Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Worst Meal EVER - Restaurant Marcos Barcelona

So the Hussyband and I have just gotten back from his annual birthday trip, we had lots of amazing meals, a few too many jamon baguettes, and one meal that was so bad we actually left as it made us ill just looking at it.

Friday night we were wandering around the University area of Barcelona, and came across a little restaurant with some nice looking outside tables. It was still early, only 9pm (that is early for dinner in Spain!) Now here we ignored one of what is normally our cardinal rules, we were going to eat in a restaurant that advertised it had an English menu. 

But we hadn't had much for lunch at the beach that day so were famished. We elected to eat inside as there were a few smokers outside....and this is where our trouble starts.

Inside we order a nice bottle of AlbariƱo, Hussy went for a start of beef carpacio, and I went for the calamari. They placed starter plates out for us to share...they were dirty. They we noticed strange red floaters in our white wine. OK.

His beef was covered in so much Parmesan you could not tell what the meat looked like, the condiments container have a couple of millimetres of dust bunnies in the bottom of it so we ignored using them. My calamari came out about 10 mins later - swimming. No, it wasn't still alive, it was swimming in oil as they had obviously not gotten the fryer hot enough before cooking the dish, so it had absorbed the equivalent of the Mediterranean Sea that was leaking out through the paper doilies conveniently hiding another dirty plate.

By this stage we were getting worried, and queasy. Five minutes later our mains came out....Hussybands' was first - hake in a basque specialty sauce. The fish was grey. The sauce was grey. The potatoes were grey. The white asparagus that is not even in season was grey. The clams were grey and more withered than a nuns clitoris. Winter days in London are less grey than this dish was...and Hussybands' face was quickly turning puce to match.
Then out came my lobster and monkfish. The lobster should have been thrown back it was so small - i have seen prawns bigger. The monkfish had been battered and deep fried. It was all swimming in an oily, luminous yellow, gelatinous sauce. I took one look and gagged. How could you do that to monkfish?!?!?!?! IT IS INHUMANE!
We sculled our wine. Called over the waiter, advised him we were not staying as we felt ill (well we did! and we would have been if we had eaten that lot!), paid the complete bill (I am a softie) and left. Quickly.

The thought of food by then was making us ill, so we did the only thing we could do at this stage....we went and consumed our calories for the night via alcohol.

Where not to eat in Barcelona:
Restaurant Marcos
Carrer Disputacio 172, E-08011 Barcelona

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Fable - A Tale of Two Seatings

Despite a few false starts with booking process, Thirsty Thirsday this week see me checking out a new bar at Holborn Viaduct, The Fable. As usual, my trusty sidekick Wife Jacqui is with me, and Hussyband. joined us when he finished work.

Now we had been warned I advance that the kitchen is having a few teething problems by other bloggers who came earlier in the week...but Thirsty Thirsday isn't about the food...it's about the booze. And we came here with a mission in mind...mission impossible in one sitting, maybe, but damn if I am not going to at least TRY to drink the cocktail menu! And we are back with the Lions on Saturday for food anyway. They should have the kitchen sorted out by then right?

Chapter One - Thirsty Thirsday

1: Sugar Plum Fairy (£8.95) Very refreshing, I don't usually go for gin based drinks, but I liked this one! Not sure what the use of the whole frozen solid plum is, it's too solid to eat! Looks nice, but useless. Frozen slices of plum might be better and easier to eat! (MrsLion had two of these on Saturday - and her plums were not frozen...so not sure how they should be now!)

2:Rub a Dub Shrub (sharing cocktail £15.95). Now I am a lover of bathes, long, hot, bubbly, candlelit soaks that leave me wrinkled and relaxed. But this one, while nice, just didnt quite scrub my back. All we could taste was the watermelon, no strawberries, no vodka buzz. I had to stop the Wife from filching the pink rubber duckie, but you can  take a bath tub home...for £20, try buying one for that at B&Q! All up though, dont get into a lather for this one.

3: Double Dirty Grey Goose Martini (£12) This one is not on the menu, but with an incoming Hussyband, I knew he would need to play catchup. Lovely martini (he let me taste!) with wonderfully plump olives (which he wouldn't share).

 4: Prince Charming (£7.45) I do love my rum, and this one swept me off my feet. The chai infused syrup and lemon juice had a zing in my mouth. 

5: Aesops Fable (£7.45) Wifey originally wanted a Gold Fish in a Bag - but they were out of bags, but she really liked this one, especially its presentation in the small bottle. Said it was like drinking milk....although she was rather tipsy by this stage!

6: Zombieland (sharing cocktail £15.95) as The Cranberries sang, Zombie, Zombie, Zombie-ie-ie.This was the voted the best by the table that we all agreed on. To quote Wife "Squeezing my passion fruit is not a euphemism" (yes I do remember these things through the haze).

Next we went for Barmans Choice (as we couldnt decide). 

7: El Presidente - dark rum and made Hussyband very happy
8: Dark and Stormy - dark rum and one of the nicest gingers I have had in a long time
9: French Martini - Vodka and chambord for the Wife, who by this time was giggling lots!

Now, in case you are thinking we were not responsible adults and had refrained from eating, we did indeed try two of the sharing boards (which are quite huge!)

The first one was to share or not to share (£15.95) - garlic bread, potato & sweet potato wedges, thai crackers, chicken satay, mini burgers, mini hotdogs & marinated olives. This puppy was highs and low - the satay sauce was wonderful and we loved that they used Thai crackers rather than Chinese. The hotdogs had a nice bite and we loved the olives. The burgers had a nice meaty taste but need something else to make them special. Wife LOVED the brioche garlic bread.

Still having the munchies, we went for The Fable Deli Board (£15.95) a nice selection of cured meats & cheeses including a wonderful Yarg.

Now you would expect that after all this we would be done...but no. We finished ourselves off with one last Zombieland for good measure to make our journeys home painless. 

A twist to the tale - there really are happy endings! A new stash of Goldfish bags were found so Wife caught her fishy! Goldfish in a Bag (£8.95) - tasty gin based cocktail with an edible lilypad and everything!

Here ends Chapter One.

Chapter Two - Saturday Session
We really are suckers for punishment (of our livers) and Saturday afternoon saw us back here for lunch with our friends TheLions, and WifeFiona and EmmaLiscious joining us for drinks. Of yes, there was more drinking.

We started proceedings with Bloody Decisive (Marys) (£7.50) - nice kick to these babies and what we needed to kickstart our juices.

Food was the order of today, I went for the Reef, Beef & Bubbles (£15.95) a juicy perfectly rare piece of rump with half a lobster dripping with garlic butter, a side of onions rings (£2.95) that were hot crisp and perfectly seasoned and a bowl of unctuous bernaise sauce (£2) for dunking everything in. Oh and a glass of prosecco to wash it all down!

Hussyband opted for the cote de boeuf (£20.95) again, it was perfectly rare, and he even had a chomp on the bone (my fella he is a classy bloke!)

MrsLion opted for the Seabass and Crayfish Risotto and scrapped her plate clean. The seabass had a lovely crispy skin, and the risotto was sublime.

MrLion chose an Asian Salad with Seared Salmon which had him in a happy place.

There was also a side of the Trio of Fries (£9.95) - one was slathered in katsu curry, one in"Cowboy" BBQ sauce, and the third parmesan, rosemary and truffle oil. The third was our favorite!

Wife Fiona arrived just as we infilttrated the Book Nook, and she was hungering for a burger. She went for the Lamb Burger w/ feta, piquillo peppers & tzatziki (£9.95) which set her up well for the next few hours of silliness. The meat was moist and really tasty.

After this the afternoon degenerated into cocktail craziness. New ones we tried and loved included the Pornstar Martini (£9.95) with very generous pours of prosecco and only 109 calories! The Singapore Sling (£15.95) sharer which Emmaliscious and I devoured with just two straws,  was also rather delicious.

Here ends Chapter Two.

There were a lot of cocktails consumed yesterday afternoon, and we spent a couple of hours happily ensconced in the book nook laughing and spinning tales. Service was good, but it was taking a lot longer to get our drinks on Saturday than it did on Thursday, with it taking about 33 mins to get our last round which was a tad disappointing. There was a distinct change in the attitudes of the staff as well with the shift change on Saturday being halfway through our visit - service pre-change was brilliant, after change, slow and not so steady.

We will be back as the cocktails are brilliant, and the food now that the kitchen has settled down pretty bloody tasty. 
We spent about £70 each on food and booze on Saturday and were stuffed and slightly silly. I would like to say we were sensible and that we went home...but we didn't. And that is a bedtime story for another day.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Whiskey Sauce

Its Christmas time, and I have been a very very bad blogger this year. No excuses, other than I have worked hard in the office and havnt been able to face a screen when I get home.

But, its the silly season, and upon request from some lovely friends I find myself posting a recipe that I have been tweaking the last year.

We first tried whiskey sauce at a little riverside pub in Inverness last January when we were up in Scotland for the christening of Nic and Phil's son. Gerry had tatties and neeps with whiskey sauce, and whilst I am not a fan of neeps, the sauce with the tatties was sublime.

This works well with steaks, and haggis (for Nayan) and I could see it working with game meats like venison as well.

Happy Holidays!

Whiskey Sauce

Glug of olive oil
Chunk of butter (unsalted)
2 eschalots roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves roughly chopped
2 cups (500mls) beef stock (I am loving the liquid home brand stocks from Waitrose)
Palm-ful of pink peppercorns (1-2 tablespoons)
80mls of single cream
3 tablespoons of whiskey (plus more for the chef)

Heat the oil and butter in a frypan of saucepan and sautee the eschalots and garlic until they are softened. Have a sip of whiskey. Add the beef stock and turn the heat up to a rolling boil and reduce the stock by half. Have some more whiskey as this will take about 15mins. Strain the stock and return to the pan - chuck out the solids. Add the remaining ingredients and warm through for a couple of mins (dont boil). Have a last shot of whiskey before serving.
Serves 4 (hic)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Petersham Nurseries

 Finding myself in a post-holiday pre- "finding a new job" state, and with the lovely Jacqui (aka: @sushi_junki) and Nicole (aka: @ruduss) at loose ends we decided to be Ladies Who Lunch (LWL) and go check out Petersham Nurseries for lunch. Sadly, the Michelin Starred Cafe was booked for a private function (see how pretty it looks as they are setting it up). So we will have to go back there another day (already comparing diaries!) in the Spring when we can also stock up on pretty green growing edible things for the garden. Damn.

Settling into the glasshouse of the Teahouse, we inhaled the warm jasmine scented air and ogled at all the dogs and dedicated LWL who looked...well quite similar! There were some very pampered fur babies in the room (and owners).

We settled in with a pot of tea, a cafetiere of the house blended plunger coffee and gee, a couple of slices of cake. Yes, we had desert before lunch. As you do! At the front is an orange, walnut with a chocolate and coconut icing, whilst at the rear is the lemon polenta and rosemary. The polenta cake was my favorite with a lovely dense and moist crumb. 
Onto the sensible part of our lunch, the leek and gorgonzola quiche with salad and the soup of the day (£7.50 each), washed down with the house-made lemonade (£4) and more coffee. The quiche was wonderfully seasoned and with a great pastry, and the soup whilst hot and smelling great lacked seasoning. 

After lunch we wandered around the nurseries and there is a lot of potted colour ready to go, I held off as I am not planting anything until April (this March cold spurt is really shocking when you consider a week ago I was in Abu Dhabi and it was 37 degrees!)

We cant wait to go back for more, there is talk that the nursery will be hosting popup dinners during the summer, so keep an eye on the website and don't blink as you may miss out!

Petersham Nurseries
Church Lane
Off Petersham Road
TW10 7AG

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Olde Bell Hurley

Work has been manic the last few months, I was the only Bid Coordinator in the business from the end of January until August when we hired a newbie who has never handled bids, so between churning out more bids and tenders than I care to count as well as training her, it's been a crazy year.

The other weekend I was working from home ahead of what I knew was going to be a big week (which indeed it was, culminating in a 21 hour day in the office!) So, determined to spend some quality time with Hussyband, I bundled him into the car for a little road trip for lunch.
The Olde Bell is in Hurley, Berkshire, just a short 30 mile jaunt down the M4 with a happy ending of some nice twisty turney country roads overhung with trees that were showing their last dash of autumn color. Parking was a breeze at the pub, with a huge carpark across the road, as well as lane parking for the daring who drive small cars.

The pub was warm and inviting inside with lots of padded benches and overstuffed chairs. Hussyband was stoked that they had a couple of different real ales casks in the bar, whilst I was designated driver (as usual) so I "happily" tucked into a delicious Raspberry Lemonade from Luscombe.

The dining room was full of chunky wood tables, with groups of people laughing and digging into some damn fine looking food. Lunch is a set price of 2 courses £24.50 or 3 courses £29.50. Upon being seated we were bought out a plate of mixed house breads with butter. My favorite was a seeded rye that just couldn't stay away from my gob.

I started with the Smoked Trout Rillete with Roasted Beets and Horseradish Cream, while Hussy went for the Charcuterie with Pickled Baby Onions, Toasted Rye Bread and Olive Oil. The trout was rich and lush paired with the beets and horseradish, although I would have liked some of the toasted rye bread on my own plate (since I stole Hussy's) to spread the rillette on. The charcuterie had Hussy moaning in pleasure. He does like his meat.

Mains saw us going for the Roast Sirloin of Beef, Yorkshire Pudding and the Loin of Dingley Dell Pork, Sage and Onion Stuffing, Apple sauce and Roast Potatoes. The beef came out perfectly bloody, with the yorkie providing the perfect diving board into its own depths of gravy. My pork was perfectly cooked with a huge slab of crackling to keep me crunching away.

Plenty of sides to fill the gaps between our protein heaven - lush cauliflower and cheese, cabbage, roasted parsnips and tatties, and carrots. We were groaning by this stage and took the opportunity for a pause before desert - so went for a walk out around the huge beer garden and attached walled vegetable patch. I want a vege patch like that one day (although in London it most likely wouldn't be possible on their scale!)

For desert we both selected the Pavlova with Black Berry Compote and Chantilly Cream. This was really tasty, but could have done with more compote - 4 blackberrys on the plate were not enough to cut through that gorgeous pav.

Will definitely head back there in warmer weather, maybe even stay a night so we can lounge out the back on the grass and enjoy the countryside and the great food. And so I can sample the wine list without having to worry about the drive home!
I NEED this light fitting when we buy a house
Address: The Olde Bell, High Street, Hurley, Berkshire SL6 5LX
Telephone: +44 (0)1628 825 881
Fax: +44 (0) 1628 825 939
Twitter: @theoldebell

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Drunken Burgers at MEATmarket

Now I should start by saying the burgers were not drunken last night, @Sushi_Junki and I were!

What started out innocently enough at Cellar Door, a typical Friday really, a few (too many) margaritas, a bottle of champagne and some nuts, saw us stumbling out onto the street i desperate need of carbs, fried food and silliness. 
 @Sushi_Junki swore she had a better place than Byron Burger in mind, so we stumbled up to Covent Garden, and into MEATheaven at MEATmarket. I placed myself in SJ's more than capable hands and let her order. 
Quickly our dinner was in front of us - Dead Hippy Burgers (2 beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles, minced onions and Dead Hippy Sauce*). The burgers were divine. Perfectly cooked medium rare beef oozing with flavour, soft but stable buns (nothing worse than a bun that falls apart in your hands!), pickles that were crisp and tangy. Only thing I would want to add is beetroot - but that is the Aussie in me where all burgers have to have a few slices of vinegared beetroot to slide and drip down your arms. I would like to thank my stunt woman SJ for modelling the burger so gracefully!

The sides that adorned our tray were the most amazing crispy fries (which we gently bathed in a combo of tomato sauce and mustard - so glad we were in agreement on that combo), jalapenos poppaz stuffed with cheese, dipped in breadcrumbs with a sour cream and chive dipping sauce blew my mind and mouth. Just the right amount of heat to have you coming back for more if only there was room!
To drink we had Hard Shakes. Bourbon and maple syrup thickshakes that reminded me of what my first sip of a Maccas thickshake was like when I was a young 'un, but these were oh so much better! They also have a rum and vanilla version that I may have to go back and try just for comparison. 

Now after so much booze already, did we REALLY need Hard Shakes? HELL YES WE DID! We needed them so much we ended up having one with our burgers, then another for desert. This was probably a bad idea, but you never know a bad idea until it bites you on the ass the next morning and you have to bat it down with sweet tea and Nurofen.
I will definitely be back, next time with the Hussyband and probably The Nieces in tow. Meanwhile I will sit hit, nursing my tea and just be joyful that my hangover isn't worse than it is!

*Note: No hippies were killed in the making of the sauce, or so I was assured at the time.

The Deck
Jubilee Market Hall
Tavistock Street
Covent Garden
London | WC2E 8BE
Twitter: @MEATmarketUK

Monday, November 5, 2012

Minced Pork with Green Beans

Back on my health kick, but have decided that it will be healthy dieting rather than extreme dieting a la VLC diet (Hussyband wont let me do it again anyway - I keep getting cold I cant shake, and bruises take FOREVER to heal when you are consuming less than 600 calories a day!)

Considering I love Asian flavors  and never want anything sweet after I have had them, I am aiming at more of an asian-style diet. Most of the time anyway! This little gem is from 'Everyday Harumi - Simple Japanese Food for Family and Friends'  by Harumi Kurihara (£14.00 on Amazon.co.uk).

500g green beans, sliced on the diagonal into 4cm piecces
40g leek, white part only
15g ginger, freshly grated
3 large garlic cloves, minced
Vegetable oil (I used a vegetable oil spray and just gave a few spritzes)
400g pork, lean minced
30-45ml soy sauce (I used salt reduced)
Chilies, dried or freshly sliced, to taste
Sesame oil, just a drizzle to taste

  1. Blanch the beans in boiling water, drain and set aside.
  2. Stirfry the leek, ginger and garlic in a wok or frypan over high heat with a few spritzes of vegetable oil (or a quick splash). Cook stirring for about a minute then add the pork stirring to break the meat up.
  3. Add the green beans, soy and chilies to taste and continue to stirfry until the beans are heated through. 
  4. Add a little sesame oil to taste, and serve with rice and a bowl.
This recipe serves 4 people.

We also had a bowl of miso with this, and I didn't have any rice. The calorie content per serve for this is: Calories: 226, Carbs: 12, Fat: 10, Protein: 23 and Calcium: 5. Nutritional info was calculated using www.myfitnesspal.com.

Hussyband hoovers this up, and I like the bite I get without the fat content. Hint: eating it with chopsticks makes it feel like you are having a lot more to eat than using a fork!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Granger & Co

I have been meaning to get to Granger and Co since it opened late last year, but horrid traffic aborted my first attempt, and then sheer apathy at the thought from travelling from South East London to West London for a breakfast queue.

Recently we moved from the pad in Charlton, back to the Mother-In-Laws (MILs) in Ealing to save money to buy a place of our own and stop paying other peoples mortgages. This means lots of savings, but minimal cooking (I think the slow cooker and bbq are going to really earn their keep over the next 12 months!)

This past weekend, following a lovely housewarming soiree by the Luscious Lyons in Bow Quarter, I was driving through a just waking London and decided a side trip was on the cards. Notting Hill wasn’t THAT far out of way, and a sudden craving for ricotta hot cakes had taken hold of me.

So, TomTom set, Hussyband struggling to stay awake in the shotgun position I was off. Twenty five minutes later I pulled into one of the few non-residents parking places on Westbourne Grove (£2/hour with a maximum stay of two hours) and walking the half a block to the restaurant.

I had been warned that the queues tend to snake around the corner on weekends, but with the luck of the Irish, there was only one couple ahead of us when we arrived just after 9.30am. We were quickly seated and had grabbed a selection of Sunday trash reading on the way so settled in to our seats and ordered drinks.

The Rare Tea Company breakfast tea (£3) was just what the doctor ordered and I demolished it quite quickly. Hussyband struggled a bit the signature hot chocolate (£3.50), deeming that effort required to stir the melted choc bits in the bottom of the glass into the milk too much for that time of morning.

Now the big dilemma of the day. Sweetcorn Fritters vs Ricotta Hot Cakes. It wanted SOMETHING savoury, so decided to have a "starter" of the Soft-boiled Cotswold Legbar Eggs and Buttered Sourdough Soldiers (£5.50) settled the rumblings in my tummy and had Hussy flinching bits left right and centre. They were requested to come out as they were ready - and were delivered to the table within 10 minutes of the order being placed.

Hussyband was a little hungover and tired, as you would be if you could drink like him! So there was only one breakfast option for him - The Full Aussie Breakfast - scrambled organic eggs, sourdough toast, bacon, roast tomato and chipolatas - and sans mushrooms for him - (£13.50). The extra chipolatas were appreciated to replace the mushies, and he declared the meal the perfect cure. I am curious though, the scrambled eggs come out in a perfect mound, but look more microwave scrambled than pan scrambled, the sides are perfectly smooth and the eggieness quite solid, as opposed to what I would normally see in a scramble. No pics - he ate too fast!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my Ricotta Hotcakes with Banana and Honeycomb Butter (£11.00) arrived and I was taken back to Darlinghurst, Sydney circa 1994.

I had stumbled out of a the Mardi Gras dance party and spent a few hours sitting in the gutter outside the Flinders Hotel with the other dregs of the party humanity. Not ready (or able) to sleep yet, but starting to feel the need for sustenance, a few semi-able bodied amongst us piled into cabs to head to Bills - the original (and I think still the best). Plates piled high with these delicious morsels revived and sustained us through the rest of the day of dancing and recovering.

Back in London 2012, they still please me with their plump lightness. The butter melting rivulets of happy badness down to the pond of maple syrup (of course I had to use the whole little jug!) Bliss.
Dragging myself back to reality, we paid the cheque quickly and headed back home before a post-breakfast food coma took hold.

On leaving the restaurant, the queue was indeed up the street and around the corner with strollers and toddlers strewn across the pavement at the feet of parents who were paying more attention to their reflections than their children’s safety - we had obviously arrived (and escaped) at the right time.

Granger & Co
175 Westbourne Grove
London W11 2SB
7am-11pm Mon-Sat (last orders 10.30pm)
8am-10pm Sun (last orders 9.30pm)
Warning: they do not take bookings

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


I haven’t written about our Christmas holiday in Cuba before now for one simple reason - it is most devoid of tourists and much as the country needs the tourist dollar (or CUC which is the local tourist currency) I am loathe to see it inundated by tourists ruining a country that is stuck in its own time bubble. (Phew - that was a big sentence!)

But, with Fidel having less and less of a ruling hand, and his brother Raul Castro now "officially" running the country, entry to the country is now becoming more fluid, and whilst pretty much every country (except the USA - who can now travel there with a visa and as part of a group) has been allowed entry in the past, for anyone other than Canadians and South Americans its a long slog.

Now - I am obviously not an American, and unlike most countries in the world, Cuba has no American aspects other than its love of classic cars (mainly due to necessity as the cost to import cars from anywhere else is prohibitive) which have been lovingly restored over and over again. There is not a Starbucks or McDonalds to be seen in Cuba, and I for one loved it!

Flying with Virgin Atlantic (through Virgin Holidays) we jetted of in a very old plane for the 8.5hr flight to Havana. Leaving a grey, cold, drizzly London - stepping off our plane in Havana was like stepping from a refrigerated flying tomb into a hot wet steam oven. Smokey steam oven - as in Cuba, you can smoke anywhere.
We had chosen to spend the first 6 nights of our holiday doing nothing at an all inclusive resort on the Varadero Peninsula. AKA "Planet Varadero" - the peninsula is a gated area, with security guards with big guns and impassive stares guarding a flimsy barrier.

Our hotel, Sandals Royal Hicacos Resort & Spa, was brilliant - huge beds, huge rooms, huge baths and even huger cocktails of which we consumed a lot of. Thankfully the seats in the swim-up bar were not huge, and when we fell off them we were cushioned by the cool aqua pillows of watery goodness. And we did fall off. We also lost a dress, a pair on sunglasses and a single thong. Shoe thong – aka flip-flop, not the underwear variety.

We had heard mixed reviews of the food at the resort - I am not a huge fan of constant all you can eat buffets, and after the first day of blow outs, we were pretty well behaved. Breakfast was either pancakes of omelettes made to order with cold meats, smokes salmon and fruit (alright, and champagne, Bloody Mary's or a Canadian concoction called a Bloody Caesar which was made with Clamato juice - a drink made of reconstituted tomato juice concentrate flavoured with spices and clam broth - sounds gross but it was great for the constant hangovers we suffered!)

The facilities could not be faulted - the beach was amazing, the range of restaurants and bars vast, and the service of all the staff was amazing. (Check out my Trip Adviser review.)

We did a two tours while staying in Sandals - the first was a private guided jeep tour of the area with a highly knowledgeable and educated guide (he had 2 degrees, had worked as a teacher, but makes more money as a guide), and a day trip on a catamaran with snorkelling, swimming with rescued dolphins out at sea, lobster lunch and all the rum we could drink. I still get a ridiculous smile on my face when I think about the dolphin swim!

Moving onto Havana for our final 5 days of vacation we checked into the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Now this is a "luxury" hotel above the Malecon, it opened in 1930 when Cuba was a destination for the well to do American tourists, then the embargo hit and Havana fell on hard times. The hotel, whilst grand, is in dire need of updating. Fresh paint would be a good start, with our room having peeling paint and a dire bathroom (see my Trip Adviser review).

Whilst in Havana we had a private guide for 2 of our days,  Dania Jomarron (below and to the right with the blue brolly), and she was one of the highlights of our entire trip and we saw more in 6 hours walking around town with her than we would have seen in 3 days by ourselves. You pay her by the hour, and for any cabs/meals you all share while out. Ended up costing us about 70CUC for the whole day - money very well spent! The first day spent walking all over downtown and Central Havana showing us around, orienting us, and giving us a history lesson along the way. She showed us a friend’s house, 1 block behind a recently redeveloped square, where the outside street was cracked and broken, and inside they had not had a roof for 3 years. 6 people lived there under tarps, but they wouldn’t move as the location was prime, and hey, everyone else has damaged buildings too!
The best way to describe the infrastructure and buildings of Havana is that they are beautiful in their decrepitude and decay. There is a severe lack in building trade skills in this country, where having money for anything but the essentials is almost unheard of. And people can make far more money is tourism than they can in other pursuits.

We ate at some amazing local’s restaurants and street food stands, but two that stand out as highlights for Hussyband and I were Restaurant La Casa and La Guarida.
Restaurant La Casa: Alejandro and his family were marvellous (and really, Alejandro (above)  looks like he should be on the front of a Mills and Boon novel). The food was of a very high standard and HUGE servings (I am still gutted that we couldn’t eat all of our lobster!) And I would kill for the recipe that was used on the fried chicken starter (and I don’t like fried food normally!) Mojitos to die for.
La Guarida: When you arrive at this out of the way street, I first thought the cab driver was going to mug us. But upon entering the building and passing inspection with the burly bouncer, we climbing the flights of stairs and come into beautifully restored rooms lit with candles and buzzing with conversation. The ceviche is amazing, as was the Chocolate Tres (Three Ways) I had for desert.

Highlights of our Havana time including spending a few hours in a classic convertible being driven around and sightseeing (puts London's open top buses to shame!), doing a tour around Jose Fuster's compound which is decorated to the nth degree in his mosaic work, and seeing the remnants of the Buena Vista Social Club band play one evening by the pool at our hotel to much smaller crowd than they would normally perform for in the auditorium - whilst we enjoyed the sea breeze and mojitos under the stars.

Food and drink in general - if you like pork, lobster and rum you will love Cuba. There are local mass produced beers, even a lone micro brewery Factoria Plaza Vieja (Cervezas y maltas) in town. There are street side vendors selling everything from churros to pizza and back to ice cream sandwiches. The Havana Club Museum served us the best Cuba Libres of our trip (with imported Coca Cola).

Would I recommend Cuba for a trip? Hell yes. Having wanted to go there ever since I heard the BSC album back in 1997 I was not disappointed. Would I go back? Definitely - I want to go back in about 10 years to see what changes the increase in tourism makes to this amazing country, and I hope it doesn’t get ruined in the process.

What you need to remember is Cuba is not a touristy first world country, where they are paid huge tips, have exemplary silver service, and access to the best produce on offer.

Cuba is restricted to pretty much what it can make, or import from South America and Canada. The staff earn a pittance and usually live in appalling conditions, and whilst education and medical are free - they are limited.

Cuban people are (generally) extremely happy, willing to share their knowledge and laughter and will go out of their way for you. They are curious about our lives and homes. Don’t complain that the food isn’t up to your standards - it is far superior to what the locals are eating and is fresh and tasty.

So if you visit Cuba, smile, tip them in CUC's, leave toiletries in your hotel (or even better give a bag of them to a random family in the back streets) to save room in your bags for rum and presents, and most importantly, take home the happy memories of a generous people that we now cherish.

PS: Although if I don't hear Guantanamera again for at least 12 months I will be happy!

Tour Guide: Dania Jomarron
Email is sandy15@correodecuba.cu
Phone: 052975250 (send her a text message telling her to check her email as internet is sporadic and expensive there so she has to go to a cafe to check it)

Restaurant La Casa 
865 30 Havana, Cuba
Phone: (0)537 881 7000

La Guarida 
418 Concordia Havana, Cuba
Phone: (0)7 866 9047

Factoria Plaza Vieja (Cervezas y maltas)
San Ignacio esq, a Muralla, Plaza Vieja Havana, Havana, Cuba