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London: A gateway to the UK’s other cities

The majority of people that travel to the UK seem to settle for just seeing London. It’s a shame, because the UK has a lot more to offer than just the business capital of the world. One thing London can be extremely useful for is it can act as a gateway for extensive travel if you wish to venture out of the urban metropolis that is London.

London, Manchester


With direct bus routes and trains to practically everywhere in England, Wales and Scotland there are so many places that are attainable to visit – even if it’s only for a day trip. In England alone, the options available are boundless with cities like Oxford, Cambridge and York steeped in tradition. However, when it comes to recent cultural significance, Manchester could potentially be one of the most interesting options to consider.

Manchester has a vibrant nightlife, a bevvy of world-renowned restaurants ran by some of Europe’s most ambitious and creative executive chefs as well as a bustling music scene. It’s a cauldron of artsy types that have been making waves since the 80s when it was arguably the city’s most creative period.

The music scene…

Back in the 80s, Manchester was the home to the acid-house movement as well as producing some of the indie world’s most successful bands. The majority of which got their start as the famous Hacienda which was ran by Factory Records and indie band New Order. Unfortunately the site has now been turned into flats, but you can still walk round the region and take in what was the birthplace of many iconic British bands. Joy Division, New Order and Stone Roses all got their start at the Hacienda among others.

The Universities…

Manchester Metropolitan and the University of Manchester all add to the live entertainment offerings of the city. Built into the University of Manchester campus the various Manchester Academies host some of the best in new music and are worth checking out. In total there are 4 venues, which differ in size and host clubs nights as well that are open to tourists, locals and students.

Art Galleries…

Manchester has a significant amount of well-respected art houses that regularly put on exhibitions. Among the most visited is Manchester Art Gallery, which is located just off Princess Street in the centre of Manchester. It’s open 7-days a week between the hours of 10am-5pm.

The rich sporting history of Manchester…

Aside from its recognisable cricket ground, Old Trafford which regularly holds England test matches, the city is also home to two of English football’s most famous teams. Manchester City and Manchester United have an illustrious past with the latter being one of the most successful clubs in world football. Manchester United’s stadium holds 70,000 people and is a fantastic sight if you get chance to pass by the area.

Accessing Manchester from London…

There are direct trains and buses that run straight from London. If you are to get a train, these run throughout the day from London’s Kings Cross. However, this can be quite an expensive form of travel especially if you’re booking tickets last minute or during rush hour periods.

For alternative travel you could look at considering flying from London to Manchester. Many low budget airlines fly out of Heathrow and Gatwick directly to Manchester International Airport, which is considered one of the busiest airports in the UK. If you can find a cheap flight, this is probably the most efficient option as the airport is only a stones through from the city centre.

Up Close to Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano

Windmills seemed to sprout out of the Nicaraguan countryside, their blades turning lazily as we moved quickly from the border of Costa Rica towards the historic town of Granada. Seeing them made me smile and I pulled out my camera to capture a few shots as we passed but the tops of familiar-looking trees kept getting in the way.

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

Mombacho Volcano, Nicaragua

I don’t now remember which I saw first – the water or the volcano. Each added a new and exciting dimension to the view. I was sure we were looking at the Pacific Ocean but Eric, our tour guide, said it was Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in the country. It seemed to follow us for miles.

Since I hadn’t done my homework on Nicaragua, I was surprised to learn that the country has 19 volcanoes. Mombacho, the volcano that had come into view, is dormant, erupting last in 1570. At about 4,500 feet, with its classic cone, it towers over Lake Nicaragua and Granada. Though we didn’t visit Mombacho, Eric said it has a nature preserve with endemic flora and fauna, a cloud forest, and at least two hiking trails.

Unlike Mombacho, which hasn’t erupted in centuries, Masaya continues to send plumes of sulfur into the atmosphere. Located in the Masaya Volcano National Park, Masaya is a drive-up volcano – the only one, Eric said, proudly, in the Western Hemisphere.

On the way up, he pointed to the black, lumpy moist-looking soil near the volcano and the lush vegetation around. He also showed us a fragile and lonely-looking wooden cross atop Masaya. 

NIC Masaya cross

Masaya Cross of Bobadilla

Believing that the gods’ unhappiness with them caused the volcano to erupt, the indigenous people sacrificed young women and children to appease them and quiet the mountain. In the 16th century, a Spanish priest (the Spanish called Masaya El Boca del Infierno, the Mouth of Hell) no doubt outraged by this ritual, felt a cross (La Cruz de Bobadilla – Cross of Bobadilla) near the crater would stop the eruptions. Eric didn’t say how many times the cross has been replaced.

As the bus groaned to a stop near Masaya’s crater and the driver opened the door, the acrid smell of sulfur hit us square in the face. Because of this, Eric said we could spend only 15 minutes. (Looking at my photos now, one sign said 5 minutes.)

To my surprise, several cars were parked near the rim of the volcano and people were walking around casually, like they were out for a Sunday stroll. I recognized a family I had seen in the craft market we had visited earlier, and there was a group wearing what looked like traditional dress performing as a photographer took their photos. It was all so matter of fact.

NIC Masaya Volcano cross

Masaya Volcano

NIC Masaya Volcano crater

Masaya Volcano

Masaya Volcano

Masaya Volcano

NIC Volcan Masaya, Granada

Near Masaya Volcano

NIC Masaya plumes

Masaya Volcano

Masaya is not only a drive-up volcano you can walk right up to the low wall near the crater. There are signs warning visitors not to smoke or drink alcohol – the volcano is constantly belching gas making it difficult to see much inside. But it was weirdly cool to be so close to an active volcano.

While it’s dangerous for us, Masaya has a hardy lot of parrots that thrive on its noxious gases. We could definitely hear them and did see a few as they flew out. 

Asked if there had been any deaths at Masaya, Eric told us of a man who jumped to his death in 2010. Not surprisingly, his body was never recovered.

NIC Masaya dancers

Performers at Masaya

Our next stop was the Apoyo Lagoon, the largest of three volcanic lagoons in Nicaragua – the surprise Eric had been hinting at as we were leaving Masaya. We ooohed, aaahed and clapped when we saw it, framed by the red and yellow rays of the setting sun – the perfect end to a full day of activities.

Apoyo has over 500 species of plants and trees, including black rosewood and mahogany, Capucin monkeys, anteaters and other animals, and more than 200 species of birds. It’s also a popular water sports destination.

There is a large craft market as well as a restaurant and, on one side of the lagoon, several benches for people to sit and enjoy the view.

Apoyo Lagoon

Apoyo Lagoon

Apoyo Lagoon

Apoyo Lagoon

Apoyo was our last stop in Nicaragua. We had covered a lot of territory in one day. I was tired but elated, pleased with my decision to take the one-day tour, which, back in August cost US$160.

The tour included the colonial city of Granada, a boat tour Lake Nicaragua’s Monkey Island, shopping at the craft market, Masaya Volcano National Park, Apoyo Lagoon, and lunch. I made arrangements for this tour with Claudia at LEP Costa Rica – 506-8377 5701 or

Nicaragua Maracas

Nicaragua Maracas

As we took our seats on the bus for the journey back to Guanacaste, Eric announced that he had one more surprise. He stuck his hand into a large, black plastic bag and called my name. To my surprise, he handed me a maracas with my name engraved in it. No, I wasn’t singled out for special treatment. Everyone received one too. While we were touring Granada, a carver had been busy creating these personalized mementos for each of us. It was a lovely treat, a beautiful reminder of Granada, Eric and the tour.

Lake Nicaragua’s Monkey Island

Following our quick tour of the Plaza de la Independencia, it was off to lunch at the Toritos Hotel Restaurant & Bar on Calle Calzada, Granada.

To save time, Eric, our tour guide, had phoned in our orders and they served us as soon as all 20+ of us had our seats. (Lunch was included in the cost of the tour.)

My fish with salad and rice, served with a few wedges of lime, was light and delicious. We spent maybe 30-45 minutes at the restaurant then it was back on the bus to our next stop – Monkey Island on Lake Nicaragua.

Lake Nicaragua's Monkey Island

Climbing on to our boats

Lake Nicaragua's Monkey Island

Water lilies

Lake Nicaragua's Monkey Island

Heading to the island

At just over 3,000 square miles, Lake Nicaragua, a freshwater lake, is the largest in Central America, the nineteenth largest in the world. Numerous fish, including tarpon, sawfish and an endemic species of shark live in the lake that, in parts, reaches a depth of 85 feet.

Lake Nicaragua's Monkey Island

An island on Lake Nicaragua

Because of its size and depth, about 400 islands dot the lake. Many are inhabited and several are privately owned by prominent Nicaraguans and some foreigners. There was even one with a For Sale sign.

Climbing on to the small craft that would take us to Monkey Island, I noticed right away that no one distributed life preservers. Was I taking a risk? I pushed that unsettling thought out of my head and relaxed into my seat.

Lake Nicaragua's Monkey Island

Island on Lake Nicaragua

A man, who looked young enough to be in high school, took the engine and soon the boat was slicing through the brown water kicking up sprays. Ours were the only two boats on the open lake and as we glided pass small islands, we trained our cameras, trying to get good shots without getting water on to the lenses.

Lake Nicaragua's Monkey Island

Island on the lake

The ride to Monkey Island took no more than 10 minutes. I was a bit disappointed that the island wasn’t larger so we could disembark but the capuchin monkeys put on a little show, jumping from rock to rock and swinging from tree to tree as if they knew they had an audience. (They are called capuchin because their color reminded the early explorers of Franciscan monks.) One even jumped into a boat that pulled in after we did. I suspect someone might have lured it with food.

Lake Nicaragua's Monkey Island

The Volcano, Mombacho, seen from Lake Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua's Monkey Island

Bird near Monkey Island

Lake Nicaragua's Monkey Island

Capuchin Monkey on Monkey Island

We spent about 10 minutes watching the monkeys then our boatman turned us around and headed back to the pier, the mid afternoon sun shining like diamonds on the water.



Pepper Shrimp – The Taste of Middle Quarters in Hackensack NJ

I’ve been eating pepper shrimps (or ‘swimps,’ as some of us call it), since I was in high school and I can still remember my first time (it’s the same every time).

Biting into one of these Scotch-bonnet-infused on-the-go morsels, my tongue is instantly in flames, my eyes watering, heat passing from my throat and warming my stomach.

I involuntarily pull in air, slapping my tongue against my lips and the roof of my mouth, to try to cool it. That doesn’t work; nothing does. Now, even my lips are on fire.

I take a few seconds then, my mouth still reeling, I bite into another shrimp – head and all – continue the delicious torture, which, by now, is causing my nose to run.

Pepper Shrimps, crawfish really, typically come from the Black River, the longest in parish of St. Elizabeth, one of the longest in the island.

The shrimps are cooked in a mixture of Scotch bonnet and spices and sold in little paper or plastic bags of about 6 or so by roadside vendors in Middle Quarters, Jamaica’s “Shrimp Country.”

The shrimps are small, no more than an inch or an inch and half so we eat head and all. Some people peel them skin off, other people (I’m one) don’t.

Most visitors to Jamaica stay on the northwest for the spectacular beaches. But those who make it to the south coast usually discover an entirely different side the island, one that is rustic as well as charming.

Here, small cook shops abound and vendors sell typical Jamaican fare, using fresh ingredients grown locally in St. Elizabeth, the island’s “Bread Basket.”

On my way to visit a friend in New Jersey few weeks ago, I stopped at Mac West Indian Restaurant in Hackensack to get some escoveitch fish. While waiting, I noticed they had peppered shrimps and asked the server to add a couple packets to my bill.

I was surprised to see pepper shrimp on the menu at any of the restaurants I frequent. Seeing them brought back memories of some pepper shrimps I bought in the Bronx in the 80s.

I remember Michael driving us back to Manhattan where we were staying and the two of us eating shrimp after shrimp, our mouths ablaze because Ting, the carbonated grapefruit soft drink that someone at the restaurant had recommended, didn’t calm the fire in our mouths. (Apparently, milk is better but I hate milk.)

Michael was swearing like a sailor while I laughed and called him a wimp for not being able to handle “a little pepper.” I still smile at the memory.

Though they weren’t crawfish, the pepper shrimp I bought in Hackensack took me back to Middle Quarters. I could almost feel the sun on my face as I bit into my first one.

Pepper Shrimp
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  1. 4 cups water
  2. 1/2 cup chopped scallion
  3. 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  4. 3 fresh thyme sprigs
  5. 3 fresh Scotch bonnet or habanero chiles, halved and seeded
  6. 2 tablespoons salt
  7. 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  8. 10 whole allspice
  9. 1 lb large shrimp
  1. Combine all ingredients except shrimp in a 4-quart heavy pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, 20 minutes.
  2. Stir in shrimp, making sure they are just covered by liquid, and remove pot from heat. Cool shrimp in liquid to room temperature, uncovered, about 1 hour. Transfer shrimp with a slotted spoon to a plate or bowl and drizzle some of cooking liquid on top.