Thanks to celeb haunt Sandy Lanes and the other luxury hotels that line the aptly named Platinum Coast, Barbados is firmly associated with the high end travel market. But what if you can’t afford the eye-wateringly expensive prices of these places? I was determined to visit Barbados but needed to bring the cost of my trip in at a much smaller budget. Here’s how to save money on your holiday and enjoy Barbados on a budget.
As with all long haul trips, flight costs make up a large percentage of the total cost. Both BA and Virgin Atlantic fly direct to Barbados, but neither of them are budget airlines. Saving money on the cost of a ticket takes a bit of forward planning. I’d saved a bunch of air miles with BA – what used to be Avios and are now points on their Executive Club scheme. However, these were not sufficient for a return fare to the Caribbean. Fortunately, BA announced a promotion, whereby the number of miles required for a seat halved. Availability was good and I snagged a fare for the last week of November for the price of the taxes, around £270. Virgin, of course, have a similar loyalty scheme.
If you don’t fly regularly, that doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. I save points regularly with my Nectar card on groceries, petrol and even car servicing. It’s possible to redeem those points with Expedia and as with the airline loyalty schemes, all you need to pay is the taxes. Without points of some kind, full price fares in high season, that’s December through until spring, can be horrendously expensive. Though they’ll be much cheaper in September and October, it’s hurricane season and you run the risk of your vacation being memorable for all the wrong reasons. At best, you’re likely to have a rain shower most days and at worst, a total washout. Instead, look for a seat in the shoulder seasons, with late November and early May more reliable in terms of weather.
How much will you pay for your accommodation in Barbados? How long is a piece of string?! Many of the resorts here are prohibitively expensive, especially for a solo or budget traveller. Much as I’d have liked to stay at one of the fancy resorts, I’d have hated the huge bill at the end of it. I wanted to keep my accommodation costs as low as possible, but without sacrificing some of the holiday comforts that can make a trip so much easier. I wanted reliable WiFi – needed, even – and hoped to be able to get a pool too. I’m not a sea person when it comes to swimming, but I do enjoy a relaxing dip in the pool. Most important of all, I needed to be well connected in a convenient location without being right in the city.
Fortunately, Airbnb came up with the answer: a studio apartment at Rockley Golf Club. Once fees were factored in, the place cost just under £400 for my seven night stay. Though I had it to myself, it would easily have slept two, and two more on the sofa bed downstairs. The clever layout, with downstairs sitting room and the bed on a mezzanine, meant that it felt much more spacious than the label studio might suggest. The ladder stairs up were a little steep, but manageable, and regardless, the listing made it very clear that’s how they were. The sofa in the living room converted into a bed which was a reassuring back up, had I been too stiff (or too drunk) to get up the ladder. This is the listing, should you wish to have a look:
I had a small kitchen, bathroom and living room, with hairdryer, cable TV, phone for local calls, beach towels and even a cooler. The hosts, Karen and Mark, were helpfully available at the end of a phone and left me a comprehensive booklet of advice covering everything from which beaches were best to how to do a food shop. Their attention to detail was legendary – there was nothing they hadn’t thought of. The resort itself had a laundry and clubhouse and of course that all important pool. It was safe too, not an insignificant consideration for a single female. Would I recommend the place? Absolutely.
Food and drink
First, the good news: drinking is cheap in Barbados. I drank Banks beer from the characterful John Moore beach bar at Weston for about £1.20 a bottle, rum and Coke with Nigel Benn’s Aunty Lucille in Shorey Village for £2 a pop. Cocktails down at the local Tiki Bar at Rockley Beach were a little over £6, not bad for a tourist joint. Lots of places served up happy hour for more than 60 minutes a day. But actually the nicest drink I had was non-alcoholic, a yummy mango and peach smoothie at the cafe at Holetown’s Chattel Village.
Food was another matter. Barbados is the kind of place where if you’re on a budget, you need to think about where, and what, you eat. Though it was possible to find affordable restaurants, particularly those aimed at the local market, in general Barbados doesn’t offer good value for money when it comes to eating out, though neither does it pretend to. Of course, being an island means some foods are imported, which adds to the cost. Nevertheless, Oistins’ famous fish fry is a memorable night out for tourists and locals alike and there were plenty of local haunts where a meal didn’t break the bank.
I decided to make the most of having a kitchen and self-catered for some of my meals. I spent about 100 Barbados dollars, roughly £40, stocking up on supplies that sorted me out for breakfast and lunches for the week, plus the makings of a couple of night’s dinners. Massy’s, the island’s biggest supermarket chain, even stocked Waitrose products, though at a premium.
Tours on the island aren’t cheap, a by-product of this being a cruise-ship destination where travellers are cash-rich and time-poor. With more time on my hands, I was able to take advantage of Barbados’ extensive (though Bridgetown-focused) bus network. Plenty of minivans plied their trade along the coast, and it was easy to hail a yellow bus to Bridgetown or Speightstown. The journey times were surprisingly long for such a small island, but a ride afforded a glimpse into local life as well as interesting sightseeing out of the window. If you don’t mind stopping everywhere, it’s a great way to get around. People were happy to chat and travelling this way was a real pleasure.
The official buses of Barbados Transport Board, identified by their blue livery, were fine off peak. At peak times, however, they double as school buses. If you were lucky enough to persuade a driver to let you take up a valuable space – and I was – riding with a bunch of noisy schoolchildren didn’t make for a relaxing holiday experience. The BTB’s website has a useful timetable finder, but note that some buses are likely to be cancelled to act as school buses instead, such as the Boscobelle service that I was told by a driver was “hard to come by”. You can find the timetables here:
I found the Moovit site helpful as a planning tool as well:
Whichever you choose, a flat fare of 2 Barbados dollars (about 80p) means that getting around is cheap and straightforward. While minivans and yellow buses would change small notes, for blue buses you require the exact fare in coins which you simply chuck into the slot in front of the driver and wait for him to give you a ticket. On the yellow buses and minivans, you pay the driver on exit, unless a conductor is on board – if so, he or she will ask you for your fare at some point during your journey. To get off, press the bell, pull the cord or if neither is present, call out “bus, stop”. Most will continue on until the next official bus stop. These too are user-friendly: marked “to city” or “out of city” which usually refers to Bridgetown.
It doesn’t have to cost a lot to see a lot, if you’re prepared to bus it. The highest entrance fee I paid was at St Nicholas Abbey, but for 45 Barbados dollars the ticket included a tour of the historic house (never an abbey), mill and distillery, plus a rum tasting. The family’s movie footage of 1930s Bridgetown was fascinating, though at times it was hard to concentrate as Twinx the cat decided my lap was a lovely warm spot for a nap and a cuddle. I tried to tell him I was a dog person, but he wasn’t at all put out. In the end I had to lift him down or I’d have missed out on the rum.
For a little less, a tour of Arlington House in Speightstown is well worth the outlay. One of the rooms was themed as a sugar cane field and told the story of the slaves that made Barbados’ plantation owners wealthy. The house itself was made from coral stone and the traditional louvred shutters were hung to good effect in another of its displays. Entrance costs just 25 Barbados dollars for overseas visitors and I thought it helped me gain a better understanding of what shaped Barbados in the past.
Other entrance fees were equally good value: 30 Barbados dollars to visit either Hunte’s Gardens or Andromeda Botanic Garden. The former definitely had the wow factor, the kind of place that inspires you to go home and plant something. The owner, a talented horticulturalist, had turned a natural sinkhole into a verdant muddle of hidden nooks dotted with quirky statuary.
Andromeda, by contrast, was a botanist’s dream, the life’s work of the late Iris Bannochie and a rival of Hunte’s. Managed by the enthusiastic and passionate Sharon Cooke, it was a real pleasure to see someone work so hard to make such a place accessible to all. For a week, Barbadians can enter free of charge. And throughout the year, the entry ticket is valid for three weeks – go early in your stay and you can go back for free.
I paid the same for a combo of the delightful George Washington House and the Garrison tunnels and as with the gardens, the tour was well worth the outlay. The guide, Martin, was extremely knowledgable and not at all perturbed when one of the country’s senators – and a Sir to boot – delayed us for a long chat about writing, editors and publishing in general. I’m not sure what he was doing in George Washington’s House but thought it impolite to ask. The tunnels were almost a no go thanks to a loss of power, but guide Wilbur was keen to show us anyway so our small group descended by torchlight.
Some of the best attractions turned out to be free, and I don’t just mean the afternoon I spent with Aunty Lucille. The beaches cost nothing, providing you don’t need a lounger. Watching the jockeys practise at the Garrison racetrack is also free, though you need to be up early as they ride out before the sun gets too hot. Morgan Lewis sugar mill is the only intact windmill in this part of the Caribbean, though it doesn’t actually work – it was struck by lightning a decade or so ago and no one’s got around to fixing it yet. I reached it on foot, taking a gentle half an hour hike downhill enjoying far-reaching views along the east coast on a quiet backroad.
It’s certainly possible to visit Barbados on a budget, though other Caribbean destinations offer better value for money. Would I go back? Not just yet, but if the UK exchange rate improves, then I might just go back for more.
This October I’m teaming up with Lauren of Diary of a Spanglish Girl for a feature on Day of the Dead. It’s one of my favourite festivals so when Lauren posted a shout out on her Twitter feed asking if anyone had been to Mexico for Day of the Dead and would like to share their experience with her, I jumped at the chance. You can read the interview here. By the way, Lauren’s also the person behind an excellent Facebook group for travel bloggers called Share Your Travel Blog Post And Connect With The World. If you have a travel blog, it’s well worth signing up as there are plenty of tips and experiences to inspire your future travels. She also has her own Facebook page which is a helpful resource if you love to visit Spain.
The Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos as it’s known locally, is a big deal in Mexico, nowhere more so than in the southern city of Oaxaca. Celebrated at the end of October and beginning of November each year, the festival focuses on the dead, and the whole town gets involved in some way. What I didn’t bargain for was how involved I’d get as well.
Arriving a few days before the main celebrations, work was beginning to get underway on the altars. Each family creates an altar to tempt their ancestors’ spirits back to earth. I’d been in touch with Mariana from a small hotel called Las Bugambilias and she’d invited me to join them. In the courtyard, stood a life-sized model of Catrina, the mascot of the Day of the Dead. For a century or so, La Calavera Catrina has been associated with Día de Muertos, thanks to a cartoonist by the name of Jose Guadalupe Posada. He was known for satire and drew the rich in fancy hats and feather boas, ridiculing them by implying death was only for the poor.
Catrina takes the form of a skeleton dressed in elegant clothing, dripping in furs or, in this case, feather boas, strings of beads draped around her neck and an elegant cigarette holder in her hand. She was comical rather than creepy, my first hint that this festival has fun as well as respect at its heart.
With a small group of fellow tourists and under Mariana’s expert guidance, we set about creating an altar called an ofrenda. Each of us had been allocated a specific task: some threaded marigold blooms onto strings; others dusted icing sugar skulls in the yard to form a pathway to the altar. My job was to create a centrepiece cross of white carnations and dot it with tiny purple buds. It was harder than it looked to get the blooms just right. Mariana was a perfectionist, but after her intervention, the cross really did look the business. After several hours of preparation, the ofrenda began to take shape. Loose marigold petals defined the path, their pungent aroma pervading the tiny courtyard. The altar itself was decorated with candles, fruit, nuts, incense and brightly coloured bunting. Sepia photographs of family ancestors peeked out from behind yet more marigolds.
Finally, we’d finished, and to celebrate, out came a bottle of Mezcal for a toast, to our efforts and to the ancestors we’d honoured. I’d been asked to bring along family photos and raised a glass to my sorely missed grandparents, their picture wedged between a bicycle candleholder and a lime. I pledged to myself and to them that I would make an effort this time next year to recreate this feeling with my own ofrenda.
The following evening, a group of us headed for the cemetery. On the night of 31st October, residents and visitors alike flock to the old and new cemeteries in Xoxocotlan, on the outskirts of Oaxaca. They were busy with people tending graves, laying marigolds and other offerings and lighting candles in memory of their deceased relatives. Many families would stay all night. I wandered amongst the weathered graves in the packed old cemetery, taking care not to trip over tree roots in the gloom of the candlelight.
Vibrant scarlet gladioli added a splash of colour to the warm amber tones lent by the flickering flames. White canna lilies added grandeur. Vivid orange cempasuchil dominated the scene through sheer weight of numbers. Some graves were a hive of activity; at others, the mood of the relatives was more reflective. Once or twice, a lone mourner wept softly at a graveside, their grief recent and still raw. It was hard not to feel emotional. Yet, I was warmly welcomed, invited to share a spot at several gravesides.
At the new cemetery, there was a party atmosphere. The floral colour palette was enhanced by fluorescent wands that poked out of pushchairs. Lovestruck teenagers sneaked a kiss behind their parents’ backs. Small children munched on sugar skulls and sucked skull lollipops. The sounds of Michael Jackson’s Thriller boomed from a loudspeaker, almost masking the cries of the many hawkers selling snacks and party treats. At the edge of the cemetery, a funfair had been set up with the usual stalls and rides. If it hadn’t been for the tombstones, it would have been easy to forget you were in a cemetery at all.
Comparsas (local groups) parade all night through the streets in costume, celebrating the return of the ancestors with music and dancing. The following evening, the Las Bugambilias team took us out of town to the village of San Agustin Etla, where I’d heard their Muerteada parade was second to none. Anticipation mounted as a crowd gathered in the narrow lane. Eventually the procession reached the village, an eclectic band of ogres, devils and monsters, each with a costume more fantastic than the last. There were ghouls with terrifyingly realistic make up alongside drag queens with pink hair.
The devil carried his scythe, passing a ‘Panteonero’, someone from the pantheon, whose eyeball was missing. Somehow because of the crowds, most were freakish rather than scary, but they were all to be commended for their efforts. As the final performer arrived, in one corner of the village square, a play was being re-enacted. Many of those in the parade weren’t needed, however, and had planted themselves against walls and on kerbstones to have a much-needed drink. I wandered amongst them exchanging pleasantries as far as my limited Spanish would permit, posing for photos and trying on some of the costumes. I was glad I wasn’t wearing one; the weight was impressively heavy. No wonder they’d sat down!
As the evening wore on, a chill settled on the air and the Mezcal came out again. Passing the bottle round, glasses were raised.
“Salud!” Compared to the sombre way we remembered our deceased back home, the Mexicans embraced their spirits, celebrating with them and having fun in the same way they would have done when they were alive. I decided my grandparents, gregarious even in old age, would have given it the thumbs up.
If you’d like to find out more about my experience of Day of the Dead, make sure you check out Lauren’s blog post. For my take on why I prefer Day of the Dead to Halloween, have a read of an earlier post of mine.
The Bahamas consists of around 700 islands, cays and islets strung out like jewels on a necklace in some of the shallowest, most turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of these islands are uninhabited. Those further from Nassau, the country’s capital, are known as the Family Islands or Out Islands. The Exumas draw visitors for snorkelling and watersports as well as film makers – James Bond’s Thunderball was filmed near Staniel Cay and Pirates of the Caribbean on Sandy Cay. Johnny Depp liked the place so much he even bought his own private island nearby. He’s not alone. The Bahamas has a higher number of privately owned islands than anywhere else on the planet.
But when it comes to celebrity residents, even Hollywood stars are eclipsed by the Exumas’ famous porcine residents. No one knows for sure how pigs got to Big Major Cay, but these days they are the Exumas’ biggest draw. Around twenty or so pigs live on the beach, charming the pants off the steady stream of tourists who come here to swim with them. The proximity of Big Major Cay to Nassau makes it possible to visit for the day, even if you’re stopping off as part of a cruise.
It’s a popular trip but doesn’t come cheap. Many operators offer excursions. A flyer from Exuma Escapes in our hotel room offered a day out by boat for a special price of $359 per person, which included a 150 nautical mile round trip by speedboat, plus stops to see not only the pigs but also iguanas and to snorkel with nurse sharks. We ruled this out as it was billed as a bumpy ride and not suitable for those with bad backs. To take a smiliar package by air would have cost $550 per person which pushed it well out of our price range. Though you’d have an hour with the pigs and another with the sharks, the return flight would be at 3pm and so with check-in advised over an hour before, that would cut into the day considerably.
Fortunately, I read about a company that would unpackage the trip. We contacted Staniel Cay Vacations whose website http://www.stanielcayvacations.com/tours/ lists a number of options including a pigs only boat trip for $50 per person (minimum 2 people). Booking flights separately with Flamingo Air at http://flamingoairbah.com/ cost us $240 per person. We flew out of Nassau on the 0800 flight, arriving before 0900 and departed at 1700, with check-in required by 1530. We needed to fund our own transport to the airport and lunch at Staniel Cay, but still didn’t pay what we’d have needed to shell out for a tour.
Our boatman, Mr George, was waiting for us at the airport and pointed out Thunderball Cave as we passed. We didn’t see the iguanas like the tour groups do, of course, but while we were enjoying an al fresco lunch at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club a frenzy of nurse sharks clustered around the boat dock. We ended up with plenty of relaxation time at Staniel Cay – spent lazing under a shady tree on the beach and watching the boats come and go from the marina.
Best of all, we were ahead of the tour groups at Big Major Cay and had the pigs to ourselves for a while before another couple of boats arrived. This in itself made the day. Mr George had brought food along so we were able to feed the pigs while in the water.
Of course, we took a small risk unpackaging the tour but were fortunate that the flights were pretty much on schedule. Monique was responsive and helpful, answering emails promptly and making sure we were all set. Feeding the pigs was fun and watching them swim was a memorable experience. Mr George kept a close eye on us and made sure we gave pregnant mama pig, who had a tendency to bite people’s bums, a wide berth. And the piglets were cute too, the youngest just a couple of weeks old.
Would I recommend the trip? Definitely. It didn’t come cheap, but was an unforgettable experience and worth evey cent.
Ask anyone who’s visited the Bahamas what is the food that epitomises the islands and chances are, they’re going to say conch. Pronounced ‘conk’ this ubiquitous marine mollusc is served in all manner of ways, the most popular being deep fried fritters with just the right amount of spice to give them a kick. There’s also delicious cracked conch, which can best be described as the Bahamian version of fish and chips. Every restaurant has it on the menu, so finding it is easy. Knowing which serves the best is a whole lot harder, however.
I believe there’s no better way to get to know the heart and soul of a country than through its stomach. Though the enduring image of the Bahamas is of glistening turquoise waters surrounding necklaces of cays, there’s a lot to be said for getting out of the water and into Nassau’s historic downtown district. But the capital’s streets are packed with eateries and it’s hard to know where to start. I figure it’s always best to enlist the help of a local when it comes to food. I’d been tipped off by Cecilia fom Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours that in Nassau, I should get in touch with Tru Bahamian Food Tours.
Alanna Rogers set up the company in 2012, describing herself as a passionate foodie whose own travels inspired her to showcase the cuisine of her own country. The Bites of Nassau food tour is popular with cruise ship passengers looking for a memorable experience when their ship’s in dock, as well as with those who are staying on the island. It even attracts locals, which in my opinion is another measure of how good it is. Something like 5000 people take the tour each year, and the company is going from strength to strength.
My husband and I took the tour this March as part of a week-long holiday in the Bahamas. From our base at Cable Beach it was an easy ride into Nassau. Guide and operations manager Murray was easy to find on the steps of the cathedral, built in 1841 as the first official place of worship in the country. Our small group strolled around the corner to Market Street for a look at the pastel pink Balcony House. The oldest wooden structure in the city, it hosted Ian Fleming when he came to the Bahamas when Thunderball was filmed in 1965.
Across the street was Bahamian Cookin’. Murray warned us that this would be the largest of our tasting plates, and it was here we had our introduction to the Bahamian staples: conch fritters, fall off the bone chicken, baked mac and cheese and of course peas and rice. I hate peas. But peas here are beans, fortunately, and this was so tasty I confess to stealing some of my husband’s while his attention was distracted. On the way out, we had a refreshing glass of switcha, a kind of Bahamian limeade. Apparently, spellings of switcha vary considerably so if you’re reading this and spelling it differently, I’d love to know how you write it.
Next up we got to meet one of Nassau’s most colourful characters. In the Towne Hotel, we were served a potent Planter’s Punch while enjoying the company of Max, who’s the hotel’s resident blue macaw. The artwork in the hotel was fabulously diverse and a big talking point as we sipped our rum cocktails. The chatter continued as we reached Graycliff.
Now a hotel, it was built in 1700 by privateer John Howard Graysmith. An inn from 1844, it was also once the private home of wealthy Canadian Izaak Killam and later Lord Dudley. The latter played host to the likes of Edward and Mrs Simpson, Churchill and Lord Mountbatten. It’s also seen Al Capone, the Beatles, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
We learned that some of the bottles of wine in its cellar would cost the average tourist a year’s wages. Passing on that, instead we got to try some of the chocolates in the on-site factory. The first, labelled “white chocolate twice as hot as goat pepper” was a truly Marmite experience – some of us (me included!) spat it out half-eaten while others would have been delighted to eat the whole tray. That’s half the fun of taking a food tour, of course, to experiment with flavours you wouldn’t otherwise have tried.
Nearby is Government House. Our Queen is Head of State in the Bahamas but of course her representative the Governor General takes care of things for her and these are his digs. The building actually stands on the highest point of downtown Nassau affording a fabulous view of the cruise ships in dock. We walked down a flight of steps – not those steps – to visit Biggity in Bay Street. Amanda’s creative take on pigeon pea hummus, rosemary and thyme infused olive oil, and garlic Johnny cake crostini was a big hit with everyone, as was the bush tea we washed it down with.
Murray explained that Bahamians consider bush medicine important. A nod to the country’s African heritage, native spices, leaves, flowers and tree bark are artfully combined to cure all manner of ills. Apparently it’s also quite common to consume a medicinal tot of rum to avoid having to visit the doctor. I’ve bookmarked this interesting blog from the Tru Bahamian Food Tours website just in case I feel under the weather:
Our penultimate stop was at Athena Cafe. Many of the Greek community in Nassau can trace ancestors who came to participate in the trade of sea sponges back in the 19th century. They stayed on, blending typical Greek dishes with local ingredients – we had a tasty chowder. Rounding off the tour was a sweet treat from the Tortuga Rum Cake Company. The group enjoyed rum cake with walnuts but as I’m not a fan, my rum cake came nut-free with pineapple instead. It was delicious.
Tru Bahamian Food Tours promote Bahamian cuisine as “the islands’ most unexplored cultural treasure”. After a few hours in Murray’s company, I think they’ve got that just about right. What sets this tour apart from other food tours is the emphasis it places on history, culture and the pivotal role of immigrants to the Bahamas. When asked what they enjoyed best about the tour, most people commended the contextual information that Murray had provided.
However, compared to other food tours I’ve taken there were fewer opportunities to chat to fellow participants about the food, which has in the past been an enjoyable way of processing what I’ve learnt. Also, towards the end, the tour felt a little rushed; several of the other tours I’ve done have been around five hours long. By lengthening the tour from its current three hours, both these points could be addressed. I guess when something’s good, you don’t want it to end.
But those are minor criticisms of what’s an excellent tour. If you’re planning to visit Nassau any time soon, and if you want to understand what makes the country tick, this is a must for your itinerary. But take my advice: arrange the tour at the start of your trip. Once you’ve tasted what’s on offer, you’re going to want to go back for more.
You can find out more about Tru Bahamian Food Tours on their website and social media feeds – the links are at the foot of this post. The excellent Bites of Nassau tour is a great way to experience the islands’ capital Nassau. It runs several times a day from Monday to Saturday and lasts about 3 hours; you can book online. The company has also just launched a Sunday cocktail tour, which should prove to be just as popular as the original Bites tour. If you’re feeling really inspired, they can also arrange cooking classes giving you the skills to recreate the dishes you’ve enjoyed once you get home.
The Bites of Nassau costs $69 per person. My husband and I enjoyed the tour free of charge in exchange for promoting the tour via this blog. The photos which illustrate my blog are a mixture of mine and those supplied by Tru Bahamian Food Tours, but the opinions are entirely my own.
When it comes to literary museums, there’s somewhere you need to visit while you’re in Key West. If you know something about the place, you’re probably thinking of Ernest Hemingway’s house. It’s a popular stop: the queue to get in and see this historic home and its present day six-toed feline residents snaked around the block when I popped in for a visit.
Nevertheless, you’d be wrong. Though I wanted to like it, I found it hard to make an emotional connection with the Hemingway place. The museum to which I refer has no cats – at least none I saw while I was there. Instead, the newly reopened and expanded Tennessee Williams exhibit had heart and soul in spades compared to its more famous neighbour.
The museum is the result of years of collecting and a true labour of love. I was fortunate that Dennis Beaver was available to give me a curator’s tour. The passion he had for his subject and the stories he had to tell added an extra dimension to the already fascinating collection of exhibits. Somehow he brought to life so vividly a playwright who’d hitherto been a stranger to me that I felt I’d known him personally.
Describing Tennessee Williams, Dennis painted a picture of a man who loved to entertain the rich and famous. Yet home was a relatively modest place on Duncan Street, a short walk from the museum and now a private home. A tall white fence protects its current occupants from peeping eyes, but there’s a beautifully crafted model in the museum should you wish to see what would have been inside.
Photos of Williams with the Hollywood glitterati of the time revealed that he moved in glamorous circles. But behind the public facade was a complicated and insecure individual. A childhood bout of diphtheria had left him a lasting legacy of hypochondria. If a visitor complained of a cold, Dennis said, Williams would believe he’d caught it.
It would take a special someone to manage that anxiety and that person was Frank Merlo. He dealt with the minutiae of Williams’ life, acting as the buffer between the playwright and an outside world that made constant demands on him. At first, Williams would refer to Frank as his assistant, or something equally businesslike. In fact he was his partner and the rock of his personal life. Frank though would die young, succumbing to lung cancer aged just 41. Williams fell apart, mourning the loss of his right hand man. He was famously quoted as saying that after Frank’s death he entered his “stoned age” dependent on prescription drugs and alcohol to fill the void.
The Williams we know was a prolific playwright. Seventeen of his plays were turned into successful movies, among them Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar named Desire. The Rose Tattoo was another, set in Tennessee’s adopted Key West locale. But he didn’t enjoy the process of creating a screenplay, often opting to turn his work over to someone else. In many ways he saw the Technicolor world of the movies as a distraction. When he did get involved, he preferred to make a film in black and white so as not to detract from the story.
When the end came, it was dramatic and tragic as much of his life had been. Newspapers reported Williams had choked on the top of a medicine bottle, while his brother claimed he’d been murdered. Years later his death would officially be recorded as an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. His brother ignored Williams’ wish to be buried at sea, instead interring him at Calvary Cemetery in St Louis, the city in which he’d grown up and the city he professed to hate.
Whether you know much or little about Tennessee Williams and his work, this little museum is a must if you’re visiting the place he called home. No matter that this isn’t his house – you’ll get a greater insight into his world from fragments of a life lived than you might from a collection of period furniture. Find it at 513 Truman Street, a stone’s throw from the buzz of Duval.
While the opinions recorded here are my own, I’m grateful to the museum for waiving the $7 entrance fee – though I’d have happily paid it.
Trinidad’s fortunes were made in sugar and slaves. A few kilometres from the city, the Valle de los Ingenios is littered with the ruins of long abandoned sugar mills. While Cuba still harvests fields of sugar cane, production has long since moved away from this region.
Standing in the grounds of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill, little imagination is required to picture how the scene would have been a century or two ago. The main house is still intact, a little weatherbeaten perhaps but not yet derelict. Its cedar windows and doors have been bleached by decades of sun. These days they’d pass for shabby chic and be considered worthy of a magazine spread. Back then, they were functional, the heavy shutters designed to keep the house cool despite its tropical setting.
Across the clearing my guide pointed out a bell tower, used as a lookout and built to call time for those toiling in the fields or factory buildings. Beyond the tower is what remains of the factory’s foundations and beyond that, the slave quarters, hidden away in the forest and once shielded from view by the factory itself. The prevailing wind had also been taken into account when siting the main house, so that sensitive noses wouldn’t have to contend with the sickly sweet smell of molasses.
The first mill on this site opened in 1776. Initially its assets were limited to just three horses, ten slaves and a single small sugar press. The Spaniard who owned it sold up to one Pedro Malamoros Borrell, who grew the farm and gave it the name we use today. He owned many slaves and life was tough for them. From November to April, they’d work ten days on and one off, working long hours in the hot sun and humid conditions cutting the cane.
Others grafted in the factory pushing the sugar presses known as trapiches which squeezed juice from the raw cane. It was dangerous work and not uncommon for workers to lose an arm if it caught in the press. Though much of the mill lies in ruins, you can still see where the sugar would have been boiled to create molasses. My guide explained how heat passed along the row of nine pans, gradually getting cooler the further the distance it travelled from the centre. The cane juice was cleaned and transferred from pan to pan as well, constantly stirred until crystals formed to turn it into muscovado sugar.
On the ground I spotted what looked like a rotten coconut. In fact it was the fruit of a güira tree. Used to make bowls from which the drink canchánchara could be served, they were also used to present offerings to the gods. My guide told me of an altogether more down to earth use: the insides are considered an effective flea treatment for dogs, and probably better for them than the chemical treatment I use back home, albeit gross to apply.
Between May and October the slaves would have been rented out for other work. Slaves were entitled to keep a quarter of their pay, the rest lining their owner’s pockets. Savings could buy freedom. Slaves were more likely to purchase freedom for their children than themselves, or to use the money to pay for their own small house just outside the communal barracks.
Though their lives were strictly controlled and conversion to Catholicism encouraged, the practice of African religions such as Santeria continued. A ceiba tree is considered sacred to followers of Santeria, representing Changó, the God of Thunder as its soft bark renders it lightning-proof. One stands to this day near where the barracks once were, a face visible in its trunk.
Borrell sold up in the mid 19th century to Carlos Malibrán and made a killing. But within a few short years, a crisis would hit the sugar industry. Malibrán would offload the property just four years later. Across the valley, crop rotation had been overlooked by mill owners greedy for profit and the soil had lost its fertility year in year. Yields fell and as competition from Europe’s sugar beet farmers felled prices, the rug was pulled from under Cuban sugar’s feet. The new owner of San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill lost pretty much everything and ended up mortgaged to the hilt. What had been fields of sugar cane were turned over to pasture.
As the Cuban war for independence gathered momentum in 1868, slaves saw their opportunity to gain their freedom by joining the army. The flight of labour was another nail in the industry’s coffin. By 1898, the owners of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill had closed up and moved to Sancti Spiritus and the factory was demolished. Ownership passed to the Fonseca family in 1905 and they lived here until 2012. Burdened by the cost of restoration, they donated the house and ruins to the state.
I arranged a morning visit to Valle de los Ingenios with Paradiso – a place on a shared tour cost 22 CUCs. You’ll find their tour agency at General Lino Pérez 30 about a minute’s walk from the Etecsa office in Trinidad. Alternatively haggle with a driver of a classic car, making sure you negotiate for the taxi to wait.
The classic American automobiles that cruise the Malecón ooze the glamour of bygone days, but 1950s Havana had a seedy alter ego. Mob-run casinos drew a decadent crowd. Vices of all kinds took centre stage. Traces of this era of such excess can still be seen today – if you know where to look. Curious, I contacted Havana Super Tour and asked guide and founder Michael Rodriguez to let me in on a few of Havana’s dark secrets. Waiting to take us back in time was an immaculate silver grey Pontiac driven by owner Ricardo. Michael joked that Cuban men value their cars more highly than anything else in their lives – even their women. I’m not convinced that’s true of only Cuba.
We began where the charmingly decrepit mansions of Habana Vieja give way to the boulevards of Centro. Gambling is banned in today’s Cuba, but the old casinos have been repurposed as conference rooms and elegant salons in many of the capital’s most renowned and once notorious hotels. One of them is the historic Hotel Sevilla. I’d stayed there during my first visit to Cuba fifteen years ago and around the corner from the exquisite Moorish-style lobby where I’d once checked in is a rogue’s gallery of past guests – good and bad. This time my focus was on the latter. Michael steered me towards a photograph of Al Capone, perhaps Chicago’s most notorious gangster, who used to book out the entire sixth floor when he was in town. Privacy comes at a price when you need to make sure no one eavesdrops.
Michael led me across the street to a tiny store selling antiquarian books and other memorabilia from times past. Leafing through a folder of old black and white photos, he showed me how some of the Cuban capital’s hotels would have looked in Batista’s day and in the years immediately following the overthrow of his government. The city was the place to see and be seen. Hollywood’s biggest names came in their droves with Frank Sinatra leading the pack. Scandal was never far away. Michael reckoned that despite rumours that Sinatra’s singing career had initially been financed by the mob, he was clean – in Havana anyway. Some of his associates, however, were not.
The biggest player of all on the Havana mob scene was an East European Jew who’d come to the USA to reinvent himself. Smart as they came, Meyer Lansky grew up in New York with Lucky Luciano. Lansky was the brains to Luciano’s brawn and together, they made a formidable pair. You messed with them at your peril. Having operated out of the Nacional for years, Lansky had his hands in a number of other businesses, including the successful Montmartre Club which was eventually torched by a revolutionary supporter in the early 1960s.
Over a Mafia mojito at the Nacional. Michael told me that it was common for a Hollywood name to provide a respectable front for the money laundering, shady deals and violent altercations that were going on behind the scenes. Actor George Raft got his big break in the 1932 gangster movie Scarface. When New York mobster Santa Trafficante Jnr. opened the Capri, he needed someone to be its respectable public face. But though it was commonly held that Raft owned a sizeable stake in the hotel, Nicholas Di Costanzo, Charlie “The Blade” Tourine and Santino “Sonny the Butcher” Masselli operated it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that many of the regular clientele were anything but legit themselves.
Lansky himself opened the Riviera Hotel in 1956 as a front for his deals. It was one of many businesses through which he could launder his ill-gotten gains. Though he claimed Cuba ruined him when Castro rolled into Havana, under Batista’s regime he’d lived like a king. Despite decades of ruling the organised crime roost, the only crime the authorities ever managed to pin on him was a charge of illegal gambling.
The Riviera, our last stop, could have been a set from the hit US TV show Mad Men, had US-imposed sanctions not restricted where the studio’s dollars be spent. Mid-century modern might be back in vogue, but you’ll be hard pressed to find somewhere where the fixtures and fittings are as original as the furnishings. Walking through the doors of the Riviera Hotel was like stepping back in time, its 21st century patrons sticking out like a sore thumb in their modern apparel. Its casino was now a meeting room, the showy chandeliers the only clue to its dazzling past.
Out back the pool had a turquoise diving board that just needed a girl with an hourglass figure and a red halter neck bathing suit to complete the picture postcard shot. Instead, an elderly lady with a white swimming cap and cellulite for thighs glided at a leisurely pace through the sunlit water. Michael suggested I took a closer look at the shape of the pool which had been constructed, aptly macabre, to take the form of an open coffin.
This is a chapter of Cuba’s history that is overshadowed by Che Guevara and Castro’s revolution, but it’s no less compelling. After Batista was kicked out, Havana under Fidel’s leadership cleaned up its act. But there’s still plenty of tangible evidence to make this a fascinating tour and if you want to see a side to Havana many travellers miss, then this is most certainly it. It’s one thing reading the story, but nothing compares to standing in the same spot of some of the 20th century’s shadiest characters.
Havana Super Tour is a rarity in Havana, a privately run enterprise which specialises in subjects as diverse as Art Deco, architecture, African religion, art or Hemingway. Alternatively, work with Michael and the HST team to design a bespoke tour to suit your own interests. Your classic car leaves from Casa 1932 at Campanario 63, a couple of blocks from the Malecón in Centro. The highly recommended Mob tour costs 35 CUCs per person, minimum two people, with transportation in a vintage automobile of course. Contact HST by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at:
The views expressed in this piece are my own, though I’m grateful to HST for offering me a private tour for the price of a group outing.