Wednesday 31 December 2008

End of the Year Ponderings....

The end of the the year often makes people looks back at what's been happening over the last year and forward to what they hope for in the year to come, and I'm no different, so here's my stream of consciousness take on 2008 and the year to come.

2008.....Biggie of the year was retiring, which has totally changed my life. much less stress, a weight has been lifted..... don't have to scrape the car on these icy mornings.....lots of free time to do other things I enjoy but didn't have time for..... Cons.....less money.....erm, that's it really!

Learned to appreciate my friends all the many good wishes when I retired.....treats in Dublin.....I am blessed.

Travelling, always a love of mine, I was able to do lots.....Greece - beautiful beyond words.....Ireland - Dublin as fun as ever.....USA - Florida road trip a real adventure in the sun.

New arrival Pepsi.....sweetheart!

Generally a good year.

2009.....U2 album and tour yay.....means shows, travelling, seeing friends, fun.....hopefully will love the new music.

Get more structure now I've retired.....voluntary work.....write more.....classes.....lady who lunches.....get back to weight watchers - make that lady who lunches sensibly!

Health and happiness.....those are the most important.

Happy New Year to you all!

Monday 29 December 2008

The Clarence Hotel Penthouse - Luxury and Leaks....

My friend Debbi and I had a three day break in Dublin just a week after I had returned from Florida (globetrotter that I am!) We were staying two nights at the Tara Towers Hotel (where we had a room that had a fabulous view over Dublin Bay) and one night in the penthouse at The Clarence Hotel. We had started saving to stay in the penthouse once more immediately after our last stay there in May 2007. By the end of November this year we had enough money to spoil ourselves once more.

We got all dressed up to look the part and took a taxi to the Clarence Hotel where we were greeted warmly by the staff and asked to sit in The Study (the lounge for hotel guests) and our complimentary Cosmopolitan cocktails were brought in for us.

After a short while the General Manager of the hotel, Oliver Silvestre, came in to see us. We were wondering what was up as normally someone like him would not come to see guests. He was extremely apologetic and said there was a problem with the penthouse. During the night a pipe above the master bedroom had sprung a leak and they had been unable to mend it in time for our stay so that room was not usable. He offered us the use of a two bedroom suite two floors below as well as the rest of the penthouse, then he left us for a while to discuss it.

We did not want to spend time in separate places, especially when one was two floors below so we decided we would ask for the other penthouse bedroom's king bed to be made into twins and not use the two bedroom suite at all. Oliver came back and said that there was no problem making up twins. I thought I'd ask if we would get a discount as we were not getting what we are paying for. He said that of course there would be a discount - which turned out to be very generous and we were very happy with that.

Welcome to the Clarence Hotel Penthouse!

He took us up to the fifth floor and into the penthouse and showed us the master bedroom which had a big hole in the ceiling and a bucket on the floor catching drips that were coming down. When we were in the loft area we noticed that the hot tub on the back balcony had no towels or gowns beside it, so we asked if we could use it. For a second Oliver looked surprised, then said yes, no problem there either and he would get that sorted. Despite the icy weather we were determined to go in the hot tub - I think Oliver thought we were mad! But it was also clear that he was very relieved that we took it all so well.

A battalion of staff appeared out of nowhere and discreetly sorted out the bedroom and the hot tub, and then quietly left and we were finally alone in the penthouse. It was lovely to be back, the first thing we did was change out of our posh clothes into lounging gear. Then we opened the bottle of complimentary pink champagne and ordered some sandwiches.

The penthouse was just the same as when we had been there last, luxurious and spotlessly clean, you could see your reflection in the wood of the piano! The fittings and furnishings were all the best, beautiful oak floors and doors, an elegant spiral staircase linking the ground floor and the loft area, muted colours, fantastic floral creations, Guggi paintings throughout. A well stocked bar groaned under the weight of spirits, wines, champagne and beers, complete with lots of ice and a tray of cut lemon. From the balcony running along the front there were fabulous views of the River Liffey and it's bridges and the city.

We were brave and went into the hot tub which was lovely and warm once you got under the water. But boy was it cold when you got out, the lovely thick dressing gowns were a blessing then! Afterwards we relaxed on the large beige velvet sofas in the fabulous loft area of the penthouse hardly believing we were back there again.

Later we got all dressed up again to go for dinner in The Tea Room. The restaurant manager greeted us and said "Just out of the hot tub ladies?" I smiled to myself, the fact that we wanted the hot tub working had obviously filtered through the hotel staff, the phrase "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun" came to mind!

The Tea Room was busy, and we had a table near the door which I was pleased about as I was tottering in my high heels and the less to walk the better! We had a delicious meal, one of the best I've had there, it is always of a high standard and if you buy off the Market Menu not too expensive either. Afterwards we went to sit in The Study for a while before returning to the penthouse.

We found a CD that had Christmas 2007 on it so we put it in the player to see what was on it, it was old Christmas songs, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Nat King Cole and the such-like. It was very Christmassy and I'll never forget Debbi dancing along to It's Beginning To Look A Lot like Christmas!

We chilled and drank more champagne and watched DVDs of U2, Ab Fab and Father Ted that we had brought with us. The life of luxury really suits me! We sat on the balcony (well wrapped up there was an icy wind blowing) and watched the Dublin nightlife below us. At 4am we got back into the hot tub.....mad dogs and Englishwomen go in the hot tub in the icy night! But this day and night was all about doing different things and living a different life for a while and we weren't going to miss out on anything! But by 5am even we were flagging a bit and reluctantly went to bed.


Next morning we had a delicious breakfast in our very own dining room in the penthouse, savouring our last couple of hours there. Then sadly packed as the time had come to go back to normal life.

We met with Oliver again as we were leaving, he thanked us once more for being so understanding and told us the good news that The Clarence would not be closing in February 2009 as we'd thought, but in about two years time. So, us mad Englishwomen, have immediately started saving for another stay in the penthouse - 2010!

Sunday 28 December 2008

Don't Forget the Older Fans Though Bono!

Bono and Ali attended the racing at Leopardstown on December 26th as usual. A reporter from the Independent got a short interview with him, you can read it here

And more photos here - hope the cardie is not part of the new image!

Florida Holiday Part 6 - Key West, Shopping, Ghosts and Relaxation!

We left Grassy Key and headed south west towards our final destination, Key West. The southernmost part US 1 within the Keys is one of those American roads trips you should take. The road is a marvel of construction and the 113 miles passes through the coral and limestone islands from Key Largo to Key West crossing 42 bridges, including the graceful seven mile bridge. I thought that this southern part of the highway from Grassy Key was the most scenic, passing over and beside the sparkling azure blue ocean, palms trees, wooded islets and little habitation.

As we approached Key West it got busier and built up, but it was still clear this was not a big city. At mile marker 1 (everything in the Keys is measured from mile marker 0 in the centre of Key West to mile marker 156 in Miami, distances and addresses are measured by these markers - which are small green and white signs by the roadside) we knew we were close to our accommodation. And soon we found it, Authors Guesthouse on White Street.

The Guesthouse was lovely, a typical Key West wooden house with small cottages in the garden. there was an inviting jacuzzi and and lovely area to sit amongst the luscious vegetation in the garden. My room was upstairs and there was a wooden terrace area where you could sit and eat outside that looked down over the garden. The room was very comfortable, all the rooms were named after authors, mine was Wilder.

We decided to walk into the town centre to see the famous sunset celebration at Mallory Square, a must if you go to Key West. The one thing against our guesthouse was that it was quite a way out of the centre, it was a 25 minute walk. But having said that the walk was through the peaceful streets of old Key West past its lovely old white painted wooden houses. They were so pretty, some with intricate woodwork, others with turrets, lovely terraces or balconies. Being close to Thanksgiving some had displays outside.

Duval Street, the main party/shopping area of Key West was manic, a real onslaught of the senses. Loud music - rock, Caribbean, Latino, swing, buskers, shops selling everything from upmarket to tacky, people from all over the world, many eccentrics, cars covered in shells, psychedelic bikes, this was the off the wall Key West I'd heard about.

We got a little diverted by the shops and by time we'd got to Mallory Square the sun had slipped below the horizon of the Gulf of Mexico. To be honest I wasn't bothered as I'd already seen such beautiful sunsets at Chokoloskee and Key Largo. Mallory Square was full of action with street performances by fire-eaters, clowns, escape artists to name a few. There were stalls selling everything under the sun, paintings, photographs, jewellery, food, the choice was endless. It was vibrant and fascinating, like Duval Street a place to see in Key West.

On our way back we stopped off for something to eat in a restaurant in the old Town about half way back to our guesthouse called Mangia Mangia. It was away from the tourist trap places on Duval, family run and served freshly made pasta. We sat is a delightful our door patio area with subdued lighting and lots of little fairy-lights in amongst the trees. Our meal was absolutely delicious, lots of it and reasonably priced, it you are ever in Key West I'd recommend going off the beaten track a little and eating here, you won't regret it.

Next day Sylvia and I did our own thing for part of the day as we wanted to do different things. I walked through the warm sunshine and quiet, pretty streets to visit the southernmost point of the mainland USA. It was marked by large capstan-like structure painted in red, black and yellow stripes. Of course I had to have my photo taken there!

I did some shopping at the quieter end of the Duval Street before walking back to the guesthouse and spending the afternoon chilling in the jacuzzi and reading in the sunshine. This was the life!

That night Sylvia and I walked back into the town centre to the La Concha Hotel on Duval for The Original Ghost Tour. I always like to go on ghost tours as you find out strange and quirky things about places that way, also, I have an open mind about the paranormal.

Our guide was a tall, imposing young man called J, dress in black Victorian top hat and tails and a belt with a skull buckle. He set the scene well with much melodrama, but he also made it fun. He told us that if we got heckled when out in the streets he would count one...two...three and we were all to shout "you're doomed!

We went to various locations one being beside the Dean Lopez funeral home where we heard the story of Count von Cosel and a young Cuban-American called Elena Milagro Hoyos - don't read the next few paragraphs if you are squeamish! Von Cosel worked as an xray technician at a hospital in Key West and Elena, who was suffering from tuberculosis, became his patient in 1930. Though she was only 20 and he was 53 he became infatuated with her and was convinced she was the person "visions" he'd when young said he would marry (though he was already married). He showered her with gifts and tried everything to cure her but she died a year and a half later. She was buried in an above ground mausoleum that von Cosel paid for and which he visited almost every night.

Two years later von Cozel removed Elena's body and brought it to his house where he reconstructed it, replacing the skin with silk cloth soaked in plaster of Paris and wax and replacing the decomposed eyes with glass ones. He made a wig from Elena's own hair (that had been given to him by her mother after the burial). Von Cosel filled out the body with rags and dressed it in Elena's own clothes. He kept the corpse in his bed.

Seven years later 1940, Elena's sister Florinda heard rumors of von Cosel sleeping with the stolen body of her sister, she confronted him and found her sister's body at his home. Florinda notified the police and von Cosel was arrested and detained in prison.

Amazingly von Cosel was found mentally competent to stand trial on the charge of "wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization." But after a hearing on October 9, 1940 at the courthouse in Key West, von Cosel was held to answer on the charge, but the case was eventually dropped as the statute of limitations for the crime had expired.

Afterwards Von Cosel moved to another part of Florida where he died in 1952. Elena was re-buried in a secret unmarked grave in Key West Cemetery. Not exactly a ghost story, but pretty weird!!

Outside the beautiful typical old-style Key West Artist's House Guesthouse we were told the creepy story about Robert the Doll who came to life and caused distress for many over many years.

Then beside St Paul's Episcopal Church is a small graveyard which includes the Sea Captain's grave amongst others. Many ghostly sightings have been witnessed here and on one of my photos (I took quite a few photos) there were lots of "orbs!" Orbs are said to appear on digital photos when spirits are around. It's the first time my camera has ever photographed orbs, so who knows what caused them eh? I've put the photo here, but you can only see some of the orbs on this reproduction.

J was very entertaining as we went on with the tour, we were frequently heckled and shouted back "You're doomed" with a laugh. J made sure that we were well frightened, fascinated and truly gobsmacked by some of the weirder stories from Key West's past.

So this was the end of my Florida road trip, the two weeks had passed by so quickly. Highlights? There were so many: The Kennedy Space Center that fed the fascination I have always had for space travel and the universe - astronauts are true heroes. The quiet beauty of Chokoloskee Island. The vast, alien world of the Everglades, heaven for those who love wildlife. Relaxing on a beach in Key Largo. Being in the water with dolphins at Grassy Key. Driving over the Seven Mile Bridge with turquoise blue water on either side. The contrasts of vibrancy and stateliness of Key West.

The ultimate highlight? That's easy, being "kissed" on the cheek by a dolphin called Santini!

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Happy Holidays!

Just a few words to wish everyone Happy Holidays, I hope you have a great time with your friends and family. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog I'll be back soon with more musings!

Monday 22 December 2008

I'm Sure It Was In Here.....

My puppy Pepsi exploring a toilet roll, cute or what? If you want loads of laughs every day get a puppy!

More Eyeliner My Oh My!

There's a Q Magazine site that is almost fully live (except the Gallery) that includes a video showing a recent photoshoot in London, an article about some of the songs on the album (loads more new info), and a U2 quiz. Adam gives a great commentary during the video. For me all this bodes very well for the album, it almost has that feeling there was before Achtung Baby, that something really new was going to happen with the new music and image. I'm having problems at the moment with direct links to sites but here's the url for you to copy

Just three things though:-

1. Don't let Bono loose again in a car in London, even with a Tom-tom, scary.

2. Don't keep that hat Bono

3. Do keep the eyeliner - love it

Saturday 20 December 2008

Florida Holiday Part 5 - A Dolphin Encounter....

We continued driving down the Keys to our next accommodation, the White Sands Inn in Grassy Key. This was another lovely, laid back place right with a long jetty right on the shore of the Atlantic. Again the rooms were really nice with everything you need.

It was another pleasantly warm, sunny day as we drove to the Dolphin Research Center which, conveniently, was only a couple of miles form our accommodation. We'd booked a Dolphin Encounter where you actually spend time in the water with dolphins, something I'd always wanted to do, so this was going to be a special day for me. We chose the Dolphin Research center carefully to do this as we wanted to make sure that the dolphins were not being exploited in any way.

The center was smaller than I thought it would be and consisted of various building and netted off lagoons where the dolphins lived. The nets were not high and if they had wanted it would be very easy for the creatures to jump over them to the freedom of the ocean, but they chose not to. Most of the dolphins at the center now were born there, and there are also a few that were rescued and this place became their home.

We got there early and were free to wander around the center. We watched sessions with the trainers and dolphins and learned a lot about the creatures. Such as that they shed their skin every two hours to keep ultra smooth, they vocalise through their blowholes not their mouths, they have unique skin markings (you can only see that close up)to name a few things I remember. There were also various film you could watch throughout the day.

There was a Dolphin Encounter session in the morning (ours was in the afternoon) so we went to watch that so we'd know what to expect later. It was wonderful to watch, the dolphins seemed to love every minute and the people involved had big smiles over their faces for most of the time. Seeing the session made me all the more excited for ours in the afternoon.

After lunch we got ready and had our pre-encounter talk with a member of staff. She told us about the dolphins, do's and don'ts and to always do what the trainer tells us to do.

We then went to the lagoon, I noticed the dolphins really checking us out when we arrived, they rolled slightly to one side to look up at us. There was an underwater platform attached to each side of the small jetty. The platforms were about 3 feet below the water level and considering it was a very warm day the water was surprisingly cold! Luckily Sylvia and I got a platform to ourselves so we had lots of room to move about and had a good view of what was happening.

"Our" dolphins were Santini and Ras, mother and daughter. The first thing we were able to do was stroke their backs (careful not to touch the blowhole) as they slowly glided past us. Their skin was cold and smooth, a bit like rubber. Then we could "shake" flippers with them, they would rise out of the water and let you touch their flippers. They would also mimic you, I danced around and the dolphin "danced" in the water. Sylvia spun round she too was mimicked. The most amazing thing for me was being "kissed" by Santini. I bopped down a little in the water and she came to within a foot of me, then I put my hand under her chin and guided her to my cheek, it was such an amazing moment for me I almost cried! Afterwards I gently pushed her away and she swam off.

You could also have a dorsal fin tow around the lagoon. Unfortunately I couldn't join in with that as I'm having problems with my shoulder and wasn't able to swim out from the platform to hitch a ride with Santini and Ras. I was a little envious of the other people who were able to do that, it was amazing how the dolphins worded in unison to come each side of the person, close enough for the person to be able to hold onto their dorsal fins. It must have been such an exhilarating experience!

All through the Encounter Santini and Ras seemed to be having great fun, their bright, intelligent watching everything, they showed off leaping high into the air with ease, "walking" on water. I noticed that their tongues were very pink and had kind of frilled edges and they had lots of very small, conical teeth.

All too soon our time was up and after having a fun splashing fest with the dolphins we left them in peace in their lagoon. I felt really privileged (and lucky)to have had the chance to interact with these wonderful creatures, humans and dolphins really do seem to have some kind of natural "connection". I'll never, ever forget the time I spent with them, I won't even try to put it into words, all I can say is this was the highlight of the trip for me.

Friday 19 December 2008

Bono Parties in London

Bono attended the annual Freud Christmas Celebration in London last night. The event was hosted by PR pioneer Matthew Freud and his wife Elisabeth. Amongst those also attending were Guy Ritchie, Mick Jagger with girlfriend L'Wren Scott, Lily Allen, Claudia Winkleman and Piers Morgan.

Yer Man's looking very dapper nowadays! Nice.

Thursday 18 December 2008

The Big U2 News is Here!

Let the countdown begin! At last the big news has been announced, below is the announcement from of the new album's title and release date:

No Line On The Horizon, the new studio album from U2, will be released on Monday 2nd March 2009.

Written and recorded in various locations, No Line On The Horizon is the group’s 12th studio album and is their first release since the 9 million selling album How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, released in late 2004.

Sessions for No Line On The Horizon began last year in Fez, Morocco, continued in the band’s own studio in Dublin, before moving to New York’s Platinum Sound Recording Studios, and finally being completed at Olympic Studios in London.

The album calls on the production talents of long-time collaborators Brian Eno and Danny Lanois, with additional production by Steve Lillywhite

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Bono and Edge are The Everley Brothers!

Here the video of Bono and Edge's performance at the O2 in Dublin of Van Diemen's Land . It was recorded ten days ago and shown last night on The View TV programme on RTE. Is Bono's guitar just for decoration? Good percussion work though.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Re Big News

Heard that it's tomorrow now - the guys are on Irish Time........

Monday 15 December 2008

Big U2 News Imminent???

@U2 is saying that there will be some big U2 news within the next 24 hours ..... the single release date? Don't keep us hanging on let us know soon U2!!

Friday 12 December 2008

Bono Receiving the Peace Summit Award in Paris

PARIS - Nobel peace laureates gathered in Paris today, 12th December, to award Bono the annual "Man of Peace" prize for his crusade to tackle African debt, poverty and disease. He was given the Peace Summit Award by the Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe, who hosted the event, in presence of five Nobel winners, in recognition of two decades of global anti-poverty activism.

Read the full article here

Photo: The Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe and the former Mayor of Rome Walter Veltroni with Bono at the award ceremony - the B-man looking very good I must say!

Florida Holiday Part 4 - To the Florida Keys and Paradise on the Beach

Next morning we sadly left the serenity of Chokoloskee behind and headed off on Route 41, The Tamiami Trail. Our first stop en-route was Ochopee Post Office, said to be the smallest post office in the USA, and yes, it was tiny!

Route 41 was another very straight road that was easy to drive. There was slightly more habitation than on Route 75, but it was still quite a desolate road in parts. We stopped off at Shark River Visitor's Center and took one of the bus rides into the Everglades. There was a narrow seven mile road that was specially built that went to a 50 foot viewing tower where you could view the Everglades.

The driver was full of information, the main thing I remember is of how the Everglades got it's name. When it was under English rule, one man explored the area which reminded him of glades at home and called them the "forever glades" and this became the Everglades. That's an interesting snippet for you!

It was typical Everglades, flat, with occasional low mounds, grasses, mangroves. We saw countless alligators, from a massive ten footer to little babies merely a foot long and birds of all kinds. The view from the 50 foot tower was amazing, and close to its entrance an alligator lay sunning itself, no one went too near!

We continued on our journey and reached habitation once more in the form of Homestead and Florida City, neither looking too appealing, we were glad to be only travelling through. We had thought of staying in that area to access the Everglades, but had decided on Chokoloskee instead and now we realised what a wise decision that had been.

It wasn't long until we entered the first of the Florida Keys, Key Largo. To be honest it, didn't look that exciting at first. There were a lot of trees that blocked out the gulf/ocean views, there were buildings flanking the highway, not my image of the Keys.

We soon found our accommodation, the Bay Harbor Lodge, just off the Overseas Highway (the road that runs the length of the Keys). And there we found a little paradise! Situated right on the Bayside beach, lush vegetation, palm trees. The rooms were lovely, all had their own outside seating, and there were barbecues for visitors use. By the beach were sun loungers, tables and a tiki hut, there were also canoes and paddle boats for guest use. There was also a heavenly warm pool. It was gorgeous! I was so glad that we had our first three night stay in this lovely place. The delights of Key Largo are certainly well hidden!

We decided to have some retail therapy, as Key Largo is long and straggly and there's no real "centre" the shops are strung out over a few miles so you do need a car. I found my shoe heaven in a sandal outlet (won't tell you how many pairs I bought! LOL!). Then I found a designer outlet, oh dear! I loved every minute of the shopping.

Next day we had breakfast under the tiki hut by the water the next day, accompanied by cheeky squirrels and elegant egrets. The water of the gulf was calm and it was pleasantly warm., we saw the fin of a dolphin as it passed by. What a way to take breakfast!

We were taking a glass-bottomed boat trip to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef which lies a few miles off Key Largo. On the way through the narrow waterway from the dock to the open ocean we passed some fantastic houses, the rich certainly know where to live! Just as we entered the ocean proper the weather closed in and it got very windy, wet and surprisingly cold.

We chugged and rolled to the reef despite the weather. It slowed down when we got there and we all stood around the glass bottom to view the underwater scene. I found it a bit disappointing really, we saw quite a few fish. lots of jellyfish, various corals, but it wasn't as colourful and varied as I had expected. There were also large areas where the reef was dead which was sad to see. Maybe the inclement weather had something to do with it, possibly we couldn't get to the best parts of the reef because of it. The boat was rolling about a lot and quite a few people were seasick including my friend Sylvia - I felt a little queasy myself.

Most of the rest of the time I spent chilling at the Bay Harbor Lodge, it was the kind of place you could go to to totally unwind. Also, as it was not a large it was always peaceful and uncrowded and you never had to fight for a sun lounger! Also, being bayside we had glorious sunsets each night. So, once more, it was hard to leave when we had to head off down the road to our next destination.

Right - a particularly calm evening at the shore of the Bay Harbor Hotel

Bono And U2 on UK TV (Sort of!)

Bono and U2 are going to be the subjects of the spoof comedy mockumentary Star Stories on Channel 4 on Saturday 27th Dec at 22:35. Its quite an amusing show, though very irreverent and focuses on real events from the subjects' lives. Should be a laugh. I'm sure for those of you overseas someone will put it up on Youtube - unfortunately I'm too technically illiterate to manage that myself!

Thursday 11 December 2008

U2 Making a Video in London has reported that U2 were making a video yesterday in London with Alex Courtes. It is said that "there may have been some marching girls involved. With their boots on."

There was an article in Q Magazine saying that a song called "Get On Your Boots" described in this (also described as "Sexy Boots" in some places) was one of the possible songs on the new album. So could this be the first single?

Read the full article here

Tuesday 9 December 2008

First Performance at Dublin O2

Well Bono and Edge did get there first - they have performed at the new O2 venue (due to open offically next week) in Dublin. Irish radio RTÉ 2FM said that they made a surprise appearance there on Sunday night. They performed two songs, Desire and Van Diemen's Land in the empty arena. The performance was filmed and will aired on the programme The View on RTE Television in the near future. They were also interviewed and discussed the new album and the late Ronnie Drew. Unless you are lucky enough to live in Ireland and see the programme on TV, we'll have to look out for this on the Net over the next few weeks.

Florida Holiday Part 3 - The Back Country and Everglades

We had a long drive from Cocoa Beach to our next stop Chokoloskee Island on the West Coast about forty miles south of Naples. An American friend said that it was really away from it all but that's what we wanted for the Everglades part of the trip. There were places we could have stayed in Homestead/Florida City that were near a visitor's centre but we wanted to stay somewhere different, somewhere from where we could access the Everglades easily.

It was a long drive, six hours, but the roads were good and it was straightforward. Americans drive a lot slower than Europeans, the speed limits are lower too. I've also noticed that in general they are more patient and don't tailgate very often, so, though I was initially nervous about driving in the US (on the "wrong" side of the road!) I soon was very comfortable with it. Route 75, the Everglades Parkway, also nicknamed Alligator Alley, went straight through the Everglades, east to west. There were very few signs of habitation along the road, most of the time the road was just flanked by mile upon mile of Everglades grasses and mangroves.

We rolled into Everglades City, close to Chokoloskee Island. "City" was a bit of a misnomer which often happens in the US, the names of places often sound bigger than they actually are. Everglades City was a very small town, picture perfect, wide streets, wooden houses painted in bright colours, picket fences, very pretty - and very quiet.

After a couple of wrong turnings we found the road to Chokoloskee and were soon on the causeway over the sea that links the two places, being a small island we found our accommodation, the Parkway Motel and Marina, easily. The rooms were lovely, large (we had what the Americans call an efficiency - with cooking facilities), spotlessly clean, with chairs and table outside on the porch. The area was a mix of private housing, rentals, and motels centered around fishing which the area is well known for. It was neat and tidy and so peaceful. The sea was a short walk from our accommodation and we went there to watch the sunset. Chokoloskee is at the southern end of the area known as the 10,000 Islands, and there were various green flat islands on the near horizon. The sunset was breathtakingly beautiful, the only sounds were occasional bird cries.

The owners of the park were lovely and very helpful and we went to a restaurant in Everglades City they recommended. The Camellia Lounge was situated right on the Barron River and boats kept passing by. Being "in the sticks" the restaurant was full of friendly locals which gave it an authentic small town American feel. Whilst there a man was singing country songs on an acoustic guitar, now I'm not a country music fan, but here it was right somehow. We had a wonderful meal with the owners famous salads - all ingredients from her garden including orange marigold petals which made it look so pretty!

Next day we had a delicious breakfast at the Back Country Cafe in Everglades City before going to Speedy Johnston's place just up the road for an airboat ride in the Everglades. The boat we went on was small it took just six passengers (later in the trip we saw huge boats on the eastern side of the Everglades with at least 20-25 people on board). We left the dock slowly and the driver stopped and stood on his seat and looked around. Then he pointed out a large wake in the water and said "Look there, it's a manatee!" I was really excited and had hoped to see one in the wild. The manatee, on cue, slowly lifted it's head out of the water and looked at us, then he slowly dived down and with a flip of his thick rudder of a tail was out of our sight. A brief glimpse, but it made my day! The driver said that in January there are lots of manatees in the area.

We then continued on into the maze of narrow waterways flanked by mangroves, if you didn't know your way it would be very easy to get lost. But our driver knew every inch of the waterways, and at times really pulled out the throttle and we got a bit damp at times as we whizzed along, it was very exhilarating! He was also very knowledgeable about the Everglades.

The mangroves were amazing, their roots twisted into weird forms both above and below the water - the effect doubled by the crystal clear reflections in the water. Amongst these we saw plenty of alligators, seemingly nonchalant about the noisy boats passing by, not moving at all. Amazing vegetation, alligators, a manatee, egrets, herons, and turkey vultures circling on thermals high above made this a nature lovers paradise.

Afterwards we returned to Chokoloskee and visited Smallwoods Store/Museum. Ted Smallwood came to Chokoloskee Island in 1906 and opened a trading post and post office there. This store remained active, run by Ted and then his daughters, until 1982. Ted's grand daughter re-opened it as a museum and many of the items on show now are those that were there when the store closed.

Smallwood's was an amazing place, built on stilts reached by a flight of steps. Inside it was quite small and I felt like I stepped back in time when I entered, it was crammed with everyday items from the past, foodstuffs, magazines, household items and a life-sized model of Ted sitting in the rocking chair he always sat in when he was alive. There were ledgers and lists written by Ted, Smallwood family items and photos and a room that his daughters had lived in that was touchingly personal.

There was also an area dedicated to the history of South West Florida, and Ted's close relationship with the local people - he even spoke their language. The island was created by the Calusa Indians by making a shell mound, and indeed I noticed the white shells on the ground close to the museum.

In one corner there was a DVD playing showing how difficult life was in Chokoloskee in the past, Only the hardy could cope with life on the island then. Even electricity only arrived in 1955 when the causeway between it and Everglades City was built. All in all the small museum was an absolutely fascinating place that gave a good insight into life in this island in the past.

I again went to watch the sunset, as the sun dropped below the horizon a beautiful red glow illuminated the landscape. Chokoloskee was a place where nature still ruled, beautiful, sometimes harsh, but with an incredible timelessness and peace about it. I just loved it's quietness, the sense of being far, far away from the mad, modern world and I was sad to have to leave that all behind the following day.

Sunset on Chokoloskee Island

Thursday 4 December 2008

Welcome to Pepsi!

I've got my new puppy! He's a little sweetie and doing very well considering that he has left his mother and brothers and sister only today. My other Dachshund Max has been brilliant with him, very friendly and patient, so different to how he was with the greyhound, but of course little Pepsi is no threat at all to him. I got Pepsi a little bed but he much rather goes into Max's basket and Max squeees into Pepsi's! Dogs eh? My friend Debbi thought of the name Pepsi, so now I have Pepsi Max!

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Florida Holiday Part 2 - Kennedy Space Center

We arrived at our destination, Cocoa Beach, in the dark due to the three hour delay at the car hire office in Miami. Because of this it took us a while to find our accommodation, but eventually - and with a huge sigh of relief - we found it. The Luna Sea Motel (great name eh?) was a nice place and much better than the hotel we stayed at in Miami.

Next day it was a short drive to Cape Canaveral to visit the Kennedy Space Center. For me it was a dream come true to go to this place. As far back as I can remember I have been fascinated by space, astronomy, the stars, planets, and space travel. I'd always followed the Apollo missions and can remember clearly staying up into the early hours to watch Neil Armstrong take the first human step onto the moon on TV. As a youngster I used to watch the wonderfully eccentric Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night (which is still running today, the BBC's longest running TV programme) to learn more about the cosmos. I even wanted to be an astronomer, but had to give up on that when I realised that maths was not an strong point of mine! But to this day I still am fascinated by the night sky and humankind's journey's into the unknown.

The Kennedy Space Centre was quite busy, but as it was extremely well organised it didn't feel crowded, there were plenty of places to eat, sit and loads of toilets, Americans are so good at organising places like this.

The first thing we did was take the tour around the site. We drove past the huge building where they "stack" the rockets and Shuttle Orbiter. Nearby was a "crawler" the machine which take the orbiter from the building to the launch site. It travels at one mile per hour and each tread on the "caterpillar" treads weigh one ton. We stopped at a point which is as near as we could get to the launch pad and we could see the Shuttle Endeavour on the pad ready for it's blast off on 14th November.

Our next stop was the Saturn 5/Apollo building. We first saw a film about the development of rocket propulsion, the Saturn 5 rocket and the Apollo space programme. They showed a blast off at very close quarters and it was awe-inspiring, the power of it sent shivers down my spine. It was very interesting and quite moving at times and made me realise all the more just what heroes astronauts are.

We went through a door and what I saw took my breath away. In front of me were the five massive engines at the base of a full size Saturn 5 rocket! I walked under it in sheer amazement. It dwarfed the people in the building. The command module and lunar module were also there. All the badges from each Apollo mission were on display too. I remember I collected those badges when I was a youngster.

The next stop was was the area that is involved with the Space Station. You could walk through one of the modules and also watch people at work on projects for the Space Station from a viewing gallery.

There were rather odd looking fences around the buildings that curved over. The guide told us these were to stop the alligators from climbing over them. As well as being a space facility the Cape Canaveral area is also a massive nature reserve. The very nature of the place, being secure and keeping the public away from most areas means it is a paradise for wildlife. Some, like the alligators, try to get too close for comfort hence the curved fences.

Back at the Visitor Centre we went to the Shuttle Launch Simulator. First you watched a film of a launch to let you know what to expect - to some degree. Then we went into the simulator and were strapped into the seats. The first thing that happened was that the simulator tilted you 45 degrees, then there was a massive roar and then the shuttle started to shake violently - we'd blasted off! The shaking was strong, but of course the G forces that the astronauts endure as they shoot into space at 17,000 miles per hour couldn't be simulated.

Then very suddenly after eight and a half minutes the shaking stops and there is silence. We are in space. The roof of the "shuttle" opens and there above us is the beautiful blue earth, a breathtaking sight. The simulator gave us a little insight into what it is like to go into space in a Shuttle. The thing that struck me most was that after just eight and a half minutes you can be in orbit in space!

Our next stop was the IMAX theatre to watch a film about the development of the space programme to get men on the moon. It included many of the astronauts who were part of that programme. Again I found it fascinating and admired those space pioneers from the 1960's who eventually achieved that goal.

By now it was almost 4pm, we'd been at the Kennedy Space Center for seven hours! The time had flown.

Our last port of call was to attend a Meet an Astronaut talk. the astronaut today was John Blaha who amongst many other things had flown on five Shuttle missions and had spent months on the Space Station.

He gave a good talk, and considering all his achievements was very down to earth (can an astronaut be down to earth??!) and unassuming. He talked about his time in the Space station with accompanying slides. He told us about some of the experiments they did. He also talked about how long periods in space affect the human body - it causes muscle wastage and loss of bone density. Even when they undertake exercise programmes to reduce this it still happens to a degree.

After the talk John said he would be happy to pose for photos for anyone who wanted one so I got my photo taken with him (not the most flattering picture of me unfortunately).

And that was it, the end of a long day at the Kennedy Space Centre. It was everything I'd hoped for and more. It was informative, fascinating and well worth the money. Being there took me back to my childhood, to the days when, as a wide-eyed youngster in times when anything seemed possible, I'd followed every step of the space programme. I still feel some of that wonder when I look up at the night sky even now. NASA wants to get people on the moon again and to venture further afield. Maybe some of the boys and girls that were at the Visitors Center that day will be inspired to become the astronauts of the future.

Back to Reality

Well, after my few weeks of galavanting abroad I'm home for the forseeable future. I so enjoyed my trips to the USA and Ireland and over the next few weeks will be writing about them in here in my blog, so keep checking in here.

On Thursday I'm getting a puppy. He's an eight week old mini wire-haired Dachshund, as yet nameless. Seeing my dog Max couldn't cope with a huge greyhound I went the other way and am getting something that is actually smaller than him! I don't think there will be any problems this time with Max, he's been fine with friends puppies. No Name is just so cute, here's a photo of him.

Monday 1 December 2008


U2 have recorded a cover of Greg Lake's I Believe in Father Christmas for (RED)WIRE. This is a subscription music site where some of the proceeds go to the RED organisation to help those in Africa. It was launched today.

U2's version of the song is great! You can find out more about the site and listen to U2's song (and others) here