Sicily – birding a bare island

There are birds to see in Sicily although it doesn’t appear so at first glance. Aside from some crows and starlings we saw none on fence posts, none flying overhead and none in the fields during our initial bumpy introduction to Sicily’s autostradas. Birding the island is patchy so you must be reasonably single-minded and cover it all. You need inside knowledge and careful timing, too, all of which made it difficult for me given the nature of our visit and that neither Mission Control nor our companions were birders. I had to get my birds where I could and adopt an opportunistic approach to osservare gli uccelli. Before we travelled I’d assumed I’d see very little and although it wouldn’t be entirely honest to say I was pleasantly surprised I did record 109 species and could have done better. Nonetheless, I found the total birding experience in Sicily to be less than the sum of its parts.

The island gets a bad press and deservedly so because by and large it doesn’t give the birds much chance. Areas described as riserva naturale have virtually no protection and those not yet cultivated or developed live a charmed life as the authorities can be exceedingly – to coin a phrase – malleable. The current favourite is wind energy, where Italy pays a whopping €180 per kwh generated. Last year police disrupted corrupt plans to erect a discordant backdrop of wind turbines overlooking the World Wildlife Fund [WWF] reserve at Trapani and, in Mazara del Vallo, arrests have been made for bribing officials for permits to erect unapproved turbines. You’d believe that someone outside those deals would notice a 100m tower being erected so what on earth were they thinking? The travesty is that minimal protection and management could transform Sicily but it has its head so far up its nepotistic backside that the chances of conservation even making it to the agenda are non-existent unless ‘opportunities’ are exploited. That said, I can appreciate that a lot needs sorting out before a put-upon and disenfranchised population can be encouraged to embrace the esoteric values of wildlife conservation.

Organised trips that target specific sites provide notable birding and are necessarily supported by the rest that Sicily offers – Mediterranean weather and scenery, great food, historical culture and all those gaily-painted fishing boats. But if you are serious about your birding there are other places to go and there’s the rub, because Sicily has a lot going ornithologically; this spring a Bar-tailed lark and an Atlas flycatcher were recorded – very special birds for European birders. Sicily holds the only wintering group of Pallas’s gulls in Europe as well the only Italian-breeding Bonelli’s eagles. Migration across the Straits of Messina can be spectacular and an internationally important population of Lanner falcon and endemics such as the Sicilian Rock partridge and Long-tailed tit are worth the air fare alone. Why is it then that conservation and its consequent nature tourism – given all the other delights on offer – isn’t a better deal here? I concluded that Sicilians mostly don’t like birds – unless they are served with a passable Nero D’Avola, that is. In Pozzo di Mazza we were woken early on Saturday morning by continuous blasts from propane cannon bird scarers before local hunters went on to spend the weekend shooting across the adjoining fields and above our heads in an alarming barrage. The coordination of explosions from cannons and shooting led me to suspect that the former weren’t used to scare birds away from crops [after all, they didn’t use them during the week] but instead to keep them in the air for the benefit of the latter. Just ponder the logic of that for a moment. The same thing happened at Corte del Sole near Vendicari, suggesting it was common practice. At Lago della Priola, another WWF reserve, even putative birders are denied unaccompanied access for fear of them secreting guns into the bird hide or using the tiny remaining piece of endemic woodland for firewood. You wonder how that could be a concern when Sicily employs over 26000 people in its forestry department – more than they employ in British Columbia.

It appears that, a few good men such as Andrea Corso and Antonini at WWF or the hard-working volunteers at CABS notwithstanding, no one who can really make a difference gives a flying whatever; especially where money can be made. I was humbled by Antonini’s calm determination and persistence in the face of insurmountable barriers – he represents WWF locally and has been working with them for twenty years – but confess to being less than comfortable with the brand of nature tourism we bring. It provides a pleasant sojourn in the sun, holiday-island accompaniments, that list of interesting – and sometimes exciting – birds and, probably, a very nice set of photographs but it doesn’t give much back. I couldn’t, for example, find one reference to contact with conservation organisations on any of the birding holiday websites. Certainly some money trickles into the economy but it’s channeled neither into conservation nor a local organisation that might eventually ease these issues onto the agenda. Trips that target a list of species in pleasant surroundings merely perpetuate an archaic and ultimately self-defeating situation.

When we stayed near Selinunte we awoke each morning to a silence broken only by the sound of occasional passing cars. There was no birdsong at all, not even a chirping sparrow. The adjacent fields were liberally covered with spent shotgun cartridges and although it might be different in spring the picture was there to see. Sicily is unique and has huge potential but it needs to find a way for conservation and appreciation of a rapidly-diminishing natural heritage to gain at least as much kudos as self-interest and destructive machismo.

 Without that, even the listers and nature tourists won’t have anything to come for.


Sicily – the boys from Syracuse market

I avoid being an itinerant tourist, preferring to stay in one place and getting to know it inside out even when it means missing something just down the road. Sicily made that difficult; with so much on offer we’d decided before we travelled to get as big a picture as possible and, if it delivered on its promises, come back and stay for a while. Consequently, we didn’t plan anything in detail because on the one hand there would be so much to see and on the other, plenty to avoid; we’d stay light on our feet.

We’d arranged to visit with friends and had initially set out to spend a couple of weeks together but despite best intentions and a year talking about it over ‘Sicilian-themed’ lunches the plan was disrupted by business commitments, migration in Sweden and our forthcoming trip to Dubai. By the time we’d eventually fixed flights it worked out that they would arrive a week or so after us and we’d have to leave several days before them, leaving just a few days together in the middle. Mission Control eased us through this by booking a few places to anchor the Grand Tour, between which we’d drift in the direction the wind took us.

Pozzo di Mazza was perfect for our introduction to Sicily. As well as being handily located to visit some of the sites recommended by Andrea Corso, it was close enough to Siracusa to spend plenty of time in the city. The agriturismo provided a relaxing and authentic springboard to the south-east corner of the island.

Agriturismi are a popular and relatively inexpensive way of holidaying in Italy. The term, in a statement of the obvious, means ‘agricultural tourism’ and was formalised in the mid 1980s as a means of putting some life back into the rural economy by allowing working farms the opportunity to supplement their income with tourist accommodation. Given this basis it means that standards can vary and whilst that is clearly part of the charm our experience in using them over many years has been excellent. And so it was at Pozzo di Mazza. We were provided with good and satisfying food derived from local produce and near-perfect preserves, a lot of which we’ve hauled back. The rooms were spotless, the staff simply charming and there was also a refreshing and welcome absence of television. That meant that guests were left to their own devices although it clearly didn’t suit one Dutch couple who bleated about the place being too quiet, too isolated and too far from any bars. It was actually very pleasant to sit under the quiet, shaded terrace outside the room or in the garden although I was frustrated at the lack of internet access, as all my information for the trip sat in the cloud and was consequently inaccessible.

We knew something of Siracusa before we arrived but weren’t prepared for the sheer magnificence of the crumbling and decrepit buildings, matched in intricacy of detail only by the service and communication cables strung along and between them. Siracusa and its adjoining island Ortigia were largely rebuilt in 1693 after a devastating earthquake in a style that became known as ‘Sicilian Baroque’ and this forms a chiaroscuro backdrop to Greco-Roman and Norman relics. Together they create an intense ambiance of history and immediately we’d absorbed the initial visual impact we knew we’d be back for a longer stay. Like many Italian cities, Siracusa makes one want to live and breathe it. We walked narrow streets and courtyards and, in the Piazza Duomo, watched a Siracusan tableau unfold as its residents married or enjoyed an evening stroll or, like us, simply sipped a slow Spritz.

Siracusa was established on Ortigia in about 734BC and was the most significant city-state in the Mediterranean. I guess the vendors in the market were probably shouting much the same thing then as we heard when we squeezed between the stalls below the market hall. That isn’t in use these days – due, I suspect, to the endemic lack of maintenance – but we did spend a lot of time in the not-to-be-missed delicatessen I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti. Our only regret was that we didn’t have a nearby kitchen as I can’t wait to get back to the widest range of Sicilian wines I’ve ever seen and an exquisite olive oil scented with orange juice, but that will be remedied next time. Walking Mercato di Ortigia and coming out the other end without buying something was a frustrating experience but in brief but sublime compensation we had lunch in a market restaurant supplied by one of the fish vendors; Ristorante Il Porticciolo in via Trento. We ate fried baby fish, risotto with saffron, pistachio and prawns and ravioli of minced prawn in a tomato and ricotta sauce. The [of course] local wine was recommended by the restaurant and was exactly matched, making the entire experience perfetto.

A lot to see and come back for but before that we’d be taking a long, circuitous drive north and west to meet Greg and Vibeke in Palermo.

Sicily – down on the farm

The guy at the car rental desk didn’t say ‘forget about it’ once, which was disappointing. This was, after all, the land that spawned mobsters and, ultimately, The Sopranos. We’ve spent a lot of time in Italy and, on occasion, been victims of the minor scams that proliferate in and around car rental agencies. Sometimes it’s been difficult to shield oneself from the national pastime of adding little ‘extras’ to the bill like refuelling, booking or administration fees, drop-off charges that weren’t mentioned when you made your reservation or, as I’ve just read in an exasperated forum post, the cost of two replacement wheels. In Sicily it was autostrada tax, which isn’t a great cost and wouldn’t be so bad, I guess, if the money was spent on improving the roads. It’s not, of course. But the island is huge so despite there being a cute rail system between the main points you need a car if you want to get off the beaten track.

We had rented the smallest car available – an essential asset where streets are narrow, parking is impossible and most of the oncoming vehicles are on your side of the road – before setting-off for a little agriturismo near Siracusa. The route from Palermo through Termini Imerese and Catania is autostrada all the way to Cassibile. There wasn’t a lot of traffic but as we bounced and swayed our way down the uneven surface I became increasingly convinced that either one of the distracted drivers hurtling past me – I was driving at 130kph or so – or a hidden pothole would inflict catastrophic damage on our already battle-scarred banger. The roads really are in a very sad condition, but then a lot of Sicily looks a little threadbare. I read that public works tendering is unprincipled in Sicily; that once a contract is let for a road project it’s sold on to a lower bidder then sold on again so that the work eventually ends up being undertaken for a fraction of it’s real worth. The autostrada felt and looked like it had been constructed with cheap cutlery.

Once I’d lifted my eyes from the road, however, the landscape provided expansive, sun-bleached vistas. It was parched and pretty much given over to cultivation so it was interesting and not interesting at the same time, so to speak. Then, as the terrain broke up and became steeper, the hill towns of Enna and Calascibetta came into spectacular view; a perfect place for a break and a perfect chance to take in, for the first time, the unique essence of Sicily. We drove up to Calascibetta and sat in the square beside local residents – Enna gets the tourists – and lunched on panzerotti [bread filled with vegetables], a glass of vino rosso and our first gelato. It was so pleasant in the shade of the huge trees – I didn’t realise at that early stage of our trip just how rare an experience that would prove to be in Sicily – that I barely stirred as a Short-toed treecreeper paraded in front of us.

Andrea Corso had recommended we stayed at Pozza di Mazza and we got there just as the afternoon turned golden. It was all pan and barrel tiles, stone walls and terraces in the open. The rooms were airy, the pool excellent and the quiet, green garden immediately delivered a Black-eared wheatear.



Island life

If Bornholm was in the Mediterranean or Caribbean it would probably be described as a pearl, in the manner that quaint and verdant holiday islands are. You’ve read it in travel brochures and possibly the less than objective but ‘Bornholm – pearl of the Baltic’ doesn’t really work and I’m struggling to find the appropriate cognomen for a place that’s unique, green and very attractive in parts, hosts nearly three-quarters of a million holidaymakers each year during its short summer season but which still seems, despite initiatives and huge effort to bring more tourists aboard, to fall short of appearing at the top of bucket lists.

Bornholm has a lot of history and works hard at attracting tourists since fishing all but collapsed in the 1990s – less than 300 work in fishing now out of an island population of 42000 – but it has few claims to fame; breeding Tengmalm’s owls, round churches, a small ceramics industry, some attractive countryside and an increasingly important food sector are about it. The owls are very difficult to see at this time of year (being nocturnal in most things they do), we didn’t have time to visit any of the churches and pottery sucks so that left the culinary angle. After all, the principal reason for being on the island was to enjoy Sol Over Gudhjem, a competition for international chefs that takes its name from a local dish (smoked herring, raw onion and egg yolk) and which aims to promote Bornholm’s local produce and ‘gourmet tourism’.

We’d decided – not without some trepidation on my part – to forego the car and arrive, in what I like to think of as the true spirit of this picturesque corner of Denmark, with only our bikes. So, attired in tee-shirts and sneakers with newly-purchased saddle-bags strapped on, we boarded the ferry in Ystad – just down the road – for the crossing to Rønne, the main town on the island. Actually, I thought we looked fetching and rather sporty. We know a little about the Danes so the ungainly scramble for coffee and elbowing for seats was less of a shock than the sight of hoards of Danish cyclists kitted out to survive a combination of Arctic storm and tropical deluge. I hadn’t seen so much professional weather-protection before and, as the front gate on the catamaran was lowered ahead of docking, Mission Control was nervously tugging at the hem of her shorts as all around us zips were pulled, Velcro straps tightened and the general rustle of breathable, waterproof shell jackets reached a crescendo.

As we swept onto the dockside we felt very under-dressed but the weather forecast had been mixed and light rain was only a possibility late in the afternoon. It was bright as we turned north and we’d easily cover the 25km to Allinge, where we were booked into the charming but snug Byskrivergaarden Hotel Garni, before then. And we almost made it. The cycle track, a stunningly-pretty route through forests and along shoreline cliff tops well away from main roads, was a joy. At every turn there was wildlife, the perfume of woodland in summer and all around us the song of Wood warblers, Thrush nightingales and Redstarts. By the half-way point the sun was shining and we sat at the Café Emajoka in Hasle harbour with coffee and very passable apple cake discussing plans for future – and more adventurous – cycle expeditions. Cycling was to be our desideratum; we had conjoined with nature and life was wonderful.

By the time the weather closed in and the rain started we were at the point aircraft reach when in mid-Atlantic; too far to turn back and still a long way to go. With water running down my back and dripping off my nose I suddenly understood all those microfibre-lined jackets and tight-fitting cuffs. Visibility was down to about 50m in Allinge and we probably looked a sad sight as we made our solitary and sodden way to the waterfront and the hotel. But by evening the sky was clearing and the rain stopped. Stepping over puddles we made our way to meet friends at Det Gamle Posthus in Allinge. This was recommended as the best restaurant in town and it was pretty good; well-served tapas, fresh local plaice and Svaneke ‘Gold’ beer contributed to a great evening and the forecast for next day was optimistic – sunshine and temperatures above twenty degrees.

We woke to bright sunshine and the island looked different under a cloudless sky. Gudhjem, a picturesque hamlet below wooded hills with two small harbours and a profusion of smokery chimneys, was warm and thronged with visitors. A food market displaying that local produce surrounded the competition arena and TV crews jostled with visiting cruise ship passengers for the best vantage points. As the chefs conjured up dishes that artfully arranged tiny morsels of pork neck with cornflowers and radish (it’s a small island, OK?) we toured the market stalls, sampling smoked herring, sausage and chocolate; wine and oil, honey, soft ice cream (the residents’ favourite treat) and ice cold ‘Sol over Gudhjem’ beer from Svaneke, brewed especially for the occasion. We sampled quite a lot of the beer during the afternoon, to be honest. The standard of the produce on offer was high; this was clearly Bornholm at its best and it was thoroughly enjoyable. I wondered, though, how many of the people complimenting the gourmet delights surrounding us would be scuttling back to their campsites for kebab and chilli sauce, which is a Danish staple.

At the after-party we sipped chilled champagne on the quayside as Bornholm’s clear blue sky turned midsummer white. Dinner later was over on the west coast at Le Port in Vang, which is located high on cliffs and has stunning views to Sweden. A superb meal of smoked cod and veal, a near-perfect Sancerre and excellent service made nonsense of the increasingly tangential Tripadvisor. This place really is very good and the only cloud on the horizon, so to speak, was the cloud gathering over Sweden and drifting in our direction.

By morning the sky was overcast, a sea mist surrounded us and rain was imminent. Nevertheless, we were on our bikes and heading south along cycle route 10 again in an effort to get to Rønne before the downpour. We weren’t even close and being made to wait in torrential rain while cars boarded the ferry ahead of us turned ‘being wet’ into ‘thoroughly soaked’. When we eventually boarded the ferry appeared full – all the seats were taken – as campers and desolate Danish tourists tried to keep children amused and dogs quiet while fending off boredom with family-sized white Toblerone.

We liked Bornholm and have talked about visiting again, perhaps after the summer season, but we’ve been warned by those who say they know that the island closes when the campers, cyclists and gourmet tourists stop coming. I suspect the gourmet food producers take a holiday themselves then but I’m certain we’ll be able to get a kebab. Meanwhile, I’ll have a look at waterproof coats, just in case.

It’s business; not personal – but at least it’s cleaned up

I wonder if disappointment is indirectly proportional to expectation or if, as is more likely, I’ve simply become less easy to please with time and experience. When we first made the drive down to the Keys my expectations weren’t high. Plans to be in Manila the previous week had foundered for a variety of reasons and, back in those heady days of believing in indispensability and a life spent commuting, our busy schedules said ‘away from the office’ and that’s where we had to be. So Florida it was and I’d travelled under mild protest, having been seduced with stories of diving pelicans and warm breezes after Mission Control had attended a conference on Duck Key earlier in the year. Against all my inclinations I’d rented a convertible, dug out my old Nautica baseball cap and headed west.

My previous experience of the States had been limited to [and by, if I’m honest] a few scattered business trips and longer periods in San Francisco and Minneapolis. I wasn’t enamoured with things American and, at that time, the British Foreign Office was advising tourists to Florida to exercise ‘caution’ following the recent killing of a German tourist in a State described alarmingly as a ‘Deathtrap under the palms’. There had been a free-for-all in the British press over the statistics for crimes against tourists in Florida with 35000 being cited as the annual figure. That the trend was diminishing year-on-year and around 80% of the reported figure represented non-violent crime such as surreptitiously adding a gratuity to a restaurant bill was, unsurprisingly, not mentioned for fear of spoiling a good story with the facts. Nonetheless, there was a feeling amongst British tourists that to make a visit to Florida was to take your life into your hands.

A few days in South Beach and immersion in the wonders of art deco quickly dispelled any worries about roaming gangs of armed youths and the possibility of being carjacked. In the furore over tourists being the principal target of criminals Florida had passed legislation that prevented car rental companies from applying banners, signage or advertising to rented vehicles so that the convertible, at least, didn’t stand out; I couldn’t make the same claim of the image I cut, staring at a map, camera around my neck and blindingly white knees.

I have only fleeting memories of that first drive down; all the bridges; the colour of the sea and pelicans racing the car; prisoner chain gangs working on the highway; buildings in need of paint and, so unlike Miami, old cars that were dusty and unpolished. A lot of guys had long hair. It was sunset as we collected the key at a little fishing camp cum motel called Parmer’s Place, which was quaint and a little scruffy, but right on the waterfront thirty minutes from Key West. It comprised a group of less-than-salubrious cabins scattered amongst unkempt vegetation. There was a small pool and boat docks and it had been used primarily by guys who wanted to fish, drink a few beers and fish some more so even if it wasn’t luxurious it was fairly clean and comfortable and it did just fine. For reasons now lost in the mists of time we were allocated temporarily for the first night with an assurance we’d be moved to the room we had booked next day so it was a matter of checking-in, getting a quick shower and then out for refreshments. The room we were allocated was nothing less then startling; perhaps the smallest I’ve ever rented with no wardrobe, no storage and a bed, when it folded down from the wall, that took up half the floor space. Apparently such a contraption is called a ‘Murphy bed’ and we’ve had a few giggles about it since when reminiscing over that first night. I’d not encountered one before but had watched Charlie Chaplin’s battle and seen numerous people crushed or swallowed by them in American movies. I don’t recall how we slept but guess we managed to get through the night unscathed.

At the turn off US1 we’d seen the lights of a place on the water that was within walking distance of our fold-down bed, just along Berry Avenue. It was called The Sandbar. We set off for it down the unlit road with stars across a cloudless sky and racoons rustling around the trash cans. The timber-clad accommodation was at first floor, in a style typical of the Keys. A wide staircase at the front opened into a huge space filled with blues music – all timber columns, beams and boarding. Around the walls large, top-hinged windows opened out onto the water and let in the tropical air. But it’s most endearing feature – parked in the centre and arranged so that you couldn’t avoid a friendly ‘Hi’ to the other occupants – was a long, oval bar. We were almost immediately in conversation with people who lived locally and fished for a living and that never changed. The atmosphere was natural, welcoming and just cool. When I ordered a big, cold beer from one of the two girls tending the bar I was taken literally and presented with a chilled 25oz can, which is about the equivalent of a bottle of wine. Oh, and something that appeared to go unnoticed by the ponytails in the bar but which will stay with me forever; the girls were serving in tiny shorts and roller skates. My hesitation about spending time in Florida had evaporated and a long affection for the Florida Keys began.

I spent a lot of time over many years watching the sun go down from the Sandbar after that, usually listening to good music and always in excellent company. The food was simple and good – grilled fresh fish, coconut shrimp or burgers – and the beer ice-cold. It never lost its ambience but became something of a barometer for the inexorable changes taking place in the Keys. A memorable fishing trip on the reef with the owner and a good man, Banks Prevatt, proved to be the Sandbar’s swan-song for me as he was approached shortly after by a well-meaning guy from Ohio who made him an offer that he couldn’t turn down. So the Sandbar is now called Parrotdise – yes, I know – and you can still get a burger there, but the wooden columns are painted in ‘tropical’ colours and that wonderful bar has gone, to make room for gaily-decorated tables. In place of the girls – the roller skates were a one-time event – polite servers help you work through a menu that offers raspberry and peppered goat cheese salad, chimichurri skirt steak or chocolate pot de crème. The following year one of the nice ladies in reception at Parmer’s Place – she was from New York and didn’t know that we’d stayed there several times previously, by the way – was surprised at the hint of regret in my voice when we spoke of the Sandbar’s demise. ‘Well, it needed cleaning up’, she whispered conspiratorially with a glance at her colleague as she slid a print of the Parrotdise fine dining menu across the counter.

By then Parmer’s Place had a new owner as well and had been nonsensically re-branded as ‘Parmer’s Resort’. That, too, was being ‘cleaned up’. A concerted effort to eradicate ‘bugs’ had resulted in the removal of vegetation and the earthiness that was very much the essence of the old place was being sanitised. Mangroves were either manicured or removed completely and planting disappeared, along with the geckos and a significant layer of the local ecosystem. Old Mr and Mrs Parmer used to sit in the corner of the breakfast room smoking and watching Good Morning America but now the new owner cruises his sterile compound between the repainted and re-roofed cabins on a Harley-Davidson. This feels like it’s aimed at discouraging interaction, which is insensitive and less than convivial. It is cleaner than it used to be but, to be brutally honest, it really hasn’t been improved and a coat of paint and new furniture hasn’t justified the increased cost of staying there. The soul has gone and I think the ghosts of the past have departed to keep up with the news somewhere else.

Regardless, Parmer’s Resort has an unbeatable location and people still enjoy the ‘authenticity’ of the place with its ‘old Florida charm’. I can understand that to some extent as many of the folk we’ve met on recent visits find the place as enchanting as we did when we first experienced it, but then, they don’t have the comparison to make. One guy said that he found Parmer’s Resort so relaxing because it was ‘bug free’. It had never occurred to me to consider a lack of ‘bugs’ in the tropics as part of a rating system, but I guess we all want something different for our buck.

When I speak to people here they are frequently nostalgic about the ‘old Keys’ and you’ll see it highlighted in real estate ads or on restaurant reviews but I’m not sure I quite get what that means. After all, there were no utilities here until the 1950s and summer residence was all but impossible until mosquitoes were controlled. That simple statement by a lady from New York sums up exactly how things have changed in the Keys; they’ve been cleaned up. I still like the Florida Keys; I like them a lot but perhaps they appeal to a less circumspect type of visitor now.

I haven’t seen much of the racoons for a while and I miss the little critters.


It’s business; not personal

When visiting a place often and over a number of years you might take comfort in the familiarity and so it is with me and the Florida Keys. I’ve enjoyed visiting the Keys for the better part of twenty years now. That being said, a week or so at a time is enough for me but it’s pleasant returning to the same place and easing seamlessly into the tropical, laid-back atmosphere. We have a favourite bar and know where to get the best coconut shrimp; we know where the coolest music is and who makes the most delicious Key Lime pie. I have a little circuit of local birding hotspots that keep me out of trouble until the bars open and knowing where to shop and which room to stay in takes a lot of the sting out of travelling to the southernmost tip of Florida. All this goes to avoid those little surprises that can take the gloss off an otherwise relaxing trip.

We’ve stayed in the same little place in the Lower Keys – nearer Havana than Miami – for the time we’ve been visiting so Mission Control calls as we are making the reservation, just to let them know we’re on our way again and to see that we can have the room we prefer to stay in. She calls them again a few days before we arrive to make certain that it’s all on track, so to speak; you know, to avoid those little surprises. I guess there might be three or four such conversations between our organising the trip and arriving here.

The drive down US1 from Miami– the overseas highway – has to be one of the best drives in the world and is very much a part of the experience of visiting the Keys. As we hop from island to island over pale turquoise water with the car roof down, US1 Keys Radio turned up and the sun on our faces the essence of the place generates a magnificent backdrop; distant mangrove-covered islands; dive camps and marinas; wooden houses and waterside condos shaded by palm trees; shops or restaurants that haven’t changed – or been repainted – in years; familiar advertising signs; eye-level pelicans keeping pace with the car as you cross each bridge. Knowing the place well is part of the experience and the drive can take anything between two and four hours, depending on the number of distractions, before we arrive to collect the key. And, not for the first time, that’s where we experience one of those little surprises as our hosts have no idea – none whatsoever – who we are. Not only that but they also don’t know that we’ve been here before and, in a repeated scenario that always engenders absolute disbelief on my part, they are surprised to hear that we have come all the way from Europe. The girls in reception – many of whom we’ve spoken to and some we’ve actually met before – are charming and helpful but can’t quite get around recognising returning guests. So, despite the telephone conversations, our having travelled from another continent and all those previous visits I find myself wanting to remind them once again that ‘we’ve been here before’ only to immediately feel like a benign geriatric reminding his frequent visitor that ‘I’m eighty-three, you know’. One of the expressions frequently heard in the Keys is ‘change latitude, change attitude’ but I’ve never quite been able to determine whether it means on the one hand, relax when you’re in the Keys or, on the other, prepare yourself for things being so casual that they just about fall over. It probably means both. Perhaps remembering someone from one year to the next is, well, simply too much trouble. Perhaps it’s the casual attitude associated with growing a ponytail, wearing a cap and cut-off shorts and living out your days in a sponsored give-away tee-shirt from an event at the Boondocks.

As you’d expect, things have changed in the years we’ve been staying here and that very relaxed existence appears to be disappearing. On an early visit we picked up a paperback that told how to ‘Quit your job and move to Key West. It was written in a tongue-in-cheek style but provided serious advice as a survivor’s guide for dropping out of the race and taking up a life that might have meant fishing and playing guitar or fixing boat engines and growing that ponytail. It’s still available and still relevant and when I first read the book it really did seem possible that you could do it. After all, there were plenty of trailer homes around; house construction and maintenance, away from the prestigious water-front locations at least, was something of an occasional pastime and nobody bothered you too much if you kept your head down. You could get by if you just wanted to lay back and not demand too much of life. Down here, the sun shines all-year-round and the beer is always cold so it’s easy to see why island life – a much-used euphemism for adopting a less-than-formal approach to just about anything – seduced many who day-dreamed of an existence less structured and less stressful than most of us lead. The Keys have been a good place to run away to and that’s clearly what people did, but in all the years I’ve been visiting I’ve never met a single person who actually originated here; not one. Do Keys kids grow up and get the heck off the islands?

Now development controls, a relatively high cost of living, an influx of investment from further north, astronomical insurance rates after a succession of hurricanes and increasing numbers of tourists from cruise ships in Key West conspire to turn the barometer away from a life of ‘fishin’ an’ pickin’. Property values have soared [house values doubled in the three years to 2004] and, despite the downturn after 2008, remain relatively high if you live locally but are still pretty reasonable if you come from New York. Casual bars are being replaced with ‘venues’; local shops with tee-shirt outlets and, in a place where the fish is superb, some restaurants now import it.

Of all the Keys, Big Pine and Marathon most retain the character and ambience of that relaxed, easy-going lifestyle. Big Pine is largely residential with a population of around 5000 but isn’t doing well commercially whereas on Marathon, where there are most commercial fishermen, the population is in gradual decline. Even so, real estate sales on both have lost little momentum and fishing charters, at over $500 a day, are fully-booked through to May. It looks as though escapees are being replaced by second home-owners.

As a visitor Key West is a unique and exciting place to visit with a population of around 24500 that has remained static since 1982, when the island seceded from the USA to declare independence of The Conch Republic. Unless you get off the beaten track, however, these days you are rubbing shoulders almost exclusively with tourists, revellers or, at this time of year, pubescent Spring Breakers. Last week we struggled to count locals amongst the teens and 12000 or so tourists from the three cruise ships in port. [Cruise ships brought nearly 812000 tourists to Key West in 2011] Duval Street, a centre of genuine eccentricity and insouciance when we first crawled it, still has character but now seems less like the main drag through a unique island community and more like a tourist mall. There are still pony-tails but they are fewer; there are still guys who fix boat engines and play guitar but, as in the rest of the Keys, they are peripheral in a world that depends increasingly on the hospitality and tourism sectors, which feel overwhelming.

We’ll continue to visit the Keys, but perhaps not as often as we’ve done. The qualities that made me feel genuinely welcome in a relaxed community at ease with itself are slip-sliding away and, when I arrive now, I’m not a returning visitor but just another tourist. Time was when you could haul up at the Sandbar and easily fall into conversation with a guy about how the fishing had been that day. It was the normal thing to do. The Sandbar is gone now; the restaurant that replaced it sells fine island dining on chintz tablecloths, which is OK but just not the same. The guys who fish have gone too and people working on commission to sell a meal, hustle a boat tour or peddle a tee-shirt don’t have time to share a beer with a guy who just wants to hear a story. In truth, I suspect they don’t have a story to tell anyway.

The photographs of Bahia Honda Key, the best beach in the Keys, are used with kind permission of Mission Control.

Come on in – the weather’s lovely

It’s usually calmer on the Gulf coast of Florida, where it doesn’t take a beating from the Atlantic Ocean, but it can change quickly. This week it’s been spectacular as the weather system that caused the hurricanes further north courted the warmer-than-average spring temperatures. It turned out as rough love, indeed.

The resultant winds disturbed the beaches and put a lot of migrating birds overhead, contributing to the more than 130 species I’ve seen so far on my sojourn. It also made for some breathtaking weather-watching.

Here are some of the moments from one afternoon as the weather went from good to great.

Big tips in Miami – The Shelborne reborn

The sundeck at the Shelborne

When I first visited Miami I was there to look at the buildings and it was against a backdrop of newspaper articles about marauding gangs and high levels of street-crime. There had been warnings not to stray far from the hotel and to avoid isolated car parks in a city that preyed upon hapless tourists. This was, after all, a Mafia hotspot and we’d seen for ourselves how bad it was in Miami vice.

Well, it really wasn’t like that at all despite Gianni Versace being shot on the street next door shortly after one visit. I quickly found hiding traveller’s cheques in my underpants unnecessary. Visiting Miami never seemed any more dangerous than Christmas shopping at Tesco and it was certainly much safer than watching a football match at Chelsea.

South Beach and the art deco district appeared earthier then and, in some ways, more authentic. Many of the ‘boutique’ hotels and buildings that had sprung up in the mid-1930s were run down; some were empty and several were derelict in what seemed a natural cycle of decline and regeneration of a city. My perception was that it felt more lived-in but that’s gradually changed; the buildings have been refurbished and the area improved through a series of initiatives that include tax breaks so that, like the water flowing through theEverglades, the ever-growing number of tourists and visitors has become an exploitable resource.

Pool at the Shelborne

I’ve stayed in a fair number of art deco hotels now and was pleased to hear that another grand old ruin had been restored. The Shelborne began life at the end of 1940 as one of the hotels that backed right onto the beach. It has now just about emerged from a bumpy metamorphosis – if not quite as a tropical butterfly – as The Shelborne Beach Resort. It’s part of Menin Hotels but nonetheless retains an individuality that’s not quite unique and yet not really corporate. We know the place from previous visits and were keen to have a look around despite recent reviews that were truly awful so Mission Control e-mailed before we made reservations to ask if what people were saying on Yelp was true – could it really be that bad? Ominously, there was no response to either that or the follow-up e-mail she sent to [you might want to avoid these people] so, after calling the hotel, she elicited a promise that we’d get a renovated room and all would be fine. And it wasn’t bad at all given that it was only for a couple of nights. The décor was mannered in that ‘we celebrate our art deco’ sort of way so it wasn’t authentic but it was very much ‘Miami Beach’. I loved the hard-backed art volumes carefully placed on shelves higher than one could reach; a sure sign that the targeted clientele would be attracted by the covers but probably uninterested in the content. The Shelborne badly wants to be a venue, but struggles to deliver on its promise. Despite those truly awful reviews staff members were friendly and welcoming but things sort of stopped there. At check-in we were given ‘happy hour’ cocktail vouchers as a welcome gift but had to drink them, squeezed between diners, leaning against the screen wall of the lobby restaurant as the bar was restricted to a private function. No one thought to mention that earlier. The Rooms were clean and the beds supremely comfortable but despite pleading with staff and maintenance guys it took most of the first day to get some cheese and salad cleaned off the corridor floor outside the room and half the second for the used linen from several made-up rooms to be removed from the lift lobby. I found that a little surprising in a place where you pay a non-optional resort charge to cover the little ‘extras’ like beach towels, room safes, wi-fi and continental breakfast, none of which, by the way, was necessary to enhance the customer experience. As it turned out, the beach towels we were offered were dirty, the continental breakfast – comprising small pastries and coffee – was no more continental than black pudding or St Patrick’s Day – and the room safes weren’t actually fixed down. I know that a guy walking out of the hotel with a small safe under each arm might look suspicious but you get the point.

Having worked on hotel building and refurbishment over many years I was more understanding of the glitches that left us without hot water for long periods. I was less forgiving, however, of groups of builders not moving for guests and clearly put out by the disturbance caused to progress. There were more art books in the room but there were no soap trays in the bathroom [can you sue the hotel if you slip in a soapy shower and break your leg?]. And although the wardrobe was supplied with plenty of hangers it didn’t allow trousers or a jacket to be hung without folding them.

The overall impression is one of not attending to the details and, of course, any good hotelier – and most guests – will tell you it’s the details that count. We asked for fruit at breakfast – most top end resorts will provide some fruit somewhere, either in the room or reception – but were told pretty curtly that we had to pay for it. Hmmm, OK. Two cokes we bought at the Vesper American Brasserie at the pool were served, from a jet not bottles, without ice or lemon in plastic cups. Well, OK again, I suppose – and once more pleasant smiling staff but piss-poor service – but both the fruit and the drinks had a whopping 18% tip added to the bill. Wait a minute – what was the resort fee for? An invidious feeling that we might not be getting value for money kept us out of the hotel for the rest of our stay, which is probably not what the management – let alone the financiers – intended. No, the Shelborne is being disingenuous in positioning itself at an elevated level and not delivering on what it charges for.

Staying there was like wearing designer shoes with a pebble in one; it looked good but you couldn’t wait to get out of them soon enough; like the art books, this place is about appearance and not substance.

And a last word on those tips

What we found at the Shelborne was symptomatic of how South Beach has changed in the years we’ve been visiting. Pass the restaurants along Ocean Drive and you are solicited [less so on Lincoln Road or the charming Española Way but the malaise is spreading] at every step with offers of ‘specials’ for breakfast, lunch or dinner. That isn’t new and walking these streets is an essential part of any visit to Miami no matter how many times you’ve visited, but these days the hustle is a little more cold-blooded and the accents a little more Russian. A few days ago when trying to make a dinner reservation for that evening we were brusquely advised that the restaurant was fully booked so ‘why don’t you look at the lunch menu instead’. That we wanted to eat some nine or ten hours later wasn’t misunderstood; it was Ludmila or Svetlana or whatever the unsmiling harpy’s name was trying for another gratuity from another tourist. As at the Shelborne, the once sporadic practice of adding the gratuity to the bill is now widespread and common. Make no mistake here, I’m pleased to tip when I get good service – and in a very un-English way, I always make a point of mentioning when it’s not good – but I get very antsy when 18% is added to the bill regardless. A lot’s been written about it so I won’t turn this into a rant but the only justification I could find for jacking-up the price is that ‘Europeans and South Americans don’t tip as well as Americans’ so in order to get it, you add it to the bill. I haven’t been able to find one reference to pre-emptive tipping providing for better service, happier staff or improving the value of what you get. And I couldn’t find anything approaching an argument for tipping, either, other than it being expected. Miami has a State law that requires restaurants or hotels to clearly notify that a gratuity will be added to the bill but search as I may, I never found one.

At Smith and Wollensky at South Pointe the food was excellent and the service, by a knowledgeable, competent and friendly Os, just fautless. They didn’t add an 18% gratuity to the bill and clearly didn’t need to. There’s a moral to be drawn somewhere.   

The Shelborne opens directly onto the Miami Beach


Dubai; over to you, rent-a-crowd

Sitting outside a restaurant in Dubai recently our evening was disturbed by a raucous and rude party who were perhaps drinking more than was appropriate and who began shouting and intimidating the staff. They happened to be Russian [there are a lot of Russians in Dubai] but could have been British or German or any other of around 200 nationalities that are represented by the people now living and working there. What they weren’t was Emirati. There was a time – and not so long ago either – when the principal reason for being in Dubai would have been work-related. It wasn’t hard to get into the country but there was a process one had to go through and an implied level of obligation was imposed of the visitor. We were frequently reminded that we were guests and there was an unwritten but well-understood code of conduct. These days the doors are not only wide open but hanging off the hinges. Dubai does tourism and shopping in a very big way but, in embracing anyone who wants to spend, has been the architect of its own downfall. Consequently, one of the less endearing aspects of selling itself and its glamorous lifestyle across the world is that rent-a-crowd has moved in.

The dilemma that arises from the occasional clash of culture is well-publicised; tales of medieval punishment emanating from a stolen lip-smacking kiss in public tend to exaggerate the extremes and aren’t typical but there appears to exist now a level of communal disrespect that is both alien to the culture and saddening to witness. My experience has been that even in the most trying of situations Emiratis are by nature respectful, polite and dignified; qualities reflected in a legal system that will tolerate dangerous driving – to some extent, anyway – but which will lead to deportation for showing the finger to another driver. Rowdiness and injudicious dress amongst tourists are not only commonplace now but are justified by ubiquity. I guess this attitude comes with the proliferation of bars, clubs, restaurants, shops and leisure facilities that have swamped the place but, in many ways, the removal of exclusivity and the relaxation of entry regulations have combined to lower the bar.

Of course, expatriate life has changed a lot since I first stepped off a VC10 into the heat of Dubai. That was a long while ago and I’ve gone on to spend many years since then living and working in the region. Whether living in the Middle East is better or worse in 2011 falls to personal opinion, unless you’re in Syria, Bahrain or Yemen I guess, so I’ll avoid nostalgic anecdotes of a life when we had to use handwriting and telex, before we e-mailed each other and kept in touch constantly with mobile phones and before fax machines, computers on every desk and two-day weekends. Going to the souk a couple of times a week and bargaining the price of fruit and veg was just a part of life then; in Dubai last week we shopped at Waitrose for the same stuff you can get at our local store in England. We were spoiled for choice so breakfast was organic muesli instead of the flat bread I used to get in a pack from Sharjah Modern Bakery. And there are no weevils in the flour any more, which I suppose is progress of sorts.

There used to be very few amenities and whilst hotel bars, the Rugby Club and one or two other celebrated watering holes were always popular, one’s social life tended to develop around a dinner table or barbeque. In Dubai today you are spoilt for choice and you go out but, despite there being so much, there is a wearing sameness to what’s on offer. Before the move towards tourism the community was much smaller and less diverse than it is today. Expatriate society then was dotted with real characters and I’m often left wondering, dealing now with the mind-numbing ordinariness of the Facebook generation, where they’ve gone. Perhaps the paucity of people with charisma, individual qualities and original opinions reflects the manner in which society has changed but whatever it is, fewer occasions these days in Dubai leave you thinking that you’d just spent time with someone special. Often, it’s quite the opposite. Social life used to be a joyride that ricocheted between sumptuous feasts and evenings of inedible food, memorable occasions highlighted by adventurers, raconteurs, personalities of questionable background and a share of lost souls. Now we go to a sports bar, compete with flat screen television and look away as the bare-footed untravelled in cut-down shorts loudly demand service.

The Middle East and Dubai in particular is overflowing with the mile markers of our ‘improved’ and accessible lifestyle. It likes to wear it’s modernity on its sleeve so the tenets of what the USA upholds as ‘freedom and democracy’ are on every corner; Starbucks, McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza and Baskin-Robbins proliferate and the fast-food courts in the malls are full.

So while I watched as restaurant staff were insulted and intimidated I wondered if the Emiratis who wanted Dubai to be the destination of choice have got what they wished for. And in an obtuse kind of way, I think they have. It’s busy, a lot of money washes around, it’s unquestionably safe and the Emiratis don’t have exposure to what I watched last week.

I am nostalgic for how it used to be but being an expatriate is of course enjoyable and more comfortable in different ways now. Variety and accessibility, however, don’t necessarily equate to richness and it seems to me that what’s on offer in Dubai sacrifices life experience for gratification. It sometimes feels like Ibiza.

I’ve made good friends in Dubai, some of whom I’ve known for more than thirty years; spending time with them these past few weeks has been an absolute joy. And we didn’t sit around groaning at how much better it all used to be, either – the steak and Argentine wine we had at Jumeirah Beach Hotel were as good as it gets. But it’s sad to think though that what made Dubai special and kept us coming back over the years has gradually been eroded. Things do change, of course, but it seems that the majority of visitors these days don’t really mind where they are, as long as the sun shines, they have money to spend and restaurant staff doesn’t answer back.





Forget four stars; this is what I think

When I travel and stay in rented accommodation, be it hotel, villa or something in between, I don’t like surprises. I’m not thinking here about the surprisingly wonderful view from the balcony or the surprisingly good deli that you find across the road. No, I mean the kind of surprise you get when you find the hot tub is constantly topped-up with chemicals as a measure against over-enthusiastic guests passing on STDs or the landlady discreetly breeds Great Danes and lets them wander the corridors at night. So, if one wants to avoid distractions like a peeling epidermis or being woken in the small hours by the sound of bestial footfalls and low snuffling at your bedroom door then it clearly pays to do a little work before you go. Times were when I’d just look up a hotel, check how many stars it was rated at and make a selection on the understanding that I would find, within reasonable limits, what I expected. And, perhaps more importantly, none of those little surprises. Things have changed somewhat with the advent of internet review sites as they allow you to get something of an insight into what it’s actually like to be a cherished guest at your chosen venue before you book.

We’ve had a lot of fun looking through online reviews but, whilst I’m not entirely convinced that they have a lot of credibility, they are always worth a glance even if only to see if your accommodation is what it says it is. The good news – if you don’t mind trawling through grammatical errors and rants about dust-bunnies – is that personal reviews are in the ascendancy and star ratings are being given the finger. It was reported last week that the government in UK is eschewing the traditional system of rating hotels as ‘five star’ or ‘three crowns’ in favour of more ‘realistic’ customer reviews. I believe that awarding stars because rooms have wi-fi or a shoe-cleaning service is a slightly less-than-honest justification for high room rates but whilst I haven’t decided which system will be more helpful customer reviews will definitely be more entertaining. For the most part, people tend to compliment following a special experience but when it comes to complaining disgruntled folk want to share even the slightest of gripes with the rest of the world.

I’m sceptical about good reviews and won’t be convinced that a large number aren’t planted; who, for example, photographs the hotel bathroom before commending the plumbing facilities and bed turning-down service? Complaints, however, are a lot more interesting to read, unquestionably heartfelt and usually truthful even if they are for the most part excruciatingly subjective. TripAdvisor has grudgingly acknowledged this and now displays a coverall get-out-of-jail statement below each review – ‘This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC’ – so that’s alright then.

At best the disparity between star ratings causes a disappointment; there is no European [or international, for that matter] standard in terms of quality, cost or facilities provided. It’s well known that many places pay to receive the endorsement of an official body and usually write their own testimonial, too. At worst complaints are often justifiable so when that manifests itself as a bad review the amusement in reading it is tinged with guilt. I’ve looked again through some reviews of a place we’d stayed in last year to see if the opinions offered by guests would have helped me decide to stay if I was a less-experienced traveller. There were, to say the least, contrasting opinions. The names have been omitted to protect the innocent and, er, I haven’t corrected any errors. What questions would I have asked and what did previous guests say?

Is it  a quiet place to stay?

‘…aircraft did appear overhead, but were not at all intrusive.’

‘Planes coming over was a thrill…’

‘…no noise except the gentle lapping of the waves…’

‘The planes were so low at times we really thought that they were going to hit the roof. You could even see how worn the aircraft tyres were.’

Hmmm. What are the rooms like?

‘Room was not clean. Droppings of previous visitor in toilet even though the toilet was sealed with a hygiene strip, with the text: This toilet was cleaned.’

‘…not only that, our bath plug was broken for our entire stay and despite asking twice…’

‘…spotlessly clean throughout. Our room was well furnished, towels were changed daily and bed linen every other day. Everything worked! Complimentary toiletries were of good quality…’

And was the service good?

‘…we had to wait and eventually to call ‘hello’ to get someone to come and check us in. The receptionist appeared grumpy…’

‘All the guests sat in the bar area complained about the service.’

‘…staff were charming and most helpful…’

‘…the cleaner had left our bedroom door open and had left the master key card in the card holder…’

But it’s a four-star hotel so it can’t be that bad, can it?

‘Our advise is however; “If you are a frequent traveller, don’t go there!!!” [It’s] a run down hotel that has seen its best days. Why this hotel is ranked at 4 stars is an absolute mistery.’

‘They are clearly understaffed at this hotel and should really consider the star rating.’

What about the food then?

‘Food in the restaurant was really tasteless en cold.’

‘The food is terrible and yes we read all the reviews and went with a positive attitude but its all slush and mush. The beer is weak and disgusting very watered-down like the vodka!’

No decent cuts of meat, just bits hanging off bones. Very cheap food. No variety, apart from the flies landing on the salads.’

‘Chips especially got cold quickly so found the best way was to put them in a soup bowl and give them 20 seconds in the microwave. Helped also to warm your plate.’

‘My Partner lived off hot dog and chips the whole week as that was the only hot food available…’

So do all the guests go out to eat?

‘I enjoyed the buffet breakfast provided – there was plenty to choose from – cooked, cereals, toasts, fruits etc…’

‘Also contrary to what other people have written in reviews we loved the food and I am a very fussy eater.  I was waking my poor hubby up every morning early to get down for breakfast as it was so good and for the first time in my life actually got really excited about the food.’

‘…we made lunch at breakfast, with ham and the baguette rolls available, and then took them up to our room with some pastries and put them in the wardrobe (not only to stop the maid seeing them, but to keep them cool and out of sunlight). Definately saved at least 10euros a day doing this.’

Was there entertainment in the evenings?

‘There is entertainment if you hear about it as it is not advertised its usually animal shows and karoke.’

‘There are very few TV channels in the room, and most of them are in German and French. So after your dinner there isn’t much to do except for learning languages.’

Were the facilities good?

‘The edges of the pool were covered in brown scum.’

‘…pool area was never cleaned in the whole two weeks we were there…’

‘…a lot of public parking places available in front of or close to the hotel, however not guarded…somebody has stolen the rear bumper (!) of our rental car during one night…’

So, is there value for money?

‘It certainly didn’t live up to the beautiful pictures you see on the web.’

‘…we had a fantastic holiday, and thought it was excellent value for money.

‘With 4* prices it was way below what we had hoped for.’

I might have been too selective in those parts of the reviews collected here but the point remains that contributions to review sites are subjective and it has to be accepted that contributors are moved to submit a review – whether it be to praise or condemn. This means you would need to trail through a reasonable number in order to form a balanced impression and, with luck, avoid surprises.

As for me, I found the place to be exactly as I expected; staff, service and facilities a Curate’s Egg and with plenty of room for improvement as far as the food was concerned. We selected it as an overnight stay so as to avoid a long drive in the dark and, on that basis, it provided reasonable value for money. But only just; the place was threadbare and one day was enough. If I had relied on its four-star rating alone I’d have been disappointed so the reviews tempered that.

So, on balance I guess internet reviews were more useful than a star rating in this instance and there was the added bonus that it was entertaining to read what previous guests thought about it. Some of the reviews were just a little too long and just a little too detailed than was necessary. I didn’t post a review, but if I did I would have quoted James Thurber, who said [of a play not a hotel although the sentiment remains valid] ‘It had only one fault. It was kind of lousy.’