St Barths on shoe leather and a thumb

Before I left Eden Rock, on St. Barths, in search of the local tobacconist, I was told: “You can’t get lost.” Usually, when I hear that, I wind up making some wrong turn or other directional blunder.

The route from Eden Rock to Village Creole, where I planned to cut and light a cigar at La Casa del Habano, consisted of only one road. I just didn’t notice the sprawling shopping complex as I walked past it. The light drizzle soon became rain and then a downpour as I walked in frustration, searching for a place that was behind me.

At the next available business – a bar – I cobbled together enough French to learn I’d missed the shop. Sighing as I turned, the local took pity on me and called for my attention. Sopping and defeated, I turned around to experience advice so warm it actually took the sting out of the rain. He suggested that I hitchhike back to Village Creole. And, if nobody picked me up by the time he finished his beer, he’d scoop me off the streets and deliver me to La Casa del Habano.

Somewhat uplifted, I ventured back to the sidewalk, wary of the splash threat from passing cars and trucks – I’d already fallen victim several times. It may seem like a dicey proposition, but I was told that hitchhiking is both common and safe on St. Barths. I was still nagged by the concerns of a lifetime of “Don’t talk to strangers” lectures, but I found a way to extend my thumb and arm. The first car passed, but the second picked me up. It took about two minutes to get a ride.

I never got his name, but there was hardly time. I couldn’t have been in the shotgun seat for five minutes before we reached my destination, which wasn’t as far away as I’d thought.

Kindly, the driver – who had the rugged skin, hands and muscles of a laborer but the long, curly blond hair and relaxed demeanor of Hollywood’s interpretation of a surfer – pulled into the parking space closest to the cigar shop. He asked for nothing in return for his time and trouble. Matter-of-factly, he said goodbye, and we went our separate ways.

It can be a tough leap for Americans raised to believe that hitchhiking is akin to inviting a homicide. If you want to try it once in as risk-free an environment as you’ll find, do it on St. Barths – it really is the easiest way to get around.

Disclosure: Eden Rock picked up the tab for this trip, and it would have been impossible to cover this destination otherwise, given the cost. Nonetheless, my opinions are my own – they’re certainly not for sale at any price.

Tips for tippers: it isn’t what you expect

Tipping’s a tough nut to crack. Should you tip a housekeeper? Back in the day, the rule was leaving some cash only if your stay was 30 days or longer. Since then, however, it seems to have changed. And, what’s appropriate for a valet? Bellman? Skycap? Travel means tipping, and there are plenty of points at which you can expect to do this. If you go to the same hotel or use the same car service frequently, you may want to adjust your tipping habits, as well.

If these questions make you feel ignorant, you’re not alone. Michael Lynn, a prof at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, has conducted to nationwide tipping surveys and has found that a third of the respondents don’t know to leave 15 percent to 20 percent of the tab at a restaurant. Throw hotels and drivers into the mix, and it’s unsurprising that the rules aren’t understood as clearly as they could be.

So, USA Today and I are helping you know what to tip and when. A recent article by Gary Stoller provides some good ideas, and I’ve tossed in a few of my own.

Valet: This one was news to me. Don’t drop cash to the guy who opens the car door or brings the car to the valet lot. Instead, pay the guy who brings it back, generally $2 to $5. I’ve been overtipping on this one for a long time.

Bellmen: These guys carry bags, so they’re earning their tips. Give ’em $1 to $2 a bag, more if you pack for a weekend like you’re moving in for a month. Heavy bag, as well, warrant an extra tip.

Maids: Once upon a time, maids were only tipped if you were staying for the long term. I guess this has changed, and you’re supposed to leave $1 to $5 daily. But, if you’ve been tipping valets for both drop-off and pickup, this should be break-even for you.

Concierges: Don’t tip for the basics. If you’re asking for directions, recommendations or simple answers, those are free. Did the concierge score hard-to-find tickets? A table at an impossible restaurant? Pony up: $10 to $50. Nonetheless, it’s your call. Vivian Deuschl, a vice president at the Ritz-Carlton chain, says that you should expect fantastic service, “There is no obligation to tip.”

Skycap: Pay for help when you check your bags curbside: $2 to $3 a bag is fine. If you have a lot of bags, throw in a little extra, a good rule to apply for the driver who takes you to and from the airport, too.

And, here are a few others …

Service matters: Tips are provided for the service you receive. If you receive unacceptable service, don’t offer a tip. But, if service is so bad that you aren’t tipping, it’s probably a good idea to call a manager and give your side of the story. First, it will keep you from getting shafted by other hotel employees when the word spreads. Also, it will alert the management to a problem with the staff. Be thorough, and don’t whine.

“No tipping” is sacrosanct: Some resorts have no-tipping policies. They always make it very clear up front. Also, they will tell you if there are any exceptions. Curtain Bluff, in Antigua, doesn’t allow tips and makes alternatives clear (there’s a charity on the island). The spa is a “tipping zone,” however, and the front desk will let you know. If you try to tip in a no-tip hotel, the employee will probably let you know, but it’s best not to create the awkward situation at all.

Special requests: Think beyond restaurant reservations and event tickets. If the concierge does the impossible for you, shell out for it. I’m thinking of several super-luxury favors I’ve heard (sorry, can’t reveal them) from industry insiders. If you’re rolling in the big leagues, don’t bother carrying singles; you’ll need Benjies.

Be realistic: Tip what you can afford. You don’t need to toss around boatloads of cash that you don’t have. It may feel good to be a big tipper, but the high you get now will hurt like hell later. Remember that you’ll need to live with the financial situation that you create while on vacation.

Don’t tip from guilt: You don’t have to solve the financial crisis on your own. The recession has led to a travel industry slump, which means hotel employees won’t be making as much. Think of it this way: these guys aren’t buying more of what you make just to help you out. So, don’t think you need to return the favor.

Know your environment: There is a lot of mileage between Eden Rock and the Holiday Inn: don’t expect the same tipping strategy to work at both locations.

[Photo by AMagill via Flickr]

Let Eden Rock pick you up this summer

The beauty of a recession is that the once inaccessible becomes downright affordable (assuming you haven’t been hit too hard by economic woes). At Eden Rock on St. Barth’s, you can travel like the wealthy while paying far less. The “Pick Me Up” packages is the latest example. It feels like stealing, but don’t worry: it’s perfectly legal.

When I saw the price – around $1,500 – I thought it was per person, which made sense. Eden Rock is a luxurious place, and at that price, three nights is a bargain. I took a closer look, though, and saw that that’s the price per couple! So, you pick up the three room-nights, private airport transportation to and from the resort, champagne waiting for you in your room, a gourmet breakfast every morning and the use of a car to explore St. Barth’s (and not a shitty car). And, you can take full advantage of all Eden Rock resort facilities.

All this for two people for $1,500.

I’m thinking of packing my bags now and heading down there. In addition to being a kickass destination, Eden Rock has a hot art gallery on the premises. There are only 34 rooms (“accommodations,” really) available in this six-star hotel, and privacy is valued. And, there are a handful of uber-luxury estates for guests who truly demand insanely upscale treatment, including the recently opened Villa Rockstar.