Monday, May 28, 2018

Renting a scooter in the Caribbean (Turks and Caicos)

In March, Mary and I spent a week in Turks and Caicos, on the island of Providenciales. Mary is the travel coordinator in our family, and she rented an AirBnB on Provo's comparatively undeveloped south shore, so we definitely needed a vehicle to get to the nearest restaurants and food stores.

Since we'd only be traveling a few miles at a time and the weather promised to be fine (and since I make my living riding motorcycles and writing about it) Mary set us up with a scooter rental, not a car.

We rented this Yamaha BWS125 Scooter from Scooter Bob's, on Providenciales. It cost us $39 a day, which was the same price we would have paid for a tiny Daihatsu Charade car, if such an auto had been available.

During her preliminary research online, Mary found Scooter Bob's – a car & scooter rental business run by one of the many ex-pat Canadians in T&C. Scooter Bob agreed to leave a small van for us at the airport, so we could move our luggage to the AirBnB. A plan was hatched for us to return the van the following day and swap it for a scooter, which would save us a little money (and lend an extra air of adventure to the vacation.)

The van plan went perfectly, except that thanks to Delta we were delayed 24 hours, so we had to pay $48 to get the van out of the Provo airport's short term parking lot. The island nation is a member of the British Commonwealth, but uses U.S. currency. So, we didn't have to convert currency.

The first thing we realized was that while our van had an 'American' driver-control layout (i.e., steering wheel on the left) traffic in the Turks and Caicos also drives on the left, as in Great Britain. So you don't have to convert your money, but you do have to convert your traffic brain.

Mary wanted to drive to the AirBnB. She told me, "I lived in Australia once. I can drive on the left." Then, she almost immediately pulled out into cross traffic, instinctively looking to the left first as she would in the U.S. I looked out my passenger window at an approaching car and shouted 'Oncoming!'

I suppose T&C natives are used to North American tourists looking the wrong way. In any case, that car managed to stop before hitting us, and we learned our lesson – "Drive left, look right".

No, I didn't flop this photo. In Turks and Caicos, people drive on the left, as in Great Britain. The cars and trucks in use there are a mix of U.S. market vehicles with the steering wheel on the left, and Japanese market compacts with the steering wheel on the right. 

The next day, we dropped the van off at Scooter Bob's and swapped it for one of their Yamaha BWS125 scooters. The truth is, you can normally rent a tiny, Japanese-market right-hand-drive car from Scooter Bob's for the same daily rate as a scooter, and since Mary was a bit spooked by her first near-accident, she would have preferred that. But, Bob didn't have any of those small cars available, so we stuck to the original plan.

That 'BWS' stands for 'big-wheel scooter' and is a reference to the Yamaha's somewhat-larger-than-normal tires. The BWS125 is an otherwise standard 125cc, four-stroke, twist-and-go scooter. There's no clutch or foot controls; both handlebar levers are brakes, as on a bicycle. So, I suppose, anyone who's comfortable riding a bicycle could ride one without further instruction. However, if you read on, you'll learn why I don't think it's a good idea for inexperienced scooterists or motorcyclists to start learning on the islands.

Scooter Bob's fleet seemed to be in OK shape, although it would be a good idea to check your scooter out before riding off. At the very least, squeeze both brake levers and make sure they provide firm resistance in less than an inch or so of travel. It would be reasonable to ask them to check tire pressures; most scooters will operate on essentially flat tires, but they don't handle well that way! And don't make the mistake I made, of not looking for the headlight switch until it was too dark for me to find it! Familiarize yourself with the controls, and learn how to open the underseat storage compartment, because you'll need it.

Mary was more than just a passenger, she was my co-pilot, reminding me to "Drive left, look right!"

Scooter Bob had a little rack of helmets, and Mary and I both found one to fit. All the helmets were fairly old open-faced jobs – far better than nothing, but additional eye protection was mandatory because there is a lot of grit thrown up on Island roads.

On the upside, riding a scooter can be fun. Gasoline is expensive in the Caribbean, so a vehicle that gets 75 miles to the gallon will save you a few bucks (although most of the very small cars in the local rental fleet probably got nearly as good fuel mileage.)

There are quite a few places on the touristy north shore of the island where parking is tight; we snorkeled at Coral Gardens every morning, and it was great to be able to slip the scooter in between cars that filled the few available parking spaces near that popular stretch of beach.

The BWS125 had underseat storage for one helmet, so we always left one in there, but were stuck carrying the other. Between the underseat storage and the scooter's footwell, we could just manage to transport two people with snorkel gear & towels, or two people and a couple of bags of groceries. The BWS has a tiny luggage rack, but it's almost decorative, and utterly useless without bungee straps or a cargo net of some kind, which were not supplied.

Most of the traffic on most of the roads moves pretty slowly, so even two-up we had no trouble keeping out of people's way. There's a few four-lane 'highways' on Provo where traffic rolls faster than we could go on the Yamaha, but we never had any trouble sticking to the left-hand lane and letting people pass us on the right. Locals are used to slow traffic in the slow lane and I never felt that we were pissing anyone off.
Pretty much every trip we made involved crossing or traveling on Leeward Highway, which is the island's busiest road. Traffic circles are much more common than traffic lights on T&C. They work well but many North Americans are unused to them. Traffic was often quite heavy. Note the poor quality of the pavement in the lower photo.

That said, the riding was at times a pretty intense experience. I always had Mary as a passenger, and asked her to remind me to look right every time we entered an intersection, and to ride left every time we left a parking lot or turned a corner. By the end of the week, we were pretty instinctive about taking to the left side of the road, but we had a couple of experiences of our own with tourists who pulled out of side roads directly into our paths – new arrivals who made the same mistake Mary had made shortly after leaving the airport.

Between the unfamiliar traffic patterns, corners that can be rendered slippery by a skiff of sand, the fact that as a tourist I never knew exactly where I was going, and the unpredictable actions of other tourists, you can see why riding in the T&C is not really for novices.

If you are an experienced scooterist or motorcyclist with good machine-control skills and well-honed traffic survival instincts, you'll do fine if all you have to get used to is riding on the 'wrong' side of the road.

I suppose if you're a novice scooterist from the UK, and already used to traffic circles and riding on the left side of the road, you'll be as safe on Turks and Caicos as you are at home, but you'll probably have less clothing between your skin and the road, so slow down and pay more attention.

If you're a novice from the U.S., rent a car. Seriously. It's too many new experiences to process all at once.

Having a set of wheels at our disposal allowed us to see things that otherwise would have been out of reach, like the Thursday night 'fish fry', and the famous Bugaloo's beachside bar and restaurant, in the – ahem, let's call it 'working class' – Five Towns neighborhood. It worked for us, but I'm a very experienced motorcyclist. If you're a novice and you find yourself thinking, "I'll rent a scooter down there, it will be fun," you're probably better off renting a car. If you are staying on the more touristy north shore of Provo, you'll be able to get by with taxis, which seem plentiful.

I'm a little ashamed to admit that we usually rode in shorts and t-shirts, although the one concession I made to 'extra' safety gear was riding in sneakers instead of flip-flops (in case I ever had to put a foot down unexpectedly.) When we got wherever we were going, I often left my sneakers with one helmet under the seat and switched back to flip flops.

We never really had any close calls, but I would have felt better if we'd at least been wearing jeans and any kind of light jacket or gloves.

One person on a scooter could probably jam a helmet, light jeans & jacket, and gloves under the seat, but there would not be room for two people's gear. Mary is a pretty experienced scooterist, and she could have ridden her own instead of just being a passenger on mine. But, at that point we'd've been renting two scooters at $39/day each, which would have cost a lot more than one car.

If you go: I recommend Scooter Bob's on Turks and Caicos. The staff was friendly and helpful; they gave us a ride to the airport with all our luggage, for free. The bike we rented ran fine all week.

As a professional motorcycle journalist, I pretty much have to recommend ATTGATT – "all the gear, all the time". But the reality is, you're not going to wear your Aerostich Roadcrafter on your Caribbean vacation.

I would recommend, at a minimum, that you borrow a helmet from the rental agency. If you have some weird fit issues, bring a helmet with you. You'd be fucking crazy to ride without one, in a place where some other tourist might pull out of a side road directly into your path, because he's looking for traffic coming from the wrong direction.

It's essential to bring eye protection for both daylight and night-time. There's a lot of grit flying around, even on paved roads. Lace up, closed-toe shoes are the next priority. A pair of loose jeans that are easy to pull on right over shorts, light gloves, and some kind of jacket will all protect you from abrasion a lot better than sunscreen! I didn't have those things, but do as I say, not as I do.

We traveled to T&C with a suitcase, but a backpack would have been convenient on the scooter. If you're a real Boy Scout, you'll come prepared with a couple of bungee cords and/or a little cargo net, which will make it easier to move around the island with towels and snorkel gear.

We loved the Harbour Club Villas and Marina on Provo's quiet south shore, which allowed us to get away from other tourists and kayak to completely private beaches, but it would have been impossible to stay there without a vehicle.


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