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Hasta la vista Cuba

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It’s now Thursday morning and after 7 days of fairly mixed weather, I’m now on my way to the airport to get my flight home, and I can honestly say this holiday has been one of the best I’ve been on.

I went on a two day tour to the south of the island at the weekend including a visit to Che Guevara’s memorial at Santa Clara, a hotel stop over near Cienfuegos and then a quick tour around Trinidad. The memorial was absolutely beautiful with plaques on the wall depicting the faces of all the members of Che’s troop …it was a really fitting tribute to a legendary revolutionary who dedicated his life to fighting for the people of South America.

Cienfuegos was not very special really but when we moved onto Trinidad the next day, we got a glimpse of the real Cuba with its narrow cobbled streets and beautiful architecture, albeit very old. Trinidad is the oldest city in Cuba and is well worth a visit.

During this trip we also went on a 4km hike through the hills and forests around Trinidad which form Parque Guanayara The centre piece of the park was a spectacular waterfall and beautiful lake.

The hotel I stayed at in Varadero was Brisas del Caribe, as mentioned in a previous post. When I first arrived, I was struck by the amount of Russians staying there. In fact for most of the week I was the only Brit staying at the hotel, not that this was a problem, I made friends with a lovely group of Canadiians. Canada is only a three hour flight away so Cuba is a destination of choice for many and I must say, in all my travels I haven’t met a more friendly bunch of people, so laid back and down to earth.

Having had no major dramas all holiday, two hours before I was due to leave the hotel, I somehow managed to fall forward onto a red hot BBQ grill and, instinctively putting my hands out to brace myself, gave.myself a nasty burn, which was compounded by the fact that I initially couldn’t seem to get the hotel nurse to give me anything to relieve the pain without payment. Eventually, an intervention by the hotel manager, got me seen to although I now have a nice little blister forming on the palm of my hand. At least the pain is beginning to subside. Not really what I wanted before a ten hour flight.

As we head for the airport, my disappointment at leaving this beautiful country really can’t be put into words. I don’t think there’s any doubt that I’ll be back soon.

Varadero

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Firstly, after reading some quite scathing reviews of my hotel, Brisas del Caribe on Trip advisor, I was pleasantly surprised on arrival on Thursday morning. The layout of the hotel is really nice and the pool area and gardens are perfectly designed. The food was ok, but I wasn’t that hungry really despite having only eaten two proper meals since arriving in Cuba …..so far so good.

I think you have to.understand that Varadero is very much a tourist spot. You will not get proper Cuban culture here and in fact I’d find it hard to understand anyone coming to Cuba solely for Varadero. Everyone should make the effort to sample some of the real culture or you might as well spend a week in the Costa del Sol.

I booked an overnight trip to Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Trinidad so that I could see a bit more of Cuba. I understand that the memorial to Che Guevara is at Santa Clara so I look forward to seeing that.

I took a 2km walk to Plaza America, which as the name might suggest is a tourists shopping mall with a few souvenir shops, clothes shops, restaurants and a supermarket. One thing I did notice was how expensive everything is compared to Havana ….real tourist prices and in many cases more expensive than in the UK.i did buy a bottle of Santiago de Cuba rum which is quite rare in the UK due to export issues in Cuba.

After a breezy and chilly start to life in Varadero, the weather has picked up nicely so here’s to the next few days being the relaxing, Sunny holiday I planned.

Beautiful Havana

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It is now Thursday lunchtime and, having just boarded the bus to Varadero, it’s time to say goodbye to Havana, such a beautiful city with beautiful people. The guides will tell you that Cuba is the safest country in Latin America and I can well believe it. I can honestly say I have felt safer in Havana than at times in London or Portsmouth.

I did manage to get to do my tour in the end and our guide Raphael was magnifico. The tour was called ‘Old man and the City’ and if you ever visit Havana I’d recommend this tour which involved part bus and part walking, visiting places such as Revolution Square and Ernest Hemingway’s house in the south of the city before heading back to the old town for a walking tour of some of the historical elements that make up this wonderful city, and god there is so much to see here. 

Cuba has suffered much from trade embargos placed on the country by America prior to Obama’s administration. Obama had begun a process of renewing relations with Cuba, although that seems set to change during Trump’ s administration, though much is unknown and I’d best steer clear of the politics of the situation, not being an expert in such matters, it’s very much an area of history that interests me though.

I met a lovely Cuban girl on my first night here and it was lovely to spend time with her, especially when out to dinner last night, avoiding the usual tourist hotspots and instead eating at the restaurant where she works, a traditional Cuban restaurant called, Familia. If ever you’re in Havana try it out. The food is gorgeous and there is traditional live music. Cuban music seems so upbeat and you can’t help but want to.get up and dance. Bethi was a very good dancer and took me Salsa dancing, although much as I think I’m a good mover back home, there was no way I would have been able to compete here. I mean, this is proper dancing. Incidentally when I say I’m a good mover, you can probably take that with a pinch of salt.

I am sad to say goodbye to Bethi but we will stay in touch and if, or should I say when, I return, I hope my spanish will have improved so that we can converse much more easily. Mostly we just enjoyed each other’s company.

So all in all, Havana was a success, and I really wish I could have stayed longer. I hope Varadero isn’t an anti-climax. I will of course look forward to a relaxing week and the weather has greatly improved. I’ve added a few random unedited photos below but they dont really tell half the story of this vibrant city. Ciao for now.

Havana – first impressions

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As I write this, it’s a very breezy Tuesday evening. Of course I can’t be sure when I’ll get to publish due to the difficulty finding Wi-Fi anywhere near my hotel, although to be honest it’s not been a major drawback so far. It’s pretty amazing how these days we have come to rely on these things so much even while on holiday.

The last twenty four hours since arriving in Havana have been a bit of a mixed bag. I really love Havana itself and I think I could probably do with more time to see everything, however, I seem to invite problems whatever I do and wherever I go. I guess I should get a few of the negatives out of the way first, starting with being over charged last night for drinks in the hotel bar. I won’t go into detail but I think the barman took full advantage of a guy who was a bit tired and quite frankly would have paid anything to get a couple of drinks before going to bed (I think £18 for two vodkas is a bit much. Then this morning came the shower with cold water. This was followed this afternoon by the tour guide I’d booked not turning up. I’d actually made several attempts to contact the company to ensure that they would be picking up at the hotel but c’est la vie, I’ve arranged something else for tomorrow morning instead. All this kind of detracts from the main event of these few days which is Havana itself. In my previous post I did allude to the fact that I’d be much happier wandering about at my own pace and that’s definitely been the case.

I don’t normally bother with holiday welcome meetings and with my welcome meeting taking place at a big hotel about a mile away I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be up for that. That said, I was awake quite early so decided it would be quite nice to take a walk and get a feel for the city. It was actually a really nice leisurely stroll through Havana’ s less tourist centric back streets. Whilst it was warm, it was quite cloudy so just right for walking and thanks to one of my favorite holiday apps, Maps.me, I found the hotel in no time stall and also managed to hook up to the hotel’s Wi-Fi ….I mean I’ve gotta get my fix right? One thing which had been quite noticeable walking over was the lack of convenience stores and when I did find a shop later, my simple request for a packet of crisps was met with blank looks ….it seems my favorite holiday snack is not something Cubans are familiar with. I’ve since found out that, possibly due to rationing, they don’t tend to go in for the multitude of different snack types that we do. In fact the meccanado that I found was quite bare with very limited essentials.

We had a minor rain shower around lunchtime but it was nothing like we get back home ….it lasted about an hour but the temperature remained high so was not much of a problem. I’d be more bothered if we hit rain when I’m in Varadero when I’ll be wanting to be sunbathing but I think the weather is going to improve by then.

I had met a young couple with two young children on the plane over and by chance they were staying at the same hotel so I met them for a bite to eat before having another wander round the old town. I actually love just walking around new places even if I’m not actually doing much ….just the occasional small talk with locals or other tourists and browsing for nic-nacs in local shops.

Anyway, like I say, i really like Havana and I’m looking forward to doing a proper tour tomorrow. Here’s hoping for no rain.

Where shall I go next?

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It seems a long time since I’ve posted here ….I tend to get a bit lazy and caught up in the mundaneness of real life. Anyway, here I am, on a plane for the first time since returning from Vietnam at the end of November last year. We’re not far off seven hours into the flight and it’s not been too bad so far ….I got a good nights sleep last night, boarded my Virgin Atlantic flight at lunchtime, watched a couple of movies and here we are ….on the home stretch.

So, what holiday news since the Far East? Well I have been very active in researching prospective holiday destinations ……Gambia, Goa, Cyprus, Amsterdam, Portugal, Cuba, Mexico ….well, in fact any country or city you care to name ….I know I must drive people at work crazy with my anguished cries of ‘Where shall I go next?’.

I started the year by booking flights to Amsterdam with my friend, something we’ve talked about for ages but with it being my fiftieth birthday this year, something she loves to remind me about, we decided an apt way to celebrate would be to get on a plane, so, as I say, flights all booked. Others in the planning are a cheap getaway in May to either Cyprus, Portugal or turkey. Turkey is always cheap but I wanted a new country so I may ditch my usual all inclusive and opt for a self catering visit to Cyprus.

The next trip will be to a festival in Spain in July with my another friend ….we had talked about going to Budapest in Hungary, however, as we investigated prices it became clear that it was going to be a very expensive few days. Then out of the blue, Natalie found a fledgling festival in Madrid that had a great lineup and really good reviews so within two days we’d booked tickets, flights and accommodation. The festival is Madcool ….definitely worth a look if you’re wanting to see some live music in the sun over the summer. So with Amsterdam in September and possibly Gambia or India at the tail end of the year, I think that’ll be my lot …..a bit greedy some might say ….and many already have 😀.

Anyway, here we are somewhere 35000 ft above the Atlantic Ocean, and if you haven’t already guessed, and there’s no reason you would have, this Virgin Atlantic flight VS063 is heading for Havana, Cuba. In fact, by the time I get to post this, I should already have arrived at my hotel in the old town where I’ll be spending three nights before heading to the regular tourist spot of Varadero for seven days of relaxation. To be honest, while I’ve been pretty excited about getting away, I have no real expectations. My Far East trip had been a bit too full on and I don’t feel I really got a proper chance to take it all in while I was there which kind of spoilt my enjoyment to a certain extent. It’ll hopefully be a bit different here where I can take things at my own pace. So, all that remains is to say bon voyage to you all and, hopefully I’ll be back soon.

Edit: no Wi-Fi in the hotel hence a delay to.posting this.

The Far East – Conclusions

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Anyone who knows me will know that, while I spend most of my life looking for the next holiday fix, such travels usually involve a certain amount of relaxation. The idea of a holiday involving constant travelling with barely time to breath would normally fill me with dread. I guess that’s probably why I booked this trip so far in advance, so that there was no getting out of it. I think once I’d booked the holiday and flights, I started to look forward to it, though I was constantly aware that it was totally out of my comfort zone.

In the event, my trepidations were probably proved right. On a personal level, I struggled with the fact that we barely spent any time in one place and so couldn’t really take time to enjoy things.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I went and experienced these wonderfully diverse countries. I loved Laos so very much, the slow, meandering way of life was something we could sometimes do with here in the west. The people were so warm and welcoming too. Hanoi was such a contrast with it’s fast pace and hustle and bustle, similarly Bangkok. I would definitely recommend to anyone visiting these countries. I just think that I probably would have enjoyed this more if I’d been able to go at my own pace. I guess that explains my highlight of the trip, the slow boat down the Mekong River.

I would love to go back either by myself or with a friend and take a slower journey round as well as visiting Cambodia. I guess I’ve been given a taste which is mainly what it’s about.

I’ve been home a month now and you can be sure that I’ve already been researching where to go next.

 

 

 

 

Thailand/Laos/Vietnam Day 14 – The Last Day

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And so to the final full day. Ok it’s true, I’m writing this some time after returning home but you know how it is with these things. Work takes over and I guess sitting down to write a synopsis of the final moments of my trip just seemed less important. Anyway, I digress. I kind of felt weirdly good on this day. We had a fairly packed day to look forward to and ultimately I really was looking forward to getting home. I may have said before that two weeks for me just seems way too long to be away and I was kind of missing some basic home comforts such as sleeping in the same bed for more than two nights in a row. We had been met by our guide for the day in the hotel lobby and all piled onto our tour bus at around 8ish. Our itinerary included a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the oldest university in Hanoi (or was it Vietnam, I forget) and finally Hanoi prison.

I had a bit of a running battle most of the day with our tour guide who didn’t want to give us much time to look round. I know they have to get everything squeezed into a certain time period but it was my last day and I wasn’t having this woman tell me off because I popped into the gift shop for ten minutes. Anyway, I may have been a bit direct but I don’t think I was THAT rude. I just made my point and we moved on. The mausoleum was housed in a huge building which overlooked a large square surrounded by government buildings. If you ever see those big displays of military strength that often occur in many of these communist countries, you’ll understand the size of the square. Ho Chi Minh’s body was at the time apparently in Russia being re-preserved though it is a fairly common belief that it isn’t the real body anyway. Being quite the morbid soul, I was disappointed I wasn’t able to see his dead body as that was certainly my highlight of the day. img_1538We next headed round the complex to view Ho Chi Minh’s house on stilts. I was marvelling at what good condition it was in until I was informed that it was actually a reproduction. Next stop was a temple. I was quite glad that you needed long trousers to go in as I was pretty templed out after two weeks spent visiting the things so I just got myself a nice cool fanta orange and waited outside in a shady spot.

When we left the mausoleum complex, we headed by bus to visit the Temple of Literature and National University, thought to be the first university of Vietnam ….yes another temple, but with a university on site. The students were actually having their end of year graduation type thing so there were lots of students dressed smartly taking selfies and all manner of weird group photos. I bought a couple of postcards here. It was quite a beautifully laid out complex (yes, I know I use that word a lot but it just seems to fit) so I enjoyed looking round.

Our final destination on this particular tour was to visit Hanoi prison. The prison was built by the French during their colonization of Vietnam and was later used by the Vietnamese to house American POWs who affectionately referred to it as ‘the Hanoi Hilton’, a nickname that has stuck. Obviously it’s not in use today and only parts of the original structure exist today. The Vietnam war is a subject in history that interests me so I enjoyed this part of the tour, albeit, some of the things we read about were quite harrowing. Of course it was very anti-American but that’s hardly surprising is it.

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We got back to the hotel at around 2pm and had a couple of hours free time before we were due to meet up later for the notorious water puppet show. I took the opportunity to get some rest and went for a short walk round to look at the shops. Then onto this water puppet thing. My god this was one hell of an awful show. We walked the few hundred yards to the theatre and had time to get a milkshake and slice of chocolate cake before heading in and taking our seats. What followed was little short of farcical and I am absolutely staggered that locals pay good money to go and see this sort of thing. I mean, maybe it helps to understand what they’re saying but I actually found it a bit of an insult that G Adventures think this is of some benefit to us. I’m all for culture but this was more of a kiddies puppet show. The show was to last for an hour, and I was stunned when after several lifetimes, I glanced at the time to notice that only half an hour had gone. I literally was physically unable to sit there any more without slashing my wrists. Well, that would have been a rather morbid way to end my trip to the Far East so I chose instead to climb over people and get out of the theatre. Honestly, the sense of relief when I got outside was immense and off I went back to the hotel.

A couple of hours later, I went downstairs to the foyer to meet up with the group for ‘the last supper’. I was met by a number of comments about my early departure of the puppet show. A number of people had also got me a programme. I was pleased to see my exit from the water puppet show had been suitably and typically dramatic 😊 …..and so off to the meal which was to be at another hotel about 15 minutes walk away. The rest of the group took the opportunity to raise a glass to me as I was the only one leaving the tour at this point, that was nice. I mean let’s face it I do like to be the centre of attention. A couple of people had indicated that the rest of their trip would be quite dull without me. I’m sure in the event that wasn’t the case but it’s nice to know I had left my mark anyway. There was a new girl joining the trip. I forget her name but she was from Australia. I kind of felt for her a bit as she was only 18 and the rest of the group, lovely as they were, were much older than her. I had a good chat with her at dinner and I really hope she got on ok.

The night ended with Shakil and Vincenzo accompanying me to the bar we’d been to the previous night for one or two last drinks. They had an early start in the morning and so left me around 10ish. I was actually quite drunk by this point so I headed back not long after.

The next day would see me leaving for home. I wasn’t looking forward to the long flight but I was looking forward to getting home to England.