Dominican Republic February 2019

After our failed attempt to see anything of the Domincan Republic (DR) on a cruise last year we decided to fly down there for a week while we were staying at our house in Florida.

Go here for a picture gallery.

Our flight from Miami on American Airlines was excellent on a brand new plane later identified from the internet as a 737 Max 8, the same model as the one which crashed in Ethiopia a few weeks after our trip. American Airlines has 24 of them.

Santo Domingo from the air

Santo Domingo

We spent two nights in the capital Santo Domingo. I had not realised before how old some of the buildings there are, and how important Christopher Columbus is in their history. Our hotel El Beaterio had once been a convent built in the 16th century. The rooms surrounded a pleasant courtyard.

Courtyard, El Beaterio Hotel, Santo Domingo

We were right in the Zona Colonial. We arrived mid-afternoon via a slightly hair-raising taxi drive from the airport. This was a fixed fare of $40 but the driver gave us his card and said he would take us back there for $25.

On the first evening we just wandered round a bit and had a falafel dinner nearby.

The next day was sightseeing in earnest. There was some competition as a German cruise ship was in port and in several places we had to battle past groups from the ship. We started with the cathedral which was built in the 16th century and is the oldest in the Americas. It was beautifully restored for a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1992 and is light and airy in contrast to many Catholic cathedrals we have seen elsewhere.

Inside the cathedral, Santo Domingo

There were small chapels along both sides. One contained a life-size tableau of human statues and animals. The humans had no faces. We were later to find out why.

First of many faceless statues, inside the cathedral, Santo Domingo

Next up was the fort overlooking the Río Ozama. Construction began in 1502 and it is the oldest colonial military building in the Americas. The main part has good views and I liked the design of the information boards. There is not too much to see inside.

Fort, Santo Domingo

We walked further up the Calle las Damas, which is the oldest street paved street in the Americas and got its name because the wife of Columbus’ son enjoyed walking up and down on it with her female friends. We briefly visited the Panteón Nacional which is a mausoleum with a soldier standing guard, never blinking as tourists filed past.

The Plaza España is the main square in Santo Domingo, although it is not an actual square. Its main building is the Alcázar de Colón where Columbus’ son Diego and his wife lived in the 16th century.

Alcázar de Colón, Santo Domingo

This building contains furnishings of the period. Some of the items belonged to the Columbus family including a small trunk which I think the guide said was made of elephant skin.

Then it it was time for lunch, a huge pizza in a nice restaurant overlooking the plaza.

On the way back to the hotel we visited the Museo de las Casas Reales (Museum of the Royal Houses) which was also built in the 16th century and was the seat of Spanish government in Caribbean. Of most interest to us were some maps of the earlier voyages of discovery, but there were also plenty of historical artefacts.

Historical map, Museo de las Casas Reales, Santo Domingo

After a rest we found we were only 2 blocks away from a long pedestrianised street with shops and cafes and more larger than life-sized human models with heads but no faces. Our hunt for the map shop listed in the guide book turned out to take some time, but during it we met up with a Canadian lady, now living in Florida, who was also planning to rent a car and needed a map.

We had an interesting dinner in a rather up-market Dominican restaurant Mesón de Bari and just hoped the rest of the country would be a bit cheaper.

Sosúa-Cabarete

With the aid of the hotel receptionist, we summoned the same taxi driver to take us to the airport to pick up our rental car. We had read fairly dire things about driving in the DR which has a reputation for dangerous driving and plenty of accidents. But we felt it was the only way to see some of country.

Our car seemed OK and after photographing all the scratches on it, we set off towards the north east. To get there from Santo Domingo you have to go on an elevated so-called “expressway” through the city as they haven’t finished building the ring road yet. We found ourselves in an enormous traffic jam with cars trying to get on to the road at the many junctions by pushing (almost literally) their way in. There was no hard shoulder and finally, after well over an hour, we reached a car which had broken down.

After that we were soon on the so-called “autopista” towards Puerto Plata. There was quite a hefty toll but people were wandering about by the side of the road. It was some time before we reached a cafe on our side of the road and had a very welcome coffee and a visit to a very clean loo.

We had planned to take the ruta panoramica over the mountains to the north coast but had to divert to the shortest route as we were in danger of not getting to our next hotel in daylight. In the end we just had to drive about 20km along the coast road in the dark.

We stayed two nights at a bed and breakfast called Garden by the Sea halfway between Sosúa and Cabarete. The room was very good, as was breakfast, but as we only know the Spanish for scrambled eggs (huevos revueltos) we had to have our eggs cooked the same way on both days.

Here, as we saw everywhere in the DR, there were many bougainvilleas.

Bougainvilleas everywhere

It was about 100m from the B&B to Playa Laguna which was an empty beach lined by apartments.

Playa Laguna near Garden by the Sea

Our one full day in the northwest was taken up by a long trip westward to La Isabela, a settlement founded by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Driving turned out to be fine as there wasn’t much traffic. You do need to have eyes all round your head because there are so many small motorbikes dodging in and out. They were just like those we had seen in Vietnam a few years ago.

We stopped for lunch (another pizza) at Puerto Plata in a restaurant on the malecón, which is the Spanish generic name for an esplanade running along by the sea. After some road works just past Puerto Plata it was an easy drive across some low hills to La Isabela where we found a neatly laid-out and well-tended archaeological site and a small museum.

La Isabela archaeological site

Columbus had picked his spot as it was a beautiful location by a small beach just inside a bay.

Where Christopher Columbus landed in 1493

One other couple was just leaving. There were no other visitors.

Driving back was OK in the rush hour at Puerto Plata and we even managed to stop at a supermarket to pick up some food for the next day.

At Sosúa we did something we rarely do which was to eat at the same restaurant on successive nights. There wasn’t much other choice near to the B&B and a Swiss-German restaurant called El Choco had a good choice of food.

Las Terrenas

Our last three nights were spent at Las Terrenas on the north coast of the Samaná peninsula which is in the north-east of the DR. Getting there on a Sunday was no problem as the main road along the north coast was quite empty. We stopped briefly at Río San Juan to see a lagoon with some colourful boats.

Río San Juan

Playa Grande, a beautiful sandy beach lined by trees and almost a mile long, was a good place for our picnic where I had company. We didn’t encounter a single nasty dog anywhere in the DR, unlike many of the countries we have visited.

Company for lunch – on Playa Grande

Plenty of locals were enjoying Sunday there, but most of the beach was deserted.

The last part of the drive was over a spectacular new mountain road (with a hefty toll), but the views were amazing. It reminded me of Hawaii with steep mountains covered in lush green and a variety of trees and vegetation.

Las Terrenas has grown from a village around a small river into a major tourist area – this is not at all surprising as there are so many spectacular sandy beaches in the area. There is a complicated one-way system and hardly anywhere to park in the town.

This area also turned out to be favoured by the French which meant one thing: good food. We stayed at the Iguana Hotel, a group of bungalows run by a French lady where the breakfast was wonderful.

Bungalow at the Iguana Hotel

In the first evening we ate at a restaurant on the beach which was about 100m from the hotel. It was very quiet.

On our first full day we set off to explore Samaná, going first to the El Limón waterfall in the middle of the peninsula. At least, Martin went to the waterfall which was a tough 2-hour round trip hike with a guide.

At El Limón waterfall

I was looked after very well at the cafe at the start of the walk where we then had lunch of chicken, rice and fruit.

After lunch we drove on to Samaná town on the south side, photographed an interesting church and then enquired about whale watching as it was in the middle of the season when hundreds of humpback whales come to Samaná Bay. The news from the whale watching company was not good. They had only one trip going on the next day which was already full. It was going to be rough and we would very likely be seasick. Since we had seen these whales before in Hawaii we were not too bothered about this.

We drove on to Las Galeras at the end of Samaná where there is also a substantial French influence and where we found a nice cafe/patisserie.

Beach at Las Galeras

On the way back we did just see a big splash in the bay which must have been a whale.

Ignoring a road closed sign we found our way back on a road along the coast, which was under construction but not closed, thus avoiding the lengthy one-way system in Las Terrenas. Dinner was at Baraonda, another restaurant further along the road from our hotel towards the town centre. We waited almost an hour for our food.

On the morning of our last full day we walked along the beach to the town centre, had coffee at Paco Cabana on the beach, then looked at the shops. Lunch was at another French place with a typically French set menu. We were the only non-native French-speaking people there.

In the afternoon we took another drive over the mountains on a different route to the south of Samaná. We passed through plenty of villages and saw a number of small horses ridden by people who were rounding up cattle. Everything looked lush and green and there were some spectacular views from the mountain road and huge coconut groves by the sea.

Samaná Bay

We waited in vain for a whale to surface off Samaná town. Then it was back past El Limón and along the coast road. Miraculously we found place to park in the town and had dinner at Paco Cabana by the beach. Highly recommended.

The drive back to Santo Domingo airport next day on a good road was uneventful, but again expensive with more tolls. At least they are building some better roads now. If you look on the map you will see how few roads there are. The car had no more scratches and we had made it with no mishaps in this country of terrible drivers.

Impressions of the Dominican Republic

We liked the country a lot. The mountainous scenery is quite something. Apart from the craziness of Santo Domingo outside the Zona Colonial, much of the country is rural with small villages. There are flowers everywhere. Almost every tiny house in a village has flowering plants – bougainvillea was the most popular. The people are very friendly and helpful and we saw nothing of the crime and traffic accidents which the guide books warned about.

Santo Domingo was a very nice surprise. We knew there was some history there but had no idea that there was so much or that it was so old. The historical buildings were well looked after and included in the modest entry fee was an audio guide with a headset which was available in several languages.

Outside Santo Domingo we found prices to be very reasonable and you can use a credit card with a pin number (are you listening, Americans?) almost anywhere. We didn’t need to buy much petrol but that was all easy too, with an attendant to fill the tank.

The beaches are quite possibly the best we have seen anywhere in the world. There are just so many of them, all golden sand and kept clean.

You can get by without knowing any Spanish, but a little knowledge helps a bit.

We finally solved the mystery of the faceless figurines when one shopkeeper in Las Terrenas told us that this was because there are so many different races and mixed-race people in the DR. But it’s then odd that some of the figurines we saw had black faces and others white ones.

It was sunny or partly cloudy with a pleasant breeze all the time we were there – a contrast from cold rain when we landed in Miami.

We would definitely go again especially as it is only a 2-hour flight from Miami, but perhaps not in a 737 MAX 8.

Picture gallery: A Week in the Dominican Republic February 2019

Click to enlarge

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Anatomy of a Daily Mail Comment

My anger boiled over late yesterday when I read comments on the Daily Mail’s report on the article it had published at 5pm on 22 February by Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke “If we don’t get a deal next week we MUST delay Brexit”. So I wrote a comment at approximately 10.45pm.

Here is what I said:

susan, Harrogate, United Kingdom, 17 hours ago

Brexit died weeks ago. Most MPs and most of the population know this. The referendum was over 2.5 years ago and much has happened since then. All the promises made by the leave campaign have turned out to be false. We are indeed being led by donkeys as this group’s billboards show. All Mrs May needs to do is to be like the strong women who have stood up for what they believe in this week, and tell the nation that the Brexit that was promised is undeliverable. To save face she must organise another vote to let all those people who realise they have been sold a dud make their views clear. She must stop being weakly held to ransom by all those old white males in the ERG who are only interested in making money out of the impending disaster.

Within an hour this comment had acquired 56 red down arrows, 15 green up arrows
and 6 replies. After 17 hours when I am writing this it has 87 down arrows and 37 up arrows.

Here are the replies, and their totals of up and down arrows up till now, with my thoughts on these:

somersetsue, taunton, 17 hours ago

That vote could still return a leave result, I have heard remainers change their mind having seen what bully boys the EU are!

17 up arrows, 5 down arrows

I am aware that the vote could still return leave result. I think remainers are more likely to accept this if the vote was shown to be fair.

There is an endless narrative in the pro-Brexit press about the EU being bullies, but nobody ever gives any examples. I think that the EU leaders have behaved very well. They did not start this and it has caused them a huge amount of extra work while they have observed the UK government going nowhere negotiating with itself for months.

kemali, Blackpool, United Kingdom, 17 hours ago

My goodness Susan..in just one post you have revealed your lefty, undemocratic and man-hating views! Wow!

16 up arrows, 6 down arrows

I don’t know whether some of this is a compliment or not, but I was pleased to see that 7 of the 11 new Independent Group are women.

Professor Prune, LONDON, United Kingdom, 17 hours ago

Nonsense. The delegated instruction given by a mature and democratic eletorate trumps everything else.

13 up arrows, 4 down arrows

I don’t know how many times I have read this kind of comment before. I don’t know about “mature” but this person makes no attempt to argue against me except the endless repetition of a version of “we voted out”. Does he not know that things have changed since June 2016 and that what most of what Leave promised has turned out to be lies?

kemali, Blackpool, 17 hours ago

Rudd has been a problem since May brought her back… amazed that May hasn’t sacked her! Has she got something on her??

16 up arrows, 3 down arrows

Same person again. Just an insult.

guitarist16, London, United Kingdom, 17 hours ago

The only people who have been eating humble pie since the referendum are those that favoured remaining as their predictions and exaggerations have been proved to be futile. The referendum had the biggest turnout for a vote in recent years, every eligible person, who could be bothered voted freely, £millions was spent on campaigning beforehand, especially for remaining, registration was extended and as we are a democratic country, the majority decision is final, since then the same remain favouring MPs, have and still are, trying to stop what the country voted for, when Scotland had their referendum the majority decision was final, so why isn’t the UKs

19 up arrows, 3 down arrows

Where are the examples to support his (I use “his” although his gender is not clear) statement “those that favoured remaining as their predictions and exaggerations have been proved to be futile”. Surely it has become clear now that the opposite is true. Leavers appeared to think that the economy would fall apart the day after the referendum but it was always obvious that it would be a slow but accelerating decline as businesses move out of the UK. This is visibly happening now – we have seen another example this week with Honda whose “business reasons” must surely include Brexit.

This response also parrots the often repeated “majority decision is final” and “biggest turnout for a vote in recent years”. He does not address my point that much has happened since 2016. There are plenty of examples of people being asked to vote on the terms of a deal once this has been agreed by two parties, notably in the trade union movement where leaders are asked to negotiate new terms and then put them back to their members for acceptance or rejection. In the case of the 2016 referendum it seems to me that this is essential because, as I said in my original comment, “All the promises made by the leave campaign have turned out to be false.”

Emma Harrington, London, United Kingdom, 16 hours ago

So let’s advocate treason on a public forum that will be popular

8 up arrows and 4 down arrows

Perhaps the people who liked or disliked this comment had less trouble parsing it than I have. I am not at all clear what it is intended to mean. Is it one sentence or two? Is she advocating treason by the three authors of the article or accusing me of treason or suggesting she should be treasonous herself? In any case you could interpret this statement in more than one way. Is it the public forum that will be popular? Or is it advocating treason on a public forum, and saying that to do so would be popular?

In any case I hardly think that disagreement is “treason”. There are many instances of politicians who have publicly disagreed with their leaders.

I did make an attempt rather late to reply to guitarist16. Here is what I said

susan, Harrogate, United Kingdom, 15 hours ago

To guitarist16. We haven’t left the EU yet, but jobs are going (Honda this week) and financial organizations are taking their capital out of London. You haven’t mentioned the huge amounts of money spent by Leave in telling lies to people on Facebook about Turkey joining the EU etc. Nobody has yet said where Arron Banks got this money from. I’m so sorry for the people who fell for these lies. If this isn’t stopped the UK is heading for steady but accelerating decline in isolation from the rest of the world. It will be ripe for asset stripping by US businesses – as the Brexiteers have planned for years. See the 2012 book Britannia Unchained by Patel, Raab, Truss etc and the more recent books by Tim Shipman.

This got 7 up arrows and 8 down arrows, but by then most of these people had moved on to repeat the same comments again and again.

All this has depressed me, not because I have been criticised by these people but because they do seem to have some difficulty in actually addressing the points that I made. I have seen this over and over again in the comment forums of the tabloids.

I do wonder what people think they are achieving by repeating the same comments over and over again. Are they paid trolls? Is it brainwashing? I would seriously question whether any of the responses to my comment, and their up and down arrows, have any effect at all except to reinforce existing prejudices. Sadly, I believe the Leave campaign took advantage of this and kept pumping out misinformation on social media and encouraging more and more people to believe it and to “like” it. It appears to be continuing to do this with more misinformation about the WTO and the Lisbon Treaty.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people could look at what is actually being said, and have a reasoned argument supported by evidence?

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Three Little Trips in Florida Autumn 2018

We spent six weeks at our Florida house in autumn 2018. It was wonderfully warm, over 80F most days, and we ate almost every meal outside by the pool. It was even warm enough to sit out in the rain as the chairs are under cover. There was plenty to do in the house but also time for some trips.

Go here for a picture gallery.

Cedar Key and North West

Cedar Key is a laid back clam and fishing village on the west coast about 160 miles north west from our house. We went there for the first time about 9 years ago. It was definitely time to go back.

On the way we took a detour to Rainbow Springs State Park. Before Disney arrived in Florida, this park was a major tourist attraction. It had elaborate gardens, waterfalls, glass bottom boat trips and a zoo. Now most tourists, but not us, go there to swim in a colourful lake, which is hopefully alligator free. My camera couldn’t quite do justice to its colours.

Rainbow Springs State Park

About an hour after we arrived, the heavens opened with a big thunderstorm, luckily when we we not far from the visitor centre and could shelter. There were sheets of rain – and the sun shining nearby. I had a good conversation with the ranger and the volunteer in the centre who really appreciated our preference for the Florida State Parks over Disney. I’m glad that the state is putting plenty of funding into these parks where there is only a modest charge for a car to go in.

We had decided to try airbnb at Cedar Key and found ourselves in a nice room in a newish house which was built on stilts in case of hurricanes. The owner told us that building regulations now require living areas to be at least 18 feet off the ground. We were about a mile from the old area of Cedar Key which is now mostly tourist shops and fish restaurants.

View from our airbnb, Cedar Key

The Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge consists of many islands off a complicated coast line and is home to abundant wildlife. Next day we took a boat trip around some of the islands. The boat took 12 people, but all but another couple and us got off at the first island Atsena Otie Key for the beach. When we picked them up on the way back, it turned out that they had had an afternoon with the mosquitoes. I managed to grab a picture of the hat in front of us.

There was a long disused jetty off Atsena Otie Key, occupied by a long row of cormorants.

Cormorants on the jetty on Atsena Otie Key

Almost all these islands are uninhabited, but Seahorse Key is occupied by a research station, and, apparently, plenty of snakes. We could not get off there but came close enough to see the research buildings and the lighthouse.

The islands vary in size a lot. Some are just grass which can be covered over at high tide.

Grassy Key – with one inhabitant

Further out we finally got to see some of the huge white pelicans which we had seen on our previous visit. They are far larger than the normal brown ones. Some had got caught on a sand bank and were swimming to land as the tide came in.

Great white pelicans

We wondered why two small dogs had come with us on the boat, but one of them suddenly started barking like mad. It had heard some dolphins whose sound is out of range for human hearing. Several dolphins then started leaping around the boat and in the wake.

We stopped off briefly at Manatee Springs State Park on the way home. It was too warm for manatees which come to these warm springs in cold weather, and so we walked out on the boardwalk to the Suwanee River. We saw plenty of birds including vultures which we have rarely seen in Florida before. There were no alligators.

Vultures at Manatee Springs State Park

Jupiter and Jonathan Dickenson State Park

It’s about 150 miles south east from our house to Jupiter which is both a town and a barrier island off the east coast. Much of Florida is empty and this route goes through some of the emptiest area with almost no houses and just a few cattle spread around. In 89 miles of Florida’s Turnpike (a major route from north to south) there is only one exit, Yeehaw Junction where we were disappointed to see that the Desert Inn, a historic landmark building, is now closed and delapidated. It was an enormous contrast from 4-lane highways and endless unplanned development in the Orlando area.

We were rather late setting off and arrived at Jupiter Island in the late afternoon in time to walk on the beach at the north end of the island to watch the glow from sunset in the eastern sky.

Sunset colours at Jupiter Island on the east coast

There are very long sandy beaches on the barrier islands on east coast of Florida, but it all does become rather boring after a while as the coastline is straight and there are no hills or cliffs, only empty space punctuated by clusters of tall apartment blocks.

We stayed in a motel in the town of Jupiter and, after getting a nail removed and puncture fixed in one of our tyres (no charge for this), we went to the Jupiter Lighthouse and Museum where there were a few displays about the Seminole Indians who were once the only inhabitants of the area.

The lighthouse, painted red, was built in the 1850s and is on a “hill” which rises all of 50 feet. I declined the 105 spiral stairs but Martin made it to the top and can just be seen half-hidden behind the left Christmas decoration bow.

Martin behind the left bow on Jupiter Lighthouse

There was a huge tree at the base of the lighthouse. We thought it was a banyan but were told that it was a kind of oak.

From Jupiter we drove north on route 1 to the Jonathan Dickenson State Park which covers a large area just east of the main road. There we decided to do the boat tour which took us on the Loxahatchee River to Trapper Nelson’s homestead. Nelson was an eccentric who lived off the land in what seemed more like a clearing in the jungle. He had assembled a kind of zoo of raccoons, alligators, snakes and other wildlife, and charged people to visit in the 1940s and 1950s. He was found dead in 1968 due to a shotgun, but nobody knows whether it was suicide or murder.

Arriving at Trapper Nelson’s on the Loxahatchee River

We were on the last river trip of the day and the guide clearly thought it was too late to see much wildlife. There were a few canoeists and people in their own boats. What amazed me was how anybody could find their way on a fairly narrow and winding river with plenty of side canals, all edged with apparently the same mangroves and then the same trees as we got further away from the sea. True to the guide’s prediction there were no alligators.

Before we left we walked up all 82 feet to the highest natural point of land in south Florida then up the Hobe Mountain Observation Tower from where you could see for miles.

Hobe Observation Tower at Jonathan Dickenson State Park

After the long and empty drive on the Turnpike then another on route 60 we had a nice fish dinner at a very local old Florida restaurant in Lake Wales about 25 miles from home.

Kissimmee State Park

Our third little trip was very little, only a short trip from home for a picnic in Kissimmee State Park. It’s the nearest park to our house but still about 45 minutes away. We took a picnic there in the hope of finally seeing some alligators, but, even though it was a Sunday, we found the park almost deserted except for a few birds .

Can anyone identify this large bird, Kissimmee State Park

The last time we were there a few years before we saw plenty of alligators in the water near the visitor centre area but there were none this time and none in the channel to the lake, where we walked alongside for a while.

There’s an observation tower in the park from where you can see across the prairie to Lake Kissimmee which is the fourth largest lake in Florida.

Camp Mack Fishing Camp is at the end of the road a couple of miles past the park entrance and so we decided to drive along and take a look. The Sunday activity was definitely there. Pickup trucks were parked everywhere and a crowd of a hundred or so mainly large people were sitting in picnic chairs watching the results of a junior fishing competition. A line of teenagers wearing their fishing club t-shirts were waiting to have their catches weighed while an MC conducted proceedings through a loud sound system.

Fishing competition at Camp Mack Fishing Camp

Florida is very multicultural but there was not single hispanic or black face there. My immediate reaction was “Welcome to Trumpland”. Polk county, where our house is, did vote for Trump. Much of it is rural and small towns, totally different from the Orlando area, although it is close enough to Orlando for Disney and shopping.

We stayed about 15 minutes and took some photos. The fish were mainly bass. One weighed over 12 pounds – no kilograms in the US.

Miscellania

One day as we were eating our lunch outside, we saw a small plane writing in the sky with its vapour trail. The letters soon began to disintegrate before it finished. We saw it again another day as we were eating lunch by Lake Tohopekaliga at Kissimmee. The letters disintegrated again.

Airplane sky writing, from Florida Breeze Villa

The Americans really go for Christmas decorations. Some houses had lights all over and a menagerie of 4 foot high illuminated metal reindeer in the front garden. They also go for huge inflatables and I managed a to grab pictures of some in two stores.

Inflateable Mickey Mouse for Christmas

One evening when we got home we saw that a house across the road from us had a row of 3 smaller inflateables outside which were singing some monotonous music. Thankfully they had collapsed the next day.

Another day we saw a car with decorative “antlers” on its aerials. In fact we saw this twice but have no idea whether it was the same car.

The papaya tree we planted in March was dead. It had grown to about 4 feet and had one small papaya on it, but it was laid on the ground and had been either struck by the hurricane or by the lawn mowing guy who rides round too fast.

Most Americans are not into gardening and their idea of a neat garden is a lawn and few bushes, including even hibiscus, pruned into box shapes, but one garden on our development is amazing. A Mexican family lives there and the owner showed us round one day. He has 8 papaya trees, each about 10 feet tall with plenty of fruit on each. He told us that he had grown them from seeds. He also had guavas, lemons, avocados and many other tropical plants. We came away with two large papayas.

Picture gallery: Three Little Trips in Florida Autumn 2018

Click to enlarge

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Plymouth and Cape Cod September 2018

This is the third of three posts on our visit to New York, Boston and Cape Cod in September 2018.

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Plymouth and the early settlers

Sunday was a good day to choose to drive out of Boston. It was fairly quiet as we went south to Plimoth, as it is spelled, Plantation which is a kind of museum cum reconstruction of what life was like when the early settlers arrived on the Mayflower. This covers a large area and, unusually for the US, you have to walk round it, all of about half a mile.

We started in the Wampanoag Homesite, a replica of how the original inhabitants of the area lived. Inside a house we met modern Wampanoags who answered questions about their ancestors’ way of life. We had an interesting discussion with one of them about their language which is being revived.

Inside a house at the Wampanoag Homesite

The Craft Center houses examples of historic crafts and a few people were on hand to explain their crafts. This Center was in a modern building which was perhaps as well as it began to get much colder as the wind got up.

The so-called “English Village” is a re-creation of a community built by the early settlers near the shore. There are wooden houses, mostly consisting of only one room, all equipped as they would be in the 17th century.

The English Village

Each house is named after a family of early settlers and in some of them guides dressed in costume were on hand to talk about life at that time, as if it was still happening.

Inside a house at the English Village

After leaving Plimoth we paid a short visit to the actual Plymouth Rock at the site where the Pilgrims landed in the small town of Plymouth. It is inscribed with the date 1620.

The wind was much colder by then. Thank goodness for Dunkin Donuts where we got some hot tea. Nowhere else in Plymouth appeared to be open at all.

“Treasured Memories” and fish and chips

In Cape Cod we stayed at the “Inn of Treasured Memories” – not the typical name of a B&B in the UK – where we had a large and warm room. It was in the town of Harwich, pronounced Har-witch, which is close to the bend in the Cape Cod peninsula. We were the only people there and the hostess was very pleasant and helpful.

Inn of Treasured Memories, Harwich

For dinner on the first evening our hostess directed us to Kream ’n Kone in West Dennis which turned out to be self-service fish and chips. They were good but not quite what you can get in Yorkshire and there was no vinegar. But we did get salad. In the next couple of days we saw far more fish and chip restaurants than we have ever seen anywhere else in the US.

Wind, lighthouses and seals

On the Monday it was cold and so windy that you could hardly stand up. We battled to the lighthouse at Chatham then went north to the Cape Cod National Seashore Visitor Center and drove round the loop road by the sea to Nauset Light – the Americans seem to just to call them Light, not Lighthouses.

We drove on to Provincetown at the far northern end of Cape Cod. When we were last there in 1977 this was quiet sleepy place. This time the tourists had descended in force, presumably because it was far too cold to be on the beach. After a very slow drive along the main street, passing among other things the Queen Vic, we did find a nice (and late) lunch.

We went out to Race Point at the far tip, walked on the beach and were rewarded by seeing some seals in the water very close to the shoreline.

Close up at Race Point

On the way back we took a detour round the National Seashore again and Martin went on the guided tour to Highland Light, climbing up the narrow stairs to the Lantern Room.

It was soon back to the B&B and then after some research online, out to a nice dinner at Pate’s at Chatham.

Another lighthouse and glass-making

The weather was much better the next day. Picking up a sandwich on the way, we drove west, first through Falmouth to the lighthouse at Nobska Point then to Woods Hole where we ate our sandwich on the beach. We could easily see across to the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Most of the houses around Woods Hole are rather large and are in a grey shingled style, a contrast from the painted wooden ones further east and north.

Our last stop was at the Glass Museum at Sandwich on the north coast. Sandwich was first settled in 1637 and, as we learned from the movie, became a large centre of glass making built up by Deming Jarves in the early 19th century. There were some excellent examples of glasswork in the museum but the highlight was a live demonstration of glass blowing.

Glass blowing, Glass Museum, Sandwich

We couldn’t leave Cape Cod without going to the largest town Hyannis where we had an excellent fish dinner outdoors right by the harbour, after the obligatory visit to Macy’s in the mall.

Traffic

Any plans for sightseeing the next day on our way back to Logan Airport were gradually scuppered as we became caught up in Boston’s notorious traffic. It must have been really awful before 2004 when they finished the “Big Dig” which took Interstate 93 underground through the centre of Boston.

Why choose Cape Cod?

Cape Cod is a pleasant part of the US. Much of it is wooded and if you drive along the main road through the middle of the cape, you hardly see any buildings for much of the way. However, except for the Cape Cod National Seashore area, Cape Cod is fairly built-up, but with individual houses surrounded by trees. In the US there is a house style called Cape Cod which is rather like a chalet bungalow in the UK. We saw many examples with painted clapperboard sides. It’s such a shame that so many residential streets in the US are marred by overhead electricity cables. Fortunately ours at Florida Breeze Villa isn’t.

Many of the place names are British, but it is slightly unnerving that they are in a different geographical relationship to each other than they are in the UK.

As we saw from the air going to New York there are plenty of good beaches, but there’s not a lot to do if it’s not beach weather. Much of the accommodation is rental houses or apartment rentals which seem to be catering for families and are thus expensive for two people. Overall it is definitely not the cheapest area in the US, but is worth a visit for a few days.

Picture gallery: Plymouth and Cape Cod September 2018

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Boston September 2018

This is the second of three posts about our trip to New York, Boston and Cape Cod in September 2018.

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Getting to Boston

We took the Amtrak train from New York to Boston. Penn Station has certainly been modernised since we lived in New Jersey in the 1990s, but you still have to go down into the bowels of the earth to get on the train which is in a tunnel for some time after it leaves.

It was a pleasant journey, for most of the time, passing many inlets with boat marinas in Connecticut.

A Connecticut marina, from the train

When we got nearer to Boston it became very dark and the heavens opened. It was also clear that the train was going to arrive late, in fact about 40 minutes late – British trains aren’t the only ones that are late. It had just about stopped raining when we arrived and we soon found a taxi even though there did not appear to be an official taxi rank and dispatcher at Boston South Station.

Staying in the other Cambridge

We were right in the rush hour and it took a while to get to Irving House at Harvard, our B&B in Cambridge. This was a nice B&B with help yourself breakfast, and tea, coffee and cake available all day.

Irving House at Harvard, our B&B

We were, however, on the top floor which required four flights of stairs to the basement eating area. They told us that it would be difficult install a lift in an old building.

We were close to Harvard University and soon found a Chinese restaurant for dinner. I had looked for the Indian restaurant where I had a great meal with some digital humanities people in the 1990s, but it seemed to have disappeared. There were plenty of fast food outlets, all full of students. After dinner we had a good browse in Harvard University bookstore and managed to only buy 2 books.

A day in Boston

The Boston subway is called the T and the next day (a Friday) we took the T from Harvard Square to downtown. It was still quite warm, although nothing like it was earlier in the week. It was also somewhat cloudy.

Our first stop was the AAA as we needed some more information and maps about Cape Cod. Very fortunately we had spotted that they are not open at weekends.

After lunch we took the hop-on hop-off Old Town Trolley (open-sided bus) tour around Boston.

The Old Town Trolley, Boston

This was excellent with the driver/guide pointing out many places of interest. Boston has more history than almost anywhere else in the US and it soon became clear that the British were the baddies for most of the time – it’s really illuminating to get another country’s view of its interactions with the British.

We first went north by the harbour, ten close to the house of Paul Revere whose midnight ride alerted patriots to the arrival of the British forces. Next was the Charlestown Navy Yard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with its huge modern buildings. Then it was on through the lovely old houses on Beacon Hill and along the Back Bay, where I stayed the last time I was in Boston for the very last meeting I went to in North America before I came back to the UK from Canada.

We hopped off at the Prudential Center which is the highest tower that you can now go up in Boston – the viewing deck on the Hancock Tower, which I went up once in the 1990s, has been closed since 9/11. The viewing area gave an excellent view all round, including planes landing at Logan airport which is very close.

There was also an excellent exhibition on immigration to the Boston area. Perhaps some of our politicians (and tabloids) could take note of this quote:

Some of our politicians (and tabloids) ought to read this

“The economic lesson here is that countries needn’t worry about too many foreign workers entering their labor markets. The time to worry is when the immigrants stop coming”

(J. Riley, Wall Street Journal 2014)

We hopped back on the trolley and went past Copley Square where we stayed on our first visit to Boston in 1977, then along by Boston Common and back to the Aquarium through the old town past the Omni Parker House Hotel where JKF proposed to Jackie, Faneuil Hall, which was built as a meeting place in 1740-1742, and finally past the site of the Boston Tea Party.

Site of the Boston Tea Party, from the trolley

Back near Harvard we had a pub type meal sitting outside and then browsed in another large bookstore.

Another day in Boston

Saturday was a bit warmer. We took the T downtown to the Aquarium again and then a 45 minute boat tour around the harbour where it was easier to see how much of the city is on reclaimed land. We managed to get a sandwich lunch at Quincy Market which was very crowded indeed.

Next was a 10 minute local ferry ride to Charlestown to visit the USS Constitution, a navy vessel launched in 1797, which last sailed in 2012.

USS Constitution

The ship and the museum next to it chart US naval history and modern day members of the US Navy are on hand to give talks answer questions. Martin disappeared down the very steep steps to see the decks below where there was little headroom, but I passed on this.

Back in town we walked some of the Freedom Trail. This route passes many of the places of historical interest in Boston. There is plenty of tourist information about it but you can’t get lost as there’s a red line on the pavement all the way. We joined more crowds in Boston Common, which is the oldest city park in the US, before dinner at Bean Deck and back to Irving House.

Harvard University

We looked round Harvard a bit more on the way to the T to pick up our rental car on Sunday morning. The architecture is quite different from Oxford. Most of the buildings surround a huge area called Harvard Yard and almost all them are red brick. Most imposing is the front of the Widener Library with steps leading up to a row of Corinthian columns.

Widener Library, Harvard University

I ought to be able to remember, but don’t, which building I was in when I gave a professional development talk to a group of librarians and others at Harvard in 1992.

Harvard’s endowent is larger than that of any other university. The number of undergraduate students is about 6700, very small by UK standards. There are just over 15000 graduate students. Most students get generous financial aid and pay little if no fees which is perhaps as well as tuition, room, board and fees come to over $65,000 per year.

Picture gallery: Boston September 2018

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New York: Gardens and Tennis September 2018

This is the first of three posts on our visit to New York, Boston and Cape Cod in September 2018.

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One item firmly on my bucket list was to go to the US Open Tennis Championships in New York. Months before the event I found out that American Express card holders had priority for early booking. I soon dug out this rarely used card and got online the day priority tickets went on sale. This card proved to be a boon in another way.

Entrance to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center

We decided to extend the trip to Boston, where we hadn’t been for almost 20 years, and to Cape Cod where we were last in 1979.

Getting to New York

Thomas Cook turned out to be the best deal from Manchester to JFK with return from Boston. The flight, on a Sunday, was uneventful and on time, though the food left a little to be desired. There was a spectacular view of Cape Cod as we approached Long Island. We arrived at the International Terminal at JFK, the one where “any other foreign airline” arrives. We were extremely glad we had been to the US recently as the immigration queue for those who did not have an ESTA (Electronic Travel Authorization to the US, a kind of visa which you get online), or were entering the US for the first time on an ESTA, was enormous.

Carmel Cars got us to Candlewood Suites on West 39th St in good time. Later we went out for the first of four nice meals with our friend Nancy.

New York Botanic Garden

There was one day before the tennis and so with Nancy we went to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, about a 25 minute ride on the Metro North Railroad from Grand Central. It was very hot, into the 90s (yes the Americans still use Fahrenheit) in the shade. The garden is more like a big park and so we decided to take the tram trolley tour. There were some lovely trees including plenty of conifers.

New York Botanical Garden

It seemed like every bit of the garden was named after a donor.

Even though it was Labor Day, the US holiday which signals the end of summer, it wasn’t too busy.

Lunch was in an air-conditioned cafe. After that we ventured into the heat again to look at some perennials and other flowerbeds and at some beautiful water lilies.

Water lilies and their reflections, New York Botanical Garden

The highlight was a special exhibition about the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s visit to Hawaii in 1939 and the paintings she did there. Several paintings were on show and there was plenty of supplementary information.

Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition, New York Botanical Garden

The huge conservatory was also showcasing Hawaiian plants which brought back memories for us as we have been to the botanical gardens in Kauai and the Big Island.

We had to retreat to the cool of the cafe again before leaving.

Tennis on Tuesday 4 September 2018

Tuesday was the first big day. It takes about 30 minutes to get to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Long Island on the subway. It seemed to be even hotter, but the American Express deal included a huge air-conditioned building with a separate area for card holders. We got there quite early and had time to cool down before going in search of lunch.

Inside the American Express lounge

The food village consisted of a long row of booths where all except one were serving large helpings of junk food and fizzy drinks – no wonder the US has an obesity problem. We managed to find something a bit healthier then found our seats in the Arthur Ashe Stadium. We were at one end and had a good view in spite of being a long way up. Thankfully we remained in the shade all the time.

View from our seats Tuesday 4 September

The first match was between American Sloane Stephens, the 2017 ladies champion, and Latvian Anastasija Sevastova. Much to the disappointment of the partisan crowd, Sloane was clearly having an off day and Anastasija won easily 6-2, 6-3.

The men’s quarter final between the two giants, 6ft 10in American John Isner and 6ft 6in Argentinian Juan Martin del Potro, was more evenly matched. There was a surprising amount of support for del Potro, the eventual championship runner-up, who won 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2. Isner started the match wearing a shirt with large bright green, grey and white stripes, but had to switch to a white one after he had used up all the striped ones. He said afterwards that he had got through 11 shirts in the heat. It didn’t seem to bother del Potro so much.

It was very hot out there

Tennis on Wednesday 5 September 2018

On the Wednesday I took myself to the tennis center and, after a brief cool-down courtesy of American Express, looked round a lot more. There was a huge number of different baseball hats on sale in the shop, for $30 each. I was one of very few people who were not wearing one – I took my Australian floppy hat instead. In fact most spectators appeared to be wearing the same uniform of shorts, T-shirts, white trainers or sandals, and baseball caps.

I walked to the Grandstand Stadium at the far end of the center to see Jamie Murray in the men’s doubles, but two games was enough in the glaring sun. I took some photos but did not see him and his partner Bruno Soares lose the match. Unlike on Arthur Ashe, a steward was stopping people entering the stadium except when they changed ends.

Jamie Murray, in the Men’s Doubles

On the way back to Arthur Ashe I discovered a Dean and Delucca food outlet well away from the junk food places. I bought a very nice sandwich at this upmarket food shop. It was almost the certainly the most expensive prepacked sandwich I have ever had at $18.

I had chosen a side-view seat for this day, but realised the day before that this seat would be in the sun later in the afternoon. In the first match I saw the eventual women’s champion Naomi Osaka win easily 6-1, 6-1 over Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko. I read later that Lesia had nearly withdrawn as she wasn’t feeling well.

Naomi Osaka, the eventual women’s champion

Second up was Japanese Kei Nishikori against Marin Cilic of Croatia. This turned out to be an excellent match. I managed to move to a seat in the shade after two sets, but my view there was getting blocked by people wandering up and down, usually carrying more junk food. It’s nothing like Wimbledon where nobody moves except when the players change ends.

It was also becoming even hotter so I watched the last two sets on the American Express big screen. The winner was anybody’s guess until almost the end of the final set. Nishikori won 2-6, 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, only to fall easily to Djokovic in the semi-finals.

After another nice meal in the evening we had a walk round Times Square which is only a few blocks from where we were staying. Tennis was the number one priority for this visit and I didn’t mind not seeing much more of New York.

Candlewood Suites

We have stayed in a good number of places in New York. Hotel rooms there
are usually quite small and dark, but we liked Candlewood Suites a lot. We had a big room complete with kitchen, desk and chairs, and wifi that worked. It was on the 16th floor (out of 32) with a big window and so got more light. It was easy to buy some breakfast food at the delis round the corner in 9th Avenue. The hotel also had iced lemonade in the lobby which was so welcome coming in from the heat outside.

Picture gallery: New York: Gardens and Tennis September 2018

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Caribbean Cruise Winter 2018

Winter 2018 was definitely time for another cruise from Florida. This time we chose Holland America, a cruise line we have never used before, for a 7-night trip to Key West, Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos, Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic and Half Moon Cay, Holland’s private island in the Bahamas. The ship was the Nieuw Amsterdam and we left from Fort Lauderdale on a pleasant Saturday evening in early March.

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We had booked what is called a “guarantee” balcony cabin, which the cruise line allocates the week before. We found ourselves perched very high in one of only 10 cabins on deck 11. You can read more about the ship here.

Nieuw Amsterdam, arrow showing our cabin

Key West

On the first whole day we were in port at Key West at the very end of the Florida Keys. The ship docks right by the town with an easy walk for sightseeing. We had been to Key West twice before including once by car with 2 nights B&B, and so bypassed the major sights like Ernest Hemingway’s house.

Key West is 160 miles by road from Miami, far enough for the city to be able to do its own thing. They call themselves the “Conch Republic”, and slightly with tongue-in-cheek have an Independence Day and a national anthem. Chickens wander about in the streets. There are no high rises, just old wooden houses, beautifully done up. Needless to say there are also a lot of places selling key lime pie and key lime everything else – the yoghurt is really good.

Manatee mailbox in Key West

Rather than walk a lot, we took the trolley tour. “Trolley” is American for an open-sided bus. It’s hop-on hop-off in Key West. The trolley goes a lot further than the touristy “Conch tour train”. We stayed on round the newer part and then got off at what claims to be the southernmost point in the US. There’s a kind of beacon there – and a long queue of people taking photographs of themselves, which we duly did.

Southernmost Point

As we set off to walk some of the way back, on the pavement we found a poignant reminder that Cuba is only 90 miles away and was easily visited from the US until relations soured in 1959.

Poignant reminder

We also passed a number of larger than life-size statues.

Statue in Key West

Back at our perch on the ship we saw that the military occupies the actual southermost point where it has 2 radomes.

Grand Turk

Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands was the second port. “Grand” turned out to be rather a misnomer as it is just less than 7 square miles. It was badly damaged by Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and some of the 3600 inhabitants left then. The main town Cockburn is more like a village, but they have made a big effort to get more tourists by building a cruise terminal that can take two very large ships.

Cruise ships at Grand Turk

In the end we decided to take the ship’s safari tour. This turned out to be another trolley, this time mounted on a truck. We had to climb on up some steps at the back. In 2 hours we stopped only 3 times and then very briefly. We saw several wild ponies and donkeys wandering about. The guide pointed out hurricane damage – there was certainly a lot of building going on. The first stop was at a small craft market where there were some lovely things on sale. We bought a small oil painting for $10 and would have liked more time there.

Next we went to the lighthouse at the other end of the island. This was built by the Brits, of course, in 1852 and is now a historic monument. Most people on the tour were more interested in the wild horses and donkeys which were being bottle fed water by the bus driver.

Donkey drinking with bus driver on Grand Turk

A few venturous people were trying a small zip line there. Again it was a short stop – Martin was the only person who went into the lighthouse enclosure.

The last stop was on a rather nice beach where a ship had been wrecked. The driver told us that this ship had been moored out by the reef a few years ago because it was damaged and had only ended up by the beach during Irma.

Nice beach at Grand Turk with wreck

On reflection I think it would have been better to rent a car on Grand Turk. It certainly would be have been a lot cheaper than the cruise ship’s excursion and we could have stayed longer at some places and taken more photos. There is no way you can get lost in such a small island which is very flat and we do have a guide book for the Caribbean islands. It was interesting to see it, but I think Grand Turk falls into the “been there, seen that” category of places we have been to.

“Not” Amber Cove

The next day the Captain came on the PA at 7.15am to say we would not be docking at Amber Cove because of the swell which was caused by a nor’easter hundreds of miles away. This was a big disappointment to us as the stop in the Dominican Republic was the main reason we chose this cruise. We had booked a rental car, bought a guide book and spent some time working out what we wanted to see in this area. It’s a big country. Rather than trying to see it from a cruise ship again, we realised that we could fly down there for a week from Florida.

Amber Cove was opened in 2015. We have not been able to find out if missing Amber Cove is a frequent occurrence, but you would think that they could have built it to withstand some bad weather. The sea did not appear to be that bad and the locals must have lost a lot of business.

Half Moon Cay

So we had an extra day at sea and sailed very slowly to the Bahamas. There we did know that it was a tender and that we might not get on to the island if the sea was rough, but all was fine and we had a lovely day. Half Moon Cay is bigger and better equipped than the one other cruise line island we have been to. The beaches are lovely, but the rest of the island is low-lying scrub. I found a nice quiet lounger on the beach and got my Kindle out while Martin, needless to say, walked as far as he could.

Our ship anchored at Half Moon Cay

Lunch was an excellent barbecue with plenty of choice of meat, salad and fruit. After lunch we decided to walk the “running trail”, which was all of just under a mile on a good surface. As soon as we set off we met a local on a bicycle who told us that 45 people live on the island permanently, all working for the cruise line. He said he was in charge of the “farm” and invited us to view his “vegetables” which we duly did.

We then came to the stingray lagoon where people were doing the cruise ship stingray excursion, walking amongst them.

Sting rays at Half Moon Cay

There wasn’t much else to see except a few hens pottering around and some interesting vegetation. We were back by the dock in under an hour.

The ship left at 3pm and sailed overnight to Fort Lauderdale arriving at 7am. Because there are so many people, disembarkation is in groups and you choose your time. This meant that we could have a leisurely breakfast in the dining room before getting off at 9.45.

Life on the ship

Three days at sea enabled us to explore the ship. Our cabin was next to the large Exploration Lounge at the front of the ship. Shore excursions were being sold here at a desk, but the lounge also had some huge flat touch screens where you could research and trace where you are going. There was also a large number of travel books, a rare thing on cruise ships.

Many people spent the days at sea lounging by one of the pools. This is not really our thing again, especially when there is music as well, but we did indulge in one of the jacuzzis a couple of times, at dusk when it was quiet. The ship provided ample pool towels and beach towels.

The other passengers were mostly Americans, with a fair few Canadians. We did not meet any other British people on this ship and heard just a few other languages being spoken, although these might of course be people living in the US.

Meals

Mostly we ate in the main dining room which is table service. We always prefer anytime dining rather than the older cruise system of a fixed time at a fixed table. With anytime dining you can ask to share a table. Just think what it would be like if you were stuck on a fixed table for a week with people you didn’t get on with. We had some great companions and, thankfully, no Trump supporters.

The food for dinner in the dining room was imaginative, varied and well-presented. There were two more formal dinners with a scattering of dinner jackets, but most people just dressed up a bit more on these nights. Breakfast was a bit less exciting, but Martin managed to have some kippers one day. There was a good choice of cereals, which was a bit surprising as Americans tend not to eat them.

Like all cruise chips, there was also a large buffet which was open most of the time. This was a good place to have lunch and you could take your food outside. You could make up a light lunch or a sandwich with salad and deli meat. Seeing some people load their plates really brought home the obesity problem in north America, which is far worse than in the UK.

Our cabin

This ship has only recently been refurbished and our cabin was well-equipped with an up to date video system including a bonus of the BBC on the TV.

We didn’t meet our cabin steward for several days and wondered if he was a ghost, something he himself joked about when we finally saw him. Most of his cabins were on the deck below. He was from Indonesia and was very pleased to learn that we had been there. The room was very clean and, like on other cruise lines, we had a towel sculpture every night.

Towel sculpture

Although we didn’t know it beforehand, this cruise was also associated with the Oprah [Winfrey] Magazine and an “Oprah goody” was left for us in the cabin every night, including two very nice beach towels which we could keep.

Entertainment

We only went to the big theatre three times. One was a showing of clips from some of David Attenborough’s programmes accompanied by live musicians. The red snakes chasing the iguana from the last Blue Planet series were a big hit. The same musicians, a Ukrainian string quintet, played light classical music in one of the lounges every night and were much appreciated. One afternoon there was a showing of more clips from David Attenborough with sections on how the clips were filmed. It was all a good advert for the BBC.

We didn’t bother with the rest of the entertainment but I sensed there were fewer clubbers than on most of the previous ships we have been on. Most people seemed to be spending their evenings either sitting around consuming the expensive drinks or in the casino.

Kitchen tour

The tour of some of the kitchens after breakfast one day was interesting, but rather hurried. We were given a short presentation in several departments, although the only food we saw was pastry preparation.

Pastry chef on the ship’s kitchen tour

More interesting was the information sheet which listed how much food they get through in a week. With 2000 passengers and 1000 crew it is rather a lot. The list included 3500lbs of rice for the crew who were mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines. The head chef was a Brit from Portsmouth.

If you are thinking of cruising

We’ve now taken several cruises in the Caribbean, one across the Atlantic and one from Singapore to Darwin. It’s an easy way of travelling and of getting a sense of what some places are like, but I wouldn’t want to do it as my only type of holiday as I like to stay longer in some places. However we met many people who do only ever take cruises.

You can get a good price deal at the last minute, but the cruise lines make more money on excursions and drinks, both of which are very expensive. Most of the excursions in the Caribbean tend to be to beaches, zip lines, stingrays and the like. The crew get paid from tips (called gratuities in America) which are added to your bill. At $13.50 per person per day on Holland America this soon mounted up.

I would strongly recommend anytime dining and I would also recommend doing some internet research before booking and sailing. You will often find that there are much cheaper excursions. When you get off the ship there are normally some locals selling trips and also some taxis.

Cruisers are great users of the Internet. There are forums such as cruise critic where people post often quite lengthy reviews of individual cruises. You can find deck plans of all the ships online, and comments about ports and shore excursions.

And….. don’t forget your sweater or cardigan. It was very cold inside the ship in the public areas.

Picture gallery: Caribbean Cruise Winter 2018

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Florida in Winter 2018

Finally, finally we were back at our house in Florida in January 2018 after our enforced stay at home in 2017. But it was 31F (yes the Americans still use Fahrenheit) at 8.30pm when we arrived at the house after our flight to Orlando from Gatwick. Fortunately it soon warmed up with daytime temperatures in the 80s for all of February when we had every meal outside at home.

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Pool at Florida Breeze Villa

Gardens and hurricanes

The house was fine thanks to our great property managers. Martin spent a lot of time on the garden which had been damaged by frost – a rare event in central Florida. We feared we had lost our variegated hibiscus but it and most other apparent casualties recovered rapidly. Watering is easy when all you have to do is turn on the sprinklers.

There weren’t many signs of hurricane damage in our area but when we went in search of a papaya plant at our favourite plant nursery in Kissimmee, we found few plants there and were told that they had thrown away much of their stock after it was flooded in the aftermath of Irma. They had no papaya plants, but we found some at the nearby Home Depot and invested $40. It was doing very well when we left as was the avocado I planted from a stone 3 years ago whch was now over 7 ft tall.

Flower on papaya tree at Florida Breeze Villa

Rural Polk County

Our house is in the north-east of Polk County close to Orlando, but most of the county is cattle country – yes there are a lot of cattle in Florida but they are always spread out, not grouped together in bunches like ours. There are also plenty of ospreys in Florida. I just didn’t have my camera out when we drove under a gantry with an osprey nest on it on the Polk Parkway. We were on our way to Bartow, a small town which is the administrative centre of Polk County. Once you get past the line of drive-in fast food places, there’s a nice town centre with real old-style courthouse occupying a whole block. It houses our destination, the Polk County Historical Museum. As always in the USA, there were excellent displays and a helpful volunteer acting as a steward.

Afterwards we went to tiny Homeland where there is a heritage park with old pioneer Florida houses. Sadly the buildings were closed, but we could get inside the park to walk round. The Methodist Church built in 1878 was the most elegant.

Homeland Methodist Church, 1887

Tampa Bay history and Honeymoon Island armadillos

Another day we went to the Tampa Bay History Center, where there were some excellent displays of the history of the area. In almost all the local museums we have visited in the US there has been quite an emphasis on the peoples who lived there before the Europeans came. The displays here were absolutely excellent and we had trouble dragging ourselves away from the bookstore where the credit card took quite a hit.

We couldn’t go to the west coast without visiting our favourite place Honeymoon Island, a state park just north of Clearwater. There you can walk the Osprey Trail – there were a good few at home. We had also seen an armadillo there before, but this time there were two, pottering about by the trail.

A pair of armadillos at Honeymoon Island

Honeymoon Island is a great place for the sunset over the Gulf. The day was finished with a Greek meal in Mykonos, our favourite restaurant in Tarpon Springs.

Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College

When our friend Nancy came to stay for a few days our first trip out was to see the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. This was our second visit to the college as we had also been there one evening earlier in our stay to see what turned out to be a very professional student production of South Pacific.

Frank Lloyd Wright was persuaded by the then President of the College Dr Ludd Spivey to design almost the whole campus beginning in 1938. It took nearly 20 years and it is the largest collection of Lloyd Wright architecture built for one client. We did the 2-hour walking tour which ended up as 3 hours with an enormous amount of detail from a rather large young man who had been studying Lloyd Wright for years. Among the donors whose names were commemorated in stone was one Oliver Cashdollar.

The main chapel at Florida Southern College

A castle in Florida

A castle was next on our agenda. A castle in Florida?? We had read about Solomon’s Castle in a book on the backroads of Florida. This was indeed in the middle of nowhere, about 1 hour 45 minutes south-west from our house. We expected to be the only visitors, but when we eventually got there, it was crowded with people, many of whom were also attending something called Pioneer Park Days in the nearby town of Zolfo Springs. Lunch was served in a wooden pirate boat, stuck in the moat. It looked rather like the tourist pirate boats we had seen in Marmaris in Turkey in 2016.

Solomon’s castle

The walls of the castle are aluminium with stained glass windows embedded in them. It was built by an eccentric called Harold Solomon who filled it with an amazing collection of objects which he made himself out of anything he could scavenge. In the surrounds we walked past a mock façade of a mosque and a model of an Easter Island statue. Solomon also collected vintage cars which are housed in another building together with car models which he also built.

One of Solomon’s creations inside his castle

We spent the first week in March on a cruise in the Caribbean, which you can read about here.

Miami Beach (or not) and the Tamiami Trail

There were some guests in our house when the cruise finished and so we decided to spend a bit of time in Southern Florida. This began with a huge mistake. We thought we would drive down from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach to see more of the art deco houses. What we did not know was that it was spring break. The area was seething with young people. It was impossible to park but the traffic was moving so slowly that I did get some photos out of the car window.

Art deco in Miami Beach

We gave up and headed south through a lot more traffic for our night’s stay in Florida City where we ended up eating a sandwich lunch at 4.30pm. Then it was time to catch up on a week’s backlog of e-mail, after no Internet on the cruise.

Sunday dawned bright, sunny and hot. We headed north and turned on to Tamiami Trail (guess how they made up the name) aka route 41, west along the edge of the Everglades. A stop at the Oasis Visitor Center had a convenient alligator viewing place where there were plenty of spectators, a few medium-sized gators and some fish that we didn’t recognize. The nearest we got to seeing the Florida panther was a stuffed one in the visitor centre.

In the Oasis Visitor Center – the nearest we got to the Florida panther

Naples

Our destination was Naples, the wealthiest part of Florida. There are some lovely buildings in the town centre and good restaurants where we had an extremely expensive Italian sandwich, sitting outside near a Porsche and a Bentley. We toyed with the idea of taking yet another trolley (open-sided bus on a truck chassis) tour and finally decided to do it. The heavens opened just as the trolley set off, but very fortunately only for 15 minutes. We had 2 hours of being driven around Naples, most of which was past one OTT mansion to another. The gardens were beautifully laid out and extremely well kept, but it did get rather monotonous after a while. Perhaps Americans are more interested than we are in where various famous people live.

Church in Naples, from trolley tour

Pine Island

A quick zoom up I-75 took us to the hotel in Fort Myers for our last 2 nights. We had a leisurely final day driving out to Pine Island where there are lots of colourful small wooden houses and no high rises. Our main destination there was the Randell Research Center, an archaeological site where the Calusa, once the most powerful people in Southern Florida, lived until the early 18th century when Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain and the last remaining Calusa moved to Cuba. Various sign boards around the side informed us about their lifestyle, but the most visible remains are shell mounds up to 30 feet high. An added treat was an osprey nest in the middle of the site.

The Calusa

Elsewhere on Pine Island we watched some pelicans fishing in a rough sea and had our last ice cream – key lime of course.

A rough sea for pelican fishing off Pine Island

Our flight home from Tampa was on time, but characterized by an elderly plane and the worst food we have ever had on British Airways. Back to Lufthansa for next time, I think.

The gun debate

We were in Florida at the time of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Needless to say it dominated the news for days and showed once again how polarized American views and media are about guns. One TV station talked endlessly about stricter gun controls, while another talked about mental health issues and giving guns to teachers. I watched the CNN “town hall” where in front of a large audience students and parents questioned the two Florida senators and the local congressman.

I was struck how articulate all the students were. Republican Senator Rubio, who has received over $1million in campaign funds from the National Rifle Association, did get some brownie points for turning up in contrast to the Governor of Florida Rick Scott who refused to attend. Rubio got a roasting from the students especially when he did not answer when challenged as to whether he would accept any more money from the NRA.

In the second part, the local sheriff chief did his best to calm nerves and let people know what law enforcement were doing, and a lady representing the NRA did her best to focus on mental health issues rather than gun ownership. Sadly, Trump’s latest antics were mostly dominating the news again when we left. It was good to see so many people turning out for the anti-gun marches on 24 March.


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December Sun in Lanzarote

At last. Some sun and warm weather. After being stuck at home for much of this year because of my hip problems we were able to spend a week in early December 2017 in Lanzarote, at the Holiday Property Bond site at Santa Rosa near Costa Teguise. We had been there before 4 years ago also in December and were confident that the sun would shine in the Canary Islands at this time of year.

Go here for a picture gallery.

Lanzarote

Lanzarote is the most northerly island in the Canaries. It’s shaped like a turtle with a head on each end and running from north east to south west. You can drive from one end to the other in about 90 minutes. The scenery is totally volcanic, with plenty of cone-shaped extinct volcanoes and lava fields almost everywhere. The old Gran Hotel in the capital Arrecife is the only tall building on the island. Almost all the houses are white, and make a great contrast against the black lava rock.

It’s only a 20-minute drive from the airport just south of Arrecife to Santa Rosa. We arrived in the daylight and had our first drink in the sunshine on the balcony outside our room.

View from our balcony

North from Costa Teguise

We saw most of the island in 2013 and so this time decided to revisit some of our favourites. One beautiful spot is the Ermita de Las Nieves, a small chapel high up on a viewpoint on the west side, over 500m above sea level. The nieves (clouds) were definitely missing and we ate our picnic in hot sun. There are some spectacular views from this area over to the island of Graciosa and south along the coast.

View southwards on the west coast

It’s a steep and twisty road with more amazing viewpoints down from there northwards to the lovely small town of Haría at 300m and then again down again on a rather wider road to the east coast. It was only 9km through the lava fields to the northermost town Orzola where we ate an excellent lunch in 2013.

Teguise Sunday Market

On Sundays there is a huge market in Teguise which was the capital of the island until 1852. Many of the locals attend and busloads of people arrive from the main tourist areas on the island. Parking was none too easy but we eventually found a spot 15 minutes walk (at my slow pace) away from the main square where there was a man playing on a peculiar kind of harp.

I got the impression from walking round a bit that there were fewer stalls selling nice souvenirs and more selling cheap clothes than in 2013. Avoiding the area of food stalls hawking burgers and chips, we found a lovely local restaurant and had excellent tapas for only €15.95 for two. On our last visit we had bought a coloured metal gecko about 10 inches long which is now residing (hurricane Irma permitting) on the outside wall of our house in Florida. We finally found another one just on the way back to the car.

Vineyards and El Golfo

As we left Teguise we passed a churchyard with a weird collection of monuments including even a computer screen and model animals. We drove past several “vineyards”. To protect them from the wind in Lanzarote all the vines are planted in individual round hollows in the black lava with low stone walls to shelter them.

Lanzarote vineyard

After we reached the coast, Martin went for a hike on very rough ground, then we watched one of the spectacular Lanzarote sunsets near the salt flats south of the small and remote, by Lanzarote standards, village of El Golfo. Eating there was a must as it was like Greece with restaurant tables by the sea and waiters crossing the road to serve you. The food was very good indeed.

Dinner starter at El Golfo

Cactus Garden

It was rather cloudy on our third morning but we couldn’t miss another visit to the Jardin de Cactus at Guatiza. It has about 4500 cacti in varying shapes and sizes
imaginatively laid out in a volcanic amphitheatre sheltered from the wind. Several were much taller than humans; others spread a long way along the ground. There were just a few flowers – and a lot of people visiting. I’m really into cacti, although the tallest one of mine, which I grew from a seed many years ago, is only about 12 inches.

Cactus garden, Guatiza

Here are a lot more cacti photos.

Arrecife

The weather was going off a bit more after lunch and so we decided to have a look round Arrecife. The excellent satnav in our car took us through some narrow one-way streets to the car park under the Gran Hotel. The centre of Arrecife was built long before tourism and the narrow streets had plenty of shops for locals, all closed of course for Spanish lunch and siesta when we walking round between 3.30 and 5pm.

We finished up on the 17th floor of the Gran Hotel where there is a cafe and bar with views on all sides. A coffee and cake kept us going as it got dark. There was no sunset – it began to rain hard instead. Thank goodness we could get into the car park without going outside.

Wind, dinner and concert in a lava bubble

The rain had died away by dawn the next day but the wind had not. Martin decided to hike up one of the nearby volcano cones, but abandoned the idea of walking round the rim because of the wind. In the evening, together with 10 other people from the HPB, we went to a dinner and concert of Spanish music in the Jameos del Agua, a huge underground area of volcanic lava tubes with tropical plants and a pool. The dinner was excellent and the concert very Spanish – it started at 10.30 pm. It was very windy outside, but we were sheltered inside the lava tubes.

Outside the Jameos del Agua, earlier in the week

César Manrique

The last day was César Manrique day. You can’t go to Lanzarote without coming across his legacy. He was an architect, designer, painter and sculptor who was born in Lanzarote, then lived in New York for 20 years. He returned to Lanzarote in 1966 and set about making the most of the stunning scenery on the island to encourage tourism without high-rises and other ugly buildings. His designs are blended into the volcanic scenery and lava. To visit his earlier house, which is now the home of the Fundación César Manrique, at Tahiche near Teguise, you have to walk through lava tunnels with white painted walls, and into volcanic bubbles past bright blue ponds surrounded by tropical plants before you get to a gallery of some of his works.

Looking down into Manrique’s house, Tahiche

Later he moved to another house at Haría which we visited after another tapas lunch in a now deserted Teguise. This house is more conventional but beautifully furnished and his studio in the grounds is a huge building. Sadly, Manrique died in a car accident in 1992 at age 73. The house and studio are just as he left them. Manrique designed the Jameos del Agua and the Jardin de Cactus and various other buildings and sculptures around the island.

Pool at Manrique’s house, Haría

Playa Blanca

On our last morning we drove down to the very south through the tourist area of Playa Blanca, looked across the water to Fuerteventura (next time I think), and had a nice lunch in the sun overlooking the yacht marina. Eight hours later we were driving home from Leeds/Bradford with the temperature hovering around 0C.

There are just a couple of things not to miss if you haven’t been to Lanzarote – we saw these in 2013. (1) A bus tour of Timanfaya National Park, the area affected most recently by volcanic activity. There’s an excellent museum and a demonstration of food being cooked directly over geothermal heat. (2) A visit to the Mirador del Río (another Manrique design) where there’s a spectacular view across to the small neighbouring island of Graciosa. Perhaps a third is the walk to Papagayo beaches from Playa Blanca.

Travel

We flew to Arrecife on Jet2 from Leeds/Bradford (LBA). Jet2 is one of the better cheap airlines, but like Ryanair the seats don’t recline. It’s worth paying a little extra for numbered seats. LBA is only an hour’s drive from home, but it is not the most spacious of British airports and we had to walk a long way outside in the cold to where the plane was parked.

Unlike several other HPB sites, Santa Rosa is easily doable without a car as there are restaurants, shops and buses nearby, but we like to get out and about on our own. We rented a car from AutoReisen at the airport for the princely sum of €64 for a week. With petrol the car came to less than €100. Appropriately for the Lanzarote scenery it was a Citroen Cactus. Once we found out how to change the language to English and got to grips with the fancy screen, we made a lot of use of its satnav. Driving was easy. The roads are mostly very good and well-signed with a lot of roundabouts.

Accommodation and food

Santa Rosa is a shared HPB site, but all the HPB apartments are at one end of a large building. We had a good view from the top floor overlooking the pool, which some people were braving, and beyond. It’s self-catering and we bought most of our food including delicious whole fish and bread from Eurospar about 7 minutes drive away. We ate out on several evenings, always with good food, and had one excellent and reasonably priced 3-course dinner at Montmartre just around the corner from Santa Rosa.

Tapas in Teguise

One of my favourite local foods is papas arrugardas – yes they do use the same word for potatoes and for the Pope. You boil small potatoes in very salty water (use sea salt) then drain off the water and return the pan to the heat and keep moving the potatoes around until all the water has evaporated and the potatoes are wrinkled on the outside. Delicious.

Picture gallery: December Sun in Lanzarote


Cactus gallery: December Sun in Lanzarote

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Social Media Interference in the Brexit Vote

I have spent some time this year looking at reader comments on pro-Remain content on Facebook (mostly from the Guardian, Open Britain and Scientists for EU) and on Pro-Leave articles in the Daily Mail. I soon began to detect a good deal of repetition in comments from Leave supporters. See below for some examples. Now more and more evidence is coming to light about the role of social media in influencing the result of the EU Referendum.

The Evidence

An article published in the Times on 15 November 2017 and noted by the Reuters News Agency (no paywall) stated that Russian Twitter accounts posted more than 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during last year’s referendum in an apparently “co-ordinated attempt to sow discord”. The article reports that more than 150,000 mostly automated accounts based in Russia, which had previously confined their posts to subjects such as the Ukrainian conflict, switched attention to Brexit in the days leading up to last year’s vote, according to research shortly to be published by data scientists at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley.

In another example, a paper published in the journal Social Science Computer Review on 10 October 2017 shows that 13,493 twitter accounts were tweeting and re-tweeting pro-Leave information at the time of the referendum and were deleted shortly after. These accounts were bots and were able to reach a wide audience through re-tweets by bots and subsequently by real people. This paper does not specifically mention Russia, but you have to ask where these accounts were coming from.

It’s also becoming very clear that there was social media interference in the US 2016 presidential election and that this emanated from Russian trolls based in the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg. An article in Wired published on 11 November 2017 highlights the extent of this. It’s clearly in the Russians’ interest to destabilise the US, the EU and the UK and, as someone who has worked in computing and information studies for many years, I can see how easily this can be done.

This may only be the tip of the iceberg. Plenty of research is also being carried out on the role of Cambridge Analytica in influencing both the US presidential election and the UK referendum by harvesting information from Facebook likes, and using this to influence voting patterns.

Repeated comments

It’s not too difficult to identify some frequent statements and topics from Leave supporters and to question where they came from.

1. “They need us more than we need them”

This trips well off the tongue. I have asked several times for concrete evidence to support this, but have never had a reply. This may be the case for a small number of sectors of the economy, but I find it difficult to see how the EU with a combined population of 7 times that of the UK and a GDP 5 times greater can be in this position.

2. “The vile EU”

I find the use of the adjective “vile” rather odd. It is not in common use in the UK. Nobody can tell me why they think the EU is vile.

3. “The Brussels dictatorship” and “the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels”

Nobody can tell me why they think there is a dictatorship in Brussels which presumably refers to the EU. This document from the EU web site describes how the EU works. In no way can it be described as a dictatorship. Citizens in the member states directly elect the Parliament which has to approve much of what the EU does. Members are elected by proportional representation and the UK has 73 seats out of the 751 total.

It seems to me that the current UK government is trying to turn itself into a dictatorship with its proposals to adopt the “Henry VIII powers” in the EU Withdrawal Bill. These will enable ministers to change any EU law which is transferred into UK law without parliamentary scrutiny.

4. Anti-immigration sentiment, especially about Muslims

These statements fail to distinguish between EU and non-EU immigrants. Many of them are racist, just inflaming the already strong divisions in UK society. They create the impression that most if not all immigrants are on benefits and are a drain on the economy.

EU countries are not predominantly Muslim. EU immigrants contribute £1.30 to the economy for every £1 they take out. The UK has not implemented the 2004 EU directive which allows member states to put controls on freedom of movement. Immigrants from outside the EU now outnumber those from the EU and are nothing to do with the EU and Brexit. The UK has been able to control non-EU immigration for years but it has had little success, allowing people to blame this on the EU.

5. Remainers are “traitors” or “unpatriotic”

Both these terms have inflammatory connotations of betrayal and are intended to portray remain supporters in a very bad light. I object particularly strongly to the use of “traitor” which points to treason, a crime against the state. I do not think it is unpatriotic to support what you believe is right for the future of the UK.

6. “The EU is holding up the progress of the negotiations”

This is not the case. On the first day of negotiations over 6 months ago, David Davis agreed to the timetable of first sorting out the issues of (1) EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, (2) the exit bill, and (3) the Irish border. The EU have been waiting ever since then for concrete proposals from the UK who after all started the whole thing. Instead there is open disagreement among our politicians about what to do next.

There does appear to be a some progress on EU citizens. The exit bill is being kept quiet for as long as possible. It going to be embarrassing for the Brexiteers as it could well be about 60bn euros (£53bn) which is five times the net amount of last year’s annual payment from the UK to the EU (£10bn) and about £815 for every person in the UK at today’s exchange rate. My best bet is that it will be announced on a ‘day to bury bad news’.

There appears to be almost no progress on the Irish border. Northern Ireland voted to remain, but the DUP who are now propping up the Tory government (at a cost of another billion pounds) will not agree to a border in the Irish Sea. The Peace Process, which has held for almost 20 years after the long years of troubles in Ireland, is now looking insecure.

7. The EU is to blame for current parlous state of public services and NHS in the UK

This is blatantly not the case. Government austerity policies have drastically reduced the amount of funding for public services. You have to ask why the extra tax take from EU immigrants is not being spent on services. The NHS is really in trouble and is being infiltrated through the back-door by private companies whose prime motive is profit. This to my mind is a taste of what will happen if prominent Brexiteers get their way. US healthcare companies must be salivating at the prospect of increasing their profits at the expense of the sick within the UK. The most successful EU countries, especially our nearest neighbours in northern Europe, are social democracies with a strong belief in public services.

8. “I voted leave. The rest of my family voted remain but they have now changed their minds.”

This one is newer but it has appeared a lot recently. It is usually followed by a condemnation of the EU’s supposed intransigence in the negotiations. It seems to be yet another attempt to influence public opinion as polls are now showing that a majority now believe that the UK was wrong to leave the EU.

Facebook

I have begun to look a bit more carefully at the people who regularly post pro-Brexit comments on Facebook, not the ones who only ever write “leave now”, “out”, “you lost, get over it” etc, but those whose posts can, on the face of it, be quite plausible but do not stand up in the face of hard evidence. Many of them do not have a photo as their profile picture or any other information about themselves. You have to wonder exactly who these people are.

What now?

The Internet has created a level playing field in the dissemination of information. The onus is now on readers to assess the veracity of anything they read. I would like to see more educational tools to help people apply some critical appraisal and not merely repeat what they have read online. Sadly, it appears that the UK will be excluded from the latest EU initiative Towards a European Education Area 2025 where member states will co-operate on many educational programmes including “Mainstreaming innovation and digital skills in education”. This is exactly what the UK needs, and sharing resources and information to do it makes abundant sense. It’s just one of the very many benefits of EU membership.

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