbus, early this morning, we breathed a sigh of relief and finally cut off our bracelets.

In short, if you’re traveling internationally, be prepared to jump through a few extra hoops, endure some stress, and pay careful attention to the paperwork requirements. And give yourself some extra time at the airport!

Doughnuts In The Surf

Ti Kaye has an interesting beach item I’ve never seen before. Those doughnut-like objects are plastic-rimmed floats that are anchored to the ocean floor and therefore stay in place, riding atop the waves as the surf passes underneath. They are filled with water and are a lot of fun to sit in on a hot sunny day, and cool besides.

There’s only one problem with the doughnuts: it’s impossible to climb into one gracefully. You basically try to leap up from the ocean floor, get your keister over the yellow plastic rim, and then tumble, ass over teakettle, into the rubbery bottom. Even Grace Kelly would look like a klutz trying to get into one of these things, but the moment of embarrassment is worth it.

Banana Ketchup And West Indian Hot Sauce

If you go down to the beachfront restaurant at Ti Kaye, you’ll find three condiments: regular tomato ketchup, banana ketchup, and West Indian hot sauce.

Banana ketchup, you say? I’m not a fan of regular ketchup, but banana ketchup sounded so tantalizing I had to try it. And since I’m always on the prowl for some good hot sauce, the West Indian hot sauce is right up my alley.

The banana ketchup and the hot sauce have almost exactly the same color, as shown in the bottles above and on the plate below, where you can see the banana ketchup on the lower left and the hot sauce on the upper right, bracketing my conch fritters. The banana ketchup is pretty good. It’s very mild and sweeter (and a lot less acidic) than tomato ketchup, and a nice complement to french fries. I’m a bit surprised that banana ketchup hasn’t made inroads in America–at least, not yet.

The West Indian hot sauce is a killer. It’s chunkier than the ketchup–with the chunks no doubt bringing the heat–and it’s got a lot of flavor, with a spice level that creeps up on you, and some of that fine, post-consumption lip burn that hot sauce aficionados crave. I’ve used it on regular french fried, sweet potato fries, conch fritters, and saltfish accras, and it hasn’t disappointed in any combination.

They say that part of the joy of travel is the thrill of discovery. I’m glad I discovered banana ketchup and West Indian hot sauce on this trip.

Night Falls On The Shoreline

When we returned from our sunset cruise earlier this week, night was falling to the east while a glimmer of the vanished sunset still lingered on the western horizon. The Ti Kaye inlet is a popular place for large boats to anchor for the night, and a number of sailboats and catamarans were bobbing on the surface of the waves. Some of the boats stay at anchor for days at a time while the occupants snorkel, swim, and enjoy the other amenities Ti Kaye offers. At night, the boats are lit up like Christmas trees–literally, in the case of the one catamaran shown in the picture above.

The beachfront was incredibly peaceful at twilight as we pulled up to the dock, with the ocean waters gently lapping against the pier, the boats swaying on the swell of the surf, and a gentle whisper of wind through the palm trees. The lights of Ti Kaye, which is built into the hillside above the beach, serve as a kind of night light for the boats and for those, like us, who make the trek up the staircase to the upper level.

I imagine the people who spend the nights on the boats at anchor get a good night’s sleep.

Our Sunset Cruise

Yesterday afternoon we took a sunset cruise along the west coast of St. Lucia, heading south to the two peaks–the Pitons–that are a kind of trademark of the island (and that are featured on the label of the local beer which is itself named for the mountains). Visitors can climb the peak on the right in the photo above, following a trail that runs up the western slope and, according to one of the locals, is “two hours heading straight up, then two hours heading straight down.” The eastern peak features a sheer escarpment that can only be tackled by dedicated, and well-equipped, rock climbers. Much of the west coast of the island is similarly rugged, with many cliffs along the oceanfront and small fishing villages located in the sea level areas in between.

The crew plied us with very tasty rum punches and we listened to a great reggae music mix as we sailed along. A school of dorsal-finned sea creatures–the crew said they were small whales that were about the size of porpoises–encircled us as we sailed south, frolicking in the waves before turning west to head toward deeper waters. We also saw many flying fish zipping briefly over the surface of the water before diving back in It was a beautiful evening offering just about perfect sunset cruise conditions with clear skies and the temperature around 80, and other boats were on the water, also enjoying the striking sunset colors and the warm surroundings.

The after-sunset in St. Lucia is a pretty sight, too. There’s about a half hour period where the sunset glow lines the rim of the western horizon, providing enough light to see clearly as the sky turns purple above and you head back to the dock. It’s a great time to drain the last dregs of your rum punch, tap your feet to the reggae beat, and look forward to the dinner to come.

Hiking Back To The Road

To get to Ti Kaye you take an access road that winds about a mile and a half through the jungle until you reach the resort. This morning Richard and I decided to work off our breakfast and hike to the point where the access road reaches the main road.

I say “hike” because, although the access road is paved, there are many steep hills and sharp turns and it feels like a hiking trail. And the last incline before you reach the road is the mother of them all: straight up a hillside at a constant 45-degree angle in 80-degree heat under bright sunshine until you reach the intersection. By then your heart is hammering, your hamstrings are screaming, you’re gulping air, and your health care app has concluded that a billy goat has run off with its cell phone home.

But when you reach the top you get to experience a strong sense of pointless accomplishment and useful justification for tipping back another Piton when lunchtime rolls around. And the view from up there is pretty good, too, as the photo below reflects. That’s a neighboring fishing village that tumbles down the hillside to the Caribbean.

The Local Caribbean Beer

Every Caribbean island seems to have its own beer. On St. Lucia, the local brew is called Piton, named for the mountains that dominate the landscape on this rugged volcanic island.

Like most of the Caribbean beers I’ve sampled over the years, Piton is a basic lager. The islanders don’t seem to go much for IPAs, which is fine with me, because IPAs are just too bitter for my taste and really wouldn’t work on a vacation when your brain is on island time. Piton is smooth and light, with a nice flavor, and it goes down easy on a hot sunny day with a serving of conch fritters and a side of french fries. Piton is so drinkable, in fact, that it is hard to come away from the lunch table without having quaffed at least two of them.

To my knowledge, you can’t get Piton in Columbus or anywhere in the Midwest. Even if you could, I’m not sure I would want to, because Caribbean beers are very much a sensory experience of the time and place, to be enjoyed when you’re hot and smell faintly of suntan lotion and you’re wearing sandals and looking out over blue water with white boats and swimmers and snorkelers in the distance. I’m not sure how I would react to a Piton if the view out the window was of a gloomy winter scene. I’d rather reserve this fine beer for consumption in its native habitat.

The Stairs At Ti Kaye

At some beach vacation locations, it can be difficult to get some meaningful exercise. You shuffle back and forth between pool and beach and room and, despite your best intentions to go on some strenuous outings, you become an inert, chaise lounge sprawling lump who happily dozes off in the hot sun. As a result, you don’t experience much of that cardiovascular activity your doctor and trainer say is so important.

That isn’t a problem at Ti Kaye in St. Lucia. That’s because Ti Kaye is built into a cliff, and to get from the top of the resort to the beach you need to climb up and down a switchbacking set of stairs that hug the cliffside. There are 152 steps in all (Kish counted them) and they start out as stone steps at the top of the cliff and then turn to wooden stairs as you near the beach level. There are so many steps that you can’t capture all of them in one photo, but the picture above shows a few of the flights near the bottom, and in the upper left you can get a glimpse of the steps farther up the cliffside.

Fortunately, there are landings at each of the switchbacks, so you can plausibly act like you are stopping to admire the views below, rather than needing to gulp down as much air as possible. Going down is a lot easier than coming up, of course, but when you do reach the top you feel a certain sense of accomplishment, and it is easier to justify having the next local beer or rum-based concoction.

Bird, Undeterred

Here’s what I consider to be pretty much conclusive evidence that the behavior of creatures is not solely determined by genetics, and that environment has an impact: Caribbean birds. St. Lucia, the southern Caribbean island we are visiting, has many familiar bird species, but the conduct of the birds is definitely different from the conduct of the birds of the Midwest.

This pigeon-like bird rested on the guardrail of our cottage, about a foot away from me, for a long time this morning. Unlike jumpy central Ohio birds, he didn’t flutter off at any movement on my part. Instead, he confidently strutted up and down the railing, eyeing me with apparent disdain because I wasn’t eating anything that would yield a crumb or two for him to seize. His pugnacious attitude reminded me of the tough-guy pigeon gangs you see in New York City, or Paris.

The pigeon’s haughty ‘tude, however, was nothing compared to the sparrow-like birds that hang around the breakfast patio. Those little guys hop closer and closer to the food on the plate, undeterred by repeated shooing, until they finally dare to perch on the side of the plate and take a nibble of a half-eaten pastry. And when guest rise from their table, the birds descend in force and tear away every scrap of food they can get in their beaks like they own the place.

In the Midwest, birds are timid creatures who don’t want any part of interaction with humans. In the Caribbean, birds are aggressive in taking what they want, whether humans are nearby or not. And I have no doubt that if you transported Columbus birds to St. Lucia, they’d get roughed up a bit by the natives at first, but then would quickly learn that if they want to rule the roost, they’d better adopt the Caribbean approach and take what they want.

COVID Casualties Of The Travel Variety

COVID-19 continues to be the gift that keeps on giving, affecting not only health but also creating many other unexpected changes–in how, and where, and even whether we work, how we shop, how kids are educated, how we travel, and countless other aspects of American life. COVID has caused some business to close and others to reap record profits, and now it’s making life difficult for regional airports.

Those of us who don’t use regional airports probably haven’t noticed, but the airlines are retrenching and pulling routes back from the smaller markets, and are citing COVID as the reason. In November, United Airlines announced that it was pulling out of 11 cities, and this week Delta announced that it was cutting seven routes, including suspending service to three airports entirely. Lincoln, Nebraska, Grand Junction, Colorado, and Cody, Wyoming are the three cities that are being dropped from the Delta flight list. A Delta spokesperson said: “”Due to ongoing travel demand impact from the pandemic, we have made the difficult decision to suspend Delta Connection service to these markets.”

That’s hard news to take for the travelers who use the regional airports that are affected, because the law of supply and demand teaches that with every drop in supply–in this case, of flights–the prices of the remaining options are going to increase. That means if you’ve got to fly to Lincoln or Grand Junction in the future, brace yourselves for sticker shock, at least until some small regional airline decides to start service in those locations. And if you live in an area serviced by other regional airports, keep your fingers crossed that your travel demand statistics are robust enough to keep the airlines servicing your airport, thereby producing competitive prices and justifying the money that your tax dollars spent to build the airport in the first place.

The “ongoing travel demand impact from the pandemic” that the Delta spokesperson mentioned is worth thinking about, too. Are people not traveling because they are concerned about their health, or because they have seen so many things get cancelled as new variants crop up and sweep across the globe, or because people feel that the masking and testing requirements that apply to air travel are so unpleasant that they’d rather stay home? And in the case of the smaller markets, how many travelers have decided that they would rather just drive to their destination and avoid the cancellation risk and the masks? It makes you wonder whether the impulse to just drive rather than fly, like the impulse to work from home, will be a permanent byproduct of the COVID years.

Austin International, 5:09 a.m. Central

We have an early flight out of Austin this morning. We got here early, and thank goodness for that: the airport is jammed with travelers and a bit of a madhouse. The regular security line snaked along for hundreds of yards, filled with anxious people worried about catching their flights. It was the greatest advertisement for getting TSA precheck status you could imagine.

It’s officially Thanksgiving week, folks, and the packed airport proves it. If you’re traveling don’t take chances—get there early!

The Hill Country Building Boom

On Friday we drove from Austin out into the Texas “hill country” and traveled around towns with evocative names like “Dripping Springs” and “Driftwood.” For decades, such places were part of the wide open spaces to be found in this area, with a rolling landscape dotted with small trees, mule deer, and roadrunners.

That is true no longer. Now the area is home to housing development after housing development, with many other new housing developments visible on the horizon. We drove through some of them, and were amazed at the size of the developments and the number of houses being built. There were houses in every phase of development, from cleared land being staked off to homes in the framing stage to homes where workers were putting on finishing touches and landscapers were getting the lots ready for a for sale sign. And all of the activity was right next to completed homes where families had just moved in. I’m surprised we didn’t see any moving vans.

According to the 2020 census, Texas added more population from 2010 to 2020 than any other state in the country, assimilating almost four million people. The Austin area has gotten its fair share of the newcomers, and people who live around here have gotten used to seeing cars with license plates from other states. And the accompanying development isn’t limited to the cities, as our road trip to the hill country demonstrated: the Texas countryside is being transformed, too. Given the frantic pace of the development, areas like the hill country that are near the growing cities will look a lot different in three or four years than it does right now. The traffic patterns are bound to change, too.

When you decide to go deep in the heart of Texas a few years from now, expect to see a lot more houses, and the stars at night might not look quite as big and bright with all the house lights on the horizon.