Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Puerto Rico

It was New Year's eve, 2014.  From absolutely no plans to an exaggerated-expense vacation - I found myself marking Puerto Rico off the list.

The best way to get there from the west coast of USA is to fly via east coast (Florida) to San Juan - the capital.

It is better to have some fluency in Spanish.. or prepare to have your plans changed/your pockets raided. There is tropical-ish vegetation, climate, heavy-on-the-salt food (I am not complaining..), not much in place of traffic rules, sky-rise buildings standing opposite graffiti embossed broken structures...  I might have been in Bombay.

The place of stay was Evelyn's remodelled home on the 4th floor in the centre of Old San Juan - a street away from the famous San Sebastian where most college kids travel to party (you get to drink - ID or no ID in Puerto Rico ;)). We sure got free music and chatter at nights when we lay on the bed with the balcony open and a slow fan overhead. The view from the home was rows and rows of colourful houses, cobbled streets leading down to the sea and merry cafes and restaurants.

Old San Juan: Its worth it to travel to Puerto Rico just for OSJ. The place has been under the French, Spanish, English rules at different points in time. It is not hard to see why. USA's own little Murano, Italy, it is bright, beautiful, with colourful homes lined up very close to one another. There is a park on every other street that they call 'plaza' for public to get together, celebrate or protest :) Restaurants are aplenty. Some government buildings, museums, colleges, a big bus station and malls occupy this landmark.

 And oh... you must know the celebrities that live here...? Meow!


 Two sturdy forts - Castillo de San Cristobal and San Felipe stand guarding OSJ from sea enemies.


You will find multiple creative nooks like the 'Poet's Passage' - where you are welcome to scribble something nice and submit.


Did you know this island is home to 'BarraChina' the place where Pina Colada was born? It sure tasted authentic - whatever that is :) OSJ folks seemed to be quite laid back, not bothering to pull their socks up for the insane New Year's crowd in restaurants. We must have easily waited 2 hours before we were served anywhere.
Sunday brunches at St. Germain's cafe and Waffle-era, lunch at Carthage Express, dinners at Toro Salao, Cafe Berlin and BarraChina.. even Subway ;), coffee at Cuatro Sombres and 'Bad Ass Coffee' , dessert at Ben & Jerry's - I am glad no one took me for a turkey. Toro Salao's Moroccan Hummus needs special mention - just try cumin powder with hummus and taste the exotic!
One place I wanted to try but couldn't was "Verde Mesa', a vegan restaurant which seemed to be overbooked... next time maybe. Mofongo seemed like the staple food - rice, eggplant, bananas on one platter.

OSJ also is home to the quite famous hotel El Convento and the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista.

The Mayor has an enviable mansion by the sea (which was all dressed up for Christmas) where he can also view the Norwegian Cruise Line that stops here. There is a beautiful statue of the first sailors who set foot on the island and all along the walk up to there was stalls lined up for Feliz Navidad..


I could have spent all 5 days in OSJ nevertheless I did venture out a bit.

Isla Verde: Took a bus ride (was quite sweaty and unpredictable) to Isla Verde - a far off downtown, just to walk around the beach and check-out the downtown. Wasn't too bad.

Condado: This is a good beach in San Juan, the capital. Don't grab one of the hundreds of chaises lying on the beach that are for residents only (unless you want to be shoo-ed away).

El Yunque: Lush green rain-forest which is an hour's drive away. Since we hadn't pre-booked  any transport and it turned out impossible to get one in the holidays, we went on a guided tour with Jaime (fun guy but plenty glib). The rain forest itself was cool, with many small water falls trickling down. We ate at a 'hill-billy' place.. which I suggest you avoid.. dont ask me for the name. Jaime went on about how rain-forests are important for coqui frogs and their mating life..ahem.

Luquillo Beach: On the way back from El Yunque, Jaime stopped for a brief respite out here. And then he ushered some to go on to watch the bio-luminescence (I forget where that was). But I skipped having seen one back home in Southern California.

Would highly recommend Old San Juan in Puerto Rico to anyone who loves traveling. There is Rincon for surfers and Vieques (which I hope to go to some day) - another couple famous islands in PR. 
Signing off with some memorable images..

Saturday, June 13, 2015

London and the English countryside

My first trip abroad with a special someone.. Well this vacation was all the more meaningful and close to my heart for a variety of other reasons.. culture, culture, culture.
Witnessing over 200 years of history in a week can make a head turn.

The Victoria Station: Was the crux of my existence here :) Nevertheless lugging the bags wasn't an option so guess who was waiting for us at Heathrow! My first love will always be for Cooper, but this one isn't far off.

Suffolk: Tucked into our 'carriage' for the week, off we went on a 3 hour goose-chase around confusing round-abouts (you might as well throw the GPS into the Thames) till we finally arrived at John's cottage in Suffolk.

The long drive was definitely worth our gracious host  waiting with farm-fresh dinner. Most people dream of mansions, I could settle in this cosy, snug home.
Our home for the week, this place was close to Blue Boar Inn that served the best butternut squash soup I've had.

Stowmarket: For the next two days, we drove till a small town called Stowmarket where we parked our car and hopped onto the train to London -Victoria Station and took countless connections to go over some popular spots.

Trafalgar Square: Reminded me of Portland downtown for some reason - maybe it was the big town centre with the lions.. Anyway here is where we boarded the open-top bus to tour whats-what in London. It didnt matter that it was drizzling the whole day. The bus ride was a great trailer for Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, London Eye, the Jewel Tower, Hyde Park ...



Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace:   We strolled through Hyde Park to witness the march of guards here to one of my favourite songs - "Its a long way to Tipperary.."

London Eye: Great view of London 'downtown' if you may call it that. Was worth waiting in the line in the drizzle too.


221 B Baker Street: Now we are talking! The first day we got off from the bus tour to enter the museum made for the greatest sleuth in the world. Alas they close at 5. So we shopped trinkets in  the gift store below and vowed to return the next day. Finally saw how modestly Holmes lived, his most famous case transcripts and wax figures. For me it was like meeting an old flame.


KnightsBridge and Harrods: KinghtsBridge was the train station we got off at and walked in circles till we found Harrods. Fun places to dine and shop here. Couldn't really afford anything but the air at Harrods. London is supposed to have great Indian food and we weren't going to take that for granted. We found 'Handi' to be a decent place, was open quite late and we left content.

Piccadilly Circus: The name is enough to make one fall in love. True to that this place was abuzz with activity, ads, people, music, vehicles, restaurants... much like Times Square. We went to Chinatown here and tried some Pho.


  I am saving the best for the last ... presenting

The Old Globe: Kudos to my partner for making my dream come true. Witnessing 'Anthony and Cleopatra' in the original arena on the banks of Thames was magical. Every time the actors exited from 'side-doors' we could see the river beyond. It was open-air like the Old Globe usually is, had unparalleled sets, great crew! Shh.. photographs weren't allowed.. don't you tell anyone!


The Leaping Hare: A small farm and restaurant for home grown produce - this was a hidden gem close to Suffolk. The third day of our visit we set out to explore outside London, and what a way to start the day!

Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire: On from there was another surprise waiting for me. I was taken to this place I had never heard of before - on a 2-hr drive. I couldn't tell where we had arrived.
Suffice it to say it wasn't 'The Heartbreak House'. The home , now museum of the greatest playwright and the only man to have won both the Nobel [literature] and the Oscar. Hats off.


Cambridge: Last on our journey was the college town. I am amazed how anyone can excel, let alone manage to study here. It's so breathtaking I couldn't turn a page in a book if I was enrolled here..

We went punting on river Cam around the 7 colleges - Trinity, King's, Queen's, St. John's, Clare's... I forget the others, saw some buildings, had lunch at a Persian place in the extravagant food street minutes away from the campus. One is also spoilt for choice while shopping in the independent or branded stores that colourfully blend into one of the oldest campuses in the history of civilization.



Bury, St Edmunds: The last day before we took off, we couldn't help stopping by this cute little place for brunch. It was quite like Noddy-town :) I had English sandwiches (soft white bread triangles with just cucumbers) and coffee at a Scandinavian Coffee House.

Then it was adieu.. If there is one word for this experience - it has to be 'rich'.