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-Hablas español ?
-No hablas…una cerveza!
-HAHAHA no hablas HAHAHA!!
The woman in the passport control laughed out loud and I had made my stunning appearance in Cuba.
I have always had the Caribbean very much at heart, and in the autumn of 2012 me and my workmate Kenta made up our minds to celebrate the New Year in Cuba. To keep the costs of the trip low we booked flights and accommodation on our own instead of consulting one of the big air charter service companies. We decided on staying in the resort of Varadero and then make some excursions from there to explore the country.
Varadero is a peninsula with lots of luxury hotels. Most hotels offer All Inclusive so there is a limited choice of other restaurants in the area. Pure white beaches and turquoise waters mix with colourful sails belonging to kite-surfers and windsurfers. Along the beaches sun loungers mingle with cosy beach bars, swaying palm trees, beach volleyball nets, pelicans and vendors mixing fabulous drinks in scooped out pineapple fruits. If your aim is to indulge in all these colours, sun and sea then you are just in the right place. From the loudspeakers of the beach bars habanera and salsa music is streaming which makes it hard to sit still at the beach while enjoying a tasty Mojito or Cuba Libre.
Kenta with his favourite drink.
A couple of days before New Year’s Eve we left a chilly Sweden and 11½ hours later we came down in Varadero. We checked in at the Villa Tortuga Hotel and got a room right down at the beach. The palm trees were swaying and I felt enormously happy as I plunged into the sea with water of 25 degrees, nothing could be better. The hotel had a large swimming pool, a computer with slow internet, traditional games in the daytime and traditional shows at night. To begin with it was hard for us to watch the evening entertainment as the jet lag made our eyelids heavy early in the evenings. Most probably our weariness was also related to the amount of food we consumed at the dinner buffet … There we were always offered some ten different main dishes and divine pastries for dessert, obviously the gym of the hotel ought to have been visited at least ONCE during our vacation ….
During our stay we were served very good breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Villa Tortuga, but a couple of evenings we tested the choice of restaurants outside the hotel. Our favourite was the Kiki’s Pizzeria which we found at Avenida kawama Calle 5. We also liked the El Melaito restaurant in Calle 38.
On New Year’s Eve the hotel arranged a giant buffet supper and I believe I have never seen such “beautiful” dishes. Shellfish had been arranged like large works of art and it was quite comical to see the guests starting to “devastate” the art. Naturally champagne was served and even early in the evening toasts were made at European midnight time. Me and my buddy Kenta still had jet lag problems so we fought hard to stay awake till midnight, and luckily we did for just then a great party commenced in the hotel. Big boxes were opened, containing party outfit like hats, wigs, party horns, streamers etc. On the stage a band was playing party music and all guests were dancing and drinking to one another, a highly successful New Year’s Eve!
To get acquainted with the neighbourhood we joined a tour by the Varadero Beach Bus. It operates along the beaches and hotels so you just have to hop on and hop off wherever you like, the ticket is valid for one day. We got off at the Convention Center Plaza America to check the shopping outlet but there was not much of interest. Paintings, handicraft, leather, flip-flops and T-shirts. We confined ourselves to cigars and rum.
Of course we had time for a visit to Havana, a marvellous city that I would gladly return to. Charming streets with beautiful old façades and then the contrast of all colourful old American cars from the 50′s. Car makes like Ford, Buick, Cadillac, Plymouth and Chevrolet operate in the city’s street in the company of classic vehicles like horse and carriage. The city is rich in history and for instance you can have a look inside the Museum of the Revolution where naturally the stories of Castro and Che Guevara are told. My favourite spot was the Parque Central, a nice plaza with many palm trees in downtown Havana. As a matter of course we also visited Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar, El Floridita, one of the best bars in the world. There we had a good lunch, but the best thing of all was the cocktail, a magic Frozen Daiquiri!
View over Havana.
View over Havana.
Everywhere you could see beautiful cars.
Parcue central in Havana.
Along the pedestrian street Calle Obispo almost anything was available for purchase. Animals, paintings, jewellery, clothes and food. From the bars you could hear live music and the atmosphere really made us take a fancy to the city. After all being in Havana we just had to have a ride in an American car so we jumped into the back seat of a Cadillac Convertible 1957 and the driver took us on a tour on the Malecón, the esplanade running along the the coast. What a feeling to cruise in the back seat through this beautiful city, until there was a sudden bang, the car swayed sidewards and a scratching sound screeched until the car stopped. What had happened? The suspension of one of the front wheels had broken so the wheel stood right out HaHaHa, what an accident! After having carefully taken pictures of the accident we hopped into a new car and continued our city exploration. We were highly content with the visit and I hope being able to return to Havana.
Convertible cruising along Malecón…
…until the suspension of the front wheel broke down.
One day we made an excursion which started in the city of Cardenas. Everywhere you could see people travelling by horse and carriage, and it was like being transported 200 years back in time. In Cardenas the Cuban flag was hoisted for the first time. The next excursion stop was the Australia Sugar Mill where we entered an old train drawn by a classic steam locomotive. We felt like first class tourists, but who cared, we had fun :)
The train halted at a museum where we were shown what it looked like in the sugar mill with Castro commanding his troops from there when Cuba was invaded in 1961. The best part of the Australia Sugar Mill visit was our stop at a tavern where we ordered Mojitos. The bottle of rum was put on the table so that you could fill up with more rum if you disliked the taste, but there was no need for that, it was the best Mojito I have ever tasted.
Visit to the Australia Sugar Mill.
The excursion then continued to a large Crocodile Farm down in the Zapata peninsula and from there we went on by boat across the Laguna del Tesoro to the Indian Village Guama. There we were shown around and were told how the Taino People used to live in the old days. Moreover we could taste the most delicious dish of our journey, crocodile meat ….
In the Indian Village Guama.
One of the last nights in Varadero we were picked up by a Buick Convertible 1955 and were driven to a venue where we watched a performance by the Grammy Awards winners Buena Vista Social Club. The big band treated us to a swinging show that honestly wasn’t quite to our taste, but the Cuban guests stood up, cheering! Kenta and myself better appreciated the Cover Band playing at the Beatles Bar in Calle 59. There we had a fine ending of our journey before late at night riding back through the town in a Convertible again.
Buena Vista Social Club.
Well tanned we returned home, the coconut oil had had its effect and once again I had got a successful journey to remember.
Have a good time, you’ll hear from me!
Popular hotels to book in Cuba:
Next to Havana´s Paseo del Prado, the Mercure Sevilla opened in 1908 and is located just a few steps from the Museo de Bellas Artes.
Nacional de Cuba
This hotel has existed since 1930. It is situated on a hill a few hundred meters from the sea.
Gran Caribe Villa Tortuga
The Hotel Villa Tortuga is at just 100 meters of the beach, at two kilometers of Varadero down town.
BelleVue Palma Real
An ideal “All Inclusive” family complex in Varadero.
Occidental Allegro Club Cayo Guillermo
The Occidental Allegro Club Cayo Guillermo is a beachfront hotel situated 4 km to the center.
One of the most memorable moments of the year for me is when the scent of Glühwein (hot mulled wine) and Gebrannte Mandeln (candied, toasted almonds) is being mixed with the hum of Christmas music at a cosy Christmas Market somewhere in Germany. Every year we are 12 friends who go southward from Stockholm to visit Christmas Markets in various cities. We call ourselves the Culture Club and have been active for more than 10 years. We travel in big cars which on the way back home are filled with our finds from the markets, but obviously with different kinds of intoxicating liquor, too….. Our travels must needs include some cultural elements, so we have visited submarines, breweries as well as handball and football arenas. All of us in the gang spend the autumn longing for these trips and I hope we will continue for many years to come. All the happy people you meet, the odours, the lights and the atmosphere altogether make a fine start of Advent and Christmas every year!
Crowded and cosy during Advent.
The first year that I joined the group the destination town was Sassnitz in the island of Rügen. It might not have been the most hilarious town to visit in November, but anyway we experienced a successful cultural event on board the submarine HMS Otus. The annual Formal Dress Dinner was partaken of in the König Gustav restaurant, and later we visited the town’s Christmas Market that was so small that there was hardly room for our Culture Club in the tiny square …..
The following day we went by train to Rostock instead, hoping to find a bigger Christmas Market, and there we were so content that we went back there again with the Club a few years later.
Rostock has long Market alleys where you can mingle around for hours holding a hot Glühwein while at the same time making finds among the stands. Christmas stars of various warm colours, gloves, slippers, ceramics, jewellery, there is a wide range of Christmas gifts. If you get hungry you can revel in sausages, cheeses, ham, kale, mushrooms, almonds and candy. In the daytime we seldom have our meals in a restaurant, instead we enjoy the wide selection of the Christmas Markets.
In Rostock you can also find a Medieval Market. In Klosterhof you can practise Axe Throwing in the company of Vikings, taste ham with Sauerkraut or purchase something from the artisans selling wrought iron objects. If you want more exciting entertainment you can visit the amusement park in the Fischerbastion. The Formal Dress Dinner was partaken of in the Ratskeller 12, a restaurant that I can warmly recommend.
There is a lot of different food to chose between at the Christmas markets.
Germany is famous for it´s sausages.
Chocolate tools, beautiful handicrafts.
Heart shaped gingerbread make a nice gift.
Colourful Christmas gifts.
In 2009 the Culture Club visited Berlin, a city that offered many cultural sights and fine Christmas Markets. Our accommodation was near the Alexanderplatz square and just in front of the hotel there was a big Christmas Market which included an ice rink where we skated around, what a sight …
An excellent way of getting to know a city is taking a sightseeing bus, and in Berlin we joined a tour where you could hop on and hop off at various sights. For instance we hopped off at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, a church that was badly damaged in a bombing raid in 1943. There we found a Christmas Market which helped us soothe the craving for Glühwein; touring in a sightseeing bus too long is quite tough, you know. Over the weekend we also had time to visit the Christmas Market at the Charlottenburg Palace. A large and fine market in beautiful palatial environment, well worth a visit.
I also recollect a funny quotation from this trip when at midnight I tried to visit the hotel casino. The security guard then told me kindly but firmly:
-You need a tie, and you need a jacket, and we close in ten minutes, and your friends are not here! – OK, I’ve got it.
The Culture Club at the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in Berlin.
Before I joined the Culture Club I had heard of the numerous bus tours destined for the Christmas Market in Lübeck every year, and I had a vision of that market being gigantic. When we visited the city in 2011 I was a bit disappointed, for the Christmas Market was not as big as I had expected but still worth visiting. There was nothing wrong with the Holiday Atmosphere as we were strolling around among the stands in front of the City Hall. We paid a “Cultural Visit” to the Holstentor Museum and the iconic Café Niederegger. The best food during this trip was served at the Formal Dress Dinner in the Schiffer Gesellschaft restaurant, at 2 Breite Straße.
My friend Jenny and me wish Merry Christmas under the Mistletoe.
Kiel has also been visited by the club. As I love sports events I took the opportunity of dropping in at the Sparkassen Arena where the city’s handball team played a match in the Champions League against Zagreb. The home team won the game in front of 7,000 loud-voiced fans and of course I was delighted! After the game one just had to get out of the arena doors to catch sight of the Christmas Market. Tasting Glühwein with shots of various liqueurs or rum in the cold weather was yummy. The markets in Germany always keep up the high spirits. People party and have a good time without any guards or policemen being around. In the Old Town market square there was a DJ playing German hits, what Zip! The dancing crowd toasted one another with their colourful mugs. Every Christmas Market has its own mug model which is changed every year so I believe I have well 20 mugs in my kitchen at home.
The Cultural Event in Kiel was a visit to the Kieler Brauerei brewery. A nice place brewing its own cloudy Kellerbier which is served exclusively in the brewery restaurant.
Glühwein in the cold weather is yummy.
Hamburg has become my favourite city in the case of Christmas Markets. In addition it has many fine sights so I guess our Club will soon visit the city again. In the Reeperbahn there is a big Market where live music is being played from a stage, highly appreciated by the dancing crowd! In the vicinity of the Reeperbahn there is gigantic funfair, the Hamburger Dom.
My personal favourite market is the one in front of the city hall, Hamburg Rathaus. There you can watch Santa Claus flying in his sleigh across the market square in the evening with the Disney-like facade of the city hall as a background setting. The area among the market stands is crowded, but who cares when you attend the best Christmas Market in Germany? All the way from the Rathausmarkt square the market extends down to the Binnenalster lake. In case you can’t find your Christmas gifts in the market, all you have to do is to turn into the Neuer Wall shopping street.
Market at the Rathausmarkt square in Hamburg.
At the Hamburger Dom.
Santa is flying across the market square.
If you want to find me in Hamburg one evening, just look into my favourite pub of Molly Malone :)
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year you’ll hear from me in 2015!
Popular hotels to book in Germany:
Park Inn Radisson Berlin Alexanderplatz
On the well known Alexanderplatz in the center of Berlin.
Zleep Hamburg City Hotel
Situated 100 m. from the lively Reeperbahn Street and 5 minutes from the harbour with its world famous fish market.
Located next to Rostock Central railway station.
Park Inn By Radisson Lübeck
Located 300m from the Holsten Gate, 600m from Lubeck Central railway station, 700m from St. Mary’s Church and 1.5 km from St. Annen Museum.
Situated 600m from Bergen bei Rugen center.
DING-A-LING, SMS: “Right now the feature with you is being broadcast on TV” A few seconds later SMS messages streamed in from back home in Sweden.
Some of my best travels have been to Olympic Games, and the trip to Sochi in Russia was no exception. I hadn’t planned going there, but after visiting their exhibition in Hyde Park during the Summer Games in London I changed my mind. There I realized that Russia was going to arrange very good games so there was nothing to do but start planning the trip. The hardest part was getting visa, and one month before the departure I was on the point of giving it up, but finally things sorted themselves out. The Swedish TV company that had the broadcasting rights for the games made a visit in my home and filmed a feature with me as a travelling supporter. What an honour to act as a representative of the fans travelling round to cheer on the athletes :)
The Winter Olympics in Sochi was split up in two areas. Down along the coast was the Olympic Park where the indoor sports had their arenas, and up in the mountains the ski races and and the bob-sleigh runs were held. We supporters went from one area to the other by train. It was a 55-minute ride so there was no problem watching events in both areas the same day.
Olympic Park down by the sea.
The weather was completely unbelievable, dressed in a T-shirt I stood sweating in spite of being high up in the mountains. I had great expectations before leaving home and I predicted 13 medals for Sweden. A friend of mine wondered what kind of mushrooms I had smoked being so positive, but it turned out I had been on the right track, for Sweden won as many as 15 medals, and nine of them I watched live.
The weather was fantastic during the Winter Olympics.
I had booked accommodation on board a cruise liner anchored just off the Olympic Park. A perfect location near the train station and close to the entrance of the park. When I arrived around midnight and intended to check in, my cabin was obviously already occupied by someone else so I had to wait for two hours before they made the conclusion that I would be offered a cabin on board the other cruiser in the harbour. While waiting I was continuously treated to vodka, maybe a way to make me feel more comfortable. It all ended with my having to change ships, and to pour balm into my wounds I was offered 300 Euros in compensation plus free mealtime drinks during the whole stay, certainly a favourable deal!
On the first day of the competitions I encountered lots of palm trees outside the train station. The coastal city offered brilliant weather and I felt a bit strange walking around dressed in a T-shirt among palm trees in the Olympic Winter Games. The train ride brought me to the Mountain Station of Krasnaya Polyana where I entered a gondola lift that took me to the Psekhako Ridge. From there one has a magnificent view of the valley, and I continued to the Cross-country Skiing Station of Laura in a chair lift. This was a trip I made every day during my stay in Sochi, so pretty soon I learned what time was best for travelling to avoid queuing.
The first race I watched was the men’s 15 km Cross-country Skiing, and it was an immediate Swedish success, Silver and Bronze Medals to the blue and yellow skiers.
The Laura Biathlon & Ski Complex.
In the evening I went to the Olympic Park to watch the Medals being awarded and naturally I had goose bumps when I arrived at the Medals Plaza, surrounded by all grand arenas and the Olympic Flame. My feelings were not worsened by watching two Swedish flags being raised in the Medal Ceremony.
The Olympic Flame at the Medals Plaza.
In addition to the arenas in the park there were many expos where the biggest sponsors made their appearance. As a matter of fact there were many palm trees, too ;) In the park there were also many TV Company Studios. One evening I was invited to the Swedish TV company, so I sat for a while in the studio together with the presenters who commentated on ice-hockey and later I sat in their dressing room watching ice-hockey in the company of several other presenters. Events are fun ;)
At the Swedish TV-studio.
In the Ice Cube Curling Center I watched the Women’s Final between Canada and Sweden. My hopes were to see Sweden win its third Olympic Gold Medal in a row, but Canada was much too competent that day. The golden tears rolled down the cheeks of the girls during their beautiful National Anthem. That was not the last time during my visit that I was a witness of Canadian golden tears ….
During the Olympic Games in Vancouver in 2010 I stayed for a week with the Thompson family in Whistler. Their daughter Marielle has in the last couple of years qualified for the World Elite in Ski Cross and some time before the games in Sochi her parents and myself arranged that we would meet during the Olympics and root for Marielle. I had certainly looked forward to meeting the family again and we were all cheerful when Pam and Rod came along. Rod’s brother Paddy was also there and together we could stand near the finish line and watch Marielle displaying brilliant form down the course. The Swedish girls too, performed well. Sandra Näslund won the Small Final and ended in total in a fifth place. Anna Holmlund, together with Marielle, qualified for the Big Final. Before the final Marielle had time to visit us at the end of the course and she didn’t seem at all nervous, I think we rooters were worse off.
In Ski Cross a group of four skiers start simultaneously and in the final Marielle instantly caught hold of the lead and her Canadian team mate Kelsey Serwa had a safe second place while Anna Holmlund was fourth. We shouted at the top of our voices as the skiers approached the last jump before the end of the course and joy knew no limits when Marielle crossed the finish line as a Gold Medal winner. Kelsey seized the Silver Medal and Anna Holmlund who had fought so long with her injuries achieved a great exploit by taking the Bronze Medal. Me, Pam and Rod embraced each other and me myself couldn’t hold back my tears.
In the evening we arrived at the Medals Plaza in the Olympic Park to honour Marielle, Kelsey and Anna. We were given VIP tickets for the prize ceremony so we stood in a small enclosure well in front of the stage with thousands of other fans behind us. It was such an exciting moment to watch Marielle’s proud parents during the Medal Ceremony and the National Anthem. After the ceremony me and Rod managed to get backstage where naturally only accredited people were allowed. We found the girls celebrating their medals and Marielle gave her victory bouquet to me, a fine souvenir from the Olympic Games :) Moments later we celebrated the medals at Canada House ending in an exciting night. Just imagine spending such a day in the company of good friends! One of my finest Olympic experiences!
I celebrated Marielle Thompson’s gold medal at Canada House.
Another good day had a somewhat unexpected start at breakfast in the company of the Swedish singer-songwriter Björn Skifs. After all he had a #1 hit on Billboard Hot 100 in 1974 with a cover of Hooked on a Feeling, nothing, in fact, that I can outdo, but still he was interested in learning about my Olympic Games travels while at the same time telling me his plans for the near future. My plans for that day was to watch Sweden defend its Olympic Gold Medal in men’s relay cross-country skiing. In Vancouver me and my pal Rickard had been on the stands cheering for a Swedish gold medal, and now I wanted to relive that moment. Inside the Laura skiing station I took my seat near the Norwegian girls Ane, Anette and Helga. Sweden’s national radio broadcaster approached and made a live interview, so many friends back home in Sweden got into contact with me when they heard the spot on the air.
DING-A-LING, SMS: “Right now the feature with you is being broadcast on TV” A few seconds later SMS messages streamed in from back home in Sweden.
The TV feature that had been recorded at my home was now broadcast just before the relay race so a couple of million of viewers could watch me on their TV screens and that had an impact, so to speak. The reporter who had made the feature came up to us in the arena and filmed scenes on site during the whole race. That was a fun event when me and the Norwegian girls teased each other during the race, and I came out the happiest since Sweden won an easy victory!
On TV together with Norwegian fans.
I could indulge in yet another relay gold medal on site in Sochi, for the day before the Swedish women had won their race :) The Norwegian girls were downhearted while I went on to the Biathlon Arena with a light step. Suddenly the Swedish relay team came walking along, so I had the opportunity of slapping high fives with the whole golden team. If you were standing along the ski tracks facing the Biathlon Arena you had the sunset among red mountains as a background, magical!
The Swedish relay team with their gold medals.
Security did not always come out on top, as I said I was allowed backstage at the prize ceremony without any problems, and I also entered the VIP stand in the Ski Stadium to stand beside the Norwegian Royal Couple and shake hands with Marit Björgen congratulating her on the Gold Medal in Cross Country Sprint Relay. Such incidents make fun memories :)
The last day of the competitions was hectic for my part. First I made my usual trip up in the mountains. There I watched Russian skiers win Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in the men’s 50 km Cross-country skiing, guess if the atmosphere in the arena stands reached boiling point! Then I went down to the Olympic Park and took out my piece of paper I had been helped with. It said in Russian that I wanted to buy a ticket for the final match in Ice-hockey. Sweden was to meet Canada and I wanted to experience my second final in a row, I had also watched the one in Vancouver. Pretty soon I got a ticket and made my way to the arena where earlier that week I had watched a fantastic match: Russia vs USA. USA won the game after penalty shootout and that match can be qualified as one of the best five matches I have watched live. Now I took my seat in the stands waiting for the final, row 14 near the centre line. It might have become a classic event watched from the best seat of the arena, but Canada had other intentions and they crushed Sweden 3-0, so my most expensive ice-hockey ticket ever didn’t find its way to my refrigerator at home.
Canada-Sweden in the ice-hockey finals 3-0.
After the hockey final I headed for the next arena and watched the Closing Ceremony. After those wonderful days in the sun I had butterflies in my stomach as I watched the unparalleled show. The three Russian skiers who had won their medals earlier that day were awarded their medals during the closing ceremony and the National Anthem gave me goose bumps, of course! The Olympic Flame was put out and with heavy steps I left the park for the last time.
The Closing ceremony.
The day after the closing ceremony I sat down at the beach writing my diary. It was 20 degrees Celsius and people were swimming in the sea, lovely Winter Games!
Last day was spent on the beach.
Hotels to book in Sochi:
Azimut Sochi Hotel
Hotel located 1.5 km from a beach, 2.5 km from the Olympic Park, 7 km from Adler center, 9 km from Adler History Museum and 32.5 km from Sochi center.
Grand Hotel Polyana
Located in Esto-Sadok, about 45 km from Sochi
Located in Krasnaya Polyana, about 40 km from Sochi.
Azimut Hotel Resort and Spa
Facilities and services include restaurant, bar, swimming pool, parking, elevator, wireless Internet access, indoor swimming pool, gym, sauna, spa, meeting room and 24-hour reception. Rooms feature minibar, air conditioning, wireless Internet access, safe, TV, telephone, hairdryer and bathroom. Suites and superior suites feature sofa, coffee table and large bathroom with bathtub.