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Flight news: Honduras

While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected.  Honduras is one of those places.  But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker.  When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey.  Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders.  (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.)  But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.

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Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety.  But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall.  Copan Ruinas is one such place.  I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region.  Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.

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While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come.  It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island.  It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.

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When are we going?

 


Salta’s Lightning Girl

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One of the most fascinating and also morally challenging of the Inca rites is surely the sacrificing of children. Scattered across the high Andean peaks are a number of sacrificial sites that have only been discovered relatively recently. One such site can be found on Mount Llullaillaco, a 6700m high volcano straddling the Argentina-Chile border. Drugged with coca and fermented maize beer called chicha, three children had been led up to a shrine near the volcano’s summit and entombed, a practice known as capacocha. The freezing temperatures inside their mountain dens had not only killed them, it had perfectly preserved their small bodies. There they’d remained, undisturbed, for five centuries. An archaeological team led by Johan Reinhard found what’s now known as the Children of Llullaillaco less than twenty years ago.

Today, the three mummies are rotated, one on display at a time, in MAAM, a museum on the main plaza in the northern Argentinian city of Salta. Three years ago, I’d visited Juanita, a similar mummy found in Peru and displayed in a darkened room a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa. As a consequence, I figured I knew what to expect when I stepped inside MAAM. During my visit, Lightning Girl was the mummy being displayed, possibly the most haunting museum exhibit I’ve ever seen.  No photography is permitted; the image above is of a postcard I purchased in the museum shop.

The first thing that struck me was how well preserved this small child was, much more so than Juanita had been. Found entombed with a slightly older girl, her half-sister, and a boy, she looked straight ahead. Her face stared bleakly, as if tensed against intense cold. A dark stain marked her face, thought to have been caused by a lightning strike after she was sacrificed. But it was her teeth that caught my attention, tiny white milk teeth that emphasised just how young this girl would have been when she met her fate. Text beside her indicated that she had been just five years old when she died. There was no escaping that here in front of me, in this darkened room, was a real person.

During Inca times, it was the custom to choose sacrificial children from peasant families, deemed an honour for the family, though surely a heartbreaking one too. Girls such as these were selected as toddlers to be acclas or Sun Virgins, destined later to be royal wives, priestesses or to be sacrificed. It is thought that the elder girl was such a person, the two younger children her attendants. The children were then fed a rich diet of maize and llama meat to fatten them up, nutritionally far better than their previous diet of vegetables would have been. The higher their standing in society, the better the value of this offering to the gods, essential to protecting future good harvests and political stability. The children would not die, it was believed, they joined their ancestors and watched over mortals like angels.

Despite the drugged state induced by the coca and chicha, which in theory led to a painless end, the boy had been tied. Perhaps he’d struggled and had needed to be restrained. The older girl had her head buried between her knees, but Lightning Girl looked straight ahead. Had she been too young to comprehend what was happening to her?


A beginner’s guide to New Orleans

The Big Easy isn’t your usual North American city.  Crammed full of French and Spanish creole architecture, hemmed in by Lake Pontchartrain to the north and enclosed by a huge looping meander of the Mississippi to the south, it’s about as unique as they come in this part of the world.  It’s laid back, easy going and welcomes visitors like they’re old friends.  Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning to visit.

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Apartment listings include whether haunted or not

Getting there

From the UK, getting there just got a whole lot easier.  Direct flights with British Airways from Heathrow begin at the end of March.  They’re going to be a little more expensive than the indirect options but convenience may be worth paying for, particularly if your travel dates match up (the direct service operates several days a week only).  Indirect, flights hubbing via Atlanta with Delta are likely to be the cheapest option, but don’t rule out other carriers.  The #202 Airport Express bus (sometimes referred to as the E2) is the cheapest method of transport between the arrivals hall and downtown but of course the use airport shuttles and taxis are available.

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Amtrak: a great way to arrive in New Orleans

If you want to arrive overland, then consider one of the Amtrak trains that serve New Orleans.  The Crescent takes 30 hours to make its way south west from New York stopping at Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta, while the City of New Orleans is quicker, taking 19 hours to travel south from Chicago via Memphis.  Single travellers will find the roomettes a tight squeeze; I had just a small wheelie and we just about fitted, me and my bag.  Book early as this isn’t a cheap option unless you can cope with a reclining seat.  The good news is that once you arrive, it’s a quick trolley ride into the French Quarter from the railway station.

Getting around

Much of the historic downtown area known as the French Quarter is a delight on foot (so long as it’s not raining heavily).  But New Orleans also has a very useful public transport network which is convenient to use and budget-friendly.  Planning your accommodation so that you stay near to a tram stop can make your holiday a whole lot easier.

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Riverfront tram

There’s plenty of information online including maps:

http://www.norta.com/Getting-Around/Overview

Trams are fun to ride and simple to find.  The shortest, the #2 Riverfront streetcar, links the French Quarter with the Outlet Mall at Riverwalk.  The #47 Canal streetcar takes you from the edge of the French Quarter past St Louis Cemetery No. 1 and up as far as Greenwood Cemetery.  The #48 follows a similar route and then heads to City Park.  The #12 St Charles streetcar is great for the Garden District and Audubon Park.  Single tickets are $1.25 but a 1 day Jazzy pass only costs $3 if you’re planning on making a few journeys.  Crossing the river is also worth doing.  You can take the ferry from Canal Street to Algiers Point for just $2.  Check out the schedule here:

http://nolaferries.com/

Where to stay

Being central to the action is key in New Orleans.  It’s the kind of place where you can wander aimlessly, drink in hand, and you don’t want to have to end your evening trying to find a cab.  I’ve stayed in a couple of places that are worth recommending.  Both are located within staggering distance of the #2 Riverfront streetcar.  If you’re on a budget, try Villa Convento.  It’s atmospheric and reputedly haunted, a Creole townhouse dating back to about 1933.

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My room at the Villa Convento

Some say it’s the House of the Rising Sun, made famous by The Animals in the 1964 song.  Renovation work has taken place though some parts of the hotel are a bit shabby – the lift being one of them – but ask for a room with a balcony and you should be fine.  It’s website is here:

http://www.villaconvento.com/

At the other end of the same streetcar line is the Marriott Downtown at the Convention Center.  Ask for a room in the historic half of the hotel which has more style.  I like it because you alight at the Julia Street station.  Mulate’s restaurant is also nearby though when I went there the food didn’t live up to my admittedly high expectations.

Money-saving tips

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Free walking map leads you round the Garden District

If you’re on a tight budget, there are loads of ways to save money while you’re in the Big Easy.  For tips on how to save money on everything from food, drink and attractions to where to find free walking tour maps, check out my previous blog post:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/how-to-save-money-on-your-nawlins-vacation/

What to see

There’s a ton of places that are worth seeing and doing in New Orleans, so what follows should get you started if it’s your first visit.

The French Quarter

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The French Quarter is packed with historic homes

You can’t visit New Orleans and not go to the French Quarter.  Amidst its streets, you’ll find the 18th century almost Disney-esque St Louis Cathedral which commands a prominent position on Jackson Square.  Opposite, the Cafe du Monde is the place to eat beignets and drink the chicory-rich coffee; it’s tourist central, but a must none the more for that.

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Beignets and cafe au lait

Take a horse and carriage ride from here through the surrounding cobblestone streets of the Quarter.  You’ll get your bearings as you clip clop through the Vieux Carré past mansions with wrought iron balconies intertwined with trailing plants and hidden courtyards glimpsed through open doorways.

Music on Frenchmen Street

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Live music is an essential part of the New Orleans experience

Forget Bourbon Street, which has almost become a caricature of itself.  In my opinion, you’re much better off heading to Frenchmen Street.  You’ll find it in the nearby Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood.  There’s at least twenty or so bars and clubs where you’ll find live music.  Although the action kicks off in the late afternoon, the later it gets the better the atmosphere.  Some places have cover charges, others require the purchase of food or drink.  Others require just a tip for the musicians.  My advice is to head down there and check out what’s on during your stay.  If you do want to get some advance research in, check out this site:

http://www.frenchmenstreetlive.com/

St Louis Cemetery No. 1

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St Louis Cemetery No. 1

One of the most interesting things to do while in New Orleans is to visit at least one of its Catholic cemeteries.  Begin with St Louis Cemetery No. 1.  This is the oldest, opened in 1789.  It is characterised by above ground tombs, a nod to the city’s swampy and flood-prone location.  The most notable “resident” is Marie Laveau, Voodoo priestess, a religion very much alive in New Orleans to this day and a fascinating topic to explore.   She rests among aristocrats, politicians, engineers and architects.  Actor Nic Cage has a plot here; look for the pyramid.  Since 2015, independent visiting has been prohibited after vandals spray painted Marie Laveau’s tomb.  You’ll need to take a tour.  Options include booking via the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries or Free Tours on Foot; I’d recommend Gray Line, especially if Sandy’s rostered on.

The mansions of the Garden District

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Seen on a fence in the Garden District

The Garden District’s wide avenues and huge mansions with even bigger gardens contrasts with the downtown feel of the French Quarter.  Many of these mansions have a story to tell, their original owners making their fortunes off cotton and other mercantile activity, and a walk around the area is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.  In the midst of the mansions, you’ll find another atmospheric cemetery: Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.  The cemetery was first planned out in 1832, making it the oldest of New Orleans’ seven cemeteries, and can be visited without having to book a tour.

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Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

Mardi Gras World

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Last year’s float being recycled at Mardi Gras World

If you can’t get here in February for Mardi Gras, then at the very least you should pay a visit to Mardi Gras World down by the Convention Centre.  The building houses an enormous collection (both in scale and number of exhibits) of former floats, props and other carnival-related paraphernalia.  Guided tours are possible and will show you around; you’ll get to see some of the costumes and props being made for the next carnival.  Many are revamped and recycled.  One thing’s for sure: the colours will blow your mind!

Old Algiers

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Home near Algiers Point

Across the Mississippi lies the sleepy residential neighbourhood known as Old Algiers.  It was first settled by Jean Baptiste le Moyne in 1719, who had a plantation here.  It has a dark past, site of a slaughterhouse and also an 18th century holding area for African slaves.  The ferry you take to get here has operated since 1827, fiercely protected by the Algiers residents from any attempt by the city authorities to close it down on economic grounds.  It’s well worth a wander to explore the 19th century homes here, and of course a coffee stop in the corner cafe at the junction of Alix and Verret Streets.

Steamboat Natchez

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Below decks on the Natchez

The steamboat you’ll see churning up the Mississippi isn’t the first to be named the Natchez.  It’s actually the ninth and dates only from 1975.  It’s also not modelled on its namesake predecessors, pinching its design instead from steamboats Hudson and Virginia.  Her engines came from the steamboat Clairton and were made in 1925; her copper bell came from the SS JD Ayres.  So she’s a bit of a mongrel, really.  Nevertheless, cruises for lunch and dinner are a popular addition to many people’s itineraries.  Even if the food doesn’t impress, the music’s good and it’s interesting to head down to the engine room to have a closer look.

Hurricane Katrina tour

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A reminder of how vulnerable low-lying New Orleans is

Despite it being over a decade since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Big Easy with devastating consequences, there are still parts of the city that bear its scars.  I took a Gray Line tour in 2012 and was shocked to find so many houses still covered with blue tarpaulins and bearing the red crosses of the search teams on their doors and windows.  Returning a few years later in 2015, I was less surprised to see boarded up houses as the train made its final approach into the city.  Time may heal the hurt and dissipate the shock, but the economic impacts on an individual scale linger long after the city proclaims it’s open for business again.  New Orleans will always be vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes, and exploring what happened in 2005 will help you understand why.

For more on New Orleans, why not read my article on etrip.tips?

http://etrip.tips/return-to-new-orleans/


The Travel Whispers Blogger Challenge

Something interesting popped up in my Twitter feed yesterday evening: the Travel Whispers Blogger Challenge.  I had read a blog by Josie Wanders on being a newbie in business class which struck a chord as she sounded as excited as I was when I flew with BA last year.  You can compare our experiences here:

http://josiewanders.com/newbie-flying-business-class/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/are-business-class-flights-really-worth-the-extra/

Josie had also completed the blogger challenge, which had been set up by another travel blogger, Stephanie Cox.  Basically, it’s a great way of getting travel ideas; the travel bloggers that have participated know their stuff and there are some tempting recommendations that I’m definitely going to check out.  If you’re interested in joining in, then have a look at Stephanie’s original post here:

http://www.stephaniefox.co.uk/travel-whispers-blogger-challenge/

What follows are my answers to the Travel Whispers Blogger Challenge.  What would yours be?

1. If you had to move to a country that you’ve NEVER been to, and live there for ten years, where would you go?

I read this and I almost gave up there and then.  I’m up to 107 countries now, and it’s tempting to think that all the good ones have gone!  I can’t pick Peru or Mexico or Australia or Austria or Spain, all of which would have been contenders.  I’m spinning my globe here and though there’s some exciting destinations that so far are untrodden by my hiking boots – Rwanda, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia – they’d all be pretty tough to live in, especially for ten years.  So I’m going to take the easy route and pick a lovely warm Caribbean island to spend my imaginary decade, and my choice would be Barbados.  With direct flights from the UK my friends would be able to come and visit, so I’d have someone to go to the beach with.

2. If you had to live in a hotel for the rest of your life, which hotel would you choose and why?

Now this one is tricky for different reasons: I’ve been fortunate to stay at a lot of hotels and, a lot of good ones to boot.  Taking “hotel” literally, it rules out fabulous glamping sites such as Patagonia Camp which is possibly my all time favourite place to wake up.  There’s something so special about seeing the sun come up over the lake with the granite towers slowly coming into view as the light increases.  But I digress.  Hotel, they asked for and hotel, they will get.  Now obviously, if I’m going to spend the rest of my life somewhere, I’m going to pop out of the hotel from time to time, so my choice would be the Hotel Plaza de Armas in Cusco.  I’ve stayed there twice.  The hotel is a comfortable mid-range option, nothing fancy, but the view over the main square is one I’ll never tire of and the city after multiple visits, is one I love more every time.

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3. If you could only eat the cuisine of one nationality forever more, which would you choose?

Mexican.  That’s an easy one.  But not just tour usual tacos and burritos, it would be the dishes of Oaxaca, with the rich mole sauces that make the palate tingle, and the steaming mugs of chocolate served Mayan style.

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4. Who has given you ‘holiday envy’ this year, and how?

Each time I browse Twitter, check my Facebook feed or dip into myWanderlust, there’s something that excites me.  A few people have posted about Georgia, a country that’s been on my wish list for some time, especially the Svaneti region.  I’d be loathe to say I envy them, but I’m keen to copy them!

5. If you had to look at the same sunrise or the same sunset every day, where in the world would you never get bored of seeing? Please don’t say sitting outside Cafe Mambo in Ibiza.

I’m writing this watching the sun come up over the Essex marshes from my desk; since moving here a year ago this has become my favourite sunrise.  This morning there’s a hard frost on the ground, the brown reeds look almost yellow where the sun’s weak rays are hitting them, and the tide’s yet to rise.  The sky has gone from a blood orange to a delicate peach, punctuated by skeletal trees that won’t see buds until at least March.  But it’s cold out there, and if I’m searching for warmth, then it would be seeing the sun set on the Honduran island of Roatan.  If there’s ever a place where I’d hum “Sitting on the dock of the bay”, then this is the place.

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6. If you were taking a ‘staycation’ in your home town, where would it be and what would you recommend others to do?

I don’t live in a town anymore, but the north Essex countryside is well worth a trip.  I’d begin with sunrise at the coast, perhaps on Mersea Island where the sun will illuminate the many oyster shells discarded on the beach.  Then, head north across the Colne to wander along the riverbank to the Torrington Tide Mill before meandering north along the country lanes to Dedham Vale, where Constable once painted.  If it’s warm, I’d recommend a boat trip along the river, past Flatford Mill and down into Dedham itself, where the cream teas are to die for.  Later, a meal in one of my county’s centuries-old pubs before a roaring fire would seem a fitting end to the day.  Who’s coming?

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7. Describe your perfect travel day of the year?

Lots to choose from, but I think perhaps it would be riding the railway through Sri Lanka’s hill country, past the verdant terraces crammed with tea bushes.  Alighting at Nuwara Eliya, my destination was the nearby Heritance Tea Factory, a former workplace now sympathetically converted into a luxury hotel.  I had great fun picking tea, tasting tea and having a tea facial.  I do like a good cuppa, but I am a Brit, so what did you expect?

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8. What have you ticked off your bucket list in 2016?

2016 was the year when I finally made it to the beautiful Seychelles, an Indian Ocean paradise that’s been on my wish list for many years.  And it was also my first time flying business class, and what better introduction than with British Airways to New York, one of my favourite cities.

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9. What is top of your travel bucket list for 2017?

Top of my list is attending the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha, a cowboy festival in the Uruguayan town of Tacuarembó.  I’ll be there in March, marvelling at the horsemanship, before continuing via Salta in Argentina to the salt flats near Uyuni, Bolivia.  It’ll be wet season, and if I’m lucky I’ll get to see the famous mirror effect.

10. Share your favourite Instagram photo of 2016?

I don’t have an Instagram account, but this is one of my favourites from Twitter instead.

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Since this is a Whispers challenge, thanks to Vintage Blue Suitcase who has passed this on to me. Now in turn I’ll pass this on; the baton is passed to ILive4Travel.  Here are the links:

http://www.vintagebluesuitcase.ca/2017/01/the-travel-whispers-blogger-challenge.html

http://www.ilive4travel.com/travel-whispers-blogger-challenge/

If you want to get involved join the Facebook group!


What’s it like to travel long haul on a budget airline?

It’s one thing to pay a few pounds and hop on a Ryanair flight across the Channel, but what’s it like to travel long haul on one of the budget airlines. I put it to the test using Norwegian to carry me across the Atlantic and here’s what I thought.

Flights: LGW to SJU

Norwegian operates flights twice weekly departing Wednesdays and Saturdays.  They offer fares from under £300 return if you book well in advance which compares favourably with scheduled airlines serving other direct flight Caribbean destinations such as Antigua and Barbados.

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Check-in
Unlike their European routes, it’s not possible to check-in online with Norwegian for destinations to the USA and that included our destination, the US territory of Puerto Rico.  That’s not such a big deal when you’re departing from a small airport, but I was a little apprehensive as to how long the wait would be to check in at London’s busy Gatwick Airport.  In the event, it took less than half an hour to get checked in and proceed to security which wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Baggage

Checked baggage comes at a price; £25 for each sector if pre-booked but significantly more if purchased at the airport.  Travelling with my husband, we decided to take one full sized case and the rest as carry-on.  My much travelled Samsonite wheelie almost exactly matches the dimensions of Norwegian’s permitted carry-on at 55 x 40 x 20cm (Norwegian allows 55 x 40 x 23cm).  It’s a light case, which is a factor as it has to be lifted into the overhead bins and doesn’t go over the 10kg weight limit.  But it’s also spacious, and easily big enough for a week’s worth of clothes for the Caribbean, though if you were heading further north at this time of year to one of the big US cities served by Norwegian you’d be struggling for space.

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Seat assignment

Normally, my husband and I wouldn’t bother to pay extra for seat assignment on a short haul flight, but we decided to go ahead as this was a nine hour flight.  Each way cost us £25, a total of £100 to sit together.  I do think that’s steep.  We chose from an online seating plan opting for the back row of the plan (row 40) as this has a 2-3-toilet configuration, meaning we expected to have the section to ourselves.  You can see it here at Seatguru:

https://www.seatguru.com/airlines/Norwegian_Air_Shuttle/Norwegian_Air_Shuttle_Boeing_787-8.php

However, although we were still on a 787 Dreamliner, the plane we ended up travelling on had 42 rows ( though 40 on each of the side sections) and they were 3-3-3.   This was what we got:

https://www.seatguru.com/airlines/Norwegian_Air_Shuttle/Norwegian_Boeing_787-9.php

So we ended up with someone next to us which was a bit of a disappointment.  Fortunately, few people seemed to be using the rear toilets so it wasn’t too disruptive.

Legroom

On the outward leg, we found the space to be really cramped.  Neither of us are exceptionally tall, but we do have long-ish legs.  When I checked I was surprised to find that the legroom at 31-32 inches was similar to most long haul airlines.  The width also compared to the norm at about 17 inches, though this would have been more comfortable if we’d have had window and aisle as we expected rather than window and middle which is what we got.  We could have opted to pay extra for Premium Economy which offered a seat pitch of 46 inches.

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Food

Neither of us felt it would be a good use of our funds to pay for the in-flight meals, opting instead to have a meal before we left and take snacks on board and pay for drinks airside.  We were happy with this decision; the trays of those fellow passengers opting for meal service looked OK but not over-generous and we didn’t feel we’d missed out.  A lot of people had done the same as us.  It was an even better decision on the return journey when we had a shorter journey (thanks to a speedy tailwind) and of course, being an overnight flight, we slept for a significant portion of the journey.

Entertainment

The choice of entertainment was perfectly reasonable though I had a good book to read so didn’t end up watching any of the content.  There were recent films I hadn’t seen.  You should be aware that you either need to purchase headphones or bring your own.  Also it’s worth noting that the WiFi that you find on some European flights with Norwegian isn’t available on their Trans-Atlantic routes.

Blankets and pillows

These aren’t given out free of charge as you’d find with a full service airline.  You can buy a blanket at a cost of $5 but we found bigger, fleecier and warmer ones in Walmart for $3 a pop.  Since we unpacked, they’ve been appropriated by the dogs!

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Dreamliner

This was my second time on a Dreamliner after flying from Easter Island to Santiago de Chile on one in 2015.  They make a big deal about cabin pressure, mood lighting and windows that have sunglasses mode, and claim this helps to alleviate the issues with jet lag.  I’m not sure this had an effect, though as there’s only a 4 hour time difference the effects of jet lag would be minimal anyway.

The verdict

Would I fly Norwegian Trans-Atlantic again?  Yes, I’d definitely consider it.  I was happy with the experience overall though I’d see if I could upgrade to an extra legroom seat next time.  In the interests of marital harmony I’d probably be best not to comment on whether sitting with my husband was worth £100!

Update May 2017

At the time of writing it’s unclear whether Norwegian will be flying the LGW-SJU route this autumn. The airline is considering whether it will fly to Puerto Rico at all, but if it does, the London route will probably be the only one to survive the cull, managing 81% occupancy last season. Watch the press for details.


Stranded in Jacmel

One of the great joys of travelling alone is the freedom to go where you please, when you please.  Unfortunately, I was going nowhere, stranded by a set of circumstances out of my control and, thanks to a woefully inadequate command of the local lingo, completely at a loss as to why.

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I’d been in Jacmel for a few days celebrating Kanaval.  Carnival festivities took place each February a week before the rest of the country.  A flamboyant parade of colourful floats, larger than life papier mâché characters and enthusiastic dancing, it was a raucous, deafening and utterly captivating event.  In short, it was anything but a warm-up for the revelry which took place a week later in the Haitian capital, Port au Prince.

I say I’d been in town.  More accurately, I’d been staying just out of town.  Prices at that time of year were hiked by the few desperate hoteliers that managed somehow to stay in business.  Haiti’s tourism industry is precarious at best, battered by a hideous earthquake in 2010 and several devastating hurricanes.  Those extra gourdes would likely mean the difference between staying open until the following year and closing their doors for good.  Today was the day the visitors left and those who remained counted their takings to determine their fate.

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But things were not going to plan that morning.  A taxi had dropped me off at the petrol station forecourt that served as a bus station, though there was no petrol at the pumps and nothing in the vicinity that you’d call a bus.  Instead, a gaggle of decrepit minibuses were parked in an untidy line as their drivers slouched against the concrete fence drawing on cigarettes and lazily passing the time of day.  Inside one minibus there were a handful of patient passengers.  Assuming that it would leave when full, I approached the driver to ask if he was headed to Port au Prince.  To my surprise he replied in the negative.  My schoolgirl French wasn’t up to the ensuing conversation but the gist of it, as far as I could work out, was that there were no buses leaving for the Haitian capital at all.

“Pas de bus?” I asked, exaggerating a French accent for effect while pointing at the minibus.

He shrugged.

“Pas de transport?” I tried, hanging onto the hope that he’d misunderstood.

“Non.”

That, I understood.

A knot began to tighten in my stomach.  A veteran of many a solo trip, had I bitten off more than I could chew?  With private transport back to the capital well outside my budget, if there was no bus, any chance I had of making my flight home was dwindling fast.  What I still couldn’t understand, however, was why, if all transport was suspended, his bus still had passengers inside.  I decided that as we were so close to the Dominican border, I’d try speaking Spanish.  From what I’d read, there was no love lost between the Haitians and their wealthier neighbours – a few days earlier a cross-border bus had been set alight in a tit for tat incident – but I was running out of options.

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Fortunately, the driver spoke a bit of Spanish too.  I managed to ascertain that there was a protest just out of town.  A blockade had been hastily erected on the road which wound through the hills that cocooned sleepy Jacmel from what otherwise might have been the contagious noise and chaos of the capital.  This roadblock of burning tyres and angry protesters had stymied public transport for the foreseeable future.  Something to do with the government increasing the price of fuel, he said vaguely, and out of his hands.  Until the roadblock was lifted, no one was going anywhere.  Those few passengers inside his vehicle were either blindly optimistic of their government’s ability to resolve the situation or had nowhere else to go.

Luckily, I did have somewhere.  As of today, hotels were back to offering post-carnival rates, so I schlepped my wheelie back into town.  The Hotel Florita was a Jacmel landmark, its elegant balconies and huge wooden doors a giveaway to its former life as a coffee warehouse.  Built in 1888, it had been spruced up post-earthquake with a coat of whitewash, its myriad architectural features accentuated in baby blue.  I’d read about the place when I’d been planning the trip and fallen in love with the idea of staying there.

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The hotel’s own website proudly boasted that the place was “not in catastrophic condition” and that the main house had “not been hijacked by conditioned air”.  The management’s description of the New Yorker who converted the place into a hotel was just as entertaining, recounting that the man had first seen it when drunk before “thoughtlessly and fecklessly” purchasing it.  The paragraph concluded: “Why he did it remains a mystery and his decision to turn it into a hotel a decade later unfathomable.  It is still there limping along.”  The Florita had seemed like my kind of place and now it seemed I might get to stay there after all.  Happily what had been the old courtyard kitchen now contained a four poster bed that had seen better days.  Its most recent occupants had checked out just this morning, leaving my path clear to snagging the cheapest room in the house.

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Installed on one of the Florita’s sofas, I logged on to what surely had to be the slowest WiFi connection in the western hemisphere and attempted to trawl Twitter for information. News was sparse but universally bad.  The latest fuel hike was one in a long line of unacceptable actions by an unpopular government and people had had enough.  I sympathised up to a point but their timing couldn’t have been worse.

While the townsfolk of Jacmel battled their hangovers to begin the big clean up, I spent the morning researching an alternative route home.  The blocked road over the mountains to Port au Prince was the only one in that direction.  To the west, a torturous mountain track lead to the tiny towns and villages of Haiti’s southern claw – effectively a dead end.  Jacmel had an airport, just outside the town, but it was no longer in use.  There was a coast road which might have taken me east into the Dominican Republic, but I had no wish to be the next victim of a retaliatory arson attack.

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I snapped the lid of the laptop shut and ordered a beer.  I might not be free to go where I pleased, but the whole point of travelling was to embrace your surroundings and anything they threw at you.  There were worse places to be stranded, I decided.  The sun was shining and it was nearly time for lunch.  Solving the problem of how I was going to get home could wait.


Just back from – a day at Copenhagen’s Christmas markets

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What next after the German Christmas markets?  Germany’s legendary Christmas markets draw the crowds each winter and rightly so.  As I found out when I visited the Bavarian city of Regensburg a couple of weeks ago, they’re atmospheric, colourful and every bit as good as people say they are.  You can read about the trip here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-regensburg/

So how do you top that?  With a visit to Copenhagen: take the German Christmas market model, swap the Glühwein for a glass of gløgg and add a healthy dash of hygge.

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Best of all, if you haven’t the time or the cash to go for longer, it’s possible to visit the Danish capital for the day.  It was my second trip to the city.  The first was back in the days when the cheapest way to reach Copenhagen was to fly to another country.  That wasn’t quite as daft as it sounds, as the airport in question was Malmö’s in nearby Sweden, a fast train ride across the Øresund Bridge.  This time, I flew direct to CPH, leaving Luton after watching the sunrise on the 8.40am flight.  Ryanair uses satellite terminal F which is a long walk from the main terminals.  Factor in a five to ten minute walk just to get across the airport and don’t expect a travelator.

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From the airport it’s about a fifteen minute train ride into central station, with plenty of English speaking staff at the airport to help out at the ticket machines.  I opted for a 24 hour travelcard (not to be confused with the expensive Copenhagen Card) which cost 80 DKK.  As it turned out, I walked more than I’d intended, but had I chosen to cover more ground, the card would have been valid for unlimited journeys in the city centre by train, metro and bus.  By just after midday, I was in the city.

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Now like I said, I’ve been to Copenhagen before, so this blog isn’t going to be reviewing the Amelienborg Palace or the Little Mermaid.  This time, I was focused solely on Christmas.  Emerging from the station coffee in hand, the Tivoli theme park was right across the street and impossible to miss.  I decided to save it until the end of the day and instead walked the short distance to Axeltorv Square.  My first Julemarked of the day was a small affair, a cluster of stalls all bearing the names of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories.  It was a little underwhelming, just a few stalls selling items like sheepskin rugs, warm hats and Christmas decorations.

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A few minutes from Axeltorv Square, a rather large wooden pig caught my eye.  Behind it was a wooden Christmas tree which looked to be made out of broken up pallets or something like that.  A few huts made out of the same material formed a crescent around them.  This was a Julemarked with a difference, focused on recycling, a statement about the excesses of this festive holiday.  But it wasn’t preachy: instead it embraced the spirit of Christmas on the cheap.

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The huts all offered a way to help out with the expense of present-buying.  There was a Swap Shop where you could leave an unwanted gift and in return got to choose something for yourself.  A woodworker’s hut provided tools and off cuts for those who wished to be creative and make a gift.  The lady running the plant hut gave me a small packet of tomato seeds which I shall plant when I work out when’s the best time.  The largest hut of all was a recycling “factory”.  Inside, piles of yarn, card and other craft materials were piled alongside glue guns.  Several people were making table top Christmas trees, but what made this unusual was that most of them were adults rather than children.  What a great idea!

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Next up was a stroll along Strøget to the wonderful department store Illums Bolighus.  This amazing store is a mecca for any devotee of Scandi-style and its products, though expensive, are the stuff of envy.  Every display could have held its own in a fancy homes and interiors magazine.  The question was not whether to buy, but what to leave behind.  Illums Bolighus, if you’re reading this, open a store in London won’t you?  I promise I’d keep you in profit.

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A few doors down from paradise at the end of the street, was another Christmas market.  The entrance was marked by a wall of Christmas trees ready to go home and the market itself housed more food and drink stalls than any other market.  At the sausage stall, a man munched on a hot sausage in a roll.  At his feet was a dog.  It sat, as motionless as if it was doing the Mannequin Challenge, eyes fixed on his master’s hand.  Tiny drops of saliva dripped from the wet fur around his mouth and puddled on the floor.  Finally, the man was finished, save for the last half inch of sausage, which of course the dog had as a reward for his patience.

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There was still more to come.  Straddling a pathway opposite the beautifully decorated Hotel D’Angleterre, the Kongens Nytorv market was probably the busiest of those I visited.  Located between Nyhavn and Strøget, a fat queue of tourists wound its way between stalls selling everything from churros to ham hocks, night lights to sheepskin slippers.  There were craft stalls and of course, many more gløgg huts.  The crowds were frustrating and as it was still daylight, the life size polar bear models looked tacky.  I would return that way after dark, when they were illuminated and looked better for it.

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Through Kongens Nytorv and out the other side I breathed a sigh of relief to have wriggled free of the crowd.  Fortunately, I was only a stone’s throw from Nyhavn and yet another market.  I sat on the quayside enjoying a glass of gløgg – not too fussed on the addition of blanched almonds but the raisins were a welcome find at the bottom of the glass.  If you’re not sure if you’ll like it, ask for a free taste.

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This time I decided to have a bit of food before exploring the market.  I found that the further down the quay I walked, the lower the prices were for comparable dishes.  A huge plate of roast pork with crackling with red cabbage and potatoes later, I had a browse round the stalls.  Hopefully my husband isn’t reading this but I did come home with a very soft and fluffy cushion cover.  (I am kind of banned from buying more cushion covers.  It’s become a bit of a thing.)  Sunset was spectacular, casting a pretty pink glow over the harbour side buildings.

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As night fell, there was one more Julemarked that I wanted to see before I left and one that was worthy of the long queue outside.  Yes, the queue was round the block.  What did I expect on a Saturday night?  Tivoli opened in 1843, making it the world’s second oldest theme park (the other is in Denmark too, but much less famous).  Tivoli is expensive, with a hefty entrance fee of around £15 just to get in (the rides are extra) but it is such a charming place during the run up to Christmas that it’s worth it.

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There was plenty to see, both in terms of the theme park itself – I loved the carousel – but also in terms of independent retailers and the range of food stalls.  The temperature had slumped well below freezing though by this point and with so many people packed into the huts and restaurants, there were very few places where I could escape that intense cold.  The lights and decorations kept me going for a while – they were superb – but by 8pm I was really feeling it despite being properly kitted out in thick padded jacket, scarf and gloves.  It was time to grab a cup of cocoa from the station cafe and return to the airport in plenty of time for my 10pm flight home.

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I ♥ Copenhagen