juliamhammond

North America

How to see the Bahamas’ famous swimming pigs

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Heading to Nassau? Don’t miss this excellent food tour!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:
https://www.trubahamianfoodtours.com/tru-bahamian-must-eats/bush-teas/.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The lowdown

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.

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https://www.trubahamianfoodtours.com/
Facebook/trubahamianfoodtours
Twitter: @trubahamianfood
Instagram: @trubahamianfoodtours


In Key West: a museum with a heart

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.

CFFCF60D-EB77-4171-ABD7-19288DC63E1CNevertheless, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


How to reduce your risk of being caught up in a Caribbean hurricane

As Irma finally begins to blow herself out, the US and many Caribbean islands have been left reeling from her effects.  Sustained 185mph winds have been recorded during this Category 5 storm, beaten only by Hurricane Allen in 1980 which registered winds of 190mph.  On top of that, of course, are the floods which result from torrential rain and the even more dangerous storm surges caused when winds slam ocean water back onshore with terrifying force.  Even a Category 1 hurricane is not to be taken lightly, as those who live in hurricane-prone regions will testify.  For casual holidaymakers unused to such events, it’s even more frightening.  So has seeing Irma’s devastation marked the end of your Caribbean holiday plans?  Here’s why it shouldn’t and how you can avoid getting caught up in such a disaster.

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Choose your island carefully

Statistically, some Caribbean islands are hit by hurricanes far more often than others.  According to data compiled by stormcaribe.com for storms between 1944 and 2010, you’re most likely to be affected if you’re in Abaco in the Bahamas, with Grand Bahama, Bimini and New Providence islands hot on its heels.  A couple of islands in the Netherlands Antilles also occur in the top ten, notably Saba and St Eustatius.  Making up the numbers are Nevis, Key West, Tortola in the BVI and the Cuban capital Havana.

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Conversely, the bottom of the list features some well known names.  Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent are much less likely to experience a hurricane.  Such severe storms rarely if ever take a southerly track, making the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire the safest bet in the region.  For the full list check out this link:

http://stormcarib.com/climatology/freq.htm

A broader picture (and more up to date, factoring in storms up to 2016) is offered by Hurricane City.  Their list factors in storms as well as hurricanes, giving a more rounded and perhaps more accurate appraisal of the risk posed for the Caribbean, Bermuda and the USA.  Joining the Bahamas to represent the Caribbean in the top ten are the Cayman Islands.  Because this list encompasses storms as well, there are a few northerly locations there too:

http://www.hurricanecity.com/rank.htm

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Avoid peak hurricane season

If you really want to go to the islands that lie in the path of potential hurricanes then you’ve got to be picky about when you go.  Technically, the Atlantic hurricane season begins in June, but rarely do we see really damaging hurricanes before late August.  2005 was a bumper year for big storms – Katrina among them – and was the year when we saw the earliest Category 4 storm (Dennis on July 8th) and Category 5 storm (Emily on July 17th).  The storm season officially comes to a close at the end of November though on rare occasions they can continue until December or even January.  Yes, you guessed it, that happened in 2005 too.  They’d already run through the named hurricanes by October when Wilma hit and eventually needed to borrow six letters of the Greek alphabet.  Tropical Storm Zeta finally brought the season to a close when it dissipated on January 6th 2006.

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Check the NOAA forecasts

Each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers a forecast for the upcoming season.  They take in a number of factors such as ocean temperatures and, though it’s not an exact science, have a good track record in identifying busy years.  So far, 2017 is falling in line with predictions.  It kicked off with Tropical Storm Arlene in April – two months ahead of schedule – and with the likes of Harvey and Irma, is set to be another of those unforgettable seasons.  If you want to avoid being caught up in a severe hurricane, then if it’s been quiet, you’re much less likely to find yourself in trouble if you want to make a late booking.  And if the worst happens, this leaflet is packed with useful advice:

http://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/hurricane/resources/TropicalCyclones11.pdf

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My thoughts are with those who found themselves in the path of recent Atlantic hurricanes.  I hope that those affected get back on their feet and that the impacted economies recover as quickly as possible.  Once they do, they’re going to need your tourist dollars, so don’t write off this beautiful region just yet.


Ten of the best American cities

The USA’s diversity makes it one of my favourite countries and there are many cities I’ve revisited – or hope to do so – over and over again.  Here’s my top ten: what are yours?

New Orleans, Louisiana 

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Sultry New Orleans ticks all the boxes: history, colour, a sense of fun and plenty of quiet, atmospheric corners to retreat to when the buzz gets too buzzy.  The mansions of the Garden District stand in haughty contrast to the tackiness of Bourbon Street, but you don’t have to stray far from the notoriously crass party hub to find wrought iron balconies and heart-lifting melodies within the iconic French Quarter.

New York, New York 

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I’ve been back to New York countless times yet never tire of the place.  But now I’ve ticked off the sights, on recent trips my focus has been on some of its most fascinating neighbourhoods and ethnic food joints.  It delivers.  But then I’d expect nothing less from the self-styled “Capital of the World”.  Where else can you enjoy a southern-style Gospel brunch, El Salvadorean pupusas for lunch and the most succulent steaks outside Argentina for dinner?

Savannah, Georgia

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Savannah’s centre has a split personality.  On the one hand, its genteel tree-filled squares host historic mansions, each with its own intriguing tale to tell.  Yet barely a stone’s throw away lies River Street, which comes alive each evening with bars and restaurants thronging with customers.  This Georgia gem has it all – and some of the best beaches in the State just a short drive away.

Charleston, South Carolina 

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Elegant Charleston oozes sophistication from every cobble and porch, yet somehow manages to make you feel you’re worthy of a stay here.  Beautifully tended gardens force you to stop and stare, even though you know you shouldn’t intrude.  Yet in the bay lies Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired – there’s passion and fervour behind that steely façade.

Bar Harbor, Maine 

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A visit to Maine is a lesson in Geography, as Down East is actually north and residents travelling south to Boston say they’re going up.  The map might be a bit squiffy but there’s no mistaking you’re in New England with fresh lobster, seal boat trips and the dark greens of Acadia’s firs and pines set off to perfection against a muted palette of pink granite and yellow sand.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 

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The Liberty Bell draws a crowd who queue patiently to inspect the crack in the iron that signalled the very first reading of the Declaration of Independence.  Beyond that historic district is a city that is proud of its heritage and isn’t afraid to work hard to make a living.  Best time to visit?  New Year’s Day, when Philly lets its hair down for the annual Mummers Parade.

San Antonio, Texas

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The city famed for the Alamo delivers, but the surprise is that the Alamo is overshadowed by the city’s other attractions.  The River Walk, a flight of steps down from street level, is lined with restaurants and bars where minutes turn into hours without you even noticing that the time’s passed.  With plenty of museums, galleries, and a Stetson hat store to rival anything anywhere, this place begs to be revisited.

Seattle, Washington

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The iconic skyline with the instantly recognisable Space Needle might be what draws visitors to Seattle (or at least fans of Grey’s Anatomy) but this is another city where the memorable attractions are those which you didn’t know about before you landed.  The fascinating story of a city built on lumber and a whole other world of underground storefronts and sidewalks awaits visitors who’ve watched the fish fly at Pike Place Market and sipped their coffee in the Starbucks where it all began.

San Francisco, California 

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The seaplane pilot wore a grin with a span to rival that of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Visibility, he said, was the best he’d seen in thirty years.  Luck like that burns memories into your brain so deep they never fade.  And under blue skies, sights like Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the artists of Sausalito don’t get any better.  Just check those brakes before you drive down the world’s most crooked street…

Memphis, Tennessee

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Green shag pile carpet on a stairwell ceiling?  Check.  Acid yellow walls framing a bank of chunky televisions?  Check.  A private jet in the car park bearing the name Lisa Marie?  Check.  Graceland might not impress in terms of size but its Seventies style will leave you gawping, mouth open wider than the zip on that white jumpsuit.  Oh yeah, and there’s music on Beale Street when you’re ready to return to the present.

There you have it; I’m sure Miami, Chicago and Boston will have their fans, as will Vegas, DC and the City of the Angels.  What makes your list?


Why San Antonio’s my favourite place in Texas

Visitors to San Antonio might be surprised to learn that it’s the seventh largest city in the USA, larger than San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Boston.  This fast-growing city has a population of around 1.5 million.  In Texas, only Houston beats it.  But the best thing about San Antonio is that with such a compact and walkable downtown, it doesn’t feel big – and that’s why I like it.  I’m not alone.  An estimated 32 million visitors flock to San Antonio every year.

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The Spanish first set foot in San Antonio in 1691, founding a settlement in the early 18th century.  Some of the earliest settlers came from the Canary Islands.  San Antonio became the capital of the Spanish province of Tejas; today it’s still possible to visit the Spanish Governor’s Palace.  Years ago, during my first visit to Argentina, I met a woman from San Antonio and was a little irritated by her insistence on pronouncing Texas as Tay-hass.  Now, I realise that perhaps it was just a pride in her city’s heritage.  You can read the story here:

https://theitin.com/places/south-america/argentina/san-antonio-de-areco/mrs-tay-hass/

The single storey adobe building that forms the Spanish Governor’s Palace was the original comandancia, the place where the military garrison’s officers lived and worked.  Its whitewashed walls and simple furnishings allow the building to speak for itself; the tranquil courtyard garden is a serene oasis from the modern city which surrounds it.

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Of course, the most famous historic building in San Antonio is the Alamo and no visit to the city can be complete without a visit to this historic mission.  From 1821 to 1836, the city was the capital of Mexican Tejas, after Mexico had won its independence from Spain in 1821.  But when Antonio López de Santa Anna, later to become the country’s 8th president, abolished the Mexican Constitution of 1824, violence ensued.  The Texian Army, a group of volunteers and regulars, managed to force the Mexicans back, capturing San Antonio in 1835 during the Battle of Bexar.  But in 1836, Santa Anna hit back, marching on San Antonio to defeat the Texian forces who were trying to defend the Alamo.  A memorial stands outside the building, inscribed thus:

Erected in memory of the heroes who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo, March 6, 1836, in the defense of Texas. They chose never to surrender nor retreat; these brave hearts, with flag still proudly waving, perished in the flames of immortality that their high sacrifice might lead to the founding of this Texas.

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“Remember the Alamo!” became the rallying cry of the Texian Army.  Later that year, Santa Anna was defeated and Texas won its independence.  It remained that way until 1845 when it was annexed by the USA with popular approval from the Texians.  Texas was formally incorporated as a state of the USA on February 19, 1846.

A stroll along the city’s River Walk is the most scenic way to reach the cathedral.  This urban waterway, lined with trees and restaurants, is the social heart of San Antonio.  Catastrophic flooding occurred on the San Antonio River in 1921, leading to calls to manage the river as it wound its way through the heart of the city.  Casa Rio was the first restaurant to open in 1946, but I’d recommend you pay a visit to Cafe Ole where you should ask if their server Richard is rostered on – he’s excellent.

The cathedral is well worth a visit.  Also known as the church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe, it was originally built from 1738 to 1750 and some of those original walls still stand.  The current structure largely dates from the 19th century.  Each evening, a sound and light show tells the history of the city, the captivating graphics projected onto the cathedral’s façade and twin towers.

Though it can feel like it at times, the city’s not just the sum of its Mexican heritage.  There’s actually a historic German district known as King William, located within an easy walk of downtown.  In the 1790s, Mission San Antonio de Valero, one of the city’s five missions, sold off land to settlers.  It wasn’t until the 1860s, however, that the district was sectioned off into plots and took on its present day layout.  At that time, it attracted a sizeable population of German immigrants.  The main street was named King Wilhelm 1, after the King of Prussia, though it garnered the derogatory nickname Sauerkraut Bend for a while too.  Its wealthy residents competed to construct the most impressive mansions and a stroll along the street today is as much an exercise in real estate envy as it is regular sightseeing.  A visit to the Edward Steves Homestead Museum affords the opportunity to see how such families might have lived.

There’s plenty more: a rich cultural heritage manifested in a number of excellent art museums and a plethora of shopping plazas including El Mercado, the largest Mexican market in the USA and La Villita, a concentration of arts and crafts stores showcasing some of the area’s finest artisan talent.  And if you wish to get kitted out with your own stetson before continuing your Texan journey, then I’d recommend a visit to this place:

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Paris Hatters celebrates a century of trading this year.  It’s not much to look at, but the tiny store is packed with boxes stacked almost to the ceiling ensuring that whatever your style choice or your size, there’s something to fit.  Its clientele boast a number of the rich and famous, among them former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, George Bush, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, Pope John Paul II, Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jnr., Dean Martin, Luciano Pavarotti, B.B. King and Bob Dylan.  You never know, as you look in the mirror, someone you recognise might be right behind you!


Dude ranch vs. working ranch – how do you know what’s best for you?

Yee-ha!  There’s still some kind of magic associated with the cowboy lifestyle, isn’t there?  I don’t know about you, but seeing a man in chaps astride a horse is enough to get me all of a tizzy.  Back home (and I’m not referring to my husband here) men can seem just a little too in touch with their feminine side.  Out on the ranch, though, as they gallop off leaving a trail of dust behind them, well, it’s work for real men…

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Yep, a ranch holiday is for me.  But whether to spend my holiday on a dude ranch or on a working ranch was too difficult a choice – so I booked both.  How did they compare?

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Panagea Ranch, located an hour outside Tacuarembó in Uruguay, accepts visitors but expects them to get involved in ranch life.  Juan inherited the ranch that his grandfather bought and has an emotional commitment as well as financial to the place which is obvious almost as soon as you arrive.

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During my stay, getting involved meant riding out to check on the progress of a sick sheep (and finding it incredibly quickly considering there are 1800 of them!), rounding up some of the 1100 head of cattle to move them to new pasture and herding them into the dip so that they could be treated for ticks.  It was hard work for a novice rider (though they don’t require any prior riding ability, it helps to have spent at least a bit of time in the saddle) but there was also a huge sense of accomplishment.

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In contrast, the Dixie Dude Ranch, on the outskirts of the Cowboy Capital of the World (that’s Bandera, Texas if you didn’t know) offered more of a vacation experience.  It has been welcoming visitors since 1937 and offers sedate trail rides, hiking and a huge pool with hot tub.  There’s evening entertainment too.  On the first night, we were treated to a ride in a hay cart to feed the couple of dozen longhorn cattle that can be found on the ranch.

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The next, we were treated to a show by a trick roper who was in town for the Bandera rodeo before heading off to Morgan Freeman’s 80th birthday party.  Marshmallows were also provided to toast over the campfire.  I travelled as part of a group and so we enjoyed relaxing by the fire in the evening – it’s a great place to head with a group of friends, though you may wish to stop off at Walmart on the way in as no alcohol is provided.  They’re fine with BYOB.

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The staff

In Uruguay, Juan Manuel was a little gruff at first but has a heart of gold and a genuine desire to both learn more about his guests and teach them how his ranch works.  The sole female in a group of men on the first night, things were a bit macho at the start, but I did warm to Juan and have a huge respect for what he does.  Susana makes you feel like one of the family from the get-go.

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A warm Southern welcome was just what you’d expect from Texas and the staff made you feel like a VIP rather than any old guest.  On the rides, at both ranches I felt safe and well looked after.  The horses at both ranches were well looked after and their welfare a high priority.

The accommodation

Accommodation provided by Panagea is, by their own admission, fairly basic.  Rooms were comfortable but when the ranch is full, single travellers might need to share.  The beds were firm and everything spotlessly clean.  Hot water is usually available but electricity is only available for a couple of hours each evening. There’s no WiFi.  To be honest, I enjoyed that.  It made me focus on the outdoors and I slept more soundly as a result.  I also thought it was excellent value at US$65 per person per night full board including activities.

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Dixie Dude Ranch is more akin to holiday accommodation with a range of chalets for guests and WiFi near the main building (though guests are asked to limit data usage due to restrictions outside the control of the ranch).  I stayed in one of the oldest cabins, which was a little more basic than the newer ones.  The latter were spacious enough to contain armchairs and even a fireplace.  Water is sourced from the property’s well which was temporarily down one morning during our stay; service was resumed rapidly.  My only niggle was the noise from the air conditioner which interrupted my sleep!  As you’d expect, accommodation in the States is more expensive than in South America.  Dixie Dude Ranch charges $165pppn for single occupancy and $145pppn if you share.

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The food

Both ranches welcomed guests on a full board basis.  At Panagea, Juan’s wife Susana was an incredible cook and the food was in equal parts tasty and plentiful.  When Susana’s in town, Juan cooks, and he does a mean barbecue.  Dinner is when everyone’s back and the fire’s going; preparing, setting the table and eating is a communal affair with the family.  Juan loves to promote Uruguayan wine and will happily toast to that with his guests.  In the mornings, everyone helps themselves to what’s there; the wood-fired range was somewhat different to the induction hob at home but a fun challenge to master.  The food at Dixie Dude Ranch was good too (though not quite to Susana’s standards) and there was plenty for second helpings.  Service there was attentive and sincere.

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The verdict

Which ranch stay would I recommend?  I enjoyed both of them immensely, but in terms of the experience, it will be Panagea which I’ll more fondly remember.  I think it’s probably because I felt a real sense of achievement there.  As a novice rider who’s just about mastered a trot, I didn’t have the confidence to think I could help to herd cattle until Juan showed me I could.  He is a great fan of making people step outside their comfort zone!  Juan claims he can teach even a beginner in just a few days but I was glad I’d had a few lessons back home to learn the basics.

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But I think if I’d never been on a horse before, Panagea might have been a bit too ambitious.  Being able to mix riding with other activities (such as lazing by the pool or watching the hummingbirds come and go on the front porch) made Dixie Dude Ranch a great choice for a relaxing holiday.  But get those riding lessons booked so like me, you can make it to Uruguay one day!