Thursday, August 17, 2017

Cookies & Cream Low Cal Ice Cream Review

Cookies and Cream has been my all-time favorite ice cream flavor since childhood! The other day my co-worker brought in two packages of Oreo cookies: Dunkin Donuts Mocha Oreo and Oreo Thins, both were completely inedible to me. First I don’t like coffee so a coffee flavored cookie is just wrong. And the thins are half the cookie and half the filling, why would you do that?

thins to regular comparison
My favorite ice cream brand Halo Top just announced that they've updated the Cookies & Cream flavor. If you've never heard of Halo Top Ice Cream, it's a low-calorie, high-protein low-sugar ice cream that tastes amazing. I talked about it here and reviewed their chocolate flavor. They only use social media to advertise and yet have grown 2500% in sales in 2 years! Hence no surprise Breyers is now copying them, even with their pint label design.

Breyers Ice Cream recently released it's new Delights low calorie line. Both Halo Top and Breyers are sweetened with Erythritol, a natural sugar alcohol. Both pints of ice cream come in at about 330 calories and have 20g of protein. Which tastes better? Well I did a taste comparison of the two Cookies and Cream flavors for you.

Halo Top is made with eggs so it has an off white color while the Breyers has a pure white vanilla ice cream base. The Breyers has larger cookie chunks so you you can really taste the oreo cookie. But this comes with more grams of sugar than Halo Top. I wanted to share the label from their website but oddly all the Delights flavors don't have nutritional content on the Breyers website. They label the sugar content in a tricky, non-straightforward way.

The Halo Top Cookies & Cream tastes really good, and if that's all you had you would be satisfied. But when you compare the two together against each other, there's a slight difference that crowns the Breyers the winner because it tastes more like real ice cream. While Halo almost, but not quite, tastes more like frozen yogurt. It's a very subtle difference probably due to the sugar difference.

Halo Top also recently announced that it has released new flavors that I'm super excited to try! Mochi Green Tea, Pumpkin Pie, Cinnamon Roll, Candy Bar, Rainbow Swirl, Pancakes & Waffles, Caramel Macchiato and Chocolate Covered Banana.

I found Breyers Delights and Halo Top at my local Safeway. I've also seen Halo Top at Giant, Whole Foods, Walmart, Aldi, Target, Costco and Harris Teeter. This wide spread availability must have prompted Breyers to enter the low-cal ice cream game, because let's face it they could have done this a long time ago right? What's your favorite Halo Top flavor?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Postcards from Havana

Cuba is quite the popular destination these days! It's much easier for Americans to travel there (see my Tips for Travel to Cuba), but that may soon change as our President announced a policy change coming soon for Cuba so you should hurry up and go! I spent a week in Cuba in May with two full days in Havana, one day exploring the city for 14 hours straight!The first day started with a walking tour of Old Havana learning about Cuban history. I walked along the narrow cobblestone streets to see the colorful colonial architecture and many dilapidated buildings. I also enjoyed walking off the beaten path down narrow streets to people watch. Did you know that Havana has a population of 2.2 million people? Cubans pronounce their country as "Koo-ba".

Here are the top 10 sites and experiences to see in Havana:

 1. Plaza Vieja - One of the central plazas in Havana, this beautiful architecturally eclectic square is a World Heritage site built in 1559. All the buildings in this plaza have been refurbished. There's a fountain in the middle of the plaza which is surrounded by a micro-brewery, art galleries, cafes and a school. The statue is of a woman riding a rooster holding a giant fork. There are a few restaurants with balcony seating surrounding the square. At the corner of Plaza Vieja is Cafe Taberna where you can listen to live Cuban bands at night.

 2. El Capitolio -This grand 1920s building is a replica of Washington, DC's Capitol building but is slightly bigger. Is was the former congressional building but was closed in 2010 for renovations. Since it towers other buildings, you can see it from many points in the city so you can use it a marker to figure out where you are. Across the street is the Gran Teatro de La Habana which houses the Cuban National Ballet. The area around the Capitolio acts as a central traffic hub for the city so you will see plenty of communal taxis, classic cars, and horse carriages waiting for tourists. The $10 hop on hop off bus tour also has a stop here.  You can see from my pictures it felt like stepping into an Old Hollywood movie set to see all the classic American cars from the 1950s, iconic models that have banished from the US.

Seven years ago I threw a Havana Nights party where I made everyone wear purple and the invite was of a purple classic car. I served mojitos and chocolate cigars. At the time never dreamed I would ever go to Cuba since it had been off limits to Americans.

 3. Classic 1950's Convertible Cars - For me the biggest trademark of Cuba is their glorious collection of antique cars from the 1950’s. Cuba has 70,000 of these cars still operating and many covered with house paint, no seat belts and the engines replaced with new diesel engines since that's cheaper than gas.  The classic cars are used as taxis and taxi drivers have the highest income making $600 a month compared to $25 a month for everyone else. We took a ride in a classic car one evening and it was really strange riding in the front seat of a car without a seat belt!

Che Guevara's image was everywhere

 4. Ernest Hemingway – The author lived in Cuba for 20 years and La Floridita was his favorite bar in the 1930s. At the bar is a life sized bronze statue of Hemingway on his favorite bar stool and the walls are filled with black and white photographs of famous people who have visited. The bar was filled with tourists while a local band played music for us. The daiquiri is the drink to order here that they make in many different ways. In the suburbs of Havana you will find Hemingway’s house and the fishing village he frequented with his boat– Cojimar.

5. Music - Expect to hear the song "Guantanamera" everywhere you go because it's the best known Cuban song and most patriotic song as the lyrics come from a poem by the Cuban poet José Martí. He's the Cuban national hero and so many things in Cuba are named after him including the Havana airport. Then I'm sure you've heard that Justin Bieber song "Despacito", well the original version is super popular in Cuba right now. Check out my playlist at the bottom of this post.

 6. Tropicana Show - I read that Havana has as many cabaret shows as Las Vegas! The Tropicana cabaret show is an iconic Cuban show that has been around since 1939. The vibrant costumes are extravagant, especially the heavy headpieces! This is definitely an iconic, must see experience. For $75 we sat in an outdoor theater,  the show begins at 10pm and lasted 1.5 hours. The ticket price included a bottle of champagne for the table, peanuts, and Havana Club rum of course, more than we could drink. Men get a cigar. If you want to take pictures of the show that costs extra.

our ride home

 7. Morro Cabańa - For a sunrise view we visited the Fort just across the bay from Havana. It has a wonderful view of Havana. We saw a cruise ship coming in the narrow harbor channel while we were there which was a sight to see. The fort was built to protect against pirate attacks. Every night at 9pm a cannon is fired.

8. Fusterlandia - Cuban artist José Fuster has turned his neighborhood into a masterpiece of mosaic tiles of every color and description all whimsical and stylized. Fuster’s own house is fully decorated from the ground level to the roof with artwork and all kinds of sculptures.

see the mosaic tiles on the wall behind me

 9. Vedado – This neighborhood is off the beaten path but has some of the most stunning residential architecture. Many mansions were abandoned at the start of the revolution and now are crumbling. They was once inhabited by American investors involved in Cuba’s sugar industry and some today have been converted into offices. They're a beautiful rich relic from another time.

10. Hotel Nacional – We ended a long day of sightseeing with drinks on the back lawn of the Hotel Nacional overlooking the sea. Built in the 1930s, it's Cuba's most famous hotel modeled after The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. It has a palm tree lined entrance and gorgeous garden in the back where you can sit and stare at the water. This is also the site of the Cuban Missile Crisis and you can still see the tunnels that were once set up with missiles aimed at the US. Key West is only 100 miles away! It has the perfect view of the Malecon, the avenue along the seawall that has fantastic sunset views. Great place for people watching as well. Also on the Malecon, I was surprised to see they had an American embassy (but no Ambassador).  I was watching the news last night and saw this bizarre story about American diplomats in Cuba.

 Cuba was one of my all time favorite trips and I'm hoping to go back soon to see more of the island! I'm going out tomorrow night with some friends to see a Cuban band perform.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Tips for Traveling to Cuba

Cuba has been on my bucket list for a very long time and I finally had the opportunity to visit in May. Being there is like stepping back in time, colorful vintage cars, salsa music, Cuban cigars, Havana Club Rum, colonial architecture, cobble stoned streets and Che Guevara image everywhere. It was everything I imagined. The beautiful island of Cuba area wise it’s roughly similar in size to the state of Virginia, hence it’s the largest island in the Caribbean and its neighbor Jamaica is only 1/10th its size.  I spent one week traveling around Cuba visiting Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba and I felt very safe there.

How to get there:
There are currently only a limited number of airlines that fly into Havana: Delta, Southwest and JetBlue are the main ones. Delta has their own Cuban department now so you can get your tourist visa over the phone with them or at the departure counter. Jetblue has direct flights from Orlando, Ft Lauderdale and New York JFK. This year a few cruise lines started going there including Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, however the port only has room for one ship at a time. The harbor was oddly empty of boats, unlike any other seaside town you'd visit.

As an American citizen you are required to get a visa saying you will participate in people-to-people cultural exchanges, it’s the only legal way to go. I got a certificate when I left saying I completed my people-to-people cultural exchange. You are also required to keep a log while you are there of what you did. The US government may audit you on this for up to 5 years later. Keep your Cuban visa (separate from above, given at entry) with you during the trip as you need it to exit, it’s a separate piece of paper.

American credit cards and ATM cards do not work in Cuba. You must bring cash, enough for your entire trip. However there is a 10% penalty charged when exchanging American dollars so you may want to bring Euros, Canadian or Mexican pesos instead. 1.00 Cuban Convertible Peso = $1.00 USD but you will only receive 87cents on the dollar. If you plan to use the bathroom anywhere (even museums) expect to tip the bathroom attendant for that privilege so keep coins on you. There are two different currencies in Cuba: CUC and CUP. The CUC is the Cuban Convertible peso that tourists use. The CUP is the Cuban peso that the locals use. The conversation rate is 1 CUC = 25 CUP. Don’t get scammed and understand the difference between the two currencies.

Is only available at 35 hotspots in public parks, universities, and high priced hotels. (The average hotel costs around $350 a night, so look into airbnb and casa particulars.) Only 5% of Cubans have access to the internet. No one has it in their home unless they have specific permission from the government and then it’s dial-up. The wifi access is monitored by the government. To use it you must first purchase a wifi card from an ETECSA store which have very long lines or from an illegal internet "dealer" you can find on the street. lol So save a google map of Cuban cities offline for directions when you're walking around. I saw people using pay phones everywhere which are extinct in our country. The few people who had an iphone got one from a relative abroad. 

The classic car are primarily used as taxis and charge about $40 to be driven around for an hour and all of those drivers speak English. The cheapest way to get around is shared taxis. In Santiago de Cuba I saw they have a motorcycle taxi, a person would flag the driver down, tell him where they wanted to go, the driver gave the passenger a helmet and off they went, a 1 seat ride!  A cheaper alternative is the coco taxi which is a 3 wheeled yellow egg with 2 seats glued onto a moped. There was also the bicitaxi otherwise known as a pedicab or bicycle taxi, that's great to get around Old Havana where cars aren't allowed. The bicitaxi drivers are friendly and will chat you up. Another cheap way to get around Havana is to take the Hop on Hop off double decker tour bus which only cost $10.

The week I was there in May didn't rain but it was so hot and humid. Officially the temperature was in the high 80s but the humidity made it unbearable. Bring a fan and expect to wear your hair in a ponytail the whole time. The sun was so strong I always wore a hat and only took it off for pictures.

The famous restaurants like the one Beyonce and Obama went to require reservations in advance. As a vegetarian my experience will be different from yours so I won't go into that.  Bring snacks with you because there really aren't supermarkets around to just pop in and grab something. Cuban Rum is cheap and popular cocktails you'll find on menus are Cuba Libre (rum and coke), mojitos, and daiquiris. The word for papaya in Cuban Spanish is "frutabomba", the word "papaya" in Cuba is a vulgar slang term for a woman's privates, so you don't want to ask for that anywhere. lol Download AlaMesa app, it lists restaurants and bars in Cuba and works offline.

Papier-mâché car models were seen everywhere.

Cuban cigars are expensive even in Cuba. Farmers are required to sell 90 percent of their tobacco crop to the government for a set price. There are 9000 tobacco farms which is the most important crop of the island, not sugar which makes rum. Since Fidel Castro was always seen smoking, he made the cigar the symbol of the revolution. He founded the Cohiba brand which is considered the best brand. Cigars are hand rolled and the factories have strict product quality control in place to ensure that every cigar leaving the factory is well made, properly rolled, and does not contain flaws or imperfections. The paper ring around the cigar is called a vitola and is a piece of art to distinguish the brands. Cigars come in 200 sizes and shapes, the bigger the habano the richer the taste and cooler the smoke. The average cigar takes half an hour to smoke. Don't buy them on the street, you won't know what you're getting, could be banana leaves inside. Last year the US lifted the embargo against Americans bringing home Cuban cigars, but you are limited to $100 worth. 

My next post will shows more photos from Havana. Cuba was one of my favorite trips of all time and I can't wait to go back and see more of it!

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