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Travel guides

What’s it like to visit Oaxaca for Day of the Dead?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.


A day with the steppe nomads

My back jarred with every rut.  The small Japanese saloon was poorly suited to Ulan Bator’s potholes, let alone the enormous bumps and holes over which we creaked in the Mongolian countryside.  It was clear that at some point, the arid steppe climate had experienced some rain, and the trucks and 4x4s that had come before us had churned the mud into deep and now rock solid furrows.  Having spent two nights tossing and turning on the train from Irkutsk, and a good nine hours hanging around at the border, I was beginning to wish I’d taken my chances with the pickpockets of UB (the guide book’s judgement, not mine!) and not been in such a hurry to get out of the city.  It had its advantages though.

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A 40-metre high statue of Chinggis Khan an hour or so out of the city posed serenely in the early morning dawn, awaiting its hordes of visitors once they had prepared their picnic lunches.  We paused briefly to admire it by the roadside before moving onwards to tangle with a stray herd of cattle.  After two hours, we reached the Steppe Nomads ger camp, where my Italian travelling companions alighted.  For me, a half an hour jaunt across the fields would take me, jolt by painful jolt, to my nomad hosts, with whom I would stay the night.

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The setting was idyllic.  Enormous blue skies dwarfed the gers, the traditional Mongolian felt tents, perched halfway up the field; scrubby meadows led enticingly to deceptively distant mountains.  I took in my immediate surroundings.  Four gers, a 4×4 and, underneath the latter, three dogs snoozing in the early morning calm.  A short way up the hill was a rustic corral containing a few horses, downhill, a couple of small paddocks for sheep and goats.  In the distance, cows and horses roamed free, down by the River Khergen.  A couple of other gers and a truck back the way I’d come completed the picture.  It seemed wonderfully simple compared to the complicated life I lead back in the west.

The guest ger was beautifully decorated.  Intricately painted designs on orange woodwork contrasted with the faded cream canvas of the ger’s exterior.  Hot pink beds with carpet mattresses were pushed to the edge and a matching dressing table was festooned with family photos and mementoes.  It seemed to me a fairly comfortable introduction to camping!  My driver indicated that the small structure across the field that looked like a British Telecom workmen’s cocoon was actually the toilet.

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On closer inspection, the structure was tall enough to provide sufficient privacy, the boards firm enough to avoid any hapless falls and there was even a shovel and some loose dirt by the side for me to cover my tracks.  Having a wash was going to involve several kilometres of trekking down to the river, but I figured I’d already had two shower-free nights on the train, and, let’s face it, the horses weren’t likely to complain.  I felt very smug.

And then I was served breakfast.

I struggle with a piece of toast some mornings, so my traditional Mongolian breakfast of sick on a plate was hard to stomach.  In actual fact it was some kind of curd cheese, and to some palates, delicious I’m sure, but, for me, that morning, it was sick on a plate, served with small finger shaped pieces of lardy bread.  The cinnamon tea was lovely though, so I drank plenty of that, forced down some bread and sick and finished off with a caramel flavoured boiled sweet which had been thoughtfully provided in a small dish.  I felt terribly guilty for struggling with the food, as it was served by a delightful nomad lady with a squeaky voice and a smile as broad as the Gun Galuut horizon.

After breakfast, I grabbed my camera and headed up to the corral to watch the horses.  I envisaged lounging by the fence, channelling Kristin Scott Thomas in the Horse Whisperer.  Unfortunately, unlike in the States, these poles were not fixed and periodically they would be charged by the horses before they made a break for freedom and hurtled down the field.  Not wishing to be trampled, but still wishing to be close enough to secure some decent shots, I kept one eye on the action and the other on the camera, as poles cascaded down around me.  The young men of the nomad group had the difficult task of roping the horses and fitting their bridles ready for the tourists at Steppe Nomads to ride them later in the day.  It was certainly no easy task.  Even with their dexterity, lassoing the only semi-tame creatures was no easy task, and the animals’ mad eyes and toothy grins only served to add to the humour of it all from the bystander’s point of view.  Many times I watched as the horses bolted and their would-be captors rode expertly after them to herd them back up the field.  I’m not sure I would have neither such patience nor the perseverance, especially whilst being watched.  I was reassured to see that the young girls at the nomad camp thought it was as funny as I did, much to the lads’ embarrassment.  Eventually, to the relief of all those involved, sufficient horses were roped and galloped down the field at an impressively fast pace to meet their excited riders.

Watching the action is all very well, but I felt a bit uncomfortable being the outsider, and so came ten year old Tilly to the rescue.  Her name was something much longer and infinitely more unpronounceable, so Tilly was settled on as a name we both could manage.  Tilly set about making it her mission to teach me to play volleyball.  “Gee-oo-lee-aah!” she would cry, lengthening my name so much that it seemed I had been re-christened especially for Mongolia.  At regular intervals throughout the afternoon, she would call for me, and we would continue with her attempts to refine my awkward technique.  “Yee-ess.  Verrry good!” was the response I hoped for, though more often than not, she just collapsed in a fit of giggles and ran down the field after the stray ball.  It was an ice-breaker, nevertheless, and I was soon adopted as the new friend, someone to show off to (but not to share with!) her younger brothers.  Before I knew what was happening, I was carted off the field to help milk the cows.  The nomad women (and tiny infant children!) made it look simple, but for me, the hardest part was balancing on the tiny wooden milking stool without toppling over and falling into the freshly dropped manure.  Once I’d mastered that, milking was easy – if a little messy.  Much the reverse of volleyball, it seemed.

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By the time the tourists came up to visit on their horses, the latter looking much tamer than they had that morning.  The Italians looked a little uncomfortable and slightly saddle sore.  It seemed like forever since I had left them this morning and I was surprised at how easily I’d settled in to such an alien environment.  Dinner was brought out – a watery but delicious mutton stew – and I savoured every mouthful.  I helped to unload two horses from the nomad’s truck and watched, toddler on hip, as the farmer administered some medication.

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Later we sat, watching the sun set and the stars brighten in the blackening sky, smiling contentedly and watching the animals settle in the paddock for the evening.  It was clear to see that this was a tough life, but the community was close-knit, the scenery was world-class and I had laughed more than I had for a long time.  Shower aside, did I really need any more than this?


A beginner’s guide to the Faroe Islands

One of the most remote and most overlooked corners of Europe, the self-governing Faroe Islands might be part of the kingdom of Denmark but they believe in doing things their way. A long weekend is just sufficient to see why those who find themselves there can’t get enough of the place. In part, it reminds the traveller of Iceland, Norway, Scotland and even the Yorkshire Dales, but in truth it’s all of them and none of them.

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Getting there

Flights are operated by two airlines: Atlantic Airways and SAS. There’s a twice-weekly direct flight from Edinburgh to Vagar Airport. Flight time is around an hour. However, if you have onward connections, particularly on the inbound leg, it’s wise to allow a longer than usual layover because flights are often affected by bad weather. All other flights from the UK are indirect, with the greatest number of connections via Copenhagen as you’d expect.

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Getting around

If you have plenty of time, or are happy to be constrained by public transport routes, it is possible to get around without your own vehicle. An airport bus connects Vagar Airport with the capital Tórshavn. In town, the centre is compact and walking between the main sights is easily doable. In addition, there’s a free bus that links Tórshavn to historic Kirkjubøur. Ferries are as reliable as they can be given the wild weather, but cheap, particularly if you walk on. For instance, foot passengers travelling from Gamlarætt to Skopun on Sandoy Island pay just DKK 40 return (less than £5) while a car costs under £20. Multi-day travel cards might work out cost effective if you are travelling around a lot; they cost DKK 500 for four days and are valid on all buses and most ferries.

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For timetables, visit the Strandfaraskip website:

http://www.ssl.fo/en/timetable/ferry/7-tvoeroyri-torshavn/

Car rental is best if you wish to get off the beaten track. We rented from 62°N which is affiliated to Hertz, Europcar and Sixt, but there are several other agencies. Typically, prices start at around DKK 600 (£70) per day for a small car. In my experience, roads were good quality and drivers courteous, but the buffetting wind can be disconcerting if you’re not used to it. The Visit Faroe Islands website has plenty of sound advice about driving conditions and rules of the road as well as this useful graphic:

Helicopter rides are also possible if the weather is playing ball, which sadly it wasn’t during my trip. A community initiative means that transport is subsidised, meaning you can be airborne for a tenner. A chopper transfer from Vagar to Tórshavn bookable through Atlantic Airways costs DKK 215 (about £25). Fares between other islands cost from DKK 85 to DKK 360. More here: https://www.atlantic.fo/en/book-and-plan/helicopter/fares/

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What to see

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The Faroese capital is a delightful, quirky little place with much to recommend it. Begin between the twin harbours at Tinganes, seat of the Faroese government. The russet-painted government buildings with their verdant turf roofs are impossibly photogenic and unusually accessible.

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The fish market on the quayside is also worth a look, and you may be able to blag a sample or two. There are plenty of cafes and a burgeoning bar scene; I can vouch for the hot chocolate in Kafe Husid and a beer in Mikkeller. There are also a clutch of good eateries in town including the excellent Barbara Fish Restaurant, where the broth for its bouillebaisse is poured from a vintage china teapot and the deconstructed lemon meringue pie is to die for.

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KOKS, the first Michelin-starred restaurant in the Faroe Islands, deserves its own entry. An evening here doesn’t come cheap – the tasting menu is an eye-watering DKK 1400 (about £165) with the wine pairings another DKK 1100 (approximately £130) on top. It might just be the most memorable and adventurous meal you ever eat, however, and is not to be missed. Your evening begins in a lakeside hjallur, or drying house, with some tasty nibbles of fermented lamb and dried kingfish. Next, you jump on a Land Rover for the short hop up the hill to the restaurant itself (this is not a restaurant for posh heels). From the opener of scallops served in a shell encrusted with live and very wriggly barnacles to the final mouthwatering dulse (red seaweed) and blueberry dessert, it was incredible.

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The historic village of Kirkjubøur is home to the ruins of St Magnus Cathedral, the largest mediaeval building in the Faroes. Next door, is the simple but beautiful whitewashed church of St Olav which dates from the early 12th century. It’s still in use today and 17th generation farmer and churchwarden Jóannes Patursson rings the bell to announce a service. Opposite, lies the oldest inhabited wooden house in Europe, the 11th century Roykstovan farmhouse built from stone and logs weatherproofed with black tar. It began its days in Norway, before being dismantled and shipped to its present location. Today it remains the Paturssons’ family home and is fascinating to visit. On the walls hang traditional whaling equipment, now obselete; Jóannes will explain and defend the long tradition of hunting pilot whales if asked. Whatever your personal views, it’s interesting to hear a Faroese take on the practice.

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To reach the tiny village of Saksun, you’ll need your own transport (or be up for a lengthy hike) but the reward is a super hike alongside a tidal lagoon to the sea. The folk museum within the Dúvugarðar sheep farm is managed by the farmer himself who apparently isn’t too keen on tourists visiting, so don’t plan on gaining access. The setting’s the star here, though, and you won’t be disappointed by the walk along a sheltered, sandy beach hemmed in by steep cliffs. At low tide, and in good weather, it’s surely got to be one of the prettiest spots in the country. I visited in the pouring rain and on a rising tide. Despite the low cloud and the slightly wet feet it was still worth the effort.

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Weather killed my boat trip to the Vestmanna bird cliffs but I’m told the sight of the towering rockfaces crammed with puffins, guillemots and razorbills is an impressive one. If rain stops play as it did for me, the SagaMuseum, housed inside the tourist information centre, is an interesting detour, if a bloodthirsty one. Prepare for some pretty explicit waxworks; the creators didn’t hold back when telling the stories from the sagas of the Faroes’ Viking past. Decapitation, torture and drowning are all depicted in the gruesome exhibits. An audio guide is a must to learn about the fascinating tales behind the exhibits.

And beyond…

Even if you’re only in the Faroes for a long weekend, Sandoy and Streymoy are only a half an hour apart by ferry so it’s a tempting excursion from Tórshavn.

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Vast empty beaches lined with sea stacks and grazed by sheep who munch on the plentiful seaweed are a big draw, even in the shoulder season. Quaint harbours full of colourful fishing boats, yarn-bombed rocks and even the odd art gallery all offer pleasant diversions. With more time you can journey further afield to the other islands. Highlights include Hans Pauli Olsen’s sculpture of the seal woman on Kalsoy, picturesque Gjógv – the most northerly village on the island of Eysturoy – and a solitary hike to the lighthouse at the end of the the islet of Mykineshólmur on Mykines, an island where puffins greatly outnumber people.

Planning

I bought the Bradt guide to the Faroe Islands a month or so before I travelled and as ever, it’s an informative and eminently readable guide. If you are planning an independent visit to the Faroe Islands it will be invaluable to your preparations.

Thanks

I travelled to the Faroe Islands on a press trip as a guest of Atlantic Airways who were efficient, friendly and best of all laid back about seat swaps so we could all grab a window seat. Visit Faroe Islands and Visit Sandoy arranged a diverse and memorable itinerary, so much so that I’m already planning a return visit at some point in the not so distant future. Their accommodation choices, the Hotel Føroyar overlooking Tórshavn and the Hotel Sandavik on Sandoy, were comfortable, contemporary and classically Scandinavian.

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Though I paid for my connecting flight, I’m grateful to Holiday Extras for taking care of my airport parking at London Stansted, particularly as they chose the very convenient Short Stay Premium option.


On the trail of the mob in Havana

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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About HST

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 elandarincarvajal@gmail.com or visit their website at:

http://www.campanario63.com/

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.


A beginner’s guide to Central America

The seven countries of Central America – Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize – fill an ancient land bridge joining the continents of North and South America.  Volcanic, verdant and vibrant, they offer the traveller some of the best tourist experiences in Latin America.  The difficulty is not in deciding to go, it’s working out what to leave out from your itinerary when there’s just so much to see and do.  This guide is designed to get you started.

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Antigua’s famous arch frames Volcan de Agua perfectly

Getting there

For many years, getting to Central America from the UK generally meant an indirect flight, and often the cheapest flights are still those which hub through the USA.  Try looking for flights with United via Houston, American via Miami or Delta via Atlanta.  Some tour operators also offer flights without the need to buy one of their packages as well. Thomson (Tui) for example fly direct to Liberia in Costa Rica and they often have deals available last minute for around £300.  Schedules are less flexible, however and the once a week flight might not suit your needs.

If you’re looking for a European-based airline, British Airways can get you to Costa Rica non-stop and recently, Air Europa commenced the first ever direct trans-Atlantic flight to Honduras, departing from Madrid.  Another alternative is to combine Central America with Mexico – you’ll find plenty of deals via Cancun which is easily combined with Belize and Guatemala.  Similarly, you could combine Panama with delightful Colombian city of Cartagena.  Shop around.  You should be able to pick up return flights from Europe for under £400.

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Shop around for a good deal

Getting around

Depoending on your budget, you’re either going to be seeing a lot of airports or taking a long-distance bus.  Try Avianca El Salvador, formerly branded as Taca, and Copa Airlines, both of which have extensive networks across the region.  if your time is relatively short, this is a good way of freeing up time for sightseeing.  Book well in advance to secure the best deals.

As with elsewhere in Latin America, many companies offer relatively comfortable “luxury” coach services but you’ll also find plenty of chicken buses knocking around on the shorter routes which make up for what they lack in comfort with bucketfuls of character.  The big name in the bus world is Tica, kind of a Central American version of Greyhound.  I’ve also had good experiences with Hedman Alas in Honduras and King Quality.  At peak times you’re best to reserve your ticket a few days in advance.

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Local buses in Nicaragua

Check out point to point transfers too.  For instance, Gray Line offer hotel to hotel transfers at reasonable prices in Costa Rica and similar tourist shuttles are also easy to find between Guatemala’s main hubs.

One thing to note is safety.  In some parts of Central America, buses can be held up by armed gangs.  Opt for a better company who videos passengers on entry and screens luggage and pick a day bus rather than overnight travel on the most notorious routes.  Keep up to date with safety by monitoring the FCO’s travel advice by country.

https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice

What to see

There’s way to much for me to cover here, so you should consider these itineraries just a start and delve into one of the many online resources or good guide books on the region to help you make your own detailed plans.

A week in Panama

Begin in Panama City and spend at least a day absorbing the atmosphere of the Casco Viejo, the city’s old town.  Some compare it to Old Havana and whether you agree or not, if you like Cuba you’ll like this too.

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Casco Viejo

The canal zone is a worthwhile day trip, easily accessed from the capital.  You’ll pass through the Gaillard Cut, where the Chagres River flows into the canal as well as several locks before returning to the city.  I booked this through my accommodation La Estancia B&B, which has since closed, but the company they used is still very much in business and takes direct bookings.

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Panama Canal

Another excellent day trip is to Emberá Puru.  Guide Anne de Barrigon will take you into the rainforest to meet the Emberá tribe and learn a little of their way of life.  She knows her stuff – she married a villager!  Part of the journey involves travelling upriver in a dugout canoe which is sure to prove a memorable experience as well.

THE VILLAGE KIDS POSE FOR A PICTURE

Embera kids

Extend your trip either by spending more time in Panama City or by kicking back and relaxing on one of Panama’s beautiful islands, in the Bocas del Toro archipelago or in San Blas.

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Isla Diablo, San Blas

Panama links:

Embera Puru:

http://www.emberavillagetours.com/

Canal transits:

http://www.panoramicpanama.com/en/panamacanaltransit

A week in Costa Rica

With so many national parks to choose from, it’s hard to whittle them down.  If you only have a week, I’d recommend splitting it into two.  Focus on Tortuguero for a two night stay.  I based myself at Laguna Lodge which from July to November can offer turtle watching walks.  The beach and surrounding canals offer a chance to see plenty of birdlife and just unwind.

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Tortuguero

Then move on to La Fortuna, a pleasant little town which is the jumping off point for Volcan Arenal.  There are hot springs, nature walks, horseback rides and of course, the chance to watch for any activity coming from this active volcano.  The Arenal Observatory Lodge makes a great base, especially if you choose one of the rooms directly facing the volcano.  Nearby, they can also offer activities such as ziplining and whitewater rafting if the volcano isn’t making your adrenaline pump enough.

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La Fortuna with Arenal in the background

Costa Rica links:

Tortuguero:

http://www.lagunatortuguero.com/

Arenal:

https://www.arenalobservatorylodge.com/

A week in Nicaragua

My suggestion for a week in Nicaragua would be to base yourself in the charming city of Granada.  It sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and has a wealth of delightful streets to lose yourself in, crammed with historic buildings including the egg yolk yellow cathedral.  Tourist infrastructure is good and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants to choose from.

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Granada

From the city, there are plenty of day trips to keep you absorbed.  Head up Volcan Mombacho where a truck will drive you up into the cloud forest.  Alternatively, stand on the crater rim of the active Volcan Masaya and sniff the sulphur.  It’s currently more active than it was when I visited; take a guide for a night tour and you might be able to see the lava lake that’s filled the crater.  Check conditions locally before you go.

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Masaya volcano

Laguna del Apoyo is another option.  This crater lake is now a nature reserve and there are plenty of activities that can be arranged here such as kayaking, swimming and boating.  Extend your trip by visiting Ometepe Island with its twin volcanic peaks.

Nicaragua links:

Volcan Mombacho:

http://www.mombacho.org/en/

Volcan Masaya activity:

https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/masaya.html

A week in Honduras

Getting around Honduras can be a little worrying as there are serious safety concerns within and between its two largest cities, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa.  Persevere and base yourself in the safe and sleepy town of Copan Ruinas.  The nearby ruins are free of the crowds that plague other Mayan sites in the region and you’ll see plenty of raucous scarlet macaws to boot.

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Scarlet macaw at Copan’s ruins

It’s easy to arrange a trip to the nearby Finca el Cisne, which focuses on Criollo chocolate and coffee growing.  Day trips give you the opportunity to explore the plantation and take a scenic horseback ride in the surrounding countryside; it’s also possible to extend your stay overnight.

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Preparing the horses at Finca el Cisne

If you can drag yourself away, extend your stay with a trip to Roatan.  Honduras boasts a lengthy Caribbean coastline, but it’s the Bay Islands which draw the tourists.  The usual water-based activities are available and the sunsets are a spectacle.  If you’re looking for a guide to help you explore the island, then Cleve Bodden comes highly recommended.  He’s warm, funny and above all, knowledgeable about his island home.

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Roatan sunset

Honduras links:

Finca el Cisne:

http://www.fincaelcisne.com/

Cleve Bodden:

https://www.facebook.com/clevestoursandadventures/

A week in El Salvador

Beginning from San Salvador, the country’s capital, take a drive to Lake Coatapeque, popular on weekends as a family hangout.  Continue towards the picturesque Ruta de las Flores.  This 36km road winds through village after village adorned with flowers, dotted with art galleries and sprinkled with more cafes than you could ask for.  From Juayua to Ataco via Apaneca, there’s much to keep you busy.

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Ataco

Suchitoto should be your base for the rest of your week.  Team up with El Gringo, who can provide accommodation as well as tour guiding services.  Together, we visited Project Moje, a gang rehabilitation project, as well as the arts and crafts centres of Ilobasco and San Sebastian.

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Textile weaving in San Sebastian

El Salvador links:

El Gringo:

http://www.elgringosuchitoto.com/

Project Moje:

http://www.mojelsalvador.com/

A week in Guatemala

The obvious base to begin your week in Guatemala is the pretty town of Antigua.  There’s a wide choice of hotels, restaurants and cafes and a well-developed tourist infrastructure.  The town has lots of attractions in its own right, including the chance to make your own chocolate, but also makes a convenient base for side trips to the atmospheric market at Chichicastenango and beautiful Lake Atitlan.

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Doing the washing, Antigua-style

If you’re looking for the other must-see, then it has to be Tikal.  Of all the Mayan sites in the country, this is the stand out attraction. Deep in the jungle, it was abandoned over a thousand years ago, but its iconic ruins make this a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Don’t miss the Lost World Pyramid and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar.  There have been issues with tourist safety in and on the way to Tikal so as with Honduras, it’s especially important to keep abreast of government advice.

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Tikal

Guatemala links:

Chocolate making:

https://www.chocomuseo.com/english/our-locations/antigua-gua/

Tourist shuttle service:

https://www.graylinecostarica.com/costa-rica-shuttle-services-and-tourist-bus

A week in Belize

Belize was known as British Honduras until 1981 and English is its official language.  I think this more Caribbean, less Latino feel is why it was my least favourite of the seven countries.  That’s not to write it off though.  Transferring at the airport onto a little plane to head out to Ambergris Caye was laid back and fun, but the views down to the water were spectacular.  The diving’s great, with access to the famous Blue Hole a possibility.

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Looking down on the islands from the air

It’s worth heading back to the mainland as Belize has some interesting Mayan sites to visit.  I visited Lamanai on a day trip from Ambergris Caye, heading inland on an old American school us and then up the New River by boat.  There’s a Mennonite community living in Shipyard, not far from the ruins, and you might get a glimpse of them going about their business as you pass by.  There are other worthwhile Mayan ruins to see in Belize, among them Caracol and Altun-Ha.

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Head upriver to Lamanai, whose name means “submerged crocodile”

If you want to extend your time in Belize, Placencia gets a good write up as a place to chill out and recharge the batteries.

Belize links:

Lamanai tours:

http://www.lamanaitour.com/lamanai-tour-ambergris-caye/

Ambergris Caye information:

https://ambergriscaye.com/

In summary

You’ll need several months to do justice to all seven countries in the same trip, but it’s easy to combine a couple of neighbouring nations and concentrate on one part of the region.  For me, the countries that are least developed are the ones I’m drawn to revisit – El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.  But each one rewards the traveller, so whichever you choose, I’m sure you’ll have a great trip!


Five foods you must try on your travels

I love food.  I love travel.  And I love nothing better than combining the two.

The more I’ve travelled, the more adventurous I’ve become with the foods I’ll try.  Some I’ve enjoyed, others not so much.  There’s not much I’ve regretted eating, apart from the vile black chuño potatoes that popped up from the bottom of my soup bowl in Peru together with a wrinkled chicken’s foot.  Dried in the Andean sunshine, chuño potatoes are bitter and a staple of altiplano cooking.  And I hope I never have to eat one again as long as I live.

But here’s what I would recommend.

Cuy

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Making short work of a roasted cuy dinner

It took a while for me to pluck up the courage to try cuy, for cuy is guinea pig and where I come from, guinea pigs are for cuddling.  But in Peru, they’re for eating and have been for at least 5000 years.  It’s such an iconic dish they even have a national holiday for the fluffy creatures – it’s the second Friday in October.  Roasted cuy, particularly if you ask for it to be served with the head removed, isn’t likely to induce a gag reflex.  It’s tasty, albeit rather fiddly to pick off the many small bones.  It tastes not dissimilar to the dark meat of a chicken – though doesn’t everything?  You won’t find it very filling, but it’s often served with a huge potato, so that should fill you up.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/a-beginners-guide-to-peru/

Hákarl

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Trying hákarl, fermented shark meat

I’m not going to try to con you that hákarl is going to be the holiday taste sensation you try to recreate back home in your own kitchen.  Like chuño potatoes, once was enough for this fermented shark meat which is an Icelandic delicacy.  But unlike chuño potatoes, I’m glad I tried hákarl, and unlike Gordon Ramsey, I didn’t spit mine halfway across the room either.  It had the texture of a piece of Parmesan that’s gone hard in the back of the fridge and a pungent ammonia-like aroma which didn’t endear it to my nostrils.  Try it and see how bad it is.  But don’t expect to see the locals doing the same.  Sense has prevailed and they no longer eat the stuff.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/a-beginners-guide-to-iceland/

Suckling pig

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Suckling pig on a lechonera spit

Guavate, a short drive from the easternmost point of the Ruta Panorámica, is home to the tastiest suckling pig that I’ve eaten anywhere. On Sundays, half the island’s population winds its way up the steep switchbacks to eat at one of the village’s many lechoneras. Whole pigs rotate on spits, drawing in the punters, while chefs armed with machetes hack the glistening animals into bite sized pieces. This isn’t fancy dining: you’re just as likely to get a lump of bone as you are a hunk of melt in the mouth pork, but the crackling is first rate.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/01/10/puerto-ricos-ruta-panoramica/

Yemas de Pizarro

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Bakery window, Trujillo

Don’t think for one minute that because this is a photo taken through a shop window, these yummy yemas didn’t make it into my sticky hands.  They did, and I enjoyed them so much I went back for seconds, much to the bakery assistant’s amusement.  Central Spain is good for pastries and these were an improvement on the already delicious yemas I’d tried a few years before in Ávila, a couple of hours to the north-east of Trujillo.  Eat them on an empty stomach as they are filling and sickly sweet.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/12/a-beginners-guide-to-extremadura/

Beignets

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Icing sugar overload!

My final choice – and what a tough job it’s been whittling the list down to five – comes from New Orleans.  No visit to the Big Easy can be complete without sampling the beignets at Café du Monde in the heart of the French Quarter.  Brought to New Orleans by the French in the 18th century, these fried sweet balls of dough are served hot and buried in icing sugar.  Take them as I did with a cup of chicory coffee, another local speciality.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/a-beginners-guide-to-new-orleans/

There are as many must-try foods that I’ve left off the list as included on it: lemony yassa poulet in Senegal, freshly caught lobster in Maine or snow crab in Seattle, Salzburger Brez with cherry filling, real Italian gelato, Swiss fondue…  What would your top five be?


Harwich: the town that rocked

It’s the people that make a place special.  How often have you read that?  It’s been written so often it’s a travel cliché.  But sometimes it’s also true.

Greater Anglia have a range of offers on rail journeys across the network this summer. To find out more, look at the #lettheadventurebegin video on their website; the address is at the bottom of this blog.  They invited me to pick somewhere in the network and in return for a rail ticket, they asked me to blog about my trip.  I chose Harwich.  I’ll admit that having consulted the timetable, I was a little concerned.  To reach Harwich from my starting point necessitated two changes of train and with just a few minutes between each, I anticipated spending half the morning in Manningtree.  After all, this wasn’t Switzerland, was it?  I needn’t have worried.  The trains were punctual, the connections made without even having to power walk and the carriages clean and comfortable.  The views as we made our way on the Mayflower Line along the River Stour were the icing on the cake, and I thought what a refreshing change it was not to have to focus on the road and be able to enjoy them.

A ten minute stroll from Harwich Town station and I was already beginning to appreciate the town’s long maritime history.  Using a walking trail map I’d found online, I ticked off both the High and Low Lighthouses, the second of three pairs of lighthouses that had been built around here to aid ships’ navigation along the North Sea coast.  To ensure they maintained the correct course, the two lights needed to line up, one above the other.

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The Treadwell Crane was fascinating too, operated by men walking on the inside of the wheels.  I was grateful for the Harwich Society’s comprehensive website, for though an informative sign had been placed near the crane, it had been positioned at the foot of a steep grassy bank.  To read it, I’d probably have been best off lying flat on the turf.

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Heading along the estuary, I walked past the impressive murals on Wellington Road and doubled back to take a look at the Electric Palace.  Built in 1911, there were two entrances, one to access seats costing a shilling, the other a more affordable sixpence.  The cinema still holds regular screenings today, though the reminder to patrons to turn off mobile phones is a more recent addition to the signage.

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It was time to pop in to The Pier Hotel, right on the quayside.  Looking like a little piece of Shoreditch, the hotel was slick, contemporary and on-trend, its staff welcoming.  Manager Chris told me that I could find 113 different gins on the NAVYÄRD bar’s drinks menu, and I wondered how long you’d have to stay to work your way through them at what the government would deem an acceptable rate.  With the view over the confluence of the Stour and Orwell right in front of the hotel’s terrace, it would be an absolute pleasure, though one which would have to wait for another time.  I had a boat to catch, and it wasn’t going to wait.

A foot ferry had connected Harwich to Felixstowe for over a century, but it was under threat of closing for good when Austrian Christian Zemann spotted it was up for sale.  Seeing the potential – it’s easily an hour’s drive from Harwich to Felixstowe – he bought the business.  Though he’d always dreamed of making his living on the water, he didn’t know Harwich, nor the area which surrounded it.  It was a gamble, but one that paid off.

With hard work and a nose for opportunity, Christian has expanded the business, running not only the foot ferry but evening cruises, bicycle rental and seal boat trips as well.  In fact, he’s already bought a larger boat, increasing the capacity of the ferry from 12 passengers to 58.  The level of commitment Christian has shown is extraordinary.  Troubled by the drenching some of his passengers were getting out on deck, he invested £15000 in stabilisers to stop the new boat from tossing and pitching.  I’m pleased to report it worked.

Christian’s latest venture, the boat trips to the grey and harbour seals that make their home at nearby Hamford Water, have already proved to be a gold mine.  Once down to only a handful in number, there’s now a small but thriving colony of around 70 seals at the reserve.  I asked Christian how close he got.  “Well, the channel’s pretty narrow, so if I kill the engine, then you can hear them breathe,” he said.  That sounded close enough to me.

Back on shore, there was one vessel on the quayside that just couldn’t be ignored, not least because of its scarlet livery.  Built in 1958, LV18 was Trinity House’s last manned light vessel before it was retired from service in 1994.  But as with the Harbour Ferry, this was a boat that wasn’t going to go quietly, thanks to one man – the ebullient and utterly charming Tony O’Neil.  He bought the vessel for a nominal £1 and the Pharos Trust was set up to oversee its restoration.  It opened in 2011 as Harwich’s quirkiest visitor attraction.

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A musician by trade, Tony has a passion for radio. Visitors to the ship can see some of his extensive collection of antique and vintage radios on board, but with an estimated 1600 in his collection, some remain in storage in the hold.  That passion for radio also manifests itself in broadcasting.  Tony once worked for Radio Caroline and his enthusiasm for pirate radio is undimmed.  The likes of John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko and Johnnie Walker all broadcast from radio ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters and the tenders that facilitated their commute came from Harwich.

Even the beautiful garden that you see on deck has a musical connection.  The scented plants that form part of it are there in homage to John Peel.  His 1967 show for pirate station Radio London was named “The Perfumed Garden.”  Johnnie Walker is still involved.  He’s a patron of the Pharos Trust and will broadcast from LV18 this August.

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For anyone keen on maritime history, Tony has preserved some of the cabins on board just as they would have been when the vessel was in use as a lightship.  There’s also a chance to see what a pirate radio station would have been like.  There’s so much in the way of nautical and radio memorabilia that some have dubbed it a “floating prop shop”.  Unsurprisingly, it caught the eye of the production team working on the 2008 movie “The Boat that Rocked” and with a splash of yellow paint for the occasion, doubled as Radio Sunshine.

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It is individuals like Christian and Tony that are breathing life into a town that once lay forgotten at the end of the line.  Their energy and commitment to this corner of Essex is helping to make Harwich the town that rocks.

Links

Greater Anglia trains:
https://www.greateranglia.co.uk/

Harwich Harbour Ferry:
http://www.harwichharbourferry.com/

Seal boat trips:
http://www.sealwatching.co.uk/

LV18:
http://www.lv18.org/

Harwich Society:
http://www.harwich-society.co.uk

The Pier Hotel:
https://www.milsomhotels.com/the-pier/