Friday, June 20, 2008

Currency Exchange

Carriacou, uses the East Caribbean Dollar ("XCD" or "EC") as their official currency, as does the rest of Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. The XCD is presently on a fixed exchange rate with the United States Dollar ("USD"), where one USD = 2.7 XCD. However, the actual trading rate on any given day seems to float slightly above or below that value.

Major credit cards companies will automatically convert the currency for you, which is very convenient. However, on Carriacou, there is a limited number of merchants who have the capability to accept credit cards (including many of the restaurants). Therefore, we must be prepared with sufficient cash.

Visitors can use USD at many locations, however the exchange rate is usually worse, more along the lines of one USD = 2.50 to 2.60 XCD. The use of XCD is obviously more economical.

We believe it is wise to limit the total amount of cash we hold at any given time when traveling abroad. A great way to manage this is to use the convenience of the Automated Teller Machine ("ATM"). There are ATMs located in Hillsborough that accept major credit and debit cards, dispensing XCD currency at the prevailing exchange rate.

Just as is often the case in the United States, Carriacou's ATMs are sometimes out of order or inaccesible, so we like to have some XCD cash on-hand when we first get to the island. to pay for our taxi fare, driver's permit, lunch, provisions, etc. The difficulty that we have had is locating a currency exchange in the United States that will transact XCD for USD. In our experience, we have had less than a 50 percent success rate in finding XCD available at airport currency exchanges (for an immediate transaction). Because of this, we make the effort to exchange a limited amount of funds well in advance of our trip, instead of waiting for the day of departure.

Some local banks in the United States will accept an order for the currency exchange for a small fee and with several business days notice. Since I travel quite a bit for business, I just stop at various airport currency exchanges to check on XCD availability. Airport currency exchange rates and fees are never in the customer's favor (they have to make money somehow). However, when transacting a couple of hundred USD, the fee is a very small percentage and the convenience of completing the transaction immediately has certain benefits.

It is very important to make certain that you retain enough cash to pay the Grenada Departure Tax. It is presently $50 XCD per person ages 12 and older, and $25 XCD for children ages 5 to 11. Children under 5 years old are exempt from the tax. This tax is payable when you leave the island.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Packing Our Bags

With the official departure date coming up quick, it's time to start packing bags for the family's Carriacou holiday. Here's what and how we pack for the trip.

We begin packing weeks before our departure. After having made numerous trips with way too many things we just didn't need, we have learned to start packing early. Well, we don't actually 'pack' early, but we start the process by sacrificing our living room floor to everything we think we need to take. Everything.

Clothing has always been our biggest mistake. The weather in the Caribbean is moderate, with average temperatures between 80 and 85 degrees (F) year around. The dress code on Carriacou is island casual, yet still quaintly conservative (watch how much skin you show in public). We know this, as does anyone else who has researched a Caribbean vacation. So why do we always wind up taking way too many clothes? Ha!

Having access to laundry facilities is a huge help with this issue. You really only need clothes for a few days if you will be able to wash them once or twice during your stay. If you don't have access to laundry, consider packing clothing made of light material that you can simply wash in the sink and dry on the back of a chair in the sunlight.

Regardless of what clothes we pack, we usually live in our swimsuits and other light wear (t-shirts and shorts). Since we do enjoy dining out at a 'nice" place once in a while, we try to take one outfit that is a little nicer (cotton slacks and short-sleeved polo for men, skirt and blouse for women). Shoes are heavy and take a lot of space in luggage. Do your best to limit yourself in this regard. Flip-flops and swim / boat shoes can be sufficient unless you plan on doing a lot of hiking or running.

The family is snorkel crazy, so we pack our own preferred gear. This adds some weight, but we are much happier using our own stuff rather than rental equipment.

Toiletries are available on-island as-needed. However, packing a little shampoo and soap doesn't add that much to the total load and is sometimes necessary for travelers with allergies or other problems.

Having young children can make packing a challenge. They tend to believe that they need to bring a lot of 'stuff' to entertain themselves, when in fact once they get to the island they never touch any of it. This is where laying out all of your items in advance can be very helpful. It at least gives you the opportunity to bargain and barter with your family on what they plan to take. It gets easier as the children get older; then they decide that a good book and an iPod are sufficient.

One thing we do not sacrifice on is camera gear. It's a hobby that the whole family enjoys, so a large camera bag with all of the extras gets packed. This includes a small, notebook computer to offload and store digital images from the cameras. We have never regretted it once we get back home and look through all of the photographs. Those are the memories that help us get by until our next Caribbean holiday.

The plan is for everyone in the travel party to have one carry-on and one checked bag (less if consolidation is possible). Duffle bags are a must! Hard-sided luggage does not travel well when in comes to the Caribbean's light planes and ferry boats. To comply with airline restrictions and our own physical capabilities, we keep the bags to 40 pounds or less each.

So here's the living room floor...
  • Clothes including swimsuits and one 'nice' outfit, including shoes
  • Snorkel gear (fins, mask and snorkel)
  • Toiletries (shampoo, soap, razor, prescription medication, etc.)
  • Entertainment (books, magazines, iPods, etc.)
  • Cameras, notebook computer and accessories
We lay this all out, and then the fun begins. Each day until we leave, we all survey the floor and select something we can do without. Our goal is to take only the essentials. Amazingly, the pile gets considerably smaller by the time we actually pack it all up (the night before departure). This beats starting the process the night before departure, which would have had us taking EVERYTHING that was on the floor to begin with!

The carry-on bags get the entertainment items (for easy access on the airplane), the camera and computer gear and a few clothes items in case of flight delays or lost luggage. Prescription drugs all go in carry-on bags in their original, labeled containers. The checked bags get the rest. With TSA rules regarding carry-on liquids, we try to pack them all in checked luggage for ease of travel.

This may sound like a lot of stuff, but amazingly it is not once you go through the weeks long 'thinning process'. I hope that this idea helps you have a lighter-weight and more enjoyable trip to the Caribbean.

Getting There

The Eastern Caribbean is a wonderful holiday destination. Our family prefers it to any other place available to us. In fact, for us the further east in the Caribbean island chain the better. However, the further east you go, the more difficult it can be to arrange travel from the United States. That's not to suggest that it's impossibly hard. It's just challenging for most novice Caribbean travelers.

One option is to call your local travel agent. Unfortunately, we have learned that when it comes to the Eastern Caribbean, our own travel experience is usually more extensive than that of the affordable travel agent.

Since this blog is all about our family's return trip to Carriacou, we will concentrate on that destination. However, some of these travel points apply just as well to other Caribbean locations.

Another important point regarding this particular post is that our family's travel begins in the United States. Travel to the Eastern Caribbean starting from other locations such as Europe and South America may require drastically different plans.

There are many travel options if Carriacou is your final destination. The challenge is finding a balance between travel time and cost, as they are directly related. Typically, the faster you want to get there, the higher the cost!

Let's start with travel time. If your holiday is luxuriously long and you are in no hurry to reach Carriacou, you can have a wonderfully adventurous and economic trip to the island through a number of great locales. For example, start with a direct flight from the eastern United States to the island of Dominica and meander your way south on passenger ferries and mail boats through the Grenadines until you reach Carriacou. Ah! I only wish that I had that much time.

For those with less time to travel, you can catch a flight to Grenada through Puerto Rico or other popular Caribbean destination, and then ride a passenger ferry to Carriacou. A greatly affordable option. However, it can be very difficult to arrange this travel to fit within a one-day schedule. The flights do not get to Grenada in time to catch the last ferry to Carriacou, which means that this option requires you to have an overnight stay in Grenada. That's not all bad. Grenada is a wonderful island and a joy to visit. Many travelers with Carriacou as a final destination purposely spend a few days on Grenada on both ends of their trip.

For some travelers, one challenge with this option is the ferry ride to Carriacou. There is a fast ferry and a slow ferry. In reality they both require a pretty long ride across some bumpy seas. If you are one of those who does not do well on a long boat ride, think twice.

You can catch a small, inter-island plane from Grenada to Carriacou. A great option for those who like to avoid the long ferry ride. Again, commercial flight schedules to Grenada make it very difficult to get to Carriacou in one day from the United States mainland using this option.

Our family greatly values our holiday time on Carriacou. Therefore, we would really rather get there in one day (no offense to our friends on Grenada!). One way to get to Carriacou from the United States in one day is through Barbados. Of course this somewhat depends on where in the United States you are starting from. This option works for most starting locations east of the Mississippi River.

There are direct flights to Barbados from several East Coast airports, including New York and Miami. If you can get to one of these airports by mid-morning, you can catch a flight to Barbados that will get you there just a little after lunch time.

Okay. It's now the early afternoon and you are in Barbados. How do you get to Carriacou before the day is over? Look for commercial inter-island flights. If your group has four or more travelers, you may find it economical to charter your own plane for the trip. This option can find you on Carriacou before 3:00 p.m. That's early enough to catch some serious beach time before sunset.

With the introduction of a Barbados-based inter-island airline, West Indies Executive Air (westindiesexecutiveair.com) is the only official option for private air charters from Barbados to Carriacou. There are other ways to introduce some competition in the mix though. SVG Air (svgair.com) and Mustique Airways (mustique.com) offer private air charters from Barbados to the Grenadines and other Eastern Caribbean destinations. These two airlines cannot fly directly from Barbados to Carriacou, but there doesn't appear to be anything stopping them from taking your party from Barbados to say... Union Island... then to Carriacou. If you shop carefully, you may be able to piece together a flight plan that is timely and economical. The lesson here is to think creatively!

Are we there yet?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Where You Gonna Sleep?

So you're headed to Carriacou. Great! Now where are you going to stay?

Some factors to consider: How many are in your travel party? How many nights are you staying? What location characteristics are important to you? What are your plans for dining? How much are you willing to pay to be pampered?

We'll stop at that, as most other factors are simply a derivative of those already in this list.

The fewer in your travel party, the greater the options; it's that simple. The more people you add to your travel party, the fewer locations on the island that can accommodate you all as one group. There are many options across the island for those of you traveling alone or as a couple.

The longer you plan on staying, the better sense it makes to find a more 'permanent' lodging option; a place to make home camp while you enjoy the adventure of the island. Some lodging options require a stay of five nights or more to justify the work of accommodating guests.

Location becomes an issue depending upon your on-island travel options (i.e. on-foot, 'bus' or rental car) and what kind of entertainment you seek (i.e. are you a party animal or limin' fool?).

Some people like to go on holiday to avoid the kitchen, while others don't mind doing a little housekeeping to create a fun group activity.

Finally, are you willing to pay for room service or does your budget limit you to a sleeping bag and a tent? Ha!

Here's the situation for our family, your travel party may or may not resemble us.

We are a family of five, although this year our oldest teen daughter will be on a school trip to Europe and unable to join us in Carriacou. So we needed a lodging option that could accommodate two adults and two young teen children. Young teens. You know. "I need my privacy" kind of age, so no chance of them sharing a room with Mom and Dad. We are not aware of hotels on Carriacou that have adjoining rooms, so our lodging hunt jumps directly to villas (houses).

Although we would love to have a long stay on the island, we are limited to ten days. That is sufficiently long for villa rentals. Most villas require at least a one-week stay with the start or end landing on a Saturday in order to accommodate other potential renters. A ten-day stay can test your vacation budget if your lodging choice is on the expensive side. Unfortunately, money is a factor for this family, so the villa's features must be carefully considered.

Location is one of the most critical components for us. Our family is not into wild night life (hence, our selection of Carriacou for a destination). We prefer quiet nights with few lights to disturb our view of the starlit skies. We rent a car (easier and more affordable with a group of four), so distance from Hillsborough is not critical. The rental car also allows us to easily visit beaches and sites around the island, as well as for making trips to town for provisions.

Our family is a pretty typical American bunch. Dad works a lot of hours and travels on business often. Mom is busy with a job of her own and well as taxi duty with the children. The kids are involved in a lot of school and extra-curricular activities. That means that most nights, dinners are disjointed and very un-family-like. With this in mind, you may understand how our family actually enjoys time together in the kitchen! The whole process of shopping for provisions on the island ("What's THAT?" "Is this edible?" "Coke Light?") has made many memories for us, and we all have a blast pitching-in to make a meal to share. Therefore, having to provide our own housekeeping is actually a benefit we seek.

That leaves us with the final consideration: cost. As we have all learned a long time ago, 'you get what you pay for', so we shop carefully. It is not always easy to place the lodging options on a comparable basis; one can have a better location, while another has a pool, while another is less expensive. We actually create a table that lists the features, the pros and the cons. For this year's vacation, we have decided on a villa in the L'Esterre region; Las Tortugas (www.lastortugasvilla.com). It meets our needs as well as some of our Caribbean living dreams (it is our holiday after all, so we are allowed to splurge a little). Our family would rather spend a bit more on accommodations and be thrifty on our dining options. Maybe more on that in a later post...