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Monthly Archives: January 2017

Things Didn’t Know About Colorado

1. Denver can lay claim to the invention of the cheeseburger. The trademark for the name Cheeseburger was awarded to Louis Ballast, a resident of the city in 1935.

2. In a small town called Fruita just outside of Grand Junction in Colorado’s west the locals celebrate Mike the Headless Chicken Day. The celebrations stem from a day when local farmer Mr. Lloyd Olsen cut off the head of Mike the chicken on September 10th 1945, in anticipation of a chicken dinner – Mike survived the ordeal and lived for another 18 months without a head!

3. Colorado boasts the highest continuously paved highway in the United States.  Trail Ridge Road – (US-34) passes through Rocky Mountain National Park between Estes Park and Grand Lake, crossing the Continental Divide at 12,183 feet above sea level. Colorado is also home to the highest paved road in North America. The Road to Mt Evans off of I-70 from Idaho Springs climbs up to 14,258 feet above sea level.

4. The world’s largest flat top mountain is in Grand Mesa. Visitors can enjoy panoramic views stretching from valley floor to the mesa top as they tour the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway (highway 65), which winds past picture postcard scenes. Fruit orchards, vineyards and fluttering aspens fill the landscape as the byway climbs to 10,000 feet.

5. Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States. Standing at 10,430 feet above sea level, the region was a thriving silver mining region – many of the neighboring town’s had ‘silver’ in their name. To add a little variety the founding fathers decided to call the town Leadville. Just east of Leadville is Alma where you will find the highest post office in the US.

6. Colfax Avenue in Denver is the longest continuous street in America.

7. Colorado is the Rodeo capital of the world. The World’s first Rodeo was held on 4th July 1869 in Deer Trail just east of Denver. Every January Denver hosts the worlds largest Rodeo called The National Western Stock Show and Colorado Springs hosts the State’s oldest annual rodeo, the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo.

8. Over 400,000 people ascend Pikes Peak (14,110 feet) every year.

9. The Colorado Rockies are part of the North America Cordillera, which stretches 3,000 miles from Alaska through Western Canada and the United States, into Northern Mexico. The centerpiece of this dramatic uplift are the peaks over 14,000 feet or the Fourteeners as they are affectionately known by climbers. There are over 52 Fourteeners in Colorado.

10. The Dwight Eisenhower memorial Tunnel between Clear Creek & Summit counties is the highest auto tunnel in the world. Bored at an elevation of 11,000 feet under the Continental Divide, it is 8,960 feet long. The average daily traffic through the tunnel exceeds 26,000 vehicles.

Cycling Tour through Cuba

Cuba is said to look like a crocodile on the map, or a great fish swimming in the Caribbean’s blue waters. Whatever its shape, Cuba possesses a rich culture and is by far the largest of all the Caribbean Islands. The land is made up of lush mountains, rolling hills and flat plains, all covered with a fertile soil from which springs sugar, tobacco and a vast array of tropical fruits and vegetables. Cuba’s mountains, swamps and offshore keys, conceal a wealth of plant and wildlife, barely seen by natives let alone tourists.

The island’s natural riches are equalled by the charms of its people. Cubans are a mulatto race from the early days of the colony, Spanish blood mixed with Indians and black slaves, bought over from Europe and latterly French from the 20th century. All these influences created something akin to a bottle of aged rum – dusky flavour, full and intoxicating!

Much evocative prose has been written about Havana. Words do not really do it justice with its diverse architecture, wide avenues and the famous ‘Malecon’ promenade, particularly those at the city centre of Old Havana. Its magnificent decaying edifices of the colonial buildings were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Watch with a touch of nostalgia as 40’s & 50’s American cars drive by. Cubans live and breathe music and appear to know only one volume setting…….LOUD! from distorted blown speakers and a musical style all of it’s own.

Everything seems caught in a time warp of the decadent American influence of the 1950’s. As night falls the city sparkles with life and a visit to the bars that Hemmingway used to frequent – La Bodequita del Media or the Floridity – to sample his famous drink a daiquiri is a treat.

Many visitors feel the Viñales Valley is the most spectacular sight in Cuba. Certainly it was eventful getting there, as we were blessed with monsoon rains whilst traversing the banana and coffee plantations.

The valley is set in the Pinar del Rio province, Cuba’s westernmost region, a fringe of land with the Gulf of Mexico to the north and the Caribbean to the South. The mighty Mojoteslimestone outcrops provide the backdrop for the world’s finest tobacco fields, with spectacular scenes more akin to South East Asia than the Caribbean. Its’ easy somnolent pace of life provided a real tonic to the hustle of Havana. To get there we had to cycle along Cuba’s only main motorway. With little traffic, it provided a surreal experience as we idled along this vacant tarmac ribbon. This has to be the last motorway in the world where such an experience could occur.

Equally impressive is the infamous Bay of Pigs, an otherwise innocuous sandy shoreline. This is now forever recorded in historic folklore as the failed invasion debacle on 17 April 1961. Suffice to say the insitu museum celebrates repelling the 1297 CIA trained insurgents (US participation was denied at every stage), which led to a great boost in Fidel Castro’s domestic and international status. Soon after he declared Cuba a socialist one party state. A walk round the museum with the entire captured US remnant on display, is a seminal moment. It really hits home just what this unique country is all about.

We cycled on to the town of Cienfuegos, a port city 155 miles southeast of Havana. Tourism has yet to reach this town with any force and allows one to see life as it really is for Cuba laid bare. Despite the industry on its periphery, the centre is quite attractive, with pastel coloured neo-classical buildings. Travellers are now starting to use this as a stop-off point on the way to Trinidad. The focal point of the town is Parque Jose Marti, one of the grandest squares in the country. Here you will find the monumental red-domed government offices, and early 19th century cathedral with a startling gold-painted interior and a music hall (casa dela troua) with whimsical flourishes.

The huge Hotel Jagua was our base for two nights. Set on a peninsular into the bay (originally a Hilton Hotel, seized by Castro after the successful 1959 Revolution, as it had just completed construction), it served up a sumptuous colourful evening cabaret for the mighty price of 5 Cuban dollars. Cavorting mulatto dancers in sparkling G-strings and pairs of strategically placed stars, may not be most peoples’ image of socialist doctrine – but this is Caribbean communism.

The Palacio de Valle just next door to the hotel provided a very unusual dinner date. Built between 1913 – 1917, this is the most peculiar ‘neo-mudejar’ style in Cuba, an architecture using elements of pre-15th century Moorish Spain. Its’ rooftop terrace is a great place to sit in the evening and enjoy a Mojito, as the flame coloured evening sky provided a wonderful canvas for the setting sun.

Trinidad is totally beguiling, which assaults all your senses. Sugar barons, slaves and pirates have all left traces in this oldest of Colonial Caribbean towns dating back to the 1514. Today it is a world heritage site, due to its time-warp preservation of architectural jewels. Aimless wandering through cobbled streets proved especially productive in Trinidad, since dozens of street names have changed and neither map nor residents seemed sure of what to call them.

Next day, a visit to the San Luis and Sugarmill Valleys was particularly delightful. Highly recommended is the trip I took on a steam train once used in the sugar industry, which traverses the whole valley for tourists. It leaves daily from the Estacion Dragones station in the south of Trinidad. Leaving at 9.30 am and returning 2-3pm, it stopped off along the way at the old Manacas-Iznagas Tower, the iconic symbol of Trinidad’s rich history. This ‘frozen in time’ area transports you back to bygone days in the most colourful way. As I closed my eyes the whole sense of occasion and atmosphere washed over me.

Later that evening as night fell across the Plaza Mayor in the centre of town; it served up a special atmosphere of criss-cross rhythms of Cuban music to the twirling bodies of the multi-national gathering of tourists. As the live music punctuated the air, a luminescent moon bathed the whole event in that special ‘moon glow’, truly a magical occasion leaving yet another indelible image, which will long remain with me.

Another day another ride commencing on the highest section of the Sierra del Escambray (Escambray Mountains), arguably Cuba’s most beautiful range. From the village of Tapes de Collantes (built in the 1950’s), we experienced a dramatic downhill through this unique jungle of luxuriant vegetation, an area of waterfalls, river rapids and fantastic horizons. Blessed with its own microclimate, the mountains were a wonderful cool refuge from the baking Trinidad.

Over night was in Santa Clara, a town as iconic as any in this country. It was here Che Guevara had the most decisive battle of the revolution. This in turn led to the fall of Havana and the flight of Batista a few days later. Next day a visit to Che’s Mausoleum and Monument, proved particularly evocative and enthralling. In a massive and overbearing communist style, this solid concrete edifice celebrates the history of the successful Revolution, via statues, carvings and records. Inside the mausoleum burns an eternal flame guarding over the final resting place of Che Guevara and his fallen colleagues.

Mantanzas was the start of our final ‘open road’ day of riding through the Yuma Valley, surprisingly still relatively unknown to most western visitors. The town has redeeming features, worlds apart from the likes of Havana and Trinidad. Their poorly stocked shops, dusky back streets and primitive transport provide a convenient insight to the grimy real world of everyday Cuban life.

So the journey ends in Havana with time to reflect. Cuba is all of the ‘Shadows and Darkness’ of state monopolistic control. Try as it might though nothing can stop the ‘Morning Light’ bringing with it the irrepressible will and energetic drive of its people. My mind went back to dusk in the most run-down part of Cienfuegus. As I sat up high on a dumping ground overlooking the Barrios, everywhere I looked was a scene of abject poverty. Almost in defiance, childrens’ laughter rose from the maze of ramshackle streets as they danced and played. From every doorway the sound of music, dogs barking and lively chatter erupted in its own special orchestra of life. This is their microcosm, the very lungs and heartbeat of Cuba. Everywhere you see an industrious attitude, which turns ‘water into wine’; nothing is wasted but re-cycled time and again.

The Langeudoc beach

Languedoc has some beautiful beaches on offer, but you have to know where to go.Espiguette, for example, is often not marked on maps, yet it is one of the longest beaches in France, stretching from the marina at the Grau du Roi all the way into neighbouring Provence. Completely wild, with a sandy landscape of dunes and cacti bordered by beautiful clear waters, it’s a little difficult to find and the walk from the car park to the beach can be a long one, but its size guarantees everyone their own space, and its remoteness makes for an utterly peaceful, relaxing experience.

Near the city of Narbonne, Leucate Plage is also a great tip. Fir-covered hills rise along this stretch of the coast, dotted with attractive villas. The village has the feel of a Californian beach town, complete with surf shops and good restaurants serving up ultra-fresh seafood. The vibe is relaxed and the beach is enormous, attractive and clean, with fine sand and plenty of toilets and showers. Clamber around the rocks at the beach end and you come to a much narrower area enclosed by steep rocks which offers a more intimate and secluded atmosphere.

Avoid the famous town beaches – those huge stretches of sand only 10-15 minutes drive away from Languedoc’s major coastal cities of Montpellier, Béziers, Narbonne and Perpignan. They are the most obvious beaches to visit, the best publicised and the most popular amongst city-dwellers. But they suffer from over-commercialisation and feature row-upon-row of cheap and nasty concrete holiday homes, tacky postcard shops and ice cream stalls, and tightly-packed crowds of bathers in the summer months.

Argeles Plage is famous – it’s often cited as one of the best beaches in the whole of France – but there’s a catch. Split into two halves, the southern, more commercial end of Argeles is not very nice. Games arcades and garish bouncy castles spoil the atmosphere. Instead, head north up the beach, beyond the hubbub, to the more remote area from where you can enjoy impressive views of the Pyrenees (still snow-capped in May). The beach is huge and deep, with fine sand and dense clumps of pine trees and grass separating the sand from the holiday homes and camp sites behind.

Here is a selection from The Beach Report:

Espiguette: Excellent

The King of Languedoc’s beaches, Espiguette stretches for kilometre after kilometre of fine sandy dunes. This beach is big enough to find your own space, no matter how many people are there. The walk from the car park can be as long as you want – but the further you go, the more nude and then more gay it becomes. There are no buildings near by, but in summer the odd drinks seller will pass by. Finish your day here with a drink at nearby Aigues Mortes.

Cap d’Agde’s 6 beaches: Good to Excellent

There are six beaches in this area, ranging from small coves (Plage de la Conque and La Plagette) through to long stretches of sand 14 kms (Plage de Richelieu and Plage de Rochelongue). Plage de Roquille is covered with sea shells while Plage du Mole is very safe for small children, having a wide flat area of shallow water. Each of the beaches has a parking area nearby but the beaches are only backed by footpaths, so are not plagued by traffic noise. Unusually for this area, there is a rocky headland with magnificent views to Sete in one direction and the Pyrenees in the other.

Maguelone: Good

Further down the coast and away from the built-up mass beaches of Palavas and Carnon we find Maguelone. The beach is relatively slim but quite long, and is very popular with nude bathers and gay men. It’s quieter than the big Montpellier beaches. Parking is free if you’re prepared to walk – whereas paid parking is quite close to the beach itself. A beach bar/restaurant offers sun loungers and umbrellas for a price.

La Grande Motte: OK

La Grande Motte is a huge and very famous seaside resort that, in summer, is absolutely crammed with hundreds of thousands of eager holiday makers. It’s not a particularly up-market sort of place, with rather ugly concrete high-rise apartment blocks looming wherever you go. The beach here is not very big either, and so gets absolutely packed in summer – but it’s well served with restaurants and amenities and activities for children.

Banyuls-sur-Mer: OK

Banyuls is a nice enough place. It’s smaller than Collioure and lacks its cach? – but the various restaurants and bars lining the beach promenade are perfectly pleasant. The beach, like Collioure’s, is small and pebbly, and really not the sort of place you’d want to sunbathe and swim. Far better to drive back up the coast to Racou or Argeles.

Carnon: Bad

There’s just something cheap and nasty about Montpellier’s two big beaches, Carnon and Palavas. Carnon is lined with truly hideous concrete holiday apartments that seem to have lost out in popularity over the years to La Grande Motte. The beach itself is made up of smaller beaches created by large wave barriers. Strangely, there isn’t much in the way of restaurants or bars along the beach, for that you’ll have to venture into the delights of Carnon town.

Reasons Why The Sahara is so Special

1. The beauty and tranquillity

…of the Sahara is unsurpassed, and the scale and sight of a clear 360° horizon is awesome. The landscape changes constantly and is anything but bare and barren, with high dunes, low dunes, wells and dry oases. In certain places there warm springs feeding into a warm lake, abandoned villages and an ancient ruined palace at Ksar Guilane.

2. Sunrise and sunset

…simply defies description, spectacular over that wide horizon.

3. Sky at Night

Sleeping under the stars, the desert sky at night is an evocative and awe inspiring visual phenomenon. Many times I have lain on the sand looking up at the night sky and sometimes, when my gaze returned to earth, it seemed as though the entire horizon was shrouded in mist. Impossible to distinguish between earth and sky, it looked as if the stars had come down to earth and were hanging in the bushes all around. Another night the sky was masked by one large black cloud leaving just the stars around the horizon showing. They looked like large, bold lettering. Later, the cloud had gone and the half moon was so bright and high, it seemed as if its light had scattered the stars to the edge of the universe. Every night is breathtakingly beautiful.

4. Food

…always tastes good in the open air and Bedouin men are excellent cooks. The food is organic and natural, freshly prepared on an open fire in the traditional way. The diet consists of fresh fruit, salads tossed in oil and a variety of dishes made from meat, vegetables, pasta and spices, and of course, cous cous. Bread is freshly baked in the embers of the fire each day. Delicious.

5. Close companionship

…develops quickly, fostered by living the Bedouin lifestyle and the sharing of the daily chores such as collecting wood, finding and rounding up the camels and eating from a communal bowl. It is a life with laughter and evenings talking round the fire, often with traditional music and singing.

6. Adventure

A trek in the Sahara is never dull and is as physical as you want to make it. When away from the camp alone it’s very easy to lose your bearings as, even at a short distance, the camp can be concealed by sand hills and low bushes. Developing a sense of direction is important and if getting lost is a worry, comfort can be found in the knowledge that the Bedouin will soon come looking and easily find you. If it’s a challenge to find the way back to camp in daylight, when you accompany a camel driver tracking his camels in the dark you appreciate just how skilled they are. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself learning a traditional dance on a dune at sunset.

7. The Bedouin

…are friendly people and although a lone female traveller, I am made to feel safe and well cared for. The tourist – guide relationship is a good one, relaxed and spontaneous and helped by their enthusiasm to share their culture. They have a remarkable philosophy of life where everything is shared and each person has a role to fulfil, supporting the common good. To stay at a Bedouin camp is a privilege and a wonderful experience of community life and work, which includes tending goats and fetching water from the well, which you learn to carry Bedouin style.

8. Camels

…are placid creatures, with personalities of their own but can be troublesome and headstrong. They can provide a comic element too, enjoying a role in the sand, often while fully laden and crushing the provisions they are carrying, much to the alarm of their drivers. They are also great scavengers, often coming into the camp at dawn looking for leftovers and even taking the lids of cooking pots in their search for tasty morsels. Any preconceptions of the camel are quickly banished.

9. Alternative medicine

I have had several personal experiences of this and can vouch for its effectiveness. Using only what nature provides I have had cuts, crush injuries and pain from old fractures speedily and effectively dealt with. The cure for sickness is fascinating, involving what we might call ‘magic’ and incantations, and the fact that, although all Bedouin know the procedure, only a few have the power to make it work. Believe me, it does.

10. A Saharan trek

…is responsible tourism at its most ecologically friendly, making maximum use of scant, natural resources. Provisions are purchased locally and the guides and camel drivers are local men, so supporting the local economy. Living the Bedouin lifestyle, trekkers are totally dependent on the knowledge and skills of their guides and so any impact on their traditional way of life is minimal. It is more an experience that challenges the values of our own society and the things we have hitherto accepted as the norm.