Relax, Mon – you’re in Jamaica now!

The sun sets this evening over Montego Bay, Jamaica. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I must have been tired when my flight from Toronto touched down this afternoon at Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport, because I spent most of my time in the immigration line for Jamaican customs trying to re-imagine the questions I might be asked:

“Tell me about Jamaica in a single sentence without mentioning Bob Marley, rum, or anything Rastafarian.”

I had a lot of time to think because I de-planed my flight from Toronto to find an immigration line that snaked around the entire room. To say there were close to a thousand passengers all queued up would not have been an exaggeration.

My Air Canada rouge Boeing 767-300 at the gate at Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The truth is Jamaica is an island paradise with an enormously rich cultural history. For an island that barely spans four thousand square miles (or eleven thousand square kilometres), its contibutions to the rest of the world have been enormous. Appleton Rum. Jerk food. Bob Barley. Reggae. Red Stripe Beer. Blue Mountain Coffee. The list goes on.

Acclaimed author Fleming – Ian Fleming – who penned the original James Bond novels lived here, repeatedly using the island as a setting for his books. Unlike the famous 007, I’m not here to foil some dastardly plot. Instead, I’m here in Montego Bay to cruise to another, equally-fascinating country: I’m going to embark my cruise to Cuba tomorrow aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal.

Because Cuba Cruise is a Canadian-based company – and because I can only assume a majority of the passengers will, like me, be Canadian – it seems only logical to talk about how I got to Montego Bay in the first place.

After a red-eye flight from Vancouver, I spent the morning in Toronto before continuing on to Jamaica. Needless to say, it’s far colder there! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Yesterday, I took the red-eye from Vancouver to Toronto with Air Canada aboard a nice, spacious, Boeing 777-300ER. Everyone in Canada loves to whine and moan about our national carrier, but the truth is they offer a pretty darn amazing onboard product – even in coach. Planes with 34-inch seat pitch aren’t uncommon, and all but the smallest Dash 8 and CRJ-200 aircraft feature what is still the best Video-on-Demand system I’ve experienced on any airline.

Oh, and they don’t charge you $8 for a movie, either. They’re all free.

But in 2012, Air Canada introduced a new leisure airline called Air Canada rouge. In the winter, the airline will serve sun and US-based destinations with a fleet of two Boeing 767-300 aircraft and 10 Airbus A319’s. In the summer, the airline flies to European destinations like Edinburgh, Milan and Nice.

Some cool new additions to Toronto Pearson’s International Terminal 1. Can you spot them? Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Initially, I’ve been leery of rouge, for two main reasons: one – no more free entertainment. Seats are all brand-new and lack in-seat entertainment; instead, it is beamed to customers with iPads , iPhones and laptops while onboard for $5. Which is annoying, but also the way of the future. Getting rid of all that electronic gobbledegook onboard must save a ton of fuel.

The part I didn’t like: my generous seat pitch went from a spacious 32 on the mainline 767’s down to a very tight 30 inches. Seat width also crunched down to 17.5 inches. Now, I’m far from being a big guy – I’m average height and average width, if you want to put it that way. But I had some serious reservations about being sardined into a plane for five-and-a-half hours.

Yep, new iPads – hundreds of them – all for passengers to use, free of charge. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Here’s what I didn’t expect: streaming music and live flight information are free. And, I gave in and spent $5 on the entertainment. At least, I was going to; for some reason, the thing never charged me. And it plays a wide assortment of movies, TV shows and music beautifully. The technologically-challenged will love the fact that there are still overhead monitors onboard that play a feature film (on my flight, the Ron Howard film, Rush.)

Toronto Pearson is still recovering from a total ground-stop earlier this week that caused a massive backlog in flights, and the Plane Gods were itching to have some fun today. That the fresh water aboard our Boeing 767 froze overnight is no surprise; that the towbar snapped off on pushback causing a loud bang! certainly was. Towbar replaced, we then had to de-ice before taking off.

Economy class aboard my Air Canada Rouge 767. Note the funky uniforms on the flight attendants at the back; they look great in person. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The good news: I like Air Canada rouge. I hate the reduced seat pitch and the washroom-to-passenger ratio, but the crew are bright, happy, cheerful and extremely helpful. It can’t compare to my mainline Air Canada experience (particularly in International Business Class), but it’s not supposed to.  I’d easily recommend it for the US or the Caribbean, but not for European travel; there are far more comfortable ways to get there.

The Air Canada app beams in-flight movies on rouge flights to your iPad or iPod. A small number of iPads can be rented onboard… Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders …or you can enjoy the movie on the overhead screens. Note the new 777-style luggage bins on this 767. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Once I’d cleared immigration, I took a five minute taxi ride to my hotel: the shockingly-quiet Sea Garden Beach Resort. Montego Bay is Jamaica’s second-largest city; a tourist mecca nestled in some of the Caribbean’s most spectacular scenery. In addition to the cruise terminal that I will be utilising tomorrow, Montego Bay sports everything from five-star, ultra-luxe resorts to small Bed & Breakfasts.

And I’m not in love with the town.

The pool area of the SeaGarden Resort here in Montego Bay. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

This is a rarity for me. I normally like or can enjoy most of the places I’ve been to for what they are. And perhaps I’m tired, jet-lagged and cranky from standing in that customs line with no air conditioning for the better part of an hour, but I’m just not feelin’ the love here. I left the resort for all of 90 seconds and got accosted by the locals so badly that I practically went running back to the gates; they would not leave me alone while I tried to snap three photographs of the ocean and the sunset.

My ultra-spacious room is well-appointed, if poorly-lit. Good news, though: the bed is superbly soft. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The hustle for tourist business is nothing new; it takes place in every country, and I pride myself on being able to play the game. But in 60 seconds, I had two guys follow me down the street; one guy race up to me in a car before breaking out every four-letter word in the book when I wouldn’t take the bait; and another guy who felt hurling verbal insults at me would make me part with my cash.

All this less than a hundred yards from the gate.

The SeaGarden Beach Resort is currently undergoing a major refurbishment program. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Is it dangerous to stroll the streets? I’m not sure about that. Unwise would be a better word. To be honest, I’d have to be here longer to really gauge the situation. But I am beginning to understand why everyone stays in gated resorts like mine.

Tonight though, I’m going to have a cold Red Stripe beer, turn in early, and get ready for the big event. Because tomorrow’s embarkation day – and the start of my Cuba Cruise adventure aboard the Louis Cristal!

Circumnavigating Cuba with a Canadian Twist

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
Thursday, January 8, 2014PreviewFlying to Jamaica.
Thursday, January 9, 2014Montego Bay, JamaicaArrival in Jamaica; overnight stay.
Friday, January 10Montego Bay, JamaicaEmbark5:30 PM
Saturday, January 11Cienfuegos / Trinidad, Cuba10:00 AM9:00 PM
Sunday, January 12Punta Frances / Isle of Youth, Cuba10:00 AM2:00 PM
Monday, January 13Havana, Cuba8:30 AM01:00 AM +1
Tuesday, January 14At Sea
Wednesday, January 15Holguin, Cuba7:30 AM6:30 PM
Thursday, January 16Santiago de Cuba, Cuba9:00 AM9:00 PM
Friday, January 17Montego Bay, Jamaica7:00 AMDisembark