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February 27, 2009

The Most Unusual Timeshare Sales Pitch I've Ever Heard

The spot on St. Martin where we were flagged down by Nicole and Celine, or, "the timeshare twins," as my husband Tim and I call them.

by Wendy Perrin

Just one more story from my recent Caribbean adventures before I get back to covering travel deals and advice:

So we're driving through St. Martin when two women wave us down so emphatically that we pull over. We assume we're going to hear "There's a bridge out up ahead!" or something on  that order of magnitude. Instead they hand us Scratch & Win "Free Jackpot" tickets, urging us to scratch and find out if we've won a prize.

Tim and I decide to play along, just to see where this might lead. We scratch and--lo and behold--each get the exact same number.  The women profess extreme shock at our unbelievable good luck and explain that if we go to the Oyster Bay Beach Resort by 3:00 p.m. that day we can win one of the three prizes listed on the back of the ticket: a $500 shopping credit, a luxury vacation for two, or a video camera. Nicole whips out a form and starts filling it out, instructing us to take it with us to the resort so we could collect our prize and they would collect their $50 commission.

All we had to do to get the prize, they advised, was claim we'd been on the island at least 36 hours (a lie; at that point we'd been there less than a day), claim we were staying in a hotel (as opposed to the villa where we were actually staying), and show up no later than 3:00 p.m. (not to worry about the children: they could swim in the resort's pool while Tim and I sat through the 60- to 90-minute presentation!).

Nicole_and_celine_2 Meet Nicole and Celine, who waved us down as part of an elaborate attempt to entice us into sitting through a timeshare sales pitch, Feb. 9, 2009.

Needless to say, Tim and I opted to spend our afternoon otherwise. But I thought the story was worth sharing.

What's the most unusual timeshare sales pitch YOU've ever encountered? Please click on "Comments" to tell me about it.

February 26, 2009

St. Martin Highlight #4: Mud Baths

Okay, normally I would burn--or at least substantially crop--any photo of me in a swimsuit. But if I were to crop out everything below the neck, you'd lose the full effect of the mud bath I got on Tintamarre Island, Feb. 18, 2009.

by Wendy Perrin

The idea came from Remember I asked the travel peeps on Twitter for things my family should do while in St. Martin? recommended a boat ride with Captain Alan. "Absolute fun guaranteed," he twittered. Was he ever right.

Captain Alan runs boat tours out of Oyster Pond Marina that take you to three semi-deserted islands off the north coast of St. Martin. You get to snorkel, feed fish from your hands, experience the supposedly therapeutic cleansing and exfoliating effects of age-old volcanic mud, and generally have a blast.

Cptalan There's Captain Alan himself.

More pics from our excursion, after the jump:

Continue reading "St. Martin Highlight #4: Mud Baths" »

February 25, 2009

St. Martin Highlight #3: Harmony Nights

Settingup The town of Grand-Case, St. Martin, prepping for its weekly Harmony Nights festivities, Feb. 17, 2009, circa 6 p.m.

by Wendy Perrin

Conde Nast Traveler readers should know that most of the highlights of my recent trip to the dual-nation country of Sint Maarten/St. Martin occurred on the French side of the island. I've already told you about The Butterfly Farm and Zip-lining at Loterie Farm. And foodies already know that dining in at least one of the renowned restaurants in St. Martin's gourmet capital of Grand-Case (say, L'Auberge Gourmande or Le Pressoir) is a must.

But here's my tip you might not know: Make your dinner reservation for a Tuesday night so you can get a world-class meal plus street theater. Every Tuesday from January through March, and from about 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., the main road is blocked off so that artists can sell their handmade crafts, local musicians can perform, and people can dance in the streets.

Artisan An artisan selling sculptures of animals carved out of nuts. (We bought a butterfly and a stingray.) 

There's even a parade--one of the smallest parades you'll ever see, but home-grown and authentic for sure.

Harmonynightsparade It's not the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade ... but that's why we liked it.

So can anybody guess what St. Martin highlight #4 will be?  Stay tuned and I'll reveal it tomorrow. Meanwhile, you can hazard a guess by clicking on "Comments" below.


February 24, 2009

St. Martin Highlight #2: Zip-lining at Loterie Farm

That's my 5-year-old at Loterie Farm, Feb. 18, 2009.

by Wendy Perrin

Remember when I asked the Twitterverse for travel tips for the island of St. Martin, and DineSXM recommended zip-lining and lunch at Loterie Farm? Well, I just wanted to report back that the three males in my family loved it so much they did it twice.

Loterie Farm is located on the French side of the island, in a 150-acre rain forest preserve at Pic du Paradis, St. Martin's highest point. There are three different tree-tops challenge courses to choose from: junior, adult, and extreme. Leave it to my family to test all three.

Each ropes course includes all manner of challenges in addition to zip-lining: You get to walk tightropes, crawl up net ladders, swing on ropes from platform to platform, etc. I feel like my sons came away having learned the basics of mountaineering.

That's my 6-year-old on a cable suspension bridge.

Personally, though, my favorite part was lunch:

Continue reading "St. Martin Highlight #2: Zip-lining at Loterie Farm" »

February 23, 2009

Day Trip to St. Barts

Villa_raisiniers_flamands_beach_st_Among our stops on St. Barts was Villa Raisiniers, on Flamands Beach. Go after April 16 and this 2-bedroom, 2-bath beachfront cottage can be yours for only $3,312/week (incl. taxes and fees).

by Wendy Perrin

Before we were interrupted by tech snafus, I was in the middle of relating my adventures on St. Maarten/St. Martin and islands nearby. And today I'm here to tell you that, even on the normally unaffordable Caribbean island of St. Barts, there are beachfront villas that might actually be within the realm of possibility, as long as you avoid peak season:

Last Monday we ferried over to St. Barts for the day so I could check out a few affordable vacation rentals for my annual villa-rental feature in Conde Nast Traveler's June issue. Peg Walsh of St. Barth Properties, a St. Barts specialist on my annual list of the world's best villa rental agents, showed me the beach house pictured above, as well as . . .

Rental_villa_flamands_beach_st_bartVilla Les Embruns, another 2-bedroom, 2-bath vacation rental on the Baie de Flamands. This one can be had for only $3,588/week (incl. taxes and fees) after April 16.

Villa Les Embruns isn't smack on the beach like Villa Raisiniers, but it's only a 3-minute walk away, plus it's got a pool and is more elegant, with more modern conveniences.

But if you want to see the beachfront rental that would be perfect for my own family someday when I can afford it -- or if you want to find out what happened to Charlie on the ferry from Marigot to St. Barts (remember that fateful ferry ride to Anguilla?) -- click to the next page....

Continue reading "Day Trip to St. Barts" »

February 20, 2009

The Westin Sint Maarten Kisses and Makes Up

I did finally manage to carve out an hour for the pool at the Westin Dawn Beach Resort, Feb. 18, 2009.

by Wendy Perrin

Remember Tuesday's post about my Wi-Fi problems at the Westin Sint Maarten? I don't know whether it's the power of blogging or Westin's customer service ethic but, whatever the reason, when I went to check out of the hotel yesterday morning, I learned it had removed all Internet-access charges from my bill. (The agent at the front desk also removed a $75 room-service charge that wasn't mine.)

The front office manager--who, if he's even aware that I write a blog, certainly never mentioned it--apologized for the trouble I'd had, acknowledged that the Wi-Fi situation at the hotel is a big problem, and assured me that a team of Westin people will be tackling it shortly. The hotel needs to have great Internet access if it wants to host corporate meetings, he said. True.

He also said he'd like to restore 16,000 points--the equivalent of one free night at the resort--to my Starwood account, as compensation for the day I'd lost. (I had paid for my stay with 64,000 points.)  "No, please don't do that" was my automatic response.  That's because I'm so accustomed to rejecting anything resembling free travel, in accordance with Conde Nast Traveler's policy of no freebies. On the other hand, if I were Joe Businessman with a Starwood account, I would consider a compensatory offer of 16,000 points to be a very fair resolution to this situation.

So what should I do, folks?  Reject the 16,000 points because I can't accept anything free from a travel company? Or accept the points because it's reasonable compensation and what a normal traveler would do?

I wrestle (alone) with ethical issues like this all the time, so would love to hear other people's opinions.

February 18, 2009

Planespotting at SXM

747_landing_at_sxm A Corsair 747 from Paris (Orly) landing at Sint Maarten's Princess Juliana International Airport, as viewed from the Sunset Bar & Grill, Feb. 15, 2009.

by Wendy Perrin

The idea came from airplane junkie Benet Wilson over at Business Aviation Now:  Her tip for Sint Maarten was to hang out at the Sunset Bar & Grill--a super-casual barefoot beach bar that sits on Maho Beach right at the end of the airport's runway--and watch the planes come in.

But I wouldn't have been there at just the right moment if it weren't for Perrin Post reader TheGlobalTraveller (a.k.a. Kiwi Flyer of FlyerTalk's blog The Gate): When I asked on Twitter how to deduce what day/hour to hit Maho Beach so as to see both a 747 and an A340 (the biggest inbound planes) land within the shortest possible time frame, he pointed me to this cool tool: Punch in the airport, and it will tell you which planes land when. It told me that, on Sunday the 15th, a Corsair 747 was due to land at 1:55 and an Air France A340 at 2:30. Bingo!

That's the Air France A340 that flew in from Paris (Charles de Gaulle) on Feb. 15, 2009.

Now, if you're on the beach when one of these giant planes comes in for a landing, you'll get sandblasted--or, as Benet aptly describes it, "exfoliated."  If you're standing behind a huge plane that's powering up its engines for take-off, you can get blown right into the surf.

Maho Beach sits just across the road from this.

To see more planes--and sandblasted spectators--click to the next page:

Continue reading "Planespotting at SXM" »

February 17, 2009

Tech Snafus on Sint Maarten/St. Martin

Tech_problems_3Where I spent today (yes, virtually the entire day): Room 2166 at the Westin St. Maarten. That's me with one of the hotel tech guys who tried to fix my room's wireless and cable connectivity problems, Feb. 17, 2009. 

by Wendy Perrin

If you're wondering what I've been doing since you last heard from me, the answer is: battling one tech breakdown after another. It all started with my Palm Treo 750 dying, the apparent victim of Dutch-French network confusion. First it worked on the French side of the island but not the Dutch side, then on the Dutch side but not the French side, and then last Friday it stopped working everywhere. Hours spent on the phone with the AT&T International Help Desk and Conde Nast Tech Support couldn't revive it. I've been without mobile Web or e-mail access for five days now. 

Then on Saturday I checked into the Westin and promptly lost that critical hotel accoutrement--in-room Wi-Fi--that had made life so easy at the property I'd stayed in the previous six nights. (I can't tell you more about that first property because it's part of an article I'm writing for Conde Nast Traveler's upcoming June issue. What I can tell you is that, in a crazed moment of optimism about a month ago, I redeemed Starwood points for five nights at the Westin because I thought it might be nice to tack some vacation days onto my work assignment down here. The plan backfired: Between writing my article, blogging, and losing 20-or-so precious hours to tech problems, there's been zero time for any vacation.)

So when I arrived at the Westin on Saturday and was told the only place you can get a Wi-Fi signal is the lobby, I freaked.  I can't leave my kids alone in a hotel room while I spend hours in the lobby, after all. Then this morning even the lobby Wi-Fi was on the blink. The front desk promised to call my room when the lobby Wi-Fi was restored, so I stayed put in room 2166 waiting for a call that never came.  When I marched back down to the front desk, I was told that the problem had been fixed and, actually, there should indeed be Wi-Fi in my room, as well as at the pool. Of course I checked both the room and the pool and couldn't connect at either place. Back at the front desk for the fifth or sixth time, the Westin finally started taking my complaint seriously, sending a parade of tech guys to my room. The third one finally offered some decent help:

That's Kerry, who calls himself the hotel's "clean-up guy."

Kerry strengthened the room's Wi-Fi signal to the point where my husband's laptop can now access the Internet wirelessly. I still can't connect wirelessly in the room (even though I'm able to in the hotel's lobby), but Kerry was able to get me connected by cable and figured out why the cable hadn't worked earlier: the person who'd installed it had plugged it in wrong in some back room of the Westin.

So now my husband's connected via in-room wireless, I'm connected via in-room cable but using my husband's computer because it's providing a much quicker connection ... and we're each paying $14.95 per day (yes, $30 per day total) for the privilege.

And that is the story of how I spent pretty much the entire day in my hotel room.

Westin_st_maarten_pool Now, here's where I should have spent today: The Westin's pool. I haven't actually been in it yet, but I have walked the entire area holding an open laptop, searching in vain for a Wi-Fi signal.

By the way, if I were here at the Westin on assignment for Conde Nast Traveler, I wouldn't dare name the hotel while still staying in it (for fear that, if the hotel knew I was there, it might give me preferential treatment). The only reason I felt it was okay to name the hotel this once is that I'm here purely for "vacation," I'm not reviewing it for the magazine or this blog, and I'm clearly not getting any discount or freebie, as I paid for the room fair and square with 64,000 hard-won Starwood points.

Before I sign off, my husband wants me to add that this is the second time I've had a "blogging breakdown" (his words) on the island of Sint Maarten. The first time was two years ago, when we were on a cruise that stopped here for a day.  Because the ship's Internet access was kaput, I had to spend most of my one day on Sint Maarten in an Internet cafe!

February 11, 2009

A St. Martin Highlight: The Butterfly Farm

Bf4 That's my 6-year-old holding two Owl Butterflies.

by Wendy Perrin

Anyone who's been following my St. Martin adventures on Twitter knows I'm way too zonked from today's action-packed day trip to Anguilla to stay awake right now recapping it. So instead I'll share a few pics from yesterday's awesome visit to The Butterfly Farm.

Bf3 What an Owl Butterfly looks like when it opens its wings.

Not only did we watch one butterfly emerge from its chrysalis and another newborn take its first flight, but we also learned how to lure butterflies onto our fingers. First you sweeten a finger by dipping it into a glass of punch.


Click to the next page to see what happens when your 5-year-old soaks his entire hand in punch:

Continue reading "A St. Martin Highlight: The Butterfly Farm" »

February 10, 2009

Sint Maarten/St. Martin Tips, Anyone?

My kids are loving that they can hit the beach in two different countries in one day. That's my 5-year-old on the Dutch (Sint Maarten) side of the island yesterday.

by Wendy Perrin

Thanks to the in-the-know community of globe-trotters on Twitter, I'm getting all sorts of fab real-time suggestions for what to do during my trip to the half-Dutch, half-French, all-Caribbean island of Sint Maarten/St. Martin. Anyone else got activities to recommend? Among the tips so far:

* Local restaurant expert DineSXM (whom you can follow on Twitter here) recommends ziplining and lunch at Loterie Farm.

* Airplane junkie Benet Wilson (whom you can follow on Twitter here) suggests planespotting at the Sunset Beach Bar, located near the end of the main airport's runway.

* The Trip Chicks (on Twitter here) are all about Aqua Mania Adventures at Pelican Marina, Simpson Bay. Apparently the kids can ride a catamaran to a lagoon where they bomb a wreck with water balloons.

* Travel consultant Gwen Kozlowski (known here at as TravelerGwen and found on Twitter here) swears by beachfront Segway tours and shipwreck snorkel excursions.

*Marie-Julie Gagnon (found on Twitter here) says I can't miss the "St. Maartini" at Temptations Restaurant.

I'm also bound for Anguilla and St. Barts and maybe even Saba as well. So feel free to fire off any and all suggestions for these islands too (as frequent Where's Wendy? Contest winner LoriB already has).

Fishpotrestaurant Last but hardly least, if you're looking for a value destination in the Caribbean this winter, St. Maarten/St. Martin certainly qualifies. Many of the restaurants and shops on the French side are valuing dollars the same as euros. Yesterday, for example, at a restaurant in Grand Case, I paid $35 for a lunch for four that on the menu costs 35 euros. They're offering the same deal in Marigot:Euro3_2