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Summer Staycation at Titanic Hotel Belfast

Summer Staycation at Titanic Hotel Belfast

There are some moments in life when the littlest of things can seem so deliciously self-indulgent. Moments that feel almost laughable at how gorgeously simple they are. Drinking a cold glass of wine in a hot bath. Spending a long morning curled up in bed with breakfast and books. Sitting on the back step to soak in the last golden light of a blissful day. But do you know what I recently discovered to be the ultimate summer indulgence? A staycation at a luxury hotel a stone’s throw from my house!

Titanic Hotel Belfast is really the dream hotel if you want to experience the old and new of Belfast. Despite only opening in September the hotel has helped transform the Titanic Quarter in to the tourist haven it is today and has encouraged a multitude of businesses to spring up around it. As a local I have witnessed the impact the hotel has had but would never have dreamed I could play tourist there so when the lovely folk from Titanic Hotel kindly invited me to experience my very own staycation you bet your Jack Dawson I jumped at the chance!

Driving the 0.8 miles from our wee house in Sydenham to the hotel was a strange journey since it’s the route I take every day from work but as soon as I walked through the huge glass doors I instantly felt a million miles from home. The staff welcomed us both like we were newcomers to the city which was a real treat and made us both feel like we really were on holiday. What surprised us even more though was the level of detail in every inch of the building. Belfast’s history poured out of every corner and it’s charm out of each and every one of the staff we met.

Authenticity has obviously been crucial in the success of the hotel. In a city that has received flack for milking it’s Titanic connections, the Titanic Hotel has managed to strike a balance between celebrating the past and welcoming the future of Belfast. The building itself was once the bustling headquarters of Harland & Wolff, the shipbuilders who turned Belfast in to an economic empire in the early 20th century (and whose yellow cranes still form the city skyline today) and it’s unique features have not only been conserved but celebrated throughout.

While the Titanic is the shipyard’s most famous commodity, hundreds of ships were designed in the Drawing Offices of the building that now act as a function room and a bar in the hotel today. The Victorian barrel-vaulted ceilings have been preserved and updated with skylights allowing natural light to flood both rooms making them an absolute dream to photograph (while drinking cocktails of course). In fact, the tiles that decorate the front of the bar are the same tiles that were used in the Turkish baths of the Titanic (and were found in dusty boxes while the building lay derelict!).

After checking in we were shown to our room by Paddy, a bell-boy who knew more about the building’s history than most tour guides. He was even generous enough to give us a quick tour of rooms that hosted key moments in the past before he clocked off; the Presentation Room where plans were dissected and bought (and where you can enjoy Afternoon Tea today), the old telephone exchange which acted as the communications hub for the shipping offices (and where the first call announcing the sinking of the Titanic was received) and the original staircase decorated with the flax flower to commemorate Belfast’s textile industry.

While artefacts and paintings line the corridors of the main building, upstairs the design cleverly shifts. The halls are long and dark and the doors to each room are bolted like that of a ship. Inside the room the style is very much art deco but with subtle nautical accents that doesn’t feel too try-hard. We were lucky enough to stay in room 401, a spacious suite looking out to the sharp lines of the Titanic Museum (named the top tourist destination in Europe in 2016) as well as the shipping channel and Belfast hills.

It was tempting to cosy up here for the night and watch the sun set over the mountains but our bellies were rumbling and the Wolff Grill was calling. The fine dining restaurant of the hotel is another interior design feast for the eyes and was drenched in the evening light as we were shown to our table. The menu boasts local ingredients that were kindly explained by Norbert our waiter, an absolute gem of a man who had both of us laughing and grinning all night. I started off with cod & caviar (if you don’t mind) while Andrew went for arancini balls; both very delicious and both wolfed down faster than I’d like to admit. We both went for beef for main (we were on our holidays after all), a decision neither of us regretted. Full to the gills we decided to share dessert, a white chocolate pot with homemade peanut butter fudge which we almost licked off to finish but decided not to for fear of judgement from Norbert (although I’m sure he would have loved that).

After dinner we waddled out to the slipway for a dander and to watch the sun set. I had worn my fancy dress and thanked the heavens I wore Spanx even though I could barely breathe and needed to sit down after a few steps. Once the sun had gone down we found ourselves at the bar with the speciality cocktail list in our hands. The bartenders clearly liked to experiment and encouraged us to let them make us something off the menu (although the Jack & Rose did sound delicious). We were treated to the tastiest drinks (Andrew particularly loved is strawberry-decorated delight) and parked ourselves there for an hour or two chatting with other guests until even the Spanx couldn’t contain me.

The next morning we felt refreshed taking our time to enjoy the room while we still had it. The bath was a particular treat for me since my own resembles something your Granny would have sported in the 1980’s (lemon, it’s lemon – damn rental). We pottered down to the Wolff Grill again for a huge buffet breakfast; an impressive selection that I got shamefully excited about. Looking out over the slipway we felt relaxed and almost forgot how close our journey home was.

We took another walk round the building before we left not wanting to cut the trip short just yet. I found myself thinking about all the memories that the marble walls held and how much this city has changed since then. These stories would have been lost if the building hadn’t been preserved so thoughtfully and as a local this was something I felt very proud of and wouldn’t have experienced if I hadn’t have stayed there.

Staycations are a real treat not just because it feels super luxurious but also because it can help us fall in love with our own city. For me it was an absolute game changer and I’ve a feeling I’ll be good at playing tourist in Belfast from now on especially with hotels like the Titanic to welcome me.

Note: the Titanic Hotel invited us to stay and have dinner however all opinions in the post are of course my own! If you would like to experience the maiden summer packages the hotel are offering this season then you can check out the special offers here

 

Summer at Helen’s Tower

Summer at Helen’s Tower

It took me a few wrong turns and nearly becoming a trespasser before I finally found this place. It was a Sunday afternoon and I had one of those mad impulses to take my camera out on my own and explore but not really having any particular destination in mind. I get like this sometimes; restless to explore a place I haven’t found yet with an impatience that’s hard to contain. I poured over the map on my phone while I sat in the front seat of my car, my foot on the pedal ready for adventure. I didn’t have to search for long until I saw a pin for Helen’s Tower, a Victorian piece of history only a few miles away that I’d amazingly not hunted down yet. It was perfect! So off I went, tripod in the backseat just in case I got lucky.

Google maps took me in the direction of Newtownards and then up a tiny country road that I knew instantly I didn’t belong on; the big red letters saying “Private Road” being enough of a warning. But oh my the views! I could see right over Strangford Lough and hills that rolled for miles, peppered with the bright yellow gorse bushes that take over this time of year. I even came across deer roaming between fields and rolled down the window holding my breath to get a better look.

Realising that I’d have to find an alternative route to the tower without having an angry farmer chasing me down the lane, I took a few random turns before finally noticing a tiny, completely missable entrance on Crawfordsburn Road with two or three cars parked beside it. Swinging the tripod over my shoulder like Huckleberry Finn I optimistically made my way up the windy path, hoping I was heading in the right direction (there was no real sign letting me know I was in the right place!).

A few minutes in to the walk I was smitten. The path shone gold ahead of me with the summer afternoon light speckling through the leaves above me. Every now and again the trees would give way to something new; a meadow full of wildflowers or a lake full of nosey swans with a path cutting across the middle. The further I walked the more lost I felt in this new Narnia land that I had all to myself.

Eventually the path turned in to a hill and I knew I was coming close to the tower. Panting and cursing the tripod that was now burrowing a hole in my shoulder, I climbed over root-covered paths that threatened to trip me if I wasn’t careful. Rhododendrons seemed to spring up out of nowhere and bluebells were out in full force. Sweating like pig I wasn’t exactly feeling princess-y but I could see the roof of the tower between the trees! It was beautiful and I gazed up at it while I splayed out on the grass recovering from the unexpected hike.

This place is a true gem and each time I’ve been it’s been practically deserted of people. An even bigger surprise was learning that you can actually rent this spot out via the Irish Landmark Trust – can you imagine?!! It would be the perfect romantic getaway for two with the rooftop providing the perfect spot to survey “your” land while sipping on a few glasses of wine. While I was forced to make do with being a lowly civilian I could still see why there were numerous poems written about this place (Tennyson himself penned one in honour of the tower); the woodlands surrounding it are full of magic and even today it feels like you’re a million miles away from anyone else.

I started to make my way back to the car when the sun started to fall low and I remembered with a panic that I was all by myself in a place devoid of people. I half-ran half-skipped back to the car and promised myself that this would be my secret space this summer (a secret that I definitely couldn’t not share it seems!) and that I would be back to explore more. But maybe with Andrew next time as my Tower bodyguard/photographer…

P.S. The Irish Landmark Trust have a tonne of properties you should have a look at if staying in a ridiculously romantic location is your thing! It’s not an ad but just a vital piece of information I’ve newly learned!

 

 

 

The Full Shilling Guide to the Midi-Pyrenees: Part Deux

The Full Shilling Guide to the Midi-Pyrenees: Part Deux

Waking up in an antique bed and opening the shutters to see a field of sunflowers is certainly one way to start your day on holiday. And that’s just the way every day started while Shannon and I were in France in July. Our aunt and uncle’s house almost felt like we were staying in a boutique hotel except we were able to eat our breakfast in our jammies (boiled eggs, peaches and croissants – yes please) and snooze in for as long as we wanted.

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Our second full day was going to be a long one; we planned to venture a bit further as far as Lagrasse, Minerve and then back through Carcassonne on the way home. With this in mind we set off early with a basket my aunt had prepared for us including picnic blankets, bread and some beer. All the essentials for an afternoon in the French countryside of course.

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I think those drives through the valleys and alongside fields of all kinds of colours were my favourite parts of the trip. Road trips are always the best way to see a country I remember thinking as we watched how the landscapes changed from vineyards to mountains to crumbling villages perched precariously on ancient hilltops.

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We reached Lagrasse just before the markets finished which were abundant with local crafts, cheeses, meats and sweet treats. I purchased a wrap and we bought some souvenirs for the folks at home before finding somewhere to hide from the midday heat.

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We managed to find a place hidden in one of the cobbled streets called Les Trois Grâces with a wee courtyard out the back that provided us with just the right amount of shade. I decided to go very healthy with a pasta and Shannon opted for a lamb tagine which we washed down with a carafe of wine like true Europeans.

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After filling our bellies we felt like a little snooze by the river and so off we went, with baskets in hand to the river flooding with locals having a swim on their lunch breaks. We dipped our toes in for a little while but found it just as relaxing on the river banks where we could read and have a few beers (just Shannon to be fair – I was the ever-responsible designated driver).

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Feeling suitably rejuvenated and realising the time, we packed up our little Aygo and typed Minerve in to our Google maps. We left Lagrasse and turned up towards a mountain with a perilous lane curling up it’s side overlooking the valley below. I drove the car up the lane, not daring to look to my right and hoping that Google maps knew where it was taking us. It turns out the app was drunk and we ended up on a dirt track with a dead end and in very real trouble. Our wee rental was in danger of being completely ruined as we drove at snail speed over the rocks praying that we didn’t get stuck in the middle of nowhere with no signal.

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With Shannon directing me we eventually made it out of the (quite literal) woods and back down the scariest lane in the land. Once back down to a safe height, we decided to forego the plan for Minerve in favour of living and headed towards Carcassonne which was on the way home.

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Carcassonne is one of the biggest cities in the Occitanie region but the main attraction is La Cité, a medieval fortress which looks over the modern city which has grown around it. The castle is a stunning piece of architecture that was saved from dereliction in the 19th century and became a UNESCO  World Heritage Site in 1997. The streets are a labyrinth of shops and restaurants, very easy to get lost in which is exactly the best way to explore the grounds.

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The fortress has two outer walls and the best place to escape the crowds is between these two walls. Here you will find a space to roam in peace, admire the architecture and get the best views across Carcassonne. Shannon and I were completely enchanted, imagining the stories and lives these walls must have seen over a thousand years.

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After we ate some pizza and managed to recover from our near-death experience (slightly dramatic but we are a dramatic pair), we decided it would be best to get home to our aunt and uncle’s where we would be safe from cliff roads and less likely to suffer a tragic fate. Turns out driving on the opposite side of the road is even harder in the dark and my knuckles we white gripping the wheel for fear of drifting in to the wrong side of the road!

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On our arrival home, we were given some delicious hot chocolate (made with the really good stuff) which we took outside to drink under the night sky, spying a few shooting stars to wish upon before heading to out long-awaited beds. It had been a long day!

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The following morning we decided to keep close to the house, only nipping out to grab some roast chicken from the local stall in Castelnaudary and then to the Sunday markets in Saint-Michel-de-Lanès. Here I got to see just how cheap French antiques can be and I had to hold myself back from purchasing a huge vintage suitcase which I am sure wouldn’t have made it to Ireland on a plane. Instead I settled for 4 beautiful carafes which I stole for an eye-watering 5 Euro and 2 pipes for a Euro each because I liked the idea that they had been cherished by someone for a long time.

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After a Sunday roast that was eaten mostly with our hands, we finished the day lying outside watched the sun go down over the sunflowers and showering golden light over everything around us. We ate our desserts on the grass, not wanting to move inside because it meant our last day was over. Eventually the chill forced us inside to get changed in to something warmer as we took a spin to the canal for a few drinks by the water, swapping stories until we couldn’t avoid sleep any longer.

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We were awoken the morning after by the sound of gentle rain on the terracotta roof. Our flight was in the early afternoon and we soaked up the morning in our beautiful bedroom, packing half-heartedly and sitting on the windowsill to watch the rain. With a touch of Autumn in the air, our uncle decided to light the stove in the sitting room and brought the dining table inside so we could eat breakfast by the fire. It was the sweetest gesture and cemented our decision to return to this beautiful hideaway next year. Although next time I ain’t drivin’!

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The Full Shilling Guide to the Midi-Pyrénées: Part Une

The Full Shilling Guide to the Midi-Pyrénées: Part Une

Growing up as one of three girls meant that family trips were anything but calm. Someone would be breathing too loudly in the car, someone would be sitting too closely to someone else or a mass riot would ensue if a sister was seen wearing another sister’s dress/shoes/anything that wasn’t their own.

Nowadays we’re mature adults, you might find it hard to believe that I ever broke her nose when we were kids. Twice. But those turbulent times are over and now we are more than capable of surviving a short holiday together especially when that holiday involves eating our way through the villages of southern France and taking lots and lots of pretty photos.

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So with that confidence in mind, we decided to take a quick trip last month to stay with our aunt and uncle who have spent the last 10 years converting an old barn in to the most beautiful chateaux by the Pyrénées (trés middle class, I know). As they are fairly rural we decided to hire a car and after an hour long process (why do I always get the employee who has just started the job the day before?) we finally hopped in to our beautiful Toyota Aygo that just about fit us along with our carry-on bags.

The French drive on the right hand side of the road which made for an interesting journey to our uncle’s house. It took a few attempts to leave the airport (and Shannon couldn’t even bring herself to look out the window when we eventually joined the motorway) but we made it in one piece to Maison de Donnelly in the late afternoon. After we were hugged and my uncle commented on the rental (“that’s some wee yoke there” – typical Irish man review), we were shown around their humble abode which wasn’t so humble and moved me to real-life tears. They have managed to create a home that is warm and still so full of character, each room decorated with gorgeous French vintage market finds at prices that made me shed even more tears. I immediately promised myself that I will be a regular pest of theirs for as long as they would have me.

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My aunt Bronagh is an incredible cook and once we were settled, we sat at a table overlooking the sunflower fields (am I making you sick yet?). The food was glorious and the wine even more so. We sat chatting until Shannon and I could barely speak with tiredness and so with heavy heads, we retreated to our beautiful bedroom to sleep in our beautiful beds. Turns out we are still kids at heart and we fell asleep in the same bed, talking until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer. 

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On our first morning I trotted down to the village to get croissants for breakfast because that is what one does in France. We planned our route for the day over our crumbs and then set off for Fanjeaux, a little hilltop village with views for miles. The rain decided to show up for the first hour or two but I was ferocious in my cheeriness that the rain would soon clear off. I’m one of those travellers that vehemently believes that rain should never dampen sprits but really all that it does is convince my fellow traveller that I’m a bit mental (picture me in the pouring rain with a manic smile screaming “WE ARE HAVING FUN, AREN’T WE?!).

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Fanjeaux is an old Cathar town with crumbling medieval walls surrounding the Dominican chapel. It was beautiful despite the drizzle with plenty of cobbled streets to get lost in (or do circles like we did). It was so quiet and felt a little eerie in places because we hardly saw a soul save for a few damp tourists. We didn’t stay too long as we didn’t have an umbrella but it’s a place I would love to go back to on a clear day.

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Luckily for everyone the skies cleared as we were headed to Limoux and as the clouds parted we could spy the Pyrénées in the distance. The valley between Fanjeaux and Limoux is covered in vineyards which makes it a little difficult to be the chief/only driver. The area is famous for a sparkling wine called Blanquette which is sold by the vineyards alongside the road or in all the local shops. If Shannon had have been driving I would have been making a pitstop at every vineyard but being the ever-responsible big sister I stuck to caffeine and saved the wine-tasting to the evenings when I could guzzle guilt-free back at the barn.

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As we approached Limoux we could see that it didn’t quite have the same charm as Fanjeaux. It was a little busier and there were plenty of roadworks which don’t really scream rustic tranquility. However there is a lovely square there which was perfect for soaking up the delayed sun rays and drinking the first coffee I have ever actually enjoyed. After years of trying to like coffee (and failing), it seems all it took was a mocha in Limoux to win me over. I feel more grown up than ever now.

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After a charcuterie feast which was mainly eaten by moi, Shannon and I dawdled back to our car crossing over a very pretty bridge with fantastic views across the river. On our way we dodged a few lengthy gazes from French men who we soon discovered were unashamedly comfortable with staring. Oh how different they are to the typical Irish fella who would look anywhere but the woman he is interested in for fear of coming on too strong…

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Back in the wee Aygo we made our way to Mirepoix with a quick stop off in Luc-sur-Aude. Oh my, this drive was so spectacular. Trees seem to line the entrance of every town in the Languedoc but this road was truly special. Mountains seemed to appear out of nowhere with sheer cliffs towering over the winding roads. Shannon and I had our noses to the windshield as we gazed upwards in awe, not speaking save for tutting to ourselves like old women.

We pulled in to Luc-sur-Aude to give our necks a break and again were so surprised at how quiet the little village was. We walked through the streets wondering where the people were or if there was some apocalypse we hadn’t heard about as we ascended up a hill to check out the view. There were vineyards for miles surrounded by mountains and despite my attempt at taking a photo of the view, I couldn’t do it justice.

 

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The late afternoon sun was burning above us as we headed up the mountains towards the fairytale town of Mirepoix. Our ears popped as we snaked up the hills and we pulled over to drink in even more beautiful views. The roads were so quiet and when we sat overlooking the valleys below all we could hear were the cicadas buzzing in the heat. 

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We got to Mirepoix in the evening and as we hopped out of our car and walked towards the main square, we looked at each other with immediate glee, silently agreeing that we had definitely saved the best place to last. The town looked like something straight out of a Disney movie set and I half expected people to burst in to song at any moment. Shannon and I grew up on these movies and you can imagine how giddy we were to see such a place in real life. We strolled through the market stalls and circled the old town walls before picking a spot in the square where we could soak all of the colours in. We sat with the golden light on our faces, barely speaking a word but feeling incredibly content with ourselves.

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Drunk on the day we just had, we headed back to the barn for another feast until the sky. Desperate not to finish the day just yet, we dandered down to the village to watch the locals play bowls (or boules if you want to get technical) and drank coffee while the stars came out. Finally shattered, we fell in to our beds, thoroughly satisfied that sisters really do make the best travelling companion. Even if their driving might terrify us.

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Stay tuned for another French post coming soon…

A Cuban Adventure Part 3 – Trinidad

A Cuban Adventure Part 3 – Trinidad

It was a 7 hour journey between Viñales and Trinidad so we made sure to have books to read and a fully charged laptop to watch some movies to keep us occupied! Our new friends were rapidly becoming our biggest irritants and small quarters such as a Peugeot 407 will only enhance tensions! Andrew had asked for a toilet break and Walter refused him only to get the driver to pull over a half hour later (Andrew was not happy). When we got out of the car we couldn’t run away from them fast enough but because luck was not on our side they asked us to join them for dinner that evening – nightmare! Both Andrew and I are pretty bad at saying no so we shiftily said maybe, we were ‘pretty tired’ and we might see how we got on…

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After we checked into Casa Jorge Mendez we soon realised how hungry we were and heard the Belgians talking about a pizza place called San Jose. We decided we would go there early to avoid bumping in to them but after our starters in walked Innes and Walter… I didn’t know how to react when they came over and I was getting to the point of giving up and asking them to sit down with us! Andrew sensed this and gave me a kick under the table and a look to tell me he I would be killed if I dared ask. Then came the most awkward silence and I wanted to throw myself in to my delicious pizza. They got the hint thankfully but that didn’t stop us from bumping in them several more times during our stay there!!

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Our casa was really great with shutters opening to a courtyard and a massive room and ensuite. A pool had been promised but apparently it had been recently closed for renovation although something told us that the pool may have never existed! The roof gave us a great view of Trinidad out to the ocean and we watched the most amazing thunderstorm that night.

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I quickly found out that Trinidad was my favourite town in Cuba. I loved walking down the cobbled streets looking in to the different shops and colourful buildings. The town seemed to not have changed very much since the mid 19th century when it was a busy port and the buildings have kept its character. The old quarter is an UNESCO heritage site on top of the steep hill. It’s a struggle to make it up there in the heat but the views are well worth it especially for the sunset!

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We decided to get a taxi to Cienfuegos for the day – another old Chevy that probably hadn’t passed an MOT since 1964. Cienfuegos felt very different to Trinidad with lots of French influences and more western style shops and restaurants. The day was so hot we needed frequent refreshments so found a lovely spot by the pier to have mint and lemon slushies. After a dander round the town we thought we might try and make a trip to the Guanaroca lagoon on the way back to Trinidad. I had heard there was a wild flock of flamingoes based here and thought it would be an opportunity not to miss…

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And I’m so glad we didn’t miss the chance because this was one of my favourite times of our trip! We had a guide walk us down, pointing out native trees and birds before we reached the canoe. Our canoe guide didn’t have much English but he knew so much about the environment there. He rowed us to the other side of the lagoon, pointing out herons, snake birds, egrets and pelicans before I saw little pink dots in the distance. As we got closer we could see that the pink dots were actually a few hundred juvenile flamingoes – the most flamboyant splashes of colour against the tropical surroundings. It was eerily quiet but incredibly peaceful save for the distant rumble of thunder in the nearby. When we got close enough the flamingoes became unsettled and took off in unison making a circle around us overhead. All I could hear was their feet hitting the water and the flapping of wings – such an unforgettable experience!

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That night we went to Sol y Son, an old restaurant in a colonial home that still has all its original furniture including a bedroom at the front. There was great music while we ate although by this stage I was fully addicted to our chess app we’d been using since the beginning of the trip. Andrew taught me on our first few days and I was obsessed with beating him!!

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After our dinner we headed up to Casa de la Musica – an outdoor salsa club that has the best live music and dancing in the old quarter. Lots of amazing dancers made sure that we dared not dance and make a show of ourselves! We tottered on up the hill from the old quarter to the very top where there is an actual club in a cave – no joke! On the way up are little stalls selling mojitos for inflated prices although it’s a great way to take a break from the climb. When you get to the cave, there’s lots of steps down and then you enter a cathedral-like space with a bar. It’s pretty amazing to see although we would’ve preferred listening to music other than salsa for a few hours at least!

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The following day we hired out bikes to cycle to the Ancon peninsula which was 12km and seemed perfectly achievable. We packed lots of water and began to freewheel down the hill from the town towards the coast. Once we plateaued we realised fast how hot it really was. The sweat was soon streaming down my face and into my eyes. After 10km we were closed to heatstroke and our lives started to pass before us (cue dramatics). The water had ran out and we began thinking we were going to have to sleep on the side of the road but most important of all we had to find shelter. A hut soon appeared like a mirage before us and I had the tastiest lemonade of my life! After about an hour of solace we managed to get the energy to finish the trek.

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The beach was worth the near death experience – the water was a bright blue and the perfect temperature. There was so much coral and fish to dive down and see with a snorkel, I found it a lot better for snorkelling than Cayo Jutias. We didn’t get to spend too long there though because our epic journey took up half a day and we had to start looking around for a lift back to town before dark.

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We met a guy at the snack bar who despite sitting with a beer can was more than happy to take us back to town. With a fair amount of apprehension we agreed, we thought it less risky to get a lift home with a guy who may or may not be a bit sauced than cycle all the way back again. He threw our hired bikes in the back of an old Honda Civic and we sat in the back praying it was his first beer that he was still holding in his hand.

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We had booked to join a tour to Guanayara National Park and our driver, Papa Noel, picked us up in the morning. Turned out Papa was a big fan of Celine Dion and played her greatest hits all the way up the mountain. There’s something to be said about climbing up through a jungle with a view of the Caribbean in a car belting out ‘Don’t Think Twice’.

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We were in a small group tour with a guide, Eddie, who spoke perfect English. Eddie was a fascinating guide and it was great to have a conversation rather than just exchanging names in Spanish. He had studied in Santa Clara and had relatives on both sides of his family who had fought on opposing sides of the Revolution. He explained how the rebels hid in the mountains we were in and how the locals had helped them. He also knew an incredible amount about the flora and fauna of the jungle; I could have listened to him all day.

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We trekked around 5km before reaching beautiful waterfalls and then swimming in natural pools. These pools were the real deal, not like the puddles in Viñales! The water was crystal clear and we could dive underneath the waterfall in to caves. After our lunch we were taken to a coffee plantation which told the history of the coffee trade and all the different beans grown there. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of coffee but felt because of where we were I should give it a go. Mistake. I could barely drink it but smiled at the farmers anyway to show I wasn’t really repulsed by the bitterness. I took a sneaky stroll round the back and threw the coffee over the fence. I couldn’t bare to give them back a full cup!

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That night we bumped in to the Belgians – again – and decided that since we were leaving the next day we could manage one last night with them. We took them to Casa de la Trova which we had enjoyed before but they thought was too loud so made tracks to Canchanchara. This bar was very chilled although I wasn’t too impressed with our Cuba Libres, they used cordial instead of fresh limes which I thought was complete sacrilege. We said our goodbyes to Innes and Walter, promised to stay in contact (got to love these false holiday promises) and headed back to our Casa. We sat on the terrace watching the shooting stars and planned the next part of our trip to Remedios.

 

 

A Cuban Adventure Part 1: Havana

A Cuban Adventure Part 1: Havana

We flew in to Havana at night with lightning illuminating the clouds around us, letting us know we had officially entered the tropics. Usually I’m not a fan of arriving in a new place at night because it’s a time you might see it’s dirtier dodgier side but driving through Havana at night was a great introduction to the city. There was such an energy about it and these beautiful buildings were lit up on the corners of palm tree-lined cobbled streets – amazing!

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We were staying at Casa Pedro-Maria in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) which was absolutely stunning. It was one of the most expensive places we stayed but we had decided we wanted to land somewhere comfortable that wouldn’t overwhelm us – it was $80 per room per night. There was a spiral staircase in the courtyard where we had our breakfasts that brought you to the rooftop of the Casa. Here you could sip on your breakfast smoothie with a view of the Revolution Museum and the surrounding terracotta roofs- not a bad start to the day!

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On our first day we took a bus tour through the city although we didn’t get much use out of the guide – the speakers weren’t working so we couldn’t hear a thing from upstairs. It was only $2 for the tour though and it was a great way to find our bearings and get our first taste of the Caribbean sun. Think we drank about 2L of water on the bus tour alone because it was so hot!

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We went straight to the San José markets after to purchase the obligatory Cuban military cap for Andrew to protect his head. This is a good place to pick up some souvenirs for home but I found it to be the most commercial part of Cuba. I preferred picking up little things across the whole trip like cigars from the tobacco fields (although I didn’t buy enough!).

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We were coaxed in to the La Familia restaurant on our first night which was a very lovely paladar on a terrace. It was a bit on the pricey side for Cuba – I think the whole meal cost about $20 but the live music was fantastic and the portions were massive. With full bellies we strolled to O’Reilly 304 – how typical of the Irish to be drawn to a bar with an Irish name. This bar was very very cool, it felt like we were in a major metropolitan city and they served the most delicious cocktails. It was a great place to meet people too and get tips on where to find great places to carry on the night.

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The following day it was raining which was a nice relief from the scorching sun and allowed for us to escape inside to the Revolution Museum. The building used to be the Presidential Palace and you can view the original office and the escape route Batista took when he fled the rebels in 1957. The scars from the bullets can be seen dotted around the Museum as a physical reminder of the the building’s past.

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The dilapidated museum was impressive although we should’ve taken an English tour because some of the notices weren’t translated. It’s definitely a worthwhile visit and to have the opportunity to be in the rooms where Cuba was reformed by Castro and Guevara was pretty special.

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After the museum we took a walking tour of Habana Vieja courtesy of the Lonely Planet guide we borrowed from the Casa and explored the many many plazas. The buildings are so beautiful and look completely battered by the salty sea air and years of neglect. Everyone seems to live on the streets, sitting on their doorsteps and balconies shouting out to one another and buying food from the mobile vendors. The buzz is incredible and welcoming although sometimes too welcoming. Another little tip: you will be harangued by jineteros trying to sell tickets to a “big festival” – it’s a massive con and you will hear it every day you’re in Havana.

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On our way back to the Casa we stumbled upon the Havana Club museum. Andrew’s staple booze at home is Havana Club rum with coke and lime so he was beyond excited about visiting this place. While we waited for the tour to start, we sat in the bar and had a few Cuba Libres and mojitos. There was a full salsa band playing and I felt I was very much in Cuba. I got pulled up by the band and learned how to salsa in dungarees, extremely embarrassing but very entertaining for Andrew. It was a fantastic tour although after all the cocktails my memory gets a bit hazy!

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That night we ate pizza in a little place close to our Casa (unfortunately I forget the name!). The tables were out on the cobbles and we ate the most delicious bruschetta. After the food and avoiding a few overly friendly cats at the table, we headed for La Floridita – the supposed birthplace of the Daiquiri. Hemingway is boasted as being a frequent customer to the bar and it seems insistent on clinging on to that era. The air is thick with cigar smoke when you enter and the band are crammed in to a tiny corner by the door. The whole bar looks like a set from a movie and it could be viewed as slightly cheesy but we loved it.

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After our last night in Havana we were destined for Viñales. We arrived back for one more night before our flight home and stayed with Casa Isel e Ilena. Isel was such a lovely woman and the private room had it’s own bathroom and balcony. It was a great chance to experience the loud streets of Habana Vieja one last time and we had the biggest breakfast with her at 4am before our flight home. We would definitely recommend staying with her however our limited Spanish meant we couldn’t understand most of what she said BUT she told the greatest stories with actions that made us laugh so much. She was the best host to give us a farewell from Cuba and it made it that bit harder to leave.

See my other posts for stories from Viñales, Trinidad, Remedios and Varadero!

 

 

 

Local Favourites: Carlingford

Local Favourites: Carlingford

Carlingford is like taking a step back in time and seeing the Ireland that would have been half a millennia ago. Except if you visit on a Saturday in the summer and then it’s more like taking a step on to a Geordie Shore night out. This is because the town has seen a surge in hosting hens and stags and because it’s so small, there’s not a lot of room to avoid them. Please don’t let this put you off though because the town is truly beautiful and if you go mid week or on weekends off-peak then you will experience the serenity it can offer.

Carlingford is situated in Co. Louth on the east coast of Ireland and is only an hours drive from Belfast making it the perfect spontaneous destination for us city slickers. Andrew and I drove down on a random Sunday in February that saw the sun come out and gave everyone the hope that the winter was finally coming to a close. The breeze was cool and we were able to stroll in the sunshine through the ancient streets hunting for a good scone and a strong cup of tea.

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We managed to find the sweetest tea rooms called Ruby Ellen’s that had very tasty scones with fresh cream and homemade jam. It felt like walking in to my granny’s house with floral wallpaper, a dresser full of cakes and buns and mismatched teacups. Definitely a place to take the women in your life although Andrew didn’t seem to mind throwing the scones in to him at a rapid rate. They also had such friendly staff with an old doll manning the till. I think it took her a good half hour to calculate our bill but she was so lovely and the place felt even more authentic for it.

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The town itself was first settled in the 12th century and there’s evidence everywhere of a town that was once a thriving trading port. Some places you should definitely try and see are:

  • The Mint –  this limestone stone house dates back to the 15th century and has amazing Celtic design around the windows
  • Taafe’s Castle – thought to be owned by the Taafe family, a rich merchantile family who later became the Earls of Carlingford
  • The Tholsel – this is the town gate where the taxes used to be levied against goods entering the town. It’s amazingly terrifying to walk under – it’s bound to crumble on of these days!
  • Dominican Priory – believed to have been founded by Richard de Burgo around 1305 but after the dissolution of the monasteries the priory fell in to disrepair (blame Henry VIII the wee skitter)
  • Church of the Holy Trinity – this medieval church has been restored and has a heritage centre detailing the history of Carlingford dating back to the Vikings. It has an amazing stained glass window at the back which I loved 🙂

There are also lots of antique shops dotted around the town that you can pop in to as well as artisan shops selling local products. It’s a perfect spot for a dander because of it’s size but there’s also a great walk between Carlingford and the neighbouring village of Omeath. The trail is about 7km and follows disused railway tracks that used to connect the marina to the village. It has some great views across the lough to the town of Warrenpoint and the Mourne Mountains towering behind it.

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Visit Carlingford if you fancy an impromptu adventure in to a forgotten past or pop down for a session on a weekend where you won’t be short of a few pints of the black stuff.

G’luck

xx