Sunday 6 September 2015

Sharing our recent travel adventures...

It’s been a while since I updated this blog and I hope you didn’t think that I’d forgotten how to post on It’s just that I’ve been so busy travelling over the past few months and updates were difficult to manage. Now that we’re settled down again and back on the island of Utila, the smaller of the Bay Islands, situated in the Caribbean Sea just off the coast of Honduras, I’m looking forward to sharing all our recent travel adventures with you.

In my last post, my husband Trav and I were enjoying being here on the island. It was late May – and we were approaching our wedding anniversary at the end of the month. Quite spontaneously, we decided to take a trip to properly celebrate our thirty-two years of marriage - and what a fun trip it turned out to be!

Our going-away party poster!

Even when it is a special occasion, it is important to us that we travel wisely, as although we have now sold almost everything we owned (except for the few things we carry in our suitcases) in order to travel the world, we still don’t have a huge pot of savings and we are very conscious of it needing to last a while. So we looked carefully at our budget and then spent some time online checking out our options.

We decided to fly to Miami, stay there for the weekend, then to rent a car and drive down to the Florida Keys. We hadn’t ever been to this part of Florida before and it felt like an exciting adventure to us.

The logistics of getting from Utila to Florida are quite complicated, so with less than a week to go before our anniversary, we took a small plane to La Ceiba on the Honduran mainland, where we caught a Cayman Air flight to Grand Cayman. There we did a quick change of planes and flew onto Miami, where we had booked a hotel in the ‘American Riviera’ on Miami Beach for two nights. We used to find a moderately priced hotel, as splashing out on a high-end hotel was being reserved for our actual wedding anniversary.

We took a small plane from Utila to La Ceiba, Honduras

We expected Miami to be busy, but somehow, despite our research, we managed to completely miss the fact that it was Memorial Weekend – a major US holiday - and the city was packed with holiday-makers like us looking for sun and fun. Despite the crowds, we had a fantastic weekend of sight-seeing and people-watching as we strolled down Ocean Drive, which was closed to all traffic due to the holiday. All the smartest bars and restaurants had set up gazebos outside to shade the extra tables that now spilled out onto the street and had hired uniformed security to make sure those waiting in line for one of those tables remained orderly behind the roped off queuing area. We decided not to bother waiting and just bought bottled water of a vendor instead.

Memorial weekend on Ocean Drive Miami 

We were excited to visit the beautiful and iconic Art Deco district with its historic and colourful buildings and to walk on the famous South Beach, where the sun was blazing down on the hot sand and all the beautiful people. Our walk on the beach was a short one - a quick photo opportunity due to the intensity of the heat.

South Beach!
Ocean Rescue - and my hero on South Beach!

Sight-seeing and people-watching on Ocean Drive

Iconic Art Deco Buildings on Ocean Drive

Our plan had been to drive out of Miami down to the Keys with the wind in our hair in a rented red Mustang convertible. However, once we saw all the traffic trying to get out of Miami on the Monday morning, we looked at other options and decided to take a bus instead. Not quite so glamorous? Well you’d be wrong! We planned to take a Greyhound Bus, the most iconic symbol of travel throughout the USA!

Go Greyhound!
As a bonus, we saved a heap of money not renting a car, but what we didn’t know was quite how much fun it was going to be meeting lots of lovely people on the bus, with whom we chatted and with whom we shared our stories and snacks along the way. When the bus pulled over to allow for a comfort and lunch break at a road side Burger King, a couple of ladies also shared their clipped-out coupons, meaning everyone on the bus got a burger, fries, an ice cream and a coffee for just $4!

One friendly young guy we met on the bus was a musician from New Orleans, a city that sounded fascinating. He regaled us with amazing stories and jotted down the names of a few places that he recommended we should go if we were ever to get to visit the Big Easy.

It was a lovely trip and we were sad to say goodbye to everyone when the bus stopped at Key Largo, where Trav and I planned to spend the next three nights before travelling on to Key West.

At Key Largo we stayed at the Holiday Inn. It was a nice hotel with an outdoor pool which we appreciated in the tropical heat. Trav had planned to go diving with Horizon Divers during our stay while I had a magazine feature to write. 

One of the best things about being a writer is that you can work anywhere, as long as you find an internet connection now and again so that you can file your features. Trav enjoyed his diving and we got together later in the day to go and do a bit of shopping. I bought a new pair of flip-flops and Trav treated himself to a new set of fins from Divers Direct – a scuba divers superstore paradise!

Trav dived wth Horizon Divers at Key Largo

A diver's paradise!

While in Key Largo we found some great bars and restaurants and had cocktails while listening to some fabulous live music. On the marina, we found the original African Queen – the actual boat (now restored) that had been used in the 1951 film of the same name that famously starred Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

The original African Queen

We left Key Largo to head for Key West and once again we traveled on the Greyhound Bus. This time we had seats right at the front which gave us paramount views through the large windscreen of the road ahead. This was particularly thrilling as we were excited to be travelling across lots more of the famous Keys bridges, in particular, the Seven Mile Bridge, which had featured in one of our favourite movies ‘True Lies’.

The famous Seven Mile Bridge

Key West was just as I’d imagined it to be, Disneyesque pretty with lots of old historic buildings that were meticulously preserved. These buildings are now being used as a front for modern day bars, restaurants, shops and galleries: even the Walgreens supermarket was housed inside the original façade of a theatre. It was wonderful!

Me and Marilyn at The Tropic Key West

We checked into our ‘anniversary’ hotel (we stayed at The Lighthouse Court – just a short walk from all the action in Duval Street) and then went out to explore. To get our bearings and to make sure we saw all the town had to offer we took the ‘Original Conch Tour’ – an open carriage sight-seeing ‘train’ that takes you choo-chooing and tooting past quaint pastel-painted and picket-fenced houses until you reached the Point – the most southerly point in the United States of America.

On day two in Key West (our wedding anniversary) we again packed in as much sightseeing as possible. We went to the Ship Wreck Museum, the Key West Museum – where there was also a fabulous Hemingway exhibit. We had a fabulous lunch at Pincher's Crab Shack, where we sat on the outside upper balcony above Duval Street.  In the afternoon, we toured the Hemingway House – which was a much anticipated treat for me, as a writer. Later, we enjoyed several Margaritas in the original of Jimmy Buffet’s famous bar, Margaritaville. We finished off our special day by having a romantic meal and a bottle of wine in a very nice seafood restaurant on the boardwalk while the sun was setting over the marina. It was all absolutely perfect.

The original Jimmy Buffett's Margarita!

At the Hemingway House
We loved exploring the Key West Museums

On our last day in Key West I had arranged to have two new tattoos done. I already have two tattoos, one on my shoulder and one on my leg. They were done many years ago and I am still very fond of them. Until recently, I was of the opinion that I might be getting too old to have more tattoos, but happily I have since changed my mind. Age is just a number after all and with all our travelling and the broader outlook I now have as a result it, I’m inclined to do what makes me happy. So I had a ‘yoga’ style tattoo put on the inside of each of my wrists – a lotus flower and an ‘Om’ symbol in the shape of a heart; which reflect my newly found love of yoga and meditation. Whenever I look at them, I will also be reminded of our wonderful time in Key West.

I had a ‘yoga’ style tattoo put on the inside of each wrist

I wrote a travel feature on the Florida Keys for LLm Lifestyle Magazine. It is published here if you’d like to click the link and read it.

On our last night in Key West, we knew that we had to check out of our hotel by 11am the next morning - but we didn’t know where we were going to go to next.

We hadn’t planned any further but we had almost a month ahead of us before we met our flight out of Houston, heading back to Edinburgh Scotland. So what would be do with ourselves for all that time? To have such freedom was a little daunting; should we head back to the Caribbean and Utila or travel on to somewhere new?

Over a few drinks that evening, we discussed lots of travel ideas. We had loved travelling by Greyhound bus but knew that we would be covering old ground by going back to Miami. We made use of the wi-fi in our room and perused the internet again and considered other options. Why not fly out of Key West airport directly and go somewhere else? What about the Gulf Coast of Florida – Naples, St. Petes, Clearwater Beach? Orlando? Or the Space Coast and up to Daytona? Or what about taking a three day cruise out of Fort Lauderdale? Tempted by some very cheap cruise deals we investigated a few – but  saw that they were all sailing to Key West!

In the end, we agreed that we should travel on to somewhere new: we’d been to Orlando and most of the Gulf Coast resorts years ago with the kids: ditto the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, where we’d been lucky enough to see several Space Shuttles launch before they were retired. We had to think of somewhere special: somewhere exciting: and as we were going to be dipping into our hard earned savings – it had to be a bucket list destination.

So we agreed on a fabulous new location and hardly slept that night. We were so excited about our new trip and also worried that we would sleep through both our alarms and not be ready for when the taxi arrived at 5am to take us to the airport.  We were going to fly with United Airlines via Fort Lauderdale to New Orleans!

We planned to stay for four nights in The Big Easy – a bucket list destination for sure – and we still had the list of recommended places to see that the nice guy on the Greyhound Bus had given to us. However, our excitement was a little dampened due to an engineering problem with our plane at Key West airport and by the subsequent three hour delay. Eventually, we were told that the flight was grounded and we were being flown to Miami instead and from there we would fly on to our destination.

This all worked out okay, until we discovered upon arrival that Trav’s luggage with all his diving gear in it, was missing. We filled in the forms with United Airlines to report the missing bag and we were assured that it would be found and delivered to our hotel as soon as possible. I’m sure you understand that it is stressful enough for anyone to lose a bag to an airline but especially one that has ALL your worldly belongings in it! Luckily, thanks to the hyper-levels of security at American airports, the bag was quickly located. Strangely, it was found in New York(!?) but as good as their word, Trav and his bag were reunited the very next day.

We were flying with United Airlines to New Orleans!

New Orleans is known as the home of Jazz, Mardi Gras, and Cajun cuisine. It is also a city with many names – The Crescent City, The Big Easy, NOLA, and my favourite of them all: 'N’Awlins'

We stayed in New Orleans for four nights in a gorgeous room in the Chateaux Hotel in Chartres Street, the oldest neighbourhood the French Quarter, and the center of all the action as far as we were concerned. We were just one street away from the infamous Bourbon Street, and as Trav (as all his friends know) is a bourbon drinker, what better reason to drop (my) luggage and immediately make our way to the #1 main tourist attraction… or so we thought.

It turns out that Rue Bourbon was named after the French royal family ‘The House of Bourbon’ in the 1700’s rather than after my husband’s favourite tipple and is nowadays is more famous for its tawdry strip clubs than for its music scene. We strolled the length of it, holding our nose most of the time against the stench of urine and vomit while averting our eyes from the scantily-clad ladies. We stopped off for a meal and a couple of drinks at a bar and while there we did witness a passing ‘jazz funeral’ but soon decided that the action, as far as we were concerned, was elsewhere.

Luckily, we discovered the delightfully picturesque Jackson Square, just a block way in the other direction, with its street jazz bands, its ragtag collection of colourful entertainers and tarot readers. At the Square’s crown are three 18th-century architectural glories: the Cabildo, a former city hall where the Louisiana Purchase was signed; St. Louis Cathedral; and the Presbytère. The onetime courthouse is now the flagship of the Louisiana State Museum and it was here that I came face to face with the original portrait of Marie Laveau – the so called Witch Queen of New Orleans – a painting that had been an important plot feature in my book ‘Voodoo Child’ – a book that I set in New Orleans and wrote a few years ago, sourcing information from the internet. It was rather surreal to re-live the footsteps of my fictional heroine and stand in front of the masterpiece myself!

 I came face to face with the original portrait of Marie Laveau – the so called Witch Queen of New Orleans

That same evening we found Frenchman’s Street, in the Faubourg Marigny, a historic neighbourhood a short walk from our hotel in the Quarter, and where the city’s music scene has now shifted. We had drinks in a bar listening to a traditional washboard blues band and then went on to the famous Snug Harbour jazz club and bistro, paying a small cover charge to see a fabulous and unforgettable jazz, blues, gospel and soul band.

We had been told by friends that our New Orleans experience would not be complete without attending a ‘Crawfish Boil’ so we took a taxi downtown to the Maple Leaf Bar. We were a little nervous, wondering if we’d found the right bar, as we couldn’t hear any music. It turned out that we were a little early, so we paid a small cover charge and bought a drink at the bar, while suspiciously eyeing the long narrow table along the middle of the long narrow room. Soon lots of people started to arrive, buying drinks and congregating along the table. Then the musicians arrived and climbed up on stage to do a tune up. In no time at all the place was packed and there was a commotion starting at the top of the table where a huge tin bath full of food – the Crawfish Boil – was being thrown onto the table. Several bathtubs later, the table was filled with crawfish, potatoes, corn cobs, and sausages and a feeding frenzy ensued. It was crazy – it was fun - and it was delicious. Especially after a kind fellow diner demonstrated the correct and quickest way to eat the crawfish, (which resembles a very small lobster). First you pull off the head and discard it (throw it back on the table!) suck on the headless body to extract the delicious juice/stock, then quickly peel the shell and pop the crawfish meat straight into your mouth. It is a messy business!

Crawfish boil - it was crazy – it was fun - and it was delicious! 

Classic Louisiana Bayou Crawfish Boil Recipe: Once the seasoned water comes to a boil in a large tin bath, add the potatoes, corn, garlic, and sausage. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add the crawfish, cover, and cook for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the pot to sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Serve to the hungry masses by tipping the meal onto a scrubbed clean wooden table. No cutlery necessary.

The next morning we took another walk through the streets of the Quarter, tipping back our heads to admire 19th Century mansions and floral balcony apartments. We strolled along the banks of the Mississippi River, admiring the river boats before stopping off for beignets (pronounced ‘Ben Yeah’) and coffee. Beignets are a New Orleans signature sweet pastry made from deep fried dough sprinkled with sugar. Later we stopped off for lunch at The French Market and ate baked oysters; after which we explored the famously haunted side of the city, where the notable above-the-ground graves in ancient cemeteries were decorated with flowers and candles and voodoo coins (in exchange for favours) particularly at the grave of Marie Laveau. Back on Frenchmen’s Street, feeling bewitched, we found spooky looking voodoo shops and felt compelled to buy spells and tarot cards.

Walking through the streets of the Quarter, tipping back our heads to admire 19th Century mansions and floral balconies 
We strolled along the banks of the Mississippi River, admiring the river boats
We stopped off for lunch at The French Market and ate baked oysters
Feeling bewitched, we felt compelled to buy spells and tarot cards!

On our last night in New Orleans, Trav and I were faced with a now familiar problem: we still had over three weeks before we met our flight out of Houston to the UK: so what should we do next? Go back to Utila and have a few more weeks on ‘our’ Caribbean island or should we find somewhere new to experience? If we chose the latter, then we knew it had to be on a budget. No more staying in hotels, moderately priced or otherwise.

Again, over a few drinks that evening, we put our heads together to discuss our travel ideas. We had loved travelling by Greyhound bus. Trav suggested we might take a Greyhound north out of New Orleans to Memphis and then go on to Nashville. That would be different and exciting. Taking the bus wasn’t as expensive as flying, but within the USA, flying was a lot less expensive than we expected. However, with an eye on the money, our choices felt limited and I must admit to feeling rather exhausted. You can only be excited and exhilarated for so many days without feeling some kind of burn out. I thought that the ideal would be to find a small cottage or apartment to rent, somewhere warm and nice, near to a beach and a dive center, for just over three weeks, where we could relax and cook for ourselves and just laze around in a hammock if we felt the need, before flying straight to Houston to meet with our flight back to the UK.

Although our flight back to the UK didn’t actually start off in Houston – it started in Roatan, the larger of the Bay Islands, Honduras, we didn’t think the airline would be bothered to much if we simply skipped the first leg of the journey - as our main flight was Houston: Frankfurt: Edinburgh.

It was then, in that moment, that I suddenly remembered a conversation I’d had a while back with a lovely young lady backpacker on the dock at Eco-Marine dive center on Utila. She had said how she was full of admiration for Trav and I, travelling the world (at our age!) and told me how her parents were currently travelling the Pacific Highway together using ‘Airbnb’.

I’d never heard of Airbnb and she explained to me that it is an international website where anyone could advertise/find a place to rent/stay. It could be as simple as a room in someone’s home or as lavish as a whole apartment in San Francisco. Armed with this information, I Googled ‘Airbnb’ and immediately found the description given to be true. It seemed that all over the world people were advertising places to rent: city apartments, country cottages, house-boats, beach cottages… erm, yes, beach cottages.

We finished off our amazing stay in New Orleans by eating at Irene’s Place at 539 St. Philips Street: an Italian/French restaurant just a short walk from our hotel. Outside, Irene’s looks unpretentious, but don’t be fooled because inside the atmosphere is decadent, the food is delicious and the wine list fabulous. Highly recommended!

inside the atmosphere is decadent, the food is delicious and the wine list fabulous.

So where were we headed next? Well, I had found a lovely looking beach cottage for a reasonable rent on Saunders Beach, Bahamas, courtesy of Airbnb. It was available for the three weeks and it was being advertised by a guy called Stuart, a retired university professor, who had annexed off a porch area and the side of his traditional style clapper-board Bahamian home as a rental. There were photographs that looked very appealing and there were dozens of reference reviews by others who had stayed there – all saying wonderful things about the cottage, the location, and about Stuart himself. I sent an email to Stuart, apologising for the short notice and asking him if we could come and stay the very next day. He agreed and the deal was done!

The Bahamas here we come!

And in my next post, which I promise to post in the next few days - I'll tell you all about our fabulous three week plus adventures in Nassau, Bahamas: including the Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett concert that we managed to see at Atlantis on Paradise Island! So please pop back soon!

Love, Janice xx