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Friday, June 9, 2017

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Shopping in the Western Caribbean

For some of us Caribbean cruisers, the pleasures of sand and surf are rivaled only by the lure of duty free and souvenir shopping.

For the first, you only need beach and sun. For the second, you need smarts, savvy and some common sense. 

Alas, on my 21st cruise, I managed to leave that last crop behind. Here’s my excuse: something bewitches me when I’m on vacation. My antenna comes down and my wallet comes out. And buyer’s remorse sets in long after the ship sets sail and it's the point of no return.

To help you shop the Western Caribbean and not get burned, here are a few thoughts:

Plain vanilla? Entranced by signs of cheap hecho en Mexico vanilla at the pier in Cozumel, this
should-have-known-better foodie picked up two bottles in a tourist shop, spurred on by a fellow cruiser who swore she returned to the same shop regularly for the “best vanilla” in town.

Vanilla the price of souvenir dolls--this foodie should have known better

Back at home, once the vacation was a fuzzy memory, my antenna made a reappearance. I began to wonder about the vanilla’s uber low price, the “final sale” signs everywhere and the disconcerting fact that the shopkeeper wouldn’t let us take photos after my purchase. The test was over but I was only now doing my homework. When I found what I was looking for, of course, it was too late.

Nearly all of what’s sold in Mexico—99 percent, according to one website—is in fact, not vanilla at all. It can be a mixture of too little alcohol (a lot is actually part of the real vanilla production process), too many chemicals, coloring and sweetener. And some of it—this is truly frightening—contains a toxic chemical called coumarin, which is banned in the U.S. (See this piece on where real vanilla comes from.)

Was the vanilla I bought the real thing? Only that store owner knows for sure.

Bottom line: know what you’re getting and get what you know.

A portrait of a smart shopper. Okay, I made a $12 mistake in Cozumel. But, I did do things right in Labadee. Royal Caribbean’s Haitian resort has a robust artisan market. The locals were anxious to sell and I was anxious to buy. Colorful metal wall hangings, wooden sculptures, costumed dolls, painted magnets and so on—much of it made locally and best yet, very inexpensive.

Happy haggling in Haiti

And the vendors are raring for haggling. I walked away no fewer than six times from a seller—each time I was called back with a lower price. I finally left with the price I wanted to pay and a huge beach scene painting that now hangs in my home office and engulfs me in the Caribbean's clear blue waters each time I sit at the PC.

Bottom line: don’t be afraid to bargain and hold out for what you want. You'll not only come away with a treasure to remind you of your vacation, but also the satisfaction of a dollar well spent.