I’m back from St. Thomas, and as I said, also back in California, as promised. For those who are jealous, the weather was lousy. This would have been readily apparent to anyone who looked at a map of the central Atlantic on weather.com, or Weather Underground at wunderground.com–there was a mass of cumulus there that just wouldn’t quit, and it brought tidings not of comfort and joy, but rather of clouds and rain for the Leeward Islands and the Greater Antilles including, particularly the Virgins.
We went diving on Saturday, and it was the darkest dive that I’ve ever done in the daytime. The visibility sucked, and if I hadn’t carried a dive light, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish a fan coral from a fin. I did, however, on the second and worst dive, see a southern sting ray, and the most beautiful spotted eagle ray that I’ve ever seen (not to imply that I’m a connoisseur). We also spent some time driving around the island (on the left side of the road with left-hand drive, of course, which is de rigeur on the less-than-safety-conscious Virgin Islands, both US and British). This was nice, because my only previous experience with St. Thomas was a brief taxi ride from the airport to the ferry at Red Hook bound for St. John.
But as I said in my previous post about our diving excursion and lobster-shopping trip to Parguera, my purpose is not (just) to invoke envy. Particularly in light of all my well-justified kvetching about flying post 911, I want to praise an airline that’s doing it right (and hope they won’t get in trouble with the annoyance enforcers for it).
We flew on a start-up airline called Seaborne, and for me it was a return to the golden days of aviation, when flying was exotic and romantic. And fun.
They use seaplanes. I didn’t catch the make or model, but it was a high-wing (as all seaplanes generally are, to keep spray out of the engines) twin turboprop that could carry about twenty people. They accordingly don’t operate out of Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, as most airlines do, but off a dock that they’ve set up in San Juan Harbor, down by the cruise terminals in Old San Juan.
We drove in and parked. No fee, and twenty-four hora (as they would say down there) security. We lugged our baggage up a few stairs and stepped into a trailer. We put our bags on a scale. The baggage situation is eminently rational–first thirty pounds is free, fifty cents a pound for everything over. We were allowed to combine our weight for a total of sixty pounds free for the two of us. We were overweight, because we were carrying dive equipment for the weekend, but that was cool–only an extra fourteen bucks.
No metal detector. No long check in. No wandings or strip searches, random or otherwise. All our baggage was checked, but we could watch them put it on the plane. We walked outside and down a small flight of stairs on to a floating dock, and got into the plane. We sat in our seats (a couple rows behind the cockpit–I like to watch instruments). Because it was an unpressurized cabin, the windows were huge (for an airplane)–like sitting in the family minivan. We pulled away from the dock, and bobbed across the choppy harbor like a drunken duck. We hoped that the vehicle would be a better plane than it was a boat.
After getting far enough upwind, the throttles were opened, we quickly hydroplaned the pontoons mostly out of the water, and picked up speed. Once the water released us, the plane jumped up quickly, and made a turn over one of the forts that in bloodier times had defended the old city. Another turn, and we were heading east along the northern Puerto Rican coast.
We followed the coast, not exceeding four hundred feet altitude, so we got a good view of the beach and reefs, and island to our left. As it fell away behind us at Fajardo, on the northeast coast, we approached the island of Culebra. The plane climbed to go over it (some of the peaks exceed four hundred feet) but we never exceeded eleven hundred. We were skimming along just below the level of the heavy and rain-filled clouds. A few minutes later, we passed over the airport in St. Thomas, and performed a rapid but smooth descent into the harbor at Charlotte Amalie, the island’s capital. Just as it seemed we were going to plunge into the water, the pilot pulled back on the yoke, the plane flared and we set down in the harbor.
Same thing on the return trip. Minimal security, just check all the baggage and pay for the overage. The flight back was similar, but nicer, as the weather was much improved, and the visibility much better. We flew back along the north coast of Puerto Rico again, passed by the airport, the hotels and casinos in Isle Verde and Condado, and along the ancient walls of the forts defending the old city, at just a few hundred feet altitude all the way. We made a graceful left turn around the old Spanish fort of El Morro, providing a bird’s-eye view of Old San Juan, and settled gently back down in San Juan Harbor.
The ticket price for the round trip was a hundred and fifteen bucks (not including extra luggage weight). A steal. People pay that much for sightseeing airplane rides. Unfortunately, it’s an introductory rate, so I don’t know how much it will go up, but the airplane was less than half full both ways, so I fear for their economic survival.
Anyway, the point of this post is that even in the environment of the post-911 security insanity, it is still possible to make flying a pleasant experience, and not just something to dread as a necessary evil to get from one place to another, at least under limited circumstances. We should encourage such efforts by giving them our custom, so that both they, and perhaps competitors who will outdo them, will succeed. (Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in this company.) So if anyone who reads this happens to be in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, and wants to see another island, please check them out, and help take us back to the days of yore when flying really was fun.