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Bird watching paradise Posted June 8, 2016

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The real surprise for us was finding a spot not mentioned in Murphy’s book, containing habitats not well-described in the french field guide’s preliminary chapters. We went to Gran Riviere, in the northeast corner of Trinidad, on the advice of a friend we had met in Tobago on our first trip in 1997. She told us about a small hotel there, where nesting loggerhead turtles come up on the beach directly in front of the veranda. Sounded good, although she was not a birder and was vague on birding opportunities in the region. We spent three days there, found lots of birds, and had an extremely relaxing time, with great food an added bonus. The hotel is the Mt. Plaisir Hotel (website: www.mtplaisir.com; e-mail: info@mtplaisir.com) run by Piero, a retired (for the time being) photo-journalist from Italy. Our room was awesome, very comfortable, very Caribbean, and reminiscent of a tree house. The food is simple, but elegantly prepared and wonderful. We didn’t drive there (a 2-hour trip from Piarco Airport), instead returned our rental car and let the Mt. Plaisir folks pick us up in their van. The transport fee was $50.00 US one way, which included both of us. We liked this option as it allowed us more opportunity to check out the villages, scenery, and birds along the way. There is also a guest house in Gran Riviere, upstairs from the small storefront at the main intersection. We don’t have details on this spartan spot, but doubt seriously that you need a reservation to stay there.

The village of Gran Riviere is situated at the foot of the Northern Range’s rainforest (facing north), and between the mouths of two rivers. It is very nearly at the end of the road…literally, for there is no connection between Blanchisseusse and Matelot, except for a hiking trail (which we also spent a day exploring…from the Blanchisseuse end going east). Gran Riviere has a small pocket beach on Gran Riviere Bay, bracketed by rocky headlands (great snorkeling). Behind the village is a sizable cultivated area, in a very small valley before the rainforest ascent begins. The bird opportunities, therefore, include marine species, freshwater birds including white-winged swallows and kingfishers, and a wide spectrum of rainforest and lowlands landbirds. The birding is pretty good around town and on the hotel grounds. But we spent two full days walking from the main corner of town, through the very productive cultivated area along Montevideo Trace, then turning right onto the Esperanza Trace through lush rainforest, winding around and always up, until we detected a noticeable faunal change with altitude. These were all-day hikes, and we carried water and snacks. Intermittent showers on those two days kept the birds active throughout the day. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to get through the cultivated area (about 20 acres?). It’s full of good stuff, including antbirds, woodpeckers, flycatchers, many hummingbirds, including all the hermits, white-necked jacobin and tufted coquette, and with raptors, woodpeckers, swifts and parrots cruising by overhead. Once on the Esperanza Trace, you will soon begin an upward climb through very productive rainforest, only occasionally broken by small banana cultivations. About a mile up the trail, we found a joint oropendola-cacique colony in a tall mora tree, and were able to record the bedlam on our tape recorder. On another walk, you might want to stay on Montevideo Trace another quarter mile or so past the Esperanza Trace, until you come to a house in a clearing on a hilltop, where a self-appointed Pawi Warden will collect a few TTs from you and show you Trinidad piping guans in the trees surrounding his property. While there, check out the ground under the nutmeg trees and pick up a few to take home. Freshly ground nutmeg is absolutely essential to a proper rum-punch. We found three piping guans on our own along the small footpath that encircles this hilltop, along with all three trogons and several antbirds.

Despite a few torrential rainstorms while we were there, in two days plus a morning of birding, we racked up a total of 89 species in the vicinity of Gran Riviere, including many new ones for us. Highlights included all three trogons, Trinidad piping guan, 9 hummingbirds including tufted coquette, antbirds (silvered antbird, white-bellied antbird, black-faced antthrush, barred and great antshrikes, white flanked antwren), 12 flycatchers (including white-throated spadebill, piratic flycatcher, nesting boat-billed flycatchers, nesting streaked flycatchers), abundant golden-headed manakins, fewer white-chinned manakins, abundant cocoa and bare-eyed thrushes, all of the honeycreepers and blue dacnis, and more Trinidad euphonias than we have found anywhere else. We heard but could not find black-tailed tityras (a species we always seem to leave behind) and admit that the numbers of raptors (5) and tanagers (5) were low in this area. We also might have spent more time flushing and checking on all the seedeaters and grassquits in the cultivated areas and near town. Trapping of song-birds does occur in this area (as it does everywhere in Trinidad), but perhaps at a lower rate, judging from the large numbers of these birds around Gran Riviere. And of course there was the thrill of watching 12 leatherback turtles depositing eggs on the beach in front of our room, plus a thirteenth at dawn one morning, which made our stay the more memorable as a natural history ‘event’. Should you want a guide to show you the specialty plants of the rainforest, a local expert (Cyril) is available at the hotel to show you around. He also has a boat he can use to take you to remote beaches along the north coast. You might also check out Gordon Trace (marked by a “street sign”), which pokes its way into the mountains along side a small creek just west of town, over an incredibly decrepit wooden bridge. We only birded the first mile or so, but it looked very promising. The Mt. Plaisir Hotel is definitely already included in our next itinerary, since every hike we took this time produced more that we hadn’t seen. We’re sure our next trip will be no different.

Caribbean on the cheap Posted June 8, 2016

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Caribbean on the Cheap
by Ken McAlpineYou may not get a mint on your pillow, but there is charm — and genuine Caribbean flavor — in trading a fancy fitness center and spa for $3 beers on the honor system or an evening’s conversation on the patio with the proprietor.

THE CARIBBEAN is a lovely world — described so aptly and incessantly that we won’t do it here. But that loveliness often comes with a price tag. So with savings in mind, we did some snooping to find the best hotels for around one Ben Franklin (or less) per night, avoiding islands where every beach is lined with megaresorts, and leaning to islands where beaches don’t even have parking lots. We eschewed names like Lavender Hills Estates and The Hotel de Snooty Pants. And we were discriminating in our sorting. Some lodgings are beachfront, some aren’t — the Caribbean is not just about beaches. The summer off-season is best for low prices, and rates can drop substantially if you book for more than a few days. But plenty of these places fit our budget in every season. And in the end, it’s not about money, it’s about memories. Here are 10 inexpensive Caribbean hotels to remember.

1 St. Croix: Hotel Caravelle
Hurricane Hugo (1989) left St. Croix’s tourist industry in rubble. St. Croix has recovered, but tourists have yet to notice. The largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix is also the most overlooked. The Hotel Caravelle sits on the water in quiet Christiansted; most rooms have a view of the harbor, and, in the equally blue distance, the Caribbean Sea. Should you opt to partake in some of the Caribbean’s finest diving, you can leap from your hotel room into the boats departing the harbor-front dock. (800-524-0410,www.hotelcaravelle.com)

2 Anegada: Neptune’s Treasure
This one’s a beauty for one overriding reason — mention Anegada (pronounced Ah-ney-GAH-dah) to most folks, and the reaction will be “Huh?” The island isn’t even on some maps. But contrary to cartographers, the Soares’ family-run Neptune’s Treasure does exist, its guesthouses sitting just back from the beach near Setting Point, on Anegada’s southwest shore in the British Virgin Islands. Walk west on the solitary beach, and the charted world falls away. (284-495-9439, www.neptunetreasure.com)

3 Trinidad: Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel
Rustic, yes, but a nature lover’s dream. Perhaps you enjoy the sight of hundreds of yellowtail birds returning to their nests at dawn. Maybe you wish to stroll, directly out your door, the empty expanse of Grand’ Rivière beach. Perhaps you want to watch others on the beach — Trinidad’s northeast coast is the largest nesting site for leatherback turtles in the Western Hemisphere. During nesting season (March through August), the mothers lay their eggs in the sand just outside your room (all 13 rooms face the sea). From May through September, their hatchlings gush back to the sea. The city life of Port of Spain is more than 100 kilometers away, but you won’t find many leatherback turtles there. (868-670-2216, www.mtplaisir.com)

4 Exuma, Bahamas:
Coral Gardens Bed & Breakfast
No one agrees on how many cays comprise the Exuma Cays — 300? 400? — but the quibbling ignores the important fact that most are uninhabited. You can camp on the cays — they are one of the world’s top sea kayaking destinations — but you can also reside at the Coral Gardens Bed & Breakfast, the Exumas’ most affordable lodging. Expat Englishfolk Peter and Betty Oxley offer B&B accommodations in their home — three rooms (worry not, there are private bathrooms) with hilltop views of the north and south coasts. (242-336-2880, www.coralgardensbahamas.com)

5 Virgin Gorda: The Wheel House
Even on Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands — where accommodations are often aimed at well-heeled travelers — there is hope. It comes in the form of The Wheel House — 12 clean, neat rooms located in Spanish Town, directly across from the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour. Long a favorite of yachties who possess panache but want to save some cash, this hotel also has a restaurant serving equally affordable fresh seafood and West Indian cuisine. (284-495-5230, www.bviguide.com/stay.html)

6 Dominica: Beau Rive
Located on the lush and wild Atlantic side of Dominica, Beau Rive is still a secret — it just opened in 2003. If you are looking for a beach vacation, look elsewhere (the Atlantic shore is rough and rocky, though the island has 300-plus rivers to swim in). If you are looking for the charming, unspoiled Caribbean, come here. Six suites share a breathtaking panorama (Beau Rive sits more than 200 feet above the sea). Englishman and chef Mark Steele owns the place; after dinner his mom, Josie, often plays the piano. (767-445-8992, www.beaurive.com)

7 Puerto Rico: Hacienda GripiÑas
Paradores are country inns, and Hacienda Gripiñas, near the town of Jayuya in the central mountains, is the real deal; a restored 19th-century coffee plantation and a simple, hospitable home where you might converse on the breezy veranda, absorb a drumming tropical rain, or revel in the sounds of Caribbean countryside. At night you might want to use earplugs — the tiny Puerto Rican tree frog sings through the night. (787-828-1717,www.haciendagripinas.com)

8 St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands: Maho Bay
St. John is a mecca for tropical campers, and Maho Bay Camps is renowned for its environmental bent. Imagine Swiss Family Robinson — lush jungle, a latticework of connecting wood walkways, and 16 x 16 canvas tent cottages on platforms, each with a private deck. Public bathhouses have pull-chain showers, but you are doing your part for the environment. Want to go a bit more upscale, but still stay under $100? Try (off-season) Maho’s cousin. Concordia’s Eco-Tents have more elaborate kitchen facilities and their own showers. (800-392-9004, www.maho.org)

9 Trinidad: Coblentz Inn
Small (16 rooms), colorful (billed as Trinidad’s first boutique hotel), and located right in the capital Port of Spain, the Coblentz Inn was once a hospital, then a nursing home, and now a quiet, nearly unknown escape, complete with an intimate 15-table gourmet restaurant. (868-621-0541,www.coblentzinn.com)

10 Puerto Rico: Playa de PÁjaros or Playa Sardinera
To really get away, go camping on Isla de Mona. Roughly 45 miles off Puerto Rico’s west coast, this uninhabited nature reserve may be the wildest island left in the Car­ibbean. You’ll get dropped off by boat and left to explore the island. Factoring in the transport cost ($100 to $135 round trip per person), it’s still a bargain — camping (you bring your own food and gear to one of two lovely beaches) is $10 per person a night. (For transport, call Mona Aquatics, 787-851-2185. For camping permits, call the Department of Natural Environment/Resources in San Juan, 787-724-8774.)

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