Havana Have Fun!

For many, Cuba will be on their list of places to visit.  It’s a big place so don’t expect to be finished within a week.  In fact, you may need to separate breaks or one long one to cover everything you want to.

When we stayed, we visited Havana for 3 nights and Varadero for 7 nights with a long day trip to take in Trinidad, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos.  The time spent in Havana was about right and the day trip broke up our beach break nicely but we felt that we didn’t have anywhere near as much time as we wanted in some of the other places which set us off looking for the perfect Cuban itinerary.  The suggestion below is for 10 nights and covers most places but a second trip may still be required for the south of the island!

Havana

We would recommend staying for 3 nights and our favourite hotels here are Iberostar Parque Central for its fabulous rooftop pool views and The Mercure Sevilla which is an historic building and has a charm of faded grandeur.  If you arrive before sunset, take a walk along the Malecon and enjoy the classic cars you will spot around every corner before heading to a Paladar for a homely welcome and great food.  We tried La Guarida.

Spend your first day visiting the famous Havana Club Museum, historic settings such as Plaza de San Francisco, the beautiful 18th Century Cathedral of San Cristóbal de la Habana and of course a tour of a cigar factory (Partagás is our favourite).  You can do this on foot or maybe hire a classic car and be chauffeur driven around this wonderful city.  End with a cocktail at El Floridita, one of Hemingway’s favourite bars!

Enjoy the morning at Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana before hopping on a coco taxi to the Plaza de la Revolution.  Visit Parque John Lennon and his statue on the bench and stop on the way for ice-cream at Coppelia, where locals queue around the block for its great value ice-cream.  If you have time, do visit Plaza Vieja, a beautifully renovated square where you can get a coffee and enjoy the atmosphere.

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Havana to Remedios via Santa Clara

After your 3 night stay in Havana it’s time to move on.  The first stop is Santa Clara, the first major city to be liberated by Catsro’s forces during the revolutionary struggle against Batista in 1958.  You can take a tour of the city before having lunch.  In the afternoon, head to Remedios where you can visit the Sugar Museum and take a ride on a steam train.

We would recommend staying 1 night at the romantic Hotel Mascotte or Hotel Barcelona with its beautiful courtyard.

Remedios to Cienfuegos

Spend day 5 making your way to Cienfuegos and visit the Teatro Tomas Terry, the city’s cigar factory and Parque Jose Marti.  Enjoy your afternoon taking in the Palacio de Valle before enjoying a boat trip around the bay in the evening.  We would recommend basing your night’s stay at Hotel La Union which has fine views of Cinefuegos from its roof terrace.

Cienfuegos to Trinidad

Once in Trinidad, take a tour of the city.  Walk along the cobbled streets, past the pastel buildings, visit the Palacio de Cantero Museum and La Canchanchara Bar.  If you can, climb the bell tower to take some wonderful photos of Trinidad from a different angle.  Stock up on handmade souvenirs and breathe in the wonderful architecture and sights around every corner.  You will have earned your overnight stay at Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad or for a smaller hotel, try Hotel La Ronda.

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Trinidad to Varadero via Santi Spiritus

Explore the ruins of sugar mills and take a tour of the warehouses, manor houses and slave quarters in Valle de los Ingenios before heading to Santi Spiritus, the centre of Cuba and the oldest city in the Cuban interior.  Stretch your legs and enjoy a walking tour before heading to Varadero for an over night stay.  We would recommend staying on at Varadero for at least a further 3 nights before heading home.  You can relax on the beach or take a diving tour if you still want to explore further.  We enjoyed staying at Iberostar Tainos or we could recommend the Royalton Hicacos.

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Antigua: A beach for every day of the year

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Warm waters lapping onto the white sands which coat the edges of this beautiful island will soothe the soul and provide you with a well earned rest.  You have your pick of beaches, 365 of them to be precise, and a wealth of sea life to keep you occupied in the tropical waters.  If you get bored of watching the herons swoop down for their dinner or admiring Montserrat from afar, try horse riding, a visit to St John’s and don’t forget Nelson’s Dockyard.  Nightlife is a little more low key but the place to be on a Sunday night is Shirley Heights.  Enjoy the BBQ, a few market stalls selling more traditional gifts, music and the most wonderful views over the Dockyard.

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Where to stay

On our visit we stayed at the Blue Heron by Rex Resorts but sadly, it was destroyed in Hurricane season.  However, this hotel was located on the fabulous Turners Beach which is home to Keyonna Beach, an all-inclusive resort, less than 40 steps from the Caribbean Sea.

For something a little more colonial, try The Inn at English Harbour.  Just 2 minutes away from Nelson’s dockyard and with its own white sandy beach and private jetty, this is very much an exclusive resort.

If you want a great view, there is no better than Hermitage Bay and a stay in the Hillside Pool Suites.  Each comes with its own wrap-around covered deck, complete with sun-loungers, double day bed, sofa, small dining table and chairs in addition to the stunning pool.

The Beach: a place to relax and reflect

Thailand is blessed with dazzling beaches, perfect to spend a few days at the end of any trip recharging those batteries which have been wisely used up on the charm and offerings of this wonderful country.  When it comes to picking a beach resort, you will be spoiled for choice.  We have chosen just three to focus on.

Koh Tao

Why stay here: If you enjoy snorkelling/diving or somewhere a little more off the beaten track, this is the island for you.

Where to stay: For a hotel right on the beach pick Sensi Paradise and for a hotel with a view, View Point Resort.

How to get here: From Bangkok, you can take the sleeper train at 7:30pm arriving into Chumphon at 4am.  Then it’s a 7:30am catamaran to Koh Tao arriving at 8:45am.

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Khao Lak

Why stay here: If you like comfort, shopping, plenty of facilities and long white sandy beaches but want to avoid the more popular resort of Phuket.

Where to stay: The Sarojin is probably the most luxurious hotel in Khao Lak and the Ramada Khao Lak Resort is perfect for families.

How to get here: It’s about an 8 hour journey by road from Bangkok or just an hour from Phuket airport.

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Khao Lak Beach. Photo by Jan Albrecht.

Koh Yao Noi

Why stay here: Stunning mountainous backbones, unspoilt shorelines, a large variety of birdlife and a peaceful break.

Where to stay: Six Senses Yao Noi – the views are simply ‘wow’ and to get away from it all, Koh Yao Bay Pavillions.

How to get here: About an hour’s long-tail ferry boat journey from Bang Rong Pier, Phuket.

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Koh Yao Noi. Photo by Vyacheslav Argenberg.

Chiang Mai: The Rose of the North

Situated in the North of Thailand, the Chiang Mai region takes you back to nature and is a world away from busy Bangkok.  Take your time to explore this region and all it has to offer before considering a final stop at one of Thailand’s many beach resorts.

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Things to do and see

You may Want to visit the Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre which allows tourists to watch the elephants train at 10am.  You will be able to watch the elephants demonstrating their skills and enjoying a bath and when we visited, we were able to feed them sugar cane.

Alternatively, if you want to get a little more wild, head to the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre where you can volunteer and visit to help.

Jungle Trekking is a must, whether this be for just one day or several.  Take a walk through the tropical jungle, enjoy an elephant ride, swim by beautiful waterfalls, go white water rafting and stay with a hill tribe.

There are lots of historical sites to see and so plan a day to do this.  Make sure you don’t miss the temples of Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

If you prefer activity, then try climbing.  Crazy Horse Buttress is Northern Thailand’s premier rock climbing and caving location and so if you want to climb your way to a fabulous view, you know where to look.

If you have been busy in Bangkok and you’re all trekked out, you may need time out.  Cheeva Spa offers a luxury 4 hour package for just under £85 including 6 treatments including a foot massage, milky bath and massage.

Where to stay

For something a little different try the Maekok River Village Resort.  If you are travelling as part of a family, this is a great place to stay, full of activities to keep everyone amused.  Also what is great about the MRVR is that it works with the local community on building and teaching projects.  When we visited, albeit a good few years ago, we taught English in the mornings to students at a local orphanage and then in the afternoon we returned to build or farm before relaxing in the evening.

For absolute luxury look no further than The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai.  Traditionally inspired architecture leaves guests feeling at one with the historical Lanna Kingdom.

Stay in a traditional Thai House, BaanBooLOo, and enjoy a special breakfast, wifi and a free pick up from the train station or airport if you stay for 2 or more nights.

 

 

Sukhothai: The Historic Province

Many travellers in Thailand will arrive in Bangkok and be greeted with an assault on the senses, for many this will be welcome but for others, this could be a bit of a shock to the system.  Bangkok does have a lot going on and so you may choose to stay there for just a couple of nights before heading north to Chiang Mai.  However, on the way, you may want to stop off in Sukhothai.

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Sukhothai, or ‘Dawn of Happiness’, was founded in the 13th Century and was the first independent Thai Kingdom.  Over time it became abandoned and overgrown until it was beautifully restored earning UNESCO World Heritage status in 1991.  Being such a key part of the country’s past and an ideal stopping point on the way to Chiang Mai, it’s difficult to refuse a quick peek at what this place has to offer.

We would recommend a visit to the Sukhothai Historical Park to tour the extensive ruins of the Royal Palaces, Buddhist temples, city gates and walls to name but a few.  As the site is extensive, you will probably want to hire a bike to ensure you get to see everything and this can be done close to the entrance for about £1 for the day.  This site is 12km from the centre and so make this a day trip.

After a long day of sight-seeing, there’s still more to do and so no time to rest!  Head out to the night market, a bustling market where you can pick up beautiful silks, crafts and delicious food all in one place.

If you have a second day, there’s lots to explore inside and outside of the city walls including Wat Si Chum and Wat Phra Phai Luang to the North and outside of the city walls.  Again, hire a bike to tour around these wonderful historical statues and explore Sukhothai.

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How to get there

Sukhothai is about a 7 hour coach journey from Bangkok or an hour’s flight (the airport is 40km away).  You can also get the train from Bangkok to Phitsanulok and then a bus to Sukhothai (about 50km away).

Bangkok: An Introduction to Asia

Arriving into Bangkok and taking the first step outside the air conditioned terminal into consuming heat and humidity; this was my first taste of Asia.  Bundled into taxis and staring, mesmerised, out of the window trying to keep up with what my eyes were showing me, I was excited for the adventure ahead.

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Doors flung open at the bottom of the Khao San Road and bodies aching from a 24 hour journey willing themselves out, this was to be home for the next few days.  A small team gathered together to seek out accommodation for our stay here; nothing had been booked and so there we were, a group of 11 people standing in the middle of the hectic Khao San Road with our rucksacks, tired eyes, feeling hot, not speaking much Thai and not having a bed for the night.  How wonderful the sense of the secure unknown is.

We found a room for £2 per night and decided we’d put 3 people in each – 2 on the bed with just a sheet and the other at the foot in their sleeping bag.  I hoped we wouldn’t have to get up in the night as there was no room to move, we were truly sardines.  I thought I’d fall to sleep quickly having been through a tiring and emotional day but the sounds from outside kept me awake…..excitement of what was to come and my mind constantly whirring.  One moment it sounded like people were taking down their stalls and packing away for the night but no sooner had this happened, they were setting back up for the day ahead.  Motorbikes, shouting, singing, music……and my old tape of Gloria Estefan being played to help me get to sleep.  I had a feeling that the rhythm of this trip was certainly going to get me!

That was my introduction to Bangkok and Asia 13 years ago and ever since, the travel bug has not left me.  Thailand threw me into the world of exploring, discovering and experiencing cultures, new places, interesting food and people and I will always have a special place in my heart for the land of smiles.  I still like to travel but my taste in accommodation has changed as I’ve become older.  I still occasionally enjoy some of the branded hotels (Shangri La is my favourite) but I love the independents which are often more of secret hideaway which takes me back to my travelling days.

When to visit

  • Hot season – March to June (April and May are the hottest).
  • Wet season – June to October (although this can be earlier – May and sometimes even April).  I visited in August and yes, there was rain, but it was welcome and didn’t disturb our trip.
  • Cool season – November to February (still warm to most although the north can be much cooler, especially in December).

 Where to stay in Bangkok today

  • For terrific views across the city from it’s rooftop bar and restaurant – Banyan Tree
  • For a wonderful and budget friendly homestay – Loog Choob
  • For your boutique base – Inn A Day
  • For reliable first class service – Shangri-La Bangkok

What to do

    1. The Grand Palace is a must do.  Make sure you cover up when you visit.
    2. Thai boxing at the Ratchadamnoen Stadium.
    3. Try the amazing food – red and green Thai curries and scorpion if you fancy something a little different!  To help you decide, take a food tour.
    4. Ride in a Tuk Tuk.
    5. Enjoy a walk down the Khao San Road in the evening and enjoy a drink from the cocktail camper van or go shopping there during the day to pick up a few bargains.

If you are travelling via Bangkok to reach your final travel destination, there are lots of things you can do depending upon how long you have.

If you would like us to help you plan your trip to Thailand, please email contact@mytravelgenie.co.uk or call us on 07951 219293.

Toni Sharp

Walking the Isle of Man

When you think of the Isle of Man, what most likely comes to mind is preconceived ideas of motorcycle racing, cats with no tails and a tax haven for the wealthy.  But what you may not realise is that it’s something of a walker’s delight as well.

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Niarbyl Sunset. Photo by Grant Matthews.

Located slap bang in the middle of the British Isles, the island is 220 square miles in size, with no place on it more than approximately 7 miles from the coast.  That in itself is a great attraction for walkers; the prospect of frequent sea views and the difficulty in getting lost, which also makes it attractive for the casual walker.  The island’s geology gives it a tremendously wide range of scenery – from wild moorland and woody glens, to dramatic cliffs with crashing seas.  It has just one mountain, Snaefell, standing at 621 metres above sea level, which many will wish to conquer.  It’s an easy one to bag as the Victorian electric railway takes you up from the Bungalow Station in mere minutes.  More discerning walkers can take the 40 minute hike up, but better still would be to look elsewhere on the island for rambling inspiration.

A few years ago, I completed a 15 mile walk from the pretty seaside town of Port Erin to the island’s former capital, Peel.  A beautiful coastal walk, it took in three significant ascents and certainly some stamina, but was ultimately extremely rewarding.  The initial ascent up Bradda Head takes you to a commemorative plaque where Kodak’s “World’s Best Photograph 1931” was won, and about half way along the route I came across Niarbyl, where the thatched cottage scenes from the movie “Waking Ned” were filmed.  Apparently the Isle of Man looks more like Ireland than Ireland does!  The final descent over Corrins Hill into Peel as the sun melted into the Irish Sea was a truly magical moment, topped off with a much-deserved pint of local Manx ale at The Creek Inn.

The island has several official long distance paths.  The Millennium Way is 23 miles in length and follows the old route of kings from Ramsey in the north to Castletown in the south.  The walk gets you away from the coast and gives you the opportunity to explore more inland scenery, some of which certainly resembles the Lake District.  It is achievable in one day, but can be conveniently split into two days by stopping over at Crosby, for those who wish to savour it.

The 14 mile Herring Way follows, as the name suggests, the old fishermen’s roads, and is a great path on which to enjoy a balance of coastal scenery and quaint glens and woodland.  There is also the opportunity to take a modest diversion to ascend South Barrule, where you will be rewarded with a stunning view over countryside and sea.

For the most committed of walkers, there is the official coastal path (the “Raad ny Follian”), a 96 mile footpath round the whole coastline.  Typically starting at the island’s capital, Douglas, It’ll take about a week to complete, with accommodation on or near the route readily available.  The path winds its way along the coast, yes, but also a nature reserve, a disused railway, fishing villages and numerous sites of historical interest.

Want to know more?  Take Terry Marsh’s excellent walking guide with you for a superb variety of walking inspiration.

When:  Avoid late May, early June and early September, when the island is invaded by motorbike enthusiasts for the TT Races and Manx Grand Prix.

How: Aer Lingus, British Airways, Citywing, Easyjet and Flybe all serve the island’s only airport at Ronaldsway.  Regular buses go to and from the airport linking it to Douglas, Peel and Castletown.  You can catch the ferry from Heysham or Liverpool but this is often more expensive and time consuming.

Ben Sharp

The Famous Five

The Cinque Terre walk (Italy) can be completed within a day.  The route takes in the 5 pretty villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and finally Riomaggiore.

Taking some time to stop in each, the route is likely to take about 7 hours (5 hours walking and 2 hours for sight seeing and refuelling.  You may wish to base yourself in Monterosso and start the walk from there as early as you can.  We would advise starting at 7:30am as the first part of the walk is most difficult and you will want to avoid the heat of the day.  Once you reach the end, you can get the train back and enjoy a well earned dinner and cocktails.

Alternatively, the easier route is Riomaggiore to Monterosso (you can catch the train to Riomaggiore in the morning if staying in Monterosso) but the difficult bit is towards the end and the best views are behind you!

Where to stay in Monterosso

The hidden gem – Hotel Ristorante Marina

The one with the pool – Hotel Porto Roca

The friendly modern one – Hotel Souvenir

Where to eat

As you will most likely be starting early, you may not have time for much of a breakfast.  In any event, you may choose to eat something light as the first part of the walk to Vernazza is the toughest section.  However, you can reward your efforts upon arrival by visiting Panifacio Focacceria, the town’s best bakery.  Pick up some pastries and head to the harbour to enjoy the view, food and achievement.

By the time you arrive in Corniglia, you may have worked up a small appetite.  We wouldn’t usually suggest only indulging in sweet treats, but as you’re working so hard, you deserve to treat yourself to some of the best ice-cream in Italy at Un Mare di Yogurt.

The last part of the walk is relatively gentle and by the time you arrive in Riomaggiore, you may be ready for a late lunch.  Il Pescato Cucinato is the perfect place to stop, being located close to the harbour and the train station.  It serves fabulous sea food in paper cones which you can take out into the sun to enjoy the view.

And don’t forget the lemonade stop on the route……you will regret missing out!

Useful links

http://wikitravel.org/en/Cinque_Terre

https://www.incinqueterre.com/en/trails-advice

Cycle the Camino de Santiago

This 500 mile route stretching through the north of Spain has been witness to thousands of pilgrims each making their way to Santiago de Compostela’s Cathedral, the final restring place of St James.  The pilgrimage is believed by some to be one of three pilgrimages for which the sins of the pilgrim will be forgiven.

Many people will choose to walk the route and complete in several stages or join it at a later point just in time to earn the compostela (certificate of accomplishment).  The minimum you need to complete to earn this is 100 km (walking) or 200 km (cycling).

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Cathedral Santiago de Compostela. Photo by Jose Luis Cernadas Iglesias

We have found the perfect cycling itinerary which covers the last 200 km and takes 7 days although you will actually cycle 280 km in total.

Day 1

Arrive in Bilbao and if you have time, take in the wonderful Guggenheim Museum and then off to El Pero Chico for a delicious meal with friendly service (and also popular with Frank Gehry while he oversaw progress on the Guggenheim).

Day 2

Make your way to Leon just in time for lunch which you could take at Alfonso Valderas, the city’s most famous restaurant for salt cod prepared around 25 different ways!  We love the pil-pil version.  After lunch, you will cycle to Astorga across a section of the Meseta Plains.  A great place to head for food in the evening is La Peseta which serves local dishes but with cheaper menus for pilgrims!

Day 3

You will cycle across the Biezro Hills stopping at the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) at 1482m, the highest point along the trail.  It’s traditional at this point to leave a stone in prayer.

Day 4

Make your way to O’Cebreiro where you will find unusual stone houses with thatched roofs which mark the entry to Galicia.  You will then cycle to Tricastela and on to Samos.  Samos is a lovely village built around the very fine Benedictine Monasterio de Samos and well worth a visit when you’re there.

Days 5 & 6

The next 2 days will be spend cycling through the unspoilt landscape of Galicia through medieval villages, taking in Portomarin and Azura.  You may want to see San Nicolas in Portomarin, the church which was re-built stone by stone to rescue it from the reservoir which was to be flooded.  In Azura, head to Casa Theodora, run by brothers Jesus and Gabriel, for a well earned home cooked meal.

Day 7

Today you will reach your destination: Santiago!  Santiago de Compostela (Old Town) in a UNESCO World Heritage site and so there is lots to explore, including of course its Cathedral.  Around every corner you will discover something new and so you may want to extend your tour to relax and take in the sights at a more leisurely pace.

For the love of Baklava

One of Toni’s all time favourite desserts is Baklava and she says the best she ever tasted was in Fiskardo, Kefalonia.  Toni makes her own which isn’t far off the mark using a combination of a traditional Greek receipe and Lorraine Pascal’s baklava recipe.

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Mini Baklava

Ingredients

  • 250g unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 packets of filo pastry (you will get about 6 sheets per pack)

For the filling

  • 500g of nuts of your choice – we often choose pecans, walnuts and Almonds (roughly chopped/broken up by hand) and Hazelnuts can work well too.
  • 3tbsp breadcrumbs
  • 2 tbsp soft light brown sugar
  • 1.5tsp mixed spice (or make your own by mixing spices you have – e.g. cinnamon and a little nutmeg – a little goes a long way with nutmeg and so don’t be too generous! – or ground clove)

For the syrup

  • 340g granulated sugar
  • 200ml water
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • 1 cinnamon stick

Method

  1. Defrost your filo overnight in the fridge.  If you forget and need to do defrost it the same day, place it somewhere warm, but not hot, and leave it for a couple of hours.
  2. Put all your filling ingredients into a large bowl and mix them up.
  3. Put half of the butter in a bowl and melt (we use a microwave to do this but pick whichever method you’re used to).  There is no set amount of butter really, it’s simply as much as you need but 250g is a rough estimate – don’t worry if you don’t use it all or if you need more.  The suggestion is to only melt half now because if you’re not a very quick worker (unlikely when working with filo), the butter will turn white (separation) and you will not be able to work with what’s left.  Keep melting the butter as and when you need it.
  4. Whilst the butter is melting, carefully unwrap the filo and lay all the sheets out on a clear surface and cover with a damp towel (which stops it from drying out which makes it more tricky to work with).
  5. Choose a tray to bake in.  We have a large Pyrex dish (the sort you may cook lasagna in – about 21cm x 14cm*).  You will need to cover the inside of your chosen dish with a coating of your melted butter from step 3; we do this with a silicon pastry brush otherwise, you risk getting hairs on your pastry if you use the standard basting brush.  Once you have done this, take a sheet of filo and line the dish with it.  Then you need to coat the first filo layer with more butter.  Repeat twice so that you have 3 layers of filo with a final coat of butter on the top layer.
  6. Use 1/3 of the filling mixture and spoon this on top of the third filo layer making sure you have an even distribution.
  7. At about this point, put your oven on to get up to temperature (180 degrees or 350 fahrenheit or gas mark 4).
  8. You will then need to add 3 more layers of filo following the instructions at step 5, followed by a second layer of filling, as in step 6.  Then, a further 3 layers of filo (as per step 5) and the final 1/3 of the filling before finishing off with a final 3 layers of filo.  Once you reach the top, score the pasty diagonally so you have diamond shapes on the top and then coat with a final thick layer of butter.
  9. Put your masterpiece in the oven for 25-30 minutes.
  10. Whilst your baklava is baking away, put the water and sugar (for the syrup) into a pan and keep on a low to medium heat.  Keep stirring until the sugar has dissolved.  Then add the honey and cinnamon stick and turn down to a low heat for about 10 minutes.
  11. Once the baklava is out the over, leave to stand for about 10-20 minutes before pouring over the syrup from step 10.
  12. Enjoy!

*Don’t worry if the dish you use is smaller.  Filo is long!  Simply start placing your filo in the dish one end, let it overlap at the other end and then fold it back on itself.  Essentially, half of the dish will have a layer of filo and the other half may have 2 layers thanks to the doubling up.  Simply rotate the dish for the next layer so you’re all even!

Please feel free to add pistachios (which appear in some recipes) or lemon zest or orange-blossom water which appear in other recipes.  It really is all down to individual taste.  We have tried the recipe inducing these additions but always return to the recipe above!