Posts tagged “Puerto Rico

From Heybridge to Jayuya

Visiting Hacienda San Pedro in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, last month I came across this machine in the hacienda’s museum.  I presume it was some kind of machine used to grind the coffee, but there was no information on it.  What caught my eye was the place name on the machine: Maldon.  That’s a fifteen minute drive from my house.


Since getting back, I’ve been finding out a bit about E. H. Bentall and it makes for interesting reading.  Not least, the E. H. stands for Edward Hammond, which is my father’s name.  Edward’s father (the Heybridge Edward, not mine) was a farmer named William.  He designed a plough to use on his land near Goldhanger and got a local smithy to make it up.  Word got around and by 1795, he’d gone into business making them.  Business boomed but raw materials at the time had to be brought in by barge up the Blackwater.  William Bentall upped sticks and moved down the road to Goldhanger where he built a place by the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation.   Bentall diversified, producing amongst other things the first steam powered threshing machine.


Meanwhile, with his wife Mary Hammond, he’d produced a son.  Edward Hammond Bentall had the same aptitude for engineering as his father.  This particularly makes me smile as my Dad was an engineer throughout his working life.  He took over the business in 1836 aged 22 and three years later, registered as E.H. Bentall & Co, it was thriving.  In 1841, mindful of competition, he took out a patent on an improved Goldhanger plough protecting it from imitators.  Under Edward’s leadership, the company began to export machinery overseas and one of those machines found its way to a coffee hacienda just outside the village of Jayuya.


Back at home, Edward Hammond Bentall had been elected as Member of Parliament for Maldon, a post which he held from 1868 to 1874.  In 1873 Edward had an imposing home built, known as The Towers, which was located near Heybridge Cemetery.  It was so well built that when the time came to pull it down in the 1950s, dynamite had to be used to blow it up.  By the time Edward passed the business on to his son Edmund in 1889, he was a wealthy man.  He died in 1898.


Mechanisation of the coffee plantations further increased profits, particularly after World War Two while the company operated under the leadership of Edward’s grandson, Charles.  He died in 1955, and just six years later, the company was taken over by Acrow, which eventually went bust in 1984.  That was it for Bentall & Co, but their warehouse still proudly overlooks the canal in Heybridge.


And if you remember Bentall’s department store (now Kingston Fenwicks), the founders of that store are related to William too.

More from Puerto Rico: Arecibo’s radio telescope

One of the unexpected bonuses of a week of showery weather was that we did a lot more sightseeing in Puerto Rico than we’d originally planned.  A visit to see Arecibo’s Observatory with a huge radio telescope hidden away amongst the wooded karst scenery of the island’s interior was on the cards after we “discovered” it on the map we’d been given by the hire car company.  It was a bit of a trek, reached by a winding road up a mountain and then, phones set to airplane mode, a climb up a seemingly unending flight of steps to get to the Observatory’s visitor centre.  Stepping out onto the observation deck out the back, it was worth the effort when this was the result:


If it looks familiar, then you might well be a Bond fan, albeit one with a better memory than me.  Much as I love the Bond films, they do seem to be hard to tell apart.  The sequence shot here in Puerto Rico comes from the 1995 Pierce Brosnan film Goldeneye.  The dish shaped telescope that you see above was flooded and drained for a climatic chase scene which proves just how different a location can be once the movie makers get their hands on things.  There’s a good YouTube clip here if you want to see for yourself:

You might also remember that this was where they filmed the Jodie Foster movie Contact.  The storyline revolved around her research into SETI, which is an acronym for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life.  In a twist, they actually do SETI at the Observatory.  Any sounds from space will be picked up by the radio receivers, which hang down, suspended in liquid helium so they don’t overheat and so that any incoming sound is magnified.  I have this  idea in my head that when the aliens do answer, they’ll speak in high pitched voices and laugh at how dumb they sound. And they’ll eat Smash instant mashed potato. (Can you even get that now?)

I was excited about such a message until I learned that the one they sent in 1974 still has a good 24000 years and then some to reach its destination somewhere in outer space and then the same time to get back.  Not a lot of point in that, then.  That didn’t stop them launching SETI@home in 1999 or having a pin board for visitors to leave a Post-It note of the question they wanted to ask.  Reminded me of Duran Duran…

“Is there anyone out there?”


There’s a lot of science stuff that was well beyond my comprehension and interest, but also a series of interactive exhibits, probably aimed at children, that were fun to try out.  There were bits of meteorite collected from where they’d fallen, many in deserts, some scarily recently.  I did enjoy playing a simple computer game to shoot down asteroids and some kind of playground roundabout that if you acted like a figure skater and stuck your leg out, it would change speed.  I would tell you what that’s got to do with the space theme except I was so dizzy when I got off I couldn’t read the explanations.


We watched a short film about the Observatory.  It hadn’t been updated to reflect that this is no longer the world’s largest radio telescope (now that’s in China, quelle surprise).  It was interesting nevertheless.  After seeing the film, we took a VIP tour which was just a ride in a bus but it did take you right to the edge of the “dish” and that’s what really gave me a sense of scale.  Plus, the guide said that Pierce Brosnan was a complete wuss when he had to do his action scenes which cheered me up no end as I don’t much like his Bond now Daniel Craig has shown us how it should be done.


If you’re in Puerto Rico and you’d like to visit the Observatory, it’s around an hour and a half’s drive from San Juan.

What’s it like to travel long haul on a budget airline?

Update autumn 2019:

While I’ll leave this post up as some of the issues about travelling long haul on a budget airline are still valid, this route no longer operates. In addition, there have been some concerning reports about the financial health of Norwegian Air in the travel press. Some long haul routes have been cut as the airline makes efforts to return to profitability. This report from the FT gives some background, but for the meantime, it’s a case of buyer beware. If you choose to book, particularly if that’s some time in advance of when you plan to travel, make sure you have adequate travel insurance that covers you for unexpected accommodation bills and new flights, just in case.


It’s one thing to pay a few pounds and hop on a Ryanair flight across the Channel, but what’s it like to travel long haul on one of the budget airlines. I put it to the test using Norwegian to carry me across the Atlantic and here’s what I thought.

Flights: LGW to SJU

Norwegian operates flights twice weekly departing Wednesdays and Saturdays.  They offer fares from under £300 return if you book well in advance which compares favourably with scheduled airlines serving other direct flight Caribbean destinations such as Antigua and Barbados.


Unlike their European routes, it’s not possible to check-in online with Norwegian for destinations to the USA and that included our destination, the US territory of Puerto Rico.  That’s not such a big deal when you’re departing from a small airport, but I was a little apprehensive as to how long the wait would be to check in at London’s busy Gatwick Airport.  In the event, it took less than half an hour to get checked in and proceed to security which wasn’t as bad as it could have been.


Checked baggage comes at a price; £25 for each sector if pre-booked but significantly more if purchased at the airport.  Travelling with my husband, we decided to take one full sized case and the rest as carry-on.  My much travelled Samsonite wheelie almost exactly matches the dimensions of Norwegian’s permitted carry-on at 55 x 40 x 20cm (Norwegian allows 55 x 40 x 23cm).  It’s a light case, which is a factor as it has to be lifted into the overhead bins and doesn’t go over the 10kg weight limit.  But it’s also spacious, and easily big enough for a week’s worth of clothes for the Caribbean, though if you were heading further north at this time of year to one of the big US cities served by Norwegian you’d be struggling for space.


Seat assignment

Normally, my husband and I wouldn’t bother to pay extra for seat assignment on a short haul flight, but we decided to go ahead as this was a nine hour flight.  Each way cost us £25, a total of £100 to sit together.  I do think that’s steep.  We chose from an online seating plan opting for the back row of the plan (row 40) as this has a 2-3-toilet configuration, meaning we expected to have the section to ourselves.  You can see it here at Seatguru:


However, although we were still on a 787 Dreamliner, the plane we ended up travelling on had 42 rows ( though 40 on each of the side sections) and they were 3-3-3.   This was what we got:


So we ended up with someone next to us which was a bit of a disappointment.  Fortunately, few people seemed to be using the rear toilets so it wasn’t too disruptive.


On the outward leg, we found the space to be really cramped.  Neither of us are exceptionally tall, but we do have long-ish legs.  When I checked I was surprised to find that the legroom at 31-32 inches was similar to most long haul airlines.  The width also compared to the norm at about 17 inches, though this would have been more comfortable if we’d have had window and aisle as we expected rather than window and middle which is what we got.  We could have opted to pay extra for Premium Economy which offered a seat pitch of 46 inches.



Neither of us felt it would be a good use of our funds to pay for the in-flight meals, opting instead to have a meal before we left and take snacks on board and pay for drinks airside.  We were happy with this decision; the trays of those fellow passengers opting for meal service looked OK but not over-generous and we didn’t feel we’d missed out.  A lot of people had done the same as us.  It was an even better decision on the return journey when we had a shorter journey (thanks to a speedy tailwind) and of course, being an overnight flight, we slept for a significant portion of the journey.


The choice of entertainment was perfectly reasonable though I had a good book to read so didn’t end up watching any of the content.  There were recent films I hadn’t seen.  You should be aware that you either need to purchase headphones or bring your own.  Also it’s worth noting that the WiFi that you find on some European flights with Norwegian isn’t available on their Trans-Atlantic routes.

Blankets and pillows

These aren’t given out free of charge as you’d find with a full service airline.  You can buy a blanket at a cost of $5 but we found bigger, fleecier and warmer ones in Walmart for $3 a pop.  Since we unpacked, they’ve been appropriated by the dogs!



This was my second time on a Dreamliner after flying from Easter Island to Santiago de Chile on one in 2015.  They make a big deal about cabin pressure, mood lighting and windows that have sunglasses mode, and claim this helps to alleviate the issues with jet lag.  I’m not sure this had an effect, though as there’s only a 4 hour time difference the effects of jet lag would be minimal anyway.

The verdict

Would I fly Norwegian Trans-Atlantic again?  Yes, I’d definitely consider it.  I was happy with the experience overall though I’d see if I could upgrade to an extra legroom seat next time.  In the interests of marital harmony I’d probably be best not to comment on whether sitting with my husband was worth £100!

Update May 2017

At the time of writing it’s unclear whether Norwegian will be flying the LGW-SJU route this autumn. The airline is considering whether it will fly to Puerto Rico at all, but if it does, the London route will probably be the only one to survive the cull, managing 81% occupancy last season. Watch the press for details.

The streets of Old San Juan

The Puerto Rican capital has a history which goes back over 500 years.  Founded by the Spanish at the end of the first decade of the 16th century, it was originally known simply as Puerto Rico but by 1521 went by its proper name of San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico (which these days has become just San Juan).  Though you could be forgiven for thinking the city’s American, it’s not quite: the Spanish eventually ceded the island to the USA at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and it’s been a self-governing territory ever since.  That Spanish flair is still much in evidence in Old San Juan, however.


Within the metropolitan area of San Juan which sprawls for miles, the area of settlement that occupies a narrow peninsula on the island’s north coast, bounded by Fuerte San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro, is known as Old San Juan.  The geography of San Juan naturally lent itself to providing a safe harbour.  It’s still a busy port today receiving a steady stream of cargo and cruise ships.

In its early days, San Juan’s location at the eastern edge of the Caribbean led to its development as a defensive stronghold, hence the heavy fortifications that you can still see today.  They comprise not only those two forts but the thick, almost impenetrable, walls that encircle the city and the imposing Puerta de San Juan located on the south western flank of the city.  As the 16th century progressed, Old San Juan came under attack from numerous forces, among them Francis Drake, whose men were adversely affected by a dysentery outbreak and fled, tails between their legs.  They wouldn’t be the last.


The narrow European-style streets of Old San Juan are a far cry from the wide boulevards lined with high rises and flanked by shopping malls that characterise other parts of the city.  Here, cobbled surfaces bear the distinctive blue setts known as adoquines.  They’re not granite, as you might think, but instead made from the slag of iron furnaces and used as ballast on ships arriving from Spain.


One of those Spanish ships brought Juan Ponce de León, whose remains can be found in front of an egg yolk yellow wall of the city’s bijou cathedral.  Like many conquistadors seeking a new life in the New World, he was escaping a life of poverty and a region devoid of opportunities for the ambitious.  His travels took him first to Florida and then to Puerto Rico, and it is he that is credited with the foundation of the island’s first settlement, Caparra, which predates Old San Juan by a few years though wasn’t to last.


Ponce de León was the island’s first governor but he didn’t remain long in Puerto Rico.  Off exploring, he was fatally wounded by a poisoned arrow and died in Cuba.  The family home, Casa Blanca, is significant as the oldest continuously occupied house in the city.

One of the great delights of a visit to 21st century Old San Juan is simply to wander.  Many of the buildings are painted in bright colours, making this a photographer’s dream.  Several tourist trolleys loop the old town, but to truly appreciate the architecture and atmosphere, strolling through its streets and lingering in its many parks and squares is a must.


Each has its own identity, from the tourists that feed the pigeons which flock to Parque Las Palomas, to the many characterful statues and sculptures that you’ll find camouflaged with verdant planting.  The shade provides welcome respite from the Caribbean sun, enabling visitors to recharge their batteries before continuing their exploration of this delightful place.


When you do finally run out of steam, there are many cafes and restaurants where you can try the uniquely Puerto Rican dishes.  Mofongo, a dish of mashed plantains topped with shrimp or chicken, is a staple and a must-taste.  For a snack, the ubiquitous Mallorcas, pastries filled with cheese, guava jam, ham or eggs and dusted with icing sugar, is a tasty way of staving off the hunger pangs.  And don’t leave without trying the coffee: rich and smooth, the addition of sugar would be a sin.


Puerto Rico’s Ruta Panorámica

Translating as the Scenic Route, Puerto Rico’s Ruta Panorámica consists of 167 miles of twisting mountain roads that bisect the island’s verdant interior. Driving on this Caribbean island was fast though rarely furious. Although many a driver strayed onto our side of the road as they tackled the many blind hairpins, we didn’t hear a horn hooted in anger. Plenty of vehicles had horns which imitated police sirens, however, which was disconcerting at first. This was also the road that attracted the boy racers in their pimped up orange, blue or red Jeeps, sound systems blaring out the bass as they tried to outdo each other’s decibel count.


We began in Guavate, a short drive from the easternmost point of the Ruta Panorámica. On Sundays, half the island’s population winds its way up the steep switchbacks to eat suckling pig in 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 to die for and the atmosphere warm and inviting. Stalls loaded with helium-filled balloons and soft toys ensure that amidst all that Medalla beer, it remained a determinedly family-friendly occasion.


The party at Guavate goes on all afternoon, but we were keen to drive at least part of the Ruta Panorámica, picking it up midway between the towns of Cayey and Aibonito. Climbing steadily, we followed a tour bus, grateful of its slow pace for the extra time it gave us to judge the severity of the bends. Despite our unexpected guide, we still managed to take a wrong turn and missed seeing the Cañón de San Cristóbal, though we might only have caught a glimpse of this deep chasm from the road.


At the Mirador Villalba Orocovis, we grabbed the last space in the parking lot. Sweeping views south across lush vegetated slopes topped by charcoal grey scudding clouds drew a small crowd. The beat of salsa and reggaeton formed a noisy soundtrack to the chaotic scene and judging by the groups of people crowding around car boots, parking lot picnics were even more popular than the stunning views.


Continuing west, we climbed into the Toro Negro Forest. Giant stands of bamboo topped by frothy lime green leaves diffused the afternoon sunshine and formed towering arches over the narrow road. Here and there, we hit a traffic jam caused by cars trying to squeeze into the undersized gravel verges that formed the car parks of local neighbourhood restaurants. Driving the road required a steely nerve: swerving around deep potholes onto the wrong side of the road ahead of tight bends. Our guidebook advised tooting the horn at such points to alert oncoming traffic but this wasn’t a convention observed by anyone, least of all the local drivers who formed the majority of road users.


Everyone was in a hurry, except the stray dogs who pottered in the dirt by the side of the road, wandering into the road at worryingly frequent intervals. Some, heartbreakingly, were road kill. Families sat on cheap deckchairs by the side of the road, some animated, others reflective. Their possessions were modest: homes characterised by peeling paint and scruffy yards cluttered with ageing cars sporting years of dents and scratches. It was testament to the fact that local knowledge didn’t make this crazy road any easier to navigate.


By then, we were in the heart of Puerto Rico’s productive coffee country, and our next stop, a hacienda just short of the town of Jayuya, was proof that the soil and the climate in these hills was well suited to the crop. We queued to sample the rich, almost creamy espresso, fuller bodied and sweeter than we were accustomed to. It was so smooth, we went back for more, this time in the form of frozen coffee. We slurped it through straws, as we sat by the lake on pallet benches slung with rough hessian sacks, watching tiny birds ripple the surface as they dive bombed the water for flies. The ageing machinery above the hacienda’s cafe revealed a surprise: it was made by Bentall’s agricultural works at Heybridge Basin, just a few minutes’ drive from home.


We were keen to get off those dangerous mountain roads by nightfall, cutting north and spiralling up and down through the countryside for what seemed like forever. We were sure we’d missed a turnoff, but instead, we’d woefully underestimated the time it would take us to cover such a small section of the map. Eventually, the Ruta Panorámica spat us out onto the racetrack that would deliver us to San Juan, a world away from the sleepy Puerto Rican countryside that was as more-ish as its coffee.