Monday, 31 July 2017

A pretty lake and touch of Japan in Auckland

It is easy to neglect corners of your own city.  I guess because you know something is there and that it is readily accessible you don't feel the pressure to visit it.  It has been like that for me with the idyllic little lake in Western Springs Park, close to the city centre of Auckland.  I am ashamed to admit that the last time I went there was probably about 40 years ago, but, fear not, that has now been rectified.

As a lifelong Japanophile I had been itching to visit the newly opened Japanese Garden located within the park and was just waiting for a fine day to do it justice.  Thankfully the weather gods smiled on us over the last week and Sunday dawned, fine, still and gloriously sunny, a perfect day for a stroll by the lake.

What an eye opener!  I had forgotten how lovely the park is. Fed by fresh water springs the lake is a haven for wildlife so I strolled past ducks and swans gliding over a polished mirror reflecting weeping willows and rushes and native pukeko burrowing among the reeds. Happy families were picnicking, the adults chatting contentedly  as their boisterous children played in the large playground.  I thoroughly enjoyed my walk, the lake is so pretty and the bird life prolific, but uppermost was my goal of finding the Japanese Garden.

To give the garden its correct name it is the Fukuoka Friendship Garden and was gifted to the city by Fukuoka in 1986 when Auckland and Fukuoka became sister cities.  Originally located within Auckland Zoo it was demolished, amid huge controversy, to make way for more pet enclosures.  Thankfully the mayor of Auckland pledged its reconstruction within Western Springs Park, immediately adjoining the zoo.  The garden is 2 and a half times bigger than the original and incorporates all the traditional elements of a Japanese garden, including the relocated gate.  There is a tea pavilion, rocks, water, bamboo fencing, cherry trees, mass plantings of typical Japanese plants and a raked pebble garden.  It is small but exquisitely formed.  Still raw and new it will take a year or two to mature but it truly is a beautiful thing.  I was happily transported right back to Japan and know it won't be long before I'm back enjoying the atmosphere of the Fukuoka Friendship Garden right here in Auckland.

And here are some of my photos of the gardens:

Monday, 24 July 2017

12 Ways to survive winter

Down here at the bottom of the world it is winter.  In New Zealand this means a lot of rain and, in the southern parts of the country, snow.  Every evening on TV we get breathless and hyperbolic reports about snow falls and flooding in various parts of the country.  Anyone would think this was a new thing but it is winter and it happens every year. We don't get particularly cold here in Auckland.  A cold day would be about 12 degrees although it is usually around 15 or 16.  That's not cold in relation to other parts of the world but we do get lots of rain.  Winter is when we get 'four seasons in one day' so we are never sure  what the weather will be like from one hour to the next - sunny, rainy, sunny, hot, cold, windy.  We learn to be prepared and always carry a brolly even if the sun is out. I have to say I am not a particular fan of winter but I think the best way of handling it is to enjoy the positives.

People don't notice whether it's summer or winter when they're happy
                                                                                          Anton Chekov

So here is my list of 12 ways to survive winter:
1.  Take time to read.  There is nothing more delightful than spending an afternoon curled up with a good book in front of a fire.
2. Make pots of soup, hearty casseroles, steamed puddings, and cheese rolls to eat in front of TV
(cheese rolls recipe at the end of this post)
 3.  Soak in a hot bath late in the afternoon and get into your pyjamas and dressing gown straight  after,  deliciously decadent and cosy.
4.  Stand at a window and watch the rain and/or hail.
5.  Wrap up warmly and go for a walk... exhilarating and you feel so virtuous.
A walk along a wild beach with the waves crashing in is exhilarating
 6. Marvel at nature's beauty in rainbows
7. Catch up on all those TV programmes you have recorded or watch whole box sets
8. Drink red wine, hot chocolate with marshmallows (good reason to go walking) and lemon, honey and ginger toddies

9. Enjoy the winter beauty of your garden, that is if your garden isn't buried under snow!

I enjoy the azaleas in my garden right through winter
10. Treat yourself to a trip to a hot spa. In New Zealand we are blessed with multiple hot thermal pools, a soak in one warms you right through to your bones.
11. Go to bed early and fall asleep to the soothing sound of rain on the roof
12. Make a point of calling in on friends for a catch up.  A cup of coffee or tea and good conversation makes any day seem sunnier.

 Japanese Proverb: One kind word can warm three winter months

And if none of that works and you are still suffering from Seasonal Affective disorder (SAD)  do what I am doing in a couple of weeks time, head off to a warm tropical clime for a break and some healing sunshine. Then just remember the wise words of a great poet:

O wind, if winter comes, Can spring be far behind?
                                                Percy Bysshe Shelley

And here is the promised recipe for Cheese Rolls, famous in the South Island of New Zealand:
Cheese rolls = comfort food

250grams grated tasty cheese
1 onion finely chopped
200 mls evaporated milk
1/2 a packet of onion soup powder
1/2 a loaf of sandwich bread

Put everything except the bread into a saucepan and melt gently, stirring frequently, over a low heat.  Once thoroughly melted remove from the heat and allow to cool down a bit before spreading generously onto slices of bread.  Roll the bread up and grill the rolls in the oven, turning frequently until all nicely browned.  I make up a batch of these and freeze them before grilling so I  have a ready supply of comforting snacks on hand to just pop under the grill when needed.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Was this really 50 years ago?

Today it is 50 years  since New Zealand changed from pounds, shillings and pence to a decimal currency system and it has set me on a nostalgic journey of memories.  As a just-out-of-school teller the change over had meant weeks of training at the bank where I worked, angst, excitement and anticipation. As it turned out the change over went without a hitch and life soon settled down into a comfortable, albeit less complicated, routine again. Although I did hear a story of a prisoner in jail concerned that the money he had buried would be worthless when he got out!

One pound became $2. $2 is now a coin.
Young people today might spare a thought for the 5 and 6 year olds of earlier generations, starting school and having to grapple with the complicated three column adding system which was as follows: pennies in the right column, shillings in the middle column and pounds in the left column.  To make matters worse 2 halfpennies made a penny, 12 pennies made a shilling, 20 shillings made a pound, 21 shillings made a guinea  There was no logic to it at all.  But it was not only currency that made learning maths difficult, New Zealand's whole system was in imperial measurements: distances, weight, land area, oven temperatures etc. etc.  So a primary school child had to struggle with 12 inches make one foot, 3 feet make one yard, 1760 yards make a mile and that's not counting furlongs, roods, acres etc., it was enough to put you off maths for life!  Those lessons must have really sunk in, though, because even today I still think of a person's height in feet and inches and, curiously, babies birth weights are still often reported in pounds and ounces. Even Britain, which has steadfastly clung to the names Pound and Pennies, has changed to a decimal system for their currency at least.

At the time of my banking career all interest payments were calculated on a daily basis by staff, (nothing so fancy as a computer or even a calculator, then)  and entered by pen in a column running down the side of a customers account ledger card.  I worked at this for a while and I must say it certainly brushed up my mental arithmetic. The bank employed elderly, retired men to double check the interest workings just to make sure they were correct.  These old men were great to work with and were affectionately known in the bank as "retreads" I remember one who wore slippers to work so, in order not to be seen by the public, had to take unbelievably long circuitous routes around the bank to get from A to B.

My first weekly pay was 7 pounds 10 shillings = to $15. It was a very reasonable pay rate at the time. I paid 3 pounds to my mother for board, and still had enough for bus fares, lunches, clothes and the odd trip to the movies etc.  We weren't really a consumer society then and most of my clothes I made myself but I still felt I was doing OK.  By the time I became engaged, a couple of years later, and after a couple of modest pay rises, I had managed to save $1000.

When I look at photos of those days in 1967 I can hardly believe that that was my youth, it looks so old fashioned!  Interestingly I worked for the bank for 6 years and do not have a single photo of myself in the work place, or even of my workplace, no one ever thought of taking photos at work, and besides, photography was expensive so kept for holidays and special occasions.

So here we are 50 years later and so much has changed, computers do a major part of banking work, actually the bank I worked for was the first in New Zealand to get computers and I was among the first to use them, and small coins became worthless so that now New Zealand's smallest coin is 10 cents, the equivalent of a shilling. Also, interestingly, while I worked at the bank staff were invited to sit a computer programming aptitude test.  I gained a high score, higher than some of the men who were selected for training in that area, but I was not selected because I was a woman "and would probably leave to have children".  I still, all these years later, feel some resentment over that. And I can't help being stunned sometimes  when young shop assistants have to use a calculator to add two very simple amounts leaving me to wonder what on earth they get taught at school these days.  Not like the good (not so good) old days, eh?

P.S. Another sign of the times is that the beautiful, heritage bank building I first worked in now houses a McDonalds.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Lemons are like Sunshine

It's the depths of winter here which means rain, wind and, if we're lucky, a few days of sunshine.  The past week ran true to form, several days sunny with a wet and miserable weekend.  Inside weather indeed but a great opportunity to make the preserves I had planned.

Little orbs of sunshine
I love lemons and anything flavoured with lemon. I also take delight in my lemon tree, its bright golden orbs of fruit bringing a bit of sunshine into my garden on a dull or rainy day. This year my  tree has gifted me a beautiful crop of fat juicy lemons so a rainy weekend was the perfect time to get in the kitchen, pump up the music and set to work.  

Out came the Edmond's Cookbook for a recipe for Lemon Honey.  For New Zealanders the Edmond's Cookbook is like a bible. First produced in 1908 as a marketing tool for Edmond's Baking Powder it is still the most popular cook book in the country. The recipes are simple, wholesome, and good for families. To date it has sold 3 million copies and I doubt there would be many households that don't have a copy stashed in amongst their fancy, expensive recipe books. I have had my copy since I was first married and it is dirty, tattered, splashed and worn but I still love it.  I have bought later editions but they have left out key recipes so I always head back to this one.   I hasten to add I can't claim all responsibility for its condition,  my three sons all used it to whip up breakfast, snacks and biscuits.  Well that's my story and I'm sticking to it!

First off, Lemon Honey and this is the recipe from the Edmonds Cookbook.  Tried and true, reliable and yummy.

500 grams sugar
125 grams butter
4 eggs
Rind and juice of 4 lemons

Grate only the yellow parts of the lemons, the white part of the rind is bitter.
Strain the lemon juice to remove pips
Beat the eggs a little
Put all ingredients into the top part of a double boiler or in a basin over simmering water. 
 Cook slowly until thick and smooth
Put into hot sterilised jars and cover when cold.

NB: you can sterlise jars by heating in an oven at 120 degrees for half an hour.  I put the jars in the oven at the same time as I start heating it.  Lids can be sterilised in boiling water.

Lemon honey can be used in tarts, on toast or scones, drizzled over ice cream, in an Eton Mess, on crumpets, or as a filling for meringues.  It is so good.


I love these.  They are an essential ingredient in Moroccan cooking and when mixed in with any cooked vegetable or salad make something mundane really sing.  Most people eat only the skin, not the flesh.

Clean scrubbed lemons
Coarse Salt
Any spices you would like to add.  I usually add a cinnamon stick some pepper corns and a bay leaf.
A sterilised jar with a good seal.

Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of salt in the bottom of the jar.
Cut the lemons lengthwise into quarters being careful not to cut right to the bottom so that the lemon is still held together
Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of salt into the centre of each lemon
Squeeze and squash each lemon into the jar
Top the jar with lemon juice to ensure the lemons are completely covered by juice
Sprinkle 2 more tablespoons of salt over the top
Seal the jar.

Leave in a cool place for a few days, tipping it upside down and shaking a little each day.  Then store in the fridge but remember to give it a shake every few days.  They should be ready to use in 3 weeks and will last up to 10 months.

It was a satisfying afternoon in the kitchen

Monday, 12 June 2017

Aromatic Basil in some recipes you will use again and again.

My basil, nearing the end of the season
I love Basil.  I think it is probably my favourite herb.  I love the way it fills the air with its fragrance when I brush past it and how just a few leaves can convert a simple tomato sandwich into something  gourmet. This year I have had my best crop ever so now that the cooler weather is here I have been making the most of it to take me through to next summer.  I have made pesto and basil infused oil and also used it in casseroles, simmer sauces and in a dressing for roast chicken.  It's been fun.

Most people think of basil as a Mediterranean herb, because it is used extensively there but it is also a frequent addition to Chinese cuisine where it is added to a a thick soup and  is an ingredient in Vietnamese Pho. In Indonesia lemon basil is mixed with fresh or raw vegetables and a basil known as holy basil is grown and used in a wide range of dishes in India and Nepal. Asian basils tend to have a stronger, more pungent  flavour than Mediterranean basils which makes them more suited to asian dishes.

 My basil is the Mediterranean variety.  It grows easily in New Zealand as long as it has at least four hours of sun a day and does not get waterlogged.  It does require regular watering through the summer, though, so does best in a raised bed where excess water can flow away.

Pine nuts are a traditional ingredient in pesto but they are very expensive in New Zealand so this year I have made a walnut pesto.  It tastes great and will probably be my 'go to' recipe for pesto from now on.


Basil pesto, just the thing with crackers and cheese
2 packed cups of basil leaves
1/2 cup of olive oil
1/2 cup of chopped walnuts
2 cloves of chopped or crushed garlic
1/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
Squeeze of lemon (optional)
1 tablespoon of chopped sundried tomatoes (optional)

Mix the basil and walnuts in a blender until smooth then add the other ingredients and mix well.
This will keep in the fridge for about a week but can be frozen in an ice block tray for later use.  Cover the top of the pesto with oil if freezing.


2 packed cups of basil leaves
Basil oil ready for the freezer
1 cup of olive oil (extra virgin is best)

To maintain a good green colour blanch the basil in boiling water for 45 seconds. Then quickly refresh in iced water and squeeze dry.  This step will help preserve the basil but is optional.
Pat the basil dry on paper towels and then puree with the oil until fine and smooth.
Strain through a fine mesh and bottle.  I don't bother straining it because I like the flecks of basil through the oil.
This will keep about a week in the fridge but can be frozen in blocks in an ice tray for later use.

It is best with a soft mozzarella, like buffalo
So easy to put together - so yummy!

Fresh sun ripened tomatoes
Soft and succulent mozarella
Basil oil

Lightly fry the capers until they just pop.
Slice the tomatoes and the mozarella and lay in a dish, alternating slices
Sprinkle with the fried capers and drizzle with basil oil
Add fresh ground black pepper and a sprinkling of coarse ground rock salt.


Here is a really quick and easy cocktail for non alcoholic drinkers or for anyone to enjoy on a lazy summer's day.
Refreshing in summer

Ginger ale
Lemon juice
Lime juice

Put some crushed ice in a tumbler and top with 6 parts ginger ale, 1 part lemon juice, 1 part lime juice and a sprig of basil.  Muddle well making sure to bruise the basil. Decorate the glass with a strawberry and a slice of lime.  Enjoy!

So there you are.  If you have a good crop of basil make the most of it.  Pestos and infused oils are expensive to buy but you can whip up your own in a few minutes for a fraction of the cost....and it is so satisfying!

Monday, 5 June 2017

Our Last Days in Havana and some Cuban recipes

Plaza de la Revolucion or Revolution Square, Havana,  looks like a gigantic fan shaped,  car park. Towering over the square is the tallest structure in Havana, the memorial to their beloved poet and revolutionary, Jose Marti, and at the foot of the square two rather ugly government office blocks each boasting a huge relief mural, one of Che Guevera and the other of heroic guerrilla, Camilo Cienfuegos. We arrived in the square late in the day to find it windswept and deserted. It was hard to imagine it packed with people as it was for Fidel Castro's funeral, for political rallies and for the visit of Pope John Paul II when one million people crammed into the square.

Monument and statue to Jose Marti
Cienfuegos with the words "You're going well, Fidel"

We wandered the square and then moved on to the nearby, iconic, Hotel Nacional.  Built in 1930 it is a national monument with a very colourful and tragic history. In 1933, when Fulgencio Batista wrested control of the country from Gerardo Machado, hundreds of disenchanted army officers hid out at the hotel hoping for sanctuary and to be protected by the US Ambassador staying there. Unfortunately he left and Batista's troops stormed the hotel shooting and killing 14 of the military in the hotel lobby, the rest were either executed or surrendered. Batista's corrupt leadership allowed the American mafia to use the hotel as a base and to run an on site casino. The revolution put paid to that and now days the hotel is an elegant draw card for tourists and locals alike. It's outdoor terrace overlooking the famous waterfront road, the Malecon, is the perfect place for a cocktail or two.  We sipped our mojitos in the Moorish designed lobby. All was peaceful and calm, fortunately.

Hotel Nacional  (Photo: Lynelle House)

Preparing mojitos at Hotel nacional

In a glass tumbler put half a tablespoon of sugar and the juice of half a lime.  Add a handful of mint
leaves  ( to get the true Cuban flavour it is best to use spearmint, if you can find it)  Crush the leaves quite firmly to release the oils and flavour.
Add a couple of ice cubes and 1 and a half ounces of Havana Club Light dry rum.
Top with soda water and stir.
This is the taste of Cuba, one that we loved and took many opportunities to enjoy!
The terrace Hotel Nacional, overlooking the Malecon (Photo: Lynelle House)

Chilling out at Hotel Naty
Our accommodation was in a beautiful building nearby in the suburb of Vedado. You could see that it had once been the elegant home of a wealthy family.  Unfortunately, as with most things in Cuba the infrastructure left a bit to be desired.  One of our group had a room that flooded each time they used the shower and despite a very elaborate looking bar there was nothing at all to drink.  I don't think I have ever been so desperately thirsty as I was on our last night there.  Advised not to drink tap water and having no bottled water we scoured the hotel in the middle of the night searching for something, anything! to drink.  Absolutely nothing!  fridges were padlocked, the bar was empty and there were no shops or bars open nearby.  It was a very long night until we finally got to the airport to leave and could buy water.  Nevertheless we had good times there. Our group loved the terrace and the rocking chairs overlooking the road where we spent many happy hours chatting, smoking cigars and reliving our adventures. 
This excellent photo by Lynelle House sums up Havana, old and crumbling next to restored and an old car passing. Our hotel on the left.


 Pork and chicken are the Cubans' most popular, or, should I say, most available, meats.

INGREDIENTS: 2 cloves of garlic , 1 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 11/2 (one and a half) tablespoons lime juice, 11/2 tablespoons orange juice, 11/2 tablespoons olive oil, 3/4 teaspoon white wine vinegar, 2lb (approx) pork  roast

METHOD: Grind garlic, pepper and herbs to a paste in a mortar and pestle.
Mix half the paste in a bowl with the fruit juices, oil and vinegar.  Beat until smooth
Cut deep slits into the fatty side of the pork (make sure you have removed the rind) Rub the firm paste into the slits.  Place the roast in a plastic bag with the liquid mixture.  Squeeze out the air and seal. Refrigerate overnight, turning occasionally. Place in a hot preheated oven for a half hour and then reduce heat to 180degreeS for about an hour or until cooked.

Decorate with pan fried slices of orange and wedges of lime. Slice and serve with rice, potatoes or black beans.  There probably won't be any left overs but if there are it is great in rolls and sandwiches.

Motor scooter for three, Hils in the back.
Our final day in Havana was spent wandering the city, soaking up as much of the atmosphere as we
could, exploring streets we hadn't seen before, listening to Cuban street music for the last time and searching for small gifts to take home.  It was a relaxing and pleasant day.  My friend Hils and I decided it would be an adventure to travel back to our hotel in a bubble taxi.  It was lots of fun and laughter belting around the Malecon in this glorified motor scooter.

That evening we dined at a nearby restaurant, enjoying the fact that it was filled with locals and sipping on our final cocktail.  Everywhere we went in Cuba we saw examples of rice pudding.  It is very popular  although generally far too sweet for my liking.  The Cubans love sweet! I have modified this recipe, reducing the sugar.


INGREDIENTS: 1/2 (half) a cup of rice, 1 teaspoon vanilla essence, 1 cinnamon stick, the zest of a
lemon, 1 and 1/2 cups water, 4 and 1/4 cups of milk, 1/2 cup of sugar, pinch of salt, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

METHOD: Rinse rice then bring to the boil in the water together  with the vanilla, cinnamon stick and lemon zest.
Add the milk, salt and sugar and cook over a medium heat, stirring often, until it thickens.  This could take about an hour.
When thick pour into a serving dish, sprinkle with cinnamon and lemon zest and decorate with a cinnamon stick.  Can be served warm or chilled.

So there you have it, the end of a fantastic trip to Cuba.   It really touched my soul for reasons I can't explain. I would love to go back and see parts I haven't seen although I know that is unlikely.There are so many other countries to see - it is such a big world and there is so little time!

A huge thank you to my traveling companions, you were all, without exception, wonderful to travel with.  A special thank you to my fun friend, Hilary.  We certainly shared a lot of laughter and good times.  And a thank you, also, to Intrepid Travel who put together such a great trip led by our charming guide, Omar.

A book worth reading is: Havana, a Subtropical Delirium by Mark Kurlansky

Monday, 29 May 2017

15 Things to know about Cuba before you go

How do I look?
  Here are a few things I learned while I was in Cuba. I hope they will be helpful if you are planning a trip to there. They are in no particular order.

* Cuba is an extremely poor country so make sure you tip people if you take their photo or for any service.  This is how many people make their living and even a small tip can make a huge difference when your monthly pay is just $25US

* Take small gifts to give away, especially soaps and shampoos.  This is what we were asked for most of all. Also take clean, tidy used clothes to give away.  They will be treasured and shared out among family or village members.

* Don't eat beef, it is rare and expensive and often really unpleasant.  I made the mistake of ordering beef on one occasion and it was as tough as the sole of a shoe.  On the other hand, chicken, pork and crayfish or lobster are freely available. Note: Cattle are precious in Cuba because they are needed to work.  Cubans receive a longer jail term for killing a cow than for killing a person. 

*  Don't expect milk or cheese in Cuba.  Milk supply is extremely limited and, by law, only available to children, the ill and the elderly.  You will annoy and/or embarrass if you ask for it.
Cattle are precious  farm workers
* Take all your required medicine with you.  Because of the cost of mainstream drugs Cubans rely mostly on alternative medicines.  You will find it extremely difficult to buy western medicines and if you can find them they are very expensive.  Despite this, or, who knows, because of this, Cubans have an average lifespan of 82...not bad.

Cuban tourist bus
* Tourist bus services are good in Cuba.  The government owned companies travel to most tourist destinations in comfortable air conditioned coaches although it is a good idea to book ahead.  Hire cars are expensive and dearer than taxis in most instances.  Trains are slow and old and have extremely poor toilet facilities. Once out of the big cities and towns most locals use a horse and cart.

* Cubans are reluctant to discuss politics.  They may not agree with their government but do not want to be critical for obvious reasons. It is better to stay off the subject.

*  Casa Particulares, what we in New Zealand call a Home Stay, are the best bet for accommodation.  They are spotlessly clean, offer fantastic hospitality and immerse you in a true Cuban experience.
Casa Particulares in Vinales
* Canadian dollars or Euros are the easiest currencies to convert. US dollars are harder to change. Credit cards are not widely accepted. Make sure you carry small notes as many businesses and services do not carry enough cash to give change for larger notes.  Cuba has two currencies, the CUC$ which is the currency all tourists use, and the peso.  The peso is mainly used by small traders such as fruit stall holders etc although they will also accept CUC.    I had no need of peso while I was in Cuba.  

* Internet services are poor and unreliable in Cuba but you can buy an internet card which will give you a limited amount of computing time.  Large hotels and some city squares are the best places to connect.  Cubans are very rarely seen on either the internet or cell phones.  Apart from the fact that the service is poor, our guide told us he much preferred to communicate with people face to face, it is the Cuban way.

Let's dance - any place, any time
* The Cubans love music and dance and are very tactile and sexy.   They have an enormous joie de vivre and are happy to dance with anyone just to dance.  It doesn't always mean what you may think it means so enjoy the experience while maintaining a street wise awareness. I assure you, you will have a wonderful time.

 * Only drink bottled water and be wary of ice in your drinks. Oh, and rum is very, very cheap.

 * Always carry toilet paper and anti septic hand wash. Be aware that toilet paper is not flushed in Cuba but placed in a bin alongside the toilet.  Do not flush it or you will clog the primitive sewerage system and make life difficult for the locals.  Toilet paper is not usually provided.

 * Cuba's infrastructure is crumbling in many instances so don't expect things to always be in working order, be patient, be accepting and realise you are there for just a short time but this is what the locals live with daily.

* The Cubans are fantastic people, get to know them, to enjoy them and throw yourself into the whole experience of Cuba, you won't regret it. 

  I loved this wonderful country, there was something about Cuba that really got into my soul.    If I got the chance I would love to go back and see the parts I missed and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.  Any additional ideas or thoughts you may have are very welcome in the comments section at the bottom.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Cuba - Back to Havana with some history along the way.

Very reluctantly we said goodbye to the lovely town of Trinidad and boarded the bus for the return trip to Havana. Luckily there was to be plenty of interest, and a couple of history lessons, along the way. 
The attractive tower with an ugly history

Our first stop, about an hour from Trinidad, was at Manaca Iznaga in the Valle de los Ingenios, now a UNESCO world heritage site for its beautiful natural scenery, the ruins of sugar mills and slaves quarters and the fading, elegant haciendas of the early mill owners.   It was from the dozens of sugar cane plantations in this valley that Trinidad gained most of its wealth in the 19th century.  There is still some sugar cane grown here however most of the mills were destroyed in the War of Independence and the Spanish-Cuban-American war of 1895 to 1898. Plantation owners moved to other parts of Cuba but over time the sugar industry has declined and is now merely a shadow of what it once was.

View from the tower of the linen market and slave owner's hacienda

The Manaca Iznaga plantation was bought by Pedro Iznaga in 1795, a ruthless man he became extremely wealthy through slave trafficking. Today the plantation is a peaceful place.  A linen market, displaying exquisite hand embroidered, snowy white, table cloths, clothing and bed linen, lines the entry to the spectacular 44 metre high tower which overlooks the estate. We climbed the tower to drink in the panoramic views over the surrounding countryside whilst learning of its ugly history as a watchtower to oversee the plantation slaves, make sure they worked hard and didn't escape. Sobering to say the least.

The linen is  all hand embroidered.  I bought beautiful dresses for my grand daughters and a snowy white  table cloth
  After pondering the terrible injustices Iznaga's slaves suffered, and taking a quick stroll through his cool, spacious mansion, now containing a restaurant,  we boarded the bus to continue to our next destination, Santa Clara and Ernesto Che Guevera's tomb. As I have mentioned before, all tourism in Cuba is government owned and operated so it came as no surprise that we were shown a documentary on the life and 'heroic' deeds of Che Guevara on the bus before we arrived at his mausoleum.

Che Guevera's mausoleum, no photos are allowed inside. Note the size of the people walking by
The  size and surroundings of the mausoleum are an indication of how much he was and still is revered in Cuba, if not by everyone at least officially. Entry to the tomb is up a grand staircase and the tomb itself is cool, cave like, dimly lit and silent.  Along with Che's tomb there are 38 other niches containing the remains of  guerillas killed in the unsuccessful Bolivian revolution along with Che. Each niche is decorated with a single fresh red carnation while Che's plaque is the most prominent and boasts several red carnations.  Alongside the tomb is a small museum, dedicated to him, filled with his belongings, memorabilia and photos. The large bronze statue of Che, looking out over the countryside at the front of the mausoleum is certainly impressive.

The only type of billboards you ever see in Cuba
Unfortunately time was of the essence and we still had a long way to go to reach Havana so the mausoleum was all we saw of Santa Clara. Ironically the city Che freed from Batista's corrupt rule and converted to conservative and socialist  is now considered to be one of Cuba's most edgy, go ahead and rebellious of cities. With a strong youth culture, Cuba's best rock festival and students at Santa Clara university testing the limits of censorship it is known as a city that sets trends and inspires creativity.
We finally arrived in Havana after a 4 hour drive through flat, fairly featureless countryside mesmerised by the lolling head of our guide as he gently dozed for much of the trip.  Well, there was one feature and that was the number of burnt out or burning cars we saw along the highway.  It seems keeping those old cars on the road can be a risky business.  It wouldn't surprise me if they were successfully repaired to drive another day.  Needs must!

As we drove into a busy Havana our guide proudly pointed out the stadium the Rolling Stones had performed at during their visit to Cuba.  It was clearly a big deal. As luck would have it I found the video of the Rolling Stones concert, Havana Moon, on the plane as I flew home.  What a fantastic concert, if you get the chance, watch it.

Late in the day we arrived back in the heart of Havana.  It's always good to come back to somewhere familiar and there was still some sightseeing to do.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Cruising the Carribean, snorkeling, and meeting iguanas

Having shivered all night due to an over zealous air conditioning unit I was really looking forward to spending the day under the hot Cuban sun. What better way to do that than to cruise on a catamaran across an impossibly blue, sparkling,  Caribbean sea. While most of our group of 12 had elected to go hiking, four of us opted for this cruise as an ideal way to spend our free day. Leaving from Marina Trinidad, about 20 minutes from the town, the boat was taking us to Cayo Blanco, a small reef island famed for the quality of it's diving and snorkeling.

With about 30 people aboard  the large catamaran we sailed out through green bushy headlands and onto a completely flat ocean.  After each claiming  a spot aboard we lay back to relax, chat, enjoy our surroundings and listen to the piped, toe tapping Cuban music.  This was the Caribbean and it was as perfect as I could have imagined.

Our catamaran at Cayo Blanco. The beaches there aren't great but the snorkeling and wild life are fantastic. (photo: Lynelle House)

What a perfect way to spend a day

After around two hours we arrived at Cayo Blanco.  Some people opted to land on the island but most stayed aboard to travel to a good snorkeling spot.  I love snorkeling, I love being immersed in that dreamy other world under water and here the quality of the coral and tropical fish was thrilling to say the least. After a good half hour in the water we headed back to the island for a lavish seafood, buffet lunch, served by the boat crew.
Snorkeling in a pristine sea.  Me in the middle, back to the camera  (photo: Lynelle House)
  Then it was time to relax before the homeward journey. I was idly watching a group of hermit crabs scurrying about when one of our group  said "Come and see this"  As I rounded the corner I saw several large and very tame iguana sitting on the restaurant deck, making themselves quite at home and waiting for the leftovers of our lunch.   I was thrilled. I had never seen iguana before and they were so calm, so tame, we were able to get within inches of them.  They were the perfect icing on the cake of a wonderful day.

There were thousands of hermit crabs, all climbing over each other

It was thrilling to spend some time with the tame iguanas on the island

Then it was time for the return trip.  It had been glorious hot, sunny weather all day so the crew set up sunshades over the decks for people to rest under and before long everybody  was  relaxed and sleepy, some snoozing quietly.

Playa Ancon
Once ashore we were met at the marina by our tour bus driver who drove us the short distance to the lovely golden sands of Playa Ancon, said to be the best beach on Cuba's southern coast.  The rest of our group was there sunbathing and swimming, so we joined them to share stories of our day as a brilliant sun slipped gently towards the horizon.

Lovely end to a brilliant day (photo: Lynelle House)

  The large resort hotel on the beach looks impressive at first glance but take a closer look and it is run down with broken toilets, cracked and weedy walkways and a general air of neglect.   Cuba is so short of money that keeping  infrastructure in a good state of repair and maintaining assets is not seen as a pressing priority.  It is just as well the island's beauty makes up for it.  We had had a marvelous day, felt completely relaxed and content and were well pleased with our choice to cruise the Caribbean.

Right: Thumbs up from our guide, Omar.  I asked him if it was OK to put his photo on this blog. He said it was, as long as it made him look good!