Sunday, 11 March 2018

Havana: expectations vs. reality

Pink vintage car in Havana, Cuba

My desire to visit Havana came from the most unlikely of travel inspo sources; veteran news reader and TV presenter Sir Trevor McDonald. In around 2009, ITV released him from the shackles of his News at Ten desk to present a documentary series on the Secret Caribbean. One episode placed him in Havana, and teenage me was enchanted by what I saw. It was the first time anyone had explained to me the full raimfications of the US trade embargo, and why Cuba is stuck in its own little timewarp.

Given that I've wanted to go to Havana since foreverrrr then, it's no surprise that I had a few preconceptions and expectations about the Cuban capital. Here's what I anticipated - and how Havana lived up to expectations.

1. Vintage cars everywhere. Along with cigars and rum, retro wheels are part of the holy trinity of Havana. Trevor McD roamed the streets in a vintage red Chevrolet, and a 1950s American car is the cliched Havana photo.

A pink 1956 Ford Victoria vintage car tour in Havana, Cuba
Take note: from now on, my preferred travel method is a pink 1956 Ford Victoria
The truth: In reality, it's somewhere in the middle. Central Havana is chock-full of shiny, colourful Chevvies and Cadillacs, Fords and all manner of other makes that true petrolheads would be able to identify, but I just think are pretty. Cubans are very clever to use their vehicles to cash in on the tourist trade, using them as tour vehicles and taxis, and they often gather in huge numbers at various places around the city; sometimes you turn a corner and it's like walking into the drive-in movie theatre in Grease. 

 That said, there are plenty of modern cars patrolling Havana's streets too, and the further from the city centre you get, the higher the ratio of modern cars to vintage offerings. They all pootle around alongside each other with horses and carts and Coco Taxis thrown into the mix, in some sort of inter-era vehicular harmony.

A vintage car, modern car and yellow taxi in Havana, Cuba
The reality: vintage cars mix with modern cars and New York-style yellow taxis
2. No big brands: Given Cuba's socialist roots, and limited trade with countries such as America, I expected - and indeed, had been warned - that it's rare to find international brands there, be it food and drink, or clothing and goods.

The truth: The first thing we saw while waiting in the lengthy Passport Control queues at Havana Airport were adverts for Pringles - there goes that theory, then. Admittedly, there is far less advertising in Cuba than anywhere else I've been, the usual billboards replaced with street art and murals praising socialism, Che Guevara and other aspects of Cuban life. The majority of the adverts you do see tend to be for Cuban brands - Havana Club rum is everywhere.

Cuban flag street art in Havana, Cuba
You're more likely to see murals than billboards on Havana's streets
As for getting hold of international brands, it is possible. Coca Cola, for example, is available at many of the major international hotels. If you just ask for Cola, by default, you'll be served Cuba's own brand, Ciego Montero. State 'international Coca Cola' if you want the branded stuff, and expect to pay extra for it - it's imported from Mexico.

Designer clothes stores in Plaza Vieja, Havana, Cuba
Not what I expected to see in Plaza Vieja
What surprised me most was the presence of high-end international fashion stores in the tourist areas. Lacoste and Pepe Jeans make an appearance in Plaza Vieja, one of Havana's main squares, and the likes of Mango can be found in the shopping arcade attached to the Gran Hotel Manzana. These are predominantly for tourists - the majority of Cubans simply can't afford to shop in them.

3. Beautiful colonial buildings: Those cliched classic car photos often have a backdrop of
shabby chic pastel facades - stereotypical Havana architecture.

Stereotypical pastel houses in Havana, Cuba

The truth: Beautiful some of them may be, but others have been allowed to fall so far into disrepair, it's sad to see. Several houses have exposed pipes and wires and this is where you want to watch yourself - don't go leaning back to take a photo, only to electrocute yourself on a wire sticking out of a house. Yeah, I did. Bloomin' hurt too. The streets too are in a terrible state of disrepair, with uneven, cracked and bumpy pavements, and huge potholes in the roads.

Houses in Havana, Cuba
Less shabby chic, more plain shabby

Plus two things I didn't expect:

The fumes: Ok, so it's obvious when you think about it, but before I went, I hadn't; with hundreds of cars dating back to the 1950s roaming the streets, Havana's not the most environmentally-friendly city in the world. The petrol fumes are overpowering and unavoidable. When combined with the heat and humidity, the whole atmosphere feels claustrophobic to the point of being toxic. After three days in Havana, I was starting to worry that my lungs had received permanent damage, and at the end of each day, I was desperate to get into the hotel shower and scrub the layer of grime off of me.

Parque Almendares, Havana, Cuba

It's so green: Yep, completely goes against what I just said. I don't mean 'green' in the environmental sense though, I mean literally green, with plants and trees and bushes. This may be due to the time of year we visited (February) - in hotter months it may be more barren - but I was pleasantly surprised that those dusty, arid streets you see in photographs are interspersed with green parks and squares. The highlight was the Parque Almendares, which we drove through on our tour in a classic American car, and which an air of Jurassic Park to it.

Have you been to Havana? Did it live up to your expectations? Let me know in the comments.

See also:Venice: expectations vs. reality

Please, just one more day...

Beach bar at Iberostar Tainos hotel, Varadero, Cuba
Wishing this were my office for just one more day...

What I'm about to write is going to come across as very much a first-world problem, a middle-class indulgence if you will, but that's just how I feel right now. I'm sitting here in my room on a chilly Sunday in Match, a blanket wrapped around me to stave off the omnipresent chill, contemplating my impending return to civilian life.

OK, 'civilian' may be a bit strong - I've been in Cuba for two weeks, not on army manoeuvres, but that's the word that fits the feeling of getting back to normal life after a holiday.

For me, a holiday begins about a week before I actually take off, not just with packing and planning, but at work too; whenever anyone approaches you with a task, you look up with a face of joy thinly veiled with regret, that you won't be able to take on the task as you'll be on annual leave. A couple of days before you go, you just want to stick a note on your forehead: "Don't ask me - going on holiday". From that moment on, you're well and truly in the Holiday Bubble, an invisible force which, unfortunately, only you can feel. Life goes on for everyone else as normal, and yet, you feel like you should have a neon sign above your head, reminded everyone of your impending travels.

VW Camper Van in Varadero, Cuba
Wishing this was my everyday commute...
Your first day back in the office, everyone greets you, comments on your tan, asks the pre-requisite questions about your holiday. And then it's heads down and back to work as usual, as you crawl through your backlog of emails, wondering why no-one paid any attention to your Out Of Office, your tan fading before your eyes under the harsh strip-lighting. Halfway through the morning, someone asks you a question. 'Yes!', you think. 'This is my chance!'

"I don't know", you reply sweetly, "I was on holiday."

"Oh yeah, right", your colleague mumbles, and you wait. You wait for your chance to tell them again how blue the sea was, how luxurious the hotel, how strong the cocktails. You're wondering which anecdote to start with, but they've already bumbled off to ask Sue from accounts the same question they've just asked you, because Sue knows everything.

Just like that, your holiday is over. The bubble is burst. It's as if it never happened at all.

Sunset from the Iberostar Tainos hotel, Varadero, Cuba
*Insert your own pithy caption about watching the sun set on your holiday*

That's where I am right about now. Thankfully I'm still ensconced cosily in the Holiday Bubble, but I know that soon, I've got to reunite myself with the paraphernalia that oils the cogs of day-to-day life. I've got to get my Oyster Card and diary out of the drawer I eagerly cast them into a couple of weeks ago. Was it really only two weeks ago? I'll have to set my alarm for 6.30am and be back on the 8.14am train. I'll jostle my way through the City, naively hoping the suits and umbrellas of its streets will go just a little gentle on me as it's my first day back, while really knowing that it's just another day for everyone else.

But for now, my notebook, my camera and my mind are full of Cuba, so please let me wallow in my bubble a little longer.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Photo diary: a day in Rochester

Rochester in Kent is a small town on the Medway, punching way above its weight with a castle, cathedral and plenty of Dickensian links. I've already shared some of the quirks and unusual sights of Rochester (as well as a cheeky hack for getting there), so here are a few more snaps from the few hours we spent there on a chilly Sunday in January:

Rochester Bridge over the Medway, Kent
The bridge over the Medway between Rochester and Strood is very elaborate and well-decorated - check out the crown above the lamp. Yet it's also a very industrial design, with huge steel spans. Quite the juxtaposition.

Rochester Castle, Kent
You didn't think you'd get away without a shot of the castle, did you? It's extremely square style may look familiar - it was designed by the same monk responsible for the White Tower at the Tower of London. No time to go inside on our visit though...

Rochester Cathedral seen from Rochester Castle
A view of Rochester Cathedral through the walls of the lawn at Rochester Castle.

Cafe in Rochester High Street, Kent
Plenty of cafes and restaurants to please tourists

Cafe in Rochester High Street, Kent
One of the remaining town gates, along with one of the town's many wonky buildings.

Baggins Book Bazaar in Rochester, Kent
Inside Baggins Book Bazaar, which claims to be England's largest second hand bookshop

Architecture on Rochester High Street, Kent
The town is a real architectural mishmash, with buildings from a variety of time periods. 

View down Rochester High Street, Kent
Looking south down Rochester High Street, with many different architectural styles. It reminds me of the lower half of Lewes High Street in East Sussex.
Sweet shop on Rochester High Street, Kent
I can never resist a quirky sweet shop, there's something charming about them. Managed to bag myself a treat while we were there

The Deaf Cat Cafe on Rochester High Street, Kent
The Deaf Cat Cafe on Rochester High Street, apparently named after a... deaf cat, which used to sit with Charles Dickens as he wrote.

The Deaf Cat Cafe on Rochester High Street, Kent
Inside the Deaf Cat Cafe, because we were in need of refreshment. The hot chocolate was indeed yummy, the cookies somewhat less enthralling.

Shops on Rochester High Street, Kent
More Dickensian references on the High Street. You don't often see old-fashioned greengrocer shops anymore - Rochester has a lovely olde worlde charm to it.

Rochester High Street, Kent
No idea what the decor of this distance marker is, but I'm guessing it's nothing to do with Dickens.
Ghostsign on Rochester High Street, Kent
As you get towards the bottom end of the High Street, look up and you''ll see plenty of ghostsigns...

Ghostsign and Charles Dickens mural on Rochester High Street, Kent
...including this one, which is topped off by a more modern mural of Dickens.

Rochester High Street, Kent
The High Street is home to the former French Hospital, now used as mews housing, but a few hints at its past can still be seen
Rochester High Street, Kent
I was charmed by this door. Serious case of door envy and door goals going on.
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Things to do on a daytrip to Rochester in Kent

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Saturday, 17 February 2018

The truth about Elan Cafe

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

You may not know Elan Cafe by name, but chances are you've seen it on Instagram. Its pink flower walls, colourful croissants and Lucky Charms lattes have been inescapable in the last few weeks.

To be honest, I didn't have high expectations for my first Elan Cafe visit; let's face it, the quality of your offerings doesn't matter if you're targeting people who will pay above the odds for a one-time latte purely to rake in the likes on Instagram.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

Peggy Porschen is the obvious - and original - example of a London cafe that's done well off of social media. I've never been so I can't comment one way or the other about the quality of the food. However, there was that disastrous trip to Palm Vaults in Hackney, another darling venue of London's Insta hoards. Sure it's pretty - although not as much as Instagram would have you believe, because #filters - and yes the food was decent, but as a business, it's a shambles.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

So as I Google-Mapped my way to the Park Lane Elan Cafe, my mind was open but my expectations were low. I didn't even know if any tables would be available, or if there'd be queues out of the door, even at mid-morning on a Tuesday.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

It's a lot smaller than its online presence suggests. Perched between the behemoth buildings of Park Lane and sunk a little into the ground, it reminded me of this (but obviously not *quite* that small). Good news came in the form of an available table inside.

 Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

Not too sure of the system (table service? Order at the counter?) I plonked my coat down to save the table and hovered around the cake counter in what I hoped was a 'help-me-I'm-new-here-and-definitely-not-cool-enough-do-know-what-I'm doing vibe'. Fortunately, I've years of experience in giving off 'not-cool-enough' vibes, and a man who I think was the manager came to my rescue, telling me in a polite and non-patronising way that they'd take my order from my table.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

A couple of minutes later he came over with a menu, which turned out to be far more extensive than the repetitive photos of that latte art would have you believe. A quick scour showed that the Lucky Charms latte -my main reason for making this pilgrimage - wasn't on the menu. Perhaps it's only available at the other branch of Elan Cafe, but no harm in asking, right?

And just like that, I became one of *those* people, who order something they've seen on Instagram, even though it's not on the actual menu. A little bit of me died inside as I placed my order, but the knowledge that Lucky Charms were on their way to my table helped me get over it pretty quickly.

Salads at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

While I was waiting, I wandered around the ground level, taking photos and chatting to the staff, who weren't remotely surprised at my incessant snapping. Rather judgmentally, I had thought they might be a bit snooty, and a bit, well... Mayfair, especially given that my geeky rucksack and ill-fitting jeans mark me out as quite different to the Instagrammers and bloggers that feature heavily on the Elan Instagram feed.

No need to worry though, as they were all super-friendly, chatting about the food and offering to take a photo of me against the pink flower wall (something they've clearly done once or twice before). My assumptions of Elan Cafe had been destroyed, and that was no bad thing.

Lucky Charms latte at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

If the friendly staff aren't enough to shoot down the misconstrued notion that Elan is overhyped, the food should do the trick. A generous portion of Lucky Charms topped my latte, with more heaped on the saucer. The coffee itself was decent, if nothing special, but the jam-filled raspberry croissant was really quite unique.

Cakes at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

As I ate, I watched life in the cafe continue around me, surprised to see regulars coming by for their morning coffee. The staff knew what they were going to order before they'd even closed the door, and the manager even asked one lady if she'd been on holiday as he hadn't seen her for a while. Clearly Elan does foster and maintain regular customers, as well as pandering to one-time Instagram tourists.

Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

Far from being just another Instagram sensation that's all style, no substance, Elan Cafe is serving up decent (if pricey) food and drink, with friendly and helpful staff. That iconic decor is a constant theme throughout. The Instagram hype? That's just a pink, filtered jewel in Elan's photogenic crown. Instagramability* and quality aren't mutually exclusive, and nowhere is that more evident that this petite pink cafe. For me, it's not a everyday cafe, but somewhere I'll definitely return to with friends on special occasions. You'd do well to visit - don't forget your camera.
*definitely a real word.

I visited the Elan Cafe at 48 Park Lane, W1K 1PR, but there's a second branch in Knightsbridge at 239 Brompton Road, SW3 2EP. Work up an appetite on Instagram before you visit.

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Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

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Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Afternoon tea review: Silly Old Bear Winnie the Pooh afternoon tea

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

Not saying the powers-that-be (or should that be, the powers-that-afternoon-tea*?) have bugged my office or anything, but some colleagues and I had a conversation about how there absolutely should be a Winnie the Pooh themed afternoon tea in London, and to be quite frank, it's a travesty that there isn't.

The next day, a press release lands in my inbox about a Winnie the Pooh afternoon tea in London. Coincidence? I think not. Tempted? Absolutely.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

The Pelham and The Gore hotels, both part of the Starhotels chain in South Kensington, have produced the Silly Old Bear afternoon tea to tie in with the current Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A. It's clear from the off that this afternoon tea is aimed at families. The back of the menus are covered in games and puzzles to keep younger guests (yeah, alright, and me) amused.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

The food arrives in the form of a picnic, with scones, cream and honey lollipops - and those all-important crayons - served up in a picnic basket. The sandwiches and sweet treats are presented on what can only be described as tree stumps (don't alert #WeWantPlates just yet though - it's exquisite).

A pair of twenty-somethings without any kids in tow, we were thrilled by the presentation of the tea. Those of you who know me will know I'm a stickler for afternoon tea being served on the traditional tiered stand. Well, this case proves to be the exception to that rule.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

But does it pass the taste test? Mostly, yes. Let's start with the sweet treats; the Eeyore themed chocolate mousse - served in a gorgeous mini Kilner jar - was the absolute highlight, although it could have done without the layer of orange compote at the bottom.

The meringue and marzipan bee was a cute little fella, the marzipan easily removable for those who don't like it, the biscuit and meringue paired perfectly. The cupcake and the passion fruit macaron slipped down nicely too.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

The Hunny Pops - balls of honey parfait, white chocolate and caramel glace on a stick - were where we ran into trouble. They're served up in that picnic basket, which as it transpires, is lined with moss to really commit to the picnic theme - cute, but not ideal when one fell off its stick and was rendered green, furry and inedible. We had to abandon the rescue operation due the sheer volume of honey everywhere - parents, you're gonna need a bigger pack of wet wipes.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London
In hindsight, we should have seen the problems coming

The scones are crumblier than your average, almost biscuit-like in texture, which I rather enjoyed. Rummage around in the picnic basket (mind the honey!) and you'll find delightfully thick clotted cream and generous amounts of lemon curd to send them on their way.

Afternoon tea connoisseurs may find little to please them here, but that's OK because this isn't an afternoon tea for them. It's a fun twist on the tradition and a great way to introduce younger diners to afternoon tea. The food is ideal for this - not too much, not too rich, not too unusual.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

*If any other afternoon tea planners are reading this, I have two words for you: Lion King. DO IT, I beg of you, and do it well.

Silly Old Bear afternoon tea is available at The Pelham and The Gore, both in South Kensington until April 2018. It costs £43 per person which includes entry to the V&A exhibition, and needs to be booked in advance.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Photo Diary: Orchids Festival 2018 at Kew Gardens

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

If you listen really carefully right about *now*, you'll hear the sound of a thousand bloggers and Instagrammers slapping on their lippy and heading to a certain botanical gardens for their latest photo shoot.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

I am of course talking about Kew Gardens, which has just launched its annual Orchids Festival in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

The absolute highlight (although strictly off-limits for those close-up selfies) is the floating installation on the pond, which features 600 individual orchids and depicts Thailand's Bang Pa-In Palace:

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Elsewhere, join the bundle for a photo with one of the three floral arches adorning the conservatory's winding pathways.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Orchids grow up pillars and across pathways, and even hang from the ceiling:

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

It's absolutely stunning, composed of almost 7,000 individual orchids, but as well as showcasing the flowers, the festival is a celebration of Thai culture.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018
Can I get some blogger points for matching my nail varnish to the flowers?

Fun fact: five water dragons live permanently in the conservatory to keep unwanted insects in check. They're notoriously difficult to spot - especially when a herd of scoop-hungry press photographers is stomping about all over the place - so I wasn't lucky enough to see them this time.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

A word of warning: the festival is inside a tropical conservatory, so things get hot and steamy. I left my house in -3° to get to the press preview, wrapped up to the extreme, which resulted in much sweating on arrival. It also meant that camera lenses were steaming up left, right and centre hence the less-than-ideal quality of some of these pictures. But, this does mean it makes for an excellent day out in these cold winter months.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

 If you're on Instagram, you can expect to see a lot of this place over the coming month, but if you get the chance, I'd recommend heading there in person - selfies optional.

Orchids Festival at Kew Gardens, 10 February-11 March 2018. Entry to the festival is included in a general admission ticket.