I write this in the hope that others will go in with their eyes wide open, and not have to "wing it" as we did. Neither myself, nor my wife are pro travelers. We have done 8 cruises together, though, so we are not newbies to ... Read More
I write this in the hope that others will go in with their eyes wide open, and not have to "wing it" as we did. Neither myself, nor my wife are pro travelers. We have done 8 cruises together, though, so we are not newbies to cruising; just newbies to doing tours through a local third party and not through the cruise line. I hope that you will see my observations as just that, and not as simply opinion. Any praise or criticism within this piece is not delivered without thought and consideration of what it might mean to those involved.
After doing some research on CruiseCritic.com, I had booked a Seven Sisters Waterfall tour with Mandoo. I would come to discover what an act of faith that was. As with most Caribbean tour companies, there was not much attention given to details in the description of the tour. For example, while I knew there would be a hike, downhill over rocks and mud to get to the falls, I did not know how "on the edge" that actually would be.
We left the ship at 8:45 and met Mr. Mandoo inside the pier side shopping mall, along with other tour guests of his. We were disappointed to learn that Mr. Mandoo himself would not be guiding our tour but he had warned me that that might be the case when I booked. Another couple was supposed to join us but apparently they decided not to go. (Note: If you decide to cancel a tour, have the decency to explicitly cancel and not just be a no-show. It hurts not only the tour guide but the tourists as well.)
Mr. Mandoo introduced us to a gentleman named Kelvin and explained that he would take us to Seven Sisters, along with Mr. Mandoo's brother, Samuel, who would be our driver. Samuel Mandoo is a dead ringer for Colin Powell. Kelvin is a youngish, native Grenadian who apparently knows almost everyone on the island. More about this later. Kelvin explained in his thick Caribbean accent where he would be taking us, what we would see, and when we should be back to the ship, which was supposed to be 12:30pm.
We got on the van, possibly a Toyota, and not bad by my observation of island automotive standards. Samuel Mandoo is a very, shall we say, disciplined driver. We noted the speed at which other Grenadians drive on the narrow, twisty-turny roads, which is to say very fast. But not Samuel Mandoo. He drove us around like we were precious cargo, something we truly came to appreciate as the day wore on.
Kelvin was a very animated tour guide at times, excitedly pointing out different types of plants, trees, fruits, and spices. He had Samuel Mandoo stop at various places to provide us samples of coca bean (yummy to suck on and spit out), golden apple (also yummy), nutmeg (freshest smelling stuff anywhere) and guava (we didn't care much for it). He told us more than once that it is okay to take fruit and stuff right off the tree, although I did notice the "Private Property, No Trespassing" sign directly behind one of the trees from which he pilfered. No matter, he knew the owner and shouted to him that he was taking the man's fruit. We all smiled.
We stopped at an information center above Crater Lake. We had to pay $2US each to get in. This was explained to us only when we got there. We were ushered inside and made to listen to a fairly informative 5-minute spiel on various items of importance to Grenadians, such as the destruction that Hurricane Ivan had done and how all the flora had come back within 8 years, as well as a lesson on the geography of Grenada and its two sister islands. We also learned that of the three types of snakes on Grenada, none was poisonous, thank goodness. We learned quickly not to interrupt the nice lady as she had properly memorized the talk and should not be taken off track. When finished, she wished us a blessed day and walked away. (Note: Keep your ticket as you may need it later if you are taken down to the lake.)
We left the information center and made our way to the village nearest the entrance to the park . (Note: Seven Sisters is not noted on the road sign. It is actually referred to as St. Margaret (ref) Waterfall.) We each paid another $2US to get into the park, which is on private property. I didn't notice Kelvin himself paying anyone; probably a benefit of being a local. Samuel Mandoo did not join us on the hike. He told us later that he had had surgery on his leg and had a steel rod inserted which made exerting such effort nearly impossible.
So the three of us departed on a paved road which quickly became a dirt road which quickly became a rocky, muddy mess of a trail, all downhill. Loaded down as we were with things we would not need but had assumed we would (i.e. towels, additional shoes, etc.) as well as things we would need (i.e. camera, camera bag and tripod) I am sure that Kelvin chuckled about our condition more than once, though neither of us heard such. It certainly made traversing the steep, slippery path more difficult. Fortunately, we obtained walking sticks at the start of the hike which made it much more do-able. Kelvin was also a great help in assisting my wife when needed and pointing out the exact steps I should take. We later marveled at how clean Kelvin's shoes were, especially as compared with our muddy feet.
Neither my wife nor I had an inkling that the trail would be so steep, and so muddy/slippery, though I had read ahead of time that these would be the conditions to expect. Much like a car accident, though, until you're in the middle of it, it is hard to know exactly what to expect. And much like witnessing a car accident, I was amazed at what we had done when we finally got to the bottom without as much as a scrape. No falls, no trips, few slips and smiles of relief all around. If you haven't gotten the message by now, here it is: You need to know what to expect on this "hike":
1. You need to be in good shape.
2. You need to enjoy hiking.
3. You need to enjoy climbing because if you go down, you must go back up.
4. You need to bring proper hiking shoes, not flip flops as we saw a member of a different tour group wearing.
5. You need to only bring with you what you will absolutely need so if you are not going to go swimming, don't bring a bag full of towels, extra clothes, etc.
6. You do not need to have a fear of the jungle or things within it. While we didn't see too much wildlife (pretty much one or two birds and a small lizard) you are IN THE JUNGLE, so it is wild.
Once we reached the falls, I must say, the end justified the means. There are two falls, neither one very large, but both very beautiful. They are tailor-made for photographing so if you're into that, bring your tripod and maybe a neutral density filter as some amount of sunshine does make its way into the scene. We did not go swimming in the pool but I can see why most do: the water is clear and apparently clean and looked very inviting.
On the way to the falls we were passed by a man in very colorful clothing. We had no idea who he was but our guide Kelvin did. We later learned that he will jump into the pool from the falls...for a fee. When I set up my camera he came over and began telling me where I should set up to get the best shot of him. He was quite disappointed when I told him that I was only going to photograph the falls, but he was very nice about it.
There is a small "shelf" made of bamboo on which you can put your stuff if you decide to go for a swim. We would have had no problem leaving our stuff there in the care of our guide but you should make that determination before you even get there. There may also be other tour groups there and space will be at a premium.
We were at the falls no more than 10 minutes and were ready to return. Our perception was that we were two Americans, basically alone in the jungle with our guide and a guy who asks for money to be photographed. Oh, and did I mention the two guys dressed in fatigues at the top of the trail? As you may or may not know, it is illegal in Grenada, and several of the other Caribbean islands, for anyone other than military to wear camouflage clothing. We were in great hopes that these two guys were indeed army, as Kelvin assured us they were, and not two guys out to do us bodily harm. Although we were told that Grenada holds Americans in high regard, mostly thanks to the October, 1983 "intervention", we were also told that there is that element that is out to do evil. In our case I think we were perfectly safe. But here is another lesson for going on a guided tour, especially one that is not sanctioned by the cruise line:
- If at any time you feel unsafe, say so. The worst thing that will happen is that you will be taken back to the ship early and will be out the agreed-upon sum of money. Your safety and well-being must always come first.
We were pretty sure that we made Kelvin feel bad at some point, whether it was because he picked up on our anxieties, or because we weren't completely conversational, or because it took us awhile to make our way down the trail and wouldn't let him carry our stuff. It was not our intent to make him feel badly. We may have come across as unhappy when in reality we were just out of our comfort zones, my wife especially. Kelvin repeatedly asked us if we were enjoying the trip and also repeatedly told us what a good time we were going to have. Overall, we did have a good time and so he was right. Kelvin is employed by Mr. Mandoo and knows that he needs to do a good job in order to satisfy the customer which in turn will satisfy his employer.
We made the hike back up the hill in about 1/3 the time it took to go down. While it's true that we were in the jungle, there was always a nice cool breeze to keep us from getting too sweaty or hot, which was a little surprising. When we got back to the village, Kelvin told us that we needed to pay the nice people $1US each to have our muddy shoes cleaned. While I was annoyed at first, I looked at my feet and had to admit that it was worth the dollar. The man whose name I didn't get did a great job on each shoe and even rinsed off my calves as well. My wife had the same experience from a very sweet lady. We were incredulous that Kelvin's shoes were so clean. He shrugged it off, saying that he "does this a lot".
Along the short hike up the paved road, we met a litter of puppies, all very cute, all tugging at our heart strings knowing the difficult life ahead of them. We thought of our own pampered pooches back in the States and wanted to hug them. Resist the urge to pet the dogs you come across. They are not necessarily tame, nor friendly. Almost all of the ones we saw looked thin and hungry.
Samuel Mandoo met us at the van and asked all about our adventure. He then very slowly drove us back down toward Crater Lake. We still had our tickets from earlier in the day but Kelvin knew the guy "guarding" the entrance so we did not have to show him our tickets. We drove down the hill to the lake. If you've been to or seen Crater Lake in Oregon, do not expect this to be nearly the same thing. While a nice place with a dock and a shoreline trail, it is nothing to write home about. Still, Kelvin insisted that we take pictures of the lake, also insisting that it is indeed "bottomless". We did as we were asked, which brings us to another lesson:
- Just go along wit' it mon. It generally doesn't cost much and it makes the locals happy for you to take even a little interest in their country. Just don't expect them to ask a lot of questions about where you are from. This is their place and they want to show it off, warts and all.
We left Crater Lake and headed to the southeast side, "where all the wealthy people are". Along the way, Kelvin called out to seemingly every other person he saw. That is something we were not accustomed to prior to this excursion: our tour guide being so vocal with the locals. After awhile we got used to it, mostly, until right at the end when he jumped out of the van, ran across the busy street and up to someone's house where he engaged in conversation for 5 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Samuel Mandoo did his best to keep us occupied with explanations of everything that was around us which, at that time and place, consisted mostly of everyday things made larger than life by the gifted storyteller. Kelvin finally came back and we took off.
I need to mention that Kelvin was insistent that we stick to the itinerary, which meant a trip to the beach. We were not interested in going to the beach but following the lesson above, we went with it. Once we got there, We were ushered to the "shopping area" and encouraged to browse the arts and crafts, spices, and jewelry for sale by the locals. We were again annoyed at the expectation of shopping but we went along. And the people there really were very nice, wishing us a "blessed day". We made the loop in under 5 minutes and were back at the van, ready to go back to the ship.
On the ride back we got to see the real St. George's, and it is a very busy place. We saw the Coca Cola bottlery. Kelvin really wanted me to have a picture of it so he grabbed my camera and took a couple of shots since it was on the other side of the van. He did a good job with my sophisticated DSLR but I did not appreciate him just taking it to shoot a couple of photos. Another lesson:
- If you're persnickety about your camera gear, then be firm and just say no to a zealous tour guide.
When we were close to the pier, or rather the shopping mall fronting the pier, Kelvin mentioned money. We were fine on the cost to Mr. Mandoo, $90US for the two of us, but were surprised to learn that any tip money would go both to Samuel Mandoo and to Kelvin. We only had a twenty so we gave Kelvin the bill and told him to split it with Samuel Mandoo. It was clear that he expected more but no other words were spoken about it and we parted amicably.
Two final lessons should be crystal clear at this point:
- Carry lots of small bills. We ended up handing over 10 $1US bills for various fees.
- Do not hesitate to speak up if something is not to your liking. The tour guides are flexible and want you to have a good experience so that "you will tell your friends and neighbors in America" what a good time you had so that more will come. Grenada does depend a great deal on tourism and word of mouth is very important. At the same time, the customer needs to feel like he can speak up and tell the guide if something is amiss or if he doesn't want to go to the beach, for example. Since this was a fairly new experience for us, we did not employ this lesson, but we will on future excursions.
In summary, we are glad that we did this tour, and overall, Kelvin and Samuel Mandoo did a good job of taking us around, helping us to experience some of what Grenada has to offer. If you are interested in this tour, then take my observations to heart. If you are borderline on this much adventure, then it might be best not to do it. If, however, you can roll with things, are confident in yourself and your reaction to not being in control 100%, then you will enjoy yourself.
As I said at the beginning, I write this travelogue in the hope that others will go in with their eyes wide open so that they can enjoy themselves. Read Less