What’s in Your Phone: Travel Apps

The advent of smartphones has made my travelling so much easier. And I don’t just mean being able to Skype people at home, or ask Trip Advisor for a restaurant recommendation while on the road, I also mean the issue of what in the world do I pack in my carry on to keep me occupied on a flight? Now I don’t have to pack one thousand and one things in my pack, I just have to download them to my phone. (I have a Samsung, so I generally save apps to my memory card, rather than to the internal memory.)

I live in Ottawa, so FlyCanada (an app from the Ottawa airport) really helps out, in that gives you the status of flights, both arrivals and departures. It’s really convenient – I can check my flight status to help me plan when to arrive (i.e. if the flight is delayed, I won’t be sitting around the airport for several hours.) Other airports may have their own app.

In the same vein, I download (and then delete to save space) airline apps when I’m flying them. WestJet and United are two airlines that I fly with often enough to keep their apps on my phone. (WestJet because it’s an economical way to fly west, and United because most of my flights south and to Africa go through Dulles airport in Washington.)

Because The Fiance and I have membership with Priority Pass (which isn’t for priority boarding, rather it gets you into airport lounges) we have their app, to help us figure out a) if an airport has a lounge, and b) where exactly that lounge is. Best thing is, you don’t have to be connected to the internet to use it – you can look up where a lounge is in a airport offline.

Another app that smooths your travels is Seat Guru (also a website, if you don’t feel like adding another app.) This one lets you figure out the good, and the bad, seats on a flight. Fill in the departure and arrival airports, flight number, and voila – it determines what airplane the airline is using for that flight, and which seats are good, so-so, and to-be-avoided-at-all-costs.

While traveling, I sometimes have a hard time converting currency. It’s easy enough if it’s a simple 10 to 1, but if it’s a weird amount (130X to $1, for example) then I pull out XE currency. Rates are up-to-date, and take the guess work out of prices.

I spend a lot of time in countries where I speak very little, to none, of the local language. So if I need something other than a beer, or the bathroom, I whip out my Google Translate app. Not only can I type something in in English and get the translation, you can now open the app, hold it up to something printed in the local language and it will translate it for you. There is a caveat – it has to be a major language – French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, although sadly Arabic doesn’t seem to be in the list.

Talking about Google, we also use the Google Drive app. We have our travel documents scanned in and saved in case of emergency, as well as copies of pre-booked hotels/activities, and frequent flier numbers.

And since I always end up somewhere that I didn’t think I’d end up (I’m big on talking with people when I travel, who then suggest a place I hadn’t known about) I also have the Trip Advisor app on my phone. Great for suggestions on restaurants, pubs, hotels, activities…

In the same vein, I have a few hotel/hostel booking apps on my phone – Hotwire.com, Hotels.com, Hostelbookers, Hostelworld. We occasionally leave a night or two unbooked for unexpected side trips. Or we book in somewhere that we don’t like….and sometimes we get a special discount if we book through the app.

I spend (probably) far too much of my travel time in NYC. So I have an NYC subway app on my phone. SO much easier to figure out the closest subway (we spend a lot of time just wandering around NYC), or what route to take to get where. A lot better than unraveling (and trying to re-ravel) a paper map.

And finally on the planning side is the Time Out app. Letting you see a list of things to do , nearby bars, and make a reservation at a restaurant, among other things, this app covers (select) cities in Europe, Africa, the US, Asia, Australia….pretty much everywhere except Canada. (Boor-urns to that!)

On the fun side, I have a few other apps to help pass the time while waiting….anywhere. At the airport, on the plane, on a train, at a restaurant….

My ereader is a Kobo, so I also downloaded their app. I sometimes find it easier to navigate buying a book on my phone – say if I’m using a wifi that’s password protected, it’s a lot easier to navigate that issue with my phone than with the ereader.

Shortyz. I love crosswords, and pre-smartphone era (which for me, was up to a few years ago) I would pack a crossword book in my carry-on. That alone doesn’t take up a lot of space, but add to it a couple of books (I got a tablet in 2010, but didn’t get an ereader until just a few years ago.), a journal, a deck of cards….and bags start bulking up. So if you’re a crossword fan, Shortyz is a great app. Download a few days worth of puzzles, this app pulls in crosswords from multiple sources, from pop culture (People Magazine) to easy-to-hard (LA Times, depending on the day of the week). Along the same vein, I also have Sudoku and Solitaire downloaded.

Buttons and Scissors is a game that involves buttons of different colours that you ‘cut’ in a straight line off the board. You can’t cut past a different coloured button, and you have to cut at least 2 buttons at a time. A bit of mindless fun, it occasionally requires a bit of strategy as you try to figure out what order to cut in to clear the board. (I also have Candy Crush, but the 5 lives go by so quickly.)

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Coffee and Chocolate Making

Coffee coffee coffee, to quote one of my favourite tv shows (you should say it really fast to replicate it well). While I can live without my coffee (not chocolate, that I need or I turn into a wailing she-b***h), the ritual of drinking it is well ingrained in me, and finding out how it’s grown, roasted and ground is fascinating (to me).

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A farm along the drive

While at the typical house on our Monkey Land excursion out of Punta Cana, we got a quick tour of a small, local coffee plantation, and also got to learn about chocolate.  So basically, if they had grown strawberries as well, it would have been my ultimate place to be.

We arrived around 10 a.m. at the ‘typical house’ as it’s styled on the excursion site. We were given a brief tour of the house, before heading onto the farm to get a crash course in coffee and chocolate.

I’d been on a coffee tour years ago in Costa Rica, so I was familiar with the process. Coffee ‘cherries’ are picked and then spread out in the sun to dry for 2 to 3 weeks. After that, they’re milled – in Dominican Republic, they’re put into a large vessel and pounded with  a club – sort of like a giant mortar and pestle. After that, they’re roasted, ground….and you get to brew it for delicious, delicious coffee.

I had had a similar indoctrination to harvesting chocolate while in Cuba (Baracoa- great chocolate if you happen to get down that way). Chocolate is harvested much the same. Cocoa pods grow on trees, in a variety of colours (green, brown, red), but once the pods turn yellow – they’re ripe. They’re picked, and opened to reveal…..weird alien looking, gooey insides that no one in their right mind should ever have tasted.

But you can – the white seeds inside taste faintly sweet when you suck on them (bitter, if you bite on them). But, that’s not chocolate. The white seeds are fermented, dried, and then roasted.

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Ready to eat the powdered chocolate

At that point – you can eat it. It’s the purest form of dark chocolate. So, pretty much bitter, but…..oh my god, still good.

At the typical house we were at, they put the roasted cocoa beans into a grinder (much like coffee), mix in a little cinnamon and brown sugar (both organic) and voila! Tasty, sweet chocolate. (Before they could afford grinders, they used to rub the roasted bean on a grater to create the chocolate powder.)

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What caused all the problems at security

We ended up buying a package of both the coffee (in bean form, since we have a grinder at home), and the powdered chocolate. And of course, we got pulled over at security in the airport because the bags sent of the xray machine. And then of course, no one spoke English and we don’t speak much Spanish (beyond ordering drinks and asking where the bathroom is), so the security guy had to poke a hole in the bag to get a good smell….thankfully it was the coffee bean bag, so I didn’t end up with chocolate covered everything by the time I got home.

 

 

Monkeying Around at Monkey Land

One thing I’ll give resorts is that they’re a lot like hostels, in that people talk to one another more than they do at hotels. You sit down in the lobby to check wifi, you start chatting. You sit down at lunch, you start staring at the crowing peacocks, look over at the person at the next table, and start talking. You go to the beach bar for a nightcap, and you…well if you’re me, you try to read a book, but people start talking to you.

Which is how we ended up chatting with people at a bar one night (they flagged us down to ask if we were from Holland. Which we’re not, for the record.)

They had booked a tour to Monkey Land before leaving home, and told us a bit about it. You hold a small bowl of food, and the monkeys come over and climb over you, jump on you, and just generally have a lot of fun playing around. This was about all the information we got – they weren’t even sure at that point what the name was – they thought it was on an island, in fact. So the next day we googled ‘monkey excursion punta cana’ and…voila. Monkey Land.

We booked online, and had no way to print the paypal receipt, but I screenshot the email, and that’s what we used when we were picked up. We had no problem with not having a paper receipt.

Runners Adventures picks you up in a new, well taken care of vehicle, and drives you to a meeting point (which happened to be just across from the dune buggies). From there, people climb into the correct vehicle (I guess occasionally, they have different vehicles pick up people from resorts in other locations) and off you go. The road at first is smooth, but eventually we pulled off onto a very bumpy back road.

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Through the mountain pass to Monkey Land we go

From there, we wound our way through the mountains, before stopping at another typical house. Unlike our tour with the dune buggies, this one was more informative, with information on growing, harvesting, and roasting both coffee and cacao. Then it was another sales pitch and sample of the coffee and hot chocolate, before we were on our way again to Monkey Land.

At Monkey Land we were given a short “do’s and don’ts” list – don’t panic, don’t pet the monkeys, do allow them to use you as a climbing post, and then we headed into the monkeys’ enclosure.

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The enclosure walls

The enclosure is pretty huge – the monkeys have more than ample room to play, run around, and live. There are sides, but no ceiling/roof, and there is plenty of vegetation. The monkeys are squirrel monkeys – they’re pretty small, about 2lbs full grown, so when they jump on you, you’re aware of it, but it doesn’t knock you over. They were even-tempered, playful, and very interested in our food bowls.

Once inside, we were handed a small metal bowl filled with peanuts, cucumber, bananas, melons, apples…lots of different fruit. We were lined up again a railing, underneath a tree, and the monkeys ran over to pick through our bowls for whatever treat they wanted. They climbed over us, stood on us, jumped on us…and it was the cutest thing ever.

After  a few minutes, we walked down to a scenic lookout for photos, and more monkey mugging, and then around to a massive tree that the monkeys sleep in.  Again, we were lined up for the monkeys to climb over, and after that it was back out of the enclosure.

All in all, we spent about a half hour in the enclosure, asking our guide a few questions, taking pictures, and getting lots of monkey loving.

Dominican (Republic) Drift

It’s 7 am, I’m on vacation, and yet I’m up. Two of these things don’t go together.

But I get to drive a dune buggy (or boogie, as they insist on spelling it) today, so I’ll make the sacrifice.

We had booked the tour through our travel agent at home, hoping to have things paid upfront before our vacation, so we didn’t have to think too much about money while we were away. This was advertized as a dune buggy tour, with a visit to a typical house, and then a swim in a cenote. The Fiancé wanted to do the dune buggies, I wanted the cenote swim, it seemed a great compromise.

(After a quick google, I found out that cenotes are natural sinkholes filled with water.)

So at 8 am, we’re eating breakfast in the buffet, sucking back coffee because somehow we need to function, and coffee seems the best way to make that happen.  At 8:30 we head to reception, the pick up point, for our 9 am pick up. (It takes about 10 minutes to get from the buffet to reception.) We avail ourselves of the free wifi, and move to the entrance, waiting on the benches that line the walkway.

And we wait and we wait.

And then we wait some more, because maybe it’s (fill in name of country here) time. Our travels have taught us one very important factor: Most places have a very fluid sense of time, and a (insert time here) meeting could be 20 to 30 minutes later. We’re not rushed, we’ve got time, and we figure they won’t start without us.

Only they will, because they don’t pick us up.

And this begins a long journey of phone tag, frustration, and at least one middle finger directed to yours truly.

We email our travel agent at home about the problem, then we ask at reception to use the phone and call the (local) company. The woman at reception responds with a “I’m just scratching my face” middle finger, but nonetheless calls the company. The company informs me that a) I should have called at least 48 hours before to reconfirm (never mind that my voucher says ‘confirmed’ and we called 6 days ago to confirm) and b) I should have talked to their (non-existent) on-site representative, but not to worry! She would call me in my room in 5 minutes.

To save you the problem of reading the next two hours of back and forths between us and our travel agent, suffice to say that we didn’t get the call, we did get frustrated, and we insisted on a refund before heading to the beach, where there were no sun loungers left. (It was an all around frustrating day).

But we did get a call from the (apparently existent) on-site rep, who offered a tour the next day in place of the missed one. This time pick up would be 8 am. We decided to give it a go instead of fighting for a refund, so we agreed.

So here I am at 6:30 am, blurry eyed, trying to find someone with coffee in the buffet.

After that, it was back to reception, waiting again, and with relief a pick up by Punta Cana Boogies. We ride in the bumpy transfer vehicle to their headquarters, where we are given a quick run down of safety procedures, and needed equipment (something to cover your nose, as it is dusty, and helmets), and sign our waivers. Then we pick our helmets (in my case a bicycle helmet) and our vehicles, we put on our safety belts, and then….we wait.

Once everyone is ready to go, we head out of the parking lot, through a puddle (soaking everything we have with us) and down the bumpy, uneven back road.

Staff has blocked off any cross streets, allowing us to go through without fear of being smacked by wayward truck, or of getting lost. We head up a hill, down a hill (gathering speed at an alarming rate) and then around a bend to a beach.

Where people are surfing, and NO ONE TOLD ME I COULD SURF. I totally would have picked that as my excursion had I known. But alas, I didn’t, so I get to watch people surf and try to head off all the peddlers who want me to buy stuff. (Apparently my ‘Non, gracias’ isn’t enough, and they look at The Fiancé for confirmation.)

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Surfers waiting for the perfect wave

After the beach, we drive back past the headquarters, to a typical house, hitting more puddles (and cow patties, that splatter all over my hands). We’re given a quick briefing on growing coffee, before they give us the sales spiel. However, we love coffee, so we buy a coffee package, before wandering around the building while others barter and check out the cigar rolling.

Then it’s on to the cenote. It’s a quick 5 minute drive from the house. We pull up in a double line, jump out, and head towards the cenote. And are promptly disappointed. It,s not a ‘swim’ as advertized, rather it’s a ‘line up with others, quickly strip, jump in, and quickly get out for the next person in line.’ The jump isn’t far – about 3 to 5 feet down to the water, and fairly safe; while there are rocks, it’s easy to jump just past them to the deeper water. It wasn’t very cold – more like an Ontarian lake in June, fresh and cool, but not a shocking jump right back out again cold.

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Blurry cenote visit – we were rushed down, in, and out

After our dip (jump?) in the cenote, we dry off (always bring your own towel! Douglas Adams had it right), and it’s back into the dune buggies to drive (past the typical house) to the headquarters, where we mingle around while they try to peddle DVDs of pictures, soft drinks, and ice cream, before heading back to the resort.

All in all – lots of fun. Dune buggies are fun to drive, cenotes are fun to jump in, and it’s a good morning out. But it’s definitely a dune buggy tour with a cenote tacked on.

 

 

Punta Cana: Caribe Club Princess Review

This is our third attempt at an all-inclusive vacation, although I’m not sure if the first one counts. Our first foray into the world of resorts was in Cuba – we spent 2 weeks backpacking around on our own, before ending at a resort for a week. We took a taxi across the causeway to Cayo Coco, arrived at the hotel, and then spent a week trying to relax on the beach, while wishing that we were still out on the main island.

And after that, we went to Jamaica, where we were a little spoiled. We travelled with Westjet, who had a representative meet us at the gate, and show us to the lounge sponsered by our resort (Couples). The 5-star resort itself was lovely – small, quiet, adult-only, and they had a no tipping policy.

This year, after a hectic ride through Botswana and Zimbabwe, we decided to do a week in Dominican Republic at a resort. We went middle of the road – not the cheapest package we found, but not the most expensive either. It fit our criteria – on the beach, food available nearly 24/7, and relatively good reviews. We booked the resort, and an excursion, through our travel agent, thinking to have everything paid up front so that we didn’t have to worry about cost after the fact (and those costs skyrocketing as they are wont to when I get to researching destinations).

So here’s the thing. The all-inclusive resort thing doesn’t work for us. I know lots of people who it does work for – and everytime they talk about their trips I get this vision of relaxing on a beach, no worries in sight, everything taken care of…..and then I go on an all inclusive vacation and things just fall apart like paper towels in the bath tub.

So here’s how it went down.

We arrived to a quiet terminal in Punta Cana with only our fellow plane mates milling around at the carousels. We found ourselves with a porter (which turned out to be very helpful) who grabbed our “it’s a very small green bag” bag, and then led us quickly through the airport to our bus. (Instead of us wandering around trying to determine which bus out of the many there was the one we needed to be on.) A bit of waiting later (not everyone was lucky enough to have a porter like ours), we were off for the resorts.

So far so good, right? And it was. We checked in super quick, jumped on the shuttle, waited a beat to see if anyone else was joining us, then took a mad dash through the resort to our room.

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Shuttle on the resort

Where the toilet didn’t work. Where the safe didn’t work. Where the balcony didn’t lock, even though we were on the first floor. We called reception, who had someone there within 5 minutes (good) but who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the safe, so we had to wait for reception to reset the code (bad). This means that we missed dinner at the buffet, which ended at 10:30, and couldn’t eat until the snack grill opened at 11 pm.

The rest of the stay was in a similar mode – we’d have some good, and then we’d have some bad. Because our room was incredibly loud (on the first floor, right by a shuttle stop) we asked at front desk if we could change rooms. The first person we talked to was a little rude, the second  (in the afternoon) was much happier. A few days later, we got great service when asking about a comfort room to use on the last day (our flight wasn’t until the evening, and check out was at noon), but then when I asked to  make a local phone call from the front desk (after our excursion company didn’t pick us up) I got a “I’m just scratching my face” middle finger. Or we would get great service at the Lobby Bar, but at the swim up bar we’d put in an order, and never get our drinks.

And it didn’t stop there. The food was mediocre at best – either over-cooked, or under-cooked, rarely done right (the exception being the roast chicken).  Or very few veggie dishes available or very few meat dishes available. Some mornings servers were on the ball, and we had coffee refills really quickly, other mornings it was like no one was working and even that first cup of coffee was like a pipe dream.

Our room would be cleaned well, with the towels refreshed, but the shower not cleaned. The sheets on the bed were crisp and white….but the bottom sheet didn’t reach the end of the bed; there was a good two inches were our feet were touching the mattress cover (removable and washable, so maybe it was clean).

Resort rules weren’t enforced, so people would reserve loungers on the beach, or around the pools, either the night before or early in the morning. If you didn’t get up by 8 am, and reserve a lounger before breakfast, you’d be out of luck until close to 4 pm when the sun worshippers headed back to their rooms. The dress code for the buffet was theoretically no beachwear, but you’d see guests in fishnet bikini covers. Now I realize that the resort can’t control all the behaviour of the guests, but having someone go around the remove towels from reserved loungers when they’re putting them back in place at night would a start to making a more enjoyable stay for others.

And all of that is why I don’t think I’m a resort person. I want a bit more variety – in food, in drinks, in things to see and do; I want to be able to take a stance on bad service by not giving them more money, and finding another hotel/restaurant/bar.

Least I leave you thinking I’m a whiny, elitist traveller, let me focus on the good. The beach was fantastic. A long crescent of white sand, it stretched in either direction (we were in the middle of the crescent). The waves were fantastic – I don’t know if it’s an always thing with Punta Cana, or a result of the wind while we were there (it was fairly windy the entire week), but we had crashing white-water waves to play in the entire time. We had bright, sunny weather the entire week, with a few rain showers at opportune times – at 4:30 for an hour or so, or overnight.

The resort is populated by birds – from the peafowl (2 peacocks and at least 6 peahens), to herons, ducks and geese, it’s a birdwatchers paradise. The staff fill feed bowls for the birds, ensuring that there are plenty around to entertain the guests. As a bonus, we were there shortly after hatching, so we saw so.many.babies!

Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend the resort (or its sister resort, Tropical Princess) simply for the staff’s cavalier attitude towards guests.