The All-inclusive Trap

Searching for winter sun, an escape from the dreary, grey drizzle or the bitter winds of this UK winter means travelling long-haul. The options are: far east [Thailand etc], Africa [tried, tested and now not tempted] or Caribbean. We’ve sampled a few islands in the West Indies now, with pleasing results, Barbados and Antigua having proved particularly lovely destinations. Mexico, last year’s experiment boasted beautiful weather but was less fun in that there were few options outside of the hotel.
And here’s the difficulty. In choosing a Caribbean or most other long-haul destination you are stuck in the inevitable groove of ‘all-inclusive’ deal, as after intensive research we have found it to be cheaper than either flying and booking hotels separately or B&B. An all-inclusive deal is likely to mean a vast, corporate hotel sprawling on a coastal strip and boasting several restaurants, bars, pools, terraces, a spa, a gym, shops, ‘entertainment’, beach with loungers and umbrellas and the ubiquitous ‘buffet’.
Hotels like these are betting on the hunch that most guests prefer to stay within the confines of the hotel complex and couldn’t give a cow’s udder about setting foot outside the gate to meander in the environs and hobnob with the locals. And it is true for many, who like to get up, sling their beach towels on their preferred loungers, wander into breakfast, order a cocktail and slump then slump on their sun bed until a member of staff bearing a tray offers more refreshment. There’ll be a further stint of slumping followed by lunch…
For some with a more active schedule in mind there might be a short session of aquarobics or pool volleyball-but then it’s back to the more serious business of slumping, punctuated by propping up one of the many bars.
We can manage a day or so of this, given sunny weather and a beach walk. But after a while some ennui creeps in. This is when we need to get out.
On our recent trip to Cuba the few days in Havana was perfect. We had breakfast in the hotel, we were within walking distance of the delights of the city and had the remains of our days free, at liberty to explore. Once we’d moved to the beach hotel, however there was a short stretch of beach to walk and everything else required a taxi or a bus ride-both of which we did. In one direction lay a sterile and uninspiring marina; in the other the town yielded more sightseeing and entertainment and it was there that we avoided incarceration.
One of the reasons for avoiding cruises is the enforced imprisonment aboard a floating, all-inclusive hotel, with nothing to do but eat and drink.
Our next expedition, already in the planning stages will be very different, involving an extensive road trip by camper van. On our journey we’ll stay where we want for as long as we want, moving on when we’ve had enough of a place and opting to explore by foot or bicycle. What a pity we can’t take the van to winter sun destinations!


		
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Fresh from Cuba-

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We have returned from ten days in Cuba, leaving the frozen, grey UK and taking almost ten hours to fly to a warm, bright and colourful Havana. After hearing about the plight of tourists to Jamaica, who must remain in hotel lock-down due to violent crime I’d advise anyone with Caribbean travel plans to choose Cuba-one of the safest holiday destinations in the world.

Even in my deprived-sleep-addled state, on the journey to the hotel I could see that there is NO advertising of any sort along the roads, not on the highway from the airport or in the suburban streets and nowhere in the bustle of the city. It is refreshing not to be faced with hoardings and neon everywhere.

Continuing this theme, there is nothing anywhere that resembles a ‘chain’ company. No Starbucks, MacDonalds, KFC, Wagamama, TGI Fridays, Specsavers, H&M, Monsoon, Wallmart, Top Shop or IKEA. Magic! It is, in fact difficult to determine where there are any shops at all. There are tiny corner kiosks nestling among crumbling facades or murky windows displaying manekins sporting faded, dusty outfits. There are also alleyways with market stalls touting Che Guevara T-shirts, baseball caps and a range of hand-made items. There is also a riot of lively, busy bars and restaurants thronged with tourists and locals alike and often alive with a band of musicians.

Bars. There is no shortage of these; some mere holes in the wall, others ornately panelled, art-deco monuments to a rum-and-salsa culture much celebrated by writer Ernest Hemingway [whose heritage is much exploited by Havana traders]. There is a limitless supply of musicians. In a small street outside a Hemingway-themed bar where exuberant music is entertaining the area an impromptu accompaniment was played on water bottles as several individuals ran fingernails up and down the furrowed sides [proving my theory that almost anything can be employed as a musical instrument].

Cars. Cuba is well-known for its old, American classic cars. I was unprepared for the number of them [allegedly 150, 000].They range from lovingly restored, smooth, gleaming limousines to pitted, filled and battered jalopies. All, however spew out a filthy, noxious cloud of lung-clogging fumes which requires some adjustment of the respiratory passages when out walking.

People are friendly, happy and not above exploitative. We were offered welcome, advice, conversation and cigars or a visit to an outlet. We were never, at any time hassled or pursued. Rejection was accepted with relaxed, good-natured smiles. There were a small number of beggars, some of which had gone to lengths to create artful outfits to enhance their plight-a frayed and patched jacket or [in one case] a masterpiece of sackcloth trousers. There was no evidence at all of rough sleeping.

There was an overall sense of well being. Nobody appeared embittered or unhappy with their lot. The population is a mixture of black and white with all groups of diners, musicians, shoppers and travellers joining in together as one, never allied to one or other ethnic type. It is safe; a tourist could walk alone anywhere at any time of day or night without fear of molestation. We were unlucky with the weather, which was uncharacteristically overcast and windy. Otherwise it was a fun-filled and happy experience. Thank-you Cuba!

 

 

 

Christmas Climates-what’s your preference?

In 2011, towards the middle of November, in the midst of an extended trip to New Zealand followed by Australia we found ourselves in Adelaide in temperatures of around 30 degrees. And Christmas was cranking up.

Adelaide was delightful-quaint architecture [what goes for ‘olde worlde’ in the New World], a busy, buzzing city with a vibrant night life, cheeky, fun bars and plenty of attractive, green spaces.

During most of our road trip we’d been disappointed with evening, cultural life. The vast majority of bars, devoted almost entirely to gambling-‘pokies’ and horse racing-tended to shut around 9.00pm. We’d show up just before, at a time we are accustomed to setting out in the UK to be told we could get one drink before they closed up, or that they were in fact just closing. We were mystified. Where was the fabled ‘wild west’ lifestyle, the Bohemian, carefree, party, outdoor social whirl?

Turned out I’d been watching too many ‘Wanted Down Under’ programmes. Other than for an early evening meal no one bothered with going out except hardened gamblers, who sloped off in inevitable disappointment once the books were closed.

Adelaide, though was different. The nightspots were thriving. There were throngs in abundance. The locals enjoyed life. One bar proclaimed it was ‘the worst vegetarian restaurant in the world’, in praise of its steaks. Result.

Our hotel, reserved by Trailfinders [hence not a penny-pinching hostel such as we’d have selected if left to our own devices] was magnificent; a monument to luxury and decked tastefully in the burgeoning Christmas items that were adorning the city. Christmas trees sparkled at the foot of the sweeping staircase.

Outside in the street the stores sported their own Christmas displays-Santa and his reindeer cavorting above the porch of a department store, tinsel glinting in the searing heat of the sun.

To those of us accustomed to Christmas in the Northern hemisphere the appearance of Yuletide decorations in a heatwave is a surreal experience. I responded with a driven desire to obtain Australian style tree decorations-a mission in which I failed, until my kind, Antipodean aunt, seeing my predicament mailed me a beautiful, red and white felt kangaroo to dangle from the branches of our own tree.

Still more outlandish, Hong Kong-where we stopped over on our return in late November-boasted enormous Disney-style Christmas trees constructed entirely of plastic cartoon frogs and vast ornate merry-go-rounds in glittering gold and shiny purple. All this in an atmosphere that could wilt a cactus.

I am in awe of those who celebrate the festive season in a hot climate. But despite being one of the first to complain about cold, dark, frosty mornings and bleak winter nights there is something very special about Christmas at home, here in the UK where we still retain some semblance of changing seasons. And after all, with only one week until the shortest day [in daylight hours] spring is just around the corner.

Puff!

                I imagine it is quite possible that one day smoking tobacco will become extinct as an occupation throughout the world; but for now it remains. Despite the dogged determination of most governments, at least in the Western world, those who continue to smoke take either a bold, confrontational stance of bravado about it or skulk in apologetic huddles professing their desire to quit whilst smoke issues from their orifices.

                I am, myself an ex-smoker. I recall my first cigarette, smoked as a young child when, in the company of a friend I found a discarded packet of ten in a disused railway carriage that had once been used as an abode but then abandoned. ‘We will have to smoke them’ the friend declared, for no reason that I could discern, although I did my best to oblige, possibly in order to cement the friendship or through some ill-conceived desire not to cross her. In any event I did not wish to seem lacking and besides, my own mother was a smoker. How could it be wrong? Of course, as I discovered after the one or two puffs that surrendered me green with nausea, it was very wrong indeed.

                About to become a student, and in thrall to the era of hippydom I experimented with pipe smoking. I smoked a small briar filled with Clan tobacco. It was beautiful, stylish and startling, and I considered, then that I cut an edgy and unusual figure with it dangling from my lips. All manner of colourful and unorthodox student characters drew me into their thrilling circles. No matter that it burnt my tongue and caused shooting pains across the roof of my mouth. My mother, horrified that I should produce such an uncouth item at the dinner table plied me with cigarettes in order to prevent embarrassment. Bingo. I became a cigarette smoker.

                During the ensuing years, whilst I pursued the usual route into career, marriage, children and divorce my relationship with smoking waxed and waned as by turns I gave up, then took up the vice. Once I gave it up for a whole ten years, beginning with selfless denial for the sake of my unborn babies and ending with the stresses and strains of marriage fall-out. I turned from lowly cigarettes to the more debonair joys of small cigars, sharing the pleasure with Husband [who’d made his appearance by this time].

                We jetted off for a few days in Barcelona, arriving to the hotel too late to buy cigars and with no prospect of obtaining any. We would have to do without. Next morning we determined not to succumb to cravings, resulting in some skirmishes as we went about our sightseeing-once, I believe in the middle of a busy thoroughfare. By the time we returned the worst was over and we were no longer nicotine addicts.

                Here in the south of France, as in many outposts of Europe and the Americas where it is banned in public places, cigarette smoking is rife. They cluster around the doorways of bars or puff away brazenly, flouting the law.

                I sometimes wonder if I shall take up electronic cigarettes as a consolation in old age-when all else is lost, perhaps, although I may well get to be as sick as my ten year old self in the old railway carriage…

Home Alone?

                An item on a radio magazine programme recently concerned people who, by accident or design will be spending Christmas alone. Listening to these individuals explaining their situation, one stand out feature came across. The women had made a deliberate choice to spend the day in solitude, whereas the men felt themselves to be ‘shut out’ through no fault of their own and felt aggrieved. Some of the stories were painful to hear, such as the father who’d split from his wife and would not get to see his only son due to his ex having a new partner.

                There is a strange irony to all this. Even in this era of [slowly] increasing emancipation it is, at best unusual to see a woman sitting alone at a bar or a restaurant table, whereas a man in such circumstances would not be considered out of the ordinary or an object of speculation. The Dad who felt abandoned could simply take himself off to a hostelry. He might not know anyone but would at least be able to observe the revelries from the fringe or even get involved. The women in the programme had all planned their solo day already. They would not be leaving their homes, but knew exactly what they would eat, watch and do, and all were eagerly anticipating and expected to relish their time alone.

                During a mid-life period of singledom I took the bold step of booking, not one but two holidays as a single traveller. Although this rash action was partly a result of a messy relationship break up I forged ahead with the first- a week long skiing trip- not without a modicum of self doubt. ‘Think of it as a course you are going on’ encouraged a friend [I was a virgin skier]. I will never forget boarding the coach to the resort and explaining to the puzzled holiday rep that there was one in my ‘party’, or descending to the dining room at the hotel and forcing myself to ask if I might join a couple at their table when there were no empty tables available, then the continuing, painful experience with a lone breakfast supported only by a book as a prop. When I descended to the basement to join a beginners’ ski class the holiday underwent a miraculous conversion. My fellow beginners were a charming, friendly, inclusive bunch who invited me to join them for meals, après-ski, breakfast and outings for the entire week. The encouraging friend came to collect me from the airport, finding me cheerful, refreshed and hopeful-hopeful enough to approach the next lone exploit with confidence.

                I went to The Gambia, without the support of a ski class, but with a ‘go-for-it’ attitude. I engaged fellow travellers in conversation, chatted to fellow diners, went for tea with stallholders in the market, booked excursions, including a two day trip up river to stay in a thatched hut with a party of Netherlanders. Everyone I met was friendly and kind.

                These days, as blog followers know, I travel, dine and spend Christmases with Husband, a companion who, on balance, I prefer to be with than without-but I wonder when lone women diners and travelers will ever be a natural phenomenon?

Herwig the Hoaxer

                This post is dedicated to Bosswachter, who we met recently in an Antwerp bar and who provided us with a dash of entertainment before the long drive home.

                Following our mini sojourn in Amsterdam, having been spectators [of sorts] at the marathon and witnessed a satisfactory outcome, we’d planned to break the return journey by taking a quick look at Antwerp.

                There was an ‘aire’ at Antwerp, Husband reassured me. The ‘aire’ was furnished with water, electricity and [best of all] a shower block. It was near the centre of the city-no more than a short cycle into the town via dedicated cycle tracks. Antwerp, with its cobbled streets and tall, gabled buildings is another historic gem of a city to rival Bruges or Ghent.

                We arrived to the ‘aire’, were greeted, as promised, by a manned reception and handed a bag for rubbish. So far so good. ‘Did we have a toilet?’ enquired the receptionist, causing my heart to plummet into my boots. Of course we do have a miniscule, basic porta-loo, for night purposes; not the gleaming, walk-in, capsule type of facility offered by larger motorhomes [of which there were a few, parked up on the hard standing area of the site].

                I might have known there’d be no washing facilities. The fabled shower block was there, yes, but had fallen out of use, the doors locked, the water extinguished. Having, by now, however achieved a sixth sense about these situations I’d taken the precaution of showering and hair washing at the beautiful Amstelveen site before we left that morning [see previous post]. Phew!

                We cycled into Antwerp. It was easy-a level, off-road path-until nearer the centre, when the path disappeared and it was necessary to share the street with cars, trucks, buses and trams.

                The old city is wonderful and boasts a plethora of souvenir shops to rival Bruges-lace, chocolate and beer. There is a grand square with an ornate town hall and an enormous, verdigris encrusted statue spouting plumes of water, the square bordered by a fringe of bars, cafes and restaurants. As evening descended we sat at a table and ordered Flemish stew accompanied by wine and beer. Heaven!

                Returning later by night we opted for a last drink at an out-of-town bar nearer to the site, where an almost lone landlady stood polishing glasses behind the counter. As we sat, resting elbows on the bar top, we were accosted by a solid, whiskered gentleman who assailed us with a stream of Flemish, seeming to be in the nature of an enquiry. We did not speak Flemish? OK, how about Francais? ‘Un peu’ I replied-my stock answer. We conducted a halting conversation about our travels and where I’d learned French, culminating in his excusing himself to visit the toilettes. He reappeared, smiling. ‘Now’, he said, ‘we can speak English!’

                He was, of course, delighted with his prank-delighted enough to have infected us with the merriment of it, despite the joke being on us…well, if I’m honest…me.

                Anyway, cheers, Herwig! See you next time!

The Road West

                “Bacon and cabbage now, that’d be the thing,”

                We were in ‘Brendan’s Bar, Clogheen. It was our second night, and second attempt to find some life. The first evening we’d walked into the village, a single, long street of terraced houses broken only by the ‘supermarket’-an exaggeration, a grocer’s shop, a pharmacy, a diminutive fire department, a takeaway [the only remotely animated spot in the street] and three bars. It had been a gloomy day and continued a gloomy evening. There was little sign of habitation and I fully expected to see tumbleweed whisking down the long sweep of the street. We squinted into the window of the first bar-‘Nerdeen’s’-and detected a light, and yes, the door opened when pushed. A teenage barman, distracted by his mobile phone, managed to serve us. Sky Sports News played to the empty bar. We sat in a corner of the desultory space with our drinks. A man came in to sit at the bar, staring morosely into his cider, then one other. The landlady came in, talking on her phone.

                I know that Husband is seeking wild, folksy nights with impromptu musicians and perhaps some spontaneous dancers leaping about with ramrod backs and high kicking feet.  This was definitely not the ‘craic’.

                Brendan’s Bar was distinguished in having a lone, redundant, ancient petrol pump outside, growing out of the pavement. Brendan, sitting on a stool, arms folded, was a fountain of Irish knowledge, backed up by his friend-the only other customer in the pub. I quizzed him on Irish cuisine; and why was the petrol pump there? The friend mumbled that perhaps it should have been taken away. ‘The tank’s in the middle of the road there’, Brendan affirmed, as if in explanation. He urged us to visit all the places he recommended, even ringing his wife [who may have been upstairs], when a name escaped him.

                Next morning as we left Clogheen I felt I’d warmed to the place. We drove into the centre to find our onward road, past a wandering, stray donkey strolling along the pavement.

                It was relentlessly wet. We stopped only to make a visit to Blarney Castle, running the gauntlet of a swathe of visitors from all parts of the globe, their enthusiasm not dampened. We queued to climb the spiral stone staircase to the top of the keep, queued again for an unceremonious tipping back in the rain to kiss the famous stone for the gift of the gab. Husband, I feel, hopes that by brushing my lips against the damp slab, the opposite may occur.

                Then on to Kerry-wild, wet, windy and a tourist magnet, judging by the abundance of hand woven garment, pottery, craft, fudge, woodwork and local art outlets. We find our site at Cahersiveen with a prime view across to Valentia and the prospect of some spectacular sunsets-if there is ever any sun!