Being a tourist: Mixing rum cocktails at Casa Bacardi

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The view of the fort at the entrance to San Juan harbour from the Casa Bacardi estate. 

Sometimes you just have to plunge in and be a tourist for a few hours. It’s just fine to protest that you’re a “traveler” and not a “tourist”, but we’re all just tourists in other countries when you get right down to it. The thing that has given tourist activities a bad name, though, is their “fakeness.” So, is learning to mix rum cocktails in a state-of-the-art mixology classroom fake? We think not.

The day begins as all days do on a vacation in San Juan, Puerto Rico: the day is beautiful, it’s hot and sunny (with intermittent showers predicted), and we have the whole day stretching out before us to do with anything we please. What we please to do today is to visit Casa Bacardi, the home of the famous rum distillery, something we’ve never done on any of our previous visits to PR. Let’s just back up a moment, though. How did we get here this morning, tickets in hand?

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A few months before this trip, Patty was perusing some of her favourite travel YouTube Channels and stumbled upon one titled: Five things you must to in San Juan…or something like that. Four of them were “been-there-done-that” kinds of things, but the fifth was “take a mixology class at Casa Bacardi.” We do like a rum drink (among other libations), and we have certainly drunk our share of Bacardi rum. Add onto that the fact that we have visited rum distilleries in the past on Caribbean islands, and this is not a tourist experience we need to repeat. But a mixology class? That sounded interesting, and above all, fun.

So, a bit of online surfing to the Casa Bacardi web site established that they offer three options for your visit: the historical distillery tour, the rum tasting tour and the mixology class. Naturally, our only interest was in the mixology class, so we surfed to the calendar, chose our tour time and paid for our tickets about three weeks before we left home. The mixology class was $60 (USD) per person and worth it in our view.

So, that’s how we had our tickets in hand when our taxi from the Condado area of San Juan, where we always stay, drops us off at the entrance to the guest pavilion at Casa Bacardi.

As you probably already know, Bacardi rum is among the most storied in the world. We feel as if this experience is a must, given that our next stop will be Santiago de Cuba where Don Facundo Bacardi Masso first began his business as a wine merchant and importer. Of course, with all that sugar cane about, he began experimenting with distillation of spirits eventually buying a local Cuban distillery in 1862. After a series of wars and fires that pushed the business out of Cuba, the Bacardi distillery reemerged on the island of Puerto Rico in 1936 and, as they say, the rest is history. Today, Bacardi rum is, at least according to Bacardi, the number one rum in the world. So, here we are.

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We are given “beepers” and told that we should make our way to the bar where a mixologist will prepare for us a rum drink of our choice while we wait for the beginning of our tour. Since we know we will be mixing a series of drinks during our class, we approach two older women waiting at a table and offer them our “free drink” tokens. They are only too happy to take them off our hands. It was really unnecessary for us to have come as early as we did – the web site suggests at least a half-hour in advance, but we needn’t have. Anyway, there are lots of people milling around, but we do notice that not all of them are wearing a blue “mixology tour” bracelet. Oh yes, they give you a bracelet with the beeper.

Finally, it is 1:30, our appointed time, and the beepers begin to vibrate. We head toward the waiting tram and are delighted to find that there are only seven people in our group. We can only surmise that the rest of those waiting were on cheaper tours!

Our tour guide is a petite woman who is as rapturous about rum as you might expect of a Bacardi employee. And she is knowledgeable. We listen attentively while she tells us about the distillation process, but we are really here for the class. After this presentation and a view over the acreage and San Juan across the bay from the roof deck of the building, we are off to class.

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The drinks we will learn to make…

We follow our guide as she makes her way toward a closed door. We’re not really sure what we had been expecting, but this wasn’t it. The sight before us was mesmerizing: a large (really large), superbly equipped, state-of-the-art, sparkling mixology classroom/lab, reminiscent of cooking classrooms on board the Oceania cruise ships, but much larger. Our little class of seven is almost lost!

Now it’s time to learn to mix rum cocktails.

Each of us is positioned at a station where there are three mini bottles of rum (see how smart we were not to imbibe too early?), mixing glasses, stainless steel mixing spoons, cocktail shakers, muddlers, glasses, ice, sugar, lime wedges…everything a budding mixologist needs! Our guide and teacher had, earlier in the tour, introduced us to the three drinks we would be making: the Cuba Libre, the daquiri, and of course, the Mojito. We were more than ready.

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We first mixed the Cuba Libre, a lowball rum and coke, where she gave us the secret to the best rum and coke: squeeze a lime wedge over the ice to season it before adding the rum then the coke. A familiar drink to us, for sure.

Then we shook up a daquiri – one of the best we’d tasted owing to all that fresh lime juice we have squeezed in. Finally, the mojito. To our surprise, the real trick to this delicious drink is rectifying the mistake most bartenders make, according to our petite teacher. That mistake is muddling the mint leaves along with the lime. No, no and no, she says. Muddle the lime in the glass, slap the mint leaves between your two hands to release the aromas, wipe the leaves along the rim of the glass and then drop them on top of the limes before adding the rum and soda. She was so right.

The whole experience is one and a half hours long and great fun. Our pre-Easter dinner drinks this year will be inspired by our newfound knowledge. Our family is delighted – since we’re hosting!

Next up…we’re off to Santiago de Cuba. Cheers!

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One perfect day…in San Juan, Puerto Rico

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The old fort in San Juan

There is nothing quite as nice to us Torontonians as getting on an airplane and jetting off to warmer climes in mid-winter. It’s magical to arrive at your beachfront hotel and shed those winter layers – of clothes and cares. We’re just back from a few weeks of doing just that and we started our adventure in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For a bit of background…A place we’ve been to on several trips in the past, San Juan never loses its charm as both a bit of the Caribbean with an American flavour. It’s not quite that sleepy Caribbean hideaway, and yet it’s not Florida either.

Since Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the US, we are able to pre-clear US customs and immigration at Pearson Airport before leaving Toronto making our entry into Puerto Rico as smooth as any domestic flight. San Juan’s population is just shy of 400,000 making it a city about the size of Halifax (with its surrounding municipality) in Canada. What we like about it is the combination of the old San Juan which everyone photographs, the lovely beaches and the modern shopping experience at the Mall of San Juan, the upscale place for that shopping fix. But our perfect day does not include that modern-day mall experience…

The perfect day begins with breakfast at the San Juan Marriott in the Condado district. A beautiful residential district, the Condado is home to an array of wonderful (and not so wonderful) restaurants, hotels and above all, homes and condos. It’s not strictly tourists, but on this beautiful, sunny 27C day, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that! No matter, we’re heading into Old San Juan, a 5 km walk along Ashford Avenue which follows the beach on one side and the lagoon on the other. Not many people walk this way, so it’s perfect for us.

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Enjoying our 5k walk int Old San Juan

We’ve been to San Juan at least four times before, so its maze of streets in the old district are not such a mystery to us. We have a destination today, though. Patty has been putting off her flip-flop purchase until she could browse an actual Flipflop Shop. She usually buys them in Phillipsburg on the island of Sint Maarten, but our original cruise itinerary (which included her favourite flip-flop spot) changed, so we’re in search of the San Juan franchise. The shop is easy to find among the cobbled streets, and we are successful in our purchase.

After strolling the fabled streets, it’s time for lunch…and a beer which we drink only when the weather is hot. This is the day! We’re looking for the pub/tavern/restaurant where we have eaten on two previous visits. Since we don’t have an address and cannot actually remember its name (!), we have to rely on our memory of landmarks in the vicinity.

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We don’t think we’ll forget Nano’s again!

Without too much difficulty, we find Nano’s where the people are friendly (and speak English), the beer is cold and the club sandwiches delicious. Then it’s time to find a taxi back to the hotel. It’s now too hot to walk another 5 km!

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Beer…the great rehydrator!

The hot afternoon is a perfect time for a long walk along the Condado beach. In the past, we’ve been able to go for miles without ever leaving the beach. What we find today, though, is extensive erosion since Hurricane Maria so much so that at a certain point we actually have to leave the beach, take to the street, and rejoin it farther along. Such a shame, but the walk is relaxing nonetheless.

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One of the reasons we’ve chosen the San Juan Marriot this time (in addition to the fact that our Platinum status with Marriott keeps us coming back to their properties) is because we’re able to have an oceanfront balcony. The times we’ve been here before, we always stayed down the beach at La Concha, a Marriott Renaissance. We do love the vibe of a Renaissance, but on our last visit things seemed to be changing – and they don’t offer beachfront balconies. Since we’re here for six days, we wanted to be sure we have private outdoor space. So, later in the afternoon we sit with a glass of local rum and coke and listen to the waves crashing on shore – and they are, indeed, crashing.

Later we dress for dinner which we have booked for Seraphina, the Italian restaurant at La Concha where we eat outside, enjoying the lively street scene. Later in the week we’ll have Puerto Rican cuisine!

The next thing on our “agenda” will be a mixology class at Casa Bacardi tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Visiting Hiroshima: A sobering day for travelers

mapWhen we first booked our recent cruise through Asia, we were looking forward to visiting Jeju Island, a short stop between leaving China and arriving in Japan. We were unfamiliar with it, but a bit of research uncovered the fact that it is something of a resort island – and a part of Korea. Well, we booked that cruise a year in advance because it was the perfect itinerary, and like world events are bound to do, Korea was much in the news. Never mind that the focus was North Korea and Jeju Island is part of South Korea, but one thing led to another and the cruise line altered the itinerary. We really don’t know why. We would now bypass the island and head instead to Hiroshima, which had not been on the original itinerary. We weren’t disappointed.

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The Hiroshima cruise terminal

We arrived in this, our first Japanese port, under grey skies. It seemed fitting somehow. As usual, there was a bus ride from the port into the city and when we disembarked the bus, we were in the middle of what is a somewhat unprepossessing town: a lot of drab, post WW II buildings. Naturally.

It seemed a bit ironic to us that the nuclear threat from North Korea may have played a part in the rerouting of our ship only to find ourselves in the middle of the city that was devastated on August 6, 1945 by the world’s first atomic bomb ever deployed – dropped from an American B-29 bomber killing some 80,000 people. A sobering thought indeed.

In the midst of all this post-war drabness sits a magnificent park with a river flowing through the middle of it. It then becomes clear to you that on the edge of that river, surrounded by gardens, walkways, a reflecting pond and a museum is what we now refer to as the “atomic dome.” It is what is left of the only structure left standing near the epicentre that fateful day when the bomb exploded above the city raining down destruction everywhere. It is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

Standing there beside the dome, which is really the remnants of a government building, the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall to be precise, we felt the poignancy of it. We cannot in any authentic way know what it was really like. But inside the museum, they have tried to make you feel it.

The museum includes a display that begins with the city as it was the day before the attack. The bomb then drops and the recreation demonstrates how the radiation spread out, destroying everything in its path. Frightening.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in the museum which is text-heavy (and yes, it is in English as well as Japanese); rather we left the group we were with (as usual) and walked around the park. The skies opened and the rain began.

When we boarded the bus, we headed to Miyajima Island and its famed Shinto Shrine.

That, however, would have been so much better if it hadn’t been for the torrential rain. And the tour guide who insisted on standing in the torrential rain blathering about this and that while everyone got soaked. We left that tour, too. Good thing we had a private guide waiting for us in Tokyo!

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Postcard from Beijing and the Great Wall (Part 2)

Snaking across a vast length of China, protecting an ancient border from marauding hordes from the north, The Great Wall of China, a UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the few man-made structures that, at least according to space mythology, is visible from the space station. Although it may be a cliché bucket list item, it’s one that truly ought to be on a traveler’s radar. We finally visited it this spring.

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It was such a beautiful day, we could see for miles. 

We left the marvelous Four Seasons Beijing on sunny morning heading for Badaling Great Wall Funicular, one of the points at which gaining access to the wall relies not on a half-day climb, but a shiny new funicular on the north side of the wall.

 

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The Badaling section, less than a two-hour drive from downtown Beijing, is one of the best-preserved parts of the wall and somewhat more accessible because it is not as steep as some sections.

 

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The entrance to the Badaling Funicular

After exiting the funicular, we left our tour group to walk the wall on our own. What a beautiful day it was standing there imagining what it must have been like back in the day when the wall actually served a purpose for protection and not tourist amusement. It’s hard to fathom something so ancient that construction on parts of it began some 2700 years ago, although as you probably know, not all of the wall is that old. In fact, much of the oldest part is now in ruins. What we visit is much younger, perhaps only 600 years.

And speaking of tourists, most of the other tourists we encountered were not from foreign countries; rather they were Chinese nationals who were visiting the wall for the first time themselves. And the young ones could not get enough of taking selfies with us Westerners in them!

So why did our tour guide take us to the north side you may reasonably ask? After all, this funicular is more expensive than other options, Well, just take a look at a photo of the south side access…

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Now see where we were…

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When you visit – because visit you must – take it slowly, and wear good walking shoes. As you look at the tower ahead of you and up at what looks like a mild incline, don’t be fooled. It’s much steeper than it looks. And hope for sunshine!