Flight 1: Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, to San Juan, Puerto Rico

As I promised, here starts my review series of the flights that make up the Ultimate Flight Marathon (i.e. my personal Amazing Race).

Airline: Seaborne Airlines

Date: May 7, 2016

Type of plane: Saab 340 TurboProp

Duration of the flight: 1.5 hours

Delays: We did leave about 10 minutes behind schedule, but it didn’t impact our arrival time. However, it was a bit nerve-wracking that boarding only started after we were supposed to have taken off already (as I knew I had a tight connection in San Juan).

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General info: Seaborne is a tiny Caribbean airline that partners with American Airlines and Jet Blue. Therefore your e-ticket may say American Airlines (as mine did) but rest assured – your aircraft will be much more exotic than “plane” ol’ American (pun intended). On the route from Guadeloupe to Puerto Rico, Seaborne operates a tiny 30-seater twin-engine propeller plane, Saab 340 TurboProp. It’s definitely not the most modern aircraft out there – Wikipedia tells me that the production of this plane type ended in 1998.

What was special about this plane: The overhead bins are so small that a regular carry-on suitcase won’t fit up there. Therefore the staff collected bigger carry-ons from people as they were stepping up to the aircraft, and stashed them in the plane’s luggage compartment. Folks got them back as soon as we landed in San Juan. Luckily my backpack was small enough to fit in the tiny space we were allotted. (Yay for packing light!)

Highlight: It was entertaining to watch the lone flight attendant, Julio, trying to play several roles simultaneously and to try not to hit his head onto the low roof.

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What I would do differently next time: The whole left side of the plane is made up of single seats, so everyone got a window seat – except for me! I managed to be assigned the only window seat onboard that didn’t have a window. Lame. So next time I’ll ask for a seat that is not 2A. I had to gawk over at my neighIMG_7446.jpgbor’s window to steal at least a small glimpse of the pretty islands of the Caribbean we flew over.

Food served: We got two bags of pretzels and a choice of mango/guava juice and water. Not shabby for such a short hop across the pond!

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Turbulence: In smaller planes you tend to feel every twist and turn. From that perspective the ride was exceptionally smooth. There was practically no shaking at all – just a tad at the landing time.

Price: This was the first flight of the two flights that made up my one-way ticket from Guadeloupe to NYC. The total price of this ticket would have been $220, but I paid it with the awesome Thank You points from Citibank. As long as you have the Citi Prestige credit card, these points offer great value if you are booking an American Airlines flight or a codeshare (which is what this one was). Yet another reason to love that card (getting access to airport lounges is another!). Of course I would have much rather taken one of the cheap and direct Norwegian Air flights from Gwada to NYC, but unfortunately those flights aren’t running again until November.

Miles earned: Not a whole lot – I earned just 331 miles, which I deposited into the American Airlines AAdvantage program.

Overall experience: Just OK.

The crazy, wacky Ultimate Flight Marathon

Happy May everyone!

As I write this, I’m about to embark on an epic journey – a dream trip to New Caledonia. Where exactly is that, you may wonder… Well, it’s a French island, or actually an archipelago, located in the Pacific Ocean. Geographically, it’s about as far from France as possible. It’s also pretty darn far from our departure point of Guadeloupe and the Caribbean in general. But it’s only a couple of hours from Sydney, Australia, by plane.

The idea for this trip came from my French boyfriend. He visited New Caledonia 15 years ago and considers it the most beautiful place he has ever seen. We’ve wanted to take a trip there for a while already, and now it’s finally happening!

This is where the Ultimate Flight Marathon comes into the picture: to get from the Caribbean to New Caledonia’s capital of Noumea and back, we will be taking a total of 15 flights over the next 3.5 weeks. Yikes. This includes flights with 11 different airlines. The shortest flight is just 1.5 hours, and the longest one over 13 hours.

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This photo is from the beach of La Datcha in Guadeloupe – I’m having a hard time believing that New Caledonia can beat this view! But let’s see.

To make this gargantuan air journey a bit more exciting, I decided to review some of the flight segments and airlines on this blog as we move along. I will be commenting on things like on-time departure and arrival times, food served onboard, possible turbulence and other trouble, as well as my own state of mind after all that flying. This should help you decide if this type of an Ultimate Flight Marathon might also be your cup of tea. (Or it might encourage you to pay whatever is needed to get a direct flight to your destination instead!)

I’ll also make a note of the cost of each flight and tell you the airline miles earned and the airline programs I used. I may also talk about things we did during layovers, as well as the airport lounges on various airports (as I’m a happy owner of the Priority Pass lounge membership program due to my awesome Citi Prestige credit card).

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This is the Global Lounge in the airport of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s one of my favorite lounges as it’s so swanky and stylish! However, the food options are very basic, as is customary for American lounges.

In a way this project will be similar to Quality Hunters 2, a Finnair project I took part in back in 2011. During that project I had 13 flights over seven weeks – and I thought that was a lot! But now I’m setting off to break my own record with these 15 flights. Taking the duration of the trip into consideration, on average we will be taking one flight every two days between early May and June 2.

With so many different airlines being a part of my Ultimate Flight Marathon, the chances are high that you will find your favorite airline mentioned among those (or alternatively you may learn more about an obscure airline you didn’t even know existed). The blog entries for this Ultimate Flight Marathon can thus serve as a helpful reference point to anyone contemplating flying some of the same segments or airlines in the future.

Here’s the route on the outward trip:

Guadeloupe – Puerto Rico – New York- Tokyo – Bangkok – Singapore – Perth – Sydney – New Caledonia

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And here’s how we’ll be coming back:

New Caledonia – Auckland – Sydney – Bangkok – Tokyo – Chicago – Montreal – Guadeloupe

Now, I know what you must be thinking: There is no way this is the most direct way from the Caribbean to the Pacific! And you are right – it’s most certainly not. The most direct way would have been Guadeloupe – San Juan/Miami- Los Angeles – Sydney – New Caledonia. But that’s also a really expensive way – about $2,500-$4,000 roundtrip.

By transiting through Asia and Australia and by making use of some great flight deals and utilizing a bit of frequent flier miles, we were able to get the total cost of this dream trip down to less than $1,000 per person. This way we will also be able to visit some old favorite cities of mine in Asia and Australia during our respective one-day layovers. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing how my Aussie home of Perth has changed since I lived there back in 2006! It will also be great to catch up with friends in various friends along the way.

(Note: You can even get to New Caledonia for a couple of hundred dollars, if you happen to have access to a stash of Air France miles. It costs just 60,000 miles and around $300 in taxes to fly to a roundtrip to Noumea from Los Angeles, and you’ll get to pass by Sydney too. However, award availability was scarce for our wanted dates, so we skipped this opportunity.)

Without further ado – welcome onboard the Ultimate Flight Marathon! Hope you stay tuned for updates on how the trip is progressing, and feel free to send any tips my way with regards to New Caledonia or any of the cities we’ll be visiting on the way!

 

Map of Guadeloupe

Are you wondering where each island is located in Guadeloupe?

Here’s a handy map of the “continent” of Gwada and all the outer islands that we drew for my e-book. As you see, Grande Terre and Basse Term form the wings of “the Butterfly Island.”

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If you are looking for a detailed offline map to download on your phone or tablet before your trip, check out the free maps at http://maps.me.

 

Guadeloupe’s jewel is disappearing

One of my favorite places in Guadeloupe is Ilet Caret. It’s a tiny sand bank in the middle of the Caribbean Sea that has really clear water and a couple of palm trees. Paradise on earth! It’s also a popular place for locals to park their private boats and have an island party. If you go there on a weekend, you may see upwards of 30 boats parked on all sides of the island and you’ll hear a cacophony of music all around you. So if that’s not your scene, you should go during the week when it’s more quiet.

I’ve visited it four times now, and can’t wait to go back. Love it!

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Sadly, it looks like Ilet Caret has taken a turn for the worse since my last visit about six months ago according to a recent French-language news article. The island is disappearing, and it’s happening even faster than anyone thought!

Take a look at the new aerial photo published in the article. Sad, eh??

So does this mean that Ilet Caret is no longer worth visiting? Of course it doesn’t. Quite the contrary – it means the time to visit is NOW, since we never know how much longer we’ll have this island beauty in our Gwada lives.

And even if nearly all the palm trees have fallen victim to the waves and the rising seas, the island’s white sand and clear turquoise water still remain.

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If you are coming to Guadeloupe with the cheap-as-chips Norwegian Air flights, I highly recommend keeping Ilet Caret in mind. Visiting it makes for a really fun day out!

One of the easiest ways to visit the island is to take an organized speedboat day trip from St. Rose, Basse Terre, or to travel there from the Marina Bas-du-Fort onboard the King Papyrus catamaran.

Either way, go before it’s too late! I suspect that sooner or later, Ilet Caret will suffer the same fate as Ilet la Biche (pictured below). From that islet only this wooden shack remains on top of the water. It’s still an interesting place to visit on a kayak or a speedboat, but it’s not quite as picturesque as Caret Island.

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If you want more info about Ilet Caret and Ilet la Biche and the ways to visit them, my new e-book The Quick Gwada Guide has the details (along with 60+ pages of information about Guadeloupe).

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My Guadeloupe e-book is finally DONE!

It’s official! The Quick Gwada Guide e-book is finished! After six weeks of hard full-time work and a bucketload of joy and exhaustion … It’s finally done!! Yayyyyy. 🙂

If you are traveling to Guadeloupe with the new, cheap Norwegian flights from the US (or from elsewhere) and are interested in getting ideas for where to stay in Gwada, finding out the top 30 best things to see and do here, plus want to get answers to common traveler questions (What’s the seaweed situation like? Is it easy to find wifi? What should I bring with me? What if I don’t speak French?), this e-book is for you! It’s the first English-language guidebook about Guadeloupe written since the year 2000, so you literally cannot find more up-to-date information anywhere and in as concise of a format. (The e-book is 63 pages, but it’s easy to scroll to the sections that are most useful to you.)

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Here are some things that buyers have said about this e-book so far:

“I finished your book. It is absolutely excellent. This had to be a LOT of work for you, and I congratulate you on the result!” (Writer’s note: Yes, it was more work than I ever thought!)

“It is really, really good and I think it will be super helpful for first-time visitors! It would be really nice if Norwegian would put your guide in the seatbacks on all flights to Gwada!”

Very helpful book. I will take the time to offer some feedback after returning from Guadeloupe.”

“I just wanted to thank you for all your guidance and friendliness. It contributed to a wonderful maiden journey to Guadeloupe!”

“Mirva, thanks so much for the guide. You are like the Rick Steves of Guadeloupe. If you publish your guide on Amazon or anywhere else, I’d be glad to give you a positive review.

“Thank you so much! We got a lot of use out of your book.”

So yes, sounds like my guidebook has pretty much nailed it! And indeed, Amazon is the step I need to tackle next so that I can reach a bigger audience with this book. Another good contact could be the Guadeloupe tourist board and their new website. So much to do!

In the meantime, if you are interested in the Quick Gwada Guide, feel free to email me at gwadaguide@gmail.com to order a PDF copy. Based on reader reviews, it prints without any issues and can easily be read at least on the Amazon Kindle Fire.

The price of this e-book is $15 (thus a mere 23 cents per page!) and you will definitely save that money several times over if you invest in this guide. After all, I’m a budget traveler myself so I’ve included tons of tips for saving money while in Gwada, as well as a list of the top things to do here, many of them free or low-cost.

Payment is easiest done via Venmo or Paypal, using the email address of gwadaguide@gmail.com, but we can discuss other ways to pay if you aren’t familiar with those. Please leave your email address as a comment when you make the payment, so that I’ll know who to send the e-book to!

SEE YOU IN GUADELOUPE!

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Coming soon: My Guadeloupe guidebook!

Last month I woke up to the reality that there are no good and up-to-date English-language guidebooks on Guadeloupe, my home in the Caribbean. Yet there are tons of American tourists coming here currently with the new crazy-cheap flights from the East Coast of the USA. Fares start at $69 one-way! Most of the town a return trip will cost you around $300, but that’s still VERY cheap compared to the pre-Norwegian airline prices. Needless to say, I was super excited when they announced these flights back in the summer time.

And now I’m also extremely excited to announce that soon there will be an awesome new e-book available for people heading to Guadeloupe: The Quick Gwada Guide! Written by yours truly.

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I’m currently in the process of putting in the final finishing touches to the e-book (who knew that picking and choosing photos  and formatting text could be so time-consuming??) and will be selling it through this blog soon enough. The book will answer all the commonly asked questions, and include tons of tips for your stay in “tropical France.” The Quick Gwada Guide will also help you save money with its budget travel tips for this island that is one of the most expensive in the Caribbean.

Please stay tuned and feel free get in touch if you want to be among the first ones to receive an electronic copy!

Christmas in Guadeloupe

Believe it nor, Christmas is just around the corner again (for those who celebrate it). For me that has traditionally meant one of two things: either I’m in my native Finland for Christmas, or I’m skipping the holiday altogether in favor of traveling.

Well, last year I assumed I would be skipping Christmas as I was spending the winter in the tropics, on my new adopted Caribbean home island of Guadeloupe. Being far from snow and Santa’s homeland (which is the Finnish Lapland of course), I figured there wouldn’t be a whole lot going on in terms of the festive season’s celebrations. But boy was I wrong! It turns out that Gwada folks love Christmas more than I ever could have imagined, and I ended up getting totally swept up by the celebrations, whether it was massive Chanté Nwel concerts or traditional Christmas markets. I loved it!

That said, here’s my article from the latest Blue Wings magazine on what to expect if you find yourself in the French Caribbean for Christmas (also available here in an online version when you scroll to pages 45-46):

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If you are interested in hearing what that “fast reggae-style” version of Silent Night sounds like, check out this video from a small Chanté Nwel concert in Guadeloupe. (The music starts after the 40-second a cappella part.) Catchy, eh?

What about you – have you ever gotten into the Christmas mood in an unlikely place? What’s your favorite Christmas destination?

Get ready: Dirt cheap flights to the French Caribbean are comiiiiiiiing!

Last week I received an email from The Points Guy that said Norwegian Air was starting cheap flights from New York to the Caribbean in December.

“Hmm, that probably won’t impact my life in any major way,” I thought automatically. After all, the only Caribbean island that I fly regularly to is Guadeloupe, a relatively obscure and little-known island in the French West Indies. It seems to be the destination that all major airlines forgot even exists, and it can cost upwards of $700 to fly there from New York. Not cool, especially for me: I currently split my time between New York, Guadeloupe and Finland, as my work, love and family are in these three places, respectively – one of the dilemmas of being a globetrotter! 🙂

Here’s a picture from Gosier Island, off the coast of the “continent” of Guadeloupe (which is actually composed of two big islands together). You can be athletic and swim out to Ile du Gosier from the mainland in about 20 minutes, or take a quick boat for $3 roundtrip. Love that place!

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Sooooooo…. I opened The Points Guy’s chain email without much fanfare. You can only imagine how I felt when I read the blurb about these up-coming Caribbean flights.

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EEEEEEEEKKKKKKK!!!! I COULDN’T BELIEVE MY EYES!!! GUADELOUPE IS ON THAT SCHEDULE!!!

The thrice-weekly flights from NYC to Gwada are starting at just $79-$99 one-way, an incredible deal even from the world’s leading low-fare airline. This means Guadeloupe will go overnight from being just about the most expensive Caribbean destination to get to, to the being the cheapest. Whooooooooa!!! MAJOR NEWS!!

It turns out Norwegian chose Guadeloupe and Martinique because the airline can fly unlimited between the USA and the EU under the Open Skies agreement, and these new Caribbean destinations are officially part of the EU. Sneaky sneaky! As for now the flights are a winter trial, and the airline will see how they go before expanding their Caribbean service.

So get yourself over to Norwegian‘s website and grab some bargain fares to escape up-coming gloomy winter! The price doesn’t include checked-in luggage, so check out my tips for packing light.

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Aren’t those prices just crazyyyyy?? And those are for direct service! The flight only takes 4.5 hrs from NY to Pointe-a-Pitre. Incroyable! Being used to the $700-1000 roundtrips that require changing in Montreal, Miami or St. Martin and take all day (and sometimes require an overnight layover), this is pretty unbelievable.

Here are some more scenes from Ilet du Gosier to motivate you to book a trip before all those cheap fares are snatched:

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See you in the French West Indies! Let me know if you are interested in a tour of the islands – I’m thinking of starting small-group tours that show you the best of Guadeloupe within a few days for those on a tight schedule.

Au revoir!

My Big Russian Media Debut!

Check this out – I’m famous in Russia! Woohoo!

Okay, well maybe not that famous, but at least a little bit – a translated version of my article about travel writing was published today in a Russian travel website called Arrivo. Apparently the website gets about one million unique visitors a month, so not too shabby! I would guess that’s just a few more than what my blog gets. 😉

You can get a general idea of the gist of the article if you read it with Google Chrome, as the browser does an automatic translation.

Or better yet, you can read the original English-language version here, as the article was first published by 219 Magazine, a publication of my alma mater, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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For those of you that can read Russian, you’ll notice that the English version is organized slightly differently. In the words of the translator, Ivan Kuznetsov, “It’s not a word-to-word translation, but that way it sounds better in Russian. We changed it a bit: made it shorter, mixed myths and truths and your personal story, which was originally in the beginning, as your quotes.”

And how did I get to be published in Russia? Easy. All I did was host Ivan, a Russian guy, through Couchsurfing.com in Finland for one night back in the summer of 2012.

Ivan recently emailed me that he was on the path to becoming a travel writer himself, partly due to being inspired by my example! And he asked if he could translate this article of mine for Arrivo, one of his clients.

Those of you that speak Russian can learn more about Ivan from his traveler profile, also published on Arrivo. He also has a personal blog that is partly in English: www.kunavithewriter.com.

And here’s a picture of me and some friends with Ivan (who is wearing glasses) from his trip to Finland in 2012, when we went to visit the eco-village of Livonsaari near Turku. That was a fun day and we definitely saw some alternative ways of living – including a family with young kids that was happy to have no running water. They just bathed with buckets in order to save water and eventually the planet. That sounds all fine and dandy in the summer time, but the Finnish winters can be pretty harsh! Brrrr. But of course they had a sauna that makes it slightly better…

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SAM_8893There was another woman building a giant wooden house for herself in the forest, after being tired of living in a “kota” for three summers – kota is a Finnish teepee of sorts. And there was another lady building a house with huge windows that allow in as much sunlight as possible.

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Speaking of alternative life choices: It turns out that Ivan’s life totally turned around after this visit to Turku and the eco-village!  Though not in the way you would expect (nope, he didn’t move to the woods to be a hippie). Instead Ivan met a Polish guy at the eco-village who told him about the European Voluntary Service (EVS) program and he decided to apply for the program himself.

Here’s what Ivan wrote to me a year later from Italy:

“I would like to thank you very much for this unexpected tour to this village.I mean, this day in Turku with you and your friends really changed my life. My main goal was Stockholm, it was cool, but nothing amazing happened there. Turku was on the way to Helsinki, but many things happened.

The story behind is that after this day in Turku I thought about my life for the rest of the summer. I decided to quit my office job, my rental apartment in Saint Petersburg which I never really liked, and go for traveling. While applying for the EVS I discovered many new things and possibilities for budget travels, like Help Exchange and WWOOF, and many others.

Now I am a volunteer in an environmental education center in a small city or better to say a village – Lamon, in Dolomites mountains, about 100 km from Venice. We do workshops for kids, learn local nature, meet local people, learn Italian and just have a lot of fun. The place is very beautiful. Mountains around. I have never been in such a nice place. I love Italy very much. We already visited south of the country – Napoli (which is just a crazy city, in some ways even more crazy than New York!) and we are planning to go to Toscana the next weekend.

After the EVS I am planning to go to South America for at least one more year to travel, to learn Spanish and to collect material for my new book. Actually, my new book is writing itself just here in Italy. But this is only the beginning! Okay, it going to be a long letter. I just want to wish you good luck, to send a picture from my window now and to say that I miss Finland, north, nature and people very much.”

Here’s the picture he sent me. Not a bad outcome for a night of Couchsurfing in Turku! And cool that it lead to my Russian media debut as well. Life can be pretty surprising sometimes. 🙂

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