San Juan-Sint Maarten-JFK-Cancun
08.01.2009 - 12.01.2009
I dropped my car off and then got the avis shuttle to the AA terminal. This hub has been noticeably downsized in the past 12 months with much of the space eerily dark and vacant. The business class check in was simple but the terminal was quite old requiring baggage screening do be done just behind the checking in desk which was strange to watch this usual backstage operation. I went through security for the first time in the US on this trip and forgot to remove my shoes. I explored the terminal and then settled into the Admirals Club, which was pleasant enough but was odd having no free/drinks. My flight boarded nearby via stairs onto the only turboprop of the trip. The plane was less than half full and the trip was a quick hop over the Virgin Islands before the world famous approach to Saint Maarten. I got a nice view of my hotel just before touchdown as well as a healthy crowd of beachgoers. We walked to the new terminal and proceeded quickly through immigration and baggage claim to catch a cab the short distance to my accommodation. 2 minutes later I was in my room to ump my stuff so I could hit the beach. Maho beach is legendary, with photos/video from here often being called as ‘fakes’. There were quite a few people here, many Europeans, as the other main nearby beach had been washed away in the December hurricane. The weather was iffy with very brief light showers every now and again but I still managed to have a great afternoon on my pilgrimage to this famous strip of sand. There were bars at both ends of the small beach with topless girls drinking for free. I saw my plane depart and also my flight the following day. Then the heavy stuff came, Air France A340 landing and the best thing of all Corsair 747 takeoff. This sort of jet blast access is blocked by law in most countries. The traffic mix was roughly even split between island prop flights, private jets and commercial airliners. As the sun set and flights wound down I went up the road and stopped at a little supermarket for dinner and headed home.
I got up early and had some cereal and fruit I purchased the day before and headed for the French side airport, l’esperance. This is the smallest landmass in the world shared by two countries and the difference between zones is not marked by there is a small noticeable difference, with the French area being less tourist developed and more local oriented. Unfortunately I was on the road at peak hour where the crappy island road infrastructure was totally overwhelmed with thousands of people on the move. This resulted in a long and pricier taxi ride than planned, but a nice was to see this part of the island, in particular the main French town of Marigot. I finally made it the airport, checked in and was stalled at immigration where there had no idea what to do with an Australian passport. After trying to get my ear into the local Caribbean French accent they tracked down a stamp and proceeded through the token security check and went into the waiting room for a few seconds before being shuffled by the pilot to the small British Norman Islander. I sat directly behind the pilot, which was fun for the 15 minute flight. The landing in St Barts was the primary reason for the flight, as pilots require a unique certification to land here due to its unique geography. The landing was crazy coming down very close over a hill with a main road on a downward sloping runway that ended up directly on St Jean beach, much to the bemusement of some beachgoers. I disembarked and headed to the immigration window and then took a cab to the main town of Gustavia. St Barthelomy has an interesting honour as being one of the only Swedish colonies in the world, until it was taken by the French in the mid 19th century. Today it is an escape for the uber rich and celebrities seeking refuge from paparazzi. It apparently has the most restaurants per square kilometre than any other place on earth. I arrived at the ferry pier, hidden amongst the ridiculously humongous super yachts from across the world, to discover my prebooked ferry ride back to St Maarten had ceased to operate. This was a problem as I had a flight to JFK in only a few hours leaving from St Maarten. I needed information and headed for the tourist office where I got directions for the tele café where I used the most expensive internet of my life to evaluate my options. I checked the other airlines operating from here and found some apparent availability from their limited websites, but this was found not be the case once I ponied up for the cripplingly expensive taxi ride back over the hill to the airport to find that all flights on all airlines off the island were sold out through till Monday. Frustrated and worried I emptied my wallet of Euros and went back down to Gustavia, however I did get a good view of plane approaching and landing. I walked along the main drag and up to a fort on a hillside that was still in some sort of use. There was a cruise ship just off the island that was ferrying the living dead to and fro the island. I chatted with the young South African cruise ship hostess about my predicament and she informed me there was a ferry coming from Oyster Pond (Dutch side of St Maarten) and would then return and that I could purchase a ticket once it arrived. This relieved me until many other people started to gather, I assumed for the same ferry which I fretted may have already been booked out, like the air service. When the time came I fought my way to the front of the cue as if my life depended on it and coughed up some US dollars and got my ticket and ran onto the boat. I was constantly checking the time as with the estimated crossing time I would struggle to make the checking time for my AA flight. The ferry left a bit late and only half full and didn’t manage to make up any time. We arrived and I rushed off the boat into the waiting arms of a throng of taxi drivers, exactly what I had hoped for. Thankfully this one was a real taxi driver and drove accordingly, unlike the slowpoke in the morning; they are not metered so there is no motivation. Once we hit the main Dutch town of Philipsburg we got snarled in traffic with only the island music to smooth my anxiety. Finally we drove past the airport to my hotel where I quickly grabbed my bag and ran back to the cab for the short drive back up the road to the airport. The checking area was disturbingly devoid of passengers so I rushed to the desk, checked in despite being 15 minutes after the baggage acceptance deadline. Boarding pass in hand I proceeded upstairs to immigration with a long slow moving line. By the time I made it out the flight was well into the boarding process and I got on and finally sat down and relaxed for the first time in the day. The flight was very full and I purchased my lunch in depressing american (notice small a) airlines style. We landed right on dusk and I was processed quickly but had to wait some time for my bag to appear, which now had a ripped handle. I hopped on the airtrain one stop to federal circle where the car rentals and airport hotel shuttles go from. I braved the freezing (literally) weather for a few minutes before my particular properties bus rocked up and I got an individual 5 minute ride to the hotel. It was next to the Van Wyck expressway (main road to Manhattan) with nothing nearby except other similar hotels. At checking I was given some menus for local fast food that delivered for free. I was craving some Asian food by this point and choose china express. The service was very efficient and provided good value. I was chowing down on my chow mein in no time in the typical American Chinese food white box with a handle.
The breakfast was surprisingly substantial for an American establishment of this calibre and I ate my fill before checking out and catching the free hourly bus back to JFK. The AA hub in terminal 8 was new and the premium check in area was nicely secluded and vacant. Unfortunately like all AA employees, smiles cost extra. I headed through the priority security screening and then upstairs to the Admirals Club and got my free drinks vouchers this time. The airport was very quiet at this time of day but soon enough my flight was boarding from the end of one of the concourses. I utilised my priority boarding privileges which was very handy as this flight was packed to the rafters, being a Saturday morning, with late comers bitching about having to gate check their massive ‘carryon’ luggage due to the full overhead lockers. This is in part due to plebs having to pay fees to check any luggage on most airlines in this country. The seats on these 757’s are crap but at least the legroom is decent. I purchased lunch again onboard, as the AA prices were better than airport dining options. We taxied out with the forecast heavy snow beginning to fall. We had to wait for a takeoff slot due to heavy traffic around in the tri-state area, though there was no queue here at JFK. We were soon airborne off the longest runway in the US. We went down the coast, across Florida, avoided Cuba and then had to wait in the air again due to excessive arrival traffic in Cancun. We hit the gate right on time and joined the throng of people in the immigration hall. This took some time with many families and women carrying wedding dresses. The immigration officer was pleased to see a non-US passport and stamped my documents without even opening my passport. My bag was waiting for me and then I joined another long queue for customs clearance. This was in true Latin American style with everyone having to press a button that gave a random red or green light indicating wether you got searched or not. I made it and got a collectivo to my hotel in the downtown area, beyond the zona hotelera. Instantly I noticed the massive difference between this part of Mexico and the areas I had visited the previous year. As we drove down the 7 shaped hotel zone it was very very developed and towards the heart of it reminiscent of Las Vegas. I guess many Americans come here to their all-inclusive resorts and not even notice they are overseas. We drove past luxury malls and the clubs featured in various MTV productions. After constantly dropping of people along the way we arrived in downtown and at my hotel. I was still surprised at how much more civilised this was to downtown Mexico City. This is primarily due to the fact that Cancun is largely a relatively young planned town to support the beach tourism. The hotel didn’t have a non-smoking room available to I was upgraded to the exejutivo floor which was very nice; particularly considering the bargain price I paid. I self catered my dinner but had o be careful as there was a policy regarding brought in food.
I was picked up at 7am and whisked to a closed shopping centre in the hotel zone where participants were brought together and all the tours were dispatched from. This was primarily to funnel us through a large open souvenir shop. I proceeded to my tour bus, which I was pleasantly surprised to find most people were under 40, however the majority were Spanish speakers. We left and drove for a few hours before stopping at a cenote (sinkhole/cave) where one could swim or engage in ranch activities. After this short stop we went to the obligatory souvenir-shop-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-stop for about 45 mins before heading to lunch. This couldn’t come soon enough for me as I had foregone breakfast due to the early start and chose this tour primarily for the buffet lunch. I loaded up on the all you can eat premise and mindful of the typical pay-for-your-own-drinks bullshit walked across the road to a convenience store to get drinks at a fraction of the price, plus this was good to carry around the archaeological site. There was even a shitty ‘traditional dance’ complete with hat carrying tip service. I headed for the bus still trying to stuff my face as the deadline approached for the drive down the road to the UNESCO world heritage site. We arrived at the entrance to the Chichen Itza complex and I saw the entry price and decided the tour was of respectable value, as we were given entry tickets and armbands on the bus. We were split into Spanish and English groups for the tour, which was welcome. Once I laid eyes on the main Castillo pyramid it was clear why this was declared one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. A fascinating aspect of the whole area is what is still not known about the civilisation and the history of the individual buildings and culture of the people along with the dates. I was saddened to find that climbing the buildings and going inside them was prohibited as of 2007, due to theft and more amusingly Americans falling to their deaths (I don’t know how as they aren’t that tall or steep). I had my climbing shoes on and was eager to run to the top, as I did at the much larger Teotihuacán, but discovered the penalty was jail. The tour was informative in parts and it was very interesting to observe the amazing acoustics of many constructions. Parts of the site were in various states of ruin and many had not been fully archaeological explored until recently, with plenty of discoveries of various sacrifices. It was good to see some real Mayan people surviving here as they got free entry on Sundays, and the signs were all in Mayan, Spanish and English. The guide had photos of the interiors and tops that were now closed to the public including the famous observatory and temple of sacrifice. One unexpected thing I learnt about was the ball game court, the rules of which are largely unknown. Once the tour was over we were given free time, much of which was spent avoiding peddlers of handicrafts. I spent my time checking out some monuments that had been misnamed by the Conquistadors as churches, their true purpose is still debated. Back on the bus it was a 2.5 hour non-stop (thank god) trip back to Cancun. Driving down the hotel strip at night was a different experience where one was bombarded with copious quantities of neon and ostentatious water features. I was last to be dropped off and polished off the last of my Smartbuy supplies from home before surreptitiously stashing the evidence for later disposal.
Ginormous sleepin today after countless early starts and many miles covered. Spent the remainder of the day touring the local vicinity and people watching whilst writing this and soaking up the cable tv goodness. Early bed for another crushing early rise tomorrow.