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PeaceLoveTravel

PeaceLoveTravel
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Member since: 02.08.2012

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      18.09.2012 11:34
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      A great hostel for anyone looking to enjoy Amsterdam nightlife and culture

      Amsterdam is one of those cities that simply cannot be missing from any Euro-trip itinerary. With the recent Megabus offers in mind my travel buddy and me quickly decided to end our road trip here in style - with a hostel located in the red light right district famous for its 18+ entertainment and the infamous Dutch coffee shops. Hostel Meetingpoint was at the time of writing (Sep 2012) a Hostelbooker favourite with excellent reviews regarding its location, cleanness and atmosphere. With prices ranging from 10£ in low season per bed in a big dorm to 30£ in high season in a small dorm Meetingpoint is good value for money in a city as overrun by tourists as Amsterdam. As with any popular destinations it is highly advisable to book your beds way in advance; although we stayed there right at the end of the tourist season the hostel was fully booked every night. Two types of dorms are offered, 18bed mixed dorm and 8bed mixed dorm - each with bunk beds, lockers and shared bathroom. The hostel facilities included a 24 hour bar serving drinks, breakfast and light snacks; a pool table that was free to use; wifi and internet access via a pc and of course the all-important smoking room next to the bar. Bookings can be undertaking via their website or any commercial travel website.

      Our arrival in Amsterdam was less than unfortunate. Used to the heat wave in Paris we boarded our overnight bus expecting sun and warmth upon our arrival in the Netherlands. Turns out that Amsterdam can be just as grey and rainy than the UK on a winter's day. A big plus for the hostel here was its convenient location, with a shot two minute walk from the Central Station we arrived at its doorstep not too frozen at 7am. A member of staff let us in and after checking our reservation allowed us to sit in the bar until our beds were prepared. Check out time is quite late with 10am so we were looking for a good 4 hours wait by that point. Luckily the magic qualities that attract people to Amsterdam made this way quiet fun. Within ten minutes of arriving we had a drunken hostel guest buy us drinks (nothing over vodka to keep you sane after a morning like that) and another one inviting us to the smoking room. Please be aware that it is legal to consume soft drugs (Cannabis and hash) in the hostel but only in the designated smoking area. This was actually very important for us as my travel buddy is not into weed but still wanted to enjoy the hostel bar. At Meetingpoint anyone can have a good time in the bar with a few drinks while the smokers can occasionally retire to the closed off room at the end of the bar, thus not bothering non-smokers.

      After a couple of hours wait we finally gave up and went to explore the city. While Amsterdam certainly has a lot to offer we were desperate for some sleep and checked in at 11am on the dot. Our beds were in one of the 18 bed mixed dorm on the third floor. All dorms are on the higher floors so consider choosing a different hostel if mobility is a problem. Having done a fair amount of backpack in both Europe and SEA I was positively surprised by this room. The beds were very comfortable with fresh bed linen that looked sparkling new. No ominous stains or hairs here. Everything in the room looked new and was absolutely spotless. The spacing of the narrow but long room created the illusion that you were sharing with a lot less people and there was more than enough space for packing and unpacking. When it came to storing our backpacks we had two options; rent a locker (oversized oil ton standing next to the beds) or cramp our stuff under the lower bunk. My friend rented a locker for 2 Euros which covered the entire stay. The tons looked quite cool and came with a padlock; unfortunately being made from metal they were somewhat noisy when trying to get hold of your PJs after the pub crawl in the middle of the night. I stored my stuff under my bed, a bit of a squeeze but at least everything was in reach and I never travel with any valuables anyway. The dorms cannot be locked and we were never given a key; however one could only enter the hostel upon showing a member if staff an entrance card who then would buzz us through the front door. Security wise I had no concerns and happily left my Ipod charging in the room without anything going missing. Standard European two pin power plugs are available in the rooms, the hallway and the bathrooms.

      There was one men and one women bathroom per floor so we ended up sharing it with 26 people. The bathrooms had two showers and two toilets each which does not sound much but I never had to queue to use either. They are fairly spacious and clean, although there was some mould growing in the corners of the shower cabins. This is something that cannot really be avoided and was therefore not an issue. Apart from that the bathroom was cleaned several times a day and certainly one of the better ones I have seen in hostels. Hot water is allegedly available 24/7 although I had the impression that more often it was luke warm rather than hot.

      Let's face it, Amsterdam might have beautiful architecture, lovely bike routes and a rich art history but most backpackers are here for the nightlife. The bar was certainly the heart of the hostel. Drinks are reasonably priced and most people not travelling in groups would sit here looking for a new travel buddy or for a partner in crime to hit up the smoking room. Something that made Meetingpoint stand out to me was that we were allowed to eat a take away in the bar even though the sell snacks. Also nobody complained about a group of lads drinking a couple of beers they brought in from the outside. Amsterdam can be expensive when eating out and with the rain the only option we had was sit in the hostel. The Chinese take away next door offers huge fried rice/noodle boxed for 5 Euro which is a real bargain. Not having a kitchen for guests was the biggest minus point about this hostel. Anyway, I loved the bar! Most people that I ended up chatting to were great and the atmosphere was real nice. The large tables meant that you inevitable ended up sitting with strangers, all of whom more than happy to share a beer or some herbal remedies. On our last night we sat there until dawn chatting about everything from the Australian mining industry to post-Woodstock gigs in California. As a solo traveller it was very easy to make new friends here and groups had enough space to hang out for a drink before or after heading out to the nightlife. Meetingpoint is in the heart of tourist town with various coffee shops right on its doorstep. The red light district is only round the corner and both the sex and torture museum can be seen from the smoking room window. We were very happy with the location and enjoyed a great time here. Even as young female travellers we never felt unsafe when walking back to the hostel during the night. We never witnessed any fights or aggression, only people looking for a good time in one of the prettiest cities in Europe. And even if nightlife is not that high on your agenda you should not discount Meeting point. The free Amsterdam city tour starts here every morning and staff is highly knowledgeable about sights, museums as well as boat and bike rental. All the main shopping streets and the Dam Square are within a five minute walk and there are a fair amount of restaurants and "normal" coffee shops nearby.

      I am not going to pretend that I never went into the smoking room. Just as the bar it is a great place to meet like-minded people and have a relaxed smoke (not necessarily weed related) while enjoying the view on Amsterdam city centre. Things like grinders and bongs are available here for free but we had to buy the rest in a coffee shop and bring it back to the hostel. There was always a good atmosphere in the room and often non-smokers just sat around here to keep a conversation started at the bar going. All in all Meetingpoint attracted a mixed crowed of nightlife lovers, stoners and culture fanatics and everybody was equally welcome. My only niggle would be the lack of a more comfortable common room with couches instead of bar tables but hey, you can't have everything. Sitting at the bar we never felt like we needed to purchase anything but tables and chairs are only comfortable for so long. Staying in the rooms to have a chat was nearly impossible as with such big dorms somebody was always asleep in there. Still, I would rate Meetingpoint as one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in and have already booked another stay for December. My highlights here were the great location, friendly staff. cleaness and the common areas. The only major let down was the lack of a kitchen but being allowed to eat outside food made up for that. Highly recommended for anyone visiting Amsterdam!

      Quick info:

      http://www.hostel-meetingpoint.nl/

      Meetingpoint youth hostel
      Warmoesstraat 14
      1012 JD Amsterdam, The Netherlands

      P.O. BOX 10227
      1001 EE Amsterdam

      Tel. :+31 (0)20 627 74 99
      fax. :+31 (0)20-3304774

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        01.09.2012 22:50
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        Best tourist attraction in Hull

        When you ask anyone in the UK what Hull is famous for most people either won't know where Hull is or tell you to stay well away from there. Obviously people from Hull see that a bit differently and pride themselves in their little city at the Humber. Over the last couple of years I've come to love Hull for its little quirkiness like the white phone booths, the good night life and of course the Deep. However, the one thing every proud Hullonian needs to have done in their lives is the fish trail! Fish trail I hear you ask, what is that? No, it is not a tour of a smelly fish factory nor a fish&chips shop crawl. It is indeed a walking route through old town and the marina area hunting down the shapes of various fish species carved into stone and wood, etched onto glass and even drawn onto walls. Granted, it does not sound terribly exciting at first but the fish trail is a great way to get to know the nicer parts of Hull without aimlessly wandering around boring and uninspiring side streets. If local history and architecture does not take your fancy you can still follow the trail and use the map as a pub crawl with a twist.

        The adventure starts at the tourist office (Yes, Hull has a tourist office) in town. Ask there for the Fish Trail map and one well spent pound later you will be the proud owner of a map leading you around the city. There are 46 different fish species located on the trail, all with their rough location and a small description of the art work given. At the time of writing a part of the trail was closed off due to on-going building works, meaning that we missed out of a few points to tick off. But I've got one more year left in Hull so there is still time left to complete it. The map is quite good and points out the important sights along the way including several churches and viewpoints of the marina. You are supposed to tick off every fish you have spotted (and no cheating here please) to earn your own, super amazing Fish Train completion certificate. Frankly, the whole thing is absolutely worth it just for that certificate.

        Before the fishy adventure can start some vital preparations are needed; do not take this lightly - any real Hull explorer needs a fair amount of equipment. Pen (s), a camera and a smartphone are a must; especially the smartphone in case you get stuck at one of the stations and need to look up some hints online as to where to find the fish. Station three - the x-ray fish - was for us the trickiest. Although there are subtle hints on the map we searched for half an hour without even the slightest hint of these mysterious creatures. With it being only the third station of the trail we did not want to lie and just tick the box; there was still some willpower and spirit left in us to complete our task. A little online research helped getting us back on trek and the fishies were found quickly. With new found vigour we kept going, ticking fish after fish from our list. And then we hit a wall - quite literally. Construction worked cut off a couple of streets with marked stations, meaning that there was no way to finish the Fish Trail completely. This might sound slightly crazy but after three hours of hunting for random carvings on the pavement we really did want to finish this properly. Now with this option gone we went straight to the next pub for a good old pint.

        And that is for me at least one of the nicest things about the Fish Trail. It doubles up as a great pub crawl through old town. Following the map leads you past a huge variety of pubs, bars and some very decent restaurants. Doing the entire trail in one go can take anything up to five hours but splitting it into sections and sampling the local drinking and dining culture at the same tome makes for some very entertaining weekends. We ended up getting new maps from the tourist office, tackling ten stations every Sunday. This way we got to see all the best parts of Hull without spending hours in the freezing cold walking past all those homely pubs along the way. So far we have not finished the entire trail yet but there are less than ten stations left - one more sunny weekend is all I need to be the proud owner of a Fish Trail certificate.

        Once completed just hand in the map with the ticked off stations back to the tourist office to get your certificate. It is quite a nice memory of a trip to Hull and of course it is a must have for everyone living in Hull. During summer the Fish Trail is heaps of fun and I have noticed several families enjoying a great day out and seeing a side of Hull that is not very well known. Not many people venture out to the marina area and especially students are far too stuck in Cottingham/Newland Ave area. Altogether it is a cheap day out that can be tailored around anyone's specific preferences - be that local history or pubs. Personally I think that they could have done with less stations. With up to five hours to complete the entire trail it is just too long. Obviously one could rush it and finish in three hours or so but with the point being to see more of Hull you might be missing the best bits that way.

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          30.08.2012 10:16
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          Lovely restaurant in Hull

          Hull is one of those cities where you will have to venture further than just the city centre to get the real spirit of the place. While Newland Avenue is the perfect place for vintage shopping and tasty take-aways Princes Avenue is certainly the place to see and to be seen. Halfway between the university and the city centre this area attracts a diverse crowd of people looking for a posh night out and exotic food. Prinny Ave as the locals lovingly call it is my primary port of call when looking for a nicer night out than your typical student night. With a wide variety of restaurants, bars and cafes there is something for everyone.

          The one place that I have been eying up without ever going to is Marrakech restaurant - right at the beginning of the food mile it looks incredibly inviting from the outside with the dark wooden fittings and the colourful lamps. The menu chalk boards promised traditional Moroccan food and every time I was going past there on the bus I had to restrain myself from jumping off and gorging on all the spicy deliciousness. Olives and dates are some of my favourite things, both of which I associate with north African cuisine. What stopped me from going for so long was the lack of a website or an online menu. I am a sucker for reading menus and only go out to eat if the dishes offer sound good. I am not much for a surprise and would hate going to a fancy restaurant just to discover that there is nothing on offer that I like.

          However, after two years of taking the bus past Marrakech fairly regularly it was finally time to jump into the dark and actually try it. My housemate and I had planned a girly night in but after some consideration we got dressed up and ventured on a date while our respective boyfriends were slaving away at work. When it is dark the restaurant looks even more inviting than during the day with all the lamps and candles giving it a very romantic feel. With it being mid-week we were surprised by how busy it was but luckily we still got a table. There are two tables outside on the small terrace for anyone brave enough to try their luck at al fresco dining in Hull. We were definitely not dressed warmly enough and opted for the cosy inside area instead. The front of the restaurant looked very cramped with tiny tables hardly big enough for dishes and plates. The fifteen odd people stuffed into the tiny room and the opening to the kitchen made this area a bit stuffy and quite loud. I guess it would not be too bad if you are on a date and being close to each other is an advantage rather than a nuisance. We were quite happy when the waitress brought us to the back area - a narrow room covered in Moroccan fabrics, candles and colourful lamp shades. It looked absolutely stunning and somehow Marrakech managed the fine balance between wanting to be very obviously Moroccan but not looking tacky.

          The tables here are a bit more wildly spaces with a continues bench running around the room but still, I would only go here with people that I am quite comfortable with. Not much private space or privacy here either though. Anyway, we enjoyed the atmosphere and happily started to study the menu. Marrakech offers a wide selection of starters priced between 3£ up to 8£ ranging from the obligatory olives to cold vegetable salads and small kebabs. Main courses are very meat-heavy including various types of kebabs and of course Moroccan tagines. Tagines are meaty stews prepared in traditional clay pots served with bread or couscous on the side. At least that is the case in Morocco proper whereas here they are served on their own. We opted to share the set meal consisting of a starter of our choice, a selection of Moroccan salads and vegetables, three tagines to share and baklava as a dessert - all for less than 23£ per person.

          For starters we had hummus, marinated olives and small kebabs. All arrived within minutes of ordering and were accompanied by warm flatbread. The kebabs were two small kofte kebabs (seasoned minced meat grilled around a skewer) with a small side salad. Albeit a bit small they were very tasty and my housemate enjoyed them a lot. The hummus was equally tasty and definitely homemade; flavour wise it was lovely but a bit too oily for me. When I make hummus at home it is usually a bit dryer without the oil swimming on top of it. The olives where a big let-down for me - far too spicy without any real taste. I am a bit biased here as I absolutely love olives marinated in lemon and herbs, which is what I expected here as well. These olives however tasted of nothing but spice to me. I have been to Marrakech Restaurant since and tried them again - on subsequent visits they were not as spicy and actually quite tasty. Maybe I got unlucky on my first visit and got some olives from the bottom of the jar.

          The selection of Moroccan salads turned out to be a few small dishes of various vegetables preparations, all of which I adored and could eat most days. We had butter beans in a spicy tomato sauce, grilled and marinated aubergines and two other dishes that I cannot really remember anymore, I am almost certain one was green - maybe a green bean stew? Regardless of my memory being like a sieve right now they were all very tasty and, although they did look on the small side when they arrived, rather filling. We still had some bread left over from the starters and thoroughly enjoyed dipping it into the various veggie dishes. Slightly full by that point we were still looking forward to or mains.

          Usually I am all up for getting served as quickly as possible but a bit of a wait would have been good to let everything settle. However, the tagines where brought over almost immediately once we finished the second course. The three tagines of the day were chicken & ginger, meatballs in tomato sauce and lamb&prunes. All sounded lovey but we were debating whether to get some couscous or potatoes to soak up the sauce as none come with the set menu. Luckily we didn't as these tagines were huge! We shared each of them and struggled to finish our least favourite one - the chicken and ginger. Cooked with potatoes and carrots I thought it was rather bland with the chicken having a very rubbery consistency. The sauce was not unpleasant but albeit it was nothing special either. We tried it but in the end decided that it tasted more like chicken soup with chucky veg that a Moroccan dish. The lamb tagines was the one I was looking forward to the most. Taste and texture wise the lamb was perfect with a lovely melt in your mouth consistency. The sauce and the prunes were divine and my only little niggle would be that some of the lamb pieces were very, very fatty. The surprise of the night was the meatball tagine. We did not expect much from it, thinking it would be a cheap dish added to the menu to bulk it up a bit. They turned out to be lovely, simmered in a mildly spiced tomato sauce that was very different from the Italian inspired dish we expected.

          All in all we loved the food so far and were so full that even thinking about dessert caused out tummies to be very, very upset. But hey, there is no chance that I would say no to baklava and mint tea. Both took quite a while to arrive which surprised us given the quick service earlier that night. The baklava was tasty but a bit on the small side - I love baklava so there can be never enough for me. We had a choice of coffee and mint tea as part of our meal deal, with both of us opting for the tea. Served in a small can with a traditional tea glass it certainly fitted the surroundings. The mint tea was quite strong and I needed heaps of sugar to drink it.

          Throughout the night staff was very polite and professional. It was however rather hard getting their attention. Sitting in the back we sometimes did not see a waitress for a good twenty minutes. Drink orders took long to arrive compared to the food orders. We did not really mind though given how lovely the atmosphere was in Marrakech. The back room was simply lovely with my only niggle being the slightly too loud music playing in the background. I could imagine this place being rather too noisy for a nice meal if you are unlucky enough to share the room with a big group of people.

          For the set meal and a couple of soft drinks each we paid less than 60£ - good value for money given the quality and the size of the dishes as well as the lovely atmosphere. Marrakech is a great addition to Hull's culinary scene and I can highly recommend it to anyone. Saying that, I am not sure how child friendly it is with the small tables and everything, there would certainly be no space to let the kids run wild. Maybe it would be better to leave the kids at home when going there for a meal.

          Quick info:
          Marrakech Restaurant
          58 Princes Avenue Hull, Yorkshire HU5 3QG
          01482 343 746

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            29.08.2012 19:14
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            Lovely place to relax

            Newland Avenue in Kingston-upon-Hull is in the heart of the student area that occupies everything from Beverley road towards Cottingham. Most private student houses are located here and as a student you really have no need to venture out any further that 1km from your house to satisfy any of your shopping, nightlife and culinary needs. Oh, and of course the actual University is not too far away as well. Most people coming to Hull seem to be somehow connected to the University or use the city as a starting point for a P&O cruise. Despite its bad reputation Hull is actually a lovely city offering visitors a wide variety of attractions and an exceptional nightlife.

            For anyone venturing out of the city centre towards Newland Avenue Planet Coffee is a must stop-off point. On the corner of Alexander Road Planet Coffee is roughly 1km from the University and maybe 4km from the train station. You really cannot miss it as it is usually very busy with people sitting outside even in bad weather. The clientele is diverse, ranging from the obligatory students to business meetings and families. Everyone is welcome here and the café really caters for all needs. Over the last couple of years I have probably spend more time here sipping hot chocolates than inside a lecture hall. It is the perfect place to meet friends for a relaxed afternoon and the upstairs even has the perfect group revision area.

            As the name says this café offers everything a coffee lover could dream of as well as a wide selection of cold drinks, delicious cakes and homemade sandwiches. My winter favourite however is the hot chocolate section. Whilst he hot choc is tasty on its own it is made special by adding flavoured syrups. There is a suggestion menu including orange & coconut flavour, mint favour and the perfect tear dryer of marshmallow syrup with actually marshmallows topping the drink off. But feel free to experiment with your own creations. All the medium hot chocs on the menu are 2.20£ but it is a few pence more if you add an extra syrup of your choice. My housemate and me pride ourselves in having tried and tested the entire menu several times through. We loved every flavour bar the slightly obscure cherry and cream hot choc. My favourite is gingerbread and pumpkin spice (yes, this is exactly how fancy Planet Coffee can be) with a close second of minty hot chocolate during not so cold days.

            And if that is not sweet enough you always have the option to add a piece of cake to your drink. The cakes look home-made but please don't quote me on that. With 2.50£ they are ok value for money with some more tasty than other. I am not a big cake eater but my housemate loves them and cannot resist the temptation. I have tried a few of them as they really do look inviting but most were a bit too sweet for my taste. With a huge piece of cake, cream on the side plus a syrupy hot choc topped with more cream and a flakey this really is a heart attack in the waiting. But hey, student life is stressful enough to warrant the occasional treat. There is sometimes a vegan option on offer but generally most cakes are not vegan friendly so better ask if that is a concern for you.

            If you are looking for some more health conscious options you can still count of Planet coffee. Food wise there is a soup of the day during the winter months served which is usually very tasty. The bowl is massive and although I am not completely sure on the price anymore I would be tempted to say it is under 3£ for a portion of soup and a roll. I had the tomato, the lentil and the carrot and coriander soup before and all of them were delicious and very filling. During the summer months you have the option of several types of paninis and sandwiches all served with crisps on the side. The tomato and mozzarella panini was always well seasoned and tasty. The paninis are definitely filling enough for a light lunch during lecture breaks or a quick snack in the afternoon.

            During the summer months the hot chocs are a bit too rich for me, and probably for most people, but luckily there is a wide variety of cold drinks on the menu. The summer highlight are definitely the fruit smoothies for 3£ each. Frozen fruit is mixed with juice or ice cream to create the perfect summer drink. The flavours are nice but as they are pre-packed portions you cannot get rid of any one fruit you don't like. Another favourite summer drink is iced tea with lemonade - simply choose your tea flavour from the wide choice of organic and fair trade fruit and herbal teas and add to a small bottle of soda. Voila, healthy and refreshing at the same time. During the summer months it is unfortunately almost impossible to get a seat outside and some people really seem to be spending their entire day sitting there. I guess it is really the perfect spot to get some sun and enjoy people watching up and down Newland. Smoking is permitted outside but obviously not inside.

            Inside are quite a few small tables with comfy chairs and bigger seating groups with couches arranged on the ground floor. I find it here to be a bit noisy with all the groups occupying the middle bit of the room. Sitting close to the counter can be very annoying with people pushing through constantly and the milk foaming machine thingy is terribly loud. It is a good atmosphere though if you are looking for a laugh with your friends. The upstairs tends to be quieter with fewer people here. We usually try to sit here if we go for a proper chat or a revision session. The interior is sort of retro and vintage inspired but certainly comfortable and homely. I admit to having spent entire afternoons sitting here chatting the time away.

            Staff is generally efficient and laid-back but not overly friendly. However, they are swamped with costumers so I will forgive them the occasional grumpy day. The one thing that does annoy me is that they "close" way before closing time - meaning that sometimes you cannot get a hot drink anymore even if it is three quarters of an hour until close. Also starting to clean up and mopping the floor while people finish their drinks is not particularly polite. Obviously I understand that people want to get home on time, but if it says that they open till 9pm and then starting to clean at 8pm is a bit too early for me. Apart from that Planet Coffee is one of my favourite places in Hull and I am quite a regular here. There is a reward card where every 11th drink is free - which for me generally means at least one free drink per month.

            Oh, and if you wonder how the coffee is I have to admit to never having actually tried one. I am not a big coffee drinker but all my friends are happy with what they get served. There is the standard selection of style choice and -as with the hot choc - flavoured syrups can be added. They also offer decaf and soya milk if you ask for it. My advice though is certainly to try the hot chocs - you are almost guaranteed to get hooked on them!

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            29.08.2012 13:10
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            Lovely Italian restaurant in the heart of Saarland

            On a recent trip back home to visit my parents we got caught up in a small cards tournament. Now, I am a terrible looser but an even worse winner. Having had a lucky streak that night I bet a dinner paid by me if I was to loose the final game. And of course I lost - and deservedly so given how cocky I had been all night.

            Our choice fell on the Porta Romanaa Italian Restaurant in Spiesen-Elversberg. Spiesen-Elversberg is a tiny 16000 people community in the southwest of Germany. The region of Saarland is famous for its extensive broadleaf forests as well as good beers and wine. Traditional food here is, well, I would say it is very German - sausages, potatoes and cabbage. The Porta Romana is a lively Italian restaurant just off the main road through town that offers a tasty alternative to the usual German dishes.

            We did not pre-book a table as we assumed that the restaurant would not be too busy mid-week. Surprisingly it did turn out to be quite full but with it being a lovely summer's night I guess most people felt more like going out than staying in and watching TV. When we arrived we were given a choice between sitting inside or in the conservatory that opened up to an outdoor area. With it being the height of summer we opted to sit in the conservatory which turned out to be very tastefully decorated and having a lovely view on the garden area. The rest of the restaurant was equally nice with light wooden furniture and plain colours. Thankfully the owner did not feel the need to use red and white checkerboard fabric or gaudy pictures of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

            The waited that greeted us was perfectly lovely and had a gorgeous Italian accent. He took our drinks order and then quickly bought us the food menus. The soft drinks were all reasonably priced with around 1.50£ each for a big bottle of water and a medium coke. The restaurant also sports an extensive wine menu but with all of has having to get up early the next morning we stuck to soft drinks all night. The selection of red and white wines (mostly Italian for the former and German for the latter) were priced between 10£ and 30£ per bottle with a few cheaper house wines thrown into the mix.

            We were enjoying our evening so far and I was pleasantly surprised by the low volume of the music. I just hate places where you have to scream to be understood over the cheesy pop music coming from the radio. Here we all really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere with people having a laugh during a good night out. There were a few children eating there as well but nobody minded and the restaurant is spacious enough to not be bothered by the conversations on the tables next to you. Porta Romana is certainly a more casual place with a homely atmosphere. No need to dress up to enjoy your pizza but still nice enough for a more fancy night out or a date.

            Choosing food from the extensive menu was rather difficult given all the excellent sounding options. There is a big selection of starters, salads, meat dishes and of course pizza e pasta. We decided on a Chef Salad - I asked for a started size which was not on the menu but they were happy to prepare it for me; escargots in garlic butter and tomato bruschetta. All starters arrived within ten minutes and were all certainly much bigger than expected. My parents were happy with their choices and my salad was simply divine. The big bowl contained a mixed leaf salad with cabbage, carrots, salad cucumbers and boiled eggs. The whole thing was topped with grilled chicken stripes and warm mushrooms. The meat was perfectly flavoured and the mushrooms are certainly classed as an all-time favourite of mine from now on. However, the highlight of my salad was certainly the creamy dressing. By this point I was certainly regretting not to choose this as my main course.

            The mains turned out to be an equally hard choice. Eventually we settled for Tortellini a la Panna (filled pasta in a creamy sauce with ham) for my mother; steak and peppercorn sauce for my father and Rigatoni a la Chef for me. The wait was a tiny bit on the long side but they really did have a busy night and the waiters were doing their best to work as efficiently as possible. We were having a great time and with the enormous size of the starters the half hour wait went very quickly. The mains arrived all at the same time and were - just as expected - huge. I guess this is very typical German; portions are very hearty and quite big. If you are on a diet than a holiday on Germany is certainly the wrong choice.
            Anyway, back to the food. My pasta dish was one of the nicest tasting pasta dishes I had tasted outside Italy. The rigatoni were perfectly al dente and the creamy sauce incredibly tasty. It was flavoured with some sort of dark spirit (whisky, maybe brandy?) with grilled steak bites and mushrooms. No word of complaint here and even though it was a struggle I did finish the whole portion of it. Given that I was hardly able to walk back to the car after the huge portions I had that night it was a good thing that there was not more pasta on my plate.

            My mother enjoyed her pasta as well but found the dish to be slightly on the rich side. She did like the sauce a lot but said that she would probably choose it with an unfilled type of pasta to make it a bit lighter. Although my dad enjoyed the sides and the peppercorn sauce a lot he found his steak to be too well done although he ordered it medium rare. To be honest, I am sure that they would have prepared him a new steak if he would have complained about it but he was a bit stubborn and ate it anyway. Both of them finished their dishes and we agreed that there was no way of fitting any dessert into our well-filled tummies anymore.

            Towards the end of the evening we did not feel rushed to leave and staff did not push us to order further drinks or dessert. The bill came promptly when we asked for it. With under 50£ for three starters, three mains and various soft drinks we really could not complain about the value for money. All dishes were very tasty and prepared with fresh, high quality ingredients. I am not completely sure but I would say that all the pasta was home-made as well. The portion size was more than generous, making it almost pointless to choose starters. Next time we go we will probably have a couple of starters or a salad between us so we don't spoil our appetite for the main course.

            Porta Romana is definitely one of my favourite restaurants in the area and we will certainly go there again. Although it is a bit out of the way of bigger cities it is certainly worth a detour if you find yourself in the region looking for a good dinner option. The great food and the relaxed atmosphere made for a very enjoyable and not too expensive evening. Staff had been kind and attentative throughout the entire night.

            A couple of things that I would criticise are the toilets that are down a flight of step stairs. I pulled my calf muscle the week previous to our visit and manoeuvring the stairs was not fun. So unfortunately that is a No for wheelchair friendliness. My main complaint would be the lack of on-site parking. With it being a busy main road it can be a bit tricky finding a parking spot close-by.

            Quick info:
            http://www.portaromana.de/
            Neunkircherstr. 70
            66583 Spiesen-Elversberg
            Tel.: +49 (0) 6821 740880

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              27.08.2012 15:59
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              unbelievably cheap ice cream in Havana

              So in my opinion you might as well go a bit crazy when you are in such a random place as Havana and start your day with some ice cream. The Coppelia in Vedado (Havana's modern part surrounding the hotel Havana Libre) is allegedly the largest ice cream parlour in the world serving up to 30000 portions of creamy deliciousness a day. A favourite with locals and tourists alike we did prepare ourselves for long queues even though we went rather early in the morning. As expected we did have to queue but it was all well worth it. Not only did we get to experience the real Cuba there but we also got a lesson in the way things work here. Oh and ice cream, cannot forget the awesome ice cream served in a Space Shipy looking building!

              The Space Ship/Ice Cream parlour is located in a small park right opposite Havana Libre; there was no way we could miss such a random building in a city characterised by old, crumbling colonial buildings. We joined the astonishing large queue consisting of Cuban families with loads of hyper excited children and the occasional other traveller. Surprisingly the crowd consisted mainly of locals as most foreigners choose to buy their expensive CUC ice cream outside instead of waiting to get in. For a few seconds we did contemplate it but no, we wanted a true cultural experience so waiting it was. Once inside we found a free table in the very futuristic interior. Round walls and psychedelic glass panels everywhere mixed perfectly with Fidel Castro quotes and the obligatory Che Guevara shirts most people were wearing.

              After what felt was an eternity a waiter arrived asking us if we wanted strawberry or vanilla ice cream. I asked for chocolate to which he only answered "No, strawberry or vanilla". We then tried for both but getting the standard "No, strawberry or vanilla". Right then, vanilla please. Choice is clearly not something rated overly high here. I just imagined taking my spoiled niece for an ice cream and giving her only two flavours to choose from - she would go crazy. We on the other hand loved it as it meant more time enjoying the ice cream instead of worrying what to get. After the waiter left quite a while passed again with us getting more and more confused. Had they forgotten us, had we done something wrong, had we even chosen the wrong flavour and therefore failed a secret test? When the ice cream finally arrived we realised that we must have passed the test with flying colours - the portion we got was massive! Four scoops of creamy deliciousness topped with a sticky sweet sauce, chopped nuts and cookies. What more could we ask for? The ice cream was stunning with a rich, natural flavour if a bit runny in the Cuban heat. Absolutely worth the wait and we were seriously considering seconds. The atmosphere in the room was amazing with huge families sitting around the tables getting three/four servings and topping them up with shop bought sundries like chocolate sprinkles and cake.
              When it came to paying we were in for another surprise. Four CUC sounded quite alright for two massive portions of ice cream but the waiter just handed me my notes back to me and asking for CUP - Cuban Pesos National. So four CUP equated to around 10 pence. I mean, what in this world can you actually buy with 10 pence in the UK? Certainly not eight scoops of ice cream with toppings and if they were to offer it for that price it would almost certainly not be as tasty as the one in Havana. This price did explain the massive splurging done by the Cuban families. Not that we came back every day for the rest of our stay in Havana at all.

              The Coppelia is a place that should be on every traveller's itinerary in Cuba. For me it was a true highlight and a cultural experience that was so similar to the way things seem to work in Cuba. If you want to save money you'll have to wait, wait, wait, take what you get given and enjoy it. If you have the money you can skip the cues but you are also missing out on the great community spirit that Cubans seem more than willing to share with foreigners.

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              • Travel Stories / Discussion / 74 Readings / 73 Ratings
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                24.08.2012 11:46
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                How NOT to get a Cuban visa extension

                For Europeans a Cuban visa will last 30 days with one extension possible while being in the country. My trip was planned for 6 weeks and remembering how easy it was to get visa extensions in Asia I did not really research it much. For "not much" please read "not at all". What was supposed to be a simple morning excursion soon tuned into a two day nightmare so if you fancy a similar experience just follow these tips to be in for a right treat. If however you are looking for a more relaxed holiday not ending in getting deported I'd advise you to do exactly the opposite!

                1. Do trust the Lonely Planet
                2. Do not learn any Spanish
                3. Do not get stamps and a copy of your medical insurance in advance
                4. Have a lie-in
                5. Wait politely in line till it's your turn

                My Cuban adventured has been characterized by lazy days at the beach and even lazier nights full of rum and dive talk. This kinda influenced the way I went about this extension. On the last day possible I turned up mid-afternoon at the address listed in the Lonely Planet in Havana Nuovo Vedado - just to be told that I'm completely wrong here. Great, not that I walked for over an hour in the oppressing heat to get there. So instead of saving some money I had to splash out on getting a taxi to yet another immigration office so far away from the city center that it does not really count as Havana proper anymore. Cheers Lonely Planet! Anyway, my casa owner later informed me that he could have told me that the info in the guidebook was wrong. So here comes handy tip No.1: Ask your casa owner regardless of what your plans in Cuba are, they will always know better than any guidebook you can buy.

                In all Asian countries I went to the visa application forms had been in English. Naively assuming Cuba would be the same; however, I was in for a nice surprise. I actually speak some Spanish but clearly not enough to cope with a long form asking intrusive questions about my private life (that's what I imagine they were asking anyway) after running around for hours to get there. If you really don't speak any Spanish bring a dictionary and don't count on meeting anyone at the office speaking English. Luckily I did meet a Mexican girl that went through the form with me, without her I would have been lost.

                Having filled in the form and my 25CUC in hand I was ready to get this stamp in my passport - just to be told that I was missing about a dozen important documents. In Spanish of course and not just any old Spanish but Cuban Spanish which has nothing to do with what I learned at school. Trust me, it was a very long half hour until I got everything the immigration officer was on about. Temptation to start crying was certainly there or at least to get a very large bottle of rum and down it!

                What you need for a visa extension is 25CUC in stamps that you can get from the bank, a copy of your valid travel medical certificate (with dates that you are covered for) and a receipt from your casa that you are staying there. The latter I only found out after a one hour wait at the bank, a trip to Hotel Cuba Libre to print off my medical insurance and another 3 hour queue at yet another Havana immigration office.

                Queuing will become your best friend while in Cuba, people just love to queue for literally everything and anything. The way it works is that you arrive at the end of the queue, shout as loud as you can "Que es ultimo" - which will probably be ignored - and wait in line till it is your turn.

                But what line I ask you? At the Havana integration office there was a huge number of people but nothing, really nothing, that would resemble a line. Staff randomly appears shouting random things in a random language (Spanish speakers will have a clear advantage here) and collect passports on an equally basis. Your best bet is to wait at the entrance and be annoying for long enough that someone is going to take your passport off you. Then just sit and wait for the next 100 hours until you are called in the office. At that point I was getting slightly grumpy (granted, it was all my fault but anyway) when the office woman told me that I was missing the casa receipt, she therefore could not give me an extension and to top it all off they were closing for the day. Which meant that as of 12 o'clock that night I was without a valid visa - believe me, not a petty thought when you are very far away from your home embassy.

                The lady then told me that she'd keep my passport there overnight and all I had to do was turn up the next morning with the receipt. And with a lovely smile she added that I'd either get my extension then or they would deport me. Good night to you too! And what a night it was, filled with random cocktails in our casa to celebrate my potentially last night in Cuba.

                The next morning I was so prepared, receipt in hand I was at the immigration office (btw, the closest to the city center is Calle 17 y K) just after sunrise just to find myself at the end of another very, very long queue. This time it actually was a sort of orderly queue which unfortunately disintegrated as soon as the office doors opened. Right at the start a woman asked for all foreigners' passports (pasaporte extranjero) and collected them.
                Hours went by, empires rose and fell and entire Hollywood trilogies were filmed before I saw that women again. But then finally after literally 12 hours of queuing across 2 days I had the all-important stamp in my passport. And frankly, it wasn't that bad. I've met some super interesting people all in the same situation at me and very much improved my Spanish.

                To make the whole experience a bit more fun bring a friend or at least a book along. There is nothing as boring as starring at a dirty wall in 35degree heat waiting for the immigration staff to finish their lunch. Supplies are always good and a snack and some cold water will go a long way increasing your survival chances and maybe even make new friends. The most important thing is to keep smiling and do your best to see it as a cultural experience. I did certainly learn more about the Cuban way of life and met some interesting people along the way. Most of the problems I had can be easily avoided and no sane person has to jump through all these hoops to enjoy another month in Cuba. But hey, at least I got another great travel story to tell - and my mates felt sorry for me and bought me a big bottle of rum to celebrate me not getting deported.

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                  23.08.2012 17:48
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                  Great product for everyone suffering from skin blemishes

                  Normally people pretend to by almost perfect when they present themselves online. Although I am guilty of choosing more favorable Facebook profile pictures I think this is the time to be honest with me self - and you of course. As much as I would love to have perfect skin, the reality is far away from it. I tend to get tiny yellow spots and having blackheads on my nose are something I excepted long ago. As this would not be enough my skin is quite oily and the shine on forehead, nose and chin could rival spotlights. Not a great complexion really but to top it off I also tend to get adverse reaction to face care products containing too many chemicals and perfumes.

                  The Body Shop Tea Tree range did not magically improve my skin overnight but after a few weeks of using the toner and the clearing lotion I could definitely notice a difference. Once I started using the gel I woke up every morning checking for blemishes. And of course they were there and again I thought that this was a huge waste of money. A few weeks in I looked through pictures of a recent night out - and surprise, surprise my face did not shine as badly as it normally does. Over time the oiliness was reduced which improved my general complexion. Although I still have big pores (sometimes I really do hate my genes) I have a lot less of these tiny, annoying spots. The blackheads on my nose cleared up but I think this might be due to the toner that I use as well. Frankly, I am happy enough that my skin is not so oily anymore.

                  With 7 Pounds for 50ml it sounds expensive but is actually decent value for money. I only use a tiny blob maybe the size of a 5 Pence piece for my entire face and the tub has been lasting alright for over three months now. Just over two Pounds per month is a price I gladly pay for a product that actually improves my skin complexion instead of giving only empty promises. I use it twice a day after cleaning my face. In the morning I only apply a tiny bit on my problem areas - forehead, nose and chin. At night I apply it again giving it enough time to sink in during the night. I would definitely recommend using the gel in combination with other Tea Tree products or at least another face toner.
                  Upon applying the gel feels quite cool which is great during summer. Although I can feel that my skin is less oily now it does not feel dry. And the best thing is that you can even apply make-up after using the gel without problems. My make-up seems to be looking nice for longer as well thanks to the gel being oil-free. The smell is slightly antiseptic but not unpleasant; it gives me the feeling of actually doing something to improve my skin rather than just putting any old cream on. (Hello placebo effect)

                  Having oily skin is a nightmare when it comes to face creams. Most make my skin even oilier and the Body Shop Tea Tree gel is one of the only products I would now consider using. Definitely well worth the money and a good investment if you struggled with blemished skin. I never had any adverse reaction to the gel and I have seen noticeable improvements within a few weeks of using it. The target group is probably younger people, I certainly would have been happy if this would have been available when my skin started going crazy once I turned 12. It is also aimed at people having oily skin regardless of age group. Highly recommended!

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                    22.08.2012 13:00
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                    Nice product but I'd prefer an unscented version

                    * * * Simple and clean is the way that you're making me feel * * *

                    For my birthday my housemates surprised me with a backpacking survival kit including heaps of useful things such as sun cream, a pad lock and a small carrier bag. On the other hand there were a few things that I would have never considered buying, things like after sun hair mask and hand sanitizer. Hygiene is important but I grew up with slightly hippie parents that wanted me to play in the dirt as much as possible to get a feel for real nature. Nowadays people seem to be much to scared of dirt and perfectly harmless bacteria, thus creating a society of fear if you cannot wash your hands every few minutes. So Hand sanitizer has never been something that I carried round in my handbag - and trust me, I carry everything imaginable around in my handbag. But there you go, just before leaving to Cuba I was the proud owner of a tiny bottle of Body Shop Satsuma Hand Cleanse gel.


                    * * * Let the rain fall down - Let it wash away * * *

                    With 2.50 Pounds for a tiny 60ml bottle it does seem a bit pricy but with it being from Body Shop I did not expect it to cost any less. Several scents are available including Mango, Strawberry and the one that I have - Satsuma. It is not an antibacterial gel but instead used to clean your hands throughout the day when washing is simply not an option. The bottle is tiny and fits nicely into any handbag or toiletries bag. Even during my six weeks in Cuba did I not manage to finish the bottle so I guess you do get your money's worth.

                    The scent is incredibly fruity and for my taste much too chemical. People tend to use hand sanitizers before eating finger food but the horrible faked scent would put me off eating anything. The scent would mask any flavor of the thing that you are actually trying to enjoy. I guess if you were to eat satsumas it would enhance the flavor a bit but honestly, how often do you eat satsumas? Body Shop is usually great with producing a variety of products with gorgeous and intricate flavours, why they opted to make the hand cleanse gels so overly fruity is beyond me. Definitely not a winner when it comes to scent.
                    Function wise I got to admit that it is quite useful. To be honest, I only took it with me because it was a present and my housemates meant well. Never really intending to use it I was incredibly happy to have it with me when I discovered the mangoes in Cuba have nothing to do with the rock solid, tasteless things you can buy in Europe. Cuban mangos are incredibly tasty and incredibly juicy; there is no way to stay clean while eating one of them. The sticky juice is particularly annoying when you are stuck on a boat without water. The cleanse gel got rid of all the stickiness - unfortunately it also got rid of the amazing natural mango scent. But well, if I have to choose between mango scent and non-sticky hands I will opt for the later.


                    * * * The cleanest I've been * * *

                    My biggest niggle would be that the gel stings like hell! While in Cuba I went caving and got completely mucky. Before we had a picnic I used the cleanse gel which left me in agony for a short while. Ok, not quite agony but the tiny cuts I got when climbing up a few rocks did sting quite a bit. At work I have to use industrial hand sanitizer and not even that stuff stings as badly. Combined with the horrid smell this would be my biggest minus point of the Body Shop Satsuma Hand Cleanse gel. Apart from that it is decent value for money as the tiny bottle seems to last for ages and it is indeed a useful little thing to carry around with you. I don`t think I will buy another one though as I much prefer perfume-free products for my hands.

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                      14.08.2012 16:39
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                      Top location in Cuba but with a few issues

                      Spending six weeks in the Caribbean on a student budget is a luxury that I could only afford thanks to a University field trip to the Isla de la Juventud off the coast of Cuba. After two weeks my fellow students and lecturers left and I was free to enjoy the rest of my summer - another month of backpacking through Cuba. Now when people (myself included) think of backpacking the first things that come to mind are cheap street food, very basic accommodation and following the beaten trek as it is way cheaper to catch a bus than rent a car.

                      The first couple of weeks in Cuba were just that, lovely casa particulares that I shared with other travelers, heaps of street pizzas and rum that was cheaper than water. And believe me - we all had a great time. And then suddenly my two travel buddies reached the end of their stay and went back home, leaving me in Vinales one morning on my own. As a backpacker you sort of learn how to recognize other travelers and within a couple of hours I had made a new friend. She was part of an organized tour group and the only girl in her mid-20s in a group full of older, more settled people. They were about to leave to Maria la Gorda, which is supposedly the best dive site in the Caribbean, and her tour guide didn´t mind me tagging along. And that is the story of how I ended up staying in a high end hotel in the middle of nowhere dramatically overstaying my budget instead of roughing it.


                      * * * Location * * *

                      Maria La Gorda is literally in the middle of nowhere. You are closer to Mexico than Havana. This is as far away from everything as you can get in Cuba and due to the inaccessibility still off the beaten trek. The hotel is the most westerly tourist facility in Cuba and is considered one of the nicest beaches in the entire region. Frankly, the beach is not as great. Yes, it is a lovely white sand beach with leaning palm trees and crystal clear waters. However, there are rocks along the entire coast making swimming rather difficult. I don´t think it is worth going there just for the beach - if you are into diving it is well worth it but if it is beaches you are looking for try Varadero or Playa del Este instead.

                      The easiest way (and sometimes the only way to get there) is by using your own transport. Rental cars are fairly cheap in Cuba so it is worth considering getting one of you are with a group of people. Don't rely on public transport, there are supposed to be daily busses from Vinales and Havana but I know no one who ever managed to get one and minibus service is only available if enough people book it a day in advance. If you don´t want to drive yourself your best bet is to get a taxi. Expect to pay 40CUC to/from Vinales and 80 to/from Havana. Trust me; it is not fun getting stuck in Maria La Gorda because you haven't sorted out your return trip as it is fairly expensive to stay here.

                      I speak from hindsight as I sort of hitchhiked with a tour group to Maria La Gorda. They offered to take me back to Vinales but there was more diving that I wanted to do so I stayed longer. It took me 2 extra days to find someone that took me back to civilization in their rental car. All was good in the end as I made some great new friends that way.
                      The hotel is located in a National Park that encompassed the entire peninsular. Lots of nature, no village for miles and a long white sand beach right in front of the hotel are the main attractions of this Cuban region.


                      * * * The hotel * * *

                      The one and only hotel in Maria La Gorda is a fairly nice resort with space for around 70 people, I was there on low season so only few rooms were filled. Our tour guide told me that rooms sell out very quickly in high season so book online or phone ahead, nothing would be more frustrating than driving 3 hours and being turned away. There are no other accommodation options around and please don't listen to the rumors of casa particulars or anything. The next village is over 30min by car away and there is no accommodation available in the national park.

                      Prices range from 29CUC to 60CUC depending on room size and season. It is usually possible to book a two day trip from Havana with a one night stay at the resort. Checking in was very straight forward and the staff was lovely. There is no ATM but you can exchange Euros into CUC (although at a very bad exchange rate). Hotel reception can help with organizing you a taxi and even helped me to find a ride-share with some other people staying at the hotel back to Havana.

                      My room was absolutely lovely and obviously way over my budget. Even though I booked a single room I had two single beds to choose from. There was also a table, TV with some English channels, a fridge and a fairly large bathroom. Hot water was sporadically available and water pressure seemed to be somewhat on the weak side during the daytime. My absolute highlight were all the fresh towels and the little toiletry selection that I found in the bathroom. If I take a break from backpacking then I might as well take it in style. For 29CUC per night not a bad deal especially if you can share it with another person. The 29CUC is for an off-season room without any meals. Usually they will give you a room for 33CUC which includes breakfast but you can ask without is as well.

                      All rooms have aircon and for a few CUC extra you can get seaview from your window. The walls are quite thick and the different houses far enough away from each other to guarantee very quiet, relaxing nights.
                      Internet access is rare in Cuba and the last place I expected to find 3 fairly modern computers was Maria La Gorda. But there you go, 6CUC will buy you 1 hour of fairly decent connection. My tip is to upload some pictures of the beach on facebook while your family/friends are stuck in rainy England!
                      There is a small shop selling overpriced cosmetics, swim accessories and snacks. A pharmacy and a small health centre are on the grounds as well but luckily I never had to use any of them, therefore cannot really comment on their quality. What I would like to mention here is that you are a 5 hour round trip from the next bigger city away in case of a medical emergency. It helps to remember that when jumping of the pier when it is dark or when touching corals while not knowing how a fire coral looks like.


                      * * * Food & Drink * * *

                      The only options expect starvations are the hotel buffet restaurant and the hotel bar. There is a tiny hotel shop that sells ridiculously overpriced crisps and drinks but you are better off buying things in Pinar del Rio. Especially water is with 2.50CUC for a bit bottle way too expensive.

                      The bar is right next to the reception with a nice view over the beach. Don´t expect much more than beers, Mojitos and Cuba Libre. Cocktails start with 3CUC and soft drinks are with 1.40CUC very expensive (A tu cola should be around 0.50CUC). You can order cheese and cheese & ham sandwiches for 3CUC which is the only viable alternative if you don´t fancy spending a crazy amount of money on the buffet restaurant.
                      I´ve had some great nights in that bar but others were absolutely boring. Maria La Gorda seems to be a resort frequented by middle aged couples, which is by no means a bad thing, but don't go there expecting crazy party nights. We did have one great night getting very drunk on expensive rum with a Dutch couple that had just gotten engaged. It all ended in a midnight swim and a hangover from hell the next morning. Unsurprisingly nobody turned up for the 9am dive the next morning. As a solo traveler you might struggle meeting people and for me nothing is more frustrating than diving without a buddy that I don't know/trust.

                      The seafront restaurant is a typical resort buffet place were decent food is served that will fill you up but not really excite anyone. Breakfast is with 4CUC reasonably priced and the selection is quite good as well. As long as you stay away from the horrific scrambled eggs you can enjoy the usual selection of fruits, bread and jam, sweets and sausages. If you are planning to join the 9am dive maybe try not to eat too much - I spend 10 very long minutes feeling very full and very motion sick on the dive boat.
                      Dinner is again your typical unimaginative buffet style grab for 12CUC. It is all you can eat and you can dine on everything from salads to fresh fish, chicken and rice. I only had dinner once and it really was not memorable. The thing is that your only alternative are cheese sandwiches with mustard and there are only so many of those that you can eat. So you will properly end up eating at the restaurant anyway at some point during your stay.


                      * * * The diving * * *

                      Maria La Gorda is supposedly one of the finest dive spots in the Caribbean. With sites located at depths from 6 to 40 meters and most of them being only a quick boat ride away from the shore it does indeed sound stunning. With 42CUC per dive including equipment hire it is an expensive fun compared to other dive sites but they offer packages for six up to twenty dives. If you know that you are staying longer it is definitely worth booking a package right away.

                      Just turn up at the allocated dive times (9am, 11am and 3pm) at the dive centre next to the restaurant. All you need is show them your license if you have one and sign a health and safety form. Nobody really cares if you are a qualified diver though and even if it is your first time they will still take you on. You can hire all the necessary equipment there or use your own if needed. The equipment is ok but there are only few wetsuits so try to keep hold of yours if it is a size they don't have many of.

                      The trip starts with a short boat ride and an even shorted briefing. Sometimes the briefing was literally "Just enjoy it" and questions regarding depth, visibility and difficulty were ignored. There was never any explanation of the dive sites or which buddy system would be used. Dive signs were not explained and no emergency procedures mentioned. Scuba diving is a very safe sport if you know what you are doing - not having proper briefings introduces a very unnecessary element of danger.

                      The actual dive sites were of varying quality. If you have dived before refuse to go to Garden of Gorgonians, it is a shallow dive site that is rather boring. In my opinion they go there when the instructors cannot be bothered to do anything more challenging. There are stunning tunnels and drop-offs so make sure to ask for specific things that you want to see and don´t waste that much money on a boring shallow water dive. My favourite sites were Moby Dick and Between two Waters.

                      The instruction was so-so. There were several dive instructors and dive masters. The centre is generally Spanish spoken but some of the staff speak ok English as well. Personally I was not very happy with the instructors. The lack of pre-dive briefings was shocking and there was no de-brief either. Before going on a dive one should be aware of things like depth or dangers. Diving through tunnels at a depth of 30m is not something everyone enjoys - although I loved it!

                      In my group was a particularly obnoxious woman that kept touching corals and broke sponges just to get a better picture of whatever she was focusing on. Although the instructor saw this he never pointed out the dangers of this behavior to her. There was also no mentioning of dangerous animals like fire corals or lion fish.

                      Cave diving and night dives were advertised, however, we could not do either as no underwater torches were available. The famous black corals are well worth a visit if you can convince the instructors to take you there.


                      * * * Other activities * * *

                      Here we come to one of the worst experiences I had during my Cuba trip. The hotel offers during the breeding season as visit to a beach in the National Park to observe the turtles. So far my experience with protected areas in Cuba has been great and as a biology student I was very much looking forward to the experience. What I naively expected were scientific guides and a well-organized trip that would keep us in a fair distance to the turtles. What really happened was a complete disaster showing an utter lack of respect for nature by both tourists and guides.

                      The tour was 20CUC and started around 9pm. A bus picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the most westerly point of the National Park. The ride was quite nice and we got to see a fair amount of wildlife. After one hour we reached our destination and found ourselves at a huge beach covered in shells and (unfortunately) rubbish. There the waiting began. Instead of a talk or any kind of information our guide sat down and had a nap. We others sat around for a couple of hours enjoying the experience of being far away from civilization at a beach that Robinson Crusoe would have loved.

                      The whole theatre started when some of the park staff found a turtle that was about to start laying eggs. The entire group was brought there and some people settled down within one meter of the turtle. All warnings of not using flash lights when taking pictures were forgotten and people went crazy. I just don´t get why you would take around 200 pictures with thirsty min instead of actually watching what is going on. But anyway, things went from ok to quite bad when the guide started taking out some of the eggs and passing them around. People, look with your eyes and not with your hands! He even allowed people to lie down and catch the eggs from underneath the turtle. There´s just no reason to do something like that.
                      When then one of the guides jumped on the back on the poor creature to pose for pictures my night was finally ruined. I do understand the Parks need to make money but it can be done with so much more taste and respect for the nature.

                      Apparently the hotel offers occasionally other activities as well but the turtle one was the only one offered while I was there.


                      * * * Would I go again? * * *

                      As much as I love Cuba I don´t think that Maria La Gorda will be on my travel list again. There is nothing really wrong with it and I can perfectly understand while people spend their entire holiday there. It is just simply not my type of place. For a start it is far too expensive and even if I wasn´t a student I would much rather stay in casa particulares than this rather anonymous place.

                      What puts me off is the difficulty in getting there and then of course the complete lack of anything to do. You can´t really go swimming due to all the rocks in the water, the National Park is difficult to reach and does not offer much in terms of hiking and there are only so many times that you can walk along the beach without going crazy. Personally I did not enjoy the diving that much which very well has been clouded by my experience with the people in my group. I guess that if you are with a group of like-minded friends and are a bit more assertive than me you will enjoy it more. As far as diving in Cuba goes I much prefer Playa Larga and Punta Frances.

                      If you are travelling in Cuba then you should consider taking a daytrip from Havana or Varadero, it is a lovely beach and might just turn out to be your perfect little bit of paradise.

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                        14.08.2012 00:17
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                        Nice looking pair of flats

                        Since joining a sports team at university the area dedicated to fancy dress in my wardrobe increased drastically. Ok, it was actually only created after joining a sports team. Going on a themed night out once a week if a fairly expensive hobby and sad as it is I do find myself thinking with every item that I am eying up with which theme it would go. Charity stores and big supermarkets are great places to find bargains when design is more important than quality. Gorge at ASDA is my preferred brand when it comes to supermarket shopping as they seem to stock more quirky items than Tesco. Summer shoes here are cheap and cheerful but often don´t last longer than one season, but frankly, for seven pounds a pop that is well worth it.

                        I own a wide range of ballerina style shoes as they are just super comfortable and can be worn to any occasion. If they fit in a fancy dress theme even better. The ASDA Nautical Stripe Ballerina Shoes fit perfectly on a Sailor night out. Unlike the picture shown here mine are dark blue and white, making them look very summery but not to quirky to be worn for work. They look great with dark blue dresses, an all-white outfit combined with an oversized beach bag or simply a pair of jeans and a stripy blue top. I would not necessarily say they are more suitable for younger women but I have seen a fair few girls walk around in them.

                        Although they look nautical they are nothing I would take on any serious endeavor with me. For the price I did not expect much quality wise and they really did not last that long. After a couple of months wearing them fairly frequently there were holes in the sides at the base of my big toes where my feet apparently lean a bit inwards. The holes were not too bad and I kept wearing them until the end of the season. By this point the material looked quite worm and the white was not particularly clean anymore. Overall the material was not the best and my biggest complaint would certainly be the missing of a soft inner lining. I had a couple of blisters at the back of my heel and my little toes. The small strap rubbed quite badly as well which is incredibly painful if your feet are sun burnt. However, after a couple of weeks the material was a bit stretched and they tuned into a very comfortable pair of flats. Shame though that they did not last that long.

                        The strap - although uncomfortable at first - is a great addition. It means you can run without worrying about losing your shoes and walking while intoxicated is made a lot easier as well. If the world was according to me all shoes would have ankle straps, they might not look great but make walking a lot easier. Altogether these shoes were worth the seven pounds I spend on them. They lasted the entire summer, looked cute and were a great addition to my fancy dress cupboard.

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                          12.08.2012 11:48
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                          One of my favourite places in Cuba

                          Cuba is a country full of contradictions; starting with the glittering resorts in Varadero to the no-frills backpacker haven of Baracoa. You have limited free speech and loads of restrictions but free healthcare and education. Tourists can choose between city hopping, scuba diving and mountains - and all that on an island that is wildly considered tiny and a bit obscure. Personally, Cuba is my kind of place and the 6 weeks that I spend there have been amazing. Cuba is a country that polarizes; for me things seemed to be either great or a bit rubbish but I struggled not having a strong opinion on people, places or food.

                          Vinales was one of the places that I instantly fell in love with. After the big city hassle that Havana is Vinales is a perfect get-away in driving distance. Touristy enough to ease you slowly into the rural Cuban experience but remote enough to give your lungs a well-deserved break from exhaust fumes.
                          In this review I try to guide you through my experiences in Vinales, hoping that one day you might get a chance to enjoy it as well. And just to spice it up a little bit I will try to guide you through it in ten songs. So welcome to my personal Vinales Playlist.


                          1.The city's just a jail for me, full of high rise prison walls (Meat Loaf - Keep driving)
                          AKA Location
                          Havana is a stunning city but it is loud, hectic and the air quality is about as bad as the one in the men´s changing room after a football match. The city sprawls endlessly towards the horizon without giving any hints of what lies behind. Only 200km away we found our perfect city break - the Vinales Valley. Some people might say that all it is is a touristy town surrounded by mountains but nothing spectacular. But believe me, after 4 days in Havana any tiny bit of green would have made us happy. My newly found Australian friend Ellen and me took the early morning Viazul bus, leaving at 9pm from the Viazul station just outside of Havana city centre. The best way to get there is by taxi - expect to pay anything between 5 to 7 CUC (roughly 5 Pounds at the time of writing). Finding people to share a ride with will be your best option to save money as there is only sparse public transport and walking would take about two hours.

                          This is really not worth it as when I tried it I ended up getting lost and having to pay for a taxi anyway.
                          The bus to Vinales tends to get very busy in high season so it might be a good idea to book ahead. There is one in the morning at 9am and one at 3pm costing 12 CUC. As advertised the drive can take anything between 2 ½ hours and 4 hours. In my experience they never take less than 4 hours but it is a lovely drive that I enjoyed thoroughly. Vinales lies on the North coast of Cuba to the west of Havana, with Pinal del Rio it is the last easily accessible tourist spot in the western part of Cuba. Only Maria la Gorda is further west but going there is only worth it if you are into Scuba diving and have your own transport. Anyway, back to our bus journey; Viazul busses are top-notch modern long distance busses with toilets o board and air con. There are two stops during the drive; the first one was after about two hours at the park of La Terazzas where we had a twenty minute rest. There is an overpriced bar serving drinks, clean toilet facilities and a stunning view over the lake and the outcrops of the mountain ranges. The road then leads through green forest into the provincial capital of Pinar del Rio. There is literally nothing to do and see here and the stop is quite short. The occasional tourists are picked up at the station after realizing just how boring Pinar is and that they should really be in the 40km further north Vinales. The rest of the drive is stunning. Ellen and I were literally glued to the window trying to absorb as much of the view as possible. The narrow mountain road leads down into a green valley that looks like something from Jurassic Park (minus the awesome dinosaurs of course). Once we saw the green valley and the randomly dotted around karst mountains we were both in love!

                          The road is modern and leads straight from Havana to Vinales. Many people chose to come with a rented car but you might struggle finding suitable parking once you arrived. If you choose to go by taxi do not pay more than 50CUC for a one way trip. My friend got it down to 40CUC but that will depend on how good your haggling is. There are usually enough other travelers hanging around the Viazul station willing to share a taxi. The drive should not take much longer than two hours and you will have the added bonus that you can stop at the various look-out points dotted along the main road.


                          2.I want to lay you down on a bed of roses - For tonight I sleep on a bed of nails (Bon Jovi - Bed of roses)
                          AKA Accomodation
                          Vinales is the Las Vegas of Cuba when it comes to casa particulares. Almost every house offers one or two bedroom that can be privately rented for a price of anything from 15 CUC to 30 CUC. We booked our room in Havana as our host there recommended us to stay with his friends. I found that this is incredibly common in Cuba, just mention to your host your future itinerary and they will happily set you up with other casas in these places. We were incredibly lucky and thoroughly enjoyed the place we stayed at. Jorge picked us up at the bus station with a sign with our names on - talk about being made feeling like a VIP.

                          Villa Sara y Jorge is off the main road in a quite side street. They offer one room with two double beds and en-suite bathroom for 20CUC a night. Both of them speak English very well and are kind and welcoming hosts happy. They sat down with us for long chats and made us feel very at ease and almost like at home.
                          The second time I stayed in Vinales we pre-booked a room in Maria la Gorda; as we needed two rooms we stayed at a different casa. Maria & Louisa were very gracious hosts and there was always a lively bunch of relatives and friends around. The two rooms they offered had two double beds each and en-suite bathrooms for 20CUC for double use and 15CUC for single occupancy. A delightful breakfast was included in the price. Both families made me feel welcome and almost more like a long lost friend than a paying customer. Staying in casa particulares was what made my Cuba holiday so special.
                          If casas are not your thing you can choose to stay at the two hotels overlooking the valley but you will be quite far away from the actual town and obviously the prices are much steeper as well.



                          3.Now I wanna tell you that my pappas pizza are quite the best in town (Lory Bonnie Bianco - Pizza Pizza)
                          AKA Food
                          Yes my fellow traveler, rest assured that there are indeed cheese pizzas available here. They might be a couple of CUP more expensive than in Havana and not as tasty but they are available if your budget it getting stretched by all the great things to do in Vinales. Eateries catering to all tastes can be found along the main road running through the town. There are various restaurants offering the standard Cuban meals of rice, beans, salads and your choice of meat starting from 5CUC for dinner which often includes a drink as well. We never used any of these places but most did look lovely from the outside and some were advertising live music as well. What got us through the long hours between breakfast and dinner were the cheap as chips cheese pizzas offered along the road. These 15cm goodies are greasy, cheap and full of salt - but a right present from heaven when you are starving and not willing to pay more than 50 pence.

                          The one restaurant we tried is fairly new in town and owned by a German - Cuban family. The hosts were very gracious and entertaining. The made us feel welcome even after we asked if we could share a pizza between us to save some money. Diana and I quickly chose the vegetarian pizza for 75CUP (local currency, equals 3CUC and 2.20 Pounds). We were given some bruschetta type bread as a free starter which was delicious and some fried plantain to nibble on. However, nothing compared to the pizza we got. It was absolutely huge and jam-packed with all kinds of vegetables. The base was thin and crispy and even after living in Italy for a year and being a pizza snob I still have to admit that this was the best pizza I had in a long while. The restaurant is located on the main road; if you are coming from the main square walk downhill for 300m and it is the blue restaurant to your left.

                          Even though the many restaurant options look tempting we decided to have dinner in the casa particulares we stayed in. And boy, this was certainly the right choice. Our first host, Sara, was an amazing cook that prepared us a meal worthy of serving gods and plenty enough to feed an entire family. All three of us were amazed by the sheer amount of food she prepared for us and instantly gave up on the idea of losing weight while being in Cuba. We had a stunning but very filling spicy black bean soup followed by rice and black beans, white rice, fresh salad, bread and the most gorgeous chicken dish I have ever tasted. Cuban cooking might be simple but if it is made right it turns the most humble ingredients into a stunning dish. None of us managed to touch the fresh fruits served for pudding and we retired full but happy to the porch for some Cuba Libres.

                          Miriam & Louisa were equally good cooks and treated us to two unforgettable evening meals. Although the basics were the same the flavours were completely different as each chef in Cuba adds their little individual touch to the standard dishes. Louisa's fish dish with maize parcels was my culinary highlight of this trip. Since coming back home I have tried to re-create it but never even come close to its delicious flavor. Both casa charged 6CUC for dinner which is more than reasonable given the amount of food offered and the quality of the dishes served.


                          4.I've never been afraid of the highest heights (Example - Changed the way you kiss me)
                          AKA Hiking
                          Mountains are what people come for and the unusual karst mountains are well worth a look. Imagine Halong Bay in Vietnam with rice paddies and fields instead of the ocean. The huge boulders are dotted along the valley giving the whole area a slightly mysterious look and in places where they go over into the mountain range surrounding the valley they offer fantastic outdoor sport activities. Although there are no proper hiking trails and rock climbing is still in its baby shoes there are a few walking trails out of the valley leading to viewpoints with stunning vistas. The most popular one is the one leading to the only two hotels in Vinales. The way follows a main road and can be done by anyone capable of walking for longer than a TV advertisement break. It does get steep at some point but the 2km walk flies past as you are rewarded with great views and friendly locals thinking that you are a bit crazy to walk up the hill instead of getting a taxi. Once you reach the top you are allowed to walk into the hotel and enjoy the viewpoint at the pool. It is a lovely walk and apparently you get great sunrises there but I´m not sure about walking along the road without streetlights. Cuban driving can be adventurous at the best of times and switching on the lights does not seem to be compulsory.

                          For most of the other hikes you will need a guide leading the way or at least a very decent grasp of Spanish. There are no maps available but any casa owner will know someone that can show you around for a few CUC. The walk to the Muriel de la Prehistoria is quite nice and hiking to the Cueva de los Indos should be do-able as well. With all other tourist spots you are better off renting a car or getting a taxi.


                          5.I'm not a princess - this ain't a fairytale (Taylor Swift - White Horse)
                          AKA Horse Riding
                          Travelling with Australians is great - they are a bunch of super nice, extrovert people all into heaps of different outdoor activities. My two friends Ellen and Diana were no exception as they were experienced horse women. I have never been on a horse nor felt any need to do so but as it turned out Cuba was a country of many firsts for me. Our casa hosts suggested a horse riding excursion and not wanting to hold the other back I gingerly agreed. 6CUC per hour per horse seemed reasonable and we were looking forward to get to see more of this beautiful area. So off we went on our first morning here looking for the stables - which are hidden in the middle of some fields right at the edge of town. Once we arrived there were some issues about the price as they wanted to charge us more. We agreed on a flat rate of 20CUC for the three our trip and everyone was happy. With the Australians on their horses in seconds all eyes turned to me. My little horsie turned out to be tiny, old and looking rather donkey like but she was the perfect choice for a beginner. Our guys followed us on foot holding onto the rains of my horsie for the first half hour until I stopped shaking. He was absolutely lovely and very knowledgeable about the area, pointing out various plants and stone formations. Obviously he was also great taking care of the horses and the followed his command without hesitating. Now I really don't know anything about horses but both Ellen and Diana said that the horses were well behaved and in very good condition. One could see that they are well fed and bight and alert.

                          The trek itself was great, slowly leading up a mountain towards a lake hidden away why the stone formations. There we had a little rest before riding back into town. The three hours passed like nothing and we enjoyed it very much. The horses were great and I was incredibly happy by how calm my horsie was. I could see her choosing the safest way to step and never did anything stupid like suddenly running away with me screaming and falling to my certain death (slight exaggeration here). Ask your casa owner and they will gladly help you to arrange a horse riding excursion. The people we were with were lovely and definitely cared well for the animals. They were also very understanding about our different abilities which I was very grateful for.


                          6.I'm going deeper underground - But I got to go deeper, got to go much deeper (Jamiroquai - Deeper Underground)
                          AKA Caving
                          My second time in Vinales was jam-packed of sporty outdoorsiness which was great fun but also incredibly exhausting. Well, more exhausting at least than spending all day at the beach, drinking rum & coke and going for the occasional Scuba dive. With my new friends Vera and Claus we took off on a day of caving, something Vinales is famous for throughout Cuba. The first one we went to was the Cueva de los Indios; a tourist magnet 7km from the town centre. Taxis and mini busses go there all day long delivering tourists and day trippers. The cave itself is a show-cave, meaning concrete paths, electrical lighting and a speedboat tour on an underground river. It was fun and the 5 minute boat ride was actually really nice but it had nothing to do with proper caving. We were the only group in hiking gear whereas most of the Cuban women were wearing high heels. For 5CUC it was a comfortable way to spend the morning but nothing I feel the need to do again.

                          Cueva Santo Tomas was a different thing and please, please, please do not wear high heels or even ballerinas when getting there. Although the area you can visit is not dangerous we are still talking a 90min walk through sharp rocks in the dark with a slippery floor and no handrails. The 17km drive leads you into the middle of nowhere and we nearly missed the turn to the cave. Signs are spars in this area which surprised me a bit given that we are talking about the second largest cave in Central America. Would Cueva Santo Tomas be in North America or Europe it would be a huge tourist magnet. With it being in Cuba we were the only ones there and had our guide to ourselves. Parking is available and free and if you are brave enough there is also a very dodgy looking bar. Our guide spoke perfect English and asked for 10CUC per person for the tour. Sounds a bit steep but well worth it in the end. The tour started with an 18 meter climb to the entrance of the 6th level of the cave. As long as you wear proper shoes you will be fine, just avoid looking down. We thoroughly enjoyed the climb up but were even more grateful of the natural air con inside the cave. Here it was time to put on our helmets we were given, switch on the head torches and start exploring. Our guide led the way through some narrow passages into great halls full of glittering stalagmites and stalactites. The walking was not hard but the floor slippery and the rocks have very sharp edges. If you are particularly tall you might not enjoy this part of the tour too much. My personal low-light was the climb via a dodgy looking (but perfectly sturdy and save) ladder into the next level of the cave. Here we entered another great dark hall containing a natural pond and various creepy looking cave spiders. Our guide told us heaps of interesting stories and could answer all our questions about the geology of the cave. I´m not sure if I believe it but he said that once he spend an entire week climbing around in the lower levels of the cave that are not open to public access.

                          There are some smaller caves dotted around the various mountains and your casa owner will almost always know someone that can guide you the way for a few CUCs. The bigger caves can be reached by taxi or organized tour. A tour to Santo Tomas takes 3 hours and leaves at the tourist office every morning. The 21CUC include transport and entrance to the cave. There is no public transport available.



                          7.I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair (Sandi Thom - I Wish I was a punk rocker)
                          AKA The Muriel de la Prehistoria
                          We all know that artists can be a bit crazy but as it turns out that Cuban artists can be both crazy and slightly delusional at the same. At least this is the only way I can explain the Muriel de la Prehistoria - a gaudy Technicolor painting covering an entire rock face of a karst mountain. Some twenty years ago a couple of artists tried their luck in depicting evolution - and succeeding in creating something that looks like a mix of cave paintings and a child's drawing with water colours. I´m not going into the details of how it looks as you should really keep that element of surprise. Just be aware that there will be dinosaurs (See, I knew there were some of them hiding here).

                          The easiest way to get there is follow the road leading out of town the way the bus came in for 3km, and then a sign will direct you towards the Muriel following a smaller road through the mountains. 4km did not sound that bad but Vera and me chose to do it after Scuba diving at 9am and a 4 hour drive to Vinales - by the time we reached the Muriel we were starving like a pack of wolves and really did not appreciate the questionable artistic talent on offer. There is a 1CUC entrance charge if you want to get close and overpriced bars and a restaurant are at your service. Don't miss it, although it sounds a bit boring it is a Cuba must see and even if it is just to say that you finally found dinosaurs in Vinales.


                          8.We're going out out out no sleeping sleeping tonight (Lavive - No Time For Sleeping)
                          AKA The Nightlife
                          Vinales is a place offering heaps of sporting activities and we really exhausted these options. Combine this with the huge meals prepared at the casa and you might understand why dancing salsa was not on our evening entertainment program. For me it is a place to sit on the porch of your casa and enjoy some good old rum and coke with your friends. It´s not like there was a lot on nightlife on offer anyway. The only place to go dancing is the Casa de la Musica on the main square which looked ok but drinks were a bit overpriced. There is life music almost every night and heaps of guys will be just too happy to show you how to dance salsa - at least according to my friend who braved a couple of nights out there.

                          Your only other option is the bar on the other side of the square. Just follow all the gringos and the smell of Crystal and you will find it. Beer is cheap and cold and the outside tables are great for people watching. At night it tends to get a bit loud as it is the designated meeting point for tour groups but with it being the only places in town to get drunk you won´t have much choice. Drinks are reasonably priced and they also do sandwiches during the day. With it being located next to the bus stop the bar is a great place to meet other travelers to share a taxi with and to find new friends of course. I met a Dutch girl there after my Australian friends had left and we joined up to share a room with in our next destination saving us heaps of money.

                          9.Dawn is breakin', it's early morn'in - The taxi's waitin', he's blowin' his horn (John Denver - Leaving on a jet plane)
                          AKA Getting Out
                          Both times that I stayed in Vinales had been amazing and leaving was hard. Especially given that the bus stop is right opposite the most popular bar in town and it is far too easy to have a beer or two and randomly decide to stay longer. But in the end there is only so much nature that I can do until it draws me to a beach or at least a city with a bit more nightlife. From the many options Vinales offers in turns of get-away I went further west to Maria la Gorda. This tiny beach resort in the middle of nowhere is supposed to be one of the best dive sites the Caribbean has to offer. Its remoteness made it even more attractive but in the end it turned out to not live up to its hype. Getting there is fairly straight forward, simply follow the only road leading west until you reach the ocean and there you go. The 200km drive should not take more than 3 to 4 hours but the road gets a bit dodgy the further west you get so you are better off driving slowly. Public transport is non-existent so your only real option is to hire a car in Vinales or share a taxi/mini bus. The one-way drive will set you back around 50 CUC and it is advisable to organize the trip back in advance. If you book a taxi from when you are already in Maria la Gorda it will be much more expensive getting back to civilization.

                          Viazul connects Vinales via Havana with most of the popular tourist destinations in Cuba. The furthest east you can go directly is Trinidad for 37CUC. Not bad considering that it is a 10 hour drive. Busses to Havana leave twice daily (1pm and 7pm) for 12CUC. I would strongly recommend taking the 1pm bus; choosing the latter option means that you will arrive in Havana quite light and might struggle finding a casa if you have not pre-booked accommodation. Other bus destinations include Varadero and Cienfuegos but with the heaps of taxi drivers hangout in the main square a group can get almost everywhere in Cuba for a very reasonable price.


                          10.Here comes the rain again - falling from the stars (When September Ends - Green Day)
                          AKA Things I did not like
                          This section is going to be rather short as I really don´t need a lot of space to list what I did not like about Vinales. All of the following are minor niggles and nothing that would deter me from return. My main complain as a solo backpack is the lack of hostels. Casa particulares are great but it is almost impossible to meet people and staying in a room on your own is not only boring but also expensive. Luckily I met other travelers before going to Vinales so we could share but I would have been on my own otherwise. If you are alone you can try to get a room by yourself for 15 CUC instead of 20 CUC but it will still be miserably lonely.

                          Arriving was a bit daunting with literally hundreds (ok, maybe 50) casa hosts storming the bus trying to get you to stay with them. It really wasn't the nicest welcome and I was happy that I had pre-booked accommodation both times. I guess it is a great place to negotiate a good room rate though but always consider the high taxes people need to pay when renting out rooms so don't haggle too much.

                          My biggest issue was the amount of mosquitos trying to eat you alive as soon as the sun started to set. When we arrived in mid-July it was raining heavily for days - trust me to choose to go to the Caribbean in the middle of the wettest summer in the past decade. We had to constantly apply DEET but the little buggers even bit us through our clothes. I would highly recommend mixing in some DEET in your body lotion to cover everything and apply normal mosquito repellent on arms and legs. My casa hosts said that it normally it´s not so bad but the location in the middle of fields close to a river makes Vinales the perfect breeding ground for mozzies. Another way to get around it is following Ellen's example and travel with a mosquito magnet - aka me! They absolutely love me and would rather bite through three layers of clothes than try the half-naked person next to me.

                          And that is it already - Vinales is a great place in stunning surroundings that attracts loads of tourists every year but still manages to keep its charm. I can highly recommend it to any Cuba traveler. Even if you are rushed for time you can chose to come here for one night from Havana. It is the perfect city break and allows you to see the workings of rural Cuba in convenient distance to the capital. Locals have been lovely throughout and everyone working in the tourist industry speaks English. All facilities like banking, internet and car rental are available and easily accessible. Actually I preferred going to the bank here as there were no queues, in Havana I had to wait for 30 minutes outside before I was even allowed in the bank.
                          The only reason why I did not stay longer was the lack of beaches. Cuba was a Scuba diving holiday for me and going 3 days without getting my feet wet was simply too long. But if I ever return to Cuba I will make sure to come back to Vinales again.

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                            11.08.2012 16:11
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                            not for me

                            Lemon Tree by Fool´s Garden is one of my favourite summer tunes - mainly because it makes me think of lemons. Flavour, colour and look wise there is no other fruit that I prefer, going to the extend that I have been known to eat lemon slices on dark bread. The idea of a lemon lip butter was just too much temptation to resist. Thank you Body Shop for exploiting my weakness and "making" me buy the Sweet Lemon Lip Butter for 4 Pounds. 4 Pounds for the tiny 10ml tub of lib palm is quite extortionate when you think that you could get 3 tubs of Vaseline lip care for that price. Alas, Vaseline does not come in a range of exciting flavours so well played Body Shop.

                            For the same price I also bought the Sweet Lemon Shower Gel - a product that I enjoyed thoroughly I in hindsight should have bought two of and not investing my money in the lip butter. My lips tend to get dry very quickly making carrying around lip balm a must. Vaseline always worked fine but let´s be honest, it is a tad on the boring side. Lip butter sounded, well, buttery. Like a luxurious treat for my lips with an added nice flavor. The scent was indeed lovely, just like the rest of the Sweet Lemon range. The flavor was pleasant at first but the butter has a very chemical aftertaste that is just a bit too much for me. It is very definitely lemon but at the same time very sweet, think of a glass of lemonade with ¼ pounds of sugar and a couple of sweeteners added to top it off. So overall we have a lovely smell and an ok-ish taste so far. If it would work well I would probably keep using it until the tub was done with but after the flavor things went from bad to worse.

                            The consistency is the first thing that actually put me off. I don´t like the consistency of body butters so really, I have no idea why a lip butter would be the right thing for me. Anyway, the consistency is very buttery, very soft and it does feel like the cream was melting on my skin. It was just too thick to be pleasant and on my lips it was very, very sticky. So sticky indeed that I felt the need to constantly check if dust or other yucky bits were stuck to my lips. Not a pleasant feeling at all. I have to admit that my lips did feel quite nice for about ten minutes after applying the lip butter - after that they felt drier than before! Using the lip balm for one week left my lips looking very dry and not feeling good at all. There were no skin irritations or adverse reactions but it completely failed to keep my lips hydrated. Switching back to Vaseline was the only option left, leaving me with a useless tub of very nice smelling waste of money.

                            Actually it is not too bad as I started using the lip butter as a hand cream, with its conveniently small tub it is perfect for a night out or other occasions when don´t carry a big bag around with me.
                            I also got the Chocomania lip butter as a present with the same effect, lovely scent, chemical flavor and no hydration effect whatsoever. I really do not understand how my lips can feel fine but after applying the lip butter they felt like I did not use any lip care for weeks. Unfortunately not a product that I would buy again or recommend to anyone - which is a shame as the idea behind it is quite nice.

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                            • New Look Suede Wedge / Shoes / 42 Readings / 41 Ratings
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                              10.08.2012 23:42
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                              Great pair of shoes

                              High heels have been in my opinion invented to torture women all over the world and to insure that we are on our way back home after only a couple of hours of dancing. Yes, they are pretty and they make my legs look nice but is the extra height really worth the pain? An almost painless alternative are wedges - they can look just as nice while being a lot more comfortable. The added stability means not looking stupid anymore because I nearly have to tip-toe trying to navigate cobblestone streets, not going home before the night starts properly and not waking up the next morning covered in bruises because I lost my balance.

                              Wedges are normal the in-thing during summer with the appropriate looks that suits flowery dresses. The New Look Suede Wedge are the perfect pair of wedges as they combine comfort and a less beach-y style. Not only the surface but also the heels are covered in fakes black suede material that looks surprisingly not tacky at all. It is not very shiny and the matt fabric makes them look more expensive than they actually were. With 19 Pounds they are reasonably priced and certainly an all-round pair of shoes - I have worn mine on nights out as well as to the office.

                              New Look shoes can be very hit and miss, some pairs only lasted a couple of nights out while others have been in frequent use for years. These wedges are definitely in the latter category. The rubber sole is quite thin but anti-slip and does not show many signs of wear even after several months. The fabric is not real suede and I would not bet on its quality. It does look very nice but I understand a bit about fabric, the one used here was certainly chosen for its looks and not durability. As long as you avoid all too crazy nights out or walking around in the mud your shoes should stay nice looking for quite a while. IO found the material easy to clean with a moist paper towel. I did not use any detergent though as they sometimes bleach the colour.

                              Wedge styles shoes are the only type of high heel that I wear when I know that I will be on my feet a lot. The wedge is quite wide providing a lot of stability through the increased width. With 10cm at the heel and 3cm platforms these shoes are reasonably high, which always adds a nice touch to every outfit. I think that the New Look Suede Wedge can be combined with almost every outfit. They obviously compliment dark dresses very well and look very smart with office wear. I found that my feet slipped out of them quite a lot, especially when wearing tights, unfortunately there is no ankle strap and the material that covers the toes ends very low on the foot.

                              Comfort wise I am perfectly happy with them. The fabric is quite soft and adjusts well to the foot. They seem to be surprisingly wide so you might struggle wearing them if you have very slim feet. I never had any blisters or any other kind of discomforts so a plus all around. They soon turned into my favourite it-is-dark-outside pair of shoes and I am considering buying a second pair in cream. Definitely a good purchase and highly recommended to anyone that hates normal high heels just as much as I do.

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                                10.08.2012 21:08
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                                Not my favourite Body Shop product

                                * * * Olive you and everything you do * * *

                                I shall blame my best friend for my blossoming Body Shop addiction. Skipping lectures and going for a shopping trip was her idea, as was going for "only a quick" look into Body Shop. Two store cards, several bags heavier and a lot of money lighter we left 30min later. Not that we bought four shower gels each plus lip balms and various things that I did not even know what they were good for. Somehow I ended up with the Moroccan Black Olive & Argan Oil Scrub. With twelve pounds for only 200ml it is ridiculously priced but somehow we managed to get most of the stuff we bought half price. Still, six pounds is more than I would ever spend again on such a tiny amount of body scrub even if it contains olives which are my favourite thing on earth.

                                * * * Olive you the words are coming true * * *

                                The Moroccan Black Olive & Argan Oil Scrub looks very fancy in the little jar that reminds me of the ones my nan used to use to make preserves in. It is easy to open and better than a squeeze bottle as it is easier to get the right amount. The texture is a bit too sticky and oily for me, almost syrupy and gooey. With it being a body scrub I expected it to be fairly grainy but it is surprisingly smooth and the scrubby bits are quite unintrusive. I would go as far as saying that they are too unintrusive as I did not feel enough scrub. Although there is a light exfoliating effect I expected and would have liked it to be stronger. I don´t use body scrubs often but if I use them then I want them to get rid of as much dead skin as possible. With the smooth texture I would say that the Moroccan Black Olive & Argan Oil Scrub is a product that can and should be used regularly without worrying about damaging your skin. As most Body Shop products it is aimed at sensitive skin so I guess what I dislike is actually a good thing for most people.
                                However, for me it would simply be too expensive to use regularly. If it had a very nice exfoliating effect I could justify spending that much money and only using it occasionally. Certainly not an everyday product if you live on a student budget. Body Shop offers a wide range of other body scrubs that are much cheaper and more effective. This one here seems to be a luxury product that is more of a treat than anything else.

                                * * * Olive you and the little things you do * * *

                                After slightly letting me down when it came to the exfoliating effect all my hopes were on the scent. Morocco, olives, citrus - can´t get any better for me really. I don`t really know what I expected and to be honest, it rather sounds like something I would eat than smear all over my body. The subtle scent of spices and citrus is quite nice. It is something I would buy as a room perfume but not necessarily I need in my toiletries box. Overall, it is rather unintrusive though and certainly not overpowering.

                                This here is one Body Shop product that I won't be buying again in the future. It is advertised as a body scrub but so fine that it rather resembles a face scrub. The small jar size led me to believe that little product would be enough but I did need a substantial amount for an effective peeling. So that is a so-so for effectiveness and a clear no for value for money. This leaves me with a pretty looking jar and a nice scent. Not enough to justify buying the Moroccan Black Olive & Argan Oil Scrub again. However, it does look quite cool and I could imagine it to make a nice present for someone with very sensitive skin.

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