Monday, February 23, 2009

Sunday walking in the Wicklow Mountains - The Spinc trail

For its easy access, well marked path, beauty and being just the right length, The Spinc and Glenealo Valley trail in Glendalough, County Wicklow, has to be one of my favourite ‘Sunday Walks’ and probably one of the best walks in Leinster.

Pros, hikers and other extreme walking creatures will tell you there are plenty of routes and beauty spots to be discovered in the Wicklow Mountains without the crowds of popular Glendalough, but beware: maps of the routes and other useful (and essential) details on the terrain for us amateurs is scarce. Google searching for maps is enough to put you off walking altogether if you are having a good day, enough to drive you insane if you are having a bad one.
Glendalough’s trails, on the other hand, are almost ‘idiot-proof’, easily explained and classified according to levels and manageable for walkers of all types.

There are three trails involving the ‘Spinc’ - all circuit walks:

-Red trail:
Heading up the Spinc and then linking up with the famous Wicklow Way (there is a dedicated website www.Wicklow lacks the detail of the trails at Glenda Lough, if you are not a ‘hardcore walker’ you will not find much useful information for you, which is a shame). 11km (4 hours approx.)

-White trail:
Spinc and Glenealo Valley. 9 km (3 hours and a half walk approx.)

-Blue trail:
Shorter version cutting through the forest. 5 km (2 hours approx.)

The White Trail takes you up to the Spinc (or ‘pointed hill’) overlooking the Upper Lake of Glendalough, around the boggy Glenealy Valley and down back to the car park along the Miners’ Trail. Starting the walk from the left hand side of the lake will allow you to get the sharpest climb of the walk out of the way at the beginning, which tends to be an easier approach. After conquering the 600+ steps that take you to the top of the Spinc, the route becomes much easier.
A boardwalk takes you along the ridge (with some photo spots on the way) and down to the valley, where the path eventually becomes a rough stoney track (but who cares? we are going downhill now…). Overall, it is a very enjoyable circuit with amazing views of the valley of Glendalough, perfect for a Sunday outing and long enough to get you some fresh air and renewed energy to start the week...


-The Best of Walking in Glendalough:
Very well marked paths and trails, explaining difficulty and type of terrain.

-The Worst of Walking in Glendalough:
It is ALWAYS crowded. The best time to go is probably January, when some hotels are closed. The higher level of the walk, the smaller amount of people you will encounter though. Definitely avoid Bank Holiday weekends.

You can find a listing of all trails at:
How to get there- if you don‘t have a car: (from Dublin city and Bray)

Monday, February 16, 2009

3 scams you should know about before travelling to La Habana

Travelling in Cuba is safe, it is not a myth. However, travelers need to be aware of one of the things more likely to put them off ever going back there again: hustlers.

Having said that, the ‘hustling phenomenon’ seems to be almost exclusive to Habana (and Varadero). In places like Matanzas and Pinar del Rio, hustlers just seem to be non-existent, and friends travelling further afield to the East of the country seem to confirm similar experiences.

A fact that is helping the ‘hustlers’ business’ is general ignorance about the double currency system in place in the country. Most tourists in package holidays seem to be unaware of the fact that there are two currencies in Cuba: Peso Convertible and Peso (also called Moneda Nacional or MN). Ditch the Lonely Planet, no guide can keep up with the changes happening in Cuba, specially in relation to currency matters, the importance (or lack of it) of the US dollar, the status of the euro, etc… Take Euros with you and get them changed ONLY in official places (at the time of travelling, I had made the mistake of changing Euros for US dollars only to find that the change to Pesos Convertibles from dollars was penalised by 10%, as well as having a terrible exchange rate).

Basically one Peso Convertible is almost the same value as one Euro and will buy you approximately 27 Pesos (MN). While you will pay (over pay) in ‘Convertibles’ in cafes, shops and access to attractions (such as the Museo de La Revolución); you can use ‘Pesos’ (MN) in street food stalls (pizzas and cakes in people’s ground floor), fruit markets and some cafes aimed at Cubans (very few, though). Be alert and watch your money.

Taking this into account, these are 3 of the most popular scams you are likely to encounter in La Habana:

-The Coin with Che
We all want to go to Cuba to see the ‘real Cuba’, and get back home with great souvenirs. Not just the same old funny-looking ashtray made of coconut shell or the voluptuous mulata-incense-holder, we want ‘the real Cuban souvenir’. So for those not aware of the double currency issue, a coin with the face of Che is a great opportunity to show off in front of friends and family back at home. This guy is so great he will not make any money from it, you see? It says 3 pesos on the coin and that is exactly what he will do: he will swap with you his Che 3 pesos coin for YOUR 3 pesos coin (Convertibles though!!!). You might come home as happy as Larry but you could have got nine of those for one euro if you had gone to the bank. AREAS of ACTION: seen often outside Capitolio.

-The Milk Scam
She has a hungry baby or so you are told. You might be a bit wary but she assures you she doesn’t want any money, powder milk (a luxury for Cubans) is all she is after. So you go and buy her some powder milk for her hungry baby in the nearest shop, and you go back to your hotel or ‘casa particular’ feeling great about yourself, after all you are not just giving money to beggars, you are doing something Good, with capital G. Anybody would fall for that, right? I wouldn’t want to hurt your feelings but what this woman will do next is go back to the shop and get ‘your’ Convertible money back (or at least a fraction of it). And the child isn’t even hers. AREAS of ACTION: usually hanging around the park across the road from Hotel Inglaterra and the Galician Centre.

-The hungry kid
As Cuban friend Mirta said to me once: no one dies of hunger in Cuba. She might be disappointed on Fidel but let’s call a spade a spade. Hungry kids in La Habana don’t ask you for a bite of your ‘pan con lechon’ or a sip of your ‘jugo de guayaba’, they will ask you for ‘a dollar, sir’ or ‘a dollar, lady’. What they are going to do with the dollar, I don’t know, but it will definitely take away their hunger. AREAS of ACTION: As the number of naïve tourists increases, kids seem to go ‘hungrier’ around Habana Vieja, but you may find them in other parts of the city.

Useful Tips to enjoy Cuba:

-Don’t listen to stories, whatever you are told NEVER change money on the street (on top of getting a raw deal, you could actually get jailed for it).

-Always check your change and ask for a receipt to check if you are being overcharged (if they don’t want to give you one, chances are you probably ARE being ripped off).

-Enjoy the street food and fruit markets – mainly located in Centro Habana and Vedado - like Cubans do (here you should only pay in Moneda Nacional).

-Less is More: as far as hustlers go, language barriers are almost a blessing and will help you resist their incredible pester-power. Not understanding could save you from being dragged into more complex and convincing scams Spanish-speakers usually fall for.

-Using taxis could actually save you money. Walking through some areas of the city at night-time (such as Centro Habana) is not recommended. While it isn’t particularly dangerous, you do run the risk of getting your bag taken or suffering other minor petty crime incident. If a Cuban says an area is a ‘no-go’ at night time, believe it. Only one thing: make sure you get a fair deal for your taxi ride home.

-If you want to find paradise, avoid popular Varadero and go for any of the other many ‘Cayos’ in the island. Cayo Levisa, off the coast of Pinar del Rio, has all the peace and quite you miss in Habana - but bring along plenty of mosquito repellant.

In short:

After living two months in La Habana, I felt a mixture of sadness and joy when leaving: sadness leaving some great people behind but happiness at the prospect of being able to sit to read a book in a park without someone coming to piss me off (excuse the language) for one reason or the other. By the end of it I was sick of: hustlers, park attendants, museum guards, kids in general, police, taxi drivers and poorly looking dogs (if you are an animal-lover you will not like Habana).

-Worst of travelling to La Habana: the constant fight with hustlers and other chancers.
-Best of travelling to La Habana: If you are lucky enough to have friends in Cuba (or friends of friends), meeting them and seeing first-hand the genuine Cuban hospitality will save your image of the country.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

5 Restaurants worth a visit in Ireland

Tried and tested.
In no particular order:

-Sha Roe Bistro (Clonegal, Co. Wexford/Carlow border)
-The Wicklow Heather (Laragh, Co. Wicklow)
-The Oar House (Howth, Co. Dublin)
-Co-op cafe (Cork city)
-The Tavern pub and restaurant (Murrisk, Co. Mayo)

Valentine's Day is overrated …

Valentine’s Day is overrated but it is definitely a good excuse to get out and do something with your weekend. These are some options worth considering:

1-No man is an island.

Remote and beautiful are the best way to describe places such as Inishbofin and the Aran Islands. lists all the islands off the coast of Ireland, making ‘choosing’ your island extremely easy. It has an interactive map with a comprehensive list of resources, allowing you to search for accommodation and services, check sailing times and activities available in each of the islands.

2-City lights- Dublin and Cork.

Dublin and Cork offer a great range of activities all year round from theatre to concerts, great cosy cafes and excellent restaurants. Those things us townies miss from our daily mucky lives. For cinema lovers: Dublin hosts the Jameson International Film Festival from the 12th until the 22nd of February. Cork doesn’t even need an excuse. Give me Cork any time. The Kino cinema has art house movies as good as those in any film festival, without the queues for the tickets and the ‘book well in advance’ warning.


The weather this year might not be ideal to go exploring places like Carraontouil or The Spink but walking is A/ good for you and B/ it will open your apetite for dinner time. has a search engine with a range of walking trails in Ireland for walkers of all levels. For a more relaxed outdoor Valentine, Altamont Gardens, just outside Tullow, in County Carlow, celebrate their Snowdrop Week from 9th February until 15th February.

-Best of Valentine’s Day: Eating out.

-Worst of Valentine’s Day: Cheesy cards with stale declarations of love such as ‘The key to my heart’ and ‘You are the one I love’.

Snowing in Gorey - Co. Wexford