Last minute tropical Labor Day getaways

labor day Ready, set, book. The East Coast was largely spared the wrath of Hurricane Irene and no other pending tropical storms are threatening to ruin your upcoming three-day weekend. Why not jet away for a quick tropical vacation? From the East Coast, many Caribbean islands are a nonstop flight away, and from the west and Texas, Mexico is an easy jaunt.

Consider the following great last-minute Labor Day packages and head out on an impromptu trip:

Puerto Rico & The Virgin Islands
CheapCaribbean.com is offering package deals starting at $359 with departures on September 4th and 5th. The four-star Grand Melia golf resort in Puerto Rico is discounted from its normal price of $799 for a four-night stay, and the three-star Chenay Beach is just $399.

Cruise Crazy
Cruise.com is having a massive Labor Day sale. The Norwegian Spirit sails Sept. 4 from New Orleans to Costa Maya, Roatan, Belize City and Cozumel for $499. Upgrade to an ocean view cabin for just $100 more. Other Labor Day deals include:

  • 6 nights to the Western Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale on the Carnival Freedom for $399
  • 7 nights to the Western Caribbean from Port Canaveral on the Carnival Dream for $479
  • 7 nights to the Bahamas from New York City on the Norwegian Jewel for $649
  • 7 nights to the Western Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale on the Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas for $745

Airfare to the Bahamas, San Juan, San Jose and Cancun
Forget the two-week rule, you can still snag decently-priced round trip tickets. We used Fly.com and found rates as low as $201 for flights departing between August 30th and September 3rd, returning September 4th through September 7th. Fly Boston to Nassau for $336 round trip, Atlanta to Cancun for $306 roundtrip and Orlando to San Juan for $201 round trip, plus many more.

Cabo
West Coasters love the ease of access and upscale luxury to be found in Cabo San Lucas. Time2Cabo.com has a number of packages, including a three-night all-inclusive options at Solmar Beach Resort for $822, a three-night fishing package at Marina Fiesta Resort & Spa for $349 per night and daily breakfast and a fourth night free in the “Suite Romance” package at Esperanza for $5,630.

Riviera Maya
The luxurious Ceiba del Mar in the Riviera Maya is offering special savings for Labor Day weekend, with rates from $129 per night and include European Plans with daily breakfast or Luxury Gourmet Plans with a-la-carte meals at the resort’s restaurants, as well as snacks and premium beverages such as wine by the glass and top-shelf liquors.

Image courtesy of the

Seven ways to experience Bahamas culture

When most people think of the Bahamas, there are only three things on their mind: sun, sand and sea. But in between dipping your toes in turquoise waters and sipping down a Bahama Mama or few, there are several ways you can get to know the local culture of the islands and some of the friendly, welcoming people who live there. Instead of bypassing the real Bahamas, here are three ways you can immerse yourself in Bahamian culture on your next trip to paradise.

People to People: Organized by the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, the People to People program (pictured above) connects travelers who are interested in learning about local customs with Bahamians who are ready and willing to share. While in Nassau, a generous ambassador of the program invited several other guests – locals and travelers – into her home for traditional meal composed entirely of Bahamian-grown food and items from local vendors. “It’s food from our backyard, swimming in our ocean,” said our host ambassador Lesley as we ate dishes like plantain and conch meatballs and Bahamian-style macaroni and cheese. Even better than the food was the company, a warm and friendly group who fielded all our questions about Bahamian life and culture. If interested, the experience can also be extended to include a church service, visit to a local school, boating excursion, or tour of the island. Did I mention it’s free?Arawak Cay: Nassau residents call this collection of multicolored, seaside restaurants and bars “The Fish Fry.” Once a series of shacks where fishermen sold their catch, this is now one of the best places to sample typical Bahamian dishes such as conch salad, fried snapper, and more. Mingle casually with the locals while you knock back a Kalik, the local beer, or if you’re bold challenge one of them to a game of dominoes. Nights and weekends are the best times to drop by, but no matter when you visit this is one place that is dominated by locals and not travelers.

Graycliff Hotel: There is no better place to take in the grandeur of the “Old Bahamas” than at the Graycliff Hotel. Built in 1740 by a real pirate of the Caribbean, the pink mansion was originally the site of the first Anglican church in the Bahamas. Over the years it has been a post for the American Navy, a favored spot of Al Capone during the age of prohibition, and a private residence for royalty. Today, it is home to an elegant hotel and restaurant, an in-house cigar factory, and the third largest private wine cellar in the world (with 250,000 bottles and counting). Ask a guide to show you the “million dollar rack,” a collection of bottles totaling a million bucks, or if you’re lucky he’ll let you catch a glimpse of a single bottle worth $200,000. At night, the Graycliff lounge becomes a smoke-filled piano bar with a gangster feel that takes visitors back to another era.

Junkanoo: Bahamians will use pretty much any excuse for a celebration, but the colorful holiday of Junkanoo is the most elaborate festival of the islands. Parades of people in brightly colored costumes take to the streets on Boxing Day (December 26th) and New Year’s Day. If visiting over the winter holidays isn’t an option, visit Junkanoo’s Educulture Museum, which contains historical items from previous Junkanoo celebrations and is a great spot to get kids interested in the history of the Bahamas. There are also several Junkanoo costumes at the Bahamas Welcome Center, where stalls are set up selling authentic Bahamas souvenirs.

Rake and Scrape: Combine the beat of a sheepskin drum with the scraping noise of a carpenter’s saw and you have “Rake and Scrape,” a musical style that originated when slaves began creating instruments out of whatever was available to them. Ask the locals where you might be able to catch a band, or head to Cat Island in May when the Rake and Scrape Festival takes place and you can catch traditional dances such as the Bahamian Quadrille and the Hell and Toe Polka. Calypso, a style of Afro-Caribbean music, is also popular throughout the Bahamas.

Potter’s Cay Dock: Tucked under Nassau’s Paradise Island Bridge – quite literally in the shadow of the Atlantis mega resort – is Potter’s Cay Dock, a Bahamian food marketplace composed of rudimentary stalls. A beehive of activity, the vibe here is different from the famous Straw Market, where Bahamians cater to tourists by hawking straw hats and baskets, mugs, key chains, shirts and other souvenirs. Locals come to Potter’s Cay to buy the daily catch or pick out produce from stalls that are stacked high with fresh plantains, cassava, papaya and more. Potter’s Cay is another perfect place to test local cuisine.

History or Culture Tour: Many of the islands – especially Nassau and Grand Bahama – offer an array of tours of historical landmarks and important cultural heritage sites. Tours are offered by boat, car and foot and cover everything from the days of pirates to the emancipation of slaves and beyond. Check the official Bahamas directory for tour listings that are sanctioned by the department of tourism.

[Photos by Kirsten Alana and MissChatter/Flickr]

A conversation with the founder of Swim to Empower

Named for the Greek for “freedom,” Eleuthera is 110 miles long and just a mile at its widest. To the east is the occasionally wild Atlantic, to the west a shallow, almost-always-calm Caribbean Sea … waters on both sides that literally beg to be swum.

Unless, of course, you don’t know how to swim. Which is the case for 80 percent of the islanders. Taught to be scared of the ocean, even a percentage of the fishermen who make their living off the sea can only dog paddle.

A pair of young American women are trying to change those numbers, founding Swim to Empower, an effort to teach people of all ages – teachers, artists, parents, even fishermen — to swim.

Filmmaker Jen Galvin documented the efforts of Swim to Empower in her movie Free Swim and book We, Sea. “Having grown up in the U.S. on Long Island, I was aware of the questions about minorities and the swimming gap and had wondered why some kids in my neighborhood didn’t know how to swim.”

Her documentation has helped lead to the program’s expansion.

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“Through the power of learning to swim the story promotes discussion about the swimming gap and ignites broader questions about health and conservation,” says Galvin. “What might be the unexpected power of learning to swim? What is at stake when people are unable to connect with their environment beyond purely using it for utilitarian gain? And, when we come to better understand our environment will we value it, and ourselves, more? For many, swimming translates into a new perspective – a ‘sink or swim’ mixed with a ‘there’s no place like home’ sentiment – bringing a greater sense of freedom with the knowledge that the underwater world exists and can be survived, and even enjoyed.”

A conversation with one of Swim to Empower’s founders, Brenna Hughes, who has been teaching swimming in the Bahamas for eight years, and filmmaker Galvin.

Q: Simple question: Why is that so many Bahamians can’t swim, despite growing up surrounded by water?

Brenna: It’s funny that you framed this as the simplest question. In my mind, this is one of the more nuanced questions because there are so many reasons why Bahamians and many coastal people do not swim. Socio-economic, political, cultural, personal…the list is endless. If I had to pick the most formidable barrier to swimming, I’d say access. Granted that’s an extremely vague answer, but access to both education and equipment is an enormous barrier to learning to swim and links the larger legacies I just referenced.

Access to equipment is an interesting matter, as I mean both pools and open water beaches. Equipment differs depending on where you live in the Bahamas. Nassau residents have access to swim clubs and pools and members of the family islands have access to open water beaches. However, with recent private home and hotel development this seemingly balanced access has become more unequal as open water areas are quickly becoming privatized. Thus the equipment itself becomes a division between the affluent and poor, those with straightforward access and those without, and has deepened the socio-economic and political divisions between those who can swim and those who cannot. That’s after eight years of working with communities in the Bahamas.

Jen: I agree. It’s a surprisingly complicated question that brings up many loaded, historical harms – and when asked to an individual, it’s usually a very personal question. People also define swimming differently. Some think swimming is getting wet up to your knees, splashing around or just taking a soak. I see swimming and being comfortable in the water as a node for environmental, economic and social determinants of health – and this is what makes it a deep, rich story, especially for islanders living on such a long, skinny and low-lying island. But, for such a heavily layered issue, there seem to be some practical solutions. The work of organizations like Swim to Empower and the Diversity in Aquatics Program can’t be stressed enough. Access is definitely a key word here, like so many other public health issues. Physical beach access and educational access are barriers to learning to swim. I guess you can also distill it down to a more basic kid-adult framework.

Kids learn to swim from adults (or, older peers). If there are not adults who can teach kids and prioritize the idea of children learning this life skill, most kids won’t learn to swim. Plus, kids tend to spend a lot of time indoors. Having witnessed time and time again the emotional confidence learning to swim gives no matter how old the student, it’s also an emotional access issue. There are real fears associated with swimming that shouldn’t be dismissed – especially when it comes to the ocean. Swimming is labeled as a life skill for reason – it reveals untapped potential for achievement, health, and broader connections with the natural world.

Q: What was the hardest part of the project, early on?

Brenna: The hardest part was creating a program that is self-sustainable and community focused. In the beginning, it was critical to foster genuine connections with key community members. However, this takes time. Although it often felt like we were losing momentum, the time we invested in the community resulted in a successful collaboration.

Jen: My role as an indie documentary filmmaker was to tell a story that connected ocean health with human health in a personal way. The film and the book were ways to document the paradox of islanders not knowing how to swim – and the power of people learning while reconnecting with their coastal home. I originally had wanted to tell this story over several locations globally, but ended up focusing the story on Eleuthera because of the innovative work of Swim to Empower. Plus, there’s something powerful about telling a big, universal story that comes from a small place. I let the story speak for itself and allowed people to use my camera as a vessel for their voices and actions.

Technically, Free Swim was challenging because I was a one-woman crew and my equipment was constantly exposed to the hot sun, sand, saltwater and bumpy dirt roads. Capturing sound during the swimming lessons was a little tricky at times, especially because the wind really can rip.

Q: What has been your biggest success to-date?

Brenna: The ability to link the work of the Bahamas Swimming Federation, Olympic Association, and Swim to Empower. Our goal is to create a self-sustainable program run by Bahamians, for Bahamians. Although we had hoped that the Teacher Aides, students who had excelled in the curriculum, would become the instructors and perpetuate the program, teenage pregnancy and the prevalence of drugs have hindered this path. Therefore we saw an opportunity to work with the Bahamas Swimming Federation and the Bahamian Olympic Association to access their network of expert Bahamian swimmers. This linkage has been priceless in the development of the organization, as the competitive Bahamian swimmers have taken the project on as their own and not only continued but also expanded the program beyond the original five communities on Eleuthera.

Jen: Teachers, parents, camp leaders, students and organizational leaders are using the guide that comes with the movie. With funding from The Eastman Foundation and the Living Oceans Foundation I’ve also worked to run multimedia workshops for educators – the first conducted in Nassau with teachers from throughout the Bahamas; the next one will be in Nevis in mid-April. Free Swim continues to be an empowering film that combines the individual human experience of learning to swim with larger societal topics, exploring complicated socio-economic and environmental challenges with which communities’ worldwide struggle. And the more it’s shared, the more somehow the film’s purpose grows. Storytelling can move viewers to step beyond simply being aware of an issue to actually doing something about it – and oftentimes, watching a good story triggers more story-making.

Q: Are there some on the island who’ve taken up your efforts and are now teaching swimming to their friends and relatives?

Brenna: Yes. On a local scale, the teacher aides and older siblings in the community continue the lessons when the program is not in session. On a larger scale, competitive Bahamian swimmers from BSF and BOA have taken over the efforts and are now really leading the force. They are returning to islands where they grew up or have a great deal of relatives and are teaching those communities how to swim. It’s amazing to see how a program can expand but still stay rooted in community.

Q: Do you have favorite memory of the time you’ve spent on Eleuthera?

Brenna: The one that sticks out in my mind was one day after lessons when one of the young boys, Denero, grabbed the lifeguard tube and started playing it like a drum. The other children gathered around him as a “band” and the class sang and danced our way down the jetty. It was an amazing moment to see the ocean, which had brought so much fear, suddenly produce abundant joy.

Jen: I consider my friends on Eleuthera as family now. It’s a very special place for me. Always will be. There are really so many memories, especially since the film continues being shared with audiences around the world. While filming it was incredible to witness such a consistent, human response when people of any age learned to float. I’ll never forget those faces.

Cruise ship makeover: come along for the ride

Cruise ship makeover
There are new cruise ships and there are old cruise ships. The new ones have all the latest features, the old ones not so much. Well, at least not until they go in for scheduled maintenance. At that time, the cruise line has an opportunity to take care of routine repairs. Sometimes they add new features to those old ships, making them much more attractive to would-be cruise travelers looking for new features. Princess Cruises announced an extreme makeover for Grand Princess in February. Now, the line wants us to come along for the ride with a new series of video reports.

Grand Princess is going through the most significant transformation ever attempted by Princess Cruises. The ship will take on a new look with the addition of seven new suites, a remodeled casino, boutiques and art gallery, enhancements to the Horizon Court buffet area, Lotus Spa, and wedding chapel plus the addition of Crooner’s Martini Lounge.

The line will also remove Skywalkers nightclub, the race car spoiler-looking venue perched high above the aft end of the ship. Apparently the place did nothing for fuel economy and/or did not get enough “Wow, that’s cool” comments at the ship wash.


Through May 4th, viewers can follow along with daily updates to a new video journal chronicling the 24-day drydock.

“Our passengers really loved following the photo journals we offered during previous drydocks,” said Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises executive vice president. “So for this, our most extensive transformation, we wanted to take it to the next level and enable viewers to follow along with daily videos.”

Hosted by Grand Princess Cruise Director Martyn Moss, in the first installment audiences we see the beginning of the ship’s transformation as it sails to the Grand Bahama Shipyard in Freeport, Bahamas.

We’re thinking Skywalkers would make a great place to visit while ashore in Freeport. A couple welders and a big crane could probably pop that baby off the ship and set it on the beach. At least there would be something worth seeing in Freeport.

Eleuthera Island, Bahamas – “Fishing is a Good Life Here”

eleuthera bahamas fish

French Leave, Eleuthera — Under a cloud-studded sunrise at the end of the two-and-a-half-mile long beach I watch a 14-foot plywood boat back into the morning surf. A trio of Bahamian men readies it for a day of spearfishing along the near-reef that parallels the 110-mile long island. One will drive; another will watch and stack fish. The third – a lithe, fair-skinned black man with ‘Aries’ tattooed on his upper arm, who dons a thick wetsuit while we talk – will dive and spear. They hope the day’s catch will include as many as 40 grouper, maybe another 40 lobster.

The laws for all fishermen in the Bahamas are pretty straightforward, no matter the size of the boat or crew: Boats must be 100 percent owned by Bahamians. They can use seine nets, hook and line or — ‘Aries’ tool of choice this morning — the Hawaiian sling and spear. There can be no long lines, no chemicals or explosives in the Bahamas. The small fishermen have no GPS or fish finders. Bigger boats, mostly based at the north end of the island, have set up what the locals refer to as “condominiums,” slatted wooden traps to catch lobsters.

The day will take this trio 30 miles down the coast and back and will end by early afternoon, when they will take whatever they’ve caught across the island to the port at Governor’s Harbor where they will clean and hawk it from the boat ramp. The cutting table there is close enough to the road that passing drivers can slow, observe, ask questions (“What you got today?” “How fresh?”) And decide to stop and buy … or not.I watch them motor away up the coastline and then find them later in the day. ‘Aries’ tips a white plastic bucket filled with six-pound lobster to show off his catch. “It was a good day,” he says. When I ask if fishing is his passion, he admits not. “I like being on the water, I can dive to 100 feet, I’m not afraid of anything down there, even the tiger sharks, but to be honest when construction is good here … it’s good for the fish because lots of guys, including me, stop going out.”

A forty-five minute drive to the north delivers me to Gregory Town, where a now-dimming sun lights up the harbor. On either side of the bay, fishing boats have come in from twenty to thirty miles out to sea, stacked with fin fish – mostly grouper and jacks — and conch.

There are 9,000 fishermen throughout the 700 islands of the Bahamas; only a few hundred of them call Eleuthera home. The fishermen descaling a boat loaded with grouper are happy with the small number of locals who make a living off the sea. “When my grandfather was fishing,” says one, his head swarmed by flies as he rakes a sharp knife over a foot-long grouper, “this bay was loaded with fish. Now we have to go far out to sea for a good catch. But once we’re there, there’s plenty of fish.”

Despite such colloquial wisdom among the fishermen I meet up and down the length of Eleuthera – that there are plenty of fish out there — statistics, mostly collected by NOAA, suggest that’s not exactly the case.

NOAA says the lobsters, conch and all finfish in the region have been fished “to a dangerously low level.” Particularly concerning is drop offs in the number of snapper and grouper, which are already off limits along the Atlantic coast of the U.S., especially Florida.

One fish that’s long disappeared from these waters are the Atlantic bluefin tuna. “The only tuna we see now are black tuna,” one of the Gregory Town fishermen says. “And they’re only the size of a football, when they used to be several feet long.”

The biggest, most successful, thus wealthiest fishermen on Eleuthera live on an island off the northern tip, called Spanish Wells. With a population of 1,500, mostly white descendants of the British Puritan loyalists who first settled here in the 1780s, there are a couple hundred big boats based here.

Regarded as the lobster capitol of the Caribbean, it is one of the wealthiest settlements in the region. It is also a conservative, staunchly religious place, where visitors stick out. Guidebooks advise to expect “passive displays of hospitality.”

Many of the men, even into their seventies, still dive for fish, during a season that lasts from August through March. Most use condominiums, or traps, which help fulfill big contracts with Red Lobster and several big European chains.

The near waters surrounding Eleuthera are shallow, 75 feet at the deepest, and easy to navigate. According to the men of Spanish Wells the only hindrance to success these days is not a lack of fish, but poachers, from the Dominican Republic and Haiti, who sneak into the 45,000 square miles of Caribbean that is supposed to be for the Bahamians-only.
One group of fishermen in Eleuthera who don’t seem to have any complaint are the visiting bone fishermen who comes in droves to escape winter’s cold and whose silhouettes you spy throughout the day, fishing knee-deep in the salt water flats lining the Caribbean side of the island.

I stand with one, on an elevated cement wall lining the calm bay at Governor’s Harbor. Peering into the distance, he’s looking for signs of the big, opaque fish that love these shallows. He’s been coming here from New York to fish for forty years.

“There are probably a couple thousand of them within casting range,” he says. “Which never seems to change from year to year. I think because they’re mostly too smart to let us catch them.”

[flickr image via Thespis377]