And then the wine district….

Having come down with Covid myself, which was inevitable of course, we were housebound for a little longer.  Luckily we had booked a lovely apartment overlooking the water at Wallaroo, on the Yorke Peninsula.  It was very pretty, with many original stone colonial cottages still standing from when the town was central to the copper mining industry and as a port for wool and wheat.  The town’s name Wallaroo is reportedly a derivative of a local Nurungga word meaning wallaby urine!  Several of the local towns are named for their indigenous names, such as Moonta and also Kadina nearby.    

The region attracted hundreds of Cornish copper miners who settled in the area from the late 1850s. The land was dry and barren as it we were on the ‘wrong side’ of the Goyder line. North of the Goyder line marks the dry regions with lower rainfall, dramatically affecting vegetation and agriculture.

Luckily and thanks to triple vaccinations, our Covid cases were relatively mild.  We sat in the sun on the apartment verandah, enjoying the boats passing on the canal.  Quite a lot of book reading was done!  

After three days we headed across the Goyder line to the famous Barossa Valley region, where I had two more days of quarantine.  Bill was on shopping duty and stocked up supplies.  We had booked an idyllic cottage in Anguston.  It was raining and cold, but the little house had a fireplace well stocked with wood and was very pretty and cosy.  Its garden was lush and  dripping under the low wintry skies.    

The little town was lovely, with deciduous trees bright red with the changing season, sweet shops, and as it happened we found an excellent local restaurant just walking distance from our cottage.  Called Otherness Wines, we had a superb meal and we couldn’t fault the food for inventiveness and deliciousness.  It was a wonderful end to our Covid isolation.  

Free again, we spent the next week exploring the Barossa region. A highlight was wine tasting at Thorn-Clarke vineyard on a ridge looking over the spectacular Eden Valley.  

Clare Valley on a stormy day

Pretty Angaston town, our cottage, exploring the region and its food and wine

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A Surprise in the Flinders Ranges

I guffawed when I saw the result from Bill’s Covid test.  

Here we are in a tent in the remote Flinders Ranges and he’s contracted Covid 19.  Actually, he had caught it in Adelaide; no doubt at his conference or in one of the restaurants we had eaten at, not out here. But we were now in a very remote spot!

The tent where we were staying was a relatively comfortable ‘glamping’ tent and it had an ensuite, but it was still very, very cold, and Bill was feeling pretty awful.  He dosed himself with paracetamol, rugged himself up and went to bed.  

As I was disease-free and feeling terrific, I headed off on my much anticipated bush walk from the campsite to Wilpena Pound.  

It was great country, with deep bush of river gums and surprisingly, cypress pines. The pines looked incongruous with Australian bush as I know it, and it gave the area a feel of the mountains in California where I had visited in the past.  

The walk was easy and flat until it came to the lookouts above the old Wilpena Pound homestead.  The views from the lookout gave a great perspective of the extraordinary Pound, the circle of granite mountains and dense bush.  On the return walk, a group of four emus paced closely beside the path as I passed and I disturbed a sweet rock wallaby as I turned a corner. It was a two and a half hour walk and I was happy to see Bill faring well when I returned.

That evening I made a fire and cooked up a hearty basic dinner for the patient.  He sat by the fire and drank a medicinal whiskey or two.  

Next day we headed off to be be somewhere more central with facilities in the event that Bill’s illness worsened.  We took the long route through Brachina Gorge, a 4 wheel drive road through the gorges north of Wilpena.  It was a wonderful drive through dramatic gorges and with glorious views.  We stopped in an exquisite spot by a stream to boil the billy for tea.  

We are now at the small city of Port Augusta and we are in Covid isolation.  Our apartment is right on the edge of the Spencer Gulf. It has a small ground level balcony looking out on the passing boats and the Gulf.  It’s warm inside and after my supermarket dash for supplies and treats (masked of course) it has everything we need.  

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Wudinna and Gawler Ranges

After Ceduna, we had two days exploring and walking in the Gawler Ranges. Our base was Wudinna, a small town on the Eyre Peninsula. The landscape was spectacular, with huge granite boulders arising from farmland. It was also close to the Gawler Ranges National Park so we planned some exploring and walks.

We climbed Mt Wudinna close to the town. There are local claims that this is Australia’s second largest monolith after Uluru. It was a hefty uphill walk and a great view from the top. The national park was again granite outcrops with deep valleys. We walked into the gorge called ‘Organ Pipes’ and explored other short walks.

Our accommodation at Wudinna was basic, but nothing that a beer or a gin and tonic on the porch after a day’s walking wouldn’t fix! After Wudinna was a long drive through to Adelaide, as Bill had a conference, meetings and a dinner to attend.

I have only visited Adelaide for work in the past so it was good to take time on the galleries and at the fine SA Museum. It is also a foodies town, and we enjoyed some great meals and good wine.

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Across Australia to Oyster Country

We have successfully crossed the vast flat land from west to east, travelling over 1300 kms in one day.  

We had hopped off the Woody island ferry and headed straight to the car which was parked at the jetty. We headed north to Norseman, two hours north.  It’s a classic outback town with old fibro houses, wide streets and a big drafty pub.  After setting in to our salubrious ’donga’ at the local caravan park we chose the pub to have dinner. It was a classic, with locals playing pool, 70s and 80s music on a jukebox and busy barmaids pouring beers.  There was also some hearty food. To go with the atmosphere, Bill and I both had local lamb korma and a beer.  

Next morning we both woke at around 3am, partly because we knew we had to leave early.  Rather than wait, we piled everything into the car and hit the road by 3.30am.  Next stop, Ceduna!

Definitely it was a long drive, but an incredibly easy one.  The road was straight and well marked. We saw no wildlife on the way, bar the flash of a parrot, or crows eating carrion.  The road was flat and the landscape quite varied, between low brush woodland, eucalypts and rocky outcrops.

We  took two hours of driving each, stopping at each driver change.  It was enjoyable and we finished an audio book as we went.  Following that, it was some quiet and then some mediocre podcasts and a playlist of folk rock singalongs and mellow jazz.  We made it in to Ceduna by 5pm and enjoyed the sunset over the wide bay. 

This was fresh oyster country and we enjoyed a dozen (or so) with some good South Australian wine. We were in South Australia now after all….

The Great Australian Bight
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Back in the saddle – Esperance and the Recherche

Esperance & surrounds

After several years of not sharing our travels, I’m now back to blogging after encouragement of friends and family.  Here we go.  

Yesterday we headed south to drive to Esperance.  It was a long journey, initially through forests of grey-green forests, then through the vast wheat and sheep farmland.  

Through strange little towns like Harrismith, Lake Grace and Ravensthorpe. We chatted, listened to podcasts and my predictable playlist: Joan Armatrading, Amy Winehouse and sprinklings of jazz.  

We stopped at Brookton for a greasy spoon breakfast, which I actually can’t quite believe I ate.  It must have been as a result of that extra red wine I had drunk the night before with a good friend.  I had no bacon resistance.  It was actually a great breakfast, all washed down with a mug of tea. 

After 7 hours of driving we reached Esperance by late afternoon.  

Esperance is on a huge bay on the southern ocean.  It’s beautiful.  

After checking into our apartment we walked to the foreshore.  While it was grey and cloudy it couldn’t disguise the light and dark of the ocean and magic of the islands in the bay.  

We headed along the Great Ocean Drive this morning.  It was a blustery and the waves were up, crashing on the rocks and on the small islands close to shore.  The white beaches and granite cliffs are dramatic.  

On the way back to Esperance we passed the old town cemetery.  Knowing a bit about Bill’s family history and that his grandfather Bill Orr was born here, we took a look around.  In the early European settler section we located grandpa Bill Orr’s parents’ graves, as well as the broken down remains of the grave of one of Bill’s brothers, Alexander Orr.  Alexander died in 1910 at 6 years old after being accidentally shot with a shotgun. I had searched his death on ‘Trove’. It was a sad account of the injured boy being taken on the back of a wagon from the family farm into Esperance in an attempt to save him.  There was the small, almost forgotten grave of a great uncle in the sandy cemetery under the eucalypts.  

The Recherche

I have never seen such a sky.  It was a deep, black blue with more stars than imaginable.  It’s not surprising that we have no light spill and a magnificent sky as we are on Woody Island in the Recherche Archipelago, one of the most remote places. 

The Recherche is a group of some 120 or so islands off Esperance.  They are all uninhabited, bar Woody Island and this is a nature reserve with only a campground that is open in warmer months.  Most of the islands are just rocky outcrops.  Woody Island has a small jetty and landing place amongst the great granite rocks on its shore.  And as its name indicates the island has good coverage of eucalyptus, acacia and saltbush.  The birdlife is wonderful with scores of white cheeked honeyeaters and golden whistlers around our tent.  As I was sitting on our balcony, a rock parrot settled next to me on an adjacent rock.  

We walked the main trail of the island yesterday with great views of the archipelago and the ocean.  More walking today is planned.  

Our tent is pretty comfortable, with a huge soft bed piled with warm rugs and pillows.  It’s cold and windy as the sun goes down so we pile into bed early and read and watch a movie.  Yes! The 4G works superbly.  Who would think you could be linked to the world on an island an hour off the coast in one of the most isolated parts of the world?  

Prior to Woody, we visited the wonderful Cape Le Grand National Park.  It was a blustery day, but those perfect white beaches and turquoise waters looked superb.  We walked the perfect Luck Bay beach, named by Mathew Flinders in 1802 when he was exploring the southern coast of Australia.  The Recherche Archipelago was named for the French explorer ships in a 1792 expedition led by d’Entrecasteaux.  

One of the islands, ‘Salisbury island’ has artefacts of Aboriginal people living here (lizard traps, stone blades and water holes) and these date from 13000 years ago before the seas rose to create this archipelago.  

Woody Island jetty, Recherche Archipelago
Luck Bay at Cape Le Grand National Park

The Archipelago
Woody Island tents

Woody Island
On the top of the Island
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Athens and the Lycian Coast of Turkey

 

Day 1

Left Perth at 7.50am or so for the long flight to Athens. It was a very long, and for me, a tiring flight after a chaotic time in balancing a new job and leaving the old job….

We arrived in Athens around lunch time and we were picked up by ‘Demetrios’ at the airport to go to our small apartment in Kolonaki.  It was ‘Hidesign Apartment’.  It had a large main bedroom; and in the Greek style tiny but new bathroom and a pleasant sitting room and thin porch/balcont overlooking the apartments opposite.  There was a distinctive circular staircase – distinctive of many Athens apartments – and we were on the 4th floor.  There was a tony three person lift which just fitted us in.  Determined to stay awake, we walked down the residential streets to a delightful local café for lunch.  I had ripe Roma cherry tomatoes, a mound of prosciutto and the most delicious fresh mozzarella cheese.  We saw the delivery man arrive with a mound of cheese while we waited for lunch.  We then wandered the streets looking for light provisioning for our apartment and to bed by 7.30pm – slept a good 10 hours.

Day 2

Up early for breakfast on our terrace and then navigated ourselves to the Acropolis Museum.  We walked via Athens major park, which although looking a bit unloved was a beautiful green oasis from the very busy Athens street.  The museum was a beautiful building, perched over ruins of the old city, with glass viewing from walkways looking down on the archaeological sites.  The museum was everything I’d hoped for and my major reason for another trip to Athens.  It was dramatic architecture, wonderful interpretation and the artefacts ‘presentation was just wonderful.  A great experience and being there early was absolutely essential to miss the tourist crowds.  After that, we walked through the famous Plaka, which I do love, despite its tourist focus.  The lack of cars and general atmosphere is intimate.  I know it’s tourist ‘tack’ being sold but it’s so very Greece: souvlaki, the smell of Greek coffee, tavernas and cafes on every corner.  We walked down to Syntagma Square, where Bill located the most perfect Greek custard, filo and honey cake for me and a meat and filo pie for him.  When in Greece…. We sat in the square and watched a small demonstration (also very Greece) with the police lethargically looking on.

Heading back to Kolonaki, we conquered the local subway to find our way home.  That evening Bill had located a typical Greek family restaurant, where in our enthusiasm we ordered so much food that we had to bring home at least a kilo of leftovers.  The restaurant was a real local eating place and the food stodgy and decidedly Greek, lots of stewed vegetables and meat (kleftiko style) and slow cooked dishes.

Day 3

My next museum of choice was the Cycladic Museum which was nearby to Kolonaki and housed in an old mansion just off a main road.  We really enjoyed the Cycladic art and the icons and statues dating back over 2000 – 3000 years.  Hardly a male statue in sight!  Female icons were the go for the ancient Cycladians.    That evening, our last in Athens we walked down to a rooftop bar at the local Hilton Hotel which overlooked the city.  This was again walking distance of our apartment as was our choice for dinner at the stunning Cookoovaya restaurant.  We had a superlative meal and great service at this leading Athens restaurant.  A great way to farewell beautiful Athens.

Day 4 and 5

We had an early flight to Rhodes, which was delayed and the wait was tedious.  In Rhodes we got a taxi to a beachside hotel/restaurant just out of old time to await the ferry to Fethiye.  We lazed by the pool, reading our books and watching the ocean.  Not a bad way to pass the time until we had the hot and unpleasant transfer across to Turkey.  Arriving at Fethiye was a relief and in the evening we walked down to the centre of the town for a great Turkish meal and to absorb the great atmosphere of this small seaside town.

We did have a small drama on Day 4 as Bill mislaid his credit card.  This caused some stress as we managed the ‘work-arounds’ of accessing enough cash to pay for the yacht deposit, cancelling his card and generally feeling dispirited by the whole affair.  I had wrongly thought that we could access cask from ATMS using our American Express card, which is actually not the case, in Turkey in any case.  The other fact is that in the areas where we were travelling in remote parts of the southern coast of Turkey it is largely a cash economy to we desperately needed enough Turkish lira to get us through the two weeks away.  As a consequence we decided to stay in Fethiye for an additional day before setting out for sea.  This would allow us to withdraw enough cash (the maximum daily rate for me was not enough to cover everything) to pay for the boat insurance (also cash required!) and for the journey.

Day 6

We headed off very early on Day 6 crossing the gulf of Fethiye Korfesi to Skopea Limani.  We stayed at Kapi Creek, a very picturesque bay surrounded by huge cliffs and ancient ruins scattered up the slopes.  We took our dinghy around the head of the bay to a swimming spot away from other boats. The water was crystal clear and deep as deep as the cliffs drop off into the ocean.

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Day 7 and 8

We moved a couple of miles to Tomb Bay, which had Lycian pigeon size tombs above us.  We anchored and long-lined off the shore.  We spent all of the day at Tomb Bay for Day 8 as well and had one of those long Mediterranean style swims (it was very hot); just propped up in the water, bobbing around and talking as we drifted past Turkish families on their small gulets on summer holidays.  While there are many gulets in this area of the coast and these have western tourists, the majority of the tourism seems to be local tourism, Turkish families enjoying summer holidays.

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Day 9

Today we headed back to Fethiye for repairs (our dinghy motor quietly died).  Once all sorted we had our first good sail.  The wind was fresh as we made our way to the incredible Kracaoren Bay about 15 miles due south after going around the cape of the bay.   All along the route were impressive cliffs covered in pine trees and dropping straight and deep into the ocean.  Karacaoren is very picturesque and is deep and blue.  There are ruins surrounding the bay and on an island which forms one of the sides of the bay.  They are thought to be the remains of a medieval trading port.

The only restaurant in the bay was a ramshackle affair.  It looked as if it had been built into a cave with the kitchen deep inside and the tables perched high over the water.  The place was well established for the summer; with herbs drying, vegetables on display and simmering coals ready for baking bread and cooking meat.

There were about six boats in the bay and as there is no option but to eat there we were all at dinner.  It was pretty shambolical with a pack of dogs roaming the floor and scrabbling around after an occasional cat.  Still it was an absolutely beautiful spot.

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The shambolical restaurant in beautiful Karacaoren

Day 10

Next morning we woke early and went by dinghy over to Gemiler Adasi which is a channel nearby to explore the ruins of St Nicolas Island – or Gemiler Adasi, thought to be the original site of St Nicolas’ tomb.  It was sourced to 4th-6th century AD and St Nicolas was thought to be there in 360AD.  The island town was on route to the Holy Land for the pilgrims during the Crusades.    Now the place has 5 churches, all now rock fragments and wall and the occasional standing rock arch.  In the 1650s the Arab fleet raided the area so the remains of the Saint were removed to Myra.

Back in our boat we headed further south to Kas, the exotic and ancient city of Antiphelos.  This was a long haul and was 30 miles along one of the harshest areas of the Turkish coastline – the Seven capes.  This area has no shelter and no bays in which to take refuge.  We continued through and sadly there was no wind for sailing, so it was motoring all the way.

When we passed the capes we stopped briefly at the only port of call near Kalkan, Yesilyoy Lemani for a lunch stop, putting out the anchor amidst several day tripper boats.  After another few hours of motoring we made it to Kas where we headed into the new and very modern Kas Marina.  This place was full service, three restaurants, a swimming pool and air-conditioned shower block.  I could really enjoy this.  We wandered up to a marina restaurant after a luxury shower, and wouldn’t you know it the food was less than impressive.  We got better in the remote bays where we had been in previous nights.

Day 11

Kas was a Greek city until the ‘population exchange’ in 1922, when the Greeks were expelled and the area was resettled with Turks from Anatolia, Anatolian Plateau and the Balkans.  1.2m people were removed from Turkey during this time to refugee camps and then to be resettled around the world.  This included Kas, but not the two islands just off the coast.  Kas is now a busy town serving the tourist industry and the many day tripper diving and tour boats.  Just off the coast are Kastorellizo Island and Ro which remain a part of Greece and many will know that this island is the source of many great now Australians, including that of two of our good friends!

On Day 11 we walked into Kas and found the local ferry company which went to ‘Meis’, the Turkish name for Kastellorizo.  It was a very hot wait and lining up for customs but when we arrived in Kastellorizo, I was heaven.  I do love Greece.  The picture-book buildings, very Greek cafes right on the water, small gift shops.  What can you not like about the Greek Islands?

It was hot.  So we did a quick recce of the port then found the local swimming spot along a narrow walking path along the side of the cliff under the castle.  After our swim we walked back into town and found a restaurant perched over the bay’s port for lunch.  It had two Sea Turtles swimming below us as we had our grilled octopus and moussaka (when in Greece, eat Greek!).  Superb.  I also did some shopping in the cafes before we headed back to busy Kas.

Dinner on the boat of cheese and a bottle of good local red wine.

Day 12

We headed 20 miles further east to the Kekova Roads, a long channel between Kekova Island and the mainland.  It was a further 20 odd miles to a very remote area of Turkey coastline.  Again the coast was rugged and inhospitable.  We stayed at the most westerly point of Kekova, at Sicak Koyu.  It was a muddy bottom and very calm with two tiny restaurants at the top of the bay.  As we were the only boat there late in the afternoon, Bill went by dinghy to see if we they were cooking that evening.  As a result, we had a unforgettable dinner looking up Kekova roads on a jetty platform made of hand strewn poles and rickety edges.  The elderly owner had set up dinner just for us and after we left following our meal of squid, kofta and salad, the coupled pottered or puttered up the inlet to the comfort of their home, no doubt in one of the marginally larger townships nearby.  A beautiful spot.

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Looking down Kekova Roads, from the Sicak Koyu restaurant

Day 13

Sicak Koyo is a couple of miles overland from the sunken Lycian city of Aperlai. This city was destroyed by an earthquake in the second century AD. Some of the city slipped into the sea and is now submerged; the rest covers a steep hillside above Asar Bay. We’d checked with the restaurant owner the previous night about the track and the distance. His warning was get up early before it is too hot to walk. He was right about that! It was a hot, dry walk across the riverbed between the two bays but the hillside was covered with ancient wall, rock-carved tombs and castle walls. This particularly appealed to Bill, because he had a colleague at ECU who had conducted archaeological digs on the Aperlae site.

After tramping back to the boat, we moved on to the village of Ucagiz, a long, thin bay deep inside Kekova Roads. Unlike most of the remote bays we visited, this one can be reached by road, so there was lots of local tourism involving day tripper boats exploring the bays. We backed into the jetty, tied up and went for a walk through the village. The thought of another hot night sleeping on the deck of the boat was too much for Susan. She found a cheap local B&B, asked whether it was air-conditioned, and agreed to take the room if it was chilled by the time we got back from getting a few things from the boat. It was chilled, so we stayed and chilled, too.

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Day 14

Today’s adventure was to head offshore in search of a sailing wind. We couldn’t find more than 5 knots of wind, so we completed a circumnavigation if Kekova Island and anchored in another fabulous bay at the eastern end of Kekova Roads. This area, called Gokkaya Limani was our furthest point from Fethiye – or to put it another way our closest point to Syria. It was almost empty when we arrived, but over the day if filled up with noisy tripper boats. We puttered around in the dingy, inspecting the  adjacent island and a large sea cave, followed by a quiet night on the boat.

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Gokkaya Limani

Day 15

This was a long day. We wanted to get as close as we could to Fethiye in one day. To avoid the possibility of having to bash into the prevailing wind, we got started just before daybreak, retracing our steps to Kas, passing outside of the Greek islands of Kastellorizo and Ro, and then on past Kalkan and the Seven Capes. Fifty nautical miles in a day, perhaps the longest single distance we’ve covered in a day in eleven charters, landed us back in Karacaoren and in striking distance of Fethiye the next and last day on the boat. More swimming, followed by another night at the crazy dog restaurant.

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Leaving Kekova, dawn

Day 16, 17 and 18

We headed back to the marina at Fethiye, signed out of the boat and checked in to a terrific hotel jest above the marina. We spent the next day or so checking the sights of Fethiye, shopping, and ended up with a pizza and a few beers in a rooftop bar. Beyond that, a long drive to the airport at Dalaman, a flight to Istanbul, then Athens, then Doha and then Perth. And there we were, arriving back to a cold and wet Perth winter day, brown as berries and very pleased with our fabulous mid-winter break.

 

 

 

 

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Havanaland

After sailing in the Spanish Virgin Islands we had a long day flying from San Juan to Havana, via Miami. This is the long way round, of course, but the US only allows its citizens to fly in to Cuba from a half-dozen airports. US Customs and Border Protection requires them to name one of a dozen reasons for travelling to Cuba. Tourism is not one of America’s officially sanctioned reasons for travel, so people have to nominate one of the other reasons: journalism, research, artistic performances and so on. The most popular one is “support for the Cuban people”. Actually, most of this support for the Cuban people comes in the form of hard currency spent on expensive drinks and meals, cigars, rides in 57 Chevys and nights out at the Floridita or Tropicana. Like the Americans, Susan and I tried all of these forms of support for the Cuban people.

We landed at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, named after the expatriate Cuban poet, intellectual and hero of the Cuban War of Independence. Martí’s name is everywhere in Cuba, on his statue in the Plaza de la Revolución and in the name of public institutions such as the airport and one of the universities. He is regarded as a major Latin American literary figure. One fun fact: the song “Guantanamera”, Cuba’s great patriotic song — made famous outside Cuba by Pete Seeger, the Weavers and many others —  uses lyrics based on one of Martí’s poems.

From the airport we were driven to Susan’s conference hotel, the Palco, which is part of the Cuban government’s main international conference centre. It’s not a tourist hotel. It reminded me a bit of the Stazi hotel in Leipzig. Things kind of worked and kind of didn’t, but I don’t think that the rooms were bugged.

On our first day we rented a car and driver with our zoo friends Kris and John, and took drive in the country to a place called Las Terrazas. The car was an important part of the experience. Like most pre-1959 vehicles — they don’t say 1959, but before or after “the triumph of the revolution” — it was a Frankencar. It looks like some kind of a Chev, but has a Hyundai engine and axles and other parts from a variety of other sources. This requires a bit of fettling. The gear stick, for example, emerged from a hole in the dashboard where the radio speaker would ordinarily go. The continuation of the US blockade and the absence of sufficient hard currency for ordinary people to import a new car means that just about every car ever imported is still on the road. The red car below is the “restored” one; the blue one is owned by the driver’s son who is restoring it.

Las Terrrazas turned out to be a model ecological village, developed in the late 1960s and now a local tourist attraction. Lots of jazzed-up old cars for the international tourists and beat up ones for the locals. We had a terrific lunch at the hotel that forms part of the village and headed back to the old city, La Habana Vieja for a look at the tourist sights.

Chief among these was Cuba’s Tiananmen Square, the Plaza de la Revolución. There’s a tower, a statue of Martí, and a couple of large-scale images of Fidel and Che superimposed on the front of government buildings. Next to Fidel the text reads “Vas bien, Fidel” (“You’re going fine, Fidel”), and next to Che the text reads “Hasta la victoria siempre” (“To victory, always”). These messages are mostly lost on the tourists, who rent restored convertibles and do bog laps of the square.

That night we were picked up by our old friend from Toronto, John. He lived and worked in Cuba for more than a decade and returns frequently on business. He was a great host, keen to show us the best spots to eat and drink and smoke cigars. He was also patient in explaining to me how things worked in Cuba, or didn’t. We went with two of his friends, Australian teachers who worked at the international school, to a terrific Italian restaurant in Miramar diplomatic district called Bellaciao. This place was very popular with expatriates and hadn’t been discovered by tourists. The restaurant is outdoors, under a vine-covered arbour. We had a great night. I am sorry there is not a photograph of me smoking that huge cigar.

For the next couple of days Susan had to work, so I tagged along with John as he did some errands. This involved going to the bank and to his office, dropping off hard-to-get items to friends (chocolate and shampoo) and picking up hard to buy items from other friends (cigars). According to John, everything in Cuba requires a workaround.  After the errands each day we went out to lunch. We went to the the very cool El del Frente rooftop bar in La Habana Vieja (tats, tartan and topknots: the hipsters are everywhere);  Starbien, in Vedado; and the Buena Vista Curry Club — Havana’s only Indian restaurant.  Terrific meals at all of these places, accompanied by a couple of beers and (for John) a cigar to finish.

The most interesting of John’s errands was to pick up some pharmaceuticals. As we headed home after lunch one day I asked if we could pick up some bottled water which was not available at our hotel. H was glad to, but said he needed to get some prescription medicine. We stopped three times at stores that ought to have sold water but drew a blank each time. John had more success with his medicine. We pulled up outside a government clinic and were mobbed by a couple of street guys. There was some shouting at the window, which seemed to be about whose customer John was. One guy protested “Mi chino” (roughly my Chinese, or in street language my mate) to which John responded “Mi negro” (thats’s my – black- supplier). Vendor and salesperson sorted out, there was a bit more shouting about the price. When that was settled, John’s supplier rushed off on a bicycle and returned with prescription medicine. We did find water at the fourth shop, but I concluded that in Cuba it is easier to come by bootleg prescription drugs than bottled water.

Cuba has gone through some very tough years since the fall of the Soviet Union. From 1991 to 1995, during what Castro called “the special period”, the poorest Cubans were reputed to have lost 25% of their body weight. I was told by someone that the government tried to help by providing alternative recipes for food from available local sources, including “bistek de toronja”, an alternative to steak made from the pith of grapefruit, seasoned, breaded and cooked. Perhaps this is behind the best Cuban joke that I heard:

Q: What are the three great achievements since the triumph of the revolution?

A: Education! Healthcare! Sports!

Q: What are the three greatest disappointments?

A: Breakfast! Lunch! Dinner!

Another highlight was a visit to the Tropicana cabaret. This was organised one of Susan’s zoo colleagues Ron Magill. He’s a larger than life character and lots of fun. I didn’t realise how famous he was until the maitre de of the Tropicana wanted a selfie with him. Apparently he appeared with animals on the hugely popular Spanish variety program, “Sabado Gigante” for 25 years and is recognised everywhere in the  Spanish-speaking world. The child of Cuban emigres, he is passionate about the Tropicana and comes to the show every time he is in Cuba. He organised us a table right at the front of the show. It’s all singing and dancing, huge hair and high kicks, but the photo below may give you an idea of what Ron likes so much about it. Just so you know, I agree with him.

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My final thoughts about Havana concern what might be called “Havanaland”, a version of old Havana being recreated for the tourists. Despite the shortages of things, the constant working around that is required to live in Cuba, there’s a gradual transition going on in the old town. The elegant pre-revolutionary buildings are being turned into modern hotels with rooftop bars and pools and the street traffic is being dominated by tourist Frankencars. But it’s getting harder for the locals to live there. One of the days we were in the old town, John was concerned about whether his favourite restaurant would be open.  There was a cruise ship in town, and when that happens all of the water gets used up or diverted to the cruise ship, leaving hotels and restaurants reliant on the arrival of water by truck and the locals reliant on hoses and buckets.

(Tourist Havanaland, above, and the locals’ La Habana Vieja below.)

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Puerto Rico, you lovely island

You all remember the song from West Side Story, where Bernardo and Anita sing about the Manhattan immigrant experience for Puerto Ricans:

BERNARDO
I think I’ll go back to San Juan
ANITA
I know a boat you can get on
BERNARDO
Everyone there will give big cheer!
ANITA
Everyone there will have moved here

I’m a big fan of this musical and the song was an worming in my ear for the two weeks we were in Puerto Rico.

From Charlotte we flew direct to San Juan and the Hotel El Convento, built as a Carmelite convent in 1646 and converted to a boutique hotel in 1962. It is located at the heart of old San Juan, a few minutes from the Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

El Morro was constructed on the orders of King Charles V of Spain in 1539. Its purpose was to protect San Juan’s strategic harbour and the wealth that was shipped through it. (Morro means head, bluff or promontory; there is a Morro overlooking Havana harbour, too.) The citadel was added to and rebuilt for the next 400 years and has seen off attacks by Sir Francis Drake in 1598, the Dutch in 1625 and the Americans three times during the Spanish-American War.

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El Morro, from the land side: once a battlefield now a kite-flying park

The Dutch were involved in a nasty land battle as they attempted to attack by land, across open fields. Americans had more luck. During the final bombardment of San Juan in 1898 the USS Iowa fired on El Morro, smashing part of the wall and injuring no-one. The El Morro gunners fired on the Iowa and missed entirely. The Americans won the war, of course, took over Puerto Rico and occupied El Morro from 1898 to 1961. Since then it has been a park and museum.

From San Juan we headed down to Fajardo to pick up our bareboat yacht, a Jeanneau 409, perhaps the best boat we have ever rented. The map below includes most of the places we visited. Fajardo is on the extreme left and we travelled roughly clockwise from Fajardo to Culebra and Culebrita and south to Vieques, along the south side of Vieques then north back to Fajardo.

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First night out was an hour-long motor eastwards from Fajardo to the nearest anchorage, Isla Palaminos (in the top left hand corner of the map.)  It’s a private island, used mostly as a beach resort during the day by hotel guests from the “big island”. After 5 PM and before 10 AM it is deserted. We hung on a mooring ball provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and in the morning dinghyed over to the tiny sand islet Isla Palaminito (the slash of white that you can see on the right of the photo below).

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Isla Palaminos and Isla Palaminito

The next morning we headed off east towards Isla Culebra, a four-hour slog into the wind. Culebra was virtually deserted. We had our choice of bays, usually on our own, and stayed off three different beaches on the west side of the island: Playa Carlos Rosario, Playa Tamarindos and Playa Melones. Fabulous.

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Playa Tamarindos, Culebra

After four nights out we were running low on cold beer and other essentials, so we headed in to the tiny town of Dewey, the only settlement on Culebra. There’s a little channel between the beaches on the western side of the island and the inland bay, Ensenada Honda. We scrambled over the rough pier on the right hand side of the channel, picked up some ice and supplies and headed back to the boat for a swim.

 

The next night we moved on to Dakity, a very secure but rather busier anchorage, where boats shelter behind a coral wall from the prevailing easterly trade wind.

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Dakity, Culebra

The best thing about Dakity was access to restaurants and bars, after four or five nights of cooking on the boat. We chose a place called the Dinghy Dock for lunch. I had a couple of the local Medalla beers and Susan had some rum punch. There might have been hamburgers, too.

Bidding a fond farewell to Culebra, we headed off to the next island — Culebrita. We had a lovely sail up the channel between Culebra and Culebrita and found a mooring off Playa Tortuga (Turtle Beach), the best of all the beaches in these islands. It’s a long white crescent of sand, fringed with palm trees and surrounded by gin-clear water. A few boats came and went, but mostly it was just us and the wildlife.

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Laughing gull, Culebrita

From Culebrita we had a long day’s sailing to the other big island in the group, Vieques. We sailed at about eight knots (that’s very fast for a keelboat) for nearly five hours, reaching across the Sonde de Vieques and running down the Eastern side of the island to the main port, Esperanza. Can’t beat those trade winds: 10-15 knots, all day and night, every day and night.

Vieques is something else. Most of it is a former US military gunnery range, so half of the island is blocked off in a nature reserve. The birds have a pile of unexploded ordinance for company, but not much else. There are two settlements on Vieques, Esperanza and Isobel Segunda. We moored the boat in the harbour of Esperanza and went for a walk, hoping to find some stores to replenish ice, beer and food. There’s a strip of little beachside restaurants and guesthouses and maybe 50 local houses in Esperanza. We found the Green Store a couple of hundred metres up the hill, but figured that the ice would have melted before we got it back down the hill, onto the dinghy and out to the boat. Dejected, we walked back down the hill, past a strange four-story concrete box. On inspection, it turned out to be the island’s only decent hotel, El Blok. Best idea when confronted by an unexpected boutique hotel? Book in, have a proper shower and a couple of restaurant meals, and rent a car.

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Esperanza

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Isobel Segunda

After a shower and a bit of air-conditioned comfort, we rented a car and set off to explore Vieques. It seems to be a very poor place, in the US but very Caribbean. There’s no local industry except the fledgling backpacker tourist industry, high levels of unemployment and lots of people who look like they drank or smoked a little more than is good for them. Isobel Segunda is a scruffy little town, full of barely roadworthy vehicles , outdoor beer bars and not much else.

Much of the island, though, is a national wildlife refuge. There is a nicely curated boardwalk through the Kiani Lagoon wetlands with miles of untended natural forrest around it. There were virtually no other visitors the day we were there, although wild horses graze freely in great numbers in the forrest and on the roads through the refuge.

We returned for a swim in the pool and a few drinks at the bar on the roof of El Blok followed by a great evening meal. Refreshed, next morning we did a shopping and ice run, returned the hire car and sailed down to the western end of Vieques. We anchored in an empty bay off near Punta Arenas. What happened next? We went for a swim.

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At anchor off Punta Arenas, Vieques

We stayed here one night — another bay another day — and then sailed north for about three hours. We stayed overnight at Isla Palaminos again, so that we were ready to return the boat to Fajardo the following day. And that brings the sailing part of the holiday to a close. Next, a flight to Havana via Miami and the possibility of another blog episode from your guest blogger.

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Bluegrass and the Blue Ridge Parkway

Peaks of Otter Lodge is quite beautiful, particularly when the sun comes out.  After dinner last night, with a local woman singing hillbilly country and playing a dulcimer for diners’ tips, we had a run back through the cold and the rain to our room.  But by morning, although cold, it was was clear and glorious.  The ‘Peaks’ were visible and the lake glistening.  We walked its perimeter enjoying the brilliant green trees, the brightly painted deck chairs and the post and rail wooden fences.  But it was cold!  So my bad cold and the actual cold weather was a reason to delay our next planned walk and we drove instead direct from Virginia back down to Blowing Rock in North Carolina on the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway.

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The sky was clear and the vistas were stunning.  It was a long drive, peppered with stunning pink rhododendrons by the roadside and corner after corner of wide mountain views.  A wonderful experience and strongly recommended.

Blowing Rock is now a destination in itself for people from the south – a mountain escape from the heat and humidity of the southern summers and a skiing destination in the winter.  Blowing rock is an actual place with a story that it is the only place in the USA (the world? the cosmos?) where snow flows upwards. This is caused by the winds whipping up the valleys and rock face.  It is now in well-manicured and interpreted gardens, perhaps overly so, but we enjoyed the walk around it and the magnificent views of the surrounding Appalachian mountain ranges.

From there we drove again up to the Parkway to Linville Falls in the Linville Gorge in the mountains.  It is a 30 metre waterfall with walkways to several vantage points.  It was Mother’s Day and the trails were full of families, the most people we had seen in several days, all out for family picnics and a walk in the woods.

Our next stop was further south to a small town just outside Asheville called Weaverville, where we were staying on Main Street.  All USA towns and cities seem to have a Main Street, it’s really one of those ubiquitous things about the United States, a bit like strip development and food chains on the outskirts of cities.    But Weaverville was delightful, and this far south the warm weather had certainly arrived.  Our B&B was an old wooden mansion with a back porch (where we breakfasted) backing onto the mountains and Blue Ridge Parkway wilderness) and the front on a cultivated garden and of course the Main Street.  Pretty, but a little worn (like the Inn owners themselves), the house had operated as a private house, a doctor’s surgery, a school and now an Inn.  We sat on wicker chairs on the front porch and enjoyed the warm sunshine at last.

Dinner was a walk down the Main Street, past the local schools (with little league baseball) and craft shops (it’s a very crafty and arty part of the world) to a local brewery-restaurant and some local music.  It was Mother’s Day so it was busy, but fun, people watching and enjoying the local craft beer.

While in Weaverville we took a day trip to Cherokee.  This was through a winding mountain road (with ubiquitous strip development), lovely mountains, rivers and forests.  Cherokee itself was full of Native American/Indian ‘tat’, complete with wooden life-size Indian sculptures outside of tobacco shops.  But the Cherokee museum was good and the reason we travelled there.  The museum tells the story of the dreadful forced removal and relocation of thousands of native American people, including the Cherokees, by the order of President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s.  The dreadful Trail of Tears to Oklahoma where thousands of people died on the road or from disease in the camps.  A sad piece of history.

For lunch, for something bizarrely different, we ate at Harrahs, a Cherokee-owned casino.  It seemed to be the only place to eat in town which wasn’t served in paper or on plastic or with disposable knives and forks.  The casino has given a steady income to the Cherokees who remain in this part of North Carolina.  They are descendants of those who escaped forced relocation and the Trail of Tears by hiding in the mountains.  They have somewhat retained their language and culture and the income from the casino pays for social services and education foe local families.

The last thing  we did before heading to the Charlotte airport was to walk around Asheville, a tourist town full of art galleries, restaurants and brewpubs. We wandered into this lovely arcade (photographed here), and found a shop where a young man was making  musical instruments by hand. The instruments are a kind of upright dulcimer. So beautiful, we bought one (left).

 

We enjoyed a final evening in Weaverville at a lovely local restaurant with a good Californian wine – and now, off to Puerto Rico!!

 

 

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On the road again

We left sunny Detroit and flew down to Charlotte, picked up a rental car and drove to Asheboro where Susan had a few more days work to do. Asheboro is a small town in the central Piedmont area of North Carolina. The NC Zoo is the biggest industry in town and the biggest local employer (except perhaps WalMart).

Susan’s work began with a few drinks at Kickback Jack’s with some of her zoo friends: Pat, who runs NC Zoo, and Georgina and Dave from an NGO called Wild Welfare.

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Kickback Jack’s Asheboro NC

The next day, while Susan worked, I went for a walk in the woods along an old railway track. There are lots of disused rail tracks in the Piedmonts, which used to serve the many cotton mills and clothing factories. These are mostly closed now, and the jobs have been exported to lower-wage countries.

NC Zoo is just the kind of zoo that Susan would have designed, had the plans for an open range zoo not been shelved. It is set on a couple of thousand acres of hilly woodland. There are two separate sections “Africa” and “North America”, each containing species from those regions. Africa includes large cleared paddocks such as the one below, containing a herd of African elephants. North America includes a lake, marshes full of birds and alligators, a fabulous walk-through aviary and a series of large, conventional zoo enclosures such as the one containing this very happy polar bear. The next exhibit developed will be “Australia”, opening in 2019. We might come back for the opening. NC Zoo is now my favourite large scale zoo. Visiting zoo directors must walk away shaking their heads, wishing they had the site, the space and the capital of this zoo. (For those of you who are following closely and wondered why I said “favourite large zoo”, Basel in Switzerland is my favourite city zoo.)

When Susan finished the last of her meetings we headed north to Charlottesville in Virginia. Charlottesville is the location of Thomas Jefferson’s house, Monticello, and the university he founded in the early 1800s. We stayed on the beautiful campus of the University of Virginia, a World Heritage Site and reputed to be the most beautiful campus in the US. UVA has developed into a highly selective university — near Ivy League cost and selectiveness for students. When Jefferson designed it, he wanted professors and students to mix together and people to work across disciplines, so he designed a series of buildings around what is called “the Lawn”. At the top of the Lawn is the Rotunda — formerly the library — and around the sides are professors’ houses, joined by lines of single student rooms, ten or fifteen of them in a row between each professor’s house. (And no, I did not take the picture below: I stole it from the internet.)

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Jefferson’s UVA Rotunda and Lawn

We also visited Monticello, the house that Jefferson designed and retired to after his term as President. It is a Palladian house, designed to reflect the houses he had seen in France and Italy when he served as US Ambassador to France. It is full of Jefferson’s inventions: beds in walls between rooms, double doors that close mechanically when one is closed, an automatic pen that creates a duplicate of letters he wrote, a dumb waiter to bring wine bottles up from the cellar to the dining room. I particularly liked a quote displayed in the cellar, from a letter Jefferson wrote to a European correspondent: “wine from long habit has become indispensable to my health”. Contrast that with the current maniacal, teetotal US president.

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Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Leaving Monticello and Charlottesville we drove west to Staunton, a town famous as a Civil War railhead used to supply the Confederate army during the battles in the Shenandoah Valley. We stayed (of course) at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel.

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Staunton, from our window in the Stonewall Jackson Hotel

Unfortunately, the rain has closed in, making the first part of our planned drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway impractical — high mountain roads, heavy rain, visibility less that 100 metres. So instead we scooted down the interstate to our next hotel at the Peaks of Otter, just north of Roanoke, Virginia.  The picture below shows the guest blogger at work, overlooking the lake at Peaks of Otter.

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Guest blogger at work, Peaks of Otter VA

 

 

 

 

 

 

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