Author Archives for Jessi

About Jessi

My Blog: http://www.berryrandom.com

Destination: Grand Cayman

Grand Cayman Beaches

I had been daydreaming about taking a trip to Grand Cayman ever since I saw an episode of 190 North that showed the host horseback riding on the beach and sipping rum drinks.  This was years ago.  I was in high school and at the time this had been my dream trip.  Stingrays and horseback riding in crystal clear waters and topping the day off watching the sunset.  What more could a girl want?

When Ken and I started thinking about our first trip, he suggested the Florida Keys.  (We still haven’t been by the way!)  There was a beach, and I had only spent a day there prior, so I was on board.  Then came the time to book our trip.  The Keys were way out of our budget for a short[er] trip.  Time to brainstorm.  Just for fun, I started looking into how much for a 4 night stay in Grand Cayman.  And to my wonderment, it was much cheaper.  Before you start laughing at us, we were aware of the outrageous prices for everything once on the island.  I start explaining to Ken:  sting rays, turquoise water, and freakin’ horseback riding on the beach…in a swimsuit!  I was hanging on the edge of my seat as he pondered the thought of the entire trip changing in a matter of two minutes.  He agreed.  Smart man!

Two months later, we found ourselves on a plane.  I was beyond excited.  This had been my dream trip.  As always, I had basically planned out our entire stay.  Admittedly we ended up being a little overwhelmed with our schedule but we still found that we had more than enough time to lounge around at the beach in front of our hotel and spend obscene amounts on rum drinks.

Marriott Seven Mile Beach

Bonus: The tethered floats at the Marriott beachfront. Perfect for tanning!

The Hotel
We stayed at the Marriott Grand Cayman Beach Resort on Seven Mile Beach.  The hotel was just a short drive from the airport.  We were immediately greeted by friendly staff with juice drinks.  As we arrived quite early in the morning, our room was not ready and we were pleased to find that the hotel had a special spot for guests to keep their luggage in the lobby, under constant guard by hotel staff.

Our room was clean and decently sized.  The balcony was perfect to enjoy coffee or room-service breakfast in the morning before hitting the beach.  The pool is large with a perfect view of the beach.  The hotel’s section of the beach is wide and clean with plenty of lounge chairs.  Tip:  wake up early and save a spot with some towels and personal items.  The food was really great.  Confession?  We still find ourselves drooling over the blueberry pancakes and hash browns.  Room service is a nice alternative to the high prices for the continental breakfast.

Next time around, we would most likely spring for an ocean view room, but we were just as well with a courtyard view from our balcony.  We don’t typically spend much time in the room anyways.  That’s not really what vacations are for, right?  Either way, next time we visit Grand Cayman we will most definitely be staying at the Marriott.

Transportation
Ay!  I was told by others that driving around the island could be difficult and confusing.  We opted to use a taxi or the local “bus” transportation to restaurants.  Taxis were just fine, accepted USD and KYD giving change in KYD, and the drivers were always friendly.  The “bus” on the other hand, was a unique experience.  Like the taxis, they accept USD and KYD.  Change is made in KYD only.  The fare is 2 KYD  for the route that particular bus runs.  There are several routes – be sure you are getting on the right one!  The buses are not like big city buses, think Dodge Sprinter.  The buses are not the cleanest but you don’t feel like you need to bathe in Purell afterwards either.

It’s very nice to have a cheap mode of transportation, but be warned that travelling along your route can be lengthy when your driver stops for every person waving on the side of the road.  At first, we found it comical when the driver honked at every person on the streets – “need a lift?”  But after stopping 12 times in what should have been a 6 minute ride, we were questioning whether or not a taxi would have been a better choice.  After a while, we figured we could no longer fit more people.  Wrong!  We were shocked at all the seats that were unfolded in the tiny bus.  I was wondering if at some point, we all ended up sitting on one another’s laps.  I was beginning to feel claustrophobic by the time we arrived at our destinations.  Just kidding…but only kind of.

West Palm Beach Resort

The Food
One of the greatest things about Grand Cayman is the fresh seafood, conch fritters, and rum cake all in casual settings situated on the beach.  Make sure to take a drive to The Sunset House for some bacon-wrapped shrimp and rum cake (and of course rum drinks!) as you watch the sun set over the ocean.  The Cracked Conch is a nice romantic spot to enjoy dinner in West Bay.  We had lunch at their Oceanside tiki bar, Macabuca, where the conch fritters and coconut shrimp are phenomenal!  Staying on Seven Mile close to the Royal Palms Beach Club, the breezy outdoor restaurant is a great spot to grab Caribbean seafood while listening to the waves roll into shore.

Seven Mile Beach

The Island
Grand Cayman is gorgeous, clean, and safe.  Georgetown is home to many colorful shops and stores perfect to pick up some souvenirs.  Cemetery Beach is always voted a top snorkel spot in the Caribbean and Seven Mile Beach is always voted one of the world’s greatest beaches.  The locals are proud of their island and their mixed culture.  The Cayman Islands really are a remarkable mishmash of Caymanians and people from all over the globe who came for sun and diving – and never left.  The wild iguanas are a fun sight to see mid-afternoon basking in the sun.

Stingray City

Things To Do
Stingray City is the #1 attraction on Grand Cayman, and for good reason.  We took a trip out with Red Sails.  The cost was surprisingly affordable – about 80 USD per person.  We were picked up at our hotel making only a few stops at other hotels before arriving at the dock.  The 45 minute sail on the enormous boat was wonderful on a warm, sunny day making Stingray City feel like a bonus.  That is, until you get into the waist deep water with the rays.  The staff wrangled up the rays and allowed any of us that wanted to hold them and even kiss them.  Photos were taken and can be purchased for an additional charge.  After some time with the friendly and curious rays, hop back on the boat and enjoy some snorkeling in deeper water near a large reef.

Seahorses

Horseback riding on the beach and in the crystal clear waters is a truly incredible experience.  We used Spirit of the West and we were glad we did.  This excursion will cost about $150 USD per person.  They had a taxi pick us up in front of our hotel, taking us to a secluded beach where we spent nearly 2 hours on our horses.  They have several options including private rides, moonlit rides, and the Caribbean sea swim.  I would highly recommend the sea swim – there is nothing more amazing than riding bareback in the Caribbean, listening to the horse chuffing as they swim along.  The guides were friendly and knowledgeable and they even take photos of you and your group.  Don’t forget your waterproof camera!

Turtle Farm

Cayman Turtle Farm is an excellent place to have a hands-on experience with the adorable sea turtles.  The Island Wildlife Encounter has wading pools with small turtles and touch tanks where you can try and nab a quick baby sea turtle for a photo op.  If you are a sea turtle lover, this is a wonderful place.  They even have a saltwater lagoon for snorkeling with the little guys, for an extra fee of course.  The farm has a release program, but be warned that the locals also use these turtles to “supply local needs” ie they eat them.

Water activities are obviously a main attraction as well as the many dive sites.  Snorkel along Seven Mile Beach to see curious Yellowhead Wrasse, sea turtles, and sting rays.  You can even take a trip to Star Fish Point and marvel over the amount of sea creatures in the shallows.

Next time around we plan on snorkeling off of cemetery beach, grabbing some souvenirs in the colorful shops of Georgetown, and scuba diving.   We would most definitely make room to horseback ride on the beach again as well as visit Stingray City.

The super cool water spout we saw on our last day!

The super cool water spout we saw on our last day!

 

Grand Cayman ended up being our first trip together. Maybe this is why it holds a special place in our hearts.  Or maybe its because the Caymans are truly a magical place to vacation.  We found April to have amazing weather, sunny and only moderately humid with a gentle breeze.  We still can’t wait to go back one day.

Native Wild Iguana

TCI: Conch Diving

TCI

Yeah, that’s basically what it looked like most of our trip.  I was told “there is no bad time to go”.  Really though, fall wasn’t a good time to visit.  In hindsight, we should have not chanced it with rainy season although everything I read said it rains and then clears right up.  Pffft.  Lies!  Alas, hindsight is always 20/20.  You can read all about our less-than-spectacular trip to TCI here.

I was really bummed that our Snuba excursion was cancelled due to a rather big early morning storm.  (I may or may not have sat on the hotel bed and whined about why I picked this destination for two hours.  I admit, not my finest hour.)  So when it came time for our conch diving trip, I was hopeful the skies wouldn’t open up and unleash any more torrential downpour for those precious few hours.

Luckily for us, those awesome folks over at Caicos Dream Tours picked us up right on time – and directly on the beach – with the sun peaking out from behind the clouds.  We were greeted by our friendly boat crew and offered rum punch Caicos style, in gallon jugs with lots o’ rum, and plenty of Turks Head beer.  What more do you need on a boat tour?  Am I right or am I right?

Our first stop was the conch diving sight in shallow water barely reaching the top of our thighs.  The water was slightly murky from churned up sand but it was clear enough to see the seagrass, urchins, and conch.  We all hopped in donning our snorkel gear and fins, thanks to the sea urchins.

And we were off!  Swimming against the current was a nice, little workout and before we knew it we were a ways away from the boat.  We were told to show the captain our conch findings and he would let us know whether or not it was worth grabbing.  I was glad to know, they only accepted fully mature, large conch.  Ken held up a few, the captain scoffing at the puny size each time.  I was probably busy being fascinated in the fuzzy algae growing on their shells and camouflaging them.  Finally, after it seemed like we would never find a queen, I did.

Queen Conch

Before you saw anything, I am aware snorkel gear is not needed above water.  I was trying to hide my face.

Lets just focus on that big momma Queen Conch I snatched up.  I was excited to have found such a big one, although I am not too sure why.  Ken kept getting rejected and we began drifting back towards the boat.  He finally grabbed one, although it wasn’t nearly as huge and amazing as mine.  Sorry, Ken!

When we arrived back at the boat, the co-captain told me I was Queen Conch for the day, having grabbed the largest conch yet.  Say what!  But I can never do anything right.  Moving on, we took our turn getting all excited about the large starfish they had found.  Of course, I had to touch.

giant starfish

Then, the seemingly snotty woman wearing her thong shimmied back onto the boat, with a much larger conch than mine…

And that, my friends is why we don’t gloat.  Heh.

Our next stop was snorkeling out in the ocean with tons of colorful tropical fish and stinger-less jelly fish.  It was really amazing!  I wish we could have gotten better photos of those little guys, but one underwater camera took a crap on us during this excursion.  And well, dang! those jellies are quick.

conch salad, anyone?

After all that swimming, a girl can get hungry.  We stopped by the secluded Little Water Cay, also known as Ignuana Island, as the dark storm clouds pregnant with rain started rolling in.  Time to eat!  Conch salad.  I start feeling really bad.  We are about to watch as the captain cracks the shells open and pulls the innocent little conch out only to be devoured.  I chose that Queen Conch’s fate!  Oh crud!  Now we are going to chop her up with some jalapenos and tomatoes and EAT her!  Um, how does one get back onto the boat and rescue her without arousing suspicion?  All she needs is a little shove back into the ocean…

Too late.  I watched in horror as the captain cracked open several of the largest conch.  The only thing that got me through this?  I am told conch are abundant in TCI and are in no way endangered.  Phew!

yum, conch parts

The captain pulled several of these weird stringy bits out and offered them up, saying they were an aphrodisiac.  Trying to distract myself, I did attempt to eat um, the conch’s penis?  I am not sure what it was but I just couldn’t do it.  Ken did though.  Feel free to make fun of him for that in the comments.  Just kidding.  Wait, no I’m not.  Just in time for lunch to be over, a storm rushed in.  Everyone huddled on the boat until it passed.  Then it was time for a swim…right after we had just seen a shark swim past the boat.

Would I ever go conch diving again?  Sure.  Would I bring my catch back for lunch?  I’m gonna go with a no.  It’s like picking a lobster out of a tank – I don’t want to think about my food ever having been alive let alone see it alive!

stormy skies

Bora Bora Bucket List

…er – really a French Polynesia Bucket List.

But that just doesn’t sound as nice.

bora_bora

Ken and I will be venturing to the islands of Tahiti, Moorea, and finally Bora Bora for our honeymoon.  We are beyond excited.  Well not about the incredibly long flight.  But excited none the less.  Knowing me, I also got really excited to plan as much as possible since I doubt we will ever make it back.  Gotta find that happy medium between complete spontaneity and over-planning.

So, after many days of daydreaming about white (manmade) sand beaches and crystal clear water, here we go.

1. fly on a little island hopping plane

2. stay on Tahiti

3. drink a Hinano in Tahiti

4. snorkel

5. get lei’d

6. have breakfast brought in a canoe

7. eat at Bloody Mary’s in Bora Bora

8. drink out of a coconut

9. snorkel with sharks

10. see a sea turtle

snorkeling with black tips

11. see a pineapple plantation – and try pineapple jam

12. get a Tahitian pearl

13. go on an ATV tour in Moorea

14. drink a Tabu in Bora Bora

15. swim with dolphins

16. see an eel whilst snorkeling

17. get a massage on the beach

18. see an eagle ray

19. stay in an over-water bungalow

20. watch a sunrise

breakfast canoe Thalasso

21. see a giant clam

22. snorkel with humpback whales

23. lookout from Magic Mountain

24. have a photoshoot

25.  watch a sunset

 

Travel Resume

I have always enjoyed traveling, well except for the long flights.  Nothing gets us more excited than daydreaming about future trips and upcoming adventures.  Obviously, we are partial to tropical beach vacations where we can sip rums drinks in the sun and watch palm trees sway in the breeze…but we’re working on broadening our horizons.

I always have long lists of things we need to see, do, and eat every place we wander to (hey! you never know if you will make it back) and each trip is unique and special.  Go big or go home right?  And then, there are those that aren’t quite what we had in mind (Turks and Caicos I am talking to you!)

What makes us different from all the other amazing nomads out there is that we travel less frequently.  I love having y’all tell us to “just do it” and “there is no better time than now” but we like to embrace the little things in life.  Luckily for us, being so close to Chicago we can do quite a bit of exploring in our own state.  That being said, here is our cute little travel resume.

Horseback Riding Grand Cayman

2013

Grand Cayman (April)

Fort Myers, Florida (June)

Providenciales, Turks and Caicos (October)

Starfish Great Exuma

2014

Great Exuma, Bahamas (January)

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic (April)

Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida (May)

Miami, Florida (July)

Cincinnati, Ohio (July)

Tampa, Florida for our wedding (August)

Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora, French Polynesia (September)

 

2015

Clearwater and Crystal River, Florida (January)

Palm Beach, Aruba (April)

San Diego, California (June)

New Orleans, Louisiana (October)

 

We are always daydreaming about Bermuda, Greece, and the Galapagos Islands!

 

Bahamas: The Brittle Star

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I am all about luxury hotels and being comfortable.  But I am also all about going on excursions and getting my hair wet, wearing no make-up and taking ugly photos the whole time.  Great Exuma was the perfect combination.  The minute I saw swimming pigs, I was following Ken around the house reading from our Fodor’s Caribbean book, “Ooooh and then they have iguanas and nurse sharks and a starfish reserve and turtle cay…and we can stay at Sandals.”  I’m sure he was rolling his eyes the whole time.  I don’t blame him, my daydreaming about travels can be intense at times.  Okay, probably all the time.  Luckily for me, he quickly agreed Great Exuma needed to be our next trip.

On our last full day in Great Exuma, we headed out on a “ocean safari” tour with Island Routes.  Unfortunately, it was a little too windy to do the full day tour we had signed up for.  We were bummed but we would take what we could get.  We got a nice second swim with the famous swimming pigs and got to feed some very hungry iguanas as well as check out multiple cays.

Once the iguanas returned to basking in the sun upon realization that the grapes were all gone, we began to wander around the small cay.  It was beautiful with lush green brush and the bluest water I have ever seen.  We walked down the narrow strip of beach towards the rock pool.

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The co-captain exclaims, “Awesome!  I was hoping to find one of these!”  I recoil as he shows us what looks [to me] like a freaky spider he found under a rock in the low tide.  After further inspection, I realize he is holding a brittle star.  I’m no expert (and apparently he wasn’t either) but I am fairly sure it is a spiny brittle star.  Me being me, I want to touch.

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The captain sets the star down on Ken’s arm and jokes that it looks like he has acquired a new tattoo on his other arm.  It just wraps its long flexible arms around Ken’s forearm and doesn’t even attempt to crawl away.  Then one of its arms falls off.  No joke.  Its arm. just. falls. off!  I begin to panic.  We have just killed it.  Oh geez, it is going to die.  Where is the blood?  Why do I always have to go and touch things!  Wait a minute, Ken touched it.  Not me.  Not my fault.  No bad karma here.

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Then the captain calms everyone down, “They fall off as a defense tactic. It will grow back right away.”  Oh, thank goodness!  Hand it over, then, Kenneth!  MY TURN!

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Yeah, it still creeped me out to hold it.  It looks like a gigantic spider.  I hate spiders.  But it was harmless and actually felt incredibly neat.  The central disc that makes up their body actually felt nearly silky and incredibly fragile.  Apparently, others didn’t like the looks of this guy because no one else wanted to hold him.  More for me, I got to place him gently back under his rock to go back to munching on planktonic organisms or whatever he was up to.

Upon our return home, I made a point to read up on these brittle stars.  And I gotta admit they are pretty neat little sea creatures.  These invertebrates make up a portion of the sea star family, having over 2000 different varieties.  They bury themselves, like our friend under the rock, for protection and leave a few arms free to catch their food.  They mostly eat at night, passing food down through their mouth located in the central disc.  But the coolest thing about these guys is that they can regenerate their arms at a rapid rate.  It was nice to have confirmation on that!

How can you help these guys thrive?  Recycle.  Recycle.  Recycle!  Also make sure that when you get an oil change or do one yourself, the oil is recycled – it can be re-refined and re-used.  Many of our oceans special creatures are harmed or killed by trash and the nearly 220 million gallons of oil illegally disposed of from the United States alone.

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On to the next cay!

 

Lowry Park Zoo: Sweet Sea Lions

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I am an animal lover.  I have loved animals since I was a baby.  Ever since my first pet, Bacon the Beta fish, I have been acquiring pets and doing my best to help wildlife whenever possible.  I even used to ride around in a nifty plastic Playskool tractor with a neighborhood friend “saving” worms from untimely deaths in the summer sun after a rainstorm.  I was 7 okay, so cut me some slack.

Ken has become all too used to my daydreams of encountering wildlife and seeking experiences with amazing animals.  Often times, I even choose vacation destinations based upon some unique (or crazy)  wildlife adventure.  I worked with animals for years and after having many uncommon involvements with wildlife (trimming a wallabies toenails, drawing blood from iguanas, tagging Fox snakes, and restraining an alligator to name a few) I have learned that the most special are those that are not planned.  Those special moments when you are lucky enough to have a truly wild animal become as interested in you as you are in them.

That being said, I still fall for the allure of any encounter with an animal I have yet to come in contact with.  I find myself having a moral dilemma.  I love going to zoos and wildlife parks, yet I have such a hard time looking at a majestic tiger in a tiny enclosure, so far from its natural habitat.  I understand the need for knowledge in order to help save these animals, but I find myself going back and forth about how I feel about zoos.

Yet, I found myself coaxing Ken to take me to the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa after we finished up our wedding planning at the Florida Aquarium.  We needed a little bit of fun out in the sun.  Without a beach nearby, the zoo was a good choice.  And I ended up being so glad that we went.

The zoo was much larger than I had expected, and even though it was filled with many screaming children, it didn’t feel too crowded at the exhibits.  The highlights were definitely the manatee hospital and watching the bears swim to cool off.  But after walking around the zoo for a couple hours (and sweating profusely) I learned yet another lesson in spontaneity.

We saw signs all over the park for the sea lions.  And gosh, they are cute.  $2 to watch the show, blahblahblah, take photos with the sea lions.  Hit the brakes.  I can do what?  I want.  I really want.  I think I must have asked Ken about 12 times “so where are these sea lions again?”  By the way, his response was always I don’t know – the map is confusing.  Men and maps.  I know, I know, they don’t need them!

Finally, we end up walking past the sea lion area.  I can hear the show going on.  I walked up to the girl at the front and asked how one takes a photo with the sea lions.  She said there is an opportunity after the show and it’s already half way through.  Oh well, sign me up!  So $4 later, and as we are walking through the doors the show is over.  Apparently time moves slowly while sitting in the heat and the ability to tell time diminishes.  But this worked out, we were fourth in line to get our photo taken with the adorable sea lions.  The one resting his head on my shoulder kept leaving between photos and diving nose first into the water only to be called right back to take another photo.  He was a clown – sliding across the platform and skidding to a halt next to the trainer.

sea lion 001

It’s funny to think if we would have walked past only a couple minutes later, we would have missed out of that memorable opportunity.  And I would have missed out on crossing another item of the ever-growing Great Big Animal Bucket List.

More photos can be found on our facebook page.

The Great Big Animal Bucket List

White Tiger Cub Playtime


      1.  Swim with dolphins
2.  Swim with dolphins in the wild
3.  Watch baby turtles hatch
4.  Ride an elephant
5.   Pet a lion cub
6.  Pet a tiger cub
7.  Feed a sting ray
8.  Kiss a sting ray
10.  Walk a lion
11.  Walk a cheetah
12.      Volunteer at an animal shelter
13.   Milk a cow
14.  Swim with manatees
15.  Hold a koala
17.  Snorkel with Humpback whales
18.  Snorkel with dolphins
19.  Swim with sharks
20.  Take a picture with an adult tiger
21.  Go whale watching
22.    Hold a giant starfish
24.    Cage dive with sharks
25.    Volunteer at a wild animal sanctuary
26.    Hold a wild baby bunny
27.  Get a dolphin kiss
28.  Hold a tarantula
29.  Hold a big snake
30.   Have a turtle race
31.  Go on a whale shark dive
32.    Hold a nurse shark
33.    Swim with sea turtles
34.    Hold a baby sea turtle
35.    Feed a white rhino
36.    Horseback ride on the beach
37.    Touch a penguin
38.    Feed a wild iguana
39.     Go conch diving
40.    Photography tour with wolves
41.  Adopt a dog
42.  Have a pet rat
43.    Kiss a sea lion
44.    Snorkel with penguins
45.    Hold an alligator
46.    Feed an ostrich
47.    Hold a bear cub
48.    Swim with a school of fish
49.    Feed a giraffe
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50.    Ride on a camel
51.   Touch a wallaby at the Cincinnati Zoo
52.    Give an elephant a bath at the Cincinnati Zoo
53.    Bathe a rhino at the Cincinnati Zoo
54.    Feed a deer a cracker out of your mouth
55.    Hold a monkey
56.  Ride a donkey
57.  Hold a baby Clydesdale
58.    Adopt a Potcake
59.  See a manta ray
60.  See an eagle ray
61.  See over 100 different fishes
62.    Hold a seahorse
63.    See wild ponies on Assateague Island
64.    Swim face-to-face with a crocodile
65.    Dive for a starfish
66.     Swim with jelly fish
67.    Hold a sea otter
68.    Foster a pet
69.     Go on a safari
70.    Feed a goat
71.  Get a photo with a bear at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
72.    See a moose in the wild
73.    See a blue iguana
74.    Go wildlife spotting in a national park
75.    Get a pet chinchilla
76.    Go on a glass bottom boat alligator tour
77.    See an octopus in the ocean
78.    Do a sundowner safari in Oklahoma
79.  Take a picture with a liger
80.  Hold a hedgehog
81.  Volunteer at a zoo
82.  See a barracuda
83.    See a giant clam in the ocean
84.    Go to the San Diego zoo
85.    Pet a sloth
86.    Take a photo with a snow leopard
87.  Hold a prairie dog
88.    Feed a big cat
89.  Swim with a tiger
90.  Swim with a gator
91.  See a wolf in the wild
92.    Hold a lemur
93.     Ride on a dolphin’s fin
94.    Go clam digging
95.    See a coral reef
96.     Shear a sheep
97.    See wild horses
98.     See a marine iguana
99.     See a Galapagos fur seal
100.     See a crab eating its prey
101.  Hold a gibbon
102.  Howl with a wolf
103.  Get a camel kiss
104.  Pet a white lion
105.  Feed a toucan from your teeth
106.  Pet a bearcat
107.  Pet an owl
108.  Feed a fox
109.  Pet a kinkajou
110.  Feed a porcupine
What’s on your bucket list?

Tails from Punta Cana

To anyone who has seen our vacation pictures, or recent blog posts, it should come as no surprise that Jessi is a huge animal lover.  Our vacations just wouldn’t feel complete without some sort of animal encounter, from feeding stingrays and holding baby sea turtles in Grand Cayman to swimming with pigs in the Bahamas. Heck most of the time Jess decides she wants to go somewhere based on what exotic animal she can touch.  Unfortunately for us we had no such plan for our most recent trip to Punta Cana.  Actually for the first time ever we had no planned excursions, as we were traveling with another couple and they just aren’t the “excursion type.”

So after two days of doing nothing but relaxing at the beach with my feet in the sand or at the resort pool the idea of an animal encounter was the furthest thing from my mind, but low and behold as I looked up from my pool chair what do I see but two guys walking by the pool area holding a squirrel monkey.  “Jess!!! A MONKEY!” was all I was able to get out before she literally launched herself from her pool chair and ran toward the guys with the monkey.  As it turns out they work for the resort and twice a week bring the monkey out for pictures with the tourists (with their camera only of course.)

Now the pictures don’t even come close to showing the child-like joy on Jessi’s face as she was handed this tiny monkey.  It is however the same look she gets every time she gets to touch some wild animal (I will post more animal encounter pictures soon.)  As she posed for pictures with the monkey, the handler placed the monkey on her shoulder and it immediately climbed on to the top of her head, making for a great picture.

Honestly, the little guy climbed up there on his own!

After a few more pictures I got my chance to hold it and I couldn’t believe how light the little guy was!  After a couple of shots with both Jess and I the handlers moved on to others.  Needless to say this made our day and our vacation was now complete.

They made me pose like this, so hold back the laughter!

 

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Punta Cana: What We Brought Back

 

It goes without saying, the most important thing we bring back from trips are, of course, memories.  We’re constantly snapping pictures so we can remember every little detail and just exactly how blue the water really was.

But we also like stuff too.  Those amazing things that we can’t get back home.  And for the Dominican Republic, this included quite a few of our favorite things: coffee, rum, and cigars.  If only I could have brought home some passion fruits and my little monkey friend!

I am addicted to coffee.  I might even be considered a coffee snob – I want the good stuff that doesn’t need to be turned into a frappe or 8 ounces of cream.  And in the Domican Republic the coffee is the national non-alcoholic beverage of choice and a major source of national pride.  The bold flavor is enough to wake you up instantly (and strip off your enamel with its intense sweetness).  The Arabica coffee produced in the Dominican Republic is supposed to be a superior variety and is grown and cultivated in several parts of the country.

The minute I sipped my piping hot Dominican coffee I was in heaven.  I would happily drink this robust coffee every morning black, or as the locals would say “solo”.  Of course, I tried “cafe con leche” also known as white coffee (with milk and brown sugar) too.  It’s no wonder every little shop has bags and bags of the precious stuff.  We brought home several bags of Santo Domingo cafe, which was what we enjoyed on our porch every morning at our resort.  We also got a little fancy and brought some of the flavored options home.  How could we say no to Dulce de Leche? 

Another thing we saw in abundance on shop shelves was honey.  With frequent and short rain showers in the tropical environment, honey takes on a unique complexity of flavors.  Another source of pride with the artisan honeys of the Caribbean is that their honey is raw and unheated, typically filtered only once before it makes its way into your hands.  If you like honey, this is a real treat.  I’m already wishing I had brought home a few more bottles.

Beer is unique in every country and we make a point to try every local variety.  While we have found most island varieties to be a little skunky for our tastes, we still like to see what other countries have to offer.  The most popular choices we found we Presidente, Bohemia, and Brahma.  Presidente and Presidente Light are Pilsners that are brewed at several breweries in the Dominican Republic.  It is commonly exported to other Caribbean islands and even the US.  Bohemia, along with Presidente, is also owned by Anheuser-Busch’s Brazilian unit while it is still locally brewed in the DR.  Brahma is a pale Brazilian lager that is heavily imported into the Caribbean. 

You can find single bottles at the Punta Cana airport to bring home to share with fellow beer lovers or just grab a few to bring home a taste of Dominica when you’re missing sipping these brews under the shade of a palm tree.

Rum.  Need we say more?  We love our booze and nothing goes down better in the summer months than a frozen rum concoction.  We sampled quite a few different brands and flavors while we were visiting the swim-up bar and made a point to try every fruity drink they had.  The Ron Barcelo dark rum was obviously something the locals were proud of, we were brought glasses only moments after getting situated in our room and even straight, this stuff is good.

You can’t go into s shop without seeing a Kalembu bottle.  really, you can’t.  They make the famous Mamajuana as well as flavored rums and all of which are pretty tasty. 

We probably would have brought more home if our bag wasn’t already pushing the weight limit.  Damn TSA regulations! 

It wouldn’t really be much a trip to Punta Cana without at least smelling the sweet cigar smoke swirling around in the tropical breeze.  I am not a cigar smoker but I do like to take a puff of Ken’s cigars.  I’ve tasted enough to know the good from the bad.  And man, these were some fresh cigars!  After trying Ken’s Dominican Arturo Fuente Opus X, which is nearly impossible to get here in the US, I decided I need to grab a few of my own.  Well, the honey and vanilla cigarillos are mine.  But hey! they still cont – and they are freakin’ good!

I’ll admit when our butler mentioned Mamajuana, I had too much fun just repeating the seductive sound of the word.  It seems as though every country has its own native drink and for the Dominican Republic, Mamajuana is it.  This drink has gained a mythical status and is believed to be able to cure “la gripe” (the common flu) while also being a natural aphrodisiac.  No joke, the bottles even read “liquid Viagra”.  While I’m not sure how the claims hold up, after tasting the sweet liquid I can see why it’s a local tradition.  Bottles of this stuff look like they are filled with sticks and leaves.  I found myself wondering if it was just some grand tourist trap.  You can buy a bottle of cured leaves and pour of the liquid (typically gin) and fill it with a light or dark rum and leave it to cure for a week before pouring a drink.  Or you can buy a bottle that has already been cured and flavored from the herbs and bark.  It tastes very similar to red wine and has a nice woody flavor.

From every trip, we bring home a bag of sand.  And although this can be a pain coming through customs (no! it’s not a bag of explosive materials!) we love to put a glass vial into our travel boxes and make Christmas ornaments out of them.  Shells are another favorite thing of ours to find and bring home.  There weren’t many shells to be found of Bavaro Beach but we did find a few.  I don’t normally buy jewelry but buttering us up for bargaining, we got necklaces and bracelets from shop owners.  Well played, guys, well played!   We always find a photo album on our trips, but this time we came home with a locally made album that holds only 24 photos made out of twigs and leaves.  Not sure that was worth it, but we can say it’s unique, right?

No trip to a country with foreign money would be complete without bothering some poor person for change in local currency.  Of course, we needed pesos!

The uncommon goods that we found in Punta Cana were too good to pass up and we actually found ourselves bringing home many more souvenirs than we typically do.   I came home wanting to wake up to a Dominican coffee every morning and wondering why my honey just doesn’t taste that good.

Bahamas: Swimming with Pigs

Yes, pigs.  Swimming.  Amazing, am I right?

I’ll start off by admitting I am a total nerd.  I always buy travel books pertaining to my most favorite destinations.  About a year ago, Ken and I found ourselves searching for the perfect island for an adventurous vacation after our Turks and Caicos trip being less than ideal.  We wanted one with luxury accommodations that still had plenty of excursions and well, things to do.  I’m 25, not 70, and I can only do so much laying around on the beach.

Then, I see it: a picture of adorable little pink-nosed pigs swimming in the clear blue waters of Pig Island.  It’s one of the 365 cays make the Exumas.  That’s all it took for me to say THIS IS IT we are going to Great Exuma next.

It didn’t take more than a few minutes to sell Ken on this one.  The bluest water you have ever seen on a sleepy little island in the Bahamas complete with amazing snorkeling, giant starfish, and secluded beaches.  Oh, and lets not forget there’s a Sandals resort complete with as many tropical drinks as we want.  Done and done.

As usual, we got to Great Exuma with a list of things to see and do.  What can I say?  I have a bad habit.  Number one on my list was obviously to check out these little curly-tailed wonders.  Especially after every cab driver and extremely friendly island native kept asking us if we had seen the pigs yet.

I’ve swam with dolphins and sting rays and there is nothing more magical.  But pigs are unique to the Bahamas.  I’ll admit I didn’t do my research.  I figured these were native, wild pigs that had been living on the sunny little cay for hundreds of years.  I had even read a few stories about sailors leaving the pigs there to breed so they could return and cook them.  My favorite was the version where the pigs swam to the island for safety after a shipwreck and have been soaking up the sun ever since.  I was a little bummed when we learned they were put there only a few years ago by a father-son duo that taught them how to swim and devote time every day to sail out and feed them.  (We actually ended up going on our excursion with them.)  If it really was set up as a tourist attraction, job well done, guys!

Pig Beach, officially known as Big Major Cay, is a small cay in the Exuma cays.  It’s mostly trees and scrub with virtually non-existent sandy beach.  But it’s still beautiful.

 We were lucky enough to visit these guys twice during our visit.  And let me tell you, these are some well-conditioned piggies.  The second your boat gets within 500 feet of the island, the hum of the motor sends these guys running out of the cool shade under the trees right into the water.  They want their rolls and hot dogs, of course.  Yes, I said hot dogs.  Seems so wrong.  I was assured they are chicken hot dogs, but I didn’t verify this.  I’d prefer not to know – and hey! those piggies weren’t complaining.

I couldn’t wait to hop into the water.  It’s just not as fun feeding them from the boat!  All your hear is soft snorts muffled by the gentle waves as these fairly friendly pigs chase you around hoping you have something for them to eat – even if it is your finger.

 The pigs are very uninterested in you, all they care about is getting the grub.  They are willing to work for it – treading water with their hooves right up until they realize feeding time is over.  They’ll let you pet their heads or touch them for a hot dog, but mostly they use you as a launch pad, pushing off of your body to propel to the next scrap of food.  I didn’t mind.  My bruises were well worth it.

We didn’t see any piglets, but they are typically around in the summer months where you can also visit them on the beach as they lay on beach under the palms, sticking their noses in the sand perfectly fat and content.

This guy was my favorite!  I kept saying, “Ken!  Get a picture of me with the black one!”      

Swimming with the local swine in the Exumas was an unforgettable experience and unique to the Bahamas.  If we ever get back, I would happily hop my happy butt on a boat to visit these fun animals again.  Even if they did poop in the water.  They are pigs after all!  Next time?  I need to see some piglets!

Tons more pictures of the island pigs and our Exuma trip can be found on our facebook page!
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