Saturday, August 15th 2015
Cuba, a destintion of extremes. Havana, city we would come to love and loathe in equal measure within the space of a day, or a single hour. The very word - Cuba - conjuring for each a vivid collection of ideas and imagery, perceptions and presumptions, a blend of the accurate and inaccurate, the real and the wildly romanticised.
Hovering for as long as we could remember high on our wanderlust list, it began last year to creep with increased frequency into conversations of travel, of creative exploration and necessary adventures…afterwards, each time creeping a little higher up that list. Fuelled by a growing sense of urgency, a slightly panicked feeling of needing to experience this country before it’s irreparably altered and loses a little of its magic (a feeling which has only been validated on arrival, change innocuously creeping in at every turn), we wondered aloud over the fleeting opportunity, of in this lifetime, within the confines of a city mere kilometres off the coast of Miami, to travel very much back in time to a destination unaffected by the outside world. Streetscapes unlittered by advertising, lifestyle untouched by technology, and inhabitants unaware of the modern luxuries we take for granted every day, every hour. For our generation, the children of Baby-Boomers and one of the few to straddle memories of pre and post iPhones and internet, Cuba seemed the last destination of its kind, to experience in this lifetime.
Forever drawn to fascinating, far flung editorial locations, our journey here, while geographically not as remote as other adventures, felt somehow a little like travelling to the end of the earth. Setting off from the East coast of Australia on a Tuesday morning, a familiar 14hr flight to Los Angeles (and 18hr stop over in Santa Monica, making the most of ill-aligned flight times to shop, shower and ever so briefly nap) we rose at 3am, coffees in hand and airport bound, boarding a flight to Mexico City. Following a 4 hour stop over, which to our amusement and mild bewilderment, became the actual length of time it took to collect our baggage - and clear…or for some of us, very nearly not clear customs - we finally, deliriously, piled onto a plane, visas in hand, Havana bound.
Landing and navigating our second customs inspection that day - this time feigning tourists who simply overpacked, cameras and dresses emerging safely out the other side - our initial impressions were admittedly somewhat jaded…A driver that inexplicably never showed up and a trip to our (online, faded but elegantly beautiful) Boutique Havana accommodation - a hilarious Faulty Towers’esq saga of shortcomings and unwelcome substitutions (of the “Señoritas, our bathroom is actually broken, but don’t worry, you are staying at my sisters house instead” variety) - both driver and accommodation having been confirmed, and double confirmed mere hours before our departure, and the sisters accommodation turning out to be nothing like that we had booked, nor reasonably entertain-able as an option. We could only laugh in an exhausted, ‘oh travel!’ kind of bemusement, and form a fast plan-B.
After communicating with our hosts in a manner that more closely resembled a game of charades meets Pictionary, and gambling on finding a room at the Hotel National (a Havana institution, and at 11pm the only option our jet lagged brains could even fathom) we piled bodies and the most comical number of overstuffed bags (bulging with all the paraphernalia required to execute 3 fashion shoots) into the back of a taxi, everything crossed for a bed, a shower and an internet connection at the other end.
Pulling into the entrance of the historic grand old dame, palatial in proportion to her surrounding buildings, we felt hopeful, optimistic even…until we explained our request to the lovely man on the front desk, greeting the question of a room that night, in the midst of high season and not a reservation to speak of with a sort of nervous smile, followed by a ’wow’, followed by a longer pause, and another ‘wow’! Still smiling, but unsure exactly what to say, clearly not wanting to be the one to tell us that there was no room, it dawned on us (coupled with the knowledge of no internet or phone connection, a possibility we’d dared not entertain) that on this Tuesday evening, at midnight in Havana, we had no plan C.
And so ensued a series of questions and quick negotiations after which we miraculously secured the very last room to be found, available for that night only. Trying not to panic at learning there’s no wifi at Hotel National, until the business centre opened at 9am the following morning (our immediate concern, securing new accommodation for the week) in hindsight, after midnight, being forced off-line proved a complete blessing, finally giving ourselves permission to stop, breath, bathe, gather our thoughts and laugh (with total sleep deprivation) over the adventure thus far. Sitting outside in the hot night air, sinking into enormous lounges in the interior courtyard, we gratefully sipped our first cocktail…strong, minty and at 1:30 in the morning, deliciously welcome.
Reclining in the balmy surrounds, the air scented with cigars, the sound of the sea beyond the wall, we imagined all it must have been seventy years ago, a hedonistic Hollywood playground. Immaculately maintained (in sharp contrast to the rest of Havana), Hotel National felt remarkably unaffected by time, not preserved so much in 1959, but rather a throwback to a much earlier era. We observed how closely the white corridors and shuttered doors resemble interiors of the Titanic, only tropical. The hotel itself a curious, beautiful mix of exotic tiles, terracotta paving, chandeliers, marble, plantation accents and beautiful brass signage. We wondered over the stories that have surely unfolded here, if only these walls could talk. The rum cocktails, the manicured lawns (dotted with fountains, peacocks and swaying with palms) the scent of salty sea air mingled with the unmistakable aroma of cuban tobacco, we imagined, and appreciated, it all to be mostly unchanged for the last hundred years.
Reflecting over those cocktails on how each of our LANE issues (particularly when travelling) have a spooky, magical tendency to self manifest, we laughed at the irony of our August Issue, published only the day prior and penned in transit to LA, discussing such themes (with a healthy dose of self awareness at the double irony) the need to switch off, be present, tune our attention away from our screens, and resist the urge to document, constantly projecting moments that when experienced through a lens, aren’t really experienced at all, at least not in their fullness, not really in that moment. With no wifi and more disconcerting still, not a hint of phone coverage to be found here (for Australians anyway, there is literally no connectivity, to any phone network, no texts, no calls, nothing), we found ourselves completely, utterly, unfamiliarly, offline. We were living and breathing (unwittingly i’ll admit) each of the ideas we’d articulated an intention to explore in our August Issue, the universe almost smiling at us wryly, a kind of “be careful what you wish for girls…”.
Waking the next morning to discover an unchanged No Service message in the top left of our screens - a sight as unbelievable as it is unwelcome to a team attempting to keep a digital publication ticking whilst travelling (or unwelcome to anyone for that matter, co-ordinating production and logistics in a foreign country) the impressions of the night before, a raw, gritty city, devoid of the most basic modernities we take for granted back home, began to colour and shape our experience. As one of the few age groups to sit on memories either side of internet access and mobiles as part of the everyday (recalling primary school years of shared computers in the library, and late high school with the arrival of mobile phones, the beginning of texting rather than calling friends on their family land line) we’re better equipped than many to quickly adapt - or revert - to a low-fi environment.
But it didn’t make the realisation around the romance versus the reality of Cuba any less difficult, accepting over breakfast that this trip was going to prove challenging, really challenging, and that the allure of this city, in all its faded glory, its infamous aesthetic time warp, was not without the trade-off of a legitimate, technological time warp to match. That day (still bewildered at how much can unfold in only 24 hours here), Cuba would prove a journey of extreme problem solving, a tricky, inconvenient, disconcerting, unfamiliar, frequent test of our patience, or, an experience that my mother would succinctly describe as ‘character building’.
For honeymooners, Cuba offers the perfect antidote to ‘busy’, the low-fi experience of this city, following the frenetic production of a wedding, an amazingly rare opportunity to completely disconnect from the world, and re-connect with one another. However the production in real time, of an editorial on the ground (or in this case three editorials) threw a whole other set of logistical balls in the air, infinitely less romantic than honeymooning, and despite rigorous research, challenges we were quite unprepared for. Because producing an editorial, anywhere, requires a slightly obsessive approach of constant communication, confirmation, double confirmations and a chameleon style adaptability to the seemingly endless changeable moving parts. It requires the kind of keep-cool flexibility that more closely resembles a gliding duck, a projection of total calm above the surface while feet paddle frantically out of sight below. With three shoots scheduled over five days, and a team of hair, makeup, photographers and four models flying in from six different cities between them (Venice, Brazil, Los Angeles, New York, Byron Bay, Sydney - all via Mexico), landing across different days, at different hours, and unable from wherever we were stay (unsure exactly where that was yet!) to even track their flights online or say ‘text me when you land’ was a daunting prospect…and one that was going to require a military like precision of the old-fashioned, communicate and completely commit, punctual variety.
However this ‘inconvenience’ (joking amongst ourselves for how brattish our concerns sounded voiced aloud) offered something much richer. An opportunity to lose ourselves in a city very much lost in time. To float freely through streets free from phone vibrations of texts, emails or instagram, to connect over coffee and dinner, to talk to one another without digital references or interruptions. Travelling back in time, not for an hour, or a day, not for the length of a tour through an old part of town, or the time it takes to lose yourself in a museum or historical building. But for the entire length of our stay. Because unlike other countries, there is no ‘Western Island’ to escape to here. Those hotels, bars and beach clubs that exist the world over, found in even the unlikeliest of places, refuges where if the local experience gets just a bit too much, offer somewhere (rightly or wrongly) to check out of the country you’re in and check-in to somewhere else, for a single cocktail or an entire week. Here in Cuba, no such place exists, and despite our frustrations, we came to secretly love that.
Later that day, after some stealthy searching from one of the handful of wifi hotspots in the entire city, we moved in to the most beautiful private residence, all pale mint greens and ornately patterned tiles (so welcomingly cool underfoot), our host projecting total calm, a Havana mentality of stop, slow down, breathe, relax. A rickety lift shaft with elaborate clanging wrought iron double gates (a nerve wracking ride, but essential for the obscene number of bags to be lugged six floors), we travelled back down to the ground floor to meet our driver, a beautiful Cuban soul who thankfully possessed enough English to compensate for our appalling lack of even basic Spanish. Climbing into his immaculately maintained Chevrolet, our 1956 wheels for the week, all white leather interior, big steering wheel and big Cuban soundtrack, the challenges of the past 24 hours began to fall away. Driving through the streets, cruising at a leisurely pace, the city began to reveal itself to us, from the back seat of a turquoise car, its true colours and character. And in that moment, it stole our hearts.
A test of patience and character, a reminder from the universe about the importance of being present, so many spooky, inexplicable sequences of serendipity playing out in our first few days, encounters suggesting that Cuba may have a grander plan for us here, if we can only switch off long enough to recognise and roll with it. Exploring and falling that afternoon, under the spell of Havana, a city in which everything, but most of all time itself, seems to move at half speed - a sensation ordinarily only found in the wilderness, but discovering it instead in a humming city, proved as magical as it is rare. Holding up a giant, pastel tinted mirror up to all our behaviour, our obsessive connectivity and carrying of our phones, the anti-social tendency to text rather than talk, the ability to exist somewhere without really being present there at all. For all our frustrations and exasperation, these past two days have felt like a series of life-changing life lessons, a sequence of sage reminders from the universe of what’s important, and what isn’t, self discoveries, a confrontation of (& vows to adjust) all our bad habits. Without knowing it before we arrived, Cuba has proven to be everything and nothing like we expected, but most of all, all that we needed.
Photography: Ted Grambeau
Thursday, June 11th 2015
After landing at the petite Menorca airport in Mahon, the larger town to the east of the island, we headed west (in a car we were thankfully talked into hiring by our beautiful air b'n'b host, proving an absolute necessity for navigating the islands best secluded beaches), bound for the ancient village of Ciutadella, our home for the week. Arriving at this beautifully unspoilt and seemingly unchanged town, we navigated tiny winding streets with a map, instructed to park a short stroll from our street, a space so narrow it is only accessible by foot. Dragging ridiculously overstuffed bags (five weeks of clothes and styling paraphernalia) behind us, ridiculous because it became quickly apparent all we'd need here is a kaftan and a bikini, we soon found our home-base and fell immediately in love. Affectionately naming it 'the cave house' (see our separate full post) this space proved a dreamily white, cavernous abode from which to explore the fascinating, beautiful town of Ciutadella.
Situated down a street in a palette of chalky, lime washed tints, all terracotta and lemon, sky blues and milky creams, british racing green shutters and charcoal accents, we were immediately enchanted by what felt more like a movie set, almost a caricature of idyllic Mediterranean life, than an actual town. With streets that look remarkably similar, yet ever so slightly different, their faded patinas and rustic stone textures a stylists dream, we quickly decided (after several slightly lost laps headed home one evening!) that our street is both our favourite and the most beautiful by far. Its slight curves revealing different colour combinations ahead with every undulating, gradual turn. Struck by a sense of 'if these walls could talk', we wondered just how long each family had lived in the surrounding houses, observing often three generations under one roof, Nonnas sitting in narrow lane ways watching over grandchildren playing old fashioned games on stone paths smoothed by age.
Gathering our bearings (and recommendations from our hosts) we spent the next few days exploring all that Menorca had to offer, at a pace that felt relaxed, as unhurried as the island itself. Admittedly there during Spring rather than Summer (when streets and beaches are reportedly crowded and temperatures can soar around 40 degrees celsius), we couldn't help but notice how beautifully, blessedly empty everything felt…even for a shoulder season. Devoid of crowds or tourists both the beaches and streets of Ciutadella seemed populated with only a handful of souls, mostly local. In bars and restaurants we found tables occupied, but never particularly busy, providing a peaceful, authentic atmosphere, rather than a heaving-with-tourists vibe. For honeymooners, it struck us as the most perfect environment to escape to, post-wedding. A place that combines the tranquility of lagoon like oceans with the accessibility of a small town, the option to stay-in or head-out for meals, somewhere to hear yourself think, allowing the mind to wander and the soul to unwind.
Headed on our first afternoon down to the Port, we settled at Restaurant S'Amarador (soon an everyday ritual, breaking from our screens around 3pm for a coffee or a glass of wine, depending on the mornings productivity!), where it proved the ideal spot to pause and clear our busy brains, to soak up some sunshine and observe the goings-on, boats nodding gently in their moorings and time slowing to a welcome half speed. Working late that first night, we eventually dined with locals around 11pm at a tiny Italian restaurant, Pizzeria Roma, marvelling at the freshness of everything, the affordability of amazing spanish wines by the glass, the novelty of finding ourselves on this tiny island, a mere 48 hours after deciding to head here from Barcelona.
Preferring breakfasts at home in our beautiful house (our ever favourite avocado toast and the lure of a coffee while still in pyjamas winning out over the short walk to a cafe every time), at lunch we would head to Bar Ulisses, observing the locals going about their grocery shopping while we sat in the square centre, unfathomably (for us!) beneath an orange tree. At lunchtime here you're able to purchase seafood from the neighbouring fish shop, spilling with that mornings catch, which Ulises can then cook for you - an experience so delicious and authentic we wished we'd known about it from day one.
Over the week we observed scenes of retired friends gathered in courtyards, singing and playing guitar, the elderly navigating their way around town on bicycles, fresh bread and provisions loaded into straw baskets. Locally grown fruits and vegetables arranged in crates (the reddest tomatos we've ever seen), and an enviable selection of cheeses to choose from at local delis. Mesmerised by all of it we were often rendered speechless at the unbelievably idyllic existence playing out quietly against a kaleidoscope of beautifully coloured buildings, tableaus that seemed as if from a painting. Wondering aloud, for the hundredth time this trip, if any of it was real?
Visits to Menorcas exquisite, almost otherworldly beaches only cemented our sense of wonder and by our last night our mind was spinning with cunning plans of how to stay, of how to establish Ciutadella as a base for our office, reasoning that being online all we really needed is wifi! Wandering to our closest restaurant, Cass Ferrer, an intimate space akin to dining in a friends home, we noticed the mostly organic menu with fish, meat, vegetables and dairy drawn almost exclusively from the island itself. Savouring a glass of local wine we reflected that night, laughing with incredulity many times, at many moments from the trip that had finally drawn to a close, a journey that began five weeks earlier in New York and the complete improbability of it ending here, in Ciutadella. This secret jewel of an island, whose existience we knew nothing of only a week earlier, an island hiding an impossibly perfect pastel tinted town (which we vowed to return to), and feeling thankful that night for the unexpected turns that life can take, often when you least expect them.
Pizzeria Roma - Tucked down the tiniest, quietest street we sat outside feasting on woodfired pizza, covered in delicious fresh and simple ingredients (but the locally caught fish of the day looked beautiful too!)
Bar Ulisses - A locals favourite, perched on the edge of a busy market square. Classic, unfussy food, breakfast and lunch as well as dinner and drinks. We loved the interior with its white boards, stone bar and eclectic mix of bottles, but dining in the courtyard has a great ambience and people watching.
Restaurant S'Amarador - A beautifully whitewashed restaurant, perched on the bridge, offering a beautiful view down the port. The internal courtyard in crisp navy and white decor, and fisherman basket accents.
Restaurant Cas Consol - Perched above the Port offering uninterrupted views, the small courtyard the most perfect vantage point at sunset for a glass of wine, before ordering an amazing dinner.
Cas Ferrer Restaurant - Housed in an old blacksmiths building, this mostly organic restaurant uses locally and sustainably grown produce sourced from the island. A beautifully intimate space with a central courtyard and truly delicious, modern food.
Cala en Brut - Ciutadellas own lagoon like beach, a paradise surrounded by giant stones from which to lounge on and jump into the water from (there are also ladders for the less daring at heart).
The Island House - read our complete post on our beautiful Cuitadella accommodation for the week.
(Dresses: Zara & Zimmermann)
Thursday, June 11th 2015
Sifting through endless accommodation options online, deciding only days before to spontaneously head to Menorca, we stopped in our tracks on the dreamiest looking white washed house, a sort of Majorcan style sister space to our beautiful headquarters back home. Greeted at the airport by the warmest air b'n'b host, who took one look at our huge bags, our leather boots and jackets and laughed at our idea of catching the bus, he made a quick phone call to the car hire company he part-owned and had us on our way (a mere 30 euro a day) in a ridiculously new car. House keys in hand, we were headed for the other end of the island, the town of Ciutadella, an ancient fishing village, all pastel tints and the narrowest of streets, home of our dreamy base-camp for the next week.
Nestled in the prettiest part of this ancient town, our beautiful house, seemingly carved entirely from stone was soon affectionately dubbed the cave house - the lightest and brightest of caves in a space that epitomised our favoured style and dream aesthetic. With pale curved stone ceilings and spaces that move fluidly from room to room, indoor merging beautifully with outdoor, a vacuous central light-well strung whimsically with festoon bulbs, we pondered the entire stay over the layout and the serene sense of spaciousness for such a narrow dwelling, the feeling of interconnectedness it offered. A serene kind of energy that flows throughout, feeling like home as soon as we stepped foot inside.
Doubling as both a peaceful retreat from our city travels, and a beautifully light filled office for the week ahead, we stocked the fridge with all the essentials and settled in for some serious writing. The perfectly appointed kitchen (Smeg fridge filled with necessary drinking water and a Nesspresso machine stocked with purple pods-this truly was like our own office abroad!), the outdoor table and lounge, giant sofa and a private, sun drenched terrace proved the dreamiest headquarters to work from, offering all sorts of different nooks to retire to…a space we genuinely fantasised of never leaving.
With carved stone stairs leading up to three bedrooms (and two bathrooms) across split levels, each room a sensory layering of white stone and white linens, they offer grown up tranquility with chic minimalism - sparse, but elegantly so, awaiting only your belongings. Amusedly unpacking in our white bedrooms, an almost entirely matching white wardrobe, we realised we'd each been similarly influenced by our surroundings and short journey here, with anything darker seeming too city-like and far too serious.
Offering all the best bits of a hotel (think lush linens and fluffy towels) with the exquisite bonus of complete privacy and the tranquility of your own home, we mused over how incredible it would be for a girls weekend away, or of course the most serene of honeymoons, of having it all to yourself.
Putting on a much needed load of washing after one too many weeks in a hotel, our clothes dried almost instantly on the rooftop deck, a space bathed in hot sun overlooking a vista of terracotta tiles, a space that soon doubled as our official breakfast meeting room.
With hosts, so friendly and accommodating, our experience here felt more like staying in the chic home of your oldest friends, friends only too happy to show you around if you wished, or suggest via text messages (if you prefer), favourite restaurants, cafes and beaches, a wealth of tips and locals knowledge. Staying here felt authentic, and completely immersive experience in community life, in the way a hotel cant necessarily compete. A sense of privacy from, yet a welcome connectedness to your neighbours, almost within arms reach across the narrow lane, the laugher of children playing in car-free streets and footsteps passing by, echoing off smooth stone walls.
That saying of "if you want to know where your heart is, look to where your mind goes when it wanders" has occurred to us often since returning home, finding ourselves (back on the other side of the world) dreaming from one beautiful office space, of this one, our island outpost - a flukey, serendipitous discovery that stole our hearts.
You can explore and book this dreamy house here.