We wanted to go away for our wedding anniversary (15th Dec.) but couldn’t find anywhere we fancied. So, as it was our last chance, we decided to try Christmas week. It was our last chance because in June 2004 Rachel will get ordained and asking for Christmas day off isn’t really a possibility when you’re a Reverend. We found that we could get a place in the Caribbean, on St. Martin/St. Maarten (I’ll explain later). What’s more, we could get it for the following week, too. As the most expensive part of a holiday in the Caribbean is getting there (and, sadly, back) we took it. Due to the availability of flights, we had to stay an extra day (shame) even though this meant we would return to England on the first day of Rachel’s new term. It was a price we were prepared to pay for a dream holiday. So, armed with sun tan lotion and a couple of swimsuits apiece, we were ready. Oh, and the large quantities of reading material, plus some work. And a computer. Alright, two computers.
A month or so before we flew, I ‘phoned the travel club to see when our tickets would arrive. Sadly, they were of the opinion that they already had. What’s more they’d sent them by recorded delivery and had my signature to prove it. So we turned the house upside down to find them. Then the loft and the garage. Then my office at work and Rachel’s study in Cambridge. I searched the Internet for advice on what to do if you lose your tickets. Everywhere I looked the best advice was "don’t". But we had. So we had to re-buy our tickets, which we had to collect from the ticket desk on the day. When the originals have expired, then we’ll get refunded. They expire in a year. Ouch.
Meanwhile, I’d been looking on the Internet again, trying to find the baggage allowances for Air France (our carrier). Instead I found numerous horror stories involving lost luggage, unhelpful help desks and more lost luggage. Worried, (especially as we were collecting our tickets and the flight left well before the travel club would open and therefore well before they could sort out any problems) I ‘phoned the ticket desk at Heathrow. They were very helpful. They had our tickets. They even advised that, due to the long queues that would form, one of us should wait for the ticket desk to open, the other should queue for check-in.
Finally, the day came. We drove from Hull to Cambridge in medium-thick fog and had a large detour at Lincoln. Thus we made it to Ridley (Rachel’s college) at 10:45 - an hour later than we had intended. The last train from Cambridge was 11:20. We called a taxi - the earliest we could get one for was 2am. We called on friends for a lift. Most were out. Finally, we found someone who was in and he took us to the station (thanks, Edward). We made it to King’s Cross OK, only to find that the tube stops running just before our train got in. Given all our luggage, we didn’t fancy jumping on and off busses in the hope of getting somewhere near, so we asked for the price of a taxi. £50. We didn’t have £50. So we walked away, wondering what to do now. "OK, I do it for £45", called the taxi driver. After a quick rummage through pockets to determine that we did have £45 (just) we took it.
We arrived at Heathrow Terminal 2 at 2am. There are more exciting places to be. Don’t start a list as there isn’t enough paper in the world. Unsurprisingly, no-one was queuing yet (the ticket desk and check-in didn’t open until 5:15) so we went to find some seats. There was a side hall which was mostly empty. At 3am we found out why - it was a couple of degrees colder than the main hall.
Anyway, we shivered, we queued, we got our tickets from some very helpful staff and we checked-in. Rachel made fun of me as I removed my belt and all my loose change as we approached the security gate, only for the alarm to go off as she walked through. It was her belt. One quick look around Heathrow and we were boarding, ready to go. Or not. Major fog at Charles de Gaulle meant we couldn’t take off as they wouldn’t let us land. Still, it was either sit on a warm comfortable plane or hang around CdeG for over an hour. As it was, we arrived at CdeG just in time to catch a notice to proceed to gate whatever.
CdeG is a nightmare of busses and, consequently, French driving (something we were going to experience even more of later). You get a bus from the ‘plane to the terminal, go through some bits, down to a queue for a bus to take you to another terminal from where you go through the gate and onto a bus to the ‘plane. Sometimes you feel it could be quicker to walk (but, as you’re going from European to International areas, they won’t let you).
One small delay later and we were in the air. Sadly, they weren’t showing "Pirates of the Caribbean" on the flight (which would have been appropriate), so we had to make do with "Tomb Raider II" (not as good as TR1), "The In-Laws" (actually rather good) and "Holes" (odd). It was a pleasant flight, the food was good and soon we were at St.Maarten - only to be told that we couldn’t land due to bad weather. Bad weather? In the Caribbean? Was it just above the melting point of tarmac or something? (Actually, it was fog. Oh well.)
One hour after we should have been, we were there. It was suitably warm. And Air France hadn’t lost our luggage. One short taxi ride and we were at our resort. We were here. We’d been travelling for 26 hours.
Still, the return would be easier - our overnight bit was to be done in-flight. We checked out at 10am and sat around for a bit, took a taxi to the airport, checked our luggage in and then sat around for a bit more. In a pub/restaurant on the lakeside on the other side of the road to the airport. Heathrow it ain’t. More queues, waiting and an overnight flight (with good food and "Freaky Friday", "Confidence", "Seabiscuit" (Rachel) & "The Magnificent Seven" (Me) for company). As I said before, we’d heard all sorts of horror stories about Air France, but the only really negative thing we could find was that they didn’t start the movies in enough time for the third one to complete, meaning "The Magnificent Seven" cut off during the climactic fight scene. Just as well I’d seen it before, then.
Charles de Gaulle, however, is a different story. We arrived 15 minutes late, at 7am, giving us only 30 minutes to get onto our connecting flight. We caught busses, ran down corridors and came around the corner to find a 100 yard queue for the X-Ray machines. A quick glance at our watches and we pushed our way to the front with many a "Sorry - our ‘plane leaves in five minutes". A flash of our boarding cards and we were through - to the back of the X-Ray queue. More pushing and apologising later and we were running for the gate. Which was shut.
"Get the next ‘plane - there’s one in an hour" was the almost-helpful comment from the woman at the gate.
"How do we do that?"
"Go to the transfers desk."
"Back down the stairs - on the other side of the X-Ray machines".
I left Rachel with our carry-on luggage and joined many very annoyed people (the guy in front of me had arrived at 6:20 and still missed the same flight as us). The earliest flight they could put us on was noon. Noon. A mere four and a half hours after the one we should have been on. All for fifteen minutes.
After 28 hours of travelling, I arrived home. No further problems. But when you add it up, it was 28 hours from start to finish, but only 9 of actual movement. So, if you’re ever making an international connection at CdeG, allow 90 minutes at least between scheduled arrival and scheduled departure. You won’t regret it.
St.Maarten (we were staying on the Dutch side, so I’ll stick to this spelling for simplicity) calls itself the "Friendly Island" and it certainly seems to be so. Even the timeshare hustlers are relaxed. The pace of life is stereotypically Caribbean (i.e. slow).
I opened the curtains on our first morning there and was surprised to see it snowing. Re-adjusting my vision for the weather revealed the snowflakes to be butterflies. They’re everywhere you look. Butterflies imitating snowflakes - a poetic start to a poetic holiday.
The island is green. Very green. And you know what that means, don’t you? Rain. Warm rain, but rain nonetheless. Still, you don't notice it when you’re in the sea. And what seas... clear, light blue (I’d call them cyan) and teeming with fish. Most of which you don't notice, unless you’re snorkelling (highly recommended) or they leap out of the water (like one school of flying fish did - just yards from the beach). Mostly they ignore you, although we did have one over-friendly fish that wanted to stay with us. If Rachel hadn’t said that she thought she’d been bitten just before we saw it, we might not have been so bothered. It only gave up when we stepped out of the water onto the beach. Ah yes, the beaches. Our resort had an almost exclusive couple of beaches. They’re public, but there are so many of them, why go to one that’s not at the bottom of the stairwell? They’re all soft, white and warm. Even at midnight (see "New Year" below).
St.Maarten is also pretty small. We hired a scooter for a week and decided to take a trip around the lagoon. Before we knew it we were across the border and almost back again. If it hadn’t been for a traffic jam in Marigot (the French capital) we’d probably never have stopped. Traffic jams are a major feature (although it’s probably fairer to call them slow-moving traffic - more like roadworks on the A1 than the A30 by Newquay) - caused sometimes by the density of traffic (there’s a lot of it), other times by the driving. Cars regularly reverse out into the main road. Cars, taxis and busses stop without warning to let someone out, take someone on or just to wave at a friend (or complete stranger - who knows?). At first we thought that this was bad driving (especially after being in CdeG), but came to see it as very courteous. Cars reverse out not to force their way into traffic but because traffic will just stop to let you out. This became very clear to us when we had our scooter. We’d sit at junctions waiting for a gap in the traffic, when both ways would stop and let us out.
If you’ve never ridden a scooter or motorbike before, don’t do it here. The road surfaces are unpredictable (to put it kindly) and the speed bumps unmarked. Consequently, Rachel saw more of the island from the pillion seat than I did from the driver’s - I was too busy dodging potholes. There’s no speed limit, except in a few areas - but the density of driving means that you’re unlikely to get above 50mph anyway. Mostly we travelled at 30-35. Without crash hats. On a tiny scooter. I’ll never claim it’s slow again. We missed our bike (an 1100cc tourer with full fairing, huge saddle, panniers etc.) but in truth it would have dwarfed the island. On the scooter we could get from our resort in the south of the island to the northernmost tip in about 30 minutes. That included crawling up some very steep hills (did I mention the mountains?) that I often despaired of making it up. But it was worth it...
The best place we visited was Îlet Pinel, a nature reserve. The beaches were softer and sandier (how is that possible?) and the snorkelling superb - in a sheltered cove we encountered warm seas and so many fish (that didn’t chase us) that we could have stayed all day. However, the last ferry back was 5pm and we weren’t equipped to camp.
Fish weren’t the only wildlife we encountered. There were the majestic pelicans, gliding through the air and across the water; the lizards - the small, jumping and darting, the large occasionally moving (although we only saw them in cages); the crickets - rarely seen but easily heard; and the biters. Probably flying insects, but once they’ve bitten you, who cares? After the first week we didn’t get bitten as much (or, more likely, we did but got less of a reaction to them). Either way, vinegar was very useful as a remedy (along with conventional bite balm).
Vinegar also came in handy on one other occasion. Whilst snorkelling, a wave pushed me towards some rocks. I put out a hand to stop myself colliding - straight onto a large black sea urchin. It responded to this assault by firing about 15 small black darts into my palm. They hurt. We called the local doctor who said that there was nothing he could (or would) do - cutting the darts out causes more damage than leaving them in. He seemed fairly apologetic, but medical advice that’s "leave it alone, it’ll be alright" is fine by me (I’m a man, after all). He said it’d only hurt for a day or two, but that vinegar may help. One vinegar bath later and I forgot all about it (except for when I pushed myself up out of a chair, of course).
On a far more pleasant note, there’s the food. St.Maarten is the gourmet capital of the Caribbean, apparently. Certainly the only food we had that disappointed us was a Domino’s pizza (we’ve not had one since the Hull branch burned down - the idea seemed like a treat at the time). Although when I ordered "fried fish" I didn’t expect a whole one. Complete with head & fins. There was so much garlic even Rachel was satisfied. Apparently, the best restaurants are in Grand Case. We stopped at a roadside grill. Oh well, next time, maybe. The grills (barbecues to you and me) are everywhere you go. And they all smell superb. You could have lunch just by taking a deep breath. Except that once you’ve smelled it, you’ve just got to taste and see. And yes, it is every bit as good as your nose has been telling you it will be. Speaking of food...
So where were the other services? As far as we could tell, there weren’t any. One of the receptionists at our resort told us that her church closed for Christmas, seeing it as a "family time". Churches closed for the Christmas holidays? Not even Ship of Fools would try that joke.
So we spent Christmas Day as we did most other days: after all, most of the rest of the Island was doing so. We went out for dinner at un-inflated prices and opened the few presents that we’d brought with us (i.e. the ones that didn’t feel like CDs or were too big/heavy). Despite the occasional Santa hat, the steel band playing "Joy to the World", the reggae version of "Silent Night", a nativity scene carved into a marble egg that Rachel bought and the Christmas lights in some of the apartments, it didn’t feel like Christmas. Not even with the butterflies impersonating snowflakes (sounds like a Dali painting, doesn’t it?)
New Year, though, was different. The Island parties at New Year. But we didn’t. Instead, we made our way down to the beach at 11pm (UK time) in order to ‘phone the people at the party we’d normally be at and make them jealous and then went down again at 11:50 (Island time) in order to watch some very spectacular fireworks displays. It was warm, we had a bottle of champagne that we’d won earlier in the holiday and it was nice. But it would have been nicer to have had all our friends with us - if Christmas is for families, then New Year is definitely for friends.
Back to Personal Stuff