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Florida – non-parks fun

Medieval Times – we had a hilarious evening here supporting the Yellow Knight for the evening in a medieval tournament set inside the walls of the King’s 11th century style castle – sadly we were not able to choose the colour we wanted to support – as clearly this would NOT have been mine! On top of the regular cost of the entertainment and meal we upgraded, I managed to cleverly do a bit of research and found a free upgrade to bing a VIP Royal for the evening. Was it worth the extra buck – Id say definitly. We had preferred seating – in the second row with further supporting materials other than the paper crown that we all wore for the duration of the evening. 

As with everything in America they try and sell you so much other stuff as well before and after going in as well as during. Anything Mediaeval Times could pretty much put some branding on was available. Its ok I didn’t succumb to this HARD sell, just went rebound trying on loads of the hats with the kids and taking photos and selfies! (OK perhaps not strictly true as I did buy the group photo of us all taken at the start of the evening as it is actually really lovely). 

The evening involves watching jousting and combat battle between 6 differently coloured knights on valiant horses, all of whose supporters were seated in the same section of the arena to help build the noice and support of their warrior in the battle we were about to see. There was a bit of a story about them all wanting the hand of the Princess, the daughter of the King. The horses were pretty amazing, similar in style to those from the SPanish Riding School I once remember visiting in Vienna when I went to see Tom, golly, probably about 13 or 14 years ago now! So clever and yet also pretty dainty and such skill of the riders/trainers.

I wont lie, I enjoyed being referred to as M’Lady when offered food or drink or anything and when I thanked the serfs and wenches that were looking after us for the evening. It was all part of the environment of the evening – as was eating entirely with your hands. All pretty easy food to eat with hands and actually pretty tasty considering how often this meal is rolled out to the tourists and residents alike night after night, day after day. First up was a warm Tomato Bisque Soup served with Garlic bread in a metal bowl with a handle on the side followed by Oven roasted chicken (half of one – ??!!) herb-based potato and corn on the cob with a delicious Lemon cake for pudding (pastry of the castle). There was a full-service bar at which I might have had a pint or two – help lubricate the vocal chords for shouting for my Knight in yellow! 

It was all in all confirmed to be a huge success by all ages. The kids really enjoyed it and were all able to eat the food – granted not all of it but then it was a meal for for a King (boom, boom!) Did the Yellow Knight win – sadly not – it was of course the blue Knight, which would of course have been the chosen colour had it have been up to me. Did it matter that ‘ours’ did it win? Not in the slightest, a wonderfully amusing evening and something so totally different to Disney which we will be inundated with bin just a few days.

Boggy Creek Air Boat Ride –  The Everglades are best explored on an air boat. Of course there are a mass of different places that this can be done. The first place that I tried looking was sadly booked out already for the day that we wanted as I had checked online for reservations and so we went ahead and tried a place called Boggy Creek out – what a name 🙂 It also had 10% discount on the cost with the presentation of the guide book that I have (Brit Guide) at the desk – originally left in the car but quickly retrieved. Book had already paid for itself!

OH MY DAYS IT WAS HOT! There were a few things to look at in the smallish park but I opted for a walk around a couple of times pausing infront and then perching in the shade as I was ‘glowing’ like mad! 

By the time that we were out there it was 1115 and the sun was making it really quite toasty and unsurprisingly the hotter it is, the more likely we were not to see any as they would retreat deeper under the water to the cooler water to loiter and keep cool. We did however see two aligators, one biggie and one that was about 3ft and so 3 years old. We were very lucky. There was apparently an American Bald Headed Eagle which most people managed to see after several careful instructions from Captain Chris, but Im blown if I could see the darned thing. I took a photo of the general direction in which he was pointing and the descriptions were aimed at in the vain hope that I might be able to see it more easily on a print out!! 

The scenery was simply beautiful and we went straight through some pretty high reeds and so on which was at times a little unnerving as I sat thinking, how the hell does he know he’s not going to get caught up in this? The trees were mesmerising, cypress trees, very eerie looking and spikes roots which is where they get their carbon dioxide from & hanging down from them was a lot of the SPanish Moss which apparently Henry Ford first thought of using this (and did) to stuff the car seats in his first cars, before realising quite how many bugs and creepies lived in it and so had to recall and think again! 


After this we decided that an ice-cream was an order of the day and in fact probably some lunch as well and we headed to MacDonalds. I made careful choices, owing to Fat CLub, would hav loved MASSIVE chips and Quarter Pounder with cheese with a HUGE drink. But i spent a while taking in all of the calories as they have them next to all the foods here (though, by the looks of the clientele in this particular branch – none of them took any notice. It even had in it a rather large chap, to put it mildly, with his own oxygen tank by the side of him and the pipes to his nose). Felt proud of myself – I could also see that I really would not be doing that much more walking today and so wasnt going to hit my 10k step target – way way too hot for that already and we still had one stop left on the visit before heading home. The food in the bellies and the sweet icecreams (for them NOT me – god Im feeling so good) led the kids to all fall asleep in the car on the way to out final port of call. Light snoring heard from Keira and Emily dribbling away – bless them! The peace for the 20 mins was very welcomed! 

Wild Florida – Arrived here just after what must have been a down pour as the cars in the carpark were all pretty wet but not the ground. The boat rides, that were all fully booked, were on hold as there was a lot of rumbling thunder around and so the potential of a storm coming, thankfully it never arrived (while we were in the park anyway), maybe that was why we were all literally dripping with sweat. The heat didnt feel too intense, it was the humidity that was killing us all. 

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Bay of Pigs & more

Another early start but I was all organised – today we were leaving Havana and making our way towards Trinidad in east of Havana. On the way we were going to be stopping at a spot for some swimming and onto the Bay of Pigs museum and Ceinfuego before ending up in Trinidad. I was a little nervous about the evening accommodation for the next three nights as we were all going to be in Casa Particulares (essentially B&Bs) and as I am booked on as a single traveller I didn’t know who I would be in the same place as. Give me something to worry about and I’m there!!

I got to the bus early to ensure that I got a front seat (more of a view!) others were tending to nap on the bus and I was looking forward to having a fuller view of the road and country life as it whizzed past us on our journeys. There was also the chance that I might have been able to have read the subtitles on the documentaries that Marlon was showing on some of our trips. Some were readable further back but others definitely not.

The taxi rank and traffic just outside our hotel in Havana

 

Rather a lovely street in the centre of Havana 

Our first stop was at Finca Fiesta Campesina where we made a facilities stop and had the opportunity to grab a coffee. It was so blooming hot the last thing that was on my mind was a coffee! We were told there was a mini zoo here as well so a few things to potentially look at. As we walked in we were invited to join in Guinea Pig roulette. Really? Not my thing at all and so quickly walked on past and further in to find the loo. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy seeing the animals here after that greeting! I wondered round and had a nose at the animals anyway – thankfully most of them were in the shade anyway so it was slightly cooler than in the blaring heat. I met a friendly iguana in a pen who almost seemed to smile for my photo. They really are the most prehistoric looking creatures it must be said. Quite evil looking as well. There were several pens with animals in: Guinea pigs, pigeons, chickens, a tree rat and more. There was also the opportunity to ride on a bull, rather a scrawny bull who was mainly skin and bones who, in the whole time we were there never seemed to move a millimetre from his spot.

My smiling iguana friend

I found a beautiful little orchid garden and spent a little time in there taking some photos of the beautiful plants. It was also incredibly shaded and so nice and cool as well. There was not an over abundance of them in there but I’ve no idea what the best time of year is for growing orchids?! I stumbled across a pen with a crocodile in it that was there with its mouth wide open, I am sure I’ve read somewhere the reason for that, sleeping or trying to cool off or was it when angry? Next to the pen was a keeper with a snake around his neck and holding a baby crocodile. Not sure why or indeed how but I ended up with the snake around my neck and holding the baby croc. It moved on my hand and I squealed as it tried walking up my arm. The photo is quite amusing as I look quite calm, all things considered – but trust me I was bricking it inside! Having purchased the last of the chocolate ice cream cones I then made my way back to the coach for a a bit of a clean down with wet wipes and antibac!!

Mrs Doolitle at your service (BRICKING herself behind that smile!)

On from here was our much anticipated swimming spot of Cueva de los Peces, also known as El Cenote. We had been hugging the coastland for about two or three kilometres before we stopped and so I had been getting snippets of the beautiful crystal clear Caribbean Sea. The El Cenote tho was an added treat, it was a flooded cave that was full of tropical fish down a small rocky path from the main road and although so close, very secluded and stunning. It was around 70 meters deep – not that I was going to be testing that out!! The changing rooms were small and there were all of us to change so I decided not to bother and to use the skill of changing underneath a towel without flashing, knew boarding school would come in handy at some point!! The steps to get in were very wide apart and so I kind of stood on the top one and belly flopped in, thankfully not managing to empty the entire pool. It was cool and refreshing and salt water which I had bet really expected! I didn’t spend long splashing around in here before I gathered up by bits, flung a sarong round and awkwardly, in wet flip flops, made my way out to the open to cross the main road before slipping into the sea. It was wonderful – this was the life!! Bobbing around in the Caribbean Sea. We all wished that we had longer to do so – but there’s always the trip to the island later in the week. As we bobbed around chatting we had tropical fish weaving inbetweeen us in twos and threes. Amazing! I tried using goggles from someone to have a peak at the world underneath us but wasn’t overly successful as they leaked and salt water went into my eye and I gave up. I lay in the sun taking over bag duty from someone to keep and eye on all of the bags and was almost dry by the time it came to change back into clothes for lunch and then the onward journey.

Some of the tropical fish in the El Cenote

El Cenote – beautiful flooded cave

 

You really can’t argue with that view now, can you?!

 

Group photo post swimming 

From here we headed on round the Bay of Pigs to Museo Girón which was a two roomed museum that was dedicated to the time of the invasion and the invasion itself when Castro and his men over came the advancing American forces and captured 1180 prisoners who they, in time swapped for Baby Powder and medical provisions so desperately needed by the country at the time. There were some fascinating artifacts and military bits and pieces such as guns and ammunition from the time as well as tanks and other vehicles. Out the front of the museum there was one of the fighter planes that was used to attack the advancing Americans of the time.

Once I had finished at the museum I nipped across the road to the shops in search of an ice cream. It was utterly roasting and I was literally dripping thanks to the humidity. There were two very small fans in the museum that were more swirling around the hot air than blowing out any cool air. I gave in and headed to the bus to try and cool down. It felt far far hotter than it had been in Havana but I am not sure if that was actually the case or not! The gap from the rip in my trousers was getting bigger, but this was actually turning out to be rather to my advantage even if there was skin exposure evident now!

On from here we headed to Cienfuegos which was established in 1819, far more recently than most cities in Cuba and it was founded by French settlers – I’m not sure that I saw too much of their influence in the architecture however, but maybe we didn’t go through enough of the city to see. We stopped in Pargue Jose Martin to stretch our legs and get a drink if we wanted and to have a look at the buildings around the square. There certainly were some very fine ones including the school which has a sort of Greco-Roman facade that looked far too smart to house a school! There was the Catedral de la Purisima Concepción in the corner next to the school which I didn’t go in to as I couldn’t do everything which is still used by resident worshippers as well as tourists and has, according to the guide book, some rather splendid stained glass.

The building that I chose to go inside and spend some time in was the theatre – Teatro Tomás Terry which has been in the northern side of the square since it was built in 1890 and musical and dance productions are still put on here, in fact there were some dance rehearsals going on whilst I sat in the auditorium taking the surroundings in. The entrance hall has a fresco on the ceiling and on some of the walls and there were the original decorative ticket booths from the 19th century still in the entrance hall too, there were also some beautiful ornate lamps as well. Moving on in to the auditorium the seats were all wooded and there were three tiers of balconies each with their same wooden chairs I imagined from when it was first built. There was a large Baroque- stayle fresco on the ceiling and the stage was framed in gold and sloped down towards the audience to help give them a better view. It was a wonderful find.

Before heading on towards Trinidad we made a trip out around the small peninsula – spotting the seaside on our way and many of the expensive looking mansions along the way. Just before the end was the Palacio de Valle with, as described in the guide book, ‘mismatched twin turrets, chiselled arches and carved windows, it looks like a cross between a medieval fortress, an Indian temple and a Moorish palace.’ Originally built as a private home in the early twentieth century it is now nothing more than a restaurant and has a rooftop bar apparently giving the best views in Cienfuegos. Back up the promenade and out into the road to Trinidad.
Along the road on our journey we saw farmers bagging up rice on the side of the road which looked rather strange. Marlon explained that they were drying the rice out using the warmth of the Tarmac to help speed up the process. It went on for a good few miles at one point and there were several of them bagging it up in areas. Drivers were not really bothering to avoid it on that side of the road (the left, as they drive on the right) and you often saw them driving over the drying rice – most certainly very organic!

 

Farmers drying the rice on the road on the way to Trinidad 

The start of the streets of Trinidad

Trinidad sort of arrived upon us, we had started noticing the more built up are but hadn’t realised that this was actually down town Trinidad?! We passed through a main square with the green hotel that we would be meeting at later but first we needed to be ‘sorted out’ with our Casa Particulares. It was like waiting to be picked for a team at school! I was concerned as to where I’d be and who with, not that it really mattered as everyone in the group was lovely. I ended up with Nic and our Casa Particulares was apparently a 4 min walk front the HavanaTour office where we were being collected from. Well that’s what Nic had been told / understood anyway. It wasn’t that much longer but it certainly felt it as we dogged our cases over the cobbled streets!! Prob a 5 min walk from Parque Cespedes where the green hotel was that we were meeting in front of later. Casa Lydia was basic as expected and despite being welcomed and shown our room there was no other explanation, something that we could have done with if honest as we struggled every time in how to open the front door from the inside and outside and which key was for the front door and which for the room and why did I have an extra key on mine? What was that for?? We each had our own bathrooms and a shower but no holder on the wall to hold it as always! There were two ac units much to my relief and I even had a little patio area outside my door where I assumed we would be served breakfast in the morning. There was a fridge in the room as well full of cold drinks which you could take and pay for on departure. We were asked for our passports, as the lady didn’t speak any English or even enough to get by we had no idea when we would be seeing them again. I thought that they possibly needed to prove that they had tourists staying and so needed to note down the number and so on for authorities to check. We checked with the others all of who had the same thing and that they would be given them after breakfast the following morning. I felt a lot better having heard that!
Our meal that evening as at a place called Vista Gourmet and was another paladar. Another buffet option, none of which really looked all that appetising and so I opted just to have the main course (and plenty of drinks!). It took what seemed like hours to get a drink despite ordering first out of the tables of ‘us’ we were getting more and more desperate as the entertainment that we were also going to have to endure during dinner became closer and closer and from the looks of things it was going to be excruciatingly embarrassing. Apparently my face literally said everything. Totally unimpressed. Some crappy dancers and then male dancers joining them, the compare singing possibly THE worst rendition of Ben E. King’s – Stand By Me that I have ever heard and the rather cool fire dancer. The highlight of our evening though had to be when a member of our group (Jo) got up and out of the blue started fire dancing – there is no way that she would have so easily been allowed to get up and do that in the UK – way too many health and safety restrictions!! It was a great evening full of giggles and hilarious stories all which I shan’t repeat as it was a case of you had to be there. For my own sake and any reading that were there – Julia and the fire and lift (more Ivor’s fits of giggles) and the cerveza & mojitos from Kate. We headed to the steps (Casa de la Música) and had a further mojito whilst some went salsa dancing before heading back to the Casa to establish that we had no idea how to use the key to get in, only to have the door opened (we were possibly a little giggly) from the inside by an 8 year old girl! We did think at one point that we would have to sleep in the street as the door wouldn’t budge!!

Arrival in Cuba

First impressions are all important and mine of Cuba weren’t exactly complimentary! Expecting the 5 degrees at night Id read somewhere was a little taken a back by the 21 degrees on landing. Yeah, so maybe the Boxing Day morning fleeting return visit to Bath was going to be unnecessary?! Thankfully no bus needed on arrival and we walked straight into the terminal to a room full of pissed off flyers faces who were clearly in the around turn flight out. It was warm, very warm and sticky. 

First things first was passport control. Would they accept the visa and entry card with out The middle names written on it? Would I get a stamp in my passport? Would I get through in time to make it to the loo? The lady on the desk was fine, despite being convinced that I came from a flight from Africa (Cuba may be a landlocked island according to my boss but Madrid is a fair distance from Africa?!) and the need to see me without my glasses on as in my passport photo. I was done fairly quickly. 

Cuba seems to do things cos they bloody well feel like it. So all our hand luggage was put through an X ray machine AGAIN and we were handed a form but told nothing of what to do with it. I, of course, beeped on the way through. I really don’t think they understood me as they looked somewhat bemused when I pointed to my boobage and suggested it was highly likely to be the under wiring! Sultry lot it seemed. 

A trip to the facilities and the location of the hand gel and wipes and loo roll was established instantly as I hovered over the first of many loo seats on the journey trying not to let a milimeter of bottom skin touch anywhere that might have any remote possible germ lurking. And then came the fun. Apparently if you are a female European looking woman, standing ANYWHERE near the carousel is just a no go. It was a cameraderi of testosterone to show who could pull their heavy bags off there the quickest. Women, well from where I was standing, were allowed no where near! We stood, when I say we I think I mean THE ENTIRE FLIGHT, waiting for bags for around an hour with the same 5 going round & round. Some were being collected but at a rate that the baggage handlers were collecting them from the plane one by one and putting them on the carousel. It was getting hotter. I was loosing patience. I couldn’t see the couple I’d met at Madrid airport and still had no idea who was on our tour to see if it was just me. After at least an hour and a half the belt stopped and a mass rush of people seems to transcend towards a neighbouring belt were LOADS of bags were going round. Amazing. But still not mine. Still the testosterone flowed and I was smacked in the face several times by those unaware of their rucksack being the size it was. Obviously not English so no apology – not even when I tapped them on the shoulder and said Hola?!!! My bag finally appeared. In the mean time whilst waiting the extra 20 mins at the new carousel I’d spotted loads of people going through nothing to declare filling in forms up against the wall. From my skin reading I thought that the form we were given just after passport control was only if we had anything to declare. Apparently not. We had to let them know how much currency & electronic items we had with us and their value?!! Why? Possibly best not to ask. Once I had my bag I walked triumphantly through about 30 people frantically filling in their forms as I handed mine to the lady at the exit who took a glance to see if written down thing on it but not enough to see what and in I strode into the arrivals hall to see Marlon out guide for the week. 
Not really a happy smiley welcome to Cuba face but more a sarcastic, yay you’re here face. I had a feeling the poor sod had been at the airport for hours (later confirmed that he had been here since 6pm – I got through at around 1130pm!) his face was a picture of I SO can’t be arsed with this. He suggested going & changing £200 into CUC which I queued to do so. Normally, a guide knows what they are on about on these sort of things and if they suggest – you do. I’d read the queues to exchange in the city were mental EVERYWHERE. Frankly what’s £0.01 difference?! There are always some people, despite never having been to the country that know better. Let them get on with it. 

Claire and John were last through with bags and into the exchange queue which had doubled by the time they got there and didn’t seem to move far. Essentially one of those behind the screen had gone off for a fag break. Amazing! There were 7 waiting and Claire & john so 9 of is only but the group was 18 in total. Transpired that there were some that had already arrived and there arriving tomorrow afternoon. Mainly women with only 3 men. Age wise – pretty mixed but I’d say a fair few around my age range – shall we call that 35-45? So hard to tell. 

A short bus trip to the hotel and he filling out of more form last with passports and I finally made it to my room. Not too shabby – bathroom ensuite thank god and I sorted my buys out for the morning, set about 5 alarms and went to bed. I think it was 0215 with alarm set for 7am to shower and wake up sufficiently before a group meeting & the walking tour of Havana.

I’d already got over excited about all the old cars which really are a sight to behold. Intermingled with newer versions obviously but some utter beauties around! Never saw myself as much of a petrol head before!!?!! 

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