Sunday, May 02, 2010

[Travel] Island of Tropical Breezes

Island of Tropical Breezes: [[San Juan photos on smugmug]] Here we go: Travel Tirade Alert. You have to admit, I haven't gone off on a full-on travel tirade in years. Well, goodbye to all that.

My relationship with Delta Airlines had been pretty good so far. My relationship had actually been with Northwest, but all through the transition to Delta things had been going fairly smoothly, at least by airline industry standards. Until now...

I knew there was going to be trouble when I couldn't pick my seat online 24 hours before the flight. You see, very often online seat assignment is locked down when you make the reservation, but at the time you check-in, which is 24 hours before takeoff, you can almost always get an assigned seat. For my flight to Puerto Rico I couldn't - nothing was available. OK, I thought, I'll be conscientious about getting to the airport with enough time to deal with it. Once at the airport the next day, the check-in kiosks were down so I ended up a half-hour in line get checked in, and at that point the ticket counter agent couldn't assign a seat either (still nothing available), he sent me to the gate without one on my boarding pass. This was getting bad; my biggest fear was spending the five hour flight in a middle seat between two behemoths with questionable hygiene.

At the gate, the agent explained that every seat had been assigned and they were asking for volunteers (standard overbooking situation; been there, done that). I still had hope. There are always volunteers, right? The problem was that the soonest flight was the same one the next day; volunteers would have to wait twenty four hours. Now I am in real trouble. No one is going to do that. Half these folks had cruise ships to catch.

In the end, it came down to me and one other person for the last available seat. The other person was a minor whose parent already had a seat assigned. They would have had to spend the night in a hotel, whereas I could relatively easily drive home. I was toast. No way was I going to get the last ticket. I got bumped involuntarily. First time that has ever happened to me. Just like that, my vacation is going to be exactly one day shorter.

Nothing to do but get in line at the help desk. In front of me were a couple of redneck families that didn't know their gate had been changed and suddenly realized it ten minutes after the flight had left. They got on stand-by but they kept pestering the agents for a guaranteed seat and asking to speak to supervisors, which is utterly pointless. Behind me was a guy pacing back and forth, moaning and sighing, sweating and panting, looking for all the world like he was going to vapor lock right on the spot. I let him go ahead of me. Air travel is a bubbling cauldron of condensed human nature. Yuck.

There was a bright side for me, however. A) My bag went on ahead, so it was there waiting for me when I arrived the next day -- very convenient. B) They put me in first class the next day -- I do love first class. C) They gave me $800. A cashable check -- not a voucher. I don't know if it's Delta policy or FAA regs or what, but there is some formula that is followed regarding reimbursing folks who are involuntarily bumped and it's fairly generous. (Note: it does not apply to flight cancellations. It only comes into play when the flight goes as planned but you had no seat due to overbooking and you didn't volunteer.) Not that I didn't deserve it. After all, they are solely responsible for me missing a day's vacation. I deposited the check immediately.

Note this, just in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation: If you do not have an assigned seat and they are asking for volunteers -- DO NOT volunteer for the sake of the voucher. That just lets them off the hook. If they have to bump you involuntarily you should get much better compensation than one of those stupid vouchers (which are often more trouble to use than they are worth).

The next day I got to Puerto Rico without a hitch and hopped a cab to the Caribe Hilton in San Juan. This Hilton is everything they said it is (and by "they" I mean the reviews on Tripadvisor). It's not shiny and new, but the rooms are good Hilton quality. There are a three or four restaurants on site, including a Morton's Steakhouse. A beach bar. Two or three pools, with plenty of lounge chairs. A fair sized private beach with a shallow bay that's well protected from the crashing waves off shore. It's nicely located -- a 2.5 mile walk or $12 cab ride into Old San Juan. That's really all you need for a fine vacation right there.

The down side is the prices are truly outrageous. Wynn-Las-Vegas-level-$11-mixed-drinks-in-a-plastic-cup expensive. The smart thing to do, should you ever decide to visit, is to head into Old San Juan and stop at the Walgreen's to load up on whatever small items you can -- there is a fridge in the room.

In a year when Florida pretty much froze over, it's smart to keep in mind that Puerto Rico is roughly on the same latitude as the Virgin Islands. If you simply cannot risk going without warmth and sunshine, Puerto Rico is a safe bet. Lounging about at the Hilton while working on a nice dark tan is a great way to spend a lazy afternoon. I love the sensation when the heat of the sun finally reaches into the core of your body, just before you start to overheat and begin the sense that desire to hop in the pool to cool off.

But beyond the resort, there is little in the immediate vicinity, so Old San Juan is where you want to be -- in the morning for photography and exploring, and the evening for dinner. Old San Juan doubles as a tourist center and cruise ship port; however, it is much geared toward historic preservation rather than t-shirt kiosks. Founded in 1508 by Juan Ponce De Leon, it is one of the oldest European settlements in the New World. It consists of narrow streets, many paved in cobblestones, criss-crossing between flat-roofed stone buildings, painted in the soft pastels of the Caribbean. True, many of these buildings now contain things like Walgreen's and Starbucks and Guess, but beyond the store signs you wouldn't know it. Bling is clearly not encouraged.

In the morning, when the light is oblique and soft and the temperature comfortable, it's loaded with rewarding sights. Peppered throughout the town are the stone remains of the Spanish fortresses from centuries past, the most complete being El Morro on the far northwest point. In front of El Morro is a vast lawn which was serendipitously covered by masses of kite-flying children, like a Latino Norman Rockwell scene. The fort of El Morro itself is a National Historic Landmark and worth the $3 entry fee for the views alone. From El Morro you can walk along a coastal path to the San Juan Main Gate, the point of entry for sea travelers in days of yore, since one could walk through the gate and straight up the hill to the lovely Cathedral De San Juan and give thanks for surviving a sea journey.

Old San Juan is also the spot for food and nightlife. There are all manner of restaurants, from common fast food chains to high-toned ultra lounges. Our evening forays involved a substandard tapas joint one night (that shall remain nameless), followed the next night by an outstanding 5-course prix fixe at the sharply-styled Marmalade. Highly recommended, but it will stress your credit card limit.

Old San Juan is worth a day or two of exploration. It's a fine destination for a long weekend -- you are visiting the Caribbean without dealing with customs -- and if you find yourself with a cruise out of San Juan, I suggest booking a couple of days extra in front of you embarkation to enjoy the enjoy the old port.

The only other adventure of note in Puerto Rico was nighttime kayaking to one of the three "bio-bays." These are the bays where the bio-luminescent plankton light up at any disturbance, so running your hand through the water causes swirls of light to form around it. Puerto Rico has three bio-bays, the nearest one to San Juan is and hour and a half away. So along with a group of about ten or so others, were bussing it to Fajardo, about 40 miles east of San Juan. After a few minutes of prep and safety instruction we hopped into two-man kayaks and were paddling to a narrow mangrove canal just as dusk was upon us.

If you ever want to explain the word 'spooky' to someone, take them kayaking through a thick mangrove forest at night. Each kayaker was given a glow stick as a marker and you could barely follow the outline the other kayaks around you once the mangroves -- which are spooky looking enough: like slithering walls on either side of the canal -- block out what little light there is. After about 20 minutes you emerge from the canal into the broader bay with the faintest shards left from the fully set sun backlighting the landscape around you into a simple black outline.

Once the sun completely sets you are given ten minutes to paddle about while pestering with the microbial bio-critters, then it's an even darker trip back through the canal (this time with two way traffic causing all sorts of slapstick mishaps) eventually emerging on the other side to a beautiful tropical full moon.

It's a sweet trip and a fine experience. My only complaint would be that after an hour and half on the bus and another hour of paddling, it would have been nice to have a reasonable bathroom to clean up in. The ones on site were more scary that darkest of mangrove swamps.

And that was about it for Puerto Rico. Every time you hear a description of some tropical island, you always seem to hear about how friendly the natives were. Often, when you actually get there, your experience is not quite that. Frankly, especially when it comes to the Caribbean islands, I haven't found the locals to be particularly pleasant anywhere. More often than not, they seem pretty much disinterested -- not exactly what you'd call a good service culture. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, was filled with friendly helpful souls, from cabbies to cops. Honestly, not a single negative vibe did I feel and many folks went out of their way to be kind. A shuttle drive later told us that, while that is certainly the attitude most Puerto Ricans take to visitors, to each other -- not so much. Outside the main tourist areas, there is a good deal of crime and squalor, but inside the tourist areas, they try to keep a firm grip on things. It's pretty clear Stephen Sondheim had it down right -- lovely and ugly -- but as a visitor, all you can ask for is a share of the lovely.

I would rate Puerto Rico above a number of islands that have glowing reputations. I would take it over St. Martin, for instance. Certainly over St. Thomas. It's not a sleepy, laid back backwater, but it's got what's needed for a good time in the sun.

Just like that I was back on a plane. The plan for the residual of the trip was to fly into DC to catch up with my D.C. crew and spend a couple of days on the Mall for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. But Delta Airlines would not make it that easy...