In an extreme act of generosity this Christmas my parents-in-law decided to take my wife, her brother and myself to a Caribbean vacation with them. They were considering taking us to Cancun, Puerto Rico or Jamaica but following our recommendation they added Curacao, St.Martin and St.Kitts to their pool of potential destinations. Eventually, after a bit of searching and a ton of thinking the verdict came in: We'd be going to the smallest independent country in the Americas: St.Christopher and Nevis or as it is most commonly known, St.Kitts and Nevis.
This time I had no control over the choice of carrier and route so it came as no surprise that my parents-in-law chose the most sensible and direct way there: Fly from ORD to MIA and from there head down to St.Kitts' main point of entry: SKB (all flights with AA). Wanting to spice things up a little bit I searched for any potentially good deals on daytrips from SKB to any of the nearby islands. While LIAT was too expensive to fly with, Winair offered a very tempting and cheap flight to NEV with the Twin Otter (a mere 11 mile as-the-crow-flies hop!). This made me drool like a Pavlov dog. However the departure times from SKB and NEV were either way too late or too early so if I wanted to make this work I had to spend a night on Nevis. I was about to go ahead and make the necessary arrangements but I then realized that this was meant to be a family vacation and it would not be right to abandon everybody in order to do some random flying around. I decided to abandon my plan thus leaving my dream of flying the Twotter unfulfilled. Nonetheless I eventually got to visit Nevis, albeit not on a plane but on a catamaran.
Here's how the final itinerary looked like:
Red lines represent flights while yellow lines (barely visible at this scale) represent sea crossings. Courtesy of gcmap.com
Before I start talking about the flights let me say a few words about the destination. The Federation of Saint Christopher (St.Kitts) and Nevis is a two-island state in the Leeward islands of the West Indies. The smallest sovereign country in the Americas and the Western Hemisphere, it has an area less than 1/10th that of Rhode Island or roughly twice the area of Liechtenstein. The city of Basseterre on the island of St.Kitts serves as the nation's capital. In 1998 Nevis voted in favor of separating from the Federation but it fell short of the 2/3rd majority that was required for the separation to take effect. The town of Charlestown serves as Nevis' regional capital. The local currency is the East Caribbean Dollar, which is shared by several other Caribbean states and territories. The first time I paid any attention to this tiny country was when Kim Collins won the gold medal in the 100m race of the 2003 World Championships. To this day he is treated like a hero by his compatriots and you can see his photos everywhere, including the SKB terminal building and on highways.
Carrier: American Airlines
With a departure time of 5:30am and an airport 25km away there wasn't much time for sleep the night before. Nonetheless my theory is that you can never arrive too early at an airport so when we got at ORD the AA check-in counters hadn't opened yet. After we were done with checking-in we still had to wait an additional 15 mins for security to open. After having dealt with the nudoscope we were left with just a bit over an hour before departure. At this point I realized that despite the fact that we had pre-selected our seats online (so that the 5 of us could be together and on the same row) AA had somehow managed to separate some of us. We were the first ones to check-in and there was no equipment change so how on earth did AA manage to ignore our pre-selected seats is beyond me. Too bad I didn't notice this until it was too late. I simply did not expect AA to screw something as simple as that. No brownie points for you AA.
My passport ready for some action
My new Bulgaria-purchased suitcase
Festive decorations at T3's airside area
The 757 waiting at the gate
Quite predictably we were in boarding group 4 so we had to wait for most of the other passengers to board before we could make our way to the aircraft. My wife and I were initially separated by a couple of rows but eventually she agreed to swap seats with her seatmate's boyfriend and she got herself in Economy Plus several rows ahead of me. This gave her the opportunity to enjoy a seat-pitch massively superior to mine.
A comparison of legrooms at Economy and Economy Plus cabins:
While everything seemed to be in order and we appeared to be ready to get going we were announced that we had to wait for someone to provide the aircraft with the auxiliary power necessary to get us started (or something like that). This delayed us for about 30 minutes but we were promised that we would make this time up in the air. We took off over a sleepy Chicago and headed south in the dark skies. Drink service commenced somewhere over Indiana and I opted for a simple cup of water. Soon after we got our drinks the sun started appearing in the horizon in a beautiful display of morning colors. A movie was shown on the overhead monitors but (due to the fact that they were placed over the aisle - see photo below) I couldn't see them clearly from my window seat.
Cabin view. I could hardly see the overhead monitors from my seat.
Sunrise somewhere over Kentucky
Just some water for me this morning
Of course it goes without saying that there was a toddler in close proximity to my seat (in fact it was seated on its mother's lap in the seat in front of me). In what its parents thought to be a cute and charming playful behavior the kid would turn around and try to reach for my cup of water and/or my face on multiple occasions. Good times. Once we reached the coast of Georgia near Brunswick, GA, we headed south and flew parallel to the Atlantic coast of Florida. Along the way those of us seated on the right side of the aircraft were treated to the sight of numerous coastal airport facilities, including those of Cape Canaveral (see below).
Brunswick River and the Sidney Lanier Bridge in Georgia's coast
Mosquito Lagoon, Florida
Shuttle Landing Facility (TTS) in Florida.
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Skid Strip (ICAO: KXMR) in Florida.
Patrick Air Force Base (COF) in Florida.
Vero Beach (VRB) in Florida.
Witham Field (SUA) in -you guessed it right- Florida.
Eventually once we reached the Miami Metro Area we turned westwards and flew over Miami Beach and downtown Miami before we touched down on MIA's 8R/26L a few minutes late. The sight of Miami's skyline brought back memories of my visit there 3 years earlier. After parking at a gate near the AA Main Facilities we had to wait for about 5 minutes to be connected with the jetbridge. Its operator must have been a novice (or having an "off" day) because he bumped the jetbridge quite hard onto our aircraft (twice!) making it wobble. Those inside the aircraft started looking at each other as if to say "what the hell?". Once we got connected we walked out of the 757 and like any sensible person would do at this time of the morning we walked straight to the first fast food restaurant we could find.
Arriving from the east and flying over South Beach
Descending over downtown Miami
A beautiful SBA 757 (perhaps receiving a touch up on its fading paint-scheme?). Notice the 737 in AirOne's colors parked nearby.
Taxiing to the gate next to a maintenance facility
After having chomped our unhealthy breakfast (thanks AA for keeping us hungry!) we walked up to the gate of what looked to be a fully packed flight to St.Kitts this morning.
Carrier: American Airlines
Once more the whole family had gotten boarding passes for boarding group 4 so we had to wait for more than half of the passengers to board before it was our turn to do so. While we were waiting we became witnesses to a rather chaotic boarding "line" with people coming from all sides trying to cut in front. Some friends of ours who have been in St.Kitts and Nevis before had warned us that the concept of a queue is not very clear in the Kittitian mind. Given the considerable number of locals traveling on this flight it was therefore no surprise that instead of a line we got to form a blob.
The rather interesting floor patterns at MIA
Our 737 anchored behind the gate
Waiting at the gate
Ready to enter our bird
Once on the plane we took our seats (this time we were given our pre-selected seats so we were all on the same row) and I was happy to see that there was no (potentially crying) babies anywhere near me. About 5 minutes before the scheduled departure time the pilot announced that the flight would be delayed because we had way too much fuel and that we were too heavy to take-off. While waiting I had a look at AA's magazine and spotted numerous geographical mistakes on their route maps (see below). By the time we got rid of the excess fuel we were already an hour late. We took off over downtown Miami and Miami Beach and headed southeast.
Getting ready to go. Or are we?
Holy hell... They have confused St.Kitts with Guadeloupe, St.Martin with Montserrat and Antigua with Dominica. Also St.Thomas, St. Croix and Tortola are all over the place. Come on AA!
Shortly after taking-off
Passing over the American Airlines Arena, home of the much despised Miami Heat. Notice the aircraft-looking shape on the roof
Ascending over the Venetian Islands of Biscayne Bay
Once we reached cruising altitude we were distributed immigration forms for our admission to St.Kitts & Nevis, and a bit later on we were served drinks. It was not long after this that we became witnesses to a magnificent parade of tropical islands (see below). First we flew over several of the Bahamas islands, we then got a glimpse of Turks & Caicos, the US and British Virgin Islands and finally, before descending to St.Kitts, the Dutch islands of Saba and Sint Eustatius (formerly both part of the Netherlands Antilles). This being North America no free food (not even peanuts) was served on this flight despite being an international one of ~3 hours. Compare this to what you get on a 30 minute domestic flight on OA or TK. Fortunately, the lovely scenery outside my window was so mesmerizing that I forgot about my hunger. Unlike the 757 on our previous flight this 737 had monitors on each side of the aisle but I don't even remember what movie was shown; I was simply glued to my window.
My drink for the ride
St.Kitts & Nevis immigration form
Bimini Islands of the Bahamas. You can see BIM (South Bimini Airport) to the left.
New Providence Island and Nassau the capital of the Bahamas. You can see NAS on the west side of the island, an airport I flew to/from in Aug 2011.
Norman's Cay, part of the north Exuma Islands, Bahamas
East shores of Mayaguana, Bahamas
Samana Cay, Bahamas. Some recent historical research has suggested that this is the most likely location of Colombus' first landing in the New World (and not San Salvador Island). Today it is the Bahamas' largest uninhabited island.
North Caicos island (Turks and Caicos) and its airport: NCA
Island of Grand Turk (Turks and Caicos). To the right of the screen you can see its airport GDT
The island of St.Thomas of the US Virgin Islands. St.John and the British Virgin Islands can be seen in the background
Cyril E King Aiport (STT) on St.Thomas
The Dutch island of Saba
The also Dutch island of Sint Eustatius
A first glimpse of St.Kitts
Looking toward Basseterre as we turned to the west
Descending while having both Sint Eustatius and Saba still in sight.
Finals over some colorful houses
Getting ready for touchdown
Turning onto the taxiway
Once at SKB we parked near the surprisingly modern terminal and we then walked on the tarmac (no jetways here) in order to get to the immigration area. The lines were rather slow (an early introduction to how everything here runs "on island time"). However not having to compete with any other international arrivals at this time of the day we were through in about 20 mins. A short taxi ride later we were at the St.Kitts Marriott, our home for the next 8 days...
Walking to the SKB terminal building
Our 737 parked at SKB's apron
Interesting hangar-looking thing
An image of Kim Collins welcomes you to St.Kitts
I was surprised to see my European phone work in St.Kitts (it doesn't work in the US). I thought "Chippie" was a rather cute name for a telecommunications company.
My feelings about our stay at the Marriott were rather mixed. The resort, which is situated on the Atlantic coast of St.Kitts, is huge, with several swimming pools, numerous restaurants, a very nice beach, fairly sizable rooms offering lovely views and for-most-part a very friendly staff. On the Marriott beach (called North frigate Bay beach) one can find several (around 120 or so) cabanas like the ones you can see in the photo below. The hotel policy states in these cabanas are available to the hotel guests on a "first come, first get" basis each morning. However, what guests would do was to either leave their towels/bags there from the night before or bribe some of the staff to "claim" a cabana for them first thing in the morning (by placing their towels there). As a result, even though we would wake up at 5am (out of habit) on most days we would not be able to find a single available cabana. When we spoke to the manager about this he apologized sincerely and told us that this was against hotel policy and that would be changed immediately. In fact he said that he would identify those members of staff that were getting bribed and warn them against it. However nothing changed for the remainder of our stay there. Each morning, pretty much every single one of the 120 cabanas were "claimed" one way or another even though no-one was present. In one ugly incident on Christmas day I almost bitch-slapped an old lady who was trying (rather aggressively) to argue that we had taken "her" cabana when in fact we were there since 5am and it was already 1:30pm when she showed up. On another negative note, the staff did a rather poor job at cleaning our rooms each day, often forgetting to give us new toiletries, leaving hairballs on desks and sometimes not emptying the trash.
We arrived too late for a swim but we had the next 8 days to look forward to. Here you can see the cabanas.
Sunrise over the Marriott resort
Time to enjoy the water
An old-school map of our host nation at the Marriott lobby.
View from our balcony
Drunken photography inspiration while on our balcony, using the plaza lights and the pool as my subjects.
The 3 main brands of beer brewed in St.Kitts: Skol, Carib and Stag. Even though Carib is a Trinidadian brand the company has an additional brewery in St.Kitts.
Three more caps for my collection
Looking south from Muddy Pond beach
Local currency: The East Caribbean Dollar
A horse taking a stroll near the Half Moon Bay beach
A nice find at the beach
North Frigate Bay. Our resort can be seen in the distance
Enjoying the water in North Frigate Bay
Saltwater lagoon near South Frigate Bay
Enjoying rum punches, the water and the local patriotic architecture...
Wanting to see more than just our resort, we hired a local guide to give us a private tour of the island. Akimba (his name) took us on a lovely 8-hour tour of the entire island, including the capital Basseterre, the Romney manor plantation, a walk through the rainforest, the magnificent Brimstone Hill Fortress, the Black Rocks and the southern peninsula (from where you can see both the Atlantic and the Caribbean). In addition to all these places we got to see many small villages and settlements and witness the poverty that the majority of the rural population lives in. We also learned about the island's history and local way of life. Like most Caribbean islands some of St.Kitts & Nevis' towns and places have rather interesting names: Monkey Hill, Half-Way Tree, Taylors Pleasure, Gingerland, Long Haul Bay, and my favorite, Shitten Bay.
To the right the Atlantic ,to the left the Caribbean. In the distance you can see the peak of Nevis.
A colorful LIAT Dash-8 heading to ANU
Goat and baby
Kittitian colors on the steering wheel of our tour car.
Horses cooling off at sea
The spectacular Black Rocks
I wouldn't mind owning one of these
A man looking at Dieppe Bay
Playing card with a St.Kitts and Nevis map as a back design
Near Half Moon Bay
Abandoned boat on the Atlantic coast of St.Kitts
A canon at the Brimstone Hill Fortress. Sint Eustatius seen in the distance
Brimstone Hill Fortress ruins
Prince of Wales Bastion prepped for some kind of event
Sint Eustatius through a window
Ting, a grapefruit soda that the locals like to mix with rum (calling the resultant cocktail a "Ting-n-Sting")
Abandoned machinery at Romney Manor Plantation
A stream through the rainforest
Ruins of an old sugar plantation
Old plantation chimney
Old tower-like building in the forest
Remnants of yet another abandoned sugar plantation
An unidentified aircraft landing at SKB at sunset
[Edited 2013-01-02 05:05:31]