Souvenirs: Anatomy of a prized possession from the road

souvenirsSouvenirs are difficult for travel writers. We travel too often to be slapdash with souvenir selection, for one. Some frequent travelers focus on a particular thing: snow globes, pens, local magazines, liqueur, rugs, candy.

Others ignore the self entirely and redirect the impulse, choosing to make souvenir purchases for their friends, family, and neighbors.

Me? I like beach towels. I’m picky, mind you. Few make it into my collection. Those that do, however, are true prized possessions.

As souvenirs go, beach towels are extremely useful. They can do service as standard towels when bath towels are not available. They are great for beach runs in the position of reserve towel. (Who wants to dry off with a sandy towel?) And they can be washed and dried quickly and used over and over again.

I’ve got some doozies. There’s the grotesque print of the Titanic movie poster on a beach towel I bought in Croatia in 1998. It’s held up remarkably well, despite the thinness of its material. The likenesses of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are barely recognizable, their skin tones inaccurately flan-like in a loveably inarguable instance of copyright infringement. And now, almost 15 years after Titanic hit theaters, it’s also got an undeniable near-retro cache. Bonus.

There’s another beach towel in my collection from the Balkans, purchased several years later, an enormous beach towel patterned with a replica of the €500 bill in all of its pink and purple glory. I’ve never held a €500 bill in my hands, but I can relax upon a blown-up version of it, even if a French friend once pronounced it “kitsch” with a sniff.

And then there’s the crowning glory of my beach towel collection, a yellow and red number with the slogan “Wipe out in Guam” in a Flintstones-like font above a figure of a hapless purple-skinned surfer sailing through the air.

The thing is, I’ve never been to Guam.

I bought the towel on Anegada in the British Virgin Islands, an island I visited with my high school friend Mike. We stayed in a cheap motel without beach towels. Finding ourselves on a perfect beach island without beach towels, we promptly headed to the nearest store to rectify the situation. Sorting through a stack of BVI-specific towels, we found a handful of specimens clearly supposed to have been included in a shipment to Guam. We both snapped one up, to the marked surprise of the shop owner.

The material of the towel is thin but wiry, almost viscous. Structurally speaking, it’s not a great towel. But it’s got a back story and an in-built hilarity. What more does a souvenir need?

Ten budget-friendly Caribbean destinations

Ten budget-friendly Caribbean destinations
If you get all your information about the Caribbean from travel magazines, you might find yourself convinced that a night’s stay in the region will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of $500. The Caribbean’s super posh reputation has its roots in the region’s tourism history; until relatively recently, tourism in the Caribbean was largely restricted to the very rich. And as one might expect in a region that has historically catered to the rich, there are lots of impossibly exclusive luxury properties in the Caribbean today.

But these resorts do not and should not define tourism in the region. There are many spots across the Caribbean where costs are low and the quality of experiences on offer is high. Here are ten destinations where low hotel rates, exciting activities, and compelling local culture make for real budget-friendly value.

If you find this post interesting, be sure to check out Gadling’s archive of budget-friendly travel stories.

1. Carriacou, Grenada. North of the main island of Grenada is the laid-back island of Carriacou. There are some great beaches on the island (see above for evidence.) A fantastically budget-friendly place to stay is the lovely Green Roof Inn (from $40 for one; from $70 for two) north of Hillsborough, the island’s main settlement.

2. Havana, Cuba. Day-to-day expenses in the Cuban capital can be quite cheap. Casas particulares (owner-occupied bed-and-breakfast establishments) can be found for about $30 for two, and meals can be cobbled together for very little. Cultural events are astoundingly cheap, and reasonable taxi rates can be negotiated. For a listing of good casas particulares, check out CubaParticular and Casa Particular.

3. Big Corn Island, Nicaragua. It is often forgotten that the Caribbean Sea extends to Central America. Big Corn Island off the coast of Nicaragua presents a fascinating mélange of English-speaking Creoles and Spanish- and Miskito-speaking transplants from the mainland. Though undeniably hardscrabble, Big Corn Island has some beautiful territory and some unbelievably cheap hotels. Try Princesa de la Isla (from $60, with excellent Italian meals on offer) and Martha’s Bed and Breakfast (from $50). These are, by the way, among the most expensive places to stay on the island.

4. Saba. Referred to by locals as the “Unspoiled Queen,” Saba is one of the most beautiful and least well-known corners of the Caribbean. A mountain jutting out of the sea, it has no beaches and few obvious tourist draws beyond diving. Visitors discover cute villages full of houses with gingerbread trim, lush hiking trails, and outstanding views. Check out the Ecolodge Rendez-Vous (from $75) and El Momo (from $50 for one; $65 for two).

5. Anegada, British Virgin Islands. It takes a concerted effort to get here, but once on this furthest-flung of the BVIs, accommodations can be quite reasonable. The limestone island boasts some of the loveliest beaches in the entire region, yet has seen surprisingly little tourist development. Neptune’s Treasure offers double rooms starting at $110 in high season.6. Montserrat. Hit in 1995 by a major volcanic eruption, Montserrat saw most of its inhabitants decamping to the UK and elsewhere. Though many Montserratians have returned since then, the island’s tourism numbers have not. This fact translates into all sorts of great deals for visitors, who can busy themselves on the verdant island with beachcombing, hiking, rum shop tours, and visits to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. Lodging at relaxed Gingerbread Hill begins at $45 for two.

7. Dominica. This very green island is no typical beach destination. It sees few typical Caribbean tourists, drawing instead eco-minded sorts who come to bask in its physical beauty. Highlights include hiking activities, national parks, striking waterfalls, hot springs, and all sorts of fascinating geological oddities, including the island’s awe-inspiring Boiling Lake. Stay at the remarkable Papillote Wilderness Retreat (from $100) or go fully rustic at the impressively eco-minded 3 Rivers (from $70; camping plots from $15).

8. Bonaire. Divers flock to this bone-dry Dutch island at the southern end of the Caribbean. There are other draws, too: snorkeling, historical tourism, and beachbumming on offshore Klein Bonaire. The island’s budget-friendly secret? Its stock of inexpensive bungalows and inns. Among other picks, check out Lagoen Hill (from $72), Lizard Inn (from $70), and Ocean View Villas (from $100).

9. Guadeloupe. On the surface, this overseas department of France doesn’t appear to be a good place to locate bargains. It’s expensive to access from North America and it uses the euro. But below the surface is Guadeloupe’s collection of very cheap gîtes–essentially b&bs, though often with a mandatory week-long stay required. Another plus is Guadeloupe’s appealing diversity of landscapes, from the mountains of Terre-Basse to the sleepy rum-producing island of Marie-Galante and the terribly cute isle of Terre-de-Haut. Find more than 200 gîtes on Guadeloupe listed by Gîtes de France.

10. Tobago, Trinidad & Tobago. This southern Caribbean island has seen considerable tourist development at its southwestern end. Journey to the island’s opposite extremity and find jungle-encircled beaches that never get packed, and cute fishing towns like Charlotteville where inns and house rentals are inexpensive. Cottages at beachside Man-O-War Bay Cottages begin at $60 for two.

Daily Pampering: Private sails in St. Thomas

Now that you’re on the gorgeous island of St. Thomas, why not take some time to explore the island’s beautiful surroundings?

Hop aboard The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas‘s private catamaran, the Lady Lynsey, and enjoy a day of private sailing through the British Virgin Islands.

The Lady Lynsey, the resort’s 53-foot luxury catamaran, offers private charters and sailing excursions through the Caribbean waters for the ultimate luxury island-hopping experience. Starting at $2,250, you’ll be picked up from the resort’s beach for half- and full-day private getaways, where you snorkel, watch the sunset, enjoy dinner and drinks or just relax with an open bar on your private boat.

Should you want to invite others along, the catamaran can accommodate a private party for up to 49 guests. My advice? Take your $2,250 and treat yourself to a little alone time at sea.

Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.

Five idyllic Caribbean backwaters

Beyond the Caribbean’s all-inclusive resorts, casinos, overpriced restaurants, and huge crowds are a handful of islands that have escaped mass development. These quiet islands, with their tiny populations and scattered tourist facilities, are not headed for mass-tourism overdevelopment anytime soon, and for a range of reasons-in some cases, the absence of an adequate expanse for a large runway; in others, proximity to more developed islands, or local governmental resistance, or even a decently profitable traditional economy that generates more money than tourism. For whatever reason, these backwaters should remain charming and relatively quiet for some time to come. Let your castaway fantasy flag fly.

1. Anegada, British Virgin Islands.

Geographically and geologically apart from the rest of the Virgin Islands, Anegada is a limestone-based island with enormous stretches of perfect white-sand beaches. It’s hard to top Anegada’s Loblolly Bay or Cow Wreck beaches for their achievement of ideal beach status. There may be things to do on the island above and beyond lazing on the beach in a rum haze, but you’ll surely never need to discover them. Think Anguilla without the crowds (let alone the celebrities) and you’ve got a good sense of the island. Anegada can be reached by ferry from Tortola or charter plane.

2. Barbuda, Antigua & Barbuda.

Barbuda boasts some of the Caribbean’s best and least-trafficked beaches, a noteworthy frigate bird preserve, a fascinating cave complex, and Lighthouse Bay, one of the Caribbean’s most thrillingly perfect resorts. That the island hasn’t been developed to pieces seems a miracle when one contemplates how many Caribbean islands with less remarkable beaches manage to be vastly more developed. Barbuda can be reached by air and ferry from Antigua-or, if you’re lucky enough to be a guest of Lighthouse Bay, by helicopter.
3. Little Cayman, Cayman Islands.

A far cry from Grand Cayman and its densely-packed Seven Mile Beach district, Little Cayman boasts utter and complete quiet. With fewer than 200 residents, it is a backwater by any standard. Most visitors come to dive or check out the island’s interior nature preserve. The island’s beaches are not the region’s best, although locals will help direct visitors to good swimming and sunning spots. Little Cayman can be reached by air from Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac.

4. Marie-Galante, Guadeloupe.

Mass tourism has never taken off on rum-producing Marie-Galante, a quick flight (or turbulent catamaran ride) from Pointe-à-Pitre. There are a handful of hotels on the island, though it is Marie-Galante’s friendly gîtes, operated by local residents, that really stand out. Activities include countryside exploration, rum distillery visits, and of course the island’s truly extraordinary beaches (see above.) The only downside of this relaxed rural idyll is the formidable mosquito population. Be prepared.

5. Mayreau, St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

Tiny Mayreau is situated halfway down the Grenadines archipelago. The island boasts an extraordinary stretch of beach and a hilltop stone church with phenomenal views. Accommodations are restricted to one upscale resort and a cluster of simple locally-run guest houses. There is no airstrip on Mayreau. The island can be reached by ferry, water taxi, or private boat.

(Image: Flickr/origine1)

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Richard Branson hosts Kite Jam in British Virgin Islands

British billionaire adventurer Richard Branson is throwing a kite boarding festival in the British Virgin Islands starting this weekend, with top kite boarders from around the world descending on the topical paradise to challenge the big winds, big waves, and one another.

Dubbed the BVI Kite Jam, the event kicks off on Saturday, Feb. 27th with a VIP party and fashion show sponsored by Billabong. On Sunday, boats will begin shuttling guests and competitors to Necker Island, Branson’s luxurious, no expense spared, private playground. That island will serve as the base of operations for the week, with competitions and other events taking place there and on several surrounding islands.

The actual competitions get underway on Monday, March 1st with daily races and free style events lasting throughout the week, culminating with a pro rider showdown on Friday, March 5th. In addition to the various competitions, there will be regular kite clinics, allowing visitors to learn the sport for themselves, and a nearly endless string of awards ceremonies, luncheons, and parties.

The Kite Jam isn’t exactly for the casual kite boarding enthusiast however. Prices for the week long event begin at $25,400 for a single room in the Necker Island Great House and run as high as $28,350 for the Master Suite, with several other options inbetween. Those prices are all inclusive however, granting access to all the events and include all your meals and drinks as well. Quite the bargain, although it should be noted that the price does not include participation in the actual competitions themselves.

Anyone want to go “halfsies” on one of the suites?