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Local Favourites: Newtownards

Local Favourites: Newtownards

After the last big chill of St. Patrick’s weekend, Spring has decided to grace us with her presence here in Ireland – finally! The days are suddenly a wee bit longer, a wee bit warmer and a wee bit sweeter. Maybe we can all stop talking about how freezing that winter was now?!

We had the Monday off after Paddy’s Day and after waking up to snow in Dublin the day before, our expectations were fairly low for weather at home in Belfast. You can imagine my giddy surprise then when I saw actual sun-rays beaming through the curtains the next morning; I could even hear birds singing outside! Andrew wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as I was about the glorious day that stretched ahead of us as he tends to be fairly melodramatic in the mornings. He even purchased a black-out eye mask recently for his delicate peepers and wears ear plugs so the kids next door don’t wake him up – not exactly a morning kind of guy (and a guy who will get a major shock when he becomes a Dad one day).

After he managed to peel himself from the scratcher I immediately told him we were headed for an adventure in the spring sunshine (he is so lucky to have me, I know). I knew he wouldn’t have wanted to head too far but lucky for us there are tonnes of pretty spots within quick driving distance of Belfast.

I chose to heads towards Newtownards which is about 15 minutes from Belfast and sits at the very northern tip of Strangford Lough. It’s a town I’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more and the area around it is full of places to explore, some of which are fairly unknown to those living in the city up the road.

I’ve listed a few of my favourite locations in the area for food, photography and views to help entice you towards the Lough. It’s definitely a place worth venturing to now the brighter days are among us, even just to catch a glimpse of an Irish golden sunset melting in to the Mourne mountains on the other side of the water.

Scrabo Tower

The tower is an imposing presence above Newtownards and can be seen from pretty much everywhere in the North Down area. This means that there are killer views the lough and on a good day you can even spy Scotland in the distance if you squint hard enough!

The hill is a bit of a steep climb so your thighs won’t thank you but you can rest them at one of the picnic stops on the way. You can actually wander inside the tower during the summer months to learn a bit more about it’s history too but mostly I like to admire it from outside where the wind isn’t blowing and the sun is shining.

Mahee Island

About a 5 minute drive outside of Newtownards lies Mahee Island, an island connected to the mainland by a tiny wee road that seems to lead to hundreds of wee islands. There is something very secretive about these islands, most of them are privately owned so you can’t be too nosy but Mahee Island itself is welcome to tourists and is perfect for getting to know a completely different side of Co. Down.

There are castle ruins to explore, empty beaches to stroll on and clear blue waters to canoe your way through to get a better view of all the islands. There’s even a wetland centre too which showcases the huge variety of wildlife in the area too. It’s definitely a hidden gem on the banks of the Lough and a perfect place to take the bikes out to if we’re ever blessed with a good day.

Haptik

Do you know those cafés you visit for the first time that make you think to yourself: I would love to run a place like this? Well Haptik is one of those places. We ate there for the first time recently and as soon as we walked in I knew I would be back many times.

The industrial décor was right up my street (anyone who follows me on Instagram will see this in my stories!) but the food was what impressed us most. The menu had an Australian brunch feel to it with Andrew practically licking the smashed avocado off his plate. Johnny (who runs the place along with his wife) was super friendly and told us they do monthly supper clubs too so I’m now following them on Facebook to make sure I can book on to the next one!

The best surprise of all though was upstairs where they have an ongoing art exhibition and amazing children’s shop call Wu Concept. It’s the perfect place to pick up a gift for a wee one or just to go and feel extremely broody (which was what I did).

Mount Stewart

Mount Stewart is a National Trust favourite and a popular summer destination epecially among families. The gardens come to life in the warmer months with a lake to stroll around away from the crowds.

The house is now open for tours too if you’re feeling particularly aristocratic with events running throughout the year too. I tend to visit the house in the late afternoon because it has the perfect sunset view over the water which is always the perfect way to end a day of adventure.

A Guide to Croatia

A Guide to Croatia

Andrew and I arrived back from Croatia a few days ago and I still feel like I’m still recovering from our jam-packed week! It was a hectic time because as usual I like to see and do as much as I can when I’m in a new country which means lots of moving around and lots of sweating. It was all worth it though because we saw some spectacular sites and there were a few pinch-myself moments along the journey.

 

I will break our travels in to the different places we were so you can skip along to parts that might be more relevant to your getaway. As we only had a week we were only able to see Split, Hvar and Vis but this felt like more than enough without spending our whole holiday on a boat!

 

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Split

We flew in to Split, the second largest city in Croatia, and because we went in July the streets were bursting with people. As always we used Airbnb and we had a great wee apartment that was just up the hill from the Dicoletian Palace, which forms a part of the city centre, so it was really quiet. We even had a little courtyard out the back which we sadly didn’t get to make use of because we were coming and going so much.

 

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We only had 2 nights in Split although I felt like this was enough for me since it’s such an easy place to walk around and explore on foot. The Palace is an UNESCO World Heritage monument that was initially built by the Roman emperor Diocletian at the turn of the 4th century AD – fuckin’ old. Now the place is inhabited by locals and their businesses within the walls and the streets are hiving with activity. We landed at night and went straight in to the old town around the Palace and couldn’t believe our eyes – it felt like we had been transported back in time. The pavements had been shined with centuries worth of feet that had fallen on the limestone streets, there was live music with people dancing in the square, there was candles within the walls of hidden alleyways… Save for the fashion and designer shops along the streets, it would have been difficult to know what year we were in.

 

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The following day we decided to make our own way to Krka National Park instead of booking a tour. Smug with ourselves thinking of all the money we probably saved, we ended up spending too much time working out the Croatian bus system and wished we had have just booked a tour! This is something I definitely would advise anyone intending to pay a visit to the park! We had to go via Trogir in the morning which wasn’t so bad since Trogir is like a mini Venice and breathtakingly beautiful. However we quickly realised that the bus timetables in Dalmatia ain’t too reliable and ended up just getting a taxi to Krka for fear we’d miss out on too much at the park.

 

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The taxi cost us about 30 euro to travel about 70km which isn’t a lot but it definitely made us less smug. Our taxi driver was called Boris and although he had little English, he was super lovely. He stopped for us to take photos which made us forget all his unfunny jokes about him being an illegal taxi driver (HAHAHAHA). Once we got to the National Park it was another 15 euro each to get in and then get the bus to the trail that takes you to the main waterfalls.

 

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Out of all the things we did in on our trip, this is the one activity I wouldn’t be raving about because of how busy it was. The trail was really crowded at parts and you had to wait a while to take a photo at the best spots. Although the waterfalls were stunning and it was a great experience to swim in the crystal clear water of the river, the amount of people around us made it a little less serene than we were anticipating. I would recommend not going during peak season and maybe renting a car with some others so you can explore the park a little better. For us, July just isn’t the month to go here. As well as that we had to make the bus trek back through Sibenik and overall it took us over 2 hours getting home – knackering!

 

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That night we were in need of a well deserved drink or 10. We started off with a meal at O’zlata which was an open courtyard in the palace walls with live music. Andrew had the steak (really stepping out of his comfort zone here), I had the lamb ravioli and we had to stop ourselves from drinking buckets of the local wine. We tottered along to the Ghetto club after which proved tricky to find although I’m not sure whether to blame that on the wine or the labyrinth of streets. The bar was set outside between vine covered walls and the stars twinkled above us; not a bad way to end our night really.

 

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Hvar

Getting from Split to Hvar Town by ferry or catamaran is fairly easy from the terminal but I recommend getting there early in order to secure tickets no matter what time you intend on going. We had queued up to get the ferry at 11am about an hour beforehand and they had sold out – Andrew was like a grumpy old man after learning we would have to either get the ferry to Stari Grad, about a half hour from Hvar Town, at 2.30pm or just getting the next ferry to Hvar Town at 6pm. We chose the Stari Grad option and went to find a beach which was about 500m away. I wasn’t too bothered because it meant I could start drinking cocktails at midday!

 

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The ferry took about 2 hours and the bus was just waiting beside the dock ready to take passengers to Hvar Town which made it pretty hassle free. The roads were steep and wonderfully windy with dramatic views along the coastline. Hvar Town surprised me when we arrived because I had expected a little bit of westernisation since it’s a popular destination for parties but it looked like a traditional fishing village with super-yachts lining the harbour where the fishing boats should be.

 

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Our host, Sasa, picked us up from the bus station and was a whirlwind of information. He was your typical island entrepreneur that could arrange our whole holiday for us which was just what we needed. Our apartment, although fairly basic on the inside, had the most amazing views of the harbour and of the neighbouring Pakleni islands. We were keen to get see as much as we could straight away since we had arrived later than we intended so Sasa drove us up to the fortress for the sunset and booked us for a meal at his friends restaurant.

 

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The fortress was a fantastic spot to get some pictures of the whole town laid before the glittering Mediterranean. The sea of terracotta roofs spanned before the sea itself and it felt like there was just a quiet town below us. In fact, Hvar Town was bursting at the seams with people from all corners of the world and if it weren’t for all the yachts dotted along the marina, I don’t think there would have been any room for them all.

 

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Our first night was fairly low key since Sasa had arranged for us to hire a motorboat from his friend (the man has a lot of friends) but we soon learned that the average age of a lot of the bars was about 20. We had arrived during yacht week which is popular among the young un’s so unless you’re one yourself or don’t mind being amongst them, I’d advise to stay away during the summer months!

 

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The next day Sasa took us down to the harbour to meet his mate for a crash course in how to drive a boat. The lesson consisted of showing us how to start the boat, kill the engine and pointed towards the anchor before hopping back on to dry land and pushing us out in to the open seas completely clueless and completely terrified. We looked at each other in shock that we’d been left alone to drive this thing when we hadn’t a notion what to do!

 

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Turns out it was one of the funniest experiences of my life! We explored the different islands, making our best attempt at mooring a boat (which was awful) and dropped the anchor anywhere we fancied a swim. It was amazing to have such freedom for the whole day and roam about rocky beaches that were completely empty and so quiet that all we could hear was the water sloshing up against the boat.

 

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We also managed to find Carpe Diem, the infamous beach bar that transforms in to the biggest club in Hvar at night, on one of the smaller islands. This spot was incredible during the day and we spent the latter part of that afternoon on day beds drinking cocktails and eating the tastiest food of the whole trip – my spaghetti gambretti was so delicious we went back again the next day! What I wouldn’t recommend doing is going at night unless you want to be overcharged and underwhelmed. We made the mistake ourselves and we wish we hadn’t.

 

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A great spot though, if you’re in the mood for a party, is Hula Hula. This beach bar is only open until 10pm but after dancing for hours on top of tables to good music will tend to wear you out fairly quickly! We spent our last night here amongst the young un’s but not caring because we watched the sun going down while drinking our own buckets of mojitos – when you can’t beat ’em, join ’em eh?

 

Vis

After Hvar we were seeking a place of respite where we could lay our weary heads and enjoy our last few days. Vis was the perfect place to do this. We took a boat from Hvar to Vis  in the evening which was practically empty so we were able to sit on the bow of the boat on our own. We saw one of the most beautiful sunsets on this journey; one that hypnotised us in to a humble silence and that will be etched in my memory forever.

 

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We stayed in Komiza on the other side of the island and so hopped in to the first car we saw at the dock. The car was driven by a man no younger than 80 who had not a word of English. And no brakes. Once you get to Vis you will know how steep the hills are and when we were coasting down serpentine roads to the port of Komiza we didn’t know whether to cry over the fear of uncertain death or the stunning views.

 

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After he clipped a few cars on the way in to town and couldn’t get the boot door of his car open for 15 minutes, we were met by our lovely host Zrinka who guided us to our apartment right in the middle of town. Our accommodation here was very traditional in decor but we were so beaten with travel and cocktails all we wanted was a bed and air con! Our host was so so lovely, gave us some apple juice while she explained all we could do on Vis and we regretted not being able to spend more time there.

 

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We booked ourselves for a tour of the famous Blue Caves the next morning which in hindsight is a complete tourist trap. The taxi boat and then entrance in to the caves cost about 35 euro for the two of us but the tour lasted all of 10 minutes. The caves themselves are impressive, the colour the most electric blue, but the boats are in and out so fast that you don’t get a lot of time to really appreciate it. There’s no swimming in the caves so it’s all over very quickly so I’m not very sure I would recommend it to anyone.

 

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A positive note is that it only takes 2 hours in total so we were back in time to rent a moped for the rest of the day. This part of our holiday was both of our favourites because we had such freedom on the quiet roads, driving through valleys covered in vineyards, along coastlines of rocky and sandy beaches with the sea stretching out after them. We stopped off in Vis for lunch and ventured out to the old Yugoslavian submarine hold afterwards – it looked like something from a James Bond movie!

 

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I wish we had have had more time on Vis, it was the kind of place that feel so grateful to have seen with your own eyes and looking back it all feels very dreamy.

 

Croatia is a country worth exploring, so much to offer no matter what kind of person you are. The vineyards, olive farms, clear seas, friendly people, deep orange sunsets and dramatic coastlines will be my memories of Croatia. I hope you get to make your own some day.

 

 

A Cuban Adventure Part 4 – Remedios

A Cuban Adventure Part 4 – Remedios

We got another taxi from Trinidad to Remedios; this seemed to be our preferred method of travel because the costs were pretty low and it meant we had more freedom to stop when we wanted to. Unfortunately our taxi driver couldn’t understand us any English and it was the first and only time in Cuba I doubted whether we were completely safe to travel on our own. The driver was VERY serious and blasted salsa music for 6 hours straight and by the time we reached Remedios we were on the verge of insanity!

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We had booked to stay in Hostal Buen Viaje after seeing some great reviews online before our trip. The hosts were Lester and Naty who were so accommodating that I felt like I was home. The room was airy which was great because we felt the heat up on the north part of the island a bit more. We also felt the mosquitoes too so I would recommend a net when you’re visiting these parts! I was running about like a mad woman one night trying to find the buzzing culprits.

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The Casa had the most beautiful courtyard where ate our breakfasts and dinner. Our hosts even placed a little St. Patrick butter knife out for us which had been a gift from their Irish friends – such a thoughtful touch! The food was amazing too. Naty cooked a local fish (I stupidly didn’t write it down) which we both devoured and Andrew isn’t even a big fan of seafood.

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Remedios also provided the best sunsets we saw in our entire trip. On our first time we were sitting in the town square drinking wine and the sky was the colour of electricity. A storm was brewing within the clouds the sun was setting in which produced the most intense orange colours. No photo would ever be able to do it justice.

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We only had one full day in Remedios which we spent on Cayo Santa Maria, a key which is just off the mainland and connected by bridge. When we were dropped off, we had to walk about 700m through mangroves which felt like a hike in the midday heat. However when we arrived on to the beach and saw the water we were awestruck. This was by far this most idyllic out of all the beaches we visited mainly because there was barely a soul there.

There was little huts to sit under out of the sun although I never wanted to leave the water. It was shallow enough to just sit and watch the dark storm clouds gather in the distance. A hotel was located up the beach so we could grab drinks when we needed to because there was nothing else bar the huts. A full day in the heat began to take its toll on us after a few hours and we started to make our way back to the hut to meet our driver. Through the mangroves an Italian couple were startled by a snake and had stopped in their tracks. We felt so knowledgeable when we told them that there were no poisonous snakes in Cuba – a wee tip our guide Eddie had told us in Trinidad!

I wish we had have been able to stay longer in Remedios, especially at our Casa because it felt like a retreat after all our travelling. If we ever come back to Cuba I know we would definitely make sure to return to see Lester and Naty!

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 2 – Viñales

A Cuban Adventure Part 2 – Viñales

We planned on getting a bus from Havana to Viñales but realised too late that you had to pre-book (small piece of advice!). We managed to find a taxi driver that could take us all the way for $80 and for the convenience of having a car all to ourselves we were sold. The driver was an English lecturer and we had a great chat with him during the 3 hour journey through Piñar del Rio.

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It amazed me how the car managed to make it up the hills as we began to rise over the mountains. The roads were incredibly twisty which wasn’t doing Andrew or his car sickness any favours. The views were breathtaking, deep lush valleys and horse and carts carrying the produce. We arrived in to the town which is basically one street and fell in love with the place. We had booked to stay at Casa Nolo which was a bright pink house on the edge of the town and cost $25 per room per night. We sat outside waiting for our hostess Vana, watching the hens run about loose and local girls doing each other’s hair on the porches.

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Vana arrived and was the loveliest ball of energy. We were staying on the top floor which was so spacious and we had a massive terrace all to ourselves. The bathroom shower was a bit unique in it’s plumbing and electrics but we didn’t get any shocks so can’t complain too much. We had dinner on the roof which was a complete feast – soup followed by lobster with salad and homemade crisps and only $10.

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The next day we had booked a horse trek through the valley and tobacco fields. We met our guide Lazaro in the morning and he looked at our attire and shook his head. We stupidly hadn’t brought long trousers and he told us in broken Spanish that we would suffer for it later. We also met another couple who would be joining us – Walter and Innes both from Belgium. Innes was fluent in Spanish and proved an absolute lifesaver in translating Lazaro’s mumbles and the guide at the tobacco farm.

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Andrew had never ridden a horse before and I highly doubt I will ever see him on one again. When we met our horses there was this beautiful big black horse called Negreto and another smaller brown one called Dancer. Common sense made me assume I would be getting the smaller one but it turned out Lazaro had a great sense of humour and saw an opportunity. Andrew was assigned to Dancer and he quickly realised the reason for his name. Dancer didn’t trot like a normal horse but danced about the trek throwing Andrew every which way causing him to howl with pain when we burst in to a canter. We all laughed an awful lot, Lazaro included. Andrew was less impressed!

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Being able to see the valley while riding a horse was incredible. Looking up to see dramatic cliff faces and lush green crops against the red earth was something I will never forget. The tour of the tobacco farm was great and the guides were so knowledgeable about the land. We felt extremely cool lighting up the cigars they had just rolled for us and because they had dipped them in honey, they actually tasted really good.

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After the tobacco farms we were brought to a natural pool hidden in a cave. I think they oversold this place a tad because when we got there it was actually a dark pond with murky brown water. They had the cheek to ask us for an extra $2 to get entry but luckily Innes was able to tell them where to go in Spanish. The walk through the cave was a health and safety nightmare with a few random torches. We braved the water although I wasn’t sure what the hell was swimming beneath me! I would recommend asking to see photos of these ‘natural pools’ before you visit them!

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We a fantastic steak at El Olivo this night followed by several Ron Collins. We sat on the terrace sharing a cigar and thought we were the bees knees. Cue an embarrassing conversation with our hostess when we got back with Andrew repeating ‘Me llamo Andrew’ – cringe!

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The following day was one of Andrew’s favourite trips of the holiday. We had booked an old Chevy to take us to Cayo Jutias, a beach on the coast about an hour and half away, with our new friends Innes and Walter. The car didn’t travel above 30mph the whole journey although it was hard to tell because the speedometer didn’t work. It didn’t matter because the drive was so beautiful.

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What we didn’t expect was how stunning Cayo Jutias would be. The sand was white, the sea was the most amazing blue and there was a beach hut nearby ready to supply us with food and some cocktails – absolute heaven!! We were told that this was a great place to snorkel however this isn’t all that true. The water is crystal clear but the sea grass didn’t offer a wide variety of marine life and we gave up after about 20 minutes. There were some terrific walks along the beach though and we didn’t have to go far to have the beach all to ourselves. It was such a wonderful day.

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On the way back we ran in to a thunderstorm which proved how old the Chevy was. Andrew’s passnger window only went up half way and the driver had to cover the rest with a plastic bag. This didn’t work too well and it wasn’t long before Andrew was ankle deep in rainwater. The sound of the thunder and the intensity of the rain was such a sight though we loved every second.

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Despite us lathering ourselves in suncream we still got burned. Andrew’s feet were practically purple and only added to the injuries he had accumulated on the horse trek the day before. Note: bring plenty suncream with high SPF and effective aftersun!

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Our last night was spent with on the terrace watching the sun set and eating more of Vana’s great food. The conversation was starting to dry up with the Belgians and we were finding ourselves in the holiday predicament of being stuck with another couple. Unfortunately we we were spending the next day with them in a car travelling to Trinidad so we had to be as polite as we could!

 

 

 

Local Favourites: Rathlin Island

Local Favourites: Rathlin Island

Have you ever seen a puffin in real life? Until recently I never had and almost thought they were mythical with their wee red beaks on them – they look like they should be nowhere near the Irish coastline, much too exotic for our island! But you can find them here – on an even smaller island off the north coast of Antrim actually.

Rathlin island is only a 20-minute ferry journey from Ballycastle and really you had me at ferry. I will find any excuse to be on a boat and feel the salty air whip around me, it can really awake something in me – which was breakfast for poor seasick Andrew.

We set our alarms early on a Sunday morning (!) in May to make sure we were there brave and early to see these elusive sea parrots. The forecast was promising to be a good day and even though the sun still hadn’t appeared when we boarded the Rathlin Ferry, I was feeling optimistic. Sure I’d packed a picnic and everything!

What struck me when we approached Rathlin was how it was much bigger than I expected. I half thought I could stroll quite easily around it and I had that anxious feeling I get when I know I might have to exercise too much. The horror! Luckily there was a bus waiting for us when we got off that could take us to the RSPB seabird centre on the other side of the island so sighs of relief all round.

The bus driver was terrifically cheesy, pointing out Rathlin University (the local primary school – hardy har har), the place where the last bus fell off the cliff (Jaysus you’re killin’ us here) and the island’s all weather pitch which was actually a tennis court (OK now let us off). We courageously bought a single ticket even though I was eyeing up the picnic basket thinking there was no way I was carrying that for over 4 miles.

We bought our tickets and trotted down the steps to the centre. Before I could see the birds I could hear them. It was like walking in to an ornithological metropolis – so much going on, birds on the move everywhere around me and so much noise. It was amazing. Then I was struck by the beauty of the coastline, the dramatic cliffs and sheer drops. It reminded me a little bit of the Cliffs of Moher, that dramatic end to the earth with endless blue sea ahead.

I couldn’t get the binoculars on me fast enough. I haven’t got the best eyesight so I was worried I wouldn’t be able to see the puffins and I’d have to do the whole “Oh yeh I see them there, yeh over there near that thing” bit when I really can’t see a damned thing. I scanned past the guillemots, the razorbills and the kittiwakes (don’t get me wrong they are lovely birds but I wanted to see the top bill..pun intended) and searched for a splash of red. Admittedly I did have to be pointed in the right direction but I saw them! And they really are real!!

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I was so excited and watched a few of them flapping their wings, enjoying the sun and dipping in and out of their burrows. Yes, they nest in burrows – the mad eejits. Apparently they do so well here because they have limited predators so the burrows can remain protected. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a decent photo of them – the wee rascals stayed down on the flats and there was no amount of zoom that could capture them. I could’ve watched them all day but the 4-mile trek back to the harbour was looming and we wanted to get there by Monday so I said bye bye to the birdies and left with a huge smile.

So off we went like the hobbits on an adventure practically skipping with the picnic basket. We stopped off for food at the first picnic bench we saw. It was a bit nippy when we sat down so Andrew draped the blanket around him like he was about to be shipped off from the famine. He cleverly forgot his jacket and TEA BAGS. He had to get Earl Grey tea bags from the centre and we used luke warm water from his flask. The most horrific cup of tea I have ever had. But at least I got to drink it from an adorable picnic cup.

We also kept bumping in the same people. Although Rathlin Island was bigger than I had expected it took on a supermarket feel where you keep bumping in to people you’ve already said hello to. Eventually you get to the point where you do anything to avoid saying hello for the hundredth time, stopping short of hurling yourself over the nearest hedge.

And do you know what else? The walk was really really nice! I enjoyed it! We dandered along the lane, talking and not talking. Mostly not talking but not because we didn’t want to but because we were so relaxed. All we could hear was the breeze, the trees and the waves. I have not been able to shut off like that for a long time and we even had a nap in the sun (it finally showed up).

By the time we reached the harbour I felt rejuvenated albeit a little blistered. To be honest I was blissfully happy. And I got to go on another ferry!! Good day all round.

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