21st – 22nd November 2014
Havana – Cuba
It would be wrong of me to say I’m totally relaxed and looking forward to today’s visit to the city of Havana in Cuba, but I have no rational reason for feeling the way I do, so I intend trying to keep an open mind.
First impressions are, once again, a little mixed as the place we’re berthed at is quite dirty and dishevelled. I must remind myself of my previous comments about not expecting things to be the same here as in other places.
This is a country which is growing and improving, yes the revolution was some time ago but rebuilding takes time…and many boatloads of money.
We have to wait a while for immigration clearance and there’s a huge queue to change money into Cuban Convertible Pesos, but once that’s done we’re off. It’s a hot and sticky day and like many places there is the gauntlet of horse-drawn carriage owners and taxi drivers to negotiate. But to be fair they’re not as pushy as some of the ones we’re encountered on previous trips, so the first good point of the day is awarded.
We walked along the harbour front but a lot of care is needed here. The pavements are quite bad and are very uneven with huge holes here and there. But the people appear genuinely pleased to welcome us to their city with many an ‘Ola’ handed out along with big smiles. All seems friendly so far.
Some of the streets and buildings are seriously depressing though and there is a lot of construction and renovation happening. Unfortunately our first wanderings led us into a less salubrious area of the city and within a short time we quickly get lost in all the backstreet alleyways. I wouldn’t say we felt in any danger but elderly men urinating against the wall is never a good sign.
But be careful if you decide to ride….be absolutely clear in your negotiations as we heard many a story of a price being agreed but the passengers not realising the price quoted to them was per hour and/or per passenger and not a total for a tour. We heard one couple saying that as they’d had insufficient money when the time came to pay, the driver had demanded the man go off in search of cash while his terrified wife remained in the sweltering confines of the back of his car.
There are a lot of ‘dead’ railway engines around the streets as well, not all are accessible to look around but seeing the scatterings of ‘open air’ museums was interesting.
Anyway, by the evening of the first day I’m still not totally convinced, but the highlight of this tour was about to happen….we’d booked to go to ‘Club Tropicana’ to see this world famous show.
Well what can I say? It was very spectacular and with half a litre of Havana Club rum between the two of us it got better by the minute. Then to be fair we were quite lucky as we were directed to seats which gave us a decent view of the stage. Others were not quite so fortunate. The members of the audience are packed around oblong tables and this poses a big problem, a lot of folk are facing the wrong way….and it’s nigh on impossible to rotate your chair for a better look as the person behind is so close.
Overall we were both quite pleasantly surprised by the entertainment on offer although I would say that some parts became quite repetitive. This is a high-energy dance show with lots of fast salsa drum beats, so don’t expect too much variety. But it was very lively and colourful, what more can you wish from a show?
And so closed our first day here….dare I say with a smile….but was Havana or Havana Club responsible?
Day two was just as hot and sticky and there’s a load more to see and do, so off we go again. The one inescapable fact about this place is it’s cheap…very cheap.
We bought a number of presents to take home and food and drink is very reasonable…for example lobster for two with several mojitos to wash it down will cost around £20, and we bought two litres of Cubans finest rum for around £8!
We visit the the usual tourist haunts such as the Cathedral, the government buildings, revolution square, the armoury museum, etc and it was all very interesting. There is an awful lot of renovation going on so the future potential of this city appears to be a really good place to visit.
We end up having lunch in some back street café, which turns out to be the owner’s front yard with chickens and children running around, and a pile of colourful laundry drying on the washing line overhead. This for me was one of the highlight of this trip so far and demonstrated how friendly the people are here, as well as how desperate they are to earn a living, however they can. Needless to say the food was as good as the hospitality…..
And that was Havana. Much better than we’d expected and certainly different but I’m not sure we’ll come back….why?….probably because I wonder if the major renovation of this city which is happening at the moment will have a huge impact on the people and spoil the atmosphere and attitude that you feel in these somewhat chaotic streets. And as for those fantastic American cars….we all know what happened to the old buses in Malta once outside agencies put money into the local economy. Losing them would just be disastrous….oh well, I suppose we should come back in a few years time to find out what’s happened.
19th November 2014
Now here’s a place we’ve never been before, and after the events of last night we weren’t sure if we were even going to make it!
There’s a certain feeling of sadness mixed with enormous dollop of compassion generated throughout the ship at the broadcast of two simple words over the tannoy…’Code Alpha’…this means that some poor soul’s holiday of a lifetime has just turned into a nightmare. The term ‘Code Alpha’ is used to indicate there is a medical emergency on board and the announcement continues by directing the medical team to the location of the incident.
Last night there was one of these dreaded occasions which resulted in the captain needing to turn the ship around to head for the nearest port…Costa Rica…in order to obtain the very best of treatment for the patient involved.
We were told this would involve a detour of several hours, and just before we retired to bed the expectation was for a much shorter visit to Grand Turk as a result.
So imagine our surprise, and of course delight, when we awoke the next morning already alongside our berth at our original destination. Unfortunately the detour hadn’t lasted long as the patient had passed away shortly after the manoeuvre to get him ashore.
Our delight was somewhat short lived……
Anyway, our first impressions of this island were mixed. It looks idyllic with white sandy beaches fringed with shade giving palms. The facilities here have been built and paid for with money from the cruise lines and it shows…This is a manufactured destination with lines and lines of sun loungers on the beachfront, then behind the obligatory huts selling souvenirs and expensive beer there’s a swimming pool complex to rival any major resort hotel.
Oh well…let’s give it a go. We commandeer two loungers and set off for a swim.
The sea is lovely and warm and we’re in for an extra special treat. Within minutes we’re surrounded by shoals of fish, all shapes, sizes and colours. They’re really inquisitive and gently nibble at your fingers and toes if you keep still. We spent quite some time with our new piscatorial friends and it was really a lot of fun.
Unusually I was quite content to sit for some time enjoying the sun afterwards, but when midday was finally a couple of hours behind us it was time for lunch.
We found a very welcoming bar a little further along the beach, away from the main area, and settled for a platter of conch fritters and coconut prawns, followed by nachos….well, who could resist? It was great and we were really looked after by our server.
At the end the bill wasn’t too bad either and we tipped our very attentive waiter well and left….but that wasn’t to be the end of it and a bigger surprise was yet to come.
As we walked across the sand we were called back by our waiter. He told us that he was really grateful for the tip we’d given him, and although he had nothing to give us in return, he thought we might like a memento of our visit. He then produced a Grand Turk Yellow Pages and with a huge grin he handed it over.
What can I say? Now either most of the other visitors to his bar don’t treat him very well or he’s taking the mickey!!
Well I can tell you I’m fairly certain it’s the first one of these options. Why do I think that? Well as we sat enjoying our meal we were surprised at just how much whining and whinging some of the other customers indulged in. We heard some really nasty things said and this was probably what prompted us to show this lovely guy that we, at least, appreciated his attention to our needs.
I really do despair of the behaviour of some of our fellow holiday makers who rarely understand that standards are not the same all over the world…and neither is the food.
Yes it’s hot and sticky…but it’s not his fault.
Yes the food may not be to your taste…but it’s not his fault.
Yes you may have been bitten by one of the local bugs…but…ok you get the picture.
You may be older in years folks…but you’ve never really grown up, have you?
Anyway we had a really nice day here in Grand Turk…made all the better to know at least one resident appreciated our visit and made us feel very welcome. This may not have been our ideal destination, but it was certainly good enough.
17th November 2014
Antigua..please don’t cough my way
Home to the Copper and Lumber Inn at Nelsons Dockyard……where many a fantastic lobster lunch and rum punch has been enjoyed.
But first I’m going to start today’s post with a bit of a rant, sorry, but this just has to be said.
We’d originally booked to go on a six hour catamaran sail around the island, an exclusive trip for the sole use of the passengers of this large tin box we’ve been floating around in for the past two weeks. But as we gathered in the theatre it was starting to become obvious that not all of the attending were in the rudest of health…
There was a fair amount of coughing and sneezing going on and two or three of the crowd were exploding without the aid of a hankie or even a raised hand to catch the projectile germs. We even overheard one lady describing her extensive overnight relationship with the toilet in her cabin….BOTH ENDS….delightful.
Ah well, we thought, maybe we’ll be able to find a quiet corner on the Cat to escape these diseased few. But by the time we’d made it down to the jetty it was even more obvious that ‘the healthy’ among us were in the minority. Now to be honest the thought of being cooped up for six hours with these purveyors of infection was not very inspiring, so we abandoned ship (so to say) before even getting on.
Now here’s my point. We all know how germs are spread, and yet somehow there are many who don’t seem to care. So why is that?
I accept folk are on holiday and don’t want to miss out, but is this fair to others…..the answer my phlegm ridden friends is………NO…..and it’s just selfish to think otherwise. At least use a hankie and sneeze away from others.
Anyway, our decision turned out to be a good one because firstly we headed for Millar’s Beach where we had a great three hours indulging in paradise beaching. Then after a quick shower and change of clothes we treated ourselves to a glorious king fish meal and many a cocktail at Hemmingway’s just outside the port. Priceless…
A final amble (stagger) around the local market and we meet a nice young lady whose accent wasn’t locally cultivated.
“You’re not a local.”
“No,” she tells us, “I moved here from Hackney four years ago.”
“Don’t you miss the ease and convenience of life back home?” we ask.
“Don’t be daft,” she laughs, “Why would I want to go back to that dump?”
Looking around the market and the town she now chose to live and call home I wondered why she would consider Hackney a dump compared to this rather unkempt and somewhat grubby area of the town. But then seeing the smile on her face and thinking about the more relaxed way of life the islanders enjoy I somehow realised she wasn’t referring to the condition of her surroundings…..I think it was more a statement of the quality of her new life compared with the old, and for a moment or two I had to completely agree with her choice.
Oh and the Catamaran trip…..apparently the sea was very rough and a lot became quite unwell with the ‘motion of the ocean and the sun up above’….or was that the real cause??????
So all in all a fortuitous decision not to go….but don’t think I’m grateful all you coughers and sneezers, I’m not.
Antigua is a great place, and I really hope the germ infested masses who trampled its boardwalks today didn’t leave too many unwanted visitors behind.
15th November 2014
Grenada…Nice n Spicey!
Last time we were here it was a Sunday and most of the town stayed shut. But not today and as the ship docked you could almost hear the surrounding area whirring and revving into action (a few crunching gears could be detected as well, but maybe that was just some of the passengers starting to move about)
Unlike Barbados this seems to be a much quieter island and although it has its fair share of cruise ships the atmosphere feels a little more ‘laid back’.
Again there a lot to do here, snorkelling, kayaking, gardening, etc, and for the not so faint of heart there is the infamous Rhum Runner trips. Loud music accompanied by lots of rum punch and limbo competitions await the party goer…and boy do they go. The rum punch would fetch the paint off the walls it’s that strong, and after one or two even the shyest octogenarian is stripping off her corset and whirling it round her head before launching herself under a limbo pole. Strange because not 20 minutes earlier she was stooped over a walking frame, I think it’s time to introduce free Caribbean rum punch on the NHS.
Then of course there are the wonderful white sandy beaches….but none of this is for us today as we have a hike in the mountains planned.
Are we mad? It’s 30 degrees in the shade with the humidity at around 80% and we’re passing up a Rhum Runner trip for a hike!!
Okay we like to try different things……so away we go.
We’re off to find Mt Carmel, the highest waterfall on the island, which according to the brochure ‘is just waiting to be discovered’. But as there is also a picture of the falls then I’m thinking someone must have already found it.
Our driver and guide, Skipper, is great company and soon has us laughing and joking despite many sudden downpours of the wet stuff.
“It may be a bit wet and slippery,” he tells us.
But boy oh boy he was so wrong because it turned out to be exceptionally drenched and more slippery than trying to walk on a sheet of glass covered in washing up liquid…in socks. The 15 minute stroll to the waterfall turns into an hour’s ascent up the north face of the Eiger….without ropes and crampons…..but we all work together and have some really great fun.
By the time we reach our destination, made more impressive by the current weather conditions, we’re all covered head to toe in caked mud. But no one has been injured (luckily) and everyone is still smiling (surprisingly) despite the knowledge that we still have to return back the way we came at some point.
And was it worth the effort…..was it ever.
The waterfall was an impressive waterfall but the sense of achievement somehow made it seem even more spectacular.
Long story short but we made it back in one piece (obviously) and after a quick shower and fresh set of clothes we headed off to explore the town of St Georges.
We climbed the steps to fort George overlooking the harbour, but alas it was closed. So we made our way down the other side of the hill to ‘The Carenage’, the old harbour/port area, principally to find a bar.
Fortunately this was a fairly easy task and we found ourselves in a very quaint place with open views across the harbour mouth. Nice food and cold beer always welcome.
We did try to find somewhere to buy a newspaper….not because we wanted to see any depressing news, but we needed something to stuff into our sodden shoes to help dry them out. But alas there were none to be found.
Ah well I don’t think we’ll be doing much hiking anytime soon!!
Great day out Grenada….with the mud and the crud and the beer.
14th November 2014
Oh we’re going to Barbados…in the sunny Caribbean sea
We arrive with Bridgetown bathed in glorious sunshine, the sea a beautiful turquoise blue. This is a very busy port which usually plays host to a number of cruise ships….today is no exception with us being the fifth to arrive (and we’re the smallest)
There really is so much to do and see here that it’s difficult to know exactly where to begin. Taxis are plentiful and in general are small minibus type vehicles. Mostly the drivers prefer to sell you a half or full days tour of the island and as they may only get one chance of a fare each day then this is to be expected.
Time to negotiate a price but be specific….if you want to be by yourselves then you need to mention that, or if you only want to go to a particular place then you need to be insistent. And of course this will all be reflected in the price. If you’re not bothered what you do and are looking for the cheapest deal then be prepared to wait some time as the drivers will attempt to fill every seat in their vehicle before setting off. In our experience it’s much better to pay extra and have more control over the day’s itinerary, but more importantly it’s nicer to have the extra space inside the vehicle to enjoy the day. For around $100/120 you can get a three hour tour (short but very good)
This is an incredible underground labyrinth of wonder and well worth the visit…..and it’s lovely and cool down there. The majority of the journey is made on a train like vehicle, but plenty of stops are made for photos, and the guides will always recommend the best views. Great couple of hours worth….and did I mention it’s lovely and cool as well?
There are a few ‘gardens’ to visit which, at the right time of year, will thrill any amateur horticulturalist with some very beautiful landscaping and stunning displays of flowers….especially orchids.
Of course just a drive around the island is a magical mystery tour in itself with stunning views both out over the Atlantic Ocean to the east or the Caribbean Sea to the west. Not to mention the turbulent history of the Caribbean, and Barbados had its fair share of the conflicts and slavery etc….A good driver can bring the whole story alive if allowed to do so (maybe another good reason to go on your own as we’ve often experienced the ‘know it all tourist’ who spoils everything by never shutting up!!!!) More often than not we always seem to end up in some off the beaten track location with a rum punch in one hand and a coconut bun in the other talking to ‘momma’….priceless hospitality.
For the more adventurous there are plenty of water sports or catamaran trips to snorkel or swim with dolphins/turtles.
Then there’s the beach…..or should I say beaches. Now I’m no great lover of sand and I’ll guarantee a small grain of the stuff will never produce a pearl in me, but I do love the beaches here. This is the place the world exists in the Caribbean, it’s where the locals meet to have fun, swim, party or just try to make a living. The water is so clear and warm you have to go for a swim, or even just a paddle.
Most places you can rent a lounger and umbrella for a few (negotiated) dollars and there’s nearly always a cold beer or three close by.
Anyway, after a wonderful day enjoying the island it’s back to Bridgetown and despite it’s somewhat shabby appearance in places, it’s a friendly town with lots of the usual stuff to see. Stop and talk to the locals, buy some of the local hand-made crafts (rather than the increasing masses of imported rubbish)
Then it’s a short walk back to the port and a few ‘Banks’ beers in the bar along with a flying fish platter…..yum.
Barbados never disappoints and despite one or two showers today it keeps it’s excellent reputation well and truly intact.