Sitting alongside Silom Road right in the heart of Bangkok lies the Bangkok Seashell Museum. Always a fan of unique and offbeat museums, I decided to stop on in the other day with a friend who was visiting town.
The small but modern Bangkok Seashell Museum is three stories and is packed full of thousands and thousands of seashells from hundreds of different species all painstakingly arranged by size and color into elaborate displays. Most have information on where/when they were found. Was quite surprised to see that the shells here come from countries around the world, not just Thailand and other Southeat Asian nations.
Signs in Thai and English scattered on the walls of each floor provided detailed information on the types of species we were looking at and where these specimen were found. The museum is definitely interesting, even if you do not know the slightest thing about seashells except that they tend to be found on beaches more than mountains. Tend to.
Entrance was 150 baht per person (around $4 USD) and despite being three stories, you only need 30-45 minutes to thoroughly examine and chat about everything. If nothing else, it is a great way to escape that horrendous Bangkok heat for a bit.
Tridacna gigas, otherwise known as the aptly named Giant Clam, live in offshore reefs 2-20 metres deep (6-65 feet) and can weigh up to 300kg. This giant clam only weighs 150kg (330lbs), despite one side of its shell being more than a metre across. (That's almost four feet. No one is stealing it anytime soon.)
So cool it even won an award for being a "very good" recreational activity. That's certainly no "outstanding" and not quite an "honorable mention" but hey at least you're getting closer. Keep up the good work.
Throughout the museum there are giant signs on the walls in both Thai and English further explaining about the seashells on display, the differences between species, even when and where they were found.
Located on a four-mile long sand peninsula, Puntarenas is a coastal fishing town that also supports a lot of tourism. While there we happened to stumble upon this magnificent mansion turned hostel on the northern shore, the Perla del Pacifico, my most highly recommended lodging option in all of Costa Rica. This place will shock and amaze you, instantly transporting you to a tranquil environment far from Central America -- you have to see it to believe it, there is no other way to put it.
As Puntarenas is lacking in both hostels and hotels, Perla del Pacifico is the only one you will find without having to taxi it back 30 minutes further deep into the mainland. Even more conveniently, it is located on the same block as the Calypso Cruises office and dock. Right after we came back from Tortuga Island we were able to walk 60 feet and be at our new home.
Walking through the front doors you are greeted by a beautiful marble staircase that leads you either to the main level with the jacuzzi and outside courtyard, amongst other things, or upstairs to the kitchen and dining room, two guest rooms, and wrap-around balcony.
As if the house itself was not exquisite enough, it is stocked full of artwork and collectibles from all corners of the globe. This is undoubtedly due to the the owners, Michael and Elisabeth, connoisseurs of the world. Be it canvases of Audrey Hepburn, old Asian artwork, rare drawings, original pictures of Salvador Dali and his wife, or any one of a thousand other exquisite -- yet perfectly placed -- collectible pieces of artwork and sculpture, everything seems like it is in just the right spot.
Sound good? Well, it gets better. How do you become world connoisseurs? By traveling the world. And that is exactly what Michael and Elisabeth have done. From the minute we walked in the door the conversation just flowed endlessly! Michael has some of the most fantastic stories to tell, Jared and I frequently got lost in the most random yet intricate conversations with him and his wife. Regardless of whether you are a first-time traveler or cultural enthusiast, travel blogger or gap year adventurer, you will feel instantly at home here, I guarantee it. Make sure to view the many pictures below.
From the owners, Michael and Elizabeth
We - French/German artist couple - just finished restoring a historical mansion - national patrimony - that has been build in 1920 and graciously combines Venetian & Caribbean architecture. To support the project, we rent two exquisitely furnished bed rooms, each containing a modern bath room. You are going to have free use of our kitchen, dining room, salon, jacuzzi, a lovely garden with grill-pavilion and petanque-court and many other amenities of our palace.
Noteworthy I cannot stress enough how highly we recommend this place. If you are a fellow world traveler and you should find yourself in Costa Rica, I urge you to make a stop by Puntarenas, even if solely to swing by Perla del Pacifico and meet Michael and Elizabeth. The conversations alone are worth swinging out of your way to Puntarenas, we promise. You will not regret it, I assure you. I stake my name and reputation on it. Tell them Derek @ the HoliDaze sent you and you may even get a li'l extra loving ;)
Also, if you are going to be in the neighborhood, read about our trip to Tortuga Island with Calypso Cruises. Their dock is located one building down from Pearla del Pacifico and its a great way to kill two birds with one stone.
I have never understood how anyone can like January. The sad, sinking feeling caused by limp, leftover tinsel hanging in shops, braving the dreary weather without any promise of a mulled wine stop, realising that everyone you know has vowed to lose weight, save money or quit drinking- it is a real slog of a 31 day month. For me, the January Blues are hitting particularly hard this year (can you tell?) Having spent Christmas on holiday in India, flying back to reality on New Years Day has left me longing for backpacking adventures again. So, before I get a grip, look forward and make plans for 2014, here are my top 10 beautiful places in Asia, home to my happiest past travel memories.
10. Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
By far and away the best thing I did whilst traveling around China, The Tiger Leaping Gorge hike in northern Yunnan is, in my opinion, still massively underrated. The Hutiao Xia gorge, at 16km long and 3900m from the Jinsha River to the snow capped Haba Shan, is simply breathtaking. During summer the hills are absolutely teeming with plant and flower life and an even pace allows you to unwind in the picturesque villages along the way. The trail stretches between sleepy Qiaotou and even sleepier Walnut Garden and runs high along the northern side of the impressive gorge, passing through some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in the country.
Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou is the perfect place to prepare or recover from the trek. The food is homemade and hearty, the coffee is strong and the rooms are cosy with clear views of the snow-capped peaks. At the other end, Sean’s Spring Guesthouse is worth every footstep of the extra walk into Walnut Garden. Keep following the painted yellow arrows- you will not regret it! We finished our trek with warm Tibetan bread, celebratory beers and an open fire in Sean’s homey lounge.
The hike can be completed in a day or two, but it is equally tempting to linger and enjoy countryside life for longer. After all, how often do you get to watch the sun set over Jade Dragon Snow Mountain while supping Chinese tea and resting your tired feet?
9. Gili Islands, Indonesia
There is a lot to be said for an island with no motorized traffic. Being able to stroll around the parameters, barefoot and still sandy from the beach, having left your friends snoozing on one of the shoreline sofa beds, is reason enough to make the trip across the water from Padang bai. Though they are certainly not undiscovered, the three irresistible Gili islands offer a quiet and serenity that the rest of Bali simply does not.
Made up of beachfront bungalows, white sands and warm waters, Gili Trawangan is the isle with the most going on. Like many of the Indonesian hotspots, it ticks all the boxes for a desert island cliché and also boasts an exciting nightlife for those living-the-dream on the South east Asia trail. Designated party venues mean you can choose between a night at one of the low-key raves or whiling away the hours at a beachfront restaurant. Highlights for me were the Nutella milkshakes, having our very own DVD night in a private beach hut, dancing under the stars at Rudy’s Bar and night swimming with phosphorescence- luminous plankton.
You can reach the tiny tropical islands by fast boat from Bali and mainland Lombok or (painfully) slow ferry from Padang bai and Senggigi. Prepare to wade ashore.
8. Malapascua Island, The Philippines
This little island off the northern tip of Cebu is sun-bleached and fabulous. Simple villages, bustling basketball courts and local fiestas play a huge part in making this tiny speck of The Philippines a traveler’s paradise. Though it is slowly becoming more and more popular, Malapascua remains off the beaten track and humble in its approach to tourism. Home to welcoming locals and some dive school expatriates, the island community is peaceful and charming with a real sense of having left the western world behind.
The diving here is also world class. With three wreck dives, a sea-snake breeding centre and daily thresher shark sightings, Malapascua is one of the best places in The Philippines for big fish encounters. Night diving is popular, with mandarin fish, seahorses, bobtail squid and blue ring octopus making regular appearances. And if marine life isn’t your thing, the delicious local food, mesmerizing sunsets and picture-perfect Bounty beach make for a blissful dry land experience.
Sunsplash Restaurant operates a beach bar during high season and is the perfect place to wait for the sunset. For the very best views and an extra slice of quietude, stay at Logon or Tepanee.
7. Mui Ne, Vietnam
For someone with a notoriously terrible sense of direction, the surf capital of southern Vietnam offers a welcome sense of order. With everything spread out along one 10km stretch of highway, it is impossible to get lost and easy to find friends. In fact, with guesthouses lined up on one side of the road and restaurants and shops flanking the other it couldn’t be any easier to negotiate your way around the coastal town.
Once an isolated stretch of sand, Mui Ne is now famous for its unrivalled surfing opportunities and laid back vibes. For windsurfers, the gales blow best from late October to April while surf’s up from August to December. Luckily for me, lounging around on the beach is possible all year through. For the very best Kodak moments, the red and white sand dunes provide endless hours of sledding fun and jump-as-high-as-you-can competitions with the local children. A beautiful walk along the Fairy Spring will also take you past some stunning rock formations. While it feels as though you should be wading upstream barefoot, be sure to take shoes if you are going during the midday sun.
When night falls, resident DJs, beach bonfires and live bands draw the surfer crowds to DJ Station, Wax and Joe’s 24 hour Café, where happy hour can and usually does last til sunrise.
6. Unawatuna, Sri Lanka
Unawatuna Beach in Sri Lanka is what I hope heaven looks like. Deliciously lazy, exceedingly tropical and just so very, very beautiful, this sandy gem is the kind of place everyone dreams about. Life moves slowly here. Sleeping under a swaying coconut palm is about the only thing on the itinerary for most.
Following the devastating effects of the tsunami in 2004, locals of Unawatuna set about re-building their businesses right on the sand. While this does mean that the beach is much smaller than it used to be, honey-mooners and hippies alike flock to this boomerang shaped bend to soak up the Sri Lankan sunshine. And it really doesn’t get much better than this. The sea is gentle, turquoise and perfect for swimming and banana lassis are brought to your very sunbed. Colourful tropical fish swim in the live patch of coral in front of Submarine Diving School and you can rent snorkel masks from any of the places on the beach. I discovered a whole new meaning of lazy in Unawatuna but, if you want to leave utter beach paradise, it is a great base from which to explore the surrounding areas.
(This one does come with a warning. A cockroach warning. It is not enough to get Unawatuna booted off the list, but please note that multiple hard-shelled creepies do feature in my memories of this otherwise utterly perfect corner of the resplendent isle. Having said that, I did choose to stay somewhat off the beaten track at Mr.Rickshaw’s brother’s cousin’s place. It is very likely that the crayon-box cute guesthouses on the beach are roach free.)
5. Yangshuo, China
For the perfect blend of bustling Chinese culture, enchanted landscapes and sleepy relaxation, look no further than this sedate and peaceful ancient city. Worlds apart from the mayhem of congested Guilin, Yangshuo lies in the mist of karst limestone peaks and the gentle Li-river. Cycling through the villages will take you past duckmen, fishermen, water buffalo and clementine farms, as well as over silky brooks, ancient caves and sights like Moon Hill and the Big Banyan Tree. And when you’re done with the countryside, get lost amongst the painted fans and embroidered costumes of Yangshuo Town and its cheery market place.
I stayed at beautiful Dutch guesthouse, The Giggling Tree in Aishanmen Village. Bamboo rafting was on our doorstep and they arranged transport to the Lakeside lightshow, ‘Impression Sanjie Liu’. Cycling into town for street side specialties, souvenir shopping and live folk music was easy enough, although the starlit ride back after a few Tsing Tao’s was a little shaky!
4. Luang Prabang, Laos
You can’t help but smile when you are in Laos. The people here are possibly the most laid back people on earth. Even after two long, long days of doing nothing on the slow ferry, arriving into the languid mountain kingdom of Luang Prabang makes you want to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Tourists meander down the French colonial streets to the flow of the Mekong River and saffron robed monks seem to almost glide up and down the shaded sideways on their way to prayer.
Voted one of the best places in the world for ‘slow travel’ by Lonely Planet, this hushed and heady city offers everything from red roofed temples to quaint provincial coffee houses, the moonstone blue Kuang Sii waterfalls and exquisite night markets. You can watch the sun setting over the river, hear the monks chanting their oms in the distance and enjoy delicious local dishes with a cold Beer Lao. With a curfew bidding this heritage listed town goodnight at 11.30pm, catching up on your sleep has never been so enjoyable, especially if you are recovering from tubing in Vang Vieng. (For a much less sleepy evening, ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the local bowling alley. Trust me on this one.)
3. Mira Beach, Perhentian Pulau Kecil, Malaysia
When I discovered that Beach Tomato had included Mira Beach as one of its ‘world’s most beautiful beaches’ I physically stood up and clapped. I almost don’t want to say it aloud for fear of contributing to this unspoilt patch of paradise becoming, well, spoiled, but I couldn’t agree more. Set back on the western side of tiny Kecil island, Mira Beach is its very own secluded cove. Surrounded by forest-green jungle, lapped by bathtub warm sea and drenched in Malaysian sunshine, the white bay can be reached by taxi-boat or Tarzan inspired trek only. Steer clear if you’re looking for plush resort or summer luxury though, the stilted chalets are as basic as they come. Managed by a local Malay family, the collection of rustic huts are kept clean and framed by frangipanis for ultimate postcard perfection. We left by water-taxi, tanned and having swum with turtles. Heaven.
2. Pokhara Valley, Nepal
Whether you are in Nepal for trekking the Himalayas, volunteering with an NGO or spotting the rhinos and elephants, a visit is not complete without catching a glimpse of (or a good long gaze at) Lake Phewa in Pokhara. Popular for being the gateway to the AnnaPurna trekking circuit, the valley has been blessed with panoramic views of this breathtaking region. Waking up to crystal clear views of snowy Mt. Fishtail, boating on Phewa’s placid waters and hiking to the sunkissed World Peace Pagoda could not have made me any happier. Throw in the cups of masala chai at Asian Teahouse, the surrounding Tibetan villages and the unimaginable hospitality of the local people and I was about ready to miss my return flight home.
Guesthouses are homely, food is hearty and the scenery really is spectacular. Pokhara is so much more than just a place to rest your feet after a hike. A month here saw us paragliding from Sarangkot, exploring the Old Bazaar, playing guitar in an underground Blues bar and falling in love with the children of the Himalayan Children’s Care Home. Don’t miss out on the Nepali specials at Asian TeaHouse and Pandey Restaurant. For me, the smaller the café, the better the food. Venture away from those Lakeside favourites!
((Drum Roll please...))
1. Varkala, India
If Varkala were a fairytale, it would be the one that made you believe in love, trust in the happy ending and doodle hearts and flowers in your notebook.
Nestled in the evergreen state of beautiful Kerala, this seaside town offers sunlit red ochre cliffs, coconut palm fringed beaches and peacock blue waves. The liquid lulls of local Malayalam, coconut spiced South Indian curries and breathtaking views of the ocean make it the perfect haven from the hustle and bustle of India’s cities. After ten days here, I wondered how I’d ever been happy anywhere else in the world.
From the singing mango-seller on the sand ‘yum, yum, yum, yum, eating eating’, to the cheeky waiters at the cafes, the locals on the cliff have got it exactly right. You could while away days, weeks and months watching the lives and loves of fishermen, frisbee-playing locals, moonlit yoga classes, Hindu temple men and strolling backpackers. Guesthouses are secret gardens and bamboo huts, restaurants are candle lit and family run and the Tibetan market wafts incense until after dark. Yet, far from being just a serene stopover, Varkala boats a ‘Shanti Shanti’ soul and cheeky community spirit that binds even the quietest visitor under its spell. By night, lanterns twinkle, candles flicker and stars burn bright over the backpacker favourites. I never knew beer could taste as good as it does here; poured from a discrete tea-pot, served with a glinting smile and supped to the blissful sounds of ocean, music and laughter.
If you tire of strolling, swimming, sunbathing or smoothie-drinking easily, the charming Varkala Town is just a 5 minute scooter ride or leisurely walk away. Surfing lessons, yoga classes and cooking workshops are all available atop the rosy cliff too. For dolphin watching, walk past the quieter Black Beach to the hamlet of Edava and watch from the cliff curve.
My heartfelt recommendations for Varkala are breakfast at The Juice Shack, hammock swinging at Secret Garden Homestay and Restaurant and cold Kingfishers at Backside Café. If you’re lucky enough to be there when the Alleppy Boys are playing, get down to Chill Out Lounge for a jamming session with the gorgeous and very talented local band.
There are daily trains and buses to Trivandrum, and a backwater boat to Alleppy leaves from neighboring Kollam.
Happy Traveling in 2014!
Shipwreck Cove (aka Smugglers Cove) in Zakynthos is home to Navagio Beach, the most famous beach in all of Greece. The beach can only be accessed by boat but is well worth the trip.
This picturesque beach is wildly recognized by people around the world, even if they have not visited Zakynthos. Why is that? Navagio has been photographed and featured in many holiday brochures, travel books and televised advertisements. The boat was shipwrecked back in 1980 after hitting rocks in bad weather while being pursued by the Greek Navy, who suspected it was carrying contraband cigarettes.
Tourists planning to lounge in the sun are advised to bring all necessities with them as there are not many facilities in this secluded bay, cut off from the rest of the island by the cliffs. A sun umbrella is a must, as the heat radiates off the white cliffs and there is no shade on the beach to get away from it -- especially in the midday.
As you can see from the photographs, Shipwreck Beach is enclosed within unpenetrably steep cliffs which give it this remote, inaccessible feel. Because of that, it is impossible to walk to the beach. Instead you will need to take a boat. Frequent boat service to Shipwreck Cove is provided from nearby Porto Vromi located to the south, or from the Harbor of Saint Nikolas in Volimes, located to the north. You can also take a boat from island's capital city of Zakinthos. Boats from Porto Vromi to this paradise beach leave about once every hour and take approximately 30 minutes.
Navagio Beach is one of the most popular sights in Greece. Many travel guides agree that Navagio is the most photographed place in Greece, getting even more attention than the Acropolis of Athens or the Parthenon. Because of that, if you choose the peak of the day during high season, chances are good you will have to share this rather cozy cove with thousands of other visitors. In order to avoid overcrowding, go to Navagio Beach either early in the morning or put off your visit until later in the afternoon (at around 3pm).
To get spectacular photos of Shipwreck Cove from above, you can drive up on top of the cliff where viewing platform on the edge of the cliff offers amazing photo opportunities. Most postcard photos are taken from there. To get to the viewpoint and take a photo like this, just follow the road signs which read Navagio.
Having spent the last 2 years working with no break, we decided it was high time for a bit of R'n'R! So we packed up a suit case and headed for Hurghada, a lovely town situated on the Red Sea just a 4-hour drive from Luxor.
You can fly there but I find it more fun to take a car as the roads along the way are something special :)
We left Luxor at sunrise bleary-eyed with two very excited children in tow! As we made our way out of Luxor we saw the hot air balloons taking off from their launch site on the West Bank. It is amazing how many balloons there are now...I remember the days when we only had one or two!
As we headed down towards Qena it amazed me how much the landscape changed from the stretches of Lush green running along the River Nile to the desert wastelands that we found ourselves heading towards.
We passed through the city of Qena, home to Dendara Temple and was stunded at the difference between Luxor and Qena.
Here the street seemed cleaner with roads just for the public cars. Once outside Qena we continued are journey on towards Hurghada.
Half way through our journey the landscape changed again with the mountains closing in around us the rock faces all jaggered with an almost menacing look about them it was like being in a different world completely with what I can only describe as desolate beauty.
The feeling as you travel through here is the sense that there is still so much to be discovered hidden in the mountainous rock that surrounds you as you drive through.
It amazed me to see the Bedouin people still living within these mountains people walking along the roads seemingly on the road to no ware! We passed a Bedouin woman carrying water on her head while leading her donkey, with her thick black clothing and a long head scarf made of the same material. I couldn't understand it as there I was sweating in a light cotton shirt and trousers in an air conditioned car, while outside it must have been 42°C and she was dressed like it was winter!! I guess there is method in this madness.
What was just as amazing about her was when the wind got up you could make out the amazing colours of another dress beneath the black very different in deed from the woman of Luxor.
As we came out of the desert we sighted our first glims of the beautiful Red Sea in Safaga we knew then we only had 45 minutes before we reached our destination!
As we entered in to Hurghada you can see all round the amazing hotel complexes lining the beaches, it was only then we realized we had no idea where are hotel was or how to get there!!
After asking 6 taxi drivers and made 20 wrong turns the pyramid entrance of our hotel came in to view and at last our holiday (even if only for 4 days!) could begin.
Are hotel was the Sonesta Pharaohs Hotel 5* All Inclusive and from the onset it looking impressive.
Once we checked in we made our way to our chalet and as we walked wondered why they had golf carts taking people around it was only once we found are chalet that we realised why!
When we booked the hotel they describe them selves has having everything within walking distance which is true to a point. You have to not mind a 10 minute walk from the main building to your room bearing in mind that the main building houses all the restaurants and entertainment! The beach was another 5 minute walk from our room but if you where staying in the main building you would defiantly need the golf cart!
Not to be deflated as lets face it we are still on holiday we quickly changed and headed to the beach.
One of the many things I love about Egypt is the Red Sea it is stunning and you don't have to go on the trips to see the wild life, all you need is a good pair of goggles!
Unfortunately to get in the Sea you needed to walk down a pier so the children couldn't go in the water by themselves, but we didn't mind as the sea was amazing with roped off coral areas that if you had your google you could see the amazing aquatic life swimming about.
In all the years I have lived in Egypt I have never caught the sun so decided on a low factor as didn't see the point in anything higher!
Never ever EVER underestimate the power of the Egyptian sun yes you have guessed it I was just a little sun burnt after only 2 hours in the sun!! Be warned all you sun worshipers out there if you are intending to come and stay on the Red Sea make sure you pack SPF-50!!!
Yes that is lotion to stop the burning!!
In the evening time we saw to my injuries!! and headed up to dinner. This was lovely plenty of choice for all. The house wine is not bad either and it is great that the children can go and help themselves. We didn't get to watch the show that night as after the travelling we decided on bed.
The next day we stayed half the day by the pool and the rest down on the beach. Now for an all inclusive hotel they sure do like to try and sell you something which started to get on my nerves.
There was no fresh juice unless you paid for it and in the afternoon went around with trays of ice cream for the children which when we said oh yes please ended up saying no thank you as it wasn't for free!
The cleaning staff did an amazing job and left this on our bed which of course Saffy found wonderful! ;)
The worst came that night, it was advertised Mexcian night and the cocktail of the evening was mohito I love them so thought we would have one after dinner. The barman told me to sit down and he would bring the drinks over, on their arrival the drinks looked nothing like what I ordered plus he put down the bill!!! it was at this point i spat the dummy! and called for the manager.
Please if any hotel owners are reading this remember if you are going to advertise all inclusive make sure your hotel is all inclusive as for the rest of our stay I was so stressed out I didn't know what to ask for and what not to just in case in cost something!!
The animation team worked very hard and my two loved the Micheal Jackson night they put on I can't remember to much as was taking red wine for medicinal purposes !
On the last day we spent it by the sea me covered from head to toe to keep the sun off! with camera at the ready below are just some of the amazing bits of wild life that we found on our trip.
Until I went to Hurghada I never really appreciated the phrase swimming with the jellies! but these guys are every where it is a little disturbing at first as being taught from a young age that jelly fish sting I was amazed that these didn't I am sure they do have a sting but was touched by loads of them and came out fine!
The fish amazed me he/she was swimming close to surface of the water making it a great picture moment ! I have no idea what it is but it is beautiful.
We found lots of star fish to under the pier.
On our way home we came across a shopping mall with a proper supermarket!! I know amazing !! you have to live in Luxor to understand the importance of a real super market! lol
We stocked up on provisions and made our way home.
Even though our hotel choice was all wrong and they need to take it from a 5* to (at the most 4*) we had an amazing time in Hurghada and will be back again next time I going to go swimming with the dolphins!
It is so totally different from the hustle and bustle of Luxor all you have is the sea and sun you can go out if you wish or stay in your resort the choice is yours.
On our return journey home we watched the sun go down over the Theban Mountains making me appreciate how wonderful my home really is.
Like most countries, India’s north and south are worlds apart. While Delhi and Jaipur pedestal grand architecture and royal palaces, Kerala boasts that it is ‘God’s Own Country’. And it is as though God himself has picked this tiny part of the world for His own. The rice paddies, the tea plantations, the coconut groves, its backwaters, beaches, cliffs and the sunshine: Kerala really does have it all. And then, pinned to the chest of this southern state, there is Varkala.
It is our fifth consecutive day by the beach. The sun is hiding in its milky cloud sky and there is a powerful wind tormenting the waves. Irritable, foamy-white ocean meets sullen, sugar-white sky at the horizon. Opposite, at shore, water cascades onto itself again and again, over and over. Searocks and sandbags glimmer wet in the tired sun of the afternoon and palm trees lean back-breakingly close to the edge of the sea, the gale forcing them to bend, bend, bend until their leaves are almost dipping in the blue.
The lack of scorching sun and sticky air is annoying; I have come to look forward to baking in the beach heat and competitively tanning. The ache of lying too long on hard-packed sand, back muscles flat against the unshifting beach, is a small price to pay for having a tan in November. The lines of swimming heat between sunbathers and sea, the crimson ripple of skin, the salt of wet bodies, the sting of burnt lips; senses are set alight in Varkala. Seaweed smelling sarongs and damp board shorts merge with the almond scent of sun lotion. Warm water bottles waste in the sunlight, the air sucked out of them.
Later on, in the lemon infused hours of early evening, the tourists will emerge once more, reeking of apple soap, aloe vera and spiced shampoo. Those sense-filled, excited, delicious beach moments will belong to personal galleries of happy times, filed away and frequently sought out from the crevices of every memory. This afternoon, marooned on white plastic garden furniture at an ocean-side café, deafened by the raging Indian Sea and whipped by the untiring wind, belongs to such a gallery.
Two weeks later. Sitting cross-legged on Helipad Beach, metres from the toddler-tumbling sea, we watch the giant ball of burnt sun streak its way through turquoise sky. The clouds turn from cotton white to a colour so beautiful that even the lonely dogs lift their faces to the horizon. Shades of rose, tangerine, crimson, peach, apricot and coral leak into one another, staining the dusk. The space above, peacock blue, matches the rippling waves below, making it appear as though a paintbrush has just been dragged through the heavens.
There are no lines in this Varkala; no edges or boundaries or fences or roads. Just colours bumping into colours, sea giving way to sand, cliffs into beach and day into night. White hermit crabs scuttle silently in their thousands, moving tiny grains of sand while no-one is looking. And, just for those rosy minutes, honey-trapped in the moonset, India is still. The beach is the sky and the sun is the star; we toast God’s Own Country with a Kingfisher beer.
Cuba has been on my travel list for a few years now. When my buddy Jared and I were backpacking through Central America I tried to convince him we could fly into Cuba for a week, but he was too scared of getting in trouble. If you are American (yes, I'm guilty as charged), then the trick is to fly into Cuba from Central America. Do not try and fly directly into Cuba from the United States, Mexico, or Canada, as TSA officials are prevalent and customs officials will recognize that you should not be there. But if you fly into Havana from somewhere like Costa Rica, Guatemala, or Panama, then you are golden. Plenty of Americans have done it already. It is not the Cuban authorities you need to worry about, but rather the American ones. Cuba is happy just to receive our tourist money, they don't ask many questions.
Now be honest, doesn't Cuba interest you, at least a little? Think of those iconic Havana nights back in the 1920s and again during '50s, when Havana was the Paris of the Americas and one of Frank Sinatra's favorite hotspots... Think about the Havana Conference, one of the biggest ever mob family meetings in history, one that dictated mob policies for the ensuing decades... Think of all the 1950s cars used as taxis still to this day thanks to the US trade embargo...
As I already regret not seeing North Korea before Kim Jong-Il died, I vowed back then not to make that mistake twice; Without a doubt I had planned to visit Cuba during 2012, before Castro gets any older. Of course here is in 2013 now and I still haven't made it...but I will! The reason I wanted to visit both countries before their leaders died is not due to any form of support or approval towards the respective leaders of those two natiions, but because I worry that as those two countries both exist in such a delicate balance of communism and tourism, there is no telling what could happen once power shifts. Fidel Castro has been the figurehead of the island nation for almost 50 years, although he retired in 2008, I'm sure his continued existence is part of the glue that holds Cuba together.
Havana, capital of Cuba
In the early 1960s, following America's ban on Cuba tourism and the systematic government shutdown of many popular nightclubs and gambling halls associated with illegal activities, Cuba's tourism industry came to a screeching halt. In was not until the early 1990s that the numbers began to improve. Even so, with 80% of pre-embargo tourists coming from the United States, it is hard to imagine Havana ever seeing such glory days ago without a change in American policy.
Nowadays over two million visitors a year grace the Cuban ground, most notably vacationers from Canada, Mexico, and all over Europe. As a matter-of-fact, tourism policies and general attitudes towards tourists have improved leaps and bounds, even more so in the last decade! Yes, truly Cuba is once again -- for the third time, actually -- officially become an up-and-coming tourist destination, with statistics improving every year.
The country even offers a variety of both budget and luxury accommodations. Plus, thanks to its countless museums Havana is home to many random and interesting pieces of history from all over the world. One of the more surprising is the Museo Napoliónico, which includes one of Napoleon’s teeth and the general’s death mask. And it should be no surprise that Ernest Hemingway's former house (and yes, even boat) are now a museum as well.
Yes, Havana has a lot to offer, but there is more to Cuba than just that bustling metropolis. Just east of Havana is Varadero, an upper-class tourist town full of beaches that is home to many resorts, as well as the country's only golf course. The western side of Cuba is the center of the cigar industry, particularly the city of Pinar del Rio. There is Trinidad, a famous World Heritage Site, and Santa Clara, both located in central Cuba. And in the far east of Cuba you can find Baracoa and Santiago de Cuba, two other cities with huge historical importance.
If you find yourself in a small town as the day is drawing to a close, it should be no trouble at all to find a "casa particular" or private house for the night. Cuban people are known for being very friendly and what better way to get a firsthand experience in the culture and local life. Electricity can be spotty however, but as with everything else, there have been great improvements since 2008.
Cuba as it currently stands is a flower about to bloom, an ideal travel blogger's mecca that features just enough tourists to bring the country to life without spoiling or tarnishing it. And 2013 is the perfect year to visit there before the word gets out and the masses start flooding in. Besides, now is also a fantastic time to see the Cuba of the 21st century before it looses its 20th century appeal. After all, those taxis won't run forever! (The new wave has already started and trust me, they are not so iconic-looking ugghh.)
So, to all you Americans reading this: would you attempt a trip to Cuba without telling the US government?
My first year of trips back and forth to the Phils to be with my [then] girlfriend I always stayed at Mango's Resort in Subic Bay. I did this for two reasons: 1) my friend Tom is the owner and I always get a discount on my room; and 2) my ex is the boss of the morn/early afternoon shift.
For you however, I would recommend (depending on the length of your stay) either a hostel or a furnished apartment. A hostel will run you less than $10/night but an apartment will only set you back $200-$250 a month, tops. But because of what I mentioned before, I am afraid I am not able to give my usual nice listing with pics/reviews. Except for Mango's, of course.
Mango's is a small establishment with only three guest rooms which are located directly over the restaurant/bar portion of the resort. The lower floor is popular with the locals (both native and ex-military) and they hold pool tournaments twice a week. But the best part is the food is fantastic and the drinks are cheap!
There is also an attached disco at the front of the resort, Rock Lobster. At eleven/midnight when the kitchen and bar closes, you are forced to get your drinks from the disco if you want to keep the night going. It's not a bad little disco, but it is small. There are several better ones within just a couple blocks.
The rooms themselves are very well done. They come with a kitchen area including mini fridge (which does come stocked with beer, soda, and water), closet, safe, and as you can see from the picture, a small living room with coffee table, extra chairs, a desk, and a large television.
Out back is a balcony that runs the whole width of the building and can be accessed via sliding doors in each guest room. There are tables and chairs there too, which make it a great li'l place to look out onto the bay or smoke a couple bowls and relax.
Jared's Thoughts On Mango's: "If you're looking for a quaint bar and hotel this is the place for you- limited rooms so book early. Since there are not scores of guests the wonderful staff spends all its time making sure you have a great stay."
[ UPDATE ] As of my last trip back in 2014, my old friend Tom has partially retired and sold several of his properties, including Mango's. While the name remains the same, the attached Rock Lobster disco has been turned into a more adult-themed "Bunny Ranch" and several new suites have been built. There is also a new beachside bar.