Independent travel

In Key West: a museum with a heart

When it comes to literary museums, there’s somewhere you need to visit while you’re in Key West. If you know something about the place, you’re probably thinking of Ernest Hemingway’s house. It’s a popular stop: the queue to get in and see this historic home and its present day six-toed feline residents snaked around the block when I popped in for a visit.

CFFCF60D-EB77-4171-ABD7-19288DC63E1CNevertheless, you’d be wrong.  Though I wanted to like it, I found it hard to make an emotional connection with the Hemingway place.  The museum to which I refer has no cats – at least none I saw while I was there.  Instead, the newly reopened and expanded Tennessee Williams exhibit had heart and soul in spades compared to its more famous neighbour.


The museum is the result of years of collecting and a true labour of love. I was fortunate that Dennis Beaver was available to give me a curator’s tour. The passion he had for his subject and the stories he had to tell added an extra dimension to the already fascinating collection of exhibits.  Somehow he brought to life so vividly a playwright who’d hitherto been a stranger to me that I felt I’d known him personally.

Describing Tennessee Williams, Dennis painted a picture of a man who loved to entertain the rich and famous. Yet home was a relatively modest place on Duncan Street, a short walk from the museum and now a private home.  A tall white fence protects its current occupants from peeping eyes, but there’s a beautifully crafted model in the museum should you wish to see what would have been inside.

Photos of Williams with the Hollywood glitterati of the time revealed that he moved in glamorous circles. But behind the public facade was a complicated and insecure individual. A childhood bout of diphtheria had left him a lasting legacy of hypochondria. If a visitor complained of a cold, Dennis said, Williams would believe he’d caught it.


It would take a special someone to manage that anxiety and that person was Frank Merlo. He dealt with the minutiae of Williams’ life, acting as the buffer between the playwright and an outside world that made constant demands on him. At first, Williams would refer to Frank as his assistant, or something equally businesslike. In fact he was his partner and the rock of his personal life. Frank though would die young, succumbing to lung cancer aged just 41. Williams fell apart, mourning the loss of his right hand man.  He was famously quoted as saying that after Frank’s death he entered his “stoned age” dependent on prescription drugs and alcohol to fill the void.


The Williams we know was a prolific playwright. Seventeen of his plays were turned into successful movies, among them Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar named Desire. The Rose Tattoo was another, set in Tennessee’s adopted Key West locale.  But he didn’t enjoy the process of creating a screenplay, often opting to turn his work over to someone else.  In many ways he saw the Technicolor world of the movies as a distraction. When he did get involved, he preferred to make a film in black and white so as not to detract from the story.

When the end came, it was dramatic and tragic as much of his life had been.  Newspapers reported Williams had choked on the top of a medicine bottle, while his brother claimed he’d been murdered.  Years later his death would officially be recorded as an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.  His brother ignored Williams’ wish to be buried at sea, instead interring him at Calvary Cemetery in St Louis, the city in which he’d grown up and the city he professed to hate.

Whether you know much or little about Tennessee Williams and his work, this little museum is a must if you’re visiting the place he called home. No matter that this isn’t his house – you’ll get a greater insight into his world from fragments of a life lived than you might from a collection of period furniture. Find it at 513 Truman Street, a stone’s throw from the buzz of Duval.


While the opinions recorded here are my own, I’m grateful to the museum for waiving the $7 entrance fee – though I’d have happily paid it.


Trinidad: sugar and slaves

Trinidad’s fortunes were made in sugar and slaves. A few kilometres from the city, the Valle de los Ingenios is littered with the ruins of long abandoned sugar mills. While Cuba still harvests fields of sugar cane, production has long since moved away from this region.


Standing in the grounds of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill, little imagination is required to picture how the scene would have been a century or two ago. The main house is still intact, a little weatherbeaten perhaps but not yet derelict. Its cedar windows and doors have been bleached by decades of sun. These days they’d pass for shabby chic and be considered worthy of a magazine spread. Back then, they were functional, the heavy shutters designed to keep the house cool despite its tropical setting.

Across the clearing my guide pointed out a bell tower, used as a lookout and built to call time for those toiling in the fields or factory buildings. Beyond the tower is what remains of the factory’s foundations and beyond that, the slave quarters, hidden away in the forest and once shielded from view by the factory itself. The prevailing wind had also been taken into account when siting the main house, so that sensitive noses wouldn’t have to contend with the sickly sweet smell of molasses.


The first mill on this site opened in 1776. Initially its assets were limited to just three horses, ten slaves and a single small sugar press. The Spaniard who owned it sold up to one Pedro Malamoros Borrell, who grew the farm and gave it the name we use today. He owned many slaves and life was tough for them. From November to April, they’d work ten days on and one off, working long hours in the hot sun and humid conditions cutting the cane.


Others grafted in the factory pushing the sugar presses known as trapiches which squeezed juice from the raw cane. It was dangerous work and not uncommon for workers to lose an arm if it caught in the press. Though much of the mill lies in ruins, you can still see where the sugar would have been boiled to create molasses. My guide explained how heat passed along the row of nine pans, gradually getting cooler the further the distance it travelled from the centre. The cane juice was cleaned and transferred from pan to pan as well, constantly stirred until crystals formed to turn it into muscovado sugar.


On the ground I spotted what looked like a rotten coconut. In fact it was the fruit of a güira tree. Used to make bowls from which the drink canchánchara could be served, they were also used to present offerings to the gods. My guide told me of an altogether more down to earth use: the insides are considered an effective flea treatment for dogs, and probably better for them than the chemical treatment I use back home, albeit gross to apply.


Between May and October the slaves would have been rented out for other work. Slaves were entitled to keep a quarter of their pay, the rest lining their owner’s pockets. Savings could buy freedom. Slaves were more likely to purchase freedom for their children than themselves, or to use the money to pay for their own small house just outside the communal barracks.


Though their lives were strictly controlled and conversion to Catholicism encouraged, the practice of African religions such as Santeria continued. A ceiba tree is considered sacred to followers of Santeria, representing Changó, the God of Thunder as its soft bark renders it lightning-proof. One stands to this day near where the barracks once were, a face visible in its trunk.

Borrell sold up in the mid 19th century to Carlos Malibrán and made a killing. But within a few short years, a crisis would hit the sugar industry. Malibrán would offload the property just four years later. Across the valley, crop rotation had been overlooked by mill owners greedy for profit and the soil had lost its fertility year in year. Yields fell and as competition from Europe’s sugar beet farmers felled prices, the rug was pulled from under Cuban sugar’s feet. The new owner of San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill lost pretty much everything and ended up mortgaged to the hilt. What had been fields of sugar cane were turned over to pasture.


As the Cuban war for independence gathered momentum in 1868, slaves saw their opportunity to gain their freedom by joining the army. The flight of labour was another nail in the industry’s coffin. By 1898, the owners of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill had closed up and moved to Sancti Spiritus and the factory was demolished. Ownership passed to the Fonseca family in 1905 and they lived here until 2012. Burdened by the cost of restoration, they donated the house and ruins to the state.

Getting there
I arranged a morning visit to Valle de los Ingenios with Paradiso – a place on a shared tour cost 22 CUCs. You’ll find their tour agency at General Lino Pérez 30 about a minute’s walk from the Etecsa office in Trinidad. Alternatively haggle with a driver of a classic car, making sure you negotiate for the taxi to wait.

Making sense of Cuba’s currency

Cuba’s idiosyncratic monetary system can be daunting for first time visitors but it’s much simpler in practice than it might first seem.

Cuban currency is a closed currency, which means it cannot be purchased outside the country and neither can they be exchanged for other currencies outside Cuba.  The government runs a dual system: CUPs (pesos nacionales) for residents and CUCs (pesos convertibles) for visitors.  CUC notes have “pesos convertibles” written on them.  In practice, most of the time you’ll just use CUCs and prices will be referred to as pesos.  In some shops, you may see dual prices displayed, but if in doubt, just ask.  Be careful though not to get fobbed off with pesos instead of CUCs as they’re worth a lot less.  One of the best ways to avoid being scammed is never to change money on the street.  Instead use a Cadeca (exchange bureau) or bank, though you will have to queue on the street to get in.  Rates in hotels tend to be lower.

Which currency should you take?

Euros and pounds are easy to change once you arrive.  If you’re arriving independently into Havana’s Jose Marti airport, there are two choices.  Inside the arrivals hall (but after you’ve cleared immigration and customs) you’ll find a couple of ATMs next to the information kiosk.  To find an exchange bureau exit the arrivals hall and turn immediately left once you get outside.  Dispense with the taxi touts with a polite “No, gracias”.  You can change your currency at the official desk here and will be given a receipt.

What about US dollars?

The dollar isn’t king here like it is elsewhere in Latin America.  The uncomfortable relationship between Uncle Sam and Cuba adds a 10% additional commission fee to any exchange transactions, making it very poor value.  You also won’t be able to use any credit card issued by an American bank, though MasterCard and Visa issued outside the US are OK.  If you’re unsure whether this affects you, check with your issuer before you leave home.


Can you rely on credit cards?

In short, no.  It’s wise to keep a store of cash on you just in case you struggle to find an ATM.  Few places accept credit cards – this is a cash based economy.  If you haven’t prepaid your accommodation, you might find that you can’t pay by card, so double check well before you’re due to check out to avoid any problems.  However, if you’ve made an internet booking, you’ll have been able to pay by credit card in advance.  Independent travellers should carry proof of this paid reservation as the internet can be unreliable in Cuba – your accommodation provider may not have access to emails or booking systems when you arrive.

Have you seen my blog about using the internet in Cuba?

Cuba: Internet 101

When I made my first visit to Cuba fifteen years ago, outside Havana I was pretty much incommunicado.  My phone didn’t get a signal and internet was non-existent.  Travelling as a solo female, it felt pretty isolating.  Fortunately, in the intervening period, things have changed.  Telephone service is via Cubacel and there is one internet service provider in Cuba – Etecsa.


Etecsa’s often as creaky as an octogenarian’s arthritic knees but that’s all you’ve got.  While some hotels will offer WiFi, you’ll still need to log into Etecsa as well to get connected.  To do so, first you’ll need a  scratch card or “tarjeta” which is issued by Etecsa outlets.  You’ll usually find there’s a crowd at the door, with a bouncer strictly controlling who gets to enter and join the smaller queue inside.  Be polite and keep your cool unless you want to be sent to the back of the line.


Cards cost 1 CUC, about 70p at current exchange rates.  They have a number on the back and a scratch off panel which will reveal a password.  Though you can sit in the Etecsa internet lounge, in practice that’s dearer and you should expect to join most people on the street.  If you spot a crowd of people sitting on the pavement in a huddle, chances are you’ve just found the Etecsa WiFi hotspot.


Enable your WiFi and select Etecsa.  You may have to be patient to get it to connect if it’s busy. When you succeed, a screen will pop up automatically.  Enter the card number and the passcode that you’ve scratched to reveal.  If you’ve connected, a new screen will show the amount of time you have remaining for that card.  They last one hour and you can log in and out to use it on several occasions.


Social media junkies will be relieved to know that Facebook, Twitter and the like are all permitted in Cuba, unlike the situation in some other one-party states.  So long as you have a strong enough internet connection you’ll be able to bombard your friends with images and tales regaling your Cuban exploits.  In practice my ability to do so varied considerably.  Sometimes I had an excellent upload speed, other times I could barely get it to connect.  But honestly, that’s probably a good thing – time we thought more carefully about wasting precious holiday time staring at a screen.

Have you seen my blog about Cuba’s dual currency?

A beginner’s guide to Marrakesh

Its nicknames include the Red City and Daughter of the Desert, but the origin of the name Marrakesh is thought to come from the pairing of two Berber words, mur and akush, which mean Land of God.  You’ll see it written as Marrakech, also, as this is the French spelling.  This beguiling city is an easy weekend destination from the UK and captivates the visitor with its exotic easygoing charm.  Here’s what you need to know if Morocco’s famously intriguing destination is calling.


Getting there

Many UK travellers head to Marrakesh on a direct flight with easyJet or Ryanair.  Fares can easily be found for as little as £50.  Don’t be concerned about travelling in the British winter as temperatures in the city are relatively mild – perfect sightseeing weather – though the nearby Atlas Mountains will have snow.  Scheduled operators include British Airways and the Moroccan flag carrier Royal Air Maroc.  Flight time from London is about three and a half hours.

Arriving overland can be an adventure in itself – in a good way.  The first time I visited (back in 1997) I caught a ferry from Algeciras in Spain and took the train to Marrakesh. I had a stop in  Fès on the way down and in Rabat to break the journey in the opposite direction.  You can catch a train from Tangier Ville station now and in 9 to 10 hours, arrive in Marrakesh with a change in Sidi Kacem.  Alternatively, there’s a sleeper train overnight which takes about 10 hours.  It’s usually OK to book a day or two ahead once you get to Morocco.

Morocco Djemaa food vendors

Getting around

From the airport, most people jump in a taxi or arranging to be met by your hotel.  If you opt for the former, check the rates on the board outside arrivals as a general guide and then agree a price with the driver through the front window.  Only get in when you are happy with how much he’s charging.  If you haven’t much luggage, bus #19 travels between the airport and the Djemaa el Fna via the Sofitel and loops back through the Ville Nouvelle (including a stop at the train station).  It costs 30 dirhams per person single and 50 dirhams return.

For the purpose of sightseeing, the city can be split into two: the old city or Medina and the Ville Nouvelle, also called Guéliz or the French Quarter.  Pretty much the only way to get around the Medina’s souks is on foot, where you’ll need to watch out for men racing donkeys laden with hides, straw and other goods through the narrow passageways.  Within the rest of the old town, mostly it’s compact enough to walk.  To get to the Ville Nouvelle, the easiest way is to flag down a taxi, but there are buses which depart from the Djemaa el Fna and the Koutoubia minaret – easy to spot.  Another useful bus route to know is the #12 which you can use to get to the Jardin Majorelle (Ben Tbib stop).  Tickets cost 3 dirhams.  Check out the bus website for more routes:



Calèche rides (horse-drawn carriages) are a common sight in the city but you’ll need to bargain with the drivers to take a tour.  Check that the horse looks fit and healthy and then begin negotiations.  Aim for about 150 dirhams per hour.  Make sure you’re clear on whether that price is for everyone or per person as it’s common for there to be some “confusion” when it comes to the time to pay.  It’s a lovely way to see the city, particularly the ramparts and Ville Nouvelle.


Where to stay

The first time I visited Marrakesh, I stayed at the railway station hotel, now an Ibis.  It was convenient, but lacked soul.  The second time, I decided I wanted to stay in one of the courtyard mansions known as riads and opted for one deep in the souk.  It had character in spades, but trying to find it without a ball of string in the labyrinthine alleyways was a nightmare.  More than once I had to call the hotel for them to talk me in which was funny at first and then enormously embarrassing.

The third time, I got it right.  I found a characterful riad which was a twenty minute stroll from the Djemaa el Fna yet on an easy to find road near the El Badi Palace and Saadian tombs.  Riad Dar Karma was delightful, cosy, chic and quiet – a cocoon from the hustle and bustle of central Marrakesh.  It also has its own hamman.  When I got sick (do not eat salad in Marrakesh no matter how well travelled you are), they brought me chicken soup.  I cannot recommend them highly enough:


What to see

The souks

Plunge in and explore the souks  right away.  Getting lost in the smells, sounds and sights of narrow winding alleys lined with tiny shops piled high with anything from spices to scarves is the quintessential Marrakesh experience.  Don’t try to follow a map.  You’ll get lost regardless, so embrace this lack of control and immerse yourself.  When you’re ready to leave, if you’ve lost your bearings, as is likely, just ask someone to point you in the right direction.  Try not to miss the dyers souk with vibrant skeins of wool hanging from the walls and of course the tanneries on Rue de Bab Debbagh, which you’ll smell long before you see.

Haggling is a must if you wish to purchase anything.  It’s best to make a return visit to the souk when you’re ready to buy; shopping later in the trip, you’ll have a better idea of what things should cost and know what your target should be.  The general principles are that if you make an offer, it’s the honourable thing to pay up if it is accepted, and a final price of 30-40% is usually good going.  Remember, the vendor will need those extra few dirhams more than you so don’t haggle too fiercely.  Read  my tips on how to haggle successfully:



Djemaa el Fna

Though its name loosely translates as the Assembly of the Dead, there is nowhere in Marrakesh that comes alive like its main square, the Djemaa el Fna.  It’s busy by day but really comes into its own at night when it transforms into a night market with row upon row of delicious street food.  You’ll see water sellers posing for photos, snake charmers, acrobats from the Sahara – even street dentists who’ll pull out a molar there and then for a fee.  If it’s your first time out of Europe it’s a veritable assault on the senses but one that you won’t forget.

Koutoubia Mosque

The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque looms large behind the Djemaa el Fna and is worthy of closer inspection.  So the story goes, when it was constructed, the alignment was wrong and it was knocked down so the builders could start again.  What you see dates from the 12th century and got its name from the booksellers who once congregated around its base.


El Badi Palace

This ruined palace is a good one to explore and lies within walking distance of the Djemaa el Fna.  Its name means Palace of the Incomparable and there’s certainly nothing like it in the city.  It was built in the 16th century by Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur Dhahbi to celebrate a victory over the Portuguese.  It’s possible to walk within its walls and courtyard.  You’ll frequently see storks nesting there.


Jardin Majorelle

Yves St Laurent gifted this garden to the city of Marrakesh after lovingly restoring it to its original beauty.  It was designed and created by the French painter Jacques Majorelle; begun in 1924, it was a labour of love and a lifetime’s passion.  The vibrant blues and bold yellows of its walls and pots set off the mature planting to form a breathtaking space that will delight, whether you’re a keen gardener or not.  Be prepared though: it’s a busy place with around 700000 visitors a year so you’re unlikely to have it to yourself.


Out of town

Captivating though Marrakesh assuredly is, it’s well worth heading out of town if you can.  On the edge of the city you’ll find the Palmeraie, a good place to ride a camel while shaded by around 150000 palm trees.  The Menara Gardens are located close to the airport.  They were laid out in the 12th century and from them you have a tantalising glimpse of the mountains beyond.  A bit further away from Marrakesh and you can visit waterfalls and visit Berber villages and markets.  The surf at Essaouira is a two-hour bus ride away and a visit to the Atlas Mountains is another favourite.  Your hotel or riad can fix you up with an organised tour or a driver/guide.

I took an excursion to Ouarzazate, stopping off along the way at Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO-listed, ruined fortified village which has been the setting for many a film, including The Mummy and Gladiator.  At the Atlas Film Studios, just outside Ouarzazate, you can have a lot of fun re-enacting scenes from those movies and more amidst the sets and props which remain. Check out their website but note, when they say “Famous Shootings” they don’t mean with a gun:


A final word of advice

Scamming of unsuspecting tourists is a sport in Morocco and although the level of hassle is considerably less than in other cities, it’s wise to be on your guard.  A few key pointers:

Never use a taxi or ride in a calèche without agreeing the price first, the same holds for any services you use e.g. henna tattoos, photos of water sellers and so on

Carry small change to avoid prices being rounded up

Make sure you ask to see your guide’s licence as it is illegal to work without one

Nothing is ever free, even if your new friend says it is

And a scam I’ve never experienced, but is reputedly common: you visit a restuarant and are given a menu with temptingly cheap prices.  When the bill comes, the prices are higher; if queried, a new menu is presented with the more expensive prices clearly shown.  It’s an easy one to prevent: take a photo on your phone of the original menu prices and call their bluff if necessary.

Do you have any tips for Marrakesh or any advice for travellers planning their first trip there?  If so, please leave a comment.

Raindrops and red cheeks

Raindrops splattered the windscreen like sound effects in a kid’s comic.  The summer storm had intensified and visibility was quickly changing from irritatingly poor to downright dangerous.  From the back of the car came a half hearted grumble.  Einstein didn’t much care for rain at the best of times.  This current assault had triggered the rear wipers he detested and he was making his feelings clear.


We’d done a lot of car trips, Einstein and I.  My parents had a house on the Mosel and we were regular visitors.  We had an understanding.  In silence, Einstein would endure the ferry crossing and the many hours in the car.  As his reward, we took long, companionable walks.  I would order a tub of ice cream at one of the riverside cafes and he would bury his nose into it and lick it clean.  Together, we explored castles and bought wine.  Not once had his wagging tail knocked a bottle over.  He revelled in the fuss he invariably received.  In turn, I delighted in the jovial salutations that followed when the locals learned his name: Ein-schtein!  Back at the house, Mum and Dad spoiled him rotten, indulging his every whim and fussing him on demand.


This trip was a little more ambitious.  We’d spent the night at the house, as usual.  But today, instead of snoozing lazily in the sun (me) and flopping across the kitchen doorway in the hope of scraps (him), we’d packed up the car and hit the road again.  Golden retrievers are a stubborn breed.  It had taken some persuasion to prise Einstein from the breakfast dishes and into the boot of the car.  Grumpy didn’t cover it.

So now we were on the autobahn bound for Austria, Einstein’s eyes fixed resolutely on the road behind us.  Somewhere near Munich, I thought, but it was hard to see the car in front, let alone the road signs.  Not that the weather was slowing down the local drivers, who appeared in the rear view mirror out of nowhere and overtook as if we were standing still.  A lone woof nudged above the sound of the engine.  It was time to pull off the road and take a break.  Spotting a motorway service station, I slowed the car and swung into a space in the middle of the car park.

Raising the tailgate, a doleful face greeted me.  In protest, Einstein made no attempt to get out.  I waited.  Ever since he was a puppy, he’d done things at his own pace and there was little point in trying to hurry him.  Finally, he got to his feet and jumped down.  A wince crossed his face as his paws hit the asphalt.  As he moved forward, there was a pronounced limp.  Einstein had been known to fake such a limp for effect, so I wasn’t unduly concerned.  I wondered, though, if it might be a slight touch of cramp and figured a gentle walk might do him good.  Einstein thought otherwise and after a few steps, laid himself down in the middle of the car park, blocking the traffic.  I rummaged in my pocket for a treat but found only crumbs.


It was still raining heavily.  Droplets of water dampened my hair before percolating slowly and persistently to the nape of my neck and down to the small of my back.  On the surface, Einstein’s thick cream curls were slick, his waterproof overcoat perfectly suited to keeping him dry.  My rain jacket was somewhat less effective and as a result, my patience was wearing thinner than a gossamer stocking.

“Come on, get up doggo.”

No response.  I tried a lighter tone.

“Einy, sweetie, up you get.”

Defiant, Einstein rolled slowly and deliberately onto his side, exhaling deeply.  It wasn’t the first time he’d decided to do this.  At the park, my usual tactic was to walk away and wait for him to follow, which he did, eventually.  Here, I couldn’t risk leaving him, even to grab a treat from the car.

Trying a different tactic, I knelt down and attempted to lever his dead weight upright.  It was hopeless.  When he was this uncooperative, I simply wasn’t strong enough.  I could lift his head and shoulders off the ground, but as soon as I switched to his rear end, he rolled back again.  It was a battle of wills and I was losing.  Defeated, I began to look around for someone who might help.  A couple of passing Dutchmen brushed me off.  I couldn’t blame them.  What sane person wanted to lift thirty-odd kilos of wet dog?  Beneath all that stubbornness he was sweet natured and gentle, but they couldn’t know that.

Time passed at a crawl.  Drivers manoeuvred carefully around us and motorists returning to their vehicles took elaborate detours lest they were called upon to assist.  I was just going to have to wait for Einstein to move, however long that might take.  I allowed myself a wistful daydream of the holiday we could have been enjoying further north and muttered a silent prayer to the Tyrolean gods that the Alps would be worth all this stress – if we ever got there.

After what seemed forever, help arrived in the form of a rotund German with extravagant facial whiskers.  His car was parked next to mine.  Scanning the scene, he understood my predicament.  Without speaking he lifted the boot.  Inside was a cool box.  And inside that was a fat heap of sausages.  My spirits lifted.  At last, something to determine whether Einstein was genuinely in pain.

It didn’t take long to get my answer.  Spying the sausage, Einstein raised his head and leapt to his feet.  He trotted over to the man without a backward glance, miraculously cured.  Stiffly, I got to my feet and smoothed down my wet trousers in a vain attempt to look presentable.  I walked over, relief mixed with exasperation, as the dog wriggled himself into a perfect sit in front of his new best friend and sneezed with excitement.  Gazing up with adoration, Einstein wolfed down the first tasty morsel.  With a cute tilt of the head, he raised a damp paw in anticipation of the next.

IMG_3213 (1)

I grinned.  We’d be hiking those Alpine trails after all.  Red cheeked, I enticed him to our car and high-tailed it to the border.

A year of travels: looking back on 2017

2018 is almost here and it’s time to look back at the trips made in 2017.  I’ve been fortunate once again to have the opportunity to make lasting memories in some of the world’s most captivating destinations.  Here’s a round up of my favourite trips from the past year as well as a teaser for what’s to come in 2018.

Puerto Rico


The first trip of the year took me to Puerto Rico, which by autumn would be left reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in September.  The beauty of this Caribbean island and how diverse it was blew me away.  From the historic cobbled streets of Old San Juan to the dramatic views from its mountains via rainforests, windswept beaches and an enormous telescope, this island fast became one of my favourite in the Caribbean.  I love a sandy beach as much as the next person, but it gets boring after a while and it’s good to know there’s a suckling pig roasting for when you’re ready for a feed.


Puerto Rico is slowly getting back on its feet again.  There are several posts on this blog which showcase the island’s attractions, but for an insight into recent months, this New York magazine article recounts just how tough it has been:




In February I flew up to Glasgow to visit friends.  They recommended a drive over to Falkirk to see the Kelpies.  It’s well worth the effort if you’re planning a trip to Scotland in 2018.  The sculptures are as magnificent up close as they are imposing from a distance.  Despite the inclement weather, I found the story behind the project fascinating and I was lucky to get a guide who was so enthusiastic about his topic.



Uruguay and Argentina

In March I returned to Uruguay and Argentina after a ten year gap spent largely salivating over thoughts of the $4 fillet steak I’d eaten in El Calafate – I’m sure we have all had those holiday meals that we remember forever.  But sometimes these memories are not to be repeated.  I had the most amazing crab dinner in St Lucia years ago but the restaurant has closed down.  And what about Argentina?  In the intervening years, costs had risen, particularly in Buenos Aires.  Salta obliged with a decent steak, but at a price.  Fortunately, there, in the form of the haunting face of the Lightning Girl was something to compensate – though it was a chilling insight into the past.



I enjoyed seeing more of my favourite continent.  A challenging but rewarding stay on a working ranch in Uruguay tested my riding ability to the limit, with excursions to the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha providing a welcome injection of fun.  If you’re nervous about trying out a working ranch rather than the more typical dude ranch, don’t be, but read this first:




After visiting so many countries, it might come as a surprise to learn I still have a bucket list and for many years, a trip to the salt flats at Uyuni has been top of the list.  Crossing overland from Argentina, I timed my visit for the end of rainy season as I’d heard the sight of a flooded salt lake wouldn’t disappoint.  It was phenomenal, and spending the night in a salt hotel was an unusual if slightly uncomfortable experience.  See how Uyuni stacked up when compared to the salt flats of northern Argentina here:



When a friend asked could I try out some of his company’s Sunwise UVA clothing, I jumped at the chance and picked Ibiza as my destination.  I product tested a floaty, very feminine kaftan which protected me well from the sun but also was versatile enough for me not to look out of place on the beach and at a city cafe.  I’m more of a T-shirt and trousers kind of girl but it wasn’t too frou-frou to be wearable.  Ibiza was surprising too – much more to it than beach clubs and foam parties.

If you burn easily or are keen to protect your skin from sun damage, then I’d recommend you check out Sunwise UVA’s website.  The link’s in my blog post.


PS I’m not on commission.


Next up was a return visit to the USA, but one with a difference, as I explored Texas with Traveleyes, a specialist company which focuses on trips for the visually impaired.  Putting my travel plans into the hands of a company definitely took me out of my comfort zone.  Nevertheless, I made some great friends on the trip and especially enjoyed San Antonio.  After a dull art museum (what was it Elton John was supposed to have said?  I don’t like going to museums because I can’t buy it…) I skipped off with my VI, a charmer nicknamed Smithie (to my Essex).  We wound up at Paris Hatters, one of the city’s oldest stores, and bought him a cowboy hat.  Elton John would have approved.


As a sighted guide, the experience was a reminder of just how much we take for granted but also made me realise how much my visually impaired companions could access – from horse riding to a lesson in the Texas Two-Step in preparation for Austin’s honky tonks, nothing was off limits.  It was a thought-provoking holiday and I can see why some of the sighted guides go time and time again.  Find out more about Traveleyes here:


The Caucasus

DSC_0001 (2)

Another bucket list trip became a reality as I spent a few glorious summer weeks in the Caucasus.  My focus was on Georgia and Armenia with a couple of side trips to disputed territories to add a frisson of excitement.  (There’s nothing like a morning spent in police custody to make a trip feel that little bit different!  Sorry for the worrying text Mum, won’t do it again.)  This part of the world is a delight.  My personal highlights were the scenic Svaneti region of Georgia with its charming towers and ever so slightly wild people, and a very emotional visit to the genocide memorial in Yerevan which literally moved me to tears.



DSC_0886 (2)

I’ve made many day trips to European cities by air over the last few years, proving you can still satisfy your city break fix even if you’ve run out of holiday.  This autumn I picked Venice and spent the day leisurely exploring its canals and back streets enjoying some of the city’s off the beaten track sights.  I found a gondola in a book store, a heavenly bar hidden in plain sight near the Rialto Bridge and dresses that started life in a women’s prison.  Off season, this is an engaging destination and far better without the crowds of summer.


Cape Verde

DSC_0278 (2)

November’s a horrible month.  Dark evenings signal the start of the long winter season and Christmas lights have yet to migrate from shop to front window.  Grumpy Julia was in need of some sun and jetted off to Cape Verde.  While Sal could have had more soul, Fogo Island with its brooding volcano didn’t disappoint.  My guesthouse set me up with a guide to hike inside the caldera walls, a place known as Chã das Caldeiras.  We walked between villages, the path running alongside the raw edges of the 2014-15 lava flow that engulfed the homes of over 1000 people though luckily claimed no lives.

As the guesthouse owner said, “it’s still Africa, but not as you know it”.



DSC_0246 (2)

I couldn’t let the year end without a trip to a Christmas market after enjoying those at Copenhagen and Regensburg so much last year.  This year, I chose one of Austria’s most charming cities and flew to Salzburg to get my fix.  Snow covered the ground, but that didn’t deter the crowds or the authorities (take note Lincoln!)  A Krampus run and a train ride to see Silent Night being performed in the village where it was composed rounded off the trip.  If you plan to follow suit in 2018, I’d recommend you take a look at the guide I wrote:


DSC_0108 (2)

That rounds off my travels in 2017, a bumper year for making memories.  I’ve only just started thinking about where I’ll go in 2018, but it all kicks off in Cuba this January, booked after I learned of a £140 error fare deal from Secret Flying.  If you haven’t yet signed up for their updates, I’d recommend you get over to their website.  I’m also booked to go to New Zealand in May, having taken advantage of Air New Zealand’s fantastic Black Friday deal.  I’m currently toying with the idea of crossing the dateline and spending some time in the Cook Islands while I’m out there.  Watch this space.

Wherever you’re planning for 2018, I’d love to hear about it.  Happy travels!