Vinales to Bay of Pigs

Vinales is a lovely quiet little town where the pace is slow, the people friendly and the food surprisingly good. We were told the food in Cuba was plain and rather ordinary and while it’s not Michelin standard so far it’s been fine.

Lots of rice yes! Last night we went to an eco restaurant on a hill on the outskirts of Vinales. All the food prepared for us was grown or raised on the farm.

We walked in the gardens – vegetable garden beds bursting with healthy plants and looked up at the house with breezy verandas.

The house faced the hills and the sun was just starting to set. It was quite beautiful.

The food started with a plantains and taro crisps & delicious vegetable soup then out came plates of roasted vegetable, chicken thighs, roast pork and shredded beef. Much more than we could eat!

We finished with creme brûlée and mint tea. No wine but we had a pina colada type drink with special herbs in it.

Today we left early, 8am and we knew it was going to be a long day as Alex planned a movie for us on the bus and Victor our driver was wearing a tie. Serious driving today.

We headed back in the direction of Havana and then in the direction of Giron and The Bay of Pigs. To give us some background Alex told us some history of the political life in Cuba including their heroes Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and what led up to the 3 day Bay of Pigs invasion by the Americans in 1961.

For a small country this is a big story. It is strategically placed only 90 miles from Miami and was wanted by Spain, America and Russia. Fidel led the revolution through the Baptista years. The country was crawling with Mafia types, communists and became a socialist country under Castro.

Then there was the ‘special period !’ In the 90’s when life for the Cubans became hard. It was anything but special. They were hard times. People were starving. Alex who is 34 said he remembers it well as there was so little food.

We arrived at the Bay of Pigs and had a swim. It was warm & tropical and lovely after sitting in the bus for several hours.

Next stop was the museum in Giron (passing Australia on the way)

to see the Cuban account of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Such a bad period of time.

We watched a short film and wondered what the American tourists would think.

There was a photo of JFKennedy who inherited the Cuba problem and didn’t seem keen to invade.

The Cubans are very pleased it wasn’t Trump in charge then!

We arrived at Cienfuegos and visited the former Palace. This small city is by the sea and in its former glory would have been lovely. The buildings are colonial style but many are in a state of disrepair.

We enjoyed our pina colada on the roof terrace before checking into the lovely old Union Hotel.

Tomorrow is Che day. All about that romantic political figure Che Guevara.

Wandering in Vinales

We’re staying in a casa particular. A house owned by a local. We are in a little row of rooms at the back of Maria and her husband very modest house.

It’s a way the locals can make a little money. They set up a little bnb type of thing. Sometimes in their house or as in this case behind it. The owners pay the Government about 100CUC a month and can rent it for around 20-40CUC a night.

So the better ones would rent well.

Vinales is a small town in the Tobacco growing area a few hours from Havana. It’s in a Valley with Jurassic Park style mountains around. It’s popular with young people ( as Cuba is generally) who travel and who like to climb.

Our hosts gave us breakfast on their terrace and were so accommodating. Fruit, omelette & toast.

Then we set off to the Main Street with Alex to meet our local guide.Pero turned out to be a lovely, earnest former English teacher. We set out down one of the side street with Pero stopping every few minutes to point out the fruit trees or the plants growing in the gardens. Pero loves all things botanical.

We continued down the path passing colourful houses , oxen carts and locals riding horses.

We walked along the shaded country road until we reached the tobacco farm.

Pero explained the growing system, the type of leaves , the government control 90% of the crop goes to the Gov for a fairly low price. The farmer keeps the rest which he can the use to produce his own cigars but he can’t label them. So he can’t make too much money no matter how hard he works.

We heard about the drying, stripping, bundling and rolling. We moved into the barn to see leave hanging- for a year.

then into the house to meet Clara

and her husband who rolled us a cigar. What fun.

Then we were taught how to inhale and away we went.

I enjoyed the process as you can see here!

Now I’m recovering before our salsa class this afternoon.

After Salsa it was dinner at an eco restaurant. More later.

Internet hard!

Colourful Cuba

Waking up in a new place is always exciting especially when you didn’t get a chance to explore on the night of your arrival.

This morning Alex took us on a walking tour of old Havana. He managed to bring old Havana alive through the stories of the Spanish who came here in the late 1400’s, the people who influenced Cuban life, the beautiful buildings that are in such a state of decline, Ernest Hemingway and his Cuban years.

As we walked along the shaded streets he talked about the Americans, the Russians and those who have either occupied or tried to.

The buildings are beautiful- decorative and decaying but Alex explained that money is being put into restoration and in years to come they will be back to their former glory.

Obviously tourism is important here and although the tourism dollars are vital hopefully the numbers especially from cruise ships don’t ruin it.

We stopped for lunch and a mojito on a great roof top with a salsa band playing before making our way back to the bus for our trip to Vinales via the gardens at Soroa.

There are some colourful sights around the streets. I need a pocketful of 1 paeso CUC to pay for all the photos!

We saw a very soulful looking lady smoking a big cigar, a dapper gentleman with roses for the ladies, a band or two, a group of fun people on stilts and some lovely older locals selling fans.

Back on the bus we drove out from Havana along the waterfront before getting onto a road heading to the beautiful thick green forests. We also started to doze off as the afternoon rain came and the lunchtime mohito kicked in.

Next stop, in the rain were the gardens of Villa Soroa. Orchids, begonias, palms, so many plants familiar to us in Australia.

Back on the 24 seat bus for the 5 of us plus Alex and Victor our driver. So spoilt!

We watched a video on the making of the infamous cigars. Such a labour intensive process. I want to try one tomorrow when we visit the cigar making house near Vinales.

One last stop. A pina colada / pee stop! Yes. One of each.

Now listening to the Buena Vista Social Club with stars: the Albums called Buena rhythms del Mundi Vuba Sting, Jack Johnson, Vania Borges, Coldplay – its fun and getting us ready for some salsa dancing.

Our night was spent sipping Mojito and walking up and down the Main Street.

Such a quiet lovely place.

Tomorrow a visit to a tobacco plantation.

Can I smoke a cigar?

Farewell NOLA. Hello Cuba

I find a travel day a mixture of boredom and frustration. Today it’s a bit of both.

It’s been smooth. Out of NOLA very early and it all went well. Into the lounge again so that was very welcome.

Then the 1hr flight to Cancun to transit to Havana. We arrived at terminal one, collected our bags then decided to not wait the 1/2 for a free bus to get us to terminal 2. We got a taxi at a $20 rip off cost! He told us we needed terminal 4! We arrived went inside and realised we were at the wrong terminal !

Once again we went out and I’m sure his ‘brother’ was waiting to get us again for another $20! This time we waited for the free shuttle.

So here we sit waiting for our Interjet flight to Havana. Let’s hope it’s smooth and our bags arrive!

Later……..

Our flight was delayed by about 1.5 Hr so we sat around then almost missed getting to the gate. A lovely young Australian guy came looking for us to tell us it was boarding – the board did not indicate boarding had started. It still said ‘delayed!’

Once on board it was a smooth 1 hr flight to Havana. The pilots here all take off in a hurry and land quickly with a bump ( yes there was clapping by appreciative flyers). But we and the luggage made it.

Then a little frustrating moment as our pick up contact from Peregrine tours wasn’t there. No board with our name in it! We waited and waited till s guy from another company said it might be better to take s taxi. So I had to line up to get money out from the atm.

There are two currencies here. The CUC which is more commonly used in tourism and the notes have pictures of buildings and monuments. And the CUP pesos which has pictures of people and is used by the locals particularly in markets and little shops. The trick is to tell the difference!

We took a taxi which took about 30 mins and cost 30 CUC.

We arrived at a large hotel. The Riveria by the water on the Malecon. It was built back in the late 1940’s by a Spanish company. It’s tired looking with large spaces, grand looking staircases, murals on the walls and a damp smell in the corridors and a wet concrete smell in the bedrooms. It adds a certain charm! Of a communist nature.

Our guide Alex is just lovely. Dark and handsome with a twinkle in his eye he will guide us around Cuba for the next 8 days.

He explained what would happen over the next few days whilst we caught up with John & Margaret Brannock and enjoyed our welcome drink.

Then we went off to withdraw some more CUC for our travels and into a restaurant just near the hotel.

We’d heard the food was pretty plain and not so good but I enjoyed my chicken with Cilantro sauce. We all had beer and enjoyed chatting to Alex about life in Havana.

Steve’s sister Marg arrives later tonight and we have an 8.30 start tomorrow.

On the way back to our hotel we posed in front of our first Havana car.

Perfect last day in New Orleans

I thought we would get a little rest in NOLA after the wedding last week. I was wrong. It’s been all go. There is so much to see and do and we didn’t want to miss anything.

Today started with packing up our lovely air bnb as we move to a hotel in the French Quarter. Our travelling companions (if they’d come!) were to leave today so we had decided we’d pack up and move to a hotel for our very early start today Saturday 5th.

One last walk along Magazine St with a little shopping before lunch at Shaya. I’d been wanting to visit here as all the reviews and recommendations were so good. It’s an Israeli restaurant and it didn’t disappoint.

It’s modern in decor and the food is delicious. Fresh flavours and great ingredients. I loved it.

After we swapped to our new hotel we headed off on a walking tour with local Andrew and just one other walker. It was the music and art tour of the French Quarter. Andrew grew up in a tiny place a few hours from here. He was fun and knowledgeable and kept us interested for well over two hours.

The walk started in the Louis Armstrong park which has dedicated statues and sculptures to its musical residents.

We heard about the famous Satchmo and other musicians as well as the masks of the Mardi Gras and even about the voodoo religion and it’s symbols

We went on through the quarter across Bourbon St and into the artsy Royal St. there are so many galleries here with great examples of southern art styles including folk art and embroidery art.

We met the lovely Isobel from one gallery and her headpiece was itself a work of art.

Reluctantly we finished walking with Andrew and took an Uber to NOMA – the New Orleans Museum of Art. We could have spent ages here – including the Alexander McQueen exhibition but we came to walk through the Sculpture garden.

There are over 60 sculptures all donated by a couple from NOLA. It’s a beautiful garden with several bridges crossing a lake with the sculptures out in the open and hidden in gardens.

I loved this one which shows a stack of people balancing on each other’s shoulders reaching skywards.

And the big blue safety pin.

The ladder to the window ……..

And Barbara Hepworth, whom we had an ADFAS lecture on last year, had a piece on show.

All interesting.

We dashed back to Preservation Hall for another Jazz show. This was in a very old building has traditional jazz players entertaining a small crowd – and to get a seat you book early which I did. Otherwise it’s standing at the back!

The line up outside before each show made me pleased I’d booked online. No photos allowed inside.

Our last stop for the night was to meet two young friends. Logan, who is Jordan’s cousin, is a chef in NOLA. He and his wife couldn’t get to the wedding but was able to meet us for a drink.

We’ve met him once in Brisbane when he was working in Melbourne.

Then Rae arrived. She and her whole family are great friends of Peter. She got a green card in the lottery and now works in NOLA. She’s into vintage fashion and lots of fun.

We gave Logan and Rae our spare tickets to Jazz Fest. One each! Hope they have fun.

So one Rose too many we made our way through Bourbon St. It was really going off and is like a tacky sideshow alley. You certainly see some sights. Not all of them tasteful!

But the police are there to guard.

Our time is Nuawlins is up. It’s been fun and a great place to visit especially during a rather busy Jazz fest or Mardi Gras time.

Jazz Fest Time

I’ve always wanted to ride on a Yellow school bus. Every since I was a little girl and saw them in tv series and movies. Today it happened. And it took me to Jazz fest.

Come along for the ride.

We pulled up just as music got started around 11. The breeze was blowing, the sun was out and the local jazz lovers were out in force with their chairs, umbrellas, hats, rugs, and coloured beads.

I feel like I did the first time I went to Woodford. Slightly too mainstream!

First stop Gentilly stage with the Alex McMurray big band. Good foot tapping music and a few solo dancers warmed up for the day ahead with a variety of dance moves.

Next stop a change of pace with The Tangiers Combo. A very sexy looking violinist, double bass, clarinet & guitar.

Then on to the biggest arena for the bad boys the Stooges big band. Big attitude. Big sound.

Then it was the Jazz tent and

Jeremy Davenport. A cool dude with a hot trumpet.

Smoking time at the jazz club. Economy’s tent girl singing “Take your time in the sun”

The crowd are mostly over 30. Well actually probably more like over 40. Depends which tent you’re in.

It warm – so the skin is on show and there’s lots of tats and lots hats, sunburn skin, umbrellas and iced drinks and ponytails ( men! )

I’ll try and capture some of the better outfits – some are a treat.

The food stalls are southern style. Plenty of Po boy, catfish, crawfish, gumbo, iced tea, beer, frozen alcoholic cocktails like pina colada’s and Bloody Mary’s. The crowd were getting into it – though I don’t think the Americans drink quite as much as the Aussies.

Lunch for me was a huge bbq turkey wing with….. beans! Steve had a shrimp Po boy.

Next up the kids street band

and back into the tent for the Preservation Band. With a warm up Congo line. I had to resist the temptation to dance along along. Though I did ambush one of the ‘dancers’ –  though he was very sad looking and unimpressed by my request for a photo.

Then back to the Jazz tent for Banu Gibson and her band with special guest Vince Giordano from NY. Apparently they are all really well known trad jazz players. They actually looked more like Doctors! They played a favourite song ‘Baby won’t you please come home.’

Steve got distracted between shows and ended up with a Jazz fest Tshirt before sliding into the Gospel tent for some meaningful music.

Then in the Blues tent the well received ‘The Blind Men of Alabama’.

They may be blind but they can sing and even had someone signing the words to their songs. That was interesting to watch!

But our final two concerts were Lyle Lovett the more country style jazz man ………

Then the big name – Lionel Ritchie. Yes I came all the way to NOLA to see him when he came to the Byron Blues fest.

But there he was singing up a storm with everyone on their feet dancing. It was great.

So that was my day at Jazz Fest. It was so much fun. They love their music here. The crowds were so well behaved and the people here are so friendly.

We made it back to the yellow bus line before Lionel hit the last note.

So it was back to Magazine St to Mahoney’s for a beer and hot dog for Steve and something lighter for me!

Tomorrow’s our last day 😩. But it will be a big one. Lots planned.

Today we have ‘Gone with the Wind’

Plantations are big here – both in size and reputation. We decided on a Plantation tour and not an alligator tour.

But which house do we visit? I read reviews and decided on Houmas House or the ‘Sugar House’ because it has a big reputation as a great example of a grand home.

I didn’t want to visit one with the slavery story. That is too sad.

We weren’t disappointed. Houmas House is grand and Southern style and the gardens were amazing.

We had an hour bus ride out along the swampy flat land in the direction of Baton Rouge. The driver was a super speedy guy – definitely the stunt driver from the movie Speed!

Arriving at the house was underwhelming at first as there is now an aluminium plant nearby with chimney stacks and smoke!

But pulling into the drive was like stepping back in time. All the attendants wear period costumes and the grounds are heavenly.

There were many sculptures in the garden both playful and decorative. So much money!

We heard the story of the building of the plantation. It’s named after the local Indian tribe. It was mainly a sugar plantation with 1,000 slaves working there. It made a fortune for its owner. It sold after the civil war for $1.5 million. That’s a lot of money for back then.

Our guide Susan took us through the house and had lots of stories. It’s a pity she spoke so fast ! Hard to follow her.

The present owner lives there in two rooms and is up and out each morning before the house opens. He’s not married but loves his dogs. Apart from close friends people don’t know who the owner of the house is or what he looks like.

Another heart thumping trip back to NOLA for a short rest before we went off to dinner. Now that’s a whole other story.

All that Jazz

Here in New Orleans or Nuawlins it’s all about Jazz – when it’s not about food and cocktails!

It really is a place for music lovers, young and old.

There is jazz morning and night. Most good. Some great and last night we had some great jazz.

We started with a lovely French dinner at Lilette a very good restaurant across the road. I really do like this Magazine street vibe.

We started with a cocktail- for STEVE a rather powerful one with Mexcal a rather potent tequila type drink! More later!!!!!

Then a mad Uber dash to Frenchman’s Street. I think I mentioned already that the best jazz is found there. You can visit any bar for free jazz as long as you buy one drink per set. So as you make your from club to club you could do some damage.

I bought tickets to a show where the average age of the musicians was around 70. But boy what experience they had. It was spellbinding.

We went to Snug Harbour in Frenchman’s St and behind the small bar & restaurant there is private intimate room. Seating 35 at small tables downstairs and 20 at balcony seats it was just perfect.

The show opened with sax player Charlie who was so cute but could sure blow that sax.

Then we heard George French on the bass. He was one cool cat.

Here’s a sample of what they played. It was wonderful. The timing, the phrasing the sound. All magic.

Charlie Gabriel sax

I get jealous

George French bass

Black magic.

Germaine Basil. Vocals

Almost like being in love

I thought about you

Exactly liky you

In a groove Mary had a little lamb

First you say you will

Everyday I get the blue

Germaine had to be helped up the stage stairs by the youngest member of the group – the pianist. But once there she came alive and jigged and crooned and held us

The drummer was having fun and it showed.

So if you are coming to NOLA it is worth booking something special. These guys had so much experience and such a love of their craft it was intoxicating. Literally ………..

in Steve’s case, as he had two rum punch drinks and felt like he’d been punched. He was so funny coming home in the Uber. Made no sense – except to himself!

Ramblin’ through Nuawlins

We are recovering from the exciting times in Santa Barbara and got out the door a little earlier this morning.

We strolled along Magazine Street looking for a new coffee experience.

I can recommend this area. When you have 5 nights or more you can move away from the frantic pace of somewhere like the French Quarter and experience something more – in this case a very attractive suburb a short bus ride or Uber away from the mad action.

But before today let me tell you about our night of Jazz!

Last night we made it to Frenchman’s Street which is not as so ‘ in your face’ as Bourbon St. And the Jazz is supposed to be better.

We ate at Marigny (my salad was delicious as was my cucumber Cosmo) with ‘Chelsey’ our waitress, another ‘hello sugar’ type of girl. The band was good – trumpet, trombone (to Stephen’s delight!), guitar, percussion with lots of oomph!

Later we walked along the street, calling in at different bars and catching some jazz, searching the street market and loving the street band which had everyone hopping!

I love s bit of street dancing. It took me back to Valparaiso last year where I hit the streets dancing.

One last bar, one last drink and we went home. We had another day to face!

Today, Following coffee we strolled the garden streets zig zagging our way to the famous LaFayette Cemetery. The homes in this area are so beautiful. I could easily move into one.

The cemetery is not big but dates back to the early 1800’s and ‘houses’ some of the wealthy families of that time. Many of those buried here died of yellow fever in the 1800’s. Many little children.

It’s not particularly well cared for but has a good feel about it. There was a lovely monument to the firemen.

We strolled thru (or is that through?) the gates and along to a beautiful bookshop. There were lots of familiar titles and seemed cheaper than home – mind you by the time you add tax and convert against Aus $ it’s not much cheaper anymore.

The same with the food in restaurants. Seems cheaper but by the time you add tax and then the ‘suggested’ tip of 18% or 20% or 25%, it’s not that cheap.

A ride on a tramcar is another NOLA must. So we took the #13 to ‘ the end of the line’ through the Garden area along St Charles Street – which happens to be the route for the Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras is big here. We even passed Mardi Gras World on the bus tour a few days ago.

The homes along this route are magnificent including the Loyola University, Tulane University and numerous catholic schools where – unlike the state schools – the children wear a uniform.

Back to have lunch at the famous Commander’s Palace restaurant only to be told they were full! So a light lunch was probably a better idea!

Then it was Museum time. Steve was very keen to visit the WW2 (huge) Museum. He was missing Peter H who was supposed to be here with us and would have enjoyed it with him. I decided I wasn’t wanting to see another war museum and would rather art galleries- – and there are lots to choose from.

So off we went in different directions.

Here’s Steves account of the Museum.

A very handsome and modern museum, very well curated with great use of technology and personal insights. You could tell by the reaction of the (mainly American) visitors that it was opening their eyes. I didn’t have time for part of it (return on Friday?) – to see the Boeing sponsored aircraft hall and the building on technology in the war (I also had trouble locating the building covering 1939 to the end of 1942, if you get my drift).

So Steve’s afternoon went well as did mine.

Tonight dinner at a FRENCH restaurant , Lilette across the road from our air bnb.

Tomorrow a bus out to Plantation Alley to visit a grand house.