We decided that it would be nice to see a bit more of Cuba without venturing too far from Varadero, and so we booked a tour to see a sugar mill with steam trains, as well as a crocodile farm and a replica indigenous village on the Zapata Peninsula.
I’m sure the more intrepid of travel bloggers would have hitch-hiked their way there, but bugger that! I went for the easy and comfortable option of an air conditioned mini bus! The heat and humidity are almost unbearable if you are away from air conditioning or a swimming pool for too long.
The first step was the sugar mill museum where we learnt how sugar is produced and then tasted some sugar cane juice. It tasted very sweet (as you would imagine) but also had a ‘rooty’ kind of taste I can’t describe. Afterwards we took a little ride on one of the several steam trains they had there.
Next step was the crocodile farm in Boca de Guama where we got to see the famous Cuban crocodile, from teeny babies to giant beasts. The Cuban crocodile can grow up to a whopping 5 metres in length although the ones we saw weren’t quite as big as this.
We also got to see a few more of Cuba’s famous animals – iguanas, turtles and jutia, an endangered mammal that reminded me alot of the quokkas on Rottnest Island in Australia.
After lunch at a Paladar (private restaurant), we headed back to where the crocodile farm was situated to catch a boat across Laguna del Tesoro (Treasure Lagoon). The lagoon was named for the gold that the Taino (aboriginals) supposedly hid in its waters. The boat ride took around 20 minutes and was a joy to feel the wind in my hair!
When we arrived we could walk around a replica Taino village, where people can actually stay although to be honest, besides a bar and a couple of gift shops, there’s not alot else there.
Once we’d got the boat back across the lagoon we headed back to Varadero (which took just over an hour and a half) and jumped straight into the hotel pool!
I would love to have seen a bit more of Cuba’s native creatures (flamingos live in the Zapata Peninsula although we didn’t get to see them) but I enjoyed my day of seeing a bit more of Cuba beyond the beaches.
No Japan bucket list would be complete without a stay in a ryokan, so here is my guide to a Japanese ryokan experience.
What is a ryokan?
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. You may have seen them on tv or in books, they’re the ones with paper screens, low tables and futons instead of beds.
How do I choose which ryokan?
Ryokan aren’t cheap and the ones that are cheap are most probably not that authentic. We started by looking on Tripadvisor at some of the best ryokan in Kyoto but found many were fully booked for the time of year we were looking at (April – Cherry Blossom season). One of the most famous and historic ryokans is the Hiiragiya which was slightly out of our budget, so in the end we opted for Hiiragiya Bekkan (annex) an authentic but more wallet-friendly option.
Other things to note when choosing your ryokan, is whether it includes a private bathroom or any meals, as of course this will affect the price. Our room at the Hiiragiya Bekkan included a private toilet and sink but shared bathing facilities (more on that later) and it also included a kaiseki meal (Japanese haute cuisine) in the evening and breakfast the following day.
The initial experience
When we arrived at Hiiragiya Bekkan we were greeted by friendly and enthusiastic staff and as is custom in Japan, we were asked to remove our shoes at the door and wear the slippers provided.
We were shown to our room which overlooked a pretty Japanese garden and then we had to remove our slippers. I can’t quite remember how many different pairs of slippers we had, but if you’ve been to Japan you’ll know how much they love their slippers!
We were shortly served three different types of tea – matcha, sakura and Japanese. The Japanese tea was nice but the matcha and sakura are a bit of an acquired taste.
After tea we changed into the yukata (cotton robes) provided and spent some time relaxing and soaking up our surroundings!
Upon arrival at the ryokan we chose a time we would like to have dinner and promptly at this time we received a knock on the door from our maid (for lack of a better word) bringing us the first course of our meal.
Some ryokan have communal dining areas, but the other thing that attracted us to the Hiiragiya Bekkan was being able to dine in the privacy of our own room.
Dinner at the ryokan was a seasonal menu and brought to us course by course. I didn’t really know what much of it was so I took a photo of the menu. It started off ok and I enjoyed the first few courses but I’m so glad we had this meal as part of a ryokan experience rather than at a kaiseki restaurant as I really struggled with a few of the courses. Sadly the bamboo shoots and the deep-fried bean curd with sea urchin weren’t to my taste.
In Japan, bathtime is a bit of a ritual. So after dinner we were ushered off to the communal bathrooms. Similarly to pre-booking a dinner time slot, we also had a bathroom time slot too. A friendly old man had prepared our steaming hot bath for us and then gave us our privacy and left us to it. Basically in Japan, bathing etiquette dictates that you perch on a little stool and then soap and rinse yourself with a handheld shower before getting into the tub. The tubs are then for soaking once you are squeaky clean. Our tub was wooden and square, which was different but we had already had previous experience with onsen (hot springs) bathing which I will write about another time.
After our hot, relaxing baths we toddled off back to our room where our maid (who may or may not have been a ninja) had switched our room around from a dining room with low table to a bedroom with futons! The futons themselves were fairly comfortable, however the Japanese pillows, which I believe are filled with buckwheat, weren’t the most comfortable pillows I’ve ever slept on, but they certainly weren’t the worst!
In the morning
The morning routine was almost like a reverse of the night before. We awoke early and went for our shower/bath and while we were soaking ourselves, our room was being whipped up from a bedroom back into a dining room, ready for breakfast.
Breakfast included an assortment of Japanese nibbles, the fish was delicious, however I struggled to stomach the rest of it. As I’m not much of a breakfast person anyway (yeah yeah I know it’s the most important meal of the day!) and by this point in our trip I just fancied something quite boring like toast. I know. I am a terrible travel blogger for saying that.
We checked out fairly early as we were due to travel on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo and upon check out we were presented with a gift – a neat box with chopsticks inside! Very sweet and thoughtful!
Advance booking is recommended as the ryokans are quite small and have limited availability.
In order to not have to worry about lugging our big suitcases with us for our one night stay in the ryokan we used a luggage forwarding service, quite a common thing to do in Japan and something that can be arranged at your hotel. We used this service a couple of times during our trip, so we had our luggage sent from our Kyoto hotel (where we stayed before our ryokan visit) to the hotel we would be staying at after departing the ryokan. Very efficient and helpful!
Follow ryokan etiquette regarding the removal of shoes, showering before bathing etc. And be sure not to place anything in the sacred alcove (pictured below with the wall hanging and flower arrangement).
During our brief visit to Fiji, we were lucky enough to watch some spectacular cultural dance shows put on by the uber talented staff on the island where we were staying – Robinson Crusoe Island.
Song and dance is incredibly important to Fijian culture and we got to watch various dances performed by both men and women wearing traditional dress.
My favourite of all the dances was the fire dancing. We watched the dancers spin sticks of fire, throwing them up into the air and catching them again.
They formed a human pyramid all the while spinning these batons of fire. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it made me a tad nervous and yet completely captivated.
We didn’t capture the best shots ever on our compact cameras but we did manage to get some with burning streaks of light swirling through them.
But the best was yet to come…
The dance crew all moved from their sandy stage and into the sea where they continued their spellbinding juggling performance… and then one of the male dancers emerged out of the sea – still twirling fire – hovering on a hydro-powered jetpack / jetblade! A jetblade is basically like a jetpack for your feet, pushing you up into the air through the power of water.
Let me tell you, you just haven’t lived until you’ve seen someone spin fire while flying around on a water-powered jet pack!
Of course, photos wouldn’t do this justice, so here is a little video for you…
This post was inspired by the wordpress weekly photo challenge theme – dance.
Another busy day! We departed our hotel in the morning for a full day of culture. First stop – a Batik Workshop. Here we got the opportunity to watch the local ladies making beautiful batik art. Batik is where patterns and illustrations are drawn onto fabric with hot wax, then the fabric is dipped in a dye. The waxed part of the material is resistant to the dye, leaving a beautiful design once the wax has been washed off. This process can be repeated to create more intricate and colourful patterns. We ended up purchasing a pretty purple elephant batik artwork to hang up in our house. I think I would like to give batik a whirl one day!
Immediately after our brief but interesting visit to the batik workshop, we headed straight for Dambulla to see the famous Dambulla Cave Temples – another of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. The temples at Dambulla are astonishing and impressive – the Golden Buddha that sits atop the Golden Temple is especially awe-inspiring. It made me feel very small.
We didn’t go into the Golden Temple, but just stopped to admire it and all the colourful flowers surrounding it, as well as the monk statues in their orange robes to the side of the big Buddha.
We then made our pilgrimage to the Cave Temples, which much like Sigiriya (although not quite as tiring) was up a bit of a steep climb. And much like Sigiriya also, there are monkeys outside and views to be admired.
I’ll be honest with you, I can’t remember a great deal about the facts here so I won’t go into too much detail and just let the photos do the talking. But what I do know is that the Dambulla Cave Temples are made up of five different caves, all containing images and sculptures of Buddha. Like many temples, shoes must be removed before entering and also shoulders and legs should be covered. I would recommend packing a pair of socks to walk around in as the ground outside is very hot!
The caves here are said to date back to the first century BC and it is the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. There are five caves in total, each containing one or more Buddha statues. Unfortunately, I don’t know which cave was which but they were still beautiful all the same.
After our temple tour, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant that was hosting a wedding! I felt a bit guilty about crashing a wedding but the bride and groom were very gracious and were happy to let us take a couple of photographs of them in their beautiful wedding clothes. I don’t think I would have enjoyed seeing 8 sweaty tourists rocking up at my wedding uninvited, but they didn’t seem to mind.
Once we’d eaten a quick lunch, we were taken to a spice garden where we learnt about all the different spices and plants they grow in Sri Lanka and how they use them. We were given a tour of the gardens and we also each received a neck and shoulder massage which was a very odd experience and not at all relaxing, I’m awkward at the best of times without being on the receiving end of a spontaneous group massage in the middle of some spice jungle! Naturally at the end of our visit we were taken to a gift shop where we did purchase a couple of cinnamon-based items.
At the end of the day we were taken to our third hotel of the tour, ready to rest for another big day of sight seeing ahead!