Sunday, September 11, 2011

Paradise within a Paradise?

Lifestyles Resort, Confresi Beach, Dominican Republic

Tuesday, September 6 – Saturday, September 10, 2011

Yes, we know. We have a pretty spectacular life. We were fortunate enough to be able to give up our jobs for this cruising lifestyle, and obviously don’t have the same pressures as someone with a 9-to-5 job back home. Still, that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy a few days away from the boat sometimes!

Our Luperon friends who’ve spent a year or more in the DR have been telling us about an all-inclusive resort near Puerto Plata that often offers super deals during the low season…as in “$10, $20, or $30 per person per night” type of deals. The first time the resort offered $10 pp/pn deals, ten cruisers went. The second time it happened, the group got up to 14 people. This time, the offer was $19 if you booked early enough, $29 if you waited. We ended up with 19 people in our group - 17 cruisers, plus two friends of Deana's and Troy's from Houston. Just think of it…for under $160, Rene and I were able to enjoy as much air conditioning, hot showers, a “real” bed, food, and drinks as we wanted…for FOUR DAYS! It was incredible. Seven members of our group took the motorcycles to the resort (a 45-minute ride), and the others squished into a van with all of the luggage. We arrived at the resort around noon, were greeted by froo-froo drinks at the bar, and got our white wrist-bands that allowed us to enjoy the all-inclusive part of the vacation. From there, the group split into those who wanted the full buffet lunch, and those who wanted to try the sushi at the VIP beach. Big surprise, we went with the latter. We hadn’t had sushi since our Houston trip in December; this wasn’t as good as Redfish in Houston, but it wasn’t bad!

Lunch was followed by a lounge on one of the beds and a dip in a hot tub at the VIP beach. Picture this: over fifty beds arranged in the sand on a spot above the beach – some stationary on stilts, some swinging from cables – all complete with white canopies and curtains on all four sides to block out the sun as needed. Amidst the beds were unheated Jacuzzi tubs where you could cool off while sipping on a drink brought to you by one of the many waiters milling around. Hungry? If you didn’t want to leave your bed to go to the sushi bar or the buffet, you could order a sandwich, burger, salad, or chicken wings and have lunch right in your beachside bed. This was the sort of place we’d only seen in magazines. It was amazing to experience it in person!

So how many of you figure there must have been some kind of a catch to such a terrific deal? Well, you were right. Lifestyles, besides being a luxury resort, is a timeshare property. Our friends who had been here before warned us to beware of the runners in white shirts and radios poised on their hips. These were the guys who would shanghai you after breakfast and escort you to the timeshare office, where you would then be turned over to one of the turquoise-shirted sales staff. We’d heard timeshare-presentation horror stories from friends on other vacations, and dreaded the thought of losing half of a beach day sitting in a conference room listening to the spiel. Us? Skeptical? You’d better believe it. Still, we figured we could be polite, especially when our salesman-slash-tour-guide, Harold, introduced himself and led us to a golf cart for a tour around the property. We got to play “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”, as we were shown one of the four-bedroom villas (complete with chef and private pool), a presidential suite, the super-exclusive “Serenity Beach” (complete with hammocks, 10’ canopied, pillow-strewn beds, and a slew of cute wait staff), along with a bar and restaurant for members only. We had to admit, while we certainly didn’t consider ourselves resort or timeshare people, we were curious. At the end of the property tour, Harold asked us if we wanted to talk more about it or be on our way with a polite “no”. To our surprise, we found ourselves following him back to the office for a chat. We talked about the different options, and realized that their program might actually be something from which we could benefit. There was no “one or two week per year” restriction, no tie to a single property, and no annual maintenance fees. Pay one start-up fee, and use it as much or as little as you wanted to at any of their 4500 destinations. You’d pay when you used a property – the equivalent of one to two nights’ rental for a week at the property – and that was it. Now you all know how analytical Rene’s mind is; he crunched numbers and looked for any possible downside. We even walked away for 24 hours to talk more and think about it. In the end, we decided that it was a great fit for us. With so many properties in the Caribbean, our families and friends could come down to visit us and not be restricted to the boat. We’re all too aware what hotels cost down-island, and this offered a much more affordable alternative. And when we give up the boat someday to RV around Europe and the US? More places to stay! Bottom line, consider this an invitation. We keep telling everyone to come visit us, and now we have an option for those of you who aren’t comfortable staying on a boat. No more excuses! :-)

So we only thought we were getting royally spoiled before we signed the papers. Once we became official members, they cut off our white bracelets and gave us gold VIP bracelets that let us into the restricted-access beaches, pools, bars, and restaurants. Better yet? They upgraded us to the two-bedroom presidential suite and gave us a golf cart to get back to the rest of our group. We even got two extra gold bracelets so we could bring another couple with us to share the suite. Decisions, decisions… We knew that Deana and Troy wouldn’t want to leave their friends who were visiting from Houston, so Pat and Lucy from Illusions moved over with us. What a blast! We checked out the local pool and private beach, and toured around on the golf cart before joining the rest of the group at the VIP beach. Dinner that night at the Mexican restaurant was so-so, but our dinner at Simply Gourmet the next evening was fantastic. There's already talk of trying to get a bunch of couples into a villa for a few days. We are soooo coming back to this resort next month!

Enjoy pictures here.

Good Night, Irene...

Saturday, August 20 – Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Luperon, Dominican Republic

Stacy’s great-grandmother, Irene, used to sing that old song, “good night, Irene…good night, Irene…I’ll see you in my dreams.” This week’s “Irene” could’ve been a real nightmare! What is it about us and hurricanes that begin with the letter "I"? Most of you probably know that we went through Hurricane Ike in September, 2008, while we were still in Kemah, Texas. That one was "only" a category 2 storm, but had a cat 5 storm surge. What did that really mean? Our marina suffered an 11+ foot storm surge (the parking lot was under 5’ of water), and hundreds of boats were lost when their fixed and/or floating docks rose higher than their moorings would allow. Our 12' dock pilings barely survived, and we were lucky enough to come away with only minor damage to the boat.

Fast forward to August, 2011... We'd been watching "tropical wave 97", a system that threatened to pay a visit to our part of the Caribbean. Sometime over the weekend, #97 was reborn as "Tropical Storm Irene", with a projected track that came over Puerto Rico and right into our back yard. Mind you, we weren't too worried given Luperon's reputation as a hurricane hole, thanks to the surrounding mountain range and the harbor's protective mangroves. Still... By Saturday, we knew there was a good chance we’d feel some effects of the storm, but initial tracks brought it over the center of the island across the mountains. The good thing about that? While the mountains would likely get 10-20 inches of rain (triggering possible mudslides), they would also break the storm apart and significantly reduce Irene’s wind speed. We prepped Pipe for tropical storm-force winds (30-50 mph expected), taking down the bimini, clearing out the cockpit, and lashing down the kayaks and any other potential projectiles. Unfortunately, by Monday morning, the forecasted track had Irene paralleling the DR’s northern coastline…heading straight for us with no protective mountain peaks to intervene. Suddenly we were facing hurricane-force winds (75+ mph), and had to re-examine our preparations. We’ve probably mentioned this before, but our mooring ball places us less than ten feet from the mangroves at certain wind angles. While it can be quite buggy, this placement is quite a comfort when we’re threatened by bad weather. Apparently it’s also comforting to the entire Puerto Plata fishing fleet, who stormed into the Luperon harbor all day Monday. Half a dozen fishing boats plowed into the mangroves, bow-first, a hundred yards from us. Given our lack of swinging room, we figured things could get a little too cozy if more boats decided to line the mangroves around us. Enter my brilliant husband…Rene decided to back our stern into the mangroves and tie up, while our bow would remain on our mooring ball. This was initially planned as a temporary move to reserve some swinging space; once the fishing fleet got settled and the winds started piping up, we’d cut loose from the mangroves and allow Pipe to swing with the wind. Four lines and a conversation with Storyville later, we all decided that maybe staying anchored to the mangroves wasn’t such a bad idea…did we mention that the powers that be were now forecasting 80-100mph winds? Rene got us secured and then helped Deana and Troy tie Storyville to another cluster of mangroves. With five anchor points, as well as making ourselves a much smaller target for dragging boats, we felt pretty good about the upcoming storm.

One thing people don’t tell you about hurricanes…it’s downright boring waiting for things to happen. All of those stories of hurricane parties? Getting loaded isn’t such a great idea when your “house” can break free and hit (or be hit by) another boat. (We’re such party poopers!) We finished our prep work by lunch time, and sat on the deck watching the fishing boats tie up. had projected 60-80mph winds by 6pm, but with the exception of a couple 30mph squalls, the harbor was dead calm until well after sunset. The wind picked up to 30kts around 10pm, and we had our first dragging victim of the night: a 50’ catamaran pulled its mooring out of the mud and drifted down half the length of the harbor. It passed within 15’ of an anchored boat, but finally settled undamaged near the town pier. We tried to get a few cat-naps overnight, but spent most of it awake listening to the boat chatter and weather updates on the VHF. The best news came when we heard that Irene was slowly veering offshore, and was expected to be 30-60 miles out as she passed us. The mangroves certainly lived up to their reputation, and we heard more than felt the gusts that came with Irene’s bands. Although winds near the eye exceeded 100mph and 10’ waves crashed outside the mouth of Luperon harbor, there was rarely more than a few ripples around us.

Tuesday morning was a bit more exciting, as the eye passed north of us around 10am. Winds picked up to 25-35kts for the better part of two hours, and a number of boats began dragging around the harbor. Dinghies went zooming to offer assistance whenever possible, and the crew at Marina Tropical helped a number of dragging boats. Fortunately no one was hurt, and none of the boats suffered any major damage. For the most part, Irene was, thankfully, a non-event for us. We were free of the mangroves and swinging back on our mooring by Wednesday morning, and were looking forward to going into town to see how Luperon itself fared. Jerry hosted a "Good Night Irene" post-hurricane potluck party on Wednesday night, where the Barcelo rum flowed all too freely, and everyone brought some tasty treats.

We also know that Irene hasn’t finished her journey yet; she’ll likely be a category 3 or possibly 4 hurricane as she bombards the Bahamas on her way to the East Coast. Our thoughts are with the many people we met in the Exumas and Abacos, as well with our cruising friends in the Carolinas. We’ll keep an eye on the weather sites over the next few days, and hope everyone stays safe and sound.

Home Again!

Luperon, Dominican Republic

Thursday, August 4 – Friday, August Saturday, August 27, 2011

I’m hooooome! It’s great to be back on Pipe Muh Bligh with Rene and Tux. Our lives settled back into the old routine soon after I got back home. We spent a lot of time combing through the piles of stuff I brought back with me, and even longer trying to figure out where to put it all! One new item to welcome me home was the brand new muelle, or dinghy dock. The government finally came through with a reconstruction project, so we’ll save our fund-raising money for future repairs. Finally…no more risking life and limb to get to and from town!

The first packages from home that were put to good use were our Eagles Nest Outfitters nylon hammocks. A few of our friends have them, and we had two shipped to Seattle last month. We brought them with us on a motorcycle ride to a beach west of town, and six of us hung our hammocks under the sea grape trees. There’s something really special about listening to the waves lap on the beach and the wind rustle through the leaves, while you gently rock a few inches above the sand. We had a repeat performance at El Castillo beach a few days later, and knew this was becoming our favorite new habit.

Not to become too lazy, we planned a trip up to the 27 waterfalls of Damajagua. The “waterfalls” are actually a series of natural pools set in the mountains of the Dominican Republic. You take a very long, very hot hike to the top of one of the mountains, carrying your protective gear – a helmet and life jacket – with you. At the top is pool #26, whose cool waters feel heavenly after the hike you’ve just done. If you’re more adventurous, you can use a rope to climb a rock up to #27 and the 10-foot jump into the pool. (By the way, whether the pools are numbered by actual pools or jump-off points is anyone’s guess.) From there, you work your way back down the mountain, swimming, hiking, sliding, and jumping through streams from one pool to the next. It’s an incredible experience, and should be on everyone’s “must-do” list when visiting the DR. If you’re worried about the physical nature of the trip, don’t be. Each group goes with one or two guides who pull you up as needed and show you the safest spots for jumping. These guys are in terrific shape, and are used to taking kids, seniors, and everyone in between. If you’re not up for all 27 falls, there are packages to do only the first seven or twelve falls. Now if you possess a fear of heights, that’s a different story. Many of the jumps are 10-15 feet high, and two are closer to 25-30 feet. Rene loved it, but Stacy needed some serious coaxing for the really high ones. (It was scary!) The trip probably took three hours, and we were more than ready for a cold cerveza when we got back to Luperon!

Friday night, we attended our first dinner dance at Puerto Blanco Marina. The marina recently put in pizza ovens (woo hoo!), and were offering “you call it” pizzas for 400 pesos. We got an “everything but the kitchen sink”, complete with minced habaneros. Yummy! The evening entertainment started with a local Dominican dance troupe, and the cruisers got into the mix after enough adult bevvies were imbibed. We all had a great time, and look forward to the next marina event.

That’s it for now…things could get a bit hectic over the next few days. We have a tropical “wave” brewing in the Caribbean that everyone has their eyes on. More on that next time…

P.S. We have to wish our friend, Larry, a very happy birthday. He threw one heck of a party at a local Luperon hot spot on Aug. 27th, complete with TWO roasted pigs and all the Luperon trimmings. The entire harbor showed up along with some friends from Gringo Hill, and we all had a fantastic time. It doesn't quite fit in with our hurricane blog (following this one), so we've tucked the birthday bash, a.k.a. "Larry-stock", here. Thanks again, Larry!

Waterfall pictures: here

LarryStock pictures: here