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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Back into the 1st World

Arriving at Fernandina Beach in north Florida was, for these salty Bandits, sheer bliss.   We’ve been sailing and travelling in 3rd World countries for more than a year so felt desperately in need of some of life’s little luxuries.  And here they were - free wifi (very important after complete internet withdrawal in Cuba), sunny outdoor cafes, clean (dog poo free) streets, some great shops for a little soothing retail therapy and massive and amazing fully stocked supermarkets.  Ah, civilisation as we know and love it!

DSC_1650 But first up – formalities with US Border Protection who, due to the US embargo with Cuba, can (apparently) be a little prickly with yachts that have visited there.  However we couldn’t have struck a more friendly officer who welcomed us to the United States, issued us a Cruising License and never mentioned the C… word.  That left us free to explore.  First thing we noticed were the well tended dogs all immaculately behaved and groomed. What a joy after seeing so many sad neglected, injured, skinny and sick strays in Cuba.

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Highlight of our 10 day stay was catching up with old friends Joe and Vicki DelVecchio who live in Pensacola, about 500kms away.  We met in 1981 when a friend and I drove a car from Miami to Los Angeles and Joe and Vicki were living in Colorado.   Despite not seeing each other in the intervening 32 years we’ve kept in touch, firstly by letter and latterly email.  It was wonderful to see them.


So…onto the 50th annual Isle of Flags Shrimp Festival – an amazing three day celebration based around the local shrimp industry.  Fernandina Beach is the home of shrimping in the US and the festival celebrates that as well as boasting a thriving art and craft market.  Sadly for organisers, the first two days of the festival were wet but the bands played on, the shrimp stalls sold shrimp and everyone tried to ignore the rain.  For us yachties it was no problem – we put on our full wet weather gear and wandered along – no one looked twice.  The final day dawned brilliantly fine so the festival ended on a high.


We wrapped up our 10 days in Fernandina Beach in grand style with cruising friends Wayne and Betty from Bright Ayes.  They had old friends living on the island who had asked them for dinner and let us tag along. Peter and Ruth were amazingly friendly and generous hosts.


Next day the weather was good for an overnight sail further up the coast so we headed off and 36 hours later dropped anchor in stunning Charleston.   We spent our first day exploring on bike just cruising the leafy streets admiring the beautiful old homes.




The historic centre of Charleston has some fantastic shops and we spent hours in the wonderful art galleries and antique shops as well as the contemporary stores.  Walking the streets was a time absorbing past-time – there was always plenty to look at, gates to look through and gardens to admire. 


Charleston is one of America’s most visited destinations and many tourists explore by carriage pulled by well conditioned and glossy coated horses.  We’d often follow one of these along listening to the colourful commentary given by the driver in a typical southern drawl.


Sam happened to be in New York and flew down for a day and a night so it was wonderful to catch up with him.  Being a private chef based in Moscow he relishes the opportunity to try other cuisines so we spent time checking out restaurants and cafes here.  Lunch was a typical “low country” affair of she crab soup and crabcake melt.


It’s spring in the US and that means graduation time.  We never realised what a big deal it was until we stumbled across the College of Charleston’s graduation ceremony.  The students were immaculately attired – all in white, girls in dresses and boys in tuxedo.  Parents, friends and relatives were also amazingly dressed – beautiful flowing summery dresses with high heels for women and lightweight suits or pants and blazers for men.  It was an intriguing ceremony to watch. 

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 Charleston prides itself on its beautifully restored old homes and they truly are exceptional. Most have immaculately tended gardens and a feature are the superbly planted window boxes…………………

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We just couldn’t stop taking photos………

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Weekends are pretty spectacular in this town.  Every Saturday a thriving Farmers’ Market is held in the town park while every second Sunday the main street is closed to traffic.  Cafes and restaurants put out outdoor tables while bands and buskers play and perform.


But time after time we were drawn back to the leafy streets to admire those beautiful houses.

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After nine wonderful days the weather looked good to head on to Beaufort in North Carolina – a 36 hour passage up the coast. It will be good to get back to sea.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Havana–city of contrasts

Wow – what can one say about Havana?  Those who have visited will know what I mean and those who haven’t – get there soon before it gets spoilt.  We were surprised at the numbers of tourists figuring that any city without Americans would be quiet.  Wrong.  Europeans and Canadians flock here and with tourism the country’s biggest earner it’s only going to get worse.


Havana is one of the most vibrant, interesting, colourful cities we’ve been to.  Distinctly trapped in a 1950s time warp, its wide roads are clogged with thousands of classic American cars such as Fords, Buicks, Dodges and Chevs as well as horses and carts and bicycles.


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Those cars in immaculate condition sit outside the five star hotels waiting to take tourists for city tours at eye watering prices. The beat up models that are full of rust, have no door handles and long gone suspension so the taxis run from Havana out to the  suburbs.  For less than a dollar you can go anywhere – albeit not in such grand style as you would in a two door candy coloured Chevy convertible with white upholstery and matching white wall tyres.


Havana is a city of contrasts.  It’s certainly not had the airbrushing many other UNESCO cities such as Cartagena have had – it’s still very raw in parts – almost too raw.  Life is lived in or on the streets and it’s a very busy and happening place.



The areas where money is being poured in are lovely – beautifully renovated buildings, cobbled streets, trees in pots and street performers everywhere.  Slick operators prowl these areas waiting to pounce on gullible tourists…smartly dressed men smoking cigars or playing trumpet encourage you to take their photograph.  We got hit up for money here way more than in any other Cuban town.


It doesn’t take much to get away from the hustle and bustle and into the backstreets where life is far grittier.  Many buildings in these areas are crumbling and decrepit, the only form of transport is on foot or bicycle and people eke out a living selling a few mangos, tomatoes or sunflowers. 



Dirt cheap peso stores are everywhere and it’s fun to sit with the locals and eat what they’re eating (usually greasy, fattening and delicious).  Sometimes you have to stand in the street and eat your peso pizza or peso ice cream – but that’s part of the fun.


However, come sun downer time we retreated to the terrace of the elegant Hotel Ingleterre for a comfortable seat with a view and a serious mojito – one of the best we’ve had.  But it was hard to enjoy as we were besieged by beggars wanting soap, money and pens.  Given we were in a communist country that allegedly provides for its people we were surprised.   

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Havana is huge and it’s impossible to see it in a day.  Our first day we spent just orientating ourselves.  Armed with a map we walked and walked and walked with the spectacular Capatolia building as a landmark, stopping to revive ourselves with coffee, an ice cream, a cold beer or something more substantial from time to time. 


Our second day was a more serious exploration and we followed a recommended walking route through the old city that took in the main museums, monuments, churches, forts, buildings and squares.


We got off the beaten track, had lots of intriguing conversations with locals – some of whom just wanted to practise their English, others simply wanted to welcome us to Havana while others, of course, wanted something.  But they were all very friendly.



What we loved the most – apart from the amazing architecture and wonderful old buildings – were the colourful people.  Everywhere we turned there was another face to be snapped.  And such friendly people – never once were we admonished for taking a photo. 

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We ended up having three full days in Havana and still didn’t see everything.  We did enjoy visiting the Museum of the Revolution and seeing the Granma, the boat Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and friends sailed from Mexico to Cuba before the revolution.  The leafy streets and bustling markets of the Vedado area were also enjoyable.  Then there were the many art galleries, rum and cigar factories, bars and cafes and a hectic night-time scene with live music everywhere.


Exploring Havana was exhausting and we often took refuge in the air conditioned comfort of one of the five star hotels.  There’s nothing like a bit of luxury.  Another great place to escape the hustle was the Havana Club rum factory.  In the shady courtyard we sipped refreshing guaravanas (rum, sugar cane juice and orange juice) and listened to Cuban music.



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It was wonderful to return to Bandit in Hemingway Marina and enjoy refreshing dips in the pool – we felt we’d collected a fair bit of dust and dirt in Havana.   With a good weather window we left Havana in late April headed for the east coast of the States with wonderful memories of our fantastic six weeks in Cuba. 

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