Cycling Through a Culinary Exploration of Cuban Cuisine

While we were preparing for our bicycling adventure in Cuba with Backroads Travel , we spoke with several people who told us not to expect much from the food. This fit right in with our preconceived notions of the island but, like most all of them, proved to be false… CONTINUE READING >> 

While we were preparing for our bicycling adventure in Cuba with Backroads Travel, we spoke with several people who told us not to expect much from the food. This fit right in with our preconceived notions of the island but, like most all of them, proved to be false.

Our expectations of bland beans, rice, and chicken were blown away by exciting dishes that incorporate the spices and techniques of Spanish and African cooking. Being on an island also means that the bounty of the sea plays an important role in the cuisine of Cuba.

From our first night in Havana, to the farms and cafes we dined at across the countryside, we were pleasantly pleased with every single meal.

The rooftop restaurant we found the evening we arrived served delicious and innovative dishes with strong connections to the island’s culinary traditions. Chef Ramon Manuel Lopez Alarcon certainly delivered on El Cocinero Restaurant’s reputation as one of Cuba’s finest.

Far from the plain, uninspired cuisine we had been warned to expect, we dined on pork tenderloin with a creamy corn and coconut sauce and grilled Caribbean spiny lobster accompanied by pilaf and salad. Others in our group chose lamb curry and duck confit and were equally impressed.

As delicious as the entrées were, the deserts were truly the stars of the show. We ordered a couple to share around the table, including the house specialty chocolate tart and an innovative, as well as quite cute, take on rice pudding that came served like sushi.

Breakfast the next morning was simple, yet elegantly presented, and we found this to be true throughout our journey. Artfully arraigned fresh tropical fruits, served along with eggs and an assortment of cheese, meats, and breads was the norm.

Lunches were also straightforward and practical, yet delectable and showed great attention to detail.

Before our ride one day we stopped at Restaurante El Cuajaní on a tobacco farm near the base of a magote in the Viñales Valley for fish roasted in a brick oven with mixed local veggies and mashed malanga. Even this Cuban version of down home cooking was plated with care and style.

Thus we had our introduction to malanga, which is a root very similar to taro, and is the go to starch of the island. Over the next few days we would see it a lot, usually mashed, but also fried, stewed, baked, and as chips.

Another memorable lunch was served to us beachside at Playa deCayo Jutías. With our feet nearly in the ocean, how could we eat anything but fresh caught fish? Snapper with rice filled the bill nicely, and a ride back to the hotel in a 1957 De Soto Diplomat made it nearly a perfect afternoon.

Such a day also requires some sort of liquid sustenance and we discovered two brews that fit right in, Bucanero and Cristal. Both are light and refreshing, Cristal somewhat lighter, and these were the only two beers we ever saw.

Rum is probably the most popular Cuban potent potable, with Havana Club being the big one, but don’t be fooled, the Havana Club sold in the states is not the real thing. It is made in Puerto Rico by Bacardi.

While the locals usually drink it straight, we were content to stick with fruity foo-foo drinks. Piña Coladas were everywhere, and the best we ever had, hands down.

They sure came in handy the night we preceded dinner with Salsa dance lessons.  We were loosened up nicely, made valiant attempts at shaking our booties, then dined on mini pizza style appetizers and a roast chicken and pork dinner served family style.

However, our most entertaining libation by far was the Coctel Antiestrés, or anti-stress cocktail. This was a perfect after tour and pre dinner break that we not only enjoyed, but also learned to make at our farm to table visit to Finca Agroecológica Paraíso.

Pineapple juice, mint, canella, basil, anise, piper auritum, honey, and of course, rum are mixed, poured over ice, and served until any and all stress is removed. In our experience, that doesn’t take long.

With our tension levels near all-time lows we were ready for anything, even going whole hog so to speak. That is what the meal consisted of, a whole hog.

We got a behind the scenes before and after look at the process, then proceeded to enjoy some of the best roast pork we have ever tasted.

There is one last beverage that we cannot possibly overlook in our discussion of Cuban refreshments, coffee. Everywhere we went the java was pretty jammin’, but this night the joe, like everything else, was raised right on the premises organic farm to table.

Also in keeping with the rest of the evening’s fare, the coffee was fantastic. Strong, but not too much, and served in the coolest little wooden shot glasses. So cool that a couple of them came home with us as souvenirs.

No, no. Not anything like that. No sneakiness.

We gladly paid for these reminders of how everything excided expectations.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thank you to Backroads Travel  for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

The Empty Nest Through a Husband’s Eyes

There is much more to beauty and allure than physical appearance. Years of shared experiences, and the comfort of complete compatibility, more than make up for any lost youth, no matter what these marketers splash across our screens.

As men, we see those images too, and have been persuaded — no, programmed — into thinking that we all want supermodels who think about nothing more than fun times and a lot of beer. Well, I have two things to say about that:

First… CONTINUE READING >>

The Empty Nest Through a Husband's Eyes - GypsyNester.com

Empty nest syndrome.

Judging from what I see online, these three words are almost exclusively associated with mothers, but the adjustments involved are felt by every member of the family.

Daddies miss their children too, and our newly minted adults can go through difficult adaptations while making the transition into the brave new world of personal responsibility as well.

Yet, as with everything else involving marriage and parenting, we’ve charged headlong into this new challenge without an instruction manual.

Now that I’ve had a few years to adjust to this phase of life, I feel that I can look back and offer some helpful nuggets of wisdom, especially pertaining to the couple that was married decades ago.

Without a doubt, raising kids changed our relationship — likely for the better — but with that behind us, the time had come to do a little rekindling of our old flame. Veronica felt unsettled by her loss of mommy duties, so I made a point to focus on the feelings that I have for her, just as I did before parenting entered our picture.

I’m not talking about pretending that we’re twenty-something again (although a little of that ain’t bad at all!), but rather rediscovering the attraction that brought about the big fall into that chasm of love in the first place. Sure, we are very different people now than the crazy kids we were back then, but the flint and steel that provided the spark is still within us; it just needs a little dusting off.

These attraction embers still have life because there is much more to attractiveness than what meets the eye. Veronica is not vain, but — like many women — she has struggled with the image of herself as the years have gone by. The bombardment by advertising’s unrealistic ideas of the female form — regardless of age — has an impact.

But here in the real world, there is much more to beauty and allure than physical appearance. Years of shared experiences, and the comfort of complete compatibility, more than make up for any lost youth, no matter what these marketers splash across our screens.

As men, we see those images too, and have been persuaded — no, programmed — into thinking that we all want supermodels who think about nothing more than fun times and a lot of beer. Well, I have two things to say about that:

First, it’s crap. This fantasy has no relation to real life, where our desires stem from actual affection, love, connection, and passion.

Second, when it comes to these fictitious, ideal females, most of us men are like dogs that bark at cars; we wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with one if we caught it.

Perhaps the most important point I can make is that in order to explore these changes and feelings as a couple, we needed to talk. Believe it or not, even though we’ve been married for over three decades, sometimes our mind-reading skills lead us astray.

Luckily we’ve learned to be open and honest about our relationship, both physical and emotional, but it’s vital to know what each of us expects, fears, anticipates, looks forward to and, yes, dreads in the upcoming thirty years so we can face them together.

Veronica really brought this home to me recently when she said, “Remember when we were first married and we used to talk about growing old together?”

Sure I do, back then it was cute and romantic, in a sort of Beatles “When I’m Sixty-Four” kind of way, but it was an idea that became easily overlooked in the hectic frenzy of child rearing. Now the time has come to wholeheartedly embrace the concept. Like it or not, it’s staring us down as a fact of life.

Then it struck me: the idea is still romantic, in a very real sort of way. In fact, it’s practically the definition of romantic, “doing and saying things to show that you love someone.”

I don’t think there’s a better way to embrace that concept than by celebrating each day of our future together.

Because, seriously, how lucky am I to have this time to spend with my best friend?

David, GypsyNester.com

YOUR turn: Veronica here: I cried when I read this. Did you have the same reaction?

An Offshore Adventure to California’s Channel Islands

I am a rock, I am an island. Paul Simon could have been describing Anacapa, just off the California coast. We don’t think he was, but it is a practically perfect fit.
On clear days we have been able to spot the rocky outcrop poking out of the Pacific… CONTINUE READING >> 

I am a rock, I am an island.

Paul Simon could have been describing Anacapa, just off the California coast. We don’t think he was, but it is a practically perfect fit.

On clear days we have been able to spot the rocky outcrop poking out of the Pacific since we moved to our new home in Ventura.

The sight of the arch off in the distance beckoned with a call like a siren’s song, so a boat ride was inevitable.

With several trips a day leaving from the marina near our little beachside hideaway, we didn’t have far to go to begin our trek.

We chose a wildlife tour, hoping to catch a peek at some whales since it was the right time of year to see gray whales on their annual migration, and climbed aboard.

Between December and April these giant mammals pass through the channel between the islands and the California coast as they travel between their winter breeding grounds off of Baja and their summer feeding area near Alaska. Later in the year humpbacks and sometimes blue whales can be spotted among the islands.

While we were skunked in the whale sighting department, we did manage to engage in several other wildlife encounters.

As we cruised seaward, our first evidence of animal activity was of the human variety, an enormous oil drilling platform stood in our path. Not exactly what we hoped for, but interesting none the less.

These mammoth rigs can drill and service dozens of wells from each location. This helps to keep their disruption of the landscape down somewhat, because instead of hundreds of visible wells in the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel between the coast and the islands off of Southern California, there are only 32.

The ones we saw are all still active, but when they are no longer they can also be refurbished into an eco-friendly use as artificial reefs so at least there is ultimately some eco-friendly outcome.

After passing within a few hundred feet of the structure, we made way for the rocky outcrops of the southern tip of Anacapa, which is the smallest and closest of the eight islands known as the Channel Islands. The northernmost five of these have been set aside as Channel Islands National Park and the waters around them protected as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

Approaching the island, we skirted along the shore and our captain pointed out a cave that had once been a base for human habitation since it is the only regular source of fresh water. In times of no rain, which is most of the time, condensation within the cave will provide a small amount to drink.

It must have been enough to sustain life because a few hermits have been known to make a home on the desolate outcrop over the years, the most famous being Raymond “Frenchy” LeDreau, who survived for 28 years before finally returning to the mainland.

It was also along this shore that we saw the greatest concentration of birds.

In our travels we have found that birds love islands, and this was certainly no exception. Massive congregations of gulls had assembled, which were impressive, but we were much more intrigued by the pelicans that flew by us with their wingtips only inches above the surface of the sea.

We also spotted a nesting pair of cormorants precariously perched on the cliff face opposite the landing when we pulled up to the island’s only dock to pick up a group of hikers.

With our new shipmates safely aboard, we headed for the sea arch that is Anacapa’s most famous feature. This stark, volcanic rock formation standing out against the ocean was what lured us out to sea and the close up view was well worth the voyage.

Perhaps it was also what enticed the region’s native people to become some of North America’s very first seafarers some 13,000 years ago. At least as far as we know they were, since these islands are where the continent’s oldest evidence of marine travel has been found.

Beautiful as the formations may be, they are also dangerous to any sailor navigating these waters, so in 1932 a lighthouse was built on the point above the rocks to warn mariners to steer clear.

Fortunately, we safely rounded the island’s rocky tip and sailed along the back side, the shore away from the mainland, toward the passage between Anacapa and the island of Santa Cruz. Before we could shoot that gap we noticed several beaches where elephant seals had taken up residence.

They were believed to be extinct early in the last century, but the Channel Islands played a role in their remarkable comeback.  Now they are plentiful again, still we did think it strange to see them lounging with a group of their much smaller cousins, California Sea Lions. Then it occurred to us, who can resist a day at the beach?

When we turned back toward Ventura, we got our closest look at the largest of the islands, Santa Cruz, which serves as the main staging area for visitors to the national park. Even though it is the most developed part of the park, this area has extremely limited services.

There is no lodging or supplies available, only primitive campsites, which made us content with confining our visit to brushing passed the shoreline while remaining aboard a ship.

There is an option to stay on one of the islands that appeals to those of us who prefer more of life’s little comforts, but it is not part of the national park. As the only island with any population to speak of Santa Catalina, off the coast of Los Angeles, has become extremely popular for quick getaways from the city.

Fitting, since getaways seem to have been the mainstay of these islands from the time the first natives spotted them off in the distance, through pirates, hermits, and rum runners, up to today’s backpackers, hikers, boaters, and birders.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Empty Nest Egg

Where did you live when you were first starting out? I’ll bet it wasn’t quite the Taj Mahal.

Our first place was a one bedroom, former screened-in porch that had all the weather proofing of the average wiffle ball. It was a veritable private zoo of insect vermin — and we were glad to have it. We were proud and happy to be on our own.

Who are we to deny our offspring those same pleasures?CONTINUE READING >>

Nest For Sale!

It seems to me that a good number of folks who have boomerang “kids” may actually want them to return.

But are we really doing our offspring any favors by allowing an indefinite extension of childhood?

Let’s think about this. Where did you live when you were first starting out? I’ll bet it wasn’t quite the Taj Mahal.

Our first place was a one bedroom, former screened-in porch that had all the weather proofing of the average wiffle ball. It was a veritable private zoo of insect vermin — and we were glad to have it. We were proud and happy to be on our own.

Smacking my head on the five-foot-high kitchen ceiling/outside stairwell overhang a few hundred times made me really appreciate the move up to some better digs.

We rejoiced in every improvement of our living conditions — because we had worked for them. Moving into a real apartment, then a duplex until we finally saved up enough to make the down payment for an assumed loan on an about-to-be-repossessed starter home.

The place was a cat pee-saturated disaster but we worked like crazy on that funky little domicile until it was quite livable and we had real pride of ownership.

Who are we to deny our offspring those same pleasures?

There was also a huge financial upside to this process. During the eleven years we occupied our starter home, we established credit, refinanced it to a conventional loan at a much lower rate, built up thousands in equity and sold it at a substantial profit.

We had stashed away a tidy sum of money without even thinking about it!

None of this would have been possible had we spent our twenties and thirties living with mommy and daddy.

One of our readers, Ruthie, recently relayed her story of woe and resolve. She had a 34-year-old boomerang “kid” who was becoming more and more dependent as time went on. Her breaking point occurred when, in the middle of a sales meeting, she received a call from her son to inform her that there was no milk for his cereal!

The frightening thing was her response — she was about to drop everything to make a home delivery.

Instead, Ruthie made a decision then and there — she put her house on the market. She informed boomerang boy that she would be moving to a condo on the beach. He would not be joining her.

Here’s to Ruthie — an inspiration for empty nesters who just can’t say no to their offspring. Before that boomerang leaves a nasty lump on the old noggin… SELL THE NEST!

Beyond eliminating the boomerang effect, selling the nest could have additional advantages.

Many of us have been faithfully pouring money into our homes for decades and now the empty nest has become the nest egg. The time might be right to cash out and buy a smaller crib, or no crib at all. Pocket that dough and live a little. Travel, write The Great American Novel, go back to college, volunteer in your community — get out and grab that brass ring.

After decades of raising kids, the question shouldn’t be why, but why not. C’mon, no need to keep up that big old house when you could be in a sweet little condo on the beach like Ruthie. Spread those wings and fly south for the winter.

This way, when the chicks try to return to the nest to take up residence in the basement, they won’t know the owners. Wouldn’t it be a blast to see the surprise on their little faces? Almost like that Christmas morning long ago when they actually did get coal in their stockings… OK, maybe there wasn’t really any coal… but it’s MY memory and I’ll remember it how I want it to. 😉

Selling the nest could also mean that when the kids come for a visit to the new smaller digs, they’ll need a motel. Now we’re talking. How about that — actually spending time with them without the house getting ransacked or feeling like a live-in maid? Who knows — perhaps they’ll even begin to act like adults!

All of this said, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that the housing market, even though it is making a bit of a comeback, is still pretty rough in some places. Depending on where your house is, selling the nest may not be such a great option right now.

In our case, when we recently sold our house, we made a decent overall gain even after the recent losses. We had to take a good bit less than the asking price and I’m not going to lie — it was pretty scary — but we’re glad we did it and haven’t looked back since.

Even in bad markets there can be other options. Test the waters of life after kids using the nest as a home base. Maybe rent out the nest and use the income to chase the dream while someone else pays the mortgage, then sell when the market gets better. Get creative with your freedom.

Taking a plunge is not always easy, but as Veronica is so fond of saying when conquering her fears, “people do it everyday and don’t die.”

David, GypsyNester.com

YOUR TURN: What was your first home like? Have you thought about selling your nest? Have you sold your nest want to share your experience? Do have suggestions for parents with boomerang “kids” wanting to change their situation?

We Packed as Many of London’s Landmarks as We Could into Two Days, How’d We Do?

From our base in Paddington, we set out to see as much as we possibly could of London in under 48 hours. We think we did pretty darn good, see if you agree. Did we miss anything?

CONTINUE READING >> 

From our base in Paddington, we began our assault by entering Hyde Park through the Marble Arch. The park is the largest of the Royal Parks that surround of Kensington and Buckingham Palaces, which were definitely two of the items on our checklist, but we found discovered several distractions along the way.

The first being Speakers’ Corner. This corner of the park, right by the arch, has been a haven for open-air speaking, debate, and discussion for several centuries.  In 1872 it was codified into law with the Parks Regulation Act that guaranteed the right to meet and speak freely in Hyde Park.

This freedom has brought out everyone from the famous, infamous, crazy, confused, intelligent, or just plain unintelligible, including some historic figures such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and George Orwell, to take part in protesting wars, supporting suffrage, or just advocating or opposing current conditions.

After receiving our own earfuls on several subjects from the current crop of orators, we moved on toward Kensington Gardens and the palace of the same name, but there was more to see before we could get there.

As we made our way, it was impossible not to notice the Albert Memorial and the giant golden Prince sitting gazing toward the concert venue that bears his name. We don’t know about him, but we were unable to look at the Royal Albert Hall without the realization that now we know how many holes it takes to fill it.

Popping out of the park’s woods, we came to Kensington Palace. Royals have been residing here since the 17th century, including kings and queens, and now it is the residence of Princes William and Harry, along with Kate Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge) and various other Dukes, Duchesses, princes, and princesses.

Sounds crowded, but with multiple apartments divided in at least a dozen different wings and buildings they most likely have to try pretty hard to bump into each other.

By this time we had walked enough, so the time had come to board one of London’s iconic double-decker busses.

This is not the fastest way to get around the city, but it is the cheapest, and most fun.

Our goal was to catch all of the sights across town near the Tower of London, so we hopped off at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Long one of the most famous of landmarks in London, the dome is still among the highest in the world.  For a long time, from 1710 to 1967, it was even the tallest structure in the city.

Right across the Thames River, the Globe Theatre stands out starkly against a background of modern buildings. Actually, the theater we saw is more modern than many of those new arrivals because this is only a replica built in 1997. 

The original, or more accurately the two originals, disappeared over 350 years ago. The first stood from 1599 until it was destroyed by a fire in 1613.

The second, which is recreated in the current reproduction, was built the following year and was torn down by Puritans in 1644. It would seem as though Shakespeare’s popularity must have been on the wane at that point in time.

Well, even had the theater been left standing it might have burned down a few years later in the Great Fire of London in 1666. A monument to the fire was erected near the source of the blaze a few years later in 1671.

The huge Doric column provides some of the best views of the city anywhere, as long as one is willing to climb the 311 steps up the spiral staircase to reach the viewing platform near the top.

One building mostly spared by the fire is All Hallows-by-the-Tower, acclaimed as the oldest church in London. Established in 675, the church was built on the site of a Roman building. We know this because some remnants remain in the crypt.

Since it is right next to the Tower of London, it also became the temporary burial site for many of the beheading victims of the castle.

While the Tower does have many classic castle characteristics, it is really more of a complex of buildings than a single fortress.

Even though it was once officially Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and is still home to the crown jewels, its beginnings certainly do not bring pride to any British hearts.

It was built by William the Conqueror in 1078 after the Normans overtook England, ushering in a succession of French speaking English kings until Henry IV took the throne in 1399.

It also has a dark reputation as prison where many heads were separated from their bodies, perhaps most famously Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife who was beheaded in 1536. She is said to still be seen roaming around the Tower carrying her head under her arm.

All we know is that if we had seen her we would have high-tailed it across the Tower Bridge so fast that head she was toting would be spinning like a top!

And it wouldn’t be much of a run since the bridge is right there. Perhaps the most recognizable of London’s thirty-three spans across the Thames, it is often mistakenly called London Bridge. But since it is certainly not falling down, nor did it ever get moved to Arizona and rebuilt, we are certain that it is not.

Of course back in the days when the Tower was still being used to fend off invading hoards there was no bridge. It would have made it too easy to storm the castle, so the bridge is a relatively new one hundred and twenty four years old.

To take in the second round of the London landmarks on our list we took the tube to Westminster.

This allowed us to pop up from underground right in the political heart of Great Britain, directly beneath what just might be the most famous clock in the world, Big Ben.

Actually, the name was originally given to the largest of the bells in the tower, but has come to refer to the entire structure of Elizabeth Tower and is now most often associated with the giant clock. The rest of the building below houses the British Parliament but is technically still a royal residence, the Palace of Westminster.

The government has been convening here officially since 1295, so we have to think they have settled in, unlike the monarchs, who have moved on to Buckingham Palace.

On our way to see the queen, or at least her house, we passed by Westminster Abbey. Calling it all the abbey is really a misnomer. There are several buildings combined within the complex, one of which is the abbey, others include the church, sanctuary, chapter house, and cloister.

All in all these make for one of the most honored locations in London because this is the traditional site for both the coronation and burial of British monarchs. In fact, since 1066 every coronation has been here, along with sixteen royal weddings.

For nearly two hundred years those sovereigns have moved into Buckingham Palace after ascending to the throne. That meant we might have caught a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth, or one of her sons, Princes Andrew and Edward, who also live in the palace, but no such luck for us.

Guess we’d have to satisfy ourselves with a bit of a different variety of royalty, the Beatles. We hopped on another bus to Abbey Road, where an old townhouse was transformed into the Mecca of modern music when four lads from Liverpool recorded for eight years in it.

The culmination was the album they named after the street. From then on the studio itself became known as Abbey Road. It was a little underwhelming to visit, we were only able to peer through the gates, still we couldn’t help but feel privileged by our proximity to the spot where some of the greatest music ever recorded was captured.

Definitely worth including in our landmark itinerary.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com