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Austvågøya

In search of the lights


View Northern Lights in Lofoten 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Laukvik

We take a quick look at the small settlement of Laukvik (where we are staying) this morning before setting out to explore the rest of Austvågøy Island.

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Misty mountains at Delp

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Right at the start of the planning stages for this trip, I did an internet search for “Northern Lights Lofoten” and images. Looking at the ones I really liked, I then tried to establish where they were taken. Photographing the northern lights requires a lot of planning, as it is not just a question of pointing the camera at the sky and pressing the shutter. I wanted a decent foreground / background, and as the lights generally appear to the north, it had to be carefully worked out. Not only do I need find a suitable scene, but also somewhere where we can stop the car and ideally for us to be able to get off the road with the tripods. Another consideration was whether or not we wanted the moon to be present – I chose half and half: present in the early evening for the first few days, while for the remainder of the trip it won't doesn't rise until later in the night. The aurora most commonly makes an appearance between 22:00 and 02:00, but of course that can vary a lot.

What we are doing today, is to physically drive around to recce the sites I have made a note of on my map. It is so much easier to check them out in daylight, then we bookmark them on the SatNav for later.

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Fiskebøll

This looks like a good place to observe and photograph the aurora from, with the beach in the foreground, sea in the middle and mountains at the back. We'll make a note of that for later.

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The further north you go, the more time the sun takes to rise (and set). As you can see, the sun hasn't made it very far up the horizon in the hour-and-a-half since the last sunrise photo I took.

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Driving towards Vestpollen

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Near Osen

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The roads in both Vesterålen and Lofoten consists of many, many tunnels and bridges, linking the numerous islands that make up this archipelago.

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The bridge at Lyngvær

We cross another bridge on to Gimsøya Island.

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Sunrise has now turned into sunset. Just like that.

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I wasn't prepared for just how grandiose and awe-inspiring the scenery would be.

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We return to base and have some dinner and chill before popping out again later to look for the lights. The forecast is good.

Northern Lights

While out for a cigarette, Lyn spots some lights in the sky and we all go and investigate. By the time we get out there, those 'lights' have turned to bright green sheets of colour swirling around the sky. Frantically grabbing our camera gear, we take a few shots right by the accommodation as we Fear that they are not going to hang around for long.

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The aurora show no signs of fading, so we move on to Morfjorden, one of the sites we bookmarked earlier in the day.

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The last stop this evening is near Fiskebøll, the beach we visited earlier. Here we have the lights in three directions with ample opportunities for different foregrounds.

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After three hours of spectacular light displays, the aurora borealis once again goes back to sleep, and we return to base to do the same. What an amazing day!

Posted by Grete Howard 15:30 Archived in Norway Tagged mountains sunset landscape beach scenery sunrise mist lofoten aurora northern_lights nordland norge arctic_circle aurora_borealis nord_norge astro_photography northern_norway nordnorge austvågøya laukvik norwsay gimsøya delp fiskebøll vestpollen osen lyngvær morfjorden Comments (4)

Langøya

Island explorations


View Northern Lights in Lofoten 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We are disappointed to find the thermometer showing around zero today, and once we leave the house we can see that the mild weather is already beginning to melt the snow.

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View from Frugga Feriehus across the harbour at Hovden.

The plan today is just to explore Langøya Island and bookmark a few possible sites for photographing the Northern Lights later should we have the opportunity. As soon as we have finished breakfast, we head off in an anticlockwise direction.

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Sandvika

A beautiful sandy bay (which is in fact the direct translation of its name) with a gorgeous beach – I bet this place gets busy in summer!

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White Tailed Sea Eagle

The excitement in the car soars when we spot an eagle sitting on some rocks. I get my camera ready and wait for him to fly off. He is a long way away, but I still want to try and capture him with my camera and long lens (plus some serious cropping when I get home).

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Eventually he flaps his wings and takes off, and only then do we realise that there are in fact two of them.

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Quarry high on the hillside

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The small settlement of Gustad - every dramatic scenery should have a red cabin or two

I am fascinated by the ice on the frozen fjord and how it cracks up with the movement of the sea.

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Sunrise

Today has been mostly grey, albeit with some dramatic clouds.

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A brief moment of sun

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And it's gone again!

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Straumsnes

Some places have more snow than others.

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In order to save money, we make sandwiches every day for lunch. That was always the plan, which is just as well, as it seems every café and restaurant in this area is closed for winter, so we would really struggle to find somewhere to eat if we didn't have our own packed lunch.

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Guvåg

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Is this Vesterålen's very own Loch Ness Monster?

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Verhalsen

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By 14:00 it is already quite dark – adding an extra layer of drama to the already impressive scenery.

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Icicles

We see more enormous icicles today, and we still find them quite extraordinary.

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I really should have included a person for scale, but these rocks are around eight feet tall.

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Avalanche Risk

With steep-sided mountains tumbling almost into the sea and just a small strip of land available for habitation, it stands to reason that these islands are at risk of avalanche during times of heavy snowfall.

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Fisheries

With such a long coastline it is only natural that this area is known for its fish and seafood. Some are wild caught and others are farmed, such as here. The last couple of days we have sampled the local delicacies with prawn and crayfish on the menu.

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It is really quite dark now, and we are making our way back to base, but we still manage to find a couple of places to pull off the road so that Lyn and I can get our tripods out and take a few last photos of the day.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:44 Archived in Norway Tagged snow beach sunrise eagle europe norway europa icicles norge loch_ness_monster nord_norge langøya northern_norway vesteralen nordnorge frugga_feriehus hovden sandvika sea_eagle gustad straumsnes guvåg verhalsen avalanche_risk fisheries Comments (3)

Tanji Beach and Bird Bath

Last morning at Tanji


View Galavanting in The Gambia 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

With no early morning bird trip booked today, we have a lie-in this morning and don't rise until 07:15. Luxury. It is also the first time in the four nights we've stayed here that we've had breakfast in the lodge.

After a lovely omelette, we go back to the room and pack for today's transfer to our next lodge, then take a long, leisurely stroll along the beach.

Tanji Beach

Tanji Bird Eco Lodge borders what could be a nice beach with a bit of TLC. As it is at the moment, it is littered with all sorts of rubbish washed up or discarded by fishermen. Other than the locals who are either using it as a short cut from one place to another, or are here to look for bait for their fishing trip; the beach is deserted.

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It could be so nice.

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The beach is suffering badly from erosion

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I was hoping to find some sea birds along the coast, but the only one we see is a lone Whimbrel.

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Instead I try my hand at some creative photography using the crashing waves as my subject.

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We return to the lodge and spend the remainder of the morning by the birding pool.

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With a drink, of course

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Black Necked Weaver enjoying a splash in the bird bath

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Red Eyed Dove

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Village Weaver

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African Silverbill

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African Silverbill

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Common Bulbul

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Black Necked Weaver

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Western Bluebill

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Pied Crow

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Red Billed Firefinch

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Common Wattle Eye

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Agama Lizard

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Western Red Billed Hornbill

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White Crowned Robin Chat

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Red Bellied Paradise Flycatcher

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Yellow Throated Leaflove

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Snowy Crowned Robin Chat

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A Green Vervet Monkey tries to muscle in on the scene too

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Bronze Mannikins

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Red Cheeked Cordon Blue

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Grey Headed Bristlebill

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Senegal Coucal

Lunch

During our long chat with Haddy yesterday, we were asked what time we would like to arrange the transfer from Tanji to Bakotu for today. As we love it so much here, we decided we'd like to have one last lunch at this place before moving on.

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Fish and chips

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One last coffee under our favourite umbrella

It is always hard to say goodbye when you have been treated like part of the family as we have here. Spending four nights in the same hotel is rather unusual for us, so we have really got to know the staff quite well.

The driver who picks us up for the transfer is the most miserable Gambian we have met to date, and a poor driver to boot. His driving style is jerky and aggressive and he travels much too close to the vehicle in front. Thankfully the journey to Bakotu only takes half an hour.

Posted by Grete Howard 06:49 Archived in Gambia Tagged beach monkey waves rubbish crow lunch lizard birding trash coffee erosion pollution flycatcher dove fish_and_chips west_africa weaver bulbul finch gambia omelette bird_watching hornbill eco_lodge coucal cordon_bleu the_gambia tanji robin_chat bristlebill cordon_blue mannikin firefinch tanji_bird_eco_lodge bluebill leaflove tanji_beah creative_photography slow_shutter_speed silverbill wattle_eye verver_monkey saying_goodbye Comments (3)

The Empty Quarter

Rub' Al Khali


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

It looks to be another nice day out there. No chance of rain.

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Today we are leaving civilisation behind and travelling out to the fabled Empty Quarter, or Rub' Al Khali, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world and one of the driest regions; virtually uninhabited, and largely unexplored. I have high expectations for today as we set off with a different guide, also called Issa, heading north.

Once we have climbed over the mountains surrounding Salalah, the road is straight and flat, with very little interest either side. This road carries on for 650kms to Nizwa, through vast expanses of nothing.

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At the edge of the desert Issa lowers the tyre pressure to cope with the soft sand. The vehicle has been specially modified with roll over bars fitted for safety. I am hoping for some exhilarating 'dune bashing' today.

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Camel Farm

Our first stop of the day is a camel farm to see the rare, and much sought-after black camels who are only found here, Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. Another first for us.

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The baby is only two or three days old

The place is swarming with flies.

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Rub Al Khali

We are now entering the Empty Quarter and soon the gravel road turns to sand and we start to see some dunes.

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I am surprised at how many small shrubs grow in the sand dunes. So far it doesn't have a particularly 'empty' feel to it.

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Despite a number of strategically placed rubbish bins along the side of the track, trash gets caught on vegetation as it blows around in the wind.

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The scenery is dominated by long, linear dunes running parallel to the prevailing winds. Between these are crescent-shaped barchan dunes, and large, firm salt flats called sabkahs, which is what we are driving on.

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The dunes are getting slightly higher now as we drive deeper into the wilderness.

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Issa takes a couple of attempts to drive up a steep-sided sand dune and then swings around and follows the ridge before heading directly back down again. After a couple more swirls on the dunes, he stops the car so that we can get out and stretch our legs. Walking in the soft sand is hard going though.

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We are only just touching on the very edge of this enormous desert, the world's largest erg (sand sea) at 583,000 km². That's about the size of France. To me it is totally incomprehensible to imagine an area the size of France covered in sand.

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Just like Wahiba Sands, Rub' Al Khali is popular with young lads and families on the weekend, coming out here to have a BBQ and maybe try their hand at some serious desert driving. You can see several failed attempts at driving up this sand dune.

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As we make our way back to civilisation, I am left with a feeling of “Is that it?” The dunes are all very nice, but I don't feel any of the mystery and romance that I expected. It all feels like it is just a 'tourist day trip into the desert', which of course, is exactly what it is.

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The ever-present tyre tracks don't help, and neither do the several other tourist vehicles we meet.

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Wubar Archeaological Site

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At the edge of the desert, near Wadi Thumrait and a small settlement of the same name, is the UNESCO Heritage Site of Wubar (AKA Shisr), believed to be the remains of the Lost City of Ubar, often referred to as the Atlantis of the Desert.

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Wubar was the 'door to the desert' in the heyday of the frankincense trade, a prosperous and wealthy caravan oasis; until the desert once more swallowed it up and it remained hidden for centuries.

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A 180° Audio Vision display in the newly built visitor centre shows the fascinating and moralistic story of how man's greed once again ruined the environment by overuse of water.

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The site, however, is way older than that, and evidence found here suggests it dates back to 5000 BC.

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Thumrait Palace Restaurant

We stop for lunch near the site, and enjoy some chicken nuggets, chicken fried rice, vegetables in a sauce, bread and salad along with some delicious fresh mint juice. It makes a nice change not to have the typical Indian fare for once.

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Wadi Dokah

On the way back to Salalah, we swing by Wadi Dokah to see the frankincense plantations. This national park is a stony semi-desert valley and a perfect habitat for the 1,257 frankincense trees found here.

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Issa shows us the proper tool for shaving the tree to get the sap flowing, although we don't actually use it, of course.

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As we make our way over the Dhofar Mountains and on to Salalah, I can but notice that Issa has a most unusual driving position, with his left leg tucked under his body.

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Pool / Beach time

We dump our stuff in the room and head for the beach. As we make our way through the reception, a young man appears from one side, making a beeline for me with his arms outstretched. “Baby, hello, I love you, you are beautiful...” Reaching out towards me he gently caresses my camera. We get chatting and it turns out he is the in-house photographer and does indeed have camera-envy.

We leave the photographer behind and spend the rest of the afternoon / evening walking along the beach, around the pool and in the little café.

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The hotel has a beautiful private beach that stretches around the bay in a crescent shape, with plenty of activities laid on if you are into that sort of thing. We're not.

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At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I have to admit that this five-star luxury and fabulous mini-suite is all well and good; but give me a small, rustic hotel or lodge any day. This place is much too big for my liking, there are too many people, and I hate buffets with a passion. I prefer a small privately-owned place, where maybe the owner is the chef and you eat what they have that day. Something more personal where you get to know the staff and there are just a handful of guests. I don't need luxury, I want authenticity. In a large fancy hotel like this you could be anywhere in the world.

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It is not really a complaint though, just a personal preference. I understand that there are no such hotels in this region, the middle market is sadly lacking accommodation. The rest of this trip has been fault-less, and I yet again Undiscovered Destinations have done us proud. Thank you for organising this trip (and several more in the past and in the future).

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:13 Archived in Oman Tagged desert beach hotel sunrise sand pool unesco luxury camels dunes national_park sand_dunes erg unesco_heritage_site frankincense salalah camel_farm empty_quarter rub_al_khali wadi_dawkah thumrait deser archaeological_park anicent_city wubar ubar shisr al-fanar five_star Comments (2)

Mosque, Museum, Souk, Ayoub's Tomb, Mughsail blowhole

A busy, varied and interesting day


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Wandering bleary-eyed onto the balcony at 07:30 this morning, we are amazed to see that all the sunbeds around the pool are still free. There is not a single 'reserved towel' to be seen. How very refreshing.

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We also discover that we have a much larger balcony than most of the other rooms. I really like the design of the hotel, with lots of angles and variety of architecture, rather than just a square block. Our balcony is covered, but it seems not all of them are. So far we are very impressed with this hotel, despite not being keen on large resorts.

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Breakfast

Breakfast is an elaborate affair, with an enormous choice of dishes: cereal, breads and conserves, salads, fruits, Middle Eastern and Continental selections, Indian cuisine, waffle machine, sandwich toaster and a number of chefs on hand to cook eggs how you like them or fry pancakes amongst other things.

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The hotel has 308 rooms and caters to guests of all nationalities. We hear English, German, French, Italian, Czech, Russian, Swedish, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, American and Icelandic spoken during our stay. Package tours are available directly from Prague and a couple of different German airports; I guess the rest are independent travellers like us.

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Salalah

We have no time to enjoy the many facilities of the hotel this morning, however, as we are off to explore Salalah and the surrounding area. We meet with Issa, our local guide, in the reception at 08:30.

On the way we see a huge herd of camels just ambling along the side of the road. As they do.

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Sultan Qaboos Mosque

This is the baby sister of the Grand Mosque in Muscat, constructed in 2008 using the Sultan's own money.

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The mosque is not on the same grand scale as the its big brother, but still very impressive, with a capacity of 3200 men and 800 women.

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Having studied photography in Melbourne, Issa is very keen that I should get some good pictures and not only does he suggest the best positions to be in, he also poses willingly for photographs. I like him already.

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Ablutions room

Having been told yesterday that the Grand Mosque is the only one in Oman to allow non-Muslins inside, we are pleasantly surprised to go inside this one today. But first, shoes must come off.

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The chandelier is a poor cousin of the glorious one we saw yesterday. It is still impressive though, or at least would have been if we had visited this mosque first.

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The carpet, although just one single piece, is not hand made like the one in Muscat.

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Renovations are taking place, with the ceiling being painted using an elaborate hoist.

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Most of the time we have the place to ourselves, but just as we are leaving a large tour bus arrives. I am so glad we are on a private tour.

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Fruit Stall

The streets around Al Haffa are lined with roadside stalls selling fresh fruit. Oman being predominately desert and mountains, fresh tropical fruits such as bananas and coconut are mostly imported. Only here in the Dhofar region is fruit grown commercially, and the area is famous for its fresh produce.

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Pomegranates

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Papaya

There are a number of different types of bananas in Oman – green ones for cooking, finger-bananas for milk and the sweet yellow ones for eating.

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The main reason for stopping here, however, is to have a refreshing coconut drink. The Dhofar region is the only place on the Arabian peninsula where coconuts are grown, so they are a bit of a celebrity here.

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The hairy variety are used for cooking and making oil, whereas the smooth-skinned coconuts are the ones that produce the water for drinking.

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Once we have finished the lovely juice inside, the stallholder cuts the coconut open for us and scoops out the flesh.

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I love coconut milk, but the jelly-like texture of the flesh makes my stomach turn.

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Khawr Ad Dahariz

We make a short detour down to a little lagoon known for its birding. As soon as he was given our names for guiding us for the couple of days we are here, Issa googled us to see what he could find. Being the only Grete Howard in the world with that specific spelling, combined with the fact that I have a very high presence on the internet (Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Twitter, 500px, Pinterest, and of course this blog amongst others), I was easy to find. His results revealed that I am interested in bird photography so he even brought along a gorgeous bird book for me to peruse.

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Large flocks (AKA stands or flamboyances) of flamingos are often seen in the shallow waters here, but today there are only a few and they are a considerable distance away.

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The flamingos may be a disappointment, but this Water Pipit more than makes up for it. A new species to us, it takes our life list ever-nearer to the magic 1000 mark (now standing at 927).

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Museum of the Frankincense Land

Sadly, this wonderful museum does not allow photography inside. I will try and describe some of the displays without sounding like a guide book.

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A topographic map of the Dhofar region (the area around Salalah) shows the the low-lying coastal area, mountains that surround the city and the desert that stretches over large parts of the Arabian peninsula. There is also a selction of samples of the various coloured sands found in this area.

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Frankincense trees in the grounds of the museum.

The growth of human habitation in the area is shown in a chronological display from early stone age to present time, including examples of coins and jewellery.

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The courtyard of the museum

Trade between Oman and the rest of the world is described including replicas of ships used and maps detailing the routes taken.

The museum is quite small but very well laid out and extremely interesting. There is much more to it than I explained above, but those are the exhibits that caught my imagination the most.

Al Haffa Beach

From the museum we drive along the pristine white sands of Al Haffa beach.

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Al Husn Souk

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Ever since we arrived in Oman I have been intrigued by the frankincense. A completely new experience to us, which is not surprising as it only grows in a very few areas of the world: Oman, Yemen, Somalia and parts of Ethiopia. It still amazes me though, that we can have new experiences every trip, even after all the travel we have done over the years.

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Frankincense comes in three different grades as you can see here.

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Their uses including burning on special incense burners, something we have seen all over Oman; making perfume; a drink can be made leaving three of the best 'stones' in water for 24 hours; sweets and so on.

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When we leave the market, a group of older men shout out friendly greetings from the outdoor café. As I squeeze by their table, the nearest man grabs my arm, then my waist and his hand rapidly makes its way across my tummy and further south. I shout out “la” several times (Arabic for “no”), remove his hand and walk on. The other men at the table are terribly apologetic. No real harm done, it was just another one of those 'Trump Moments' (“grab 'em by the *****”) #metoo

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Prophet Ayoub's Tomb

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There is a wonderful story attached to this place, and I do love a good legend: Ayoub (Job) was very ill and was suffering from a worm infestation that repulsed everyone who knew him. Because of this, he was driven from his home in Syria, having to leave everything behind: his wealth, his 12 children and one of his wives. Only his second wife stood by him.

Despite all his hardship, Ayoub never lost his faith and every day he would pray. He and his wife walked for many days and many nights until they arrived in Dhofar where we are now. Life was still hard and his wife cut off all her hair to sell so they could buy food. He still prayed like a good faithful servant. Eventually, fearful of yet again being rejected by everyone around him and feeling very tired with his illness – after all, he was 250 years old at this stage – he prayed to god for some relief.

Impressed that he had stayed faithful all through his troubles, god told him to go outside and kick the ground in a specific place. When Ayoub did so, a spring appeared from the ground and he was instructed to drink from it. His illness was immediately cured and his health restored to that of an 18-year old. He also regained his wealth and went on to have two more children.

Outside the mosque we can still see his footprint in the ground where he kicked up water, preserved by a simple stone enclosure.
Judging by the size of the footprint (some 18” or more long) and the casket in the tomb, he was a giant of a man.

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In the courtyard is a mirhab facing towards Mecca, and also a prayer wall in the direction of Jerusalem.

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Lunch

Back in civilisation again we stop for lunch in a curry house appropriately known as The Curry, where we have a private 'family room' (where families can eat together as women are not permitted to eat in the same room as men you are related to them).

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Their butter chicken is absolutely scrumptious, and there is also fish and vegetables, vegetable korma and biriyani. This really is one of the best meals so far in Oman, absolutely superb.

Frankincense

As I said earlier, this tree and its products is totally new to us, and I am really excited to learn all about it this afternoon.

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The Boswellia sacra trees are well known for their ability to grow in unforgiving climates and soil and have been traded on the Arabian peninsula for over 1000 years.

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To extract the resin, the bark of this scraggy tree is shaved, letting the juices run free and left to dry on the branch. 15 days later it is shaved again, and this is repeated once more. The third shave produces the best quality of frankincense.

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Providing the tree is properly managed and not over-exploited, it should last around 100 years.

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Each tree can produce between three and five kilo of resin per season. Harvesting generally starts after the khareef (rainy season). After harvesting, the resin is spread out on the ground to dry.

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Mughsail Beach

We stop for a photo on this pretty little beach.

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Marneef Cave

As per Wikipedia, the definition of a cave is “A cave or cavern is a hollow place in the ground, especially a natural underground space large enough for a human to enter”. By that description, Marneef is not a cave in the true sense of the word, or at least not these days. Who knows what the cave was like thousands of years ago, when the hollow in the soft limestone was first carved out of the sea.

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I am certainly glad of the numerous benches that offer shade from the fierce afternoon sun.

Mughsail Blow Hole

This area is famous for three things: the beach, cave and blow holes. This time of year they are not too active, but I hang around in the shade of the cave and am eventually rewarded with a performance.

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The 'tourist fountain' is created when waves hit the roof of an underwater cave and squirt through a hole in the roof of the cave. The coastline here is rocky and craggy, offering some wonderful views.

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From Mughsail it is time to return to Salalah and our hotel. Arriving so late last night, we didn't get a lot of sleep, so we just have a quick drink and a few snacks in the room followed by a very early night.

Yet again our thanks go to Undiscovered Destinations who have arranged this fabulous trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:30 Archived in Oman Tagged beach religion cave job camels islam souk souq blowhole frankincense sultan_qaboos_mosque al_fanar_hotel salalah ayoub's_tomb prophet_ayoub ayoub prophet_job al_husn_souk al_husn haffa haffa_beach mughsail blow_holes marneef_cave mughsayl mushgail_beach mughsayl_beach tombmosque Comments (3)

Ras al Jinz - Wadi Bani Khalid - Wahiba Sands

From turtles on the beach to a gorgeous oasis and finally a fabulous desert.


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Bleary-eyed, we drag ourselves out of bed when the alarm goes off at 04:10 this morning in order to get down to the beach for the sunrise and hopefully see some more turtles.

Unlike last night, this morning's excursion is only available to hotel guests, so thankfully there are nowhere near as many people as there were last night. Today's walk is further than yesterday, however, as the one remaining turtle is further down the beach; and it is still dark when we reach the nesting site. The turtle is just finishing off covering her eggs with sand when we get there.

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The sunrise is a little disappointing (especially as this is the most easterly point on the Arabian peninsula I was expecting a little more), but the surreal rock formations along this stretch of the beach more than make up for it.

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As soon as it is light, the turtle makes an awkward dash back to sea, having deposited her eggs on the same beach she was born on many years ago.

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Back to the hotel for breakfast and then meet up with Said, our guide, for the today's journey. Having been up so early, we sleep most of the way, but wake up as Said takes a turning off the main road, into the mountains again.

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Our hotel seen from the track leading up from the beach.

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Said turns off the main road up this track

Wadi Bani Khalid

At the top of the hill, Said stops the car for the view over the bleak and desolate landscape. The scenery may be barren and harsh, but it has a stark and austere beauty to it that totally mesmerises me.

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Said beckons for us to walk to the edge of the cliff (my fear of heights has kept me well back so far), and tells us to look at the crack in the plateau. Our eyes follow the canyon down and then we see it. Wow! There, nestled on the valley floor, is the most picture-perfect oasis: Wadi Bani Khalid.

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After taking our photos from above, we drive back down to the oasis and walk from the car park along the felaj (ever-present irrigation channels) to reach the stunning pools of iridescent aquamarine water.

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The water is unbelievably clear and glistens in various shades of blue and green under the bright sunlight. Apparently this place is extremely popular on weekends, and I can see why.

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Said relaxes in one of the many pavilions that dot the area around the emerald-green pools.

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The pools are fed year-round by a stream making its way down through the crack we saw in the Hajar Mountains. This is known as Oman's most beautiful wadi, and for good reason.

Lunch

In the town of the same name, we stop at a small restaurant for lunch. As my stomach is still very much playing up, I just order a plate of hummous and some bread, while David chooses a schwarma. Said, of course, has his usual mountain of rice.

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And, no, this is not water from the oasis, but a refreshing minty drink.

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Back in the car, I doze until we reach the small town of Bidir, where we lower the tyre pressure on the car for the journey into the desert (plus pick up a tow rope, 'just in case').

Wahiba Sands

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Suddenly the tarmacked road ends, rather abruptly, and we continue on a reasonable track of compacted sand. “This used to be like a washboard” Said says, and explains that the camps come out occasionally with heavy machinery to create new 'roads' in the sand.

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This vast expanse of perfectly formed rolling sand dunes stretches 200 miles from North to South and is named after the local Wahiba tribe who still spend their winters in the desert tending to their camels before migrating to the coast in the heat of summer.

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Other than the tourists camps, there are no permanent settlements in this hauntingly empty swathe of sand, featuring towering dunes, reaching almost 100m in places, sculpted by the wind into delicately moulded crests and hollows.

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Every now and again Said makes a detour off the main track, shimmying up the soft dunes and back down again.

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1000 Nights Camp

Nestled comfortably on the valley floor, this is one of a handful of tourist camps in this area, surrounded by nothing but sand with high dunes either side.

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Just outside the gates, an old truck is partially buried in the sand.

The car park is almost full as we arrive (being a Thursday, it's the eve of the weekend here, with most locals having Friday and Saturday off), with almost every car being a self-drive 4x4.

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We are greeted with a refreshing wet towel in reception and after the usual formalities an electric golf buggy takes us and the cases to our room.

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The rooms are fashioned on the traditional goat wool Bedouin tents but with a touch of modern comfort.

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The camp is nicely spread out in amongst mature trees, with four levels of accommodation: basic Arabic tents with no bathroom facilities; the Sheikh tents that we are in with attached open-air bathroom; luxury glass-sided Ameer tents with A/C; and lastly, two-storey brick-built Sand Houses.

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Also on site is a large restaurant, a snack-bar on board a wooden boat and a swimming pool.

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Restaurant

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Traditional seating area

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The snack-bar

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Swimming pool

With no A/C, the temperature is almost the same inside the tent as it is outside: 32 °C.

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Sunset from the dunes

After a quick change, we leave the camp behind and head for a bit of fun on the dunes with Said. Seeing a group of lads just outside the gates, crowding around a wreck of a car that has obviously been 'rolled' doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. I check that my seatbelt is properly fastened before we tackle the off-roading.

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As we race up the steep-sided dunes, large amounts of sand gets thrown about, and the car slides around like a ballerina on ice. Great fun!
Here, on top of the dunes, the wind is quite ferocious, sandblasting everything in sight (including us and the cameras). No wonder these dunes are constantly on the move, shifting inland at a rate of 10m per year.

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There is a definite driving skill involved in scaling the soft dunes, and Said makes it effortlessly to the top every time, unlike these Germans in a self-drive car. The secret is to keep the speed high and the tyre pressure low.

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After trying unsuccessfully to free their car, which is stuck half way up the dune, the tourists walk back to camp to recruit a local expert to help them out. The local guy gets the car out of the pickle without too much trouble, then shows off as he reaches the crest of the dune: taking off and landing awkwardly, dislocating the bumper of the car. Oops. Having finally reached the top, the Germans join us to watch the sunset, and we have a good laugh with them. The ridge is in fact full of tourists waiting to see the sun go down over the desert.

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These people seem to have brought a picnic

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Strangely enough, as soon as the sun goes down, the wind drops. We head back to camp, driving straight down the dune in front of us. Eeek!
What a fantastic way to finish another eventful and exciting day! Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for organising this fabulous Oman trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:01 Archived in Oman Tagged mountains turtles oasis desert sunset beach travel scenery sunrise valley sand camp camping dunes sand_dunes wadi glamping bedouin middle_east hajar_mountains wahiba_sands ras_al_jinz wadi_bani_khalid hajjar_mountains natural_pools wahiba sunset_over_the_dunes off-roading dune_bashing 1000_nights_camp desert_camp Comments (2)

Free Day in Anjouan

Chilling in the hotel

During breakfast we have a chat with the two British guys and an American girl from the US Peace Corps, who have all been stranded on the island for the last couple of days as a result of the flights being grounded and the ferry not operating due to bad weather.

One of the men has an international flight connection tomorrow morning, and is getting a little concerned that he will miss it. If he has to make other arrangements and stay longer on the islands, he would be struggling, as he has very little cash left and, a very low credit limit on his credit card, and no easy way of getting hold of more cash. While I sympathise with his predicament, it does seem to be a rather irresponsible situation to leave yourself in, especially in a place like Comoros where spanners can – and will – be thrown in the works. He is very well travelled, trying to get to all the countries in Africa before he dies, so I find it all rather odd. I heard Patrice advice him yesterday that they should leave here at 06:00 this morning and go to the airport to sit there all day hoping for a ‘window of opportunity’. “Oh, I won’t be around that early, can you make it 07:30?” he asked Patrice. I find that even more odd – if I was worried about missing my international connection, sleeping in would be the last thing on my mind; I would want to be first in that queue at the airport.

Anyway, we see them all go off this morning, feeling hopeful for a seat on the small 9-seater plane that is flying a shuttle service between Anjouan and Moroni today.

When Patrice arrives, he collects our passports, and after he has taken the others to the airport, he will go and try to and get ferry tickets for us for tomorrow. He tells us he has spoken to the boat captain already this morning, who has assured him that there will be a sailing tomorrow. Inshallah.

Walk?

The area around the hotel is lacking in places of interest or even scenic beauty, with piles of rubble and heaps of trash lining the roads.

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It is too hot to have a longer walk further afield, so we decide to spend the day chilling in the hotel.

Al Amal Hotel

Not being very good at ‘chilling’, I wander around the hotel grounds to look for something to photograph. Anything. Maybe some good macro work? Or an interesting insect?

Nope. The hotel grounds are what you might call sparse. There is no outdoor furniture, no benches, nowhere to sit and enjoy the scenery. It’s pretty bare and rather bleak. I assume this was once a thriving terrace with a cafeteria, tables, chairs, and umbrellas; with stimulating conversation, subdued laughter, iced drinks and colourful cocktails… In the heyday of the hotel maybe? Did it ever have a heyday? I find it hard to imagine.

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I walk around the other side of the building to find the few flowers that do dot the grounds.

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And the scrawny looking local cat, eyeing me suspiciously.

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I do find a sparrow and a carpenter bee as well.

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Even lizards are in short supply.

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To say the hotel is run down is an understatement. It has certainly seen better days and could do with a spot of refurbishment and lots of TLC, but these days Comoros is such a poverty stricken country with tourism being almost non-existent, so I doubt if they are able to spare money for doing the hotel up.

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The entrance to the hotel from the car park

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The reception area to the left and the restaurant straight on.

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The restaurant

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The outside dining area

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The corridor leading to the rooms

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The fusebox on the landing

Swimming Pool

There is a fairly large swimming pool, and a small paddling pool, but no water. I am guessing it is not financially feasible to maintain a full pool with just a handful of tourists (just four at the moment).

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David decides to do a dry run anyway.

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Beach

With no water in the pool, maybe we should try the beach. There is a gate in one corner of the grounds, but it is locked. Which means going up the steep hill to the main road, through the sports stadium and down a series of steep steps to get to the beach. In your swimwear. No thank you.

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Fishing

We watch the fishermen for a while, working in teams of four, with one man in the boat, throwing out the nets, with the other three in the water, splashing around to frighten the fish into the net.

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Chilling on the balcony

Having exhausted the ‘leisure facilities’ in the hotel, we go to chill in the room. The bedroom is the only place with A/C (or at least some of them have), but there is no wifi, or chairs; the restaurant has wifi, but no A/C or comfortable chairs; the reception has comfy seating but no wifi or A/C. We grab a couple of chairs from the restaurant and sit on the balcony for a while in the shade.

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We brought some bubbles with us to play with the local kids, but haven’t seen any children around, so David has to play with himself.

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Sporting my 400mm lens, I do manage to capture a couple of birds from the balcony.

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Common Myna Birds

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Pied Crow

Tripadvisor

You know you are in a fairly obscure place, when even Tripadvisor is confused about where Anjouan is, showing a photo from Ait Benhaddou in Morocco on their site for the island.

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This hotel, despite being the 'best on the island', is not even listen on Trip Advisor. Yet. I have tried to add it and written a review so hopefully it should show soon. .

Even David’s mobile phone seems to have doubts about this place.

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Lunch

The restaurant is calling, as much for the wifi as for the food: with little to choose from, we have another chicken sandwich. Considering there is only the two of us in the restaurant, I am somewhat surprised that the sandwiches take 45 minutes to arrive. Not that we are in a hurry, quite the opposite.

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Patrice arrives with our passports and tickets for the ferry tomorrow. This looks promising. He tells us the others are still waiting at the airport, with a glimmer of hope for a seat on the plane this afternoon.

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The rest of afternoon is spent just chilling, a little siesta, a short walk, some internet time, a drink (non-alcoholic) in the bar… The usual stuff.

Dinner

This evening they have vanilla, but no lobster, so I have to make do with chicken in vanilla sauce. It is absolutely delicious. David has another pizza.

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Later Patrice joins us for a drink and confirms that the one British guy who has an international flight tomorrow morning did get away today, but not until 18:00 this evening. Once the pilot had finished his scheduled flights for the day, he took some of those passengers who were most desperate to go to Moroni in his nine-seater plane, charging them €160 per person. That still has to be worth it to save all the hassle associated with missing your international flight.

As it is still too early to go to bed, I attempt some astrophotography in the grounds of the hotel. There is too much light pollution to be successful, but I have a go anyway. At least we can see the Milky Way quite clearly.

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As soon as we get back to the room, we both complain of feeling nauseous. Some ten minutes later, David starts vomiting violently, followed almost immediately by me. Oh dear.

I go to bed, hoping that having got rid of the content that was bothering my stomach, it will settle it down now. No such luck. I still feel terribly nauseous. Half an hour later I also have diarrhoea. Followed almost immediately by David. It is one of those cases where you don’t know whether to sit on the toilet or kneel in front of it. Thankfully, our urgent bathroom visits do not clash at any time, but they do go on throughout the night. 27 times to be exact, and yes, I am counting.

By around 2 am there is no more water in the tank to flush the toilet, so we start using the reserve from the buckets. By 4am this has run out too. So has our drinking water. If we weren’t already feeling nauseous, we certainly want to be sick as soon as we enter the pungent bathroom. We both feel like wet rags that have been wrung out and turned inside out. We try to get some sleep, but really only doze. Vomiting doesn’t bring any respite or relief from the dreadful nausea, it is constant and overwhelming.

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The buckets in the bathroom. You will be grateful to know that there is no photographic evidence of tonight's experiences.

Food poisoning is all we need for tomorrow’s ferry crossing back to Moroni. Right now I just want to be able to say “Beam us up Scotty” and be transported to home. I eventually drift off into a restless slumber.

This adventure was arranged by Undiscovered Destinations, specialists in trips to unusual places.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:17 Archived in Comoros Tagged water fishing beach hotel flight cat crow ta lizard chilling swimming_pool run_down frangipani decay passports runs bubbles astro sickness stomach tummy trip_advisor comoros nausea milky_way food_poisoning moroni anjouan al_amal_hotel mutsamudu chicken_sandwich hibiscus vanilla_sauce astrophotography diarrhoea Comments (2)

Dar es Salaam - Moroni (Comoros)

We're here!


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

Much as I love Tanzania, this trip is something totally different. Today we are continuing to the small island nation of Comoros.

“Comoros? Where’s that?” has been the common refrain when I tell people where I am going.

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Nestled between Madagascar to the east and Mozambique on the African mainland to the west, Comoros consists of three major islands: Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani) and Moheli (Mwali). Internationally, the islands are known by their French names, and I have added the local Comorian names in parentheses.

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It’s not exactly all the rage

The reason you haven’t heard of Comoros lies largely at the door of its total lack of commercial tourism, unlike that which its neighbours Mauritius and Seychelles close by ‘enjoy’ (or endure, whichever side of the fence you are). According to the Tourist Office, the islands receive fewer than 3,000 visitors each year (the last data I could find was from 2011, when 2,497 tourists entered the country). To put things into perspective, the Seychelles received 36,000 tourists in April this year alone.

As described by an online travel deal comparator promoting the islands: “Not many tourists travel to Comoros in the Indian Ocean and for good reason: there is regular seismic activity on top of great political instability”.

Cloud Coup Coup Land

Affectionately known as ‘Cloud Coup Coup Land’ as a result of its numerous (more than twenty) coups d’états since its independence in 1975, with various heads of state assassinated. Subsequent instability has left the small archipelago desperately poor (said to be the third poorest country in the world), unsurprisingly corrupt, and relatively untouched. It has an unemployment rate of 80% and it is believed that around 50% of the population live below the poverty line of US1 a day; and unfortunately it has few natural resources with which to recover its failing economy.

Dar es Salaam - Moroni

Anyway, back to today’s journey.

We are up at the crack of dawn this morning for a 5am pick up for the transfer to the airport. The journey that took well in excess of an hour last night in the terrible traffic, takes us a mere 20 minutes this morning.

Check in

We approach the Air Tanzania check-in desk with trepidation, and hand over our passports. The young girl types away on her computer and we are asked to place our bags on the scales. This is looking promising. My heart sinks, however, when she asks: “Are you travelling with Air Tanzania?” I hand over the original e-ticket plus the email and explain that we were originally booked on the Precisionair flight this morning which has been cancelled and that they informed us we have been re-booked with Air Tanzania instead (see yesterday’s blog for the full explanation). "Ah, that's why I can't find you on my system" she confirms. I hold my breath, waiting for the rejection and expecting her to pass the buck and tell us to go and sort it with Precisionair. She doesn’t. She calls them herself and asks us to sit down and wait while she sorts it out.

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We sit and we wait. And we wait, and then we wait some more. After around 30 minutes the supervisor comes over to tell us “it is being sorted”.

One hour. I go and ask. The supervisor tells me: “It is all confirmed, we are waiting for the second paper to be completed. Just sit down and relax.” I sit down. And relax. Sort of.

We eat the packed breakfast the hotel provided us with while we wait. And wait. And wait some more.

20 minutes before the departure of the flight and 2½ hours after we first checked in, we finally have boarding cards!

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Passport control is very slow, leaving us no time to buy any rum in the Duty Free as we go straight on to the plane.

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As we climb high and leave the metropolis of Dar es Salaam behind, I am looking forward to lazy days on tropical beaches in this ‘hidden paradise’.

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I am surprised to be served a small snack on the short flight – it is only about one hour and 20 minutes long.

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It’s not long before we spot the peaks of Comoros’ highest point, Mt Karthala in the distance.

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The origin of the name Comoros comes from the name given to the islands by an Arab geographer in the Middle Ages: Djazair al ‘Qamar’, which translated into English means Moon Islands. It is said that the first Arabs who arrived in the archipelago were enthralled by the lunar-like landscape caused by petrified lava on the pure white sand of the beaches. Looking down on the coastline below, I can see what they mean.

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Soon we are approaching the small runway of Prince Said Ibrahim Airport in Moroni (I have no idea how this airport got its three letter code HAH).

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At immigration there are two forms to fill in, and my Norwegian passport seems to cause a bit of a stir, with the official calling her supervisor over to check it out. She speaks no English, I speak almost no French and even less Comorian. She keeps repeating “Visa! Visa!” I am not sure if she means I should have obtained a visa before travelling or that she is going to issue me with a visa.

It turns out to be the latter.

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I am very impressed they manage to produce a sticky-backed printed visa complete with my picture right here in the little immigration booth. She even asks me which page of my passport I would like it stuck on. There isn’t much choice in my case, as I only have one single spare page left in my passport; the rest is full with stamps and visas.

After a cursory luggage check in the Customs area, find ourselves outside in the sun looking for someone carrying a sign with our name on it. Again. We look around, nothing. Again. Neither of our mobile phones seems to work here in the Comoros, something we were warned about, so we are unable to call our guide or the office. Hovering by the exit for a few minutes soon attracts the local taxi touts, one of whom speaks a little English. He is thankfully not persistent and we chat to him for a while, explaining that we have someone coming to meet us from a local agency. When, after around 20 minutes or so, our pick-up still hasn’t arrived, he kindly uses his own mobile phone and rings the telephone number we have been given for the local agent’s office. It goes through to an answering machine. He then tries the number the agent supplied for the local guide we are to have for the duration of our stay here, Mr Akim. Success. David talks to Mr Akim and explains that we are waiting at the airport for him. Mr Akim is somewhat perplexed, and stutters as he laments: “I didn’t know you were coming… I am nowhere near the airport…” He sounds genuinely concerned (and extremely confused) and asks us where we are staying. “Take a taxi to the hotel… but the hotel is not booked…” We are both feeling a little tense and rather uneasy by this stage, wondering what else can go wrong, and if this trip is maybe jinxed in some way

Out of the corner of my eye I spot a chap walking purposefully directly towards us, and in his hands I can see a sign “Grete & David Howard”. He introduces himself as Yahaya, and is full of apologies for being late. Great! First a feeling of relief, then confusion. Oh. So, if this is our guide, who is the person we are talking to on the phone?

(It later transpires that the local agent had arranged another guide for us, but didn’t let us, or Undiscovered Destinations, who we booked the trip through, know)

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Waiting for the car at the airport

The car boot is not big enough to take both the bags and close as well, so we drive along with the boot lid open. It doesn’t really matter: these are not fast roads.

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But first we must get the car started. It fires, turns and then dies. Time after time, again and again. We, and the luggage, get out of the car in order to access the spare battery the driver keeps in the boot, and the tools under the rear seat. This is obviously a regular occurrence.

As we approach the capital, we hit a huge, slow-moving traffic jam. “There is a strike,” says the girl whose name I heard as Malika and David thinks is Monica. We take a short cut through some badly pot-holed back streets, and stop at a small shop that doubles as a money changer.

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Pretty beach outside Moroni, the capital

National Museum

On the way to the hotel we stop for a visit to the small, but reasonably interesting National Museum.

All the Comoros islands were created at various times as a result of volcanic activity on the seabed resulting in each of the islands having a distinct topographical characteristic as a result of their different ages.

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Volcanic stones

According to pre-Islamic mythology, however, a jinn (spirit) dropped a jewel, which formed a great circular inferno. This became the Karthala volcano, which created the island of Grande Comore.

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A cross section of the earth, showing Mt Karthala, the still-active volcano on Grand Comore

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Pottery shards

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Coelacanth - the fish thought to be extinct for millions of years until it was re-discovered here in Comoros in 1938

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Pufferfish

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Whale skull

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Shells

A few bedraggled and sad looking stuffed birds

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Caspian Tern

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Common Ringed Plover

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Comoro Blue Pigeon

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Drums and other musical instruments

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Various pots and containers

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Oil lamp - usually whale oil was used

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Outrigger canoe - the museum guide explains that he was a fisherman himself, using one of these for many years; much to his father’s disappointment, as he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become an Imam.

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Sugar cane crusher. The juice is later turned into 'honey'.

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Items made from the coconut palm - no part of the plant is wasted

Medina

Walking down through the Medina (old market) of Moroni, we cause quite a stir. There is lots of laughter, pointing and many shy smiles, plus a few requests for us to take them back to England with us. Tourists are a rarity here.

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Fruit and vegetables

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Beans

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Chillies

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Onions

Many Comorians believe that having their photograph taken will bestow them with bad luck, so I am therefore very surprised when this lady actively wants to have her picture taken with me. Don’t you just love the look on the face of the woman behind though?

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Butcher

This lady not just asks us to photograph her young daughter, she begs us to take the child back to England to “give her a better life”.

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I am not sure the girl, however, is equally enthralled with that idea.

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Some more images from the market:

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Shoes

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Tailor

Also in the Medina, behind these elaborate doors, is the palace once used by the last prince of Comoros.

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The Old Town

We continue through the maze of narrow alleyways in Moroni Old Town.

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Similar in many ways to Zanzibar’s Stone Town (they share a lot of history and culture), the old town has many beautifully carved doors.

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As we get nearer to sea level and the large Friday Mosque, the alleyways open up and the vestiges of grand mansions appear, now but sad relics of faded glory.

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Sultan Ahmed Mwigni Mkou Mosque

Historically, Comoros was divided into a number of Sultanates following the arrival of Arab settlers starting in the 11th century. Mwigni Mkou was the biggest of these Sultans, reigning for over 40 years.

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The Town Hall

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Retaj Moroni Hotel

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After checking in and dumping the bags in the room, we head down to the restaurant to see if we can get a small snack for lunch. Passing through the bar, we see a pizza oven and someone rolling dough, which will be perfect as neither of us are particularly hungry.

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Pizza oven!

When we arrive at the restaurant, all they are doing is an international buffet. We both hate buffets with a passion and decide to forego lunch and take a wander around the hotel grounds instead.

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Swimming pool complete with water!

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Dinner

After a stroll to the local supermarket and a nice little siesta, followed by a shower and change, it is time to go down for dinner. This time they do have pizza, which is what we order.

Mine has meat, chicken, vegetables and egg on it – it is the first time I have ever had egg on a pizza.

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David chooses his to be topped with turkey and mushrooms.

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The Retaj Hotel is own by a Qatari organisation, and as such they abide by their strict Muslim beliefs: no alcohol served in the hotel at all!

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It is not quite the same toasting our safe arrival in Comoros – our 139th country – with water!

Starry sky

As we make our way back to the room, I notice the sky is clear and full of stars, so I go and grab my camera and tripod and head for the darker areas of the hotel grounds to look for the Milky Way. Considering we are on the outskirts of the capital, there is surprisingly little light pollution here.

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The land arrangements of this trip was organised by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:47 Archived in Comoros Tagged mosque beach travel hotel volcanic_rock market flight museum africa tanzania muslim lava tourism old_town pizza swimming_pool airline islam indian_ocean medina town_hall sultanate hah dar_es_salaam comoros undiscovered_destinations air_tanzania precisionair moroni retaj_moroni coelacanth pufferfish mt_karthala Comments (4)

Montrouis - Moulin sur Mer beach resort

More chill time

storm 36 °C
View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I am up early this morning for some bird watching in and around the hotel grounds.

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Yellow Faced Grassquit

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Hispaniolan Woodpecker

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Palmchat

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Hispaniolan Woodpecker

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White Necked Crow

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Bananaquit

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American Kestrel

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Grey Kingbird

The hotel also has domestic ducks and geese on its ponds; as well as a pigeon loft.

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Breakfast

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Lots of lovely fresh mango, and French toast with bacon - one of my favourite breakfasts!

Montrouis Beach

Apart from a conch shell salesman, and a sunbed stacker, we have the beach to ourselves this morning.

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It is blisteringly hot and suddenly my tummy doesn't feel good at all. In fact, it is so sudden that I don't make it back to the bathroom on time – a most unpleasant experience.

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You'll be glad to know that there are no photos of my little "accident".

Lunch

Today is Sunday, so lunch is a buffet.

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Chicken curry, national rice, fried plantains, creamed corn and tomato salad

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A delightfully tart passionfruit mousse

Rain? What rain?

The forecast for this weekend (and beyond) has consistently showed rain, rain and more rain, plus the odd thunder shower. There is certainly no sign of that this afternoon, the sea is sparkling in the sunshine.

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We sit for a while just gazing out to sea and those mesmerizing sparkles of sunshine dancing across the water like little luminous fairies. Life is good, until my tummy tells me that the lunch is an unwelcome guest and is about to be evicted, so we retire to the cool room. Next door is a lovely local family who are here for the weekend with their small child. I am unconcerned when I hear hear the key being turned in the connecting door as it is surely locked from both sides; but before I have had the chance to say “I'd better put some clothes on”, the girl and her father are in our room. I don't know who is most shocked: the kid or her dad! For the rest of their stay he avoids all eye contact with me.

I guess that is my cue to get dressed and head out to wait for the sunset.

There are a few more people down at the beach this afternoon; both in and out of the water.

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Tonight's sunset is not a patch on yesterday's, but the 'Bushwacker' cocktail more than makes up for it: Khalua, Amaretto, Baileys, cream and ice cream. Heaven in a glass!

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What the evening sky lacks in terms of colour, intensity and clouds, it more than makes up for in a passing lightning storm.

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Dinner

On the menu tonight is langoustine thermador – one of my favourite dishes. It certainly lives up to expectations.

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Thank you to Jacqui of Voyages Lumiere for yet another day here in Haiti.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:05 Archived in Haiti Tagged birds sea water sunset ocean beach storm caribbean sleep drinking birding photography lightning thunder woodpecker cocktail haiti lightning_storm langoustine bird_watching kestrel american_kestrel moulin_sur_mer montrouis voyages_lumier twitcher hispaniolan_woodpecker grassquit yellow_faced_grassquit bananaquit kingbird grey_kingbird waterskiing bushwalker_cocktail langoustine_thermador Comments (0)

Port au Prince - Montrouis

Beach time!

34 °C
View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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We have a nice leisurely start this morning before being picked up for the two hour journey to Montrouis and the Moulin sur Mer beach resort.

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Breakfast of hareng a l'haïtienne (herring in a spicy vegetable sauce), maïs moulu blanc (corn grits) and some sort of cake.

Unusually, we are spending the first two days of this trip in a beach hotel in order to acclimatise to the time zone and get used to the heat before we throw ourselves into the melee of the celebrations.

From the hotel we take the back-roads of Port au Prince out on to the main highway, with a couple of police checks on the way. Once on the main road, we encounter a massive traffic jam. We are both really struggling to stay awake for the journey, it must be the effect of the jetlag.

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Moulin sur Mer

We arrive at the beach resort around midday, and are greeted in the parking lot by a golf buggy, which takes us and our luggage down to reception and then on to our room.

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The room is nice and airy, with a large bathroom and a terrace outside. We leave the A/C on for the room to cool down, and go for lunch.

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Fresh mango juice

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Club sandwich (cheese, ham, egg and tuna) and 'Moulin' burger.

The restaurant is open air, but shaded by a roof, and looks out over the blue Caribbean sea.

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The hotel is spread out over a large area, and once we have filled our bellies, we explore the extensive grounds.

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Although the thermometer says 'only' 34 °C, it feels like it is way over 40 °C this afternoon with the humidity! We are both really struggling with the heat, and decide to go back to chill in the air-conditioned room.

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When we get there, the room is far from cool, instead it is stifling hot and whatever we do with the temperature on the remote control for the A/C unit, it remains so. After about an hour of slowly melting, we take another look at the controls, and realise that the settings were in fact on 'fan' rather than 'cool'! Doh! As soon as the air cools down a little, we both drift into a blissful and much needed siesta.

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Feeling very much more refreshed, we wander down to the beach and order a beer ready to watch the sunset over the sea.

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In the bay we overlook is a loud, obnoxious American (apologies to all my lovely American friends), who, as soon as he spots my camera, starts to shout out various camera settings. Maybe he is trying to be funny, but he just comes across as an insecure small man with a big ego and a small 'lens'. I try to ignore him, but he won't go away. Groan.

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Despite an insipid start, the sunset pans out very nicely and we stay and watch until there is no light left in the sky.

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After a quick shower and change, it is back to the restaurant for dinner – prawns in garlic for me, chicken goujons for David; followed by cheesecake which I can't finish as I am so full!

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Feeling completely shattered, we retire to the (now) cool room. I am not sure if it is the heat or the jetlag, but it seems to us that all we have done so far on this trip is to eat and sleep.

I would like to say THANK YOU to Jacqui of Voyages Lumiere for arranging this trip to Haiti for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:03 Archived in Haiti Tagged sea sunset beach travel hotel island breakfast sand caribbean resort hot heat beach_resort haiti herring voyages_lumiere hotel_le_plaza le_plaza moulin_sur_mer montrouis tap_tap Comments (0)

Cormier Plage - Cap-Haïtien - Port au Prince

Back to the Ole Smoke

sunny 34 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day eight of our tour of Haiti with Undiscovered Destinations.

Darkness still hangs over the Caribbean as we go for breakfast this morning, later replaced by an aspiring sunrise which never really amounts to anything.

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In the distant twilight we spot the Anthem of the Seas – The Royal Caribbean's cruise ship - heading for Labadee so that its passengers can spend the day on the beach.

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In the time it takes the ship to make its way across our horizon, twilight has almost been pushed aside by daylight, showing the ship in all its glory. I reluctantly admit that it does look impressive, at least from this distance.

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The sun is still low as we are driven to the airport for our return journey to the capital.

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Arriving at the airport, my heart sinks when I see the long queue of people - complete with huge amounts of luggage - waiting to check in; and when I realise that even the passengers are being weighed ready for the flight, the aforementioned heart plunges further into my stomach. I am therefore immensely relieved when Serge walks past the queue to another check in desk - the poor people heading for the humiliation of having their weight recorded are travelling to one of the outlying islands, not Port au Prince. Phew!

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Pimp my Truck

In Port au Prince Geffrard awaits us, now like an old friend, navigating his way through the morning traffic; all of which is infinitely more colourful and enriched than our min-van.

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Literally meaning 'quick quick', these buses – known as tap-taps, follow fixed routes, but not a timetable – they leave whenever they are full. That is full according to Haitian standards, not European, with passengers often hanging on the back or even sitting on the roof! There are no fixed bus-stops, the passengers knock the roof when they want to alight.

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They are mostly pick-up trucks which have been lovingly home welded and garishly decorated to the point where they resemble art galleries on wheels.

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Often painted with religious names or slogans, portraits of famous people, and intricate, hand-cut wooden window covers, the ubiquitous tap-taps are unique to Haiti.

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Musée Canne à Sucre

Although it is not far from Port au Prince airport, by the time we reach the museum I am feeling decidedly weary. The sun is shining relentlessly, and it's already very hot - I always suffers from the effects of dehydration quite quickly - and severely - and I suspect I have not taken in enough liquids this morning.

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All I want to do is sit down, in the shade somewhere, with a cool drink. Instead we are introduced to the guide who will show us around the museum.

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The first room displays a brief chronicle of Haiti's history, from the Taino Indians through to Victorian times.

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Taino artefacts

I feel listless and disinterested, which isn't at all like me. Normally I love museums, and soak up every word the guides say, but this morning I find myself wandering around the displays aimlessly, not really taking any notice of the explanations offered.

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The museum has the appearance of a haphazard collection of random items, situated in someone's living room.

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Slavery
The second room focuses on slavery, revolution and black history in Haiti. If there is such a human trait as having too much empathy, then I suffer from this condition. Looking at the impassioned illustrations displayed, my mind immediately wants to try and imagine how I would feel if I was in that situation. Damn emotions... STOP IT! If I was indifferent to the exhibits earlier, I now find myself getting quite distraught at the thought of man's inhumanity to man.

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Seeing Haiti today, it is hard to believe that it was once the wealthiest overseas colony in the French empire! However, economic success came at a cost - Haiti's riches could only be exploited by importing up to 40,000 slaves a year. For nearly a decade in the late 18th century, Haiti accounted for more than one-third of the entire Atlantic slave trade.

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Map showing where the slaves came from

Conditions for these men and women were atrocious; the average life expectancy for a slave once they arrived on Haiti was 7 years. Essentially, the owners worked their slaves to death and then just bought more slaves. Those who tried to run away were severely punished and by 1789, there were 500,000 slaves in Haiti.

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Cut-away model of slave ship shows the conditions the slaves were transported across the Atlantic under. Goods at the bottom, people on the middle deck.

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Some of the gruesome ways the slave masters kept their 'workers' in check. It doesn't even bear thinking about how cruelly these people were treated. I find it impossible to imagine how someone would have the mentality it would take to dish out that sort of punishment to another human being, and the fact that it was not just isolated incidents, it was considered the norm.

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Once they arrived in Haiti, slaves were divided into different categories: domestic help, overseers, agricultural workers and those involved in the sugar cane industry.

Revolution
Inspired by the French Revolution, the revolution in Haiti (1791-1804) is the only successful slave revolt in modern times, and makes Haiti the only country where slave freedom was taken by force. A bedraggled group of slaves organised themselves, held a vodou ceremony calling for their liberty and went out with a guerilla war to defeat Europe’s most powerful army.

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Plantations were taken by force, or by using more subtle methods, such as poisoning their masters.

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In 1804, Haiti went on to become the first independent nation in Latin America; it is the second oldest republic in the western hemisphere (after the US); and the oldest black republic in the world. The three main players in the fight for Haiti's liberty were Jean Jaques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion.

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Set in the grounds of the ruined old sugar plantation Habitation Chauteaublond, the museum courtyard features a collection of antiquated material relating to the sugar cane industry.

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17th century water mill, brought over from England, was used to extract the juice from the sugar cane.

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The guide turns the water on for us to show the wheel in operation. As we are the only people in the museum, it makes sense not to have the mill running continuously.

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As well as hydro-power, animals were used to operate this traction wheel.

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Vats for boiling the sugar cane to make molasses for export to Europe where it would be fermented to make rum.

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Belonging to the Haitian American Sugar Company, S.A. (HASCO), this – the first train in Haiti – was used for transporting sugar cane from the fields to the processing plants.

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Relais de Chateaublond Restaurant
Although the gorgeous on-site restaurant is famous for its selection of flavoured rums (such as passion fruit, anise and various herbs), we stick to Diet Coke with our lunch.

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Croix des Bouquets

In the suburb of Noailles is the commune of Croix des Bouquets, famed for its metalwork artisans. The flamboyant movement of recycling metal into art was started some 60 years ago and today there are over 1,000 artisans working in Croix des Bouquetes, hammering away to create intricate masks and other wall hangings from discarded oil drums, car parts and even kitchen utensils.

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We visit the workshop of Jacques Eugene, a renowned artist who was born here in Croix des Bouquetes and now employs several other locals in his studio.

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Like most of the artists, Jacques takes his inspiration from vodou, creating extraordinary wall hangings which are as bizarre (to us) as they are curious.

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Jacques explains the process from the raw material to the finished product: the oil barrel is cut open, burnt and flattened, then a pattern is traced on the surface. The rest is done with a hammer and chisel, metal cutters and artistic skill.

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This handsome mask now hangs proudly in my living room along with the two masks we wore for Jacmel carnival and the one I bought at Milot (well, I had to have something to do while David and Kyle were visiting the Citadelle – that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!)

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In addition to the intriguing masks, one of the most popular designs for steel drum art is the Tree of Life, a symbolic image with a cultural significance to the people of Haiti. Representing immortality, new life, blessings and fertility, the branches of the tree reach into the sky, while the roots burrow deep into the earth; uniting heaven, earth and the underworld. Having seen several different variations on walls in our hotel rooms as well as restaurants, we are keen to pick one out to bring home.

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David also adds a lizard to his collection.

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Making our way back to Hotel Le Plaza (again), we are stuck in a traffic jam (again). The cars are completely stationary, and we soon become aware that several cars in front of us make a turn. Serge goes off to investigate what the problem is, and comes back to explain that there was an accident between a car and a motorbike, and all the bystanders have taken the side of the motorcyclist. They then set about beating the car driver, who very wisely retreated to the safety of his vehicle. That didn't stop the mob apparently, and now they are pelting his car with stones. Justice Haitian style!

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We also decide to get out of here before this escalates. That means driving through a 'less-than-salubrious' neighbourhood, and we are advised to close the windows and put the cameras away. So what do I do? Take photos of course...

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With so many cars having turned around to avoid the melee and are now travelling the opposite direction, the traffic is still terribly slow moving, so it's a great relief to finally arrive at the hotel. This being our third visit to Le Plaza in the last week, it's like coming home.

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Feeling awfully jaded and quite unwell by now, I am rather grateful we don't have any plans for the rest of the afternoon; and after re-packing for tomorrow's journey home, we take a siesta. I notice I have the beginnings of a cold sore on my lip, something that causes me some concern after last time I had one, which developed a secondary infection, resulting a several courses of antibiotics.

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When Geffrard turns up to pick us up later, he brings me a gift from Serge: spicy peanut butter! What a wonderful surprise.

This evening we have arranged to meet up with Jacqui (the local agent) and Paul (the Bradt Guidebook writer we met in Jacmel) for dinner. Jacqui has also invited Dawn (she was at the carnival with us too), who is bringing a friend; so it is quite a happy little band who turn up at La Plantation Restaurant in Pétionville.

The cocktails are good, the food is great and the conversation is even better.

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It's a delightful way to end this tour – we have found Haiti to exceed our expectations in every way. This small nation has so much more to offer than the usual Caribbean attractions of sunshine, beaches and sunset cocktails – although it has its fair share of those too! With extremely welcoming people and an intriguing culture, I am already planning my return visit to delve deeper into its vodou customs and celebrations.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:37 Archived in Haiti Tagged beaches art planes beach history travel vacation hotel museum caribbean artisans photography cocktails revolution slavery pilot metalwork artists aerial_photography slaves spicy haiti undiscovered_destinations canon_eos_5d_iii voyages-lumiere port-au-prince port_au_prince baron_samedi paul_clammer bradt vodou cap-haïtien haitien_revolution haitien_food haitien_art labadee cormier cap_hatien petionville croix_des_bouquets jacques_eugene sugar_cane haitian_revolution peanut_butter Comments (1)

Cap-Haïtien – Cormier Plage

Chill time!

semi-overcast 29 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day seven of our tour of Haiti by Undiscovered Destinations.

Encouraged by yesterday's bird watching, I get up at the crack of dawn to see if there is any more avian life around the grounds. I spot a couple of the usual suspects, but nothing mindblowingly exciting:

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Hispaniolan Woodpecker

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Palmchat

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White Necked Crow

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Juvenile Yellow Crowned Night Heron

Last night we received a text from Jacqui to say she is in Cap-Haïtien this morning on business and would we like to meet for breakfast? Despite her flight being delayed out of Port au Prince, we do have time for a quick catch-up at Hotel Roi Christophe before going our separate ways. To my delight, the hotel serves the legendary spicy Haitian peanut butter. I must get some of this to bring home!

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Cathedrale Notre Dame de Cap-Haïtien

Having been picked up by the driver from our destination hotel, we make a quick stop at Place d'Armes du Cap-Haitien in the centre of town to photograph the recently renovated 18th century cathedral fronted by the modern, well equipped kiddies' playground.

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Labadie

From here the rough and winding road meanders west, hugging the cliffs above the shoreline. Locals have been fighting to get this road modernised and improved (although we see no sign of any work), as the Royal Caribbean cruise ships dock further along the coast. The cruise company has its own beach area here (known as Labadee), and restrictions which forbids the tourists from leaving the private resort have recently been relaxed. The people of Cap-Haïtien are trying their best to get a cut of the tourist dollar by offering tours of the area and enticing foreigners to spend money in local shops and restaurants (and who can blame them?), but the terrible state of the road is putting many people off and making it hard work to get to anywhere. Currently, only a small controlled group of Haitian merchants are given sole rights to sell their merchandise and establish their businesses in the resort (for a fee of course); guarded by a private security force. However, it is not all bad news, as the resort does employ 300 locals and the Royal Caribbean pays the Haitian government $12 per disembarking tourist.

What I do think is a crying shame, is that those tourists do not get to experience the real Haiti; although I guess all they want to do is relax on a beautiful sandy beach and partake in water sports. Controversially, the company continued to dock its luxury cruise ships in the private port immediately after the 2010 earthquake, although they did announced at the time that they would be donating US$1 million to fund relief efforts in Haiti.

Last month, a peaceful but rowdy protest was held here against the upcoming presidential elections in Haiti, blocking the port and causing the Royal Caribbean to temporarily suspend this port stop.

This area and village is called Labadie (whereas the private resort is Labadee), and is named after the marquis de La Badie, a Frenchman who first settled the area in the 17th century.

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View of the coastline

Cormier Plage

We are NOT heading for Labadee thankfully (I can think of few things worse than 3000 cruise tourists in one hermetically manufactured resort) – rather our destination is Cormier Plage Hotel on the beach of the same name.

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“What is going on? The hotel has no food or drink? I am not staying here!” Seeing the sign at the entrance to the hotel, I josh with Serge - it takes him a second or two to get the joke.

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We are shown to our room, which has an unusual split-level layout with a couple of extra beds.The room is large, cool and comfortable, and boasts a terrace – complete with rocking chair - overlooking the grounds and ocean beyond.

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View from the terrace

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Decisions, decision... what to do first? Rocking chair? Hammock? Bar? Swim?

Predictably, the drink wins the day.

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Swimming
It would be improper to leave here without having had a swim in the warm waters of the Caribbean. However, our venture into the sea can be more accurately described as a frolic in the waves than a swim. There is some pretty good surf going on, making it safest and most comfortable to stay in the shallows.

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At least it means I can try out my new selfie-stick with my little waterproof camera. It's not as easy as it looks – least of all because I bought a VERY cheap stick, which means the camera keeps twisting around just at the wrong moment; and without a screen at the front of the camera it is hard to figure out what the result will be like and how much of the intended subject will actually be within the frame.

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It does provide a little light amusement for a while, but I certainly won't be making a habit out of this selfie-taking lark.

Lunch
The food here at Cormier Plage is pleasant but nothing awe-inspiring. David is feeling in need of some traditional comfort food, so orders a double cheeseburger with chips, while I choose something with a little more Caribbean flavour - shrimps creole with rice.

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We're not beach people per se, but we are more than happy to spend a day or two by the ocean. Sunbathing is not our style, but there is something very relaxing about watching the waves from a white, sandy beach, and strolling around the extended leafy gardens with its tropical vegetation, birds and lizards.

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Black Crowned Palm Tanager

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Broad Billed Tody

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Grey Kingbird

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Palmchat

Eureka!
I finally manage to photograph a hummingbird – although not a brilliant picture as it caught me unawares and was there and gone in a flap of a wing - I can safely say my holiday is now complete!

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Hispaniolan Emerald

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The resident cat is on the prowl for an afternoon snack. Lizard is on the menu, but he has to catch it first. He does.

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Thankfully lizards are in plentiful supply here, in the trees and on the walls. I love these little critters who epitomise the tropics for me.

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I thought I heard Danish spoken at lunch, and my suspicions are confirmed when we discover the Danish Consulate in the grounds of the hotel. So... what does a 'day at the office' look like? "Hmmm, spent the morning on a deck chair on the beach, followed by a seafood lunch overlooking the Caribbean, then some emails on my laptop in the beach bar..." What a life! Actually, they probably work very hard and I am only jealous that none of my workplaces were as exotic.

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All this excitement is tiring you know, so David puts his feet up in the rocking chair.

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.

Or should that be hammock?

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"I can hear the sea..." Not surprising after a couple of those potent rum punches!

We are so inspired by these hanging coconut shell lights that we immediately start working out how to incorporate this idea into the refurbishment of our garden gazebo back home. Nothing unusual there, as the last few days of almost every holiday sees David making plans for another home renovation project.

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Dinner
Perusing the menu for dinner, the waiter informs us that they have no fish and no beef. A beach restaurant with no fish? Unbelievable! So that leaves chicken, chicken, chicken or goat. We choose chicken.

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Chicken curry

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Diablo chicken

As the bar (and restaurant) is devoid of any life, we retire to our room instead. We do happen to have a bottle of rum....

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:19 Archived in Haiti Tagged birds sunset beach vacation holiday caribbean hammock palm_trees tropical rum haiti hummingbird undiscovered_destinations rum_punch cap-haïtien carmier_plage labadie labadee cormier Comments (2)

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