Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Our first day in Cuba

The reason that we came to Cuba now, was that we had seen that Fidel Castro  passed power to his brother Raul Castro, and that Raul had been indicating that he would relax some of the restrictions on the country.  As Obama has also been making conciliatory gestures towards Cuba, we wanted to get here before any changes started to have a noticeable impact.

One of the things I had heard was that a lot of Cuba's architecture and goods are stuck in the 1950s, because since the revolution, any importation of new products has been strictly limited.  The most obvious sign of this is the cars, which are famed for being run down old Cadillacs and the like.

So I was a little disappointed when we arrived at the airport and saw that the taxis were all modern looking cars.  Were we already too late?  Certainly in the time that we have been here we have seen that there is already a lot of new importation going on, but as we drove from the airport into town, I was pleased to see that while there are new cars around, there is no shortage of those old cars either.   We soon started to see them trundling along the roads - or stuck at the side after breaking down!

Because we were staying in the Verdado area, close to the bus station in readiness for our anticipated early start the next day, we decided to leave going into old Havana until our return.  One of our tasks for the day was to find the bus station and buy our outward tickets, so we set off for a slow amble, checking out the lovely but crumbling old houses and the wheezing cars along the way.

When we got to the bus station, we were told that the early bus was full, so we would have to take the one at around 11am instead.  Whilst it meant we wouldn't get to our destination until the late afternoon, I can't say I was devastated at missing the early start.  So we put our names down on the list with the lady at the first desk, then were sent to the counter to buy our tickets, which we then had to take back to the first desk so that they could put the ticket reference on the list.  Our first taste of the rather odd processes at Cuba bus stations.

With little else to do that day, we had a leisurely lunch at one of the government run restaurants, tried out the local Buccanero beer, which isn't bad, and then tried out our first proper Cuban Cuba Libres.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

Well this isn't quite the Christmas we had been expecting this year.  We were going to be in Pucon, Chile eating barbecued lamb in the sunshine - but it is nice to be in the UK with family after being away for Christmas last year.

Wherever you are, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy 2013!

Friday, December 21, 2012

And we're off again for 2012-13

So after our false start and a few doubtful moments, we set off for our next year away on 30 October 2012.  The original plan for this year was to have a month in Cuba, two weeks in Grand Cayman staying with a friend of Nic's, and then spend the rest of the year travelling in the United States and Canada.

That changed slightly when were fortunate enough to get given our replacement trip to Antarctica.  As we had to pay our flights down to Ushuaia and back, making an unexpected dent in our budget, we figured we needed to spend some time recouping that.  So the new plan was to cut our time in Grand Cayman to one week so that we could get to Ushuaia in time for our boat to Antarctica on 24 November, then spend a couple of months in Pucon, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina, where we can live relatively cheaply and perhaps try to get a bit fitter ready for the rest of the year.  Then we will fly to Miami, and probably make our way up the East Coast on the mega buses, and then into Canada.

Of course since then we have had to cut Cuba to only two weeks as well, but other than that we are hopefully back on track.  Things may change as we go, but we have to have a vague plan at the start.

We flew to Havana Cuba via Madrid, which mean that although we had the relative comfort of a British Airways flight for the short hop to Spain, we were on Iberia for the main flight.  We had been warned by many people that Iberia is not the best airline, and sadly we have to agree.  It wasn't that it was terrible, just that they didn't really seem to have their act together.

The boarding process was totally inefficient and took forever to even get started.  The departure time shown at the gate was fifteen minutes later than it had said everywhere else and by the time we actually got on the move we were over an hour late.

The plane itself was OK.  We had more seat space than we had feared, though they weren't the most comfortable economy class seats we'd ever had.  But there was no back of seat screen, so the only option was to watch the set movie on the small screens in the middle of the plane; we decided not to bother.

And being towards the back of the middle section, we found that they never quite had enough on their trolley by the time they got to us and it seemed to take forever to get the next batch up.  The choice of lukewarm vegetarian lasagne or lukewarm moussaka did little for me for dinner, and more than once we had to catch them as they almost missed us out with the drinks or collecting up the trays etc.  It wasn't just us - they were generally a bit slapdash.

But those were just inconveniences.  More worrying was the seemingly rather lax approach to their safety procedures.  I could hardly hear a thing during the initial safety briefing and had no idea where my nearest exit was.  When it came to landing procedures, we were almost on the ground before they had done their checks that we were all belted up etc.

Then when we did land we were sat so long that, although the seatbelt signs were still on, most passengers got up and started getting their bags down.  By the time the crew reacted and sent one person to sort it out, nearly everyone was standing in the aisles with their bags.  She insisted people put the bags back and sit down, but then only closed half of the overhead lockers, so that now the suitcases could easily fall out on top of people if the plane jolted.  By the time she sat back down, we were almost there anyway, and everyone got back up again.

But we did get there safely, and thankfully we had made up our late start, arriving as scheduled at about 11pm.  This was just as well, because despite being a tiny airport with only one other flight arriving, it took over an hour for our luggage to appear on the carousel.

We then had to wait in a long queue to get money, because you can't get Cuban currency outside of Cuba, so it was half past midnight by the time we got in a cab and 1am when we reached our hotel.  Which for us on UK time was 5am. But at least we had finally made it here!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Fits, coughs and false starts

Well we have been in the wars.  When I came back from Scotland, I developed a cough.  Not a cold, just a cough.  But it was a hefty cough.  It started simply enough as a tickly one, but it soon developed into something much nastier that left me unable to breathe for a few moments each time an attack happened.

Sufficiently bothered by these breathless episodes, I took the unusual step of actually seeing the doctor, who gave me a couple of remedies in case of a few potential causes.

Happy that I was going to be on the mend, we decided to go off to Germany as planned.  But of course my cough wasn't enough.  Before we went to Germany, Nic who has epilepsy, had to break his seven years without a fit.  He didn't do himself any serious damage, just gave his mum a bit of a shock when he crashed to the floor in her kitchen, and gave himself a most impressive black eye.  The hospital gave him the all clear, and he felt OK, so we still made it to Germany, but were unsure whether we would make it away for our next year on 17 October.

Our GP was excellent, and pulled out the stops to get Nic an appointment with his consultant really quickly, and so he was seen, had his dosage upped and got his new prescription all in time for us to leave.  So we were back on track.  The insurance was less good news though.  With Nic as an epileptic who had had no recent seizures, the additional premium on our insurance last year was only £9; this year, because he had a seizure just under four weeks before we were due to fly out, that went up to around £320.  Ah well.  

So Nic was set to go, but my cough had still not got any better, and because it made me so breathless, it was pretty clear that I was not well enough to go off lugging around a heavy rucksack.  A second trip to the GP brought about a chest X-ray and more tablets.  Thankfully the X-ray showed there was nothing serious, but as there had still been only a slight improvement, more tablets were given.  And as I actually managed to cough in front of the doctor this time, he agreed that it sounded a lot like whooping cough, so did a throat swab for that.

So with all this ongoing, and me still coughing, we postponed our flight.  Because I had seen some improvement, and both potential causes of my coughing were straightforward, we rebooked for two weeks later to 30 October.

Of course things still couldn't be that easy though.  The throat swab came back from the lab untested as apparently it should have been a nasal swab.  So back to the GP to do that, and with time tight and having missed their post collection, we drove the swab over to the hospital pathology lab ourselves.    But when I phoned for the results this time, it was still no good, because they had done the wrong type of nasal swab.  And they had to get the right type sent over from the hospital stores.

Thankfully, by this time my coughing had improved a lot, and I was now feeling well enough to travel.  So we called the insurance company for confirmation that we could still go and be covered, and they agreed that it was fine, the only thing they would exclude was whooping cough if it turned out to be that.  As that isn't likely to cause any problems, we decided we could go ahead.  The other good news was that as Nic's fit was now not in the last four weeks, just the last six months, the extra premium for him dropped down to only £119, so at least we had a £200 saving to offset against the costs of having had to change the flights.

I still have a bit of a cough, but I am feeling much better, so we flew out on 30 October as rescheduled.  We now only have two weeks in Cuba rather than the expected four, but at least we still get to go.

And as it turned out, the delay may have been a blessing in disguise.  On 25 October Hurricane Sandy hit Cuba, causing widespread damage in Santaigo de Cuba and the Bayamo area, and killing at least eleven people.  Had we gone to Cuba as originally planned, we would probably have been in that area.  So perhaps we managed to avoid a bit of a disaster there.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Margate and the Shell Grotto

Along the coast from where our parents live is the Kentish seaside town of Margate.  Made not quite famous by those cockney knees up singers Chas'n'Dave, Margate is one of those towns that used to be the place to go, with its Victorian Royal Sea Bathing Hospital from 1706, but that now has seen better days.  I have some family in the area, so remember going there as a child.
Unlike most of the coastline here, it does have sand rather than pebbles, which always helps to draw in those looking for a bit of UK beach time, and it still has the children's swing boats which I remember being somewhat bigger than it turns out they actually are.

Of course the real draw of Margate for me was Dreamland.  Tame by today's standards, Dreamland was the place to go for fairground rides.  It's Scenic Railway ride was quite basic really, but as one of the first wooden roller coasters built in 1920 and possibly the only remaining ride that has no brakes on the track and so still needs a brake man to ride on the train, it is now a grade 2 listed site.  There is a project to reopen it as a heritage fairground, but that seems some way off yet.

Like many of these seaside towns, Margate lost some of its appeal when people started to head further afield to be sure of some sun with their sea and sand.  It got a bit down at heel, with shops closing up and a reputation of being a bit of a trouble spot.  They are working on that now, but again there is some way to go.
Retro shops have started popping up close to the seafront, and Mary Portas has chosen it as one of the towns where she will help rejuvenate the high street.  It even has its own art gallery now, the Turner Contemporary, perhaps in part at least because that Tracey Emin hails from round here.
But we visited Margate on this occasion to check out one of its older attractions - The Shell Grotto.  No one really knows who built this underground grotto, when or why, but it was discovered underneath someone's house back in 1835 and opened to the public three years later.
Venturing under the cellars of this very normal looking property in the back streets of Margate, you find a passage that goes around in a circle, and then along a short corridor to a little chamber.  It is only 104 foot long in total, but all along the route, the walls are covered in shell mosaics.  Whoever put them there must have had incredible patience as there are around 4.6 million shells stuck to these walls.

They are put on in a panel design, with each panel having a different central pattern.  With some of them it is fairly clear what they depict, such as fleur de lis, a tree, or flowers; others require a little more imagination.  Someone at some stage has had a go at interpreting the panels, coming up with skeletons, phalluses, turtles, canoes, and gods amongst other things.  We could see how they got to some of them, but struggled with a few.
So what was this place?  One suggestion is that the end chamber was a chapel, and that this was some kind of secret place of worship.  Another idea is that this was a smugglers passage, though that seems a bit unlikely as it is quite a way inland, has no apparent connection into other passages, and you would think that the smugglers would have little need of such elaborate decoration!
Personally, I think my mum might be on to something with her theory that someone had a relative with a mental illness and an artistic leaning, perhaps a form of autism.  Being that the done thing back then was to lock such people away in institutions, they may instead have hidden them down in the cellars and given them barrow loads of shells to keep them occupied.
Whoever did it, and whatever their reasons, it is certainly very impressive.  It has become rather dirty over time, largely due to the use of oil/gas lamps to light it up years ago, but that doesn't really matter.  It is quite nice though that they have created a replica panel using the same type of shells to show what the colours would have looked like originally.

It is not somewhere that anyone is likely to travel that far to see, but it is worth a visit if you are in the area.  And there is a very friendly cat in the shop and tearooms upstairs.
Since drafting this blogpost, it has been reported that Margate has made the Rough Guide top ten 'must see' worldwide destinations for 2013, alongside places like Dubrovnic.  Much as I can see that Margate is working to improve itself, I had to laugh.  I do think that Margate has something to offer, but there is still a long way to go before I would actively recommend it as a 'world destination', let alone a 'must see'.  Quite honestly if I turned up in Margate on that basis, I would feel pretty let down.  I'm not saying don't visit it, but let's be realistic about what it has to offer please!  It does rather put me off trusting a recommendation from Rough Guide in the future.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Wingham Wildlife Park

There are a few animal parks near to Canterbury, including Howletts and Wildwood, but this time we went to Wingham Wildlife Park.  We chose here because Nic likes lemurs, and we had seen in the local paper that as well as having a few species of lemurs generally, they had some baby lemurs.

Sadly, when we got there we discovered that we couldn't actually see the baby lemurs, but we still got to walk through the ringtail enclosure and to see Nic's favourites, the red ruffed lemurs.  It was a hot day, so like most of the animals, they weren't doing much, but it was still nice to see them.  Nic was wearing his red ruffed lemur t-shirt just in case it helped to get their attention - but it didn't.

The park is small but is quite good.  They have lions, tigers and a black puma amongst their big cats, and I always enjoy watching them.  They also have otters, some of which are trained to do a few tricks for some extra food.
The meerkats are fun as you can feed them.  We had bought some meal worms for them at the entrance.  I had assumed that they were dead, so was a bit surprised to find them wriggling in the tub.  I am a bit squeamish about live things like that, so considered myself to be pretty brave when I picked them out and fed them to the meerkats. 
The meerkats were at least quite appreciative and gave lots of little squeaks of joy at receiving these delicacies. We were slightly concerned that the meerkat on guard duty was so easily distracted by a worm being thrown in it's direction, but perhaps they have worked out that nothing is actually going to eat them here.

My mum took rather a shine to a couple of raccoons; they were happy to take a shine to her too if she offered an illicit meal worm.  They spotted the tub in her hand and one in particular started climbing up the fence and sticking out its paw to her.
Having had such fun with the penguins in the Falklands and Antarctica, we had to go and see the penguins they had here.  They were equally as naughty as their wild counterparts; no sooner had I lowered my camera into their enclosure to take a photo, than one or two of them were up trying to peck at it!

In the nocturnal section, we managed to get a good look at the bats which were busy hanging upside down and eating fruit.
There were lots of other animals of course but these were our favourites and gave us the most amusement.  Although we weren't too old to enjoy the farm section, where you can feed the goats, pigs, donkeys, alpaca, and if you are lucky, the wallabies.  Who says zoos are just for kids??

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Munich and the Oktoberfest

From Stuttgart we took the train to Munich.  We were staying in a room in a private house just of the outskirts of the city, but it didn't take long to get there.  The prices of accommodation soar around Oktoberfest, and it can be hard to find anywhere for a reasonable price.  Having read the reviews, we didn't fancy the campsite, so found a room instead.  The room was OK, but certainly overpriced for what it was.

We went into Munich for the first day and found ourselves a nice square where we could eat outside with more locally brewed beers to wash it down.  After a wander around the city centre we ate just off the main square in a more traditional place and tried a few more beers.  Well we were here for the beer festival!

The next couple of days we spent at the Oktoberfest itself in Theresienweise. It is huge, but actually not quite as big as I had expected after just being at the Stuttgart one.  The tents are certainly bigger and busier, but there aren't as many of the big rides here.

We headed straight for one of the tents.  After queuing for a while at one, and seeing no likelihood of getting in, we moved on to another, this time with more luck.  We managed to find a seat quite easily as it was still early, and quickly ordered a couple of beers and some very tasty chicken.

The beers here come in the stein style glasses and are all sold as litres.  The beer that you get is that of the brewery tent you are in, so we had the Hofbrau .  You can order a Radler, which is a lower alcohol version, a bit like a shandy when you start to feel you've had too much, but it would not be good form to start on anything but the real stuff.
The people at our table were a couple of older guys from Frankfurt and three people perhaps a bit younger than us from around Munich.  Unusually, none of them really spoke any English, so I got to practice my German a bit.  We quickly got into the Prost habit.  Whenever one of the table says Prost (cheers) everyone says Prost, clinks glasses and drinks.  This can be a dangerous thing if you are with a group of fast drinkers, but our table was a bit more moderate.

We had a bit of a todo with the table behind us at one stage when a couple of them figured they could spread over onto our benches as well as theirs.  My German was tested a little, but I was able to hold up my end of the argument, and with some support from our new friends, we soon had them back in their place. 

We thoroughly enjoyed the tent, listening to the oompah bands and watching the people who had paid large sums of money to have a go at conducting them.  It is certainly a fun experience, helped if you have a good set of people on the table with you.  Eventually though we decided it was time for a break from the beer and a bit of fresh air, so went back out for a wander around.
Over the two days we were there we did go in a number of tents but didn't sit down so didn't stay as long as in that first tent.  We did spend some time in a beer garden which was good, and we also tried the rather smaller and more refined coffee and wine tent.  That was good fun too, as the band there played a lot of popular songs and people were up dancing in between the tables.
We spent some time watching the men lining up to test their strength on the hammer.  It was all men that we saw having a go.  Some didn't do too well, and didn't manage to ring the bell even once; they sloped off looking a bit sheepishly.  Those who managed to hit the top at least once generally looked fairly satisfied, and took their fake rose away with their heads up high.

But the crowd's cheers were mostly reserved for those few who managed three out of three right to the top.  Their prize of a pair of fluffy dice in colour options of luminous green, orange or pink, paled into insignificance compared to being able to claim victory in this test of their manhood.
I couldn't persuade Nic to try out his strength, but we did have a go at a couple of the stalls here.  Nic tried splatting frogs onto lily pads.  His first attempt was pretty pathetic, but he improved, and we came away with a few little stuffed toys to prove his skill.

We both had a go at hammering nails into a block of wood with one hit.  Nic just beat me when I failed on one of mine.
But I discovered a new skill when we had a go on the shooting range.  The initial plan was to share a go with nine shots each, but when I had got all nine of my targets down, we agreed that if we wanted the prize, I should carry on.

Having hit all eighteen and got the fluffy wild boar, I asked Nic if he wanted a go; he declined, on the basis that he couldn't do any better and might not do as well.

We had two good days at the Oktoberfest, and managed to get through them without collapsing comatose on the grass or being carried off on a stretcher like some of the people that we saw.  We certainly enjoyed it, but if we came again we would make reservations for some of the tents, and probably it is best experienced in a bigger group so that you have a table full.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Stuttgart and the Cannstatter Wasen Volksfest

When we decided to go to Germany for Oktoberfest we thought we would also visit Stuttgart.  Many German towns have their own festival at this time of year, and Stuttgart is one of the bigger ones.  Less well known than its Munich counterpart, the Cannstatter Wasen Volksfest is none the less a pretty large event and just as much fun.
As we were no longer going to Tubingen, we had four nights in Stuttgart and had decided to camp next to the show ground on the banks of the river.  The campsite was OK.  Like most German campsites I have used before, it had quite good facilities; the toilets and showers were much better than a lot that we used last year, and there was a little shop and a bar/bistro that opened in the evening until very late. Unusually though, we found that the loos weren't kept very clean - ie not cleaned for about thirty-six hours!

The other issue there was the tent area itself.  Whilst thankfully not as crowded as the caravan and camper van area, where they were packed with a hairs breadth between them, it was between two busy roads, so even after the music of the fair finished, there was no peace and quiet to be had.  But at least there was no cess pit nearby, which you will understand if you have been a regular reader.

But we weren't here for the quality of the campsite, and it was certainly convenient for the Volksfest.  And during the festival, the U-bahn (local trains) stop at the gates, so it is easy to get into the city too.

We had a bit of a wander around the city, strolling around the park and castle vicinity, but we didn't do any of the museums or other tourist bits.  If we had been so minded, we could have gone to the city museum, the Steiff museum, and the pig museum.  Or if cars were our thing, we could have gone along to the factory museums of Mercedes or Porsche.

Instead, we found a couple of nicer bars and restaurants.  We tried a few local dishes.  The first was called gaisburger marsch and was a broth with beef, vegetables and dumplings.  It wasn't quite what we had expected, but it was tasty.  In another place, Nic decided to try the pork hock.   I had warned him that it would be big - after all, we are talking about a leg of pork - but I don't think he was quite prepared for what was put in front of him, with the added chips, sauerkraut and so forth.  He got through most of it, and I was happy to help him out with the crackling.

The festival itself was fun.  Nic was relieved because due to my continuing cough (more about that later) I didn't really feel I could do the big rides, so he wasn't dragged onto any of them.  Mind you, I think he felt a bit giddy just watching them.  He frequently asked why anyone would want to be thrown through the air, turned upside down and around at great speeds.  I could only say 'because it's fun!'.  He did at least agree that it was amusing to watch the people walking automatically duck when the arm of one of the rides passed at speed over their heads with a lovely whooshing sound!

We didn't go in the beer tents here, as we figured those in Munich would be better, but we did find a nice 'village' area, where they had live music.  We found ourselves a space at one of the tables and sat eating roasted wild boar with rosemary potatoes, listening to a couple of guys doing excellent versions of numerous kitch songs in different languages, and drinking a few of the beers brewed especially for the festival.

And of course I had to have a Bratwurst.  I got to like these sausages when I lived in Germany, and always take the opportunity to have one when they are available.  In theory, you get them in the UK these days, usually at the European style Christmas markets, but somehow they never quite seem right.  That said there's a pub in Whitstable that really does have the proper ones.  The owner is German and brings them over himself to make sure they are right.  That was a nice surprise when we went there to watch the football once.  But back to Stuttgart, I couldn't resist the half-metre long Bratwurst.  Nic foolishly thought the idea was to share, but I soon put him right.

So we spent a few days at the Volksfest, watching the people in their lederhosen and dirndls, taking in the parade of bands, old cars and livestock, and generally enjoying ourselves.  I would definitely recommend it if you happen to be in the area at the right time.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Chapel Down Vineyard

Kent may not be the best known area of the world for wine production, but it does have a few vineyards, and we decided to visit one of them.  Close to the pretty, sleepy town of Tenterden, Chapel Down is a well established vineyard that produces some great wines.  In fact we chose a Chapel Down sparkling wine for our wedding reception a few years ago.

We stopped off for lunch in Tenterden first and had a quick look around some of the antique shops, with my mum just about resisting the pigs and me just about resisting the glassware.  But we were soon off to the vineyards.

We have been around quite a few wineries, so we didn't bother with the guided tour and got straight down to the tasting.  Typically, the English weather has led wineries in Kent to use German grape varieties such as Huxelrebe, Rivaner, and Schonburger, often giving a slightly sweeter wine,  but the changing climate has meant that they now have started to grow more traditional varieties like Chardonnay too.

The staff were very helpful, friendly and happily very knowledgeable about the wines.  We tried seven whites and sparkling wines and enjoyed all of them.  Our favourites though were the Chardonnay Reserve and the Nectar Late Harvest, made from the Schönburger, Bacchus, Reichensteiner and grapes which are picked later so have high sugar levels for a sweeter taste.   It took great effort, but we did somehow manage to restrain ourselves to just buying a few bottles.  Nic was quite intrigued by the jams on offer too - the bacon and chilli bacon ones in particular.
We then had a quick walk around the vineyards, passing by the field of alpacas,  before we headed home.  We were tempted to ask them if they also sell the rather tasty alpaca meat, but we got the impression that they are just farming them for wool and didn't want to cause offence by saying we'd like to eat their stock, so we resisted.

We opted to take a scenic route home via the coast, including two of the cinque ports: Rye (officially part of the port of Hastings), where we stopped off for an indulgent cream tea; and Sandwich.

We spotted a few of the old Martello Towers along the way too.  Built in the early 1800s as coastal fortifications against a potential Napoleonic invasion. These brick monsters were thirty foot high, thirteen foot thick on the sea facing side, and topped with a cannon. More than seventy of them stood sentry just along the Kent and Sussex coastline, although many have now gone, or been converted.