I plan travel for a living.
Booking myself a research trip to Havana, Cuba would surely be a cake walk. With tourism opportunities expanding for Americans, I wanted to go down and tour various hotels, try different excursion agencies and set up relationships for my clients’ future trips. I soon discovered, the term “Island Time” in Cuba is on a different level. Yes, the typical lackadaisical speed of islanders is at play but when the businesses you’re dealing with can only get online 2-3 times a week, planning is a challenge. A custom trip to Cuba requires patience and the ability to go without all I’s dotted and T’s crossed.
Up to a few days before going, I had considering scrapping it altogether. Changing US Government regulations paired with general frustration over making plans official, it seemed almost not worth it. I had a looming sense this could be a disaster of a trip but in the end, we went…though hesitantly.
After checking in to our hotel, the dazzling Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski la Habana whose lengthy name is as grand as she is, we decided to stroll around a bit. I don’t hide my gringo very well and almost instantly was sucked into conversation offering anything from black market booze, cigars or “companionship” of many varieties, all “just over here in my cousin’s place”. Ditching the offer, more came, every 10 steps it seemed and all “in my cousin’s place”. Perhaps there really is a place called, “My Cousin’s Place”, but I doubt it. Overwhelmed, I thought as I looked out on the decaying city that I would spend my week going no farther than sight of my hotel haven.
Fortunately, we stuck with our plans to meet Frank, a local tour guide to show us the city. Frank’s perfect English in tow, he immediately explained, “nothing in Cuba is as it first appears”. For instance, the streets may look unsafe at first, but they are not. His statement set the tone for the rest of our trip and he walked us through neighborhoods we’d never dream of exploring, pointing out fascinating details one after the other. “Can we walk here on our own, at night” we asked Frank. “Yep. Just be smart like any city you visit”, he said.
One minute we were in a place that appeared as though a bomb had been dropped. The next a cobblestone paved European style square lined with cafés, music and artisans peddling goods in the shadow of a cathedral. The new Cuba, Frank explained, is seeing a surge in the bohemian, artisan culture and independent businesses are popping up. Every one of them lives or dies on tourist dollars.
My biggest fear in visiting Cuba was that I wouldn’t be able to connect to the place and the people. So, we peppered Frank with question after question, trying to make a connection and get a sense of understanding. We talked about his life, his thoughts on the current government and the historic revolution when Fidel took power. What did it mean to him? What did he think of the US involvement? Mind you, Frank is one voice in a country of over 11 million. But his voice matters. All we know is what we hear in the US media so we took this Havana natives’ words in like a sponge.
Perhaps the moment I’ll remember most was as we walked along one of those decaying streets. Frank pointed out a painting with a bench below and said how much it meant to him. He passes it often on his tours. The painting is a Cuban flag done in faded grey and charcoal tones; Not the vivid colors of the actual flag. And on the stone bench below he says, there are usually 2 or 3 people sleeping. For him, it’s a symbol. The flag of the country he loves, dulled in its grandeur, hovering over the sleeping people. We would soon discover for ourselves just how symbolic that image was...
Frank had saved our trip with his insight into the overwhelming city of Havana. Truthfully, we would have loved having him along for the rest of our trip and you can do just that if you plan ahead. Although we didn’t have him along for the rest of our explorations, his words stuck with us everywhere we went and shaped the way we interpreted what we encountered.
If someone asks you for money saying they’re hungry or homeless in Cuba, take it with a grain of salt as they likely aren’t. The government, no matter what your opinion of it, does provide basic food and housing for every single Cuban. It may not be the best food and the loveliest of home, but they’re provided for all.
Discrimination exists in Cuba but not for the color of your skin. Many businesses are there strictly for the tourists and very few Cubans are allowed to patronize them, much less afford what’s on offer. The sparkling new shopping area by our hotel was referred to as “The Museum” by locals, selling a Canon camera for $7,000 and a Bulgari watch for $10,000. Locals earning an average government salary of $25 a month stroll past, pausing for a selfie with the glamorous goods in the windows.
Just as Americans choose their political sides the Cuban people do as well for their own reasons. Something that really stuck out, no matter which side they were on is that if nothing else changed, the average salary needs to go up. Nevertheless, whatever their political affiliation we found the Cuban people gracious, friendly and delightful to spend time with. They love meeting Americans and even if your visit with them is brief, you’ll walk away knowing one thing. Cubans are proud to be Cuban.
There were several “must-do” things on our list and The Museum of The Revolution should top your list. It’s a surreal experience as an American to tour a monument that doesn’t paint your beloved homeland in the best of lights. Although a classic study in government propaganda, I kept an open mind to grasp what their government thought about the US involvement in their revolution. It was fascinating and eye opening. Housed in the former Presidential Palace of Fulgencio Batista and seen as a symbol of corruption, the palace was a constant target of revolutionary violence and still bears the scars, it’s walls riddled with bullet holes.
The Gran Teatro de La Habana, The National Theater. Breath…officially taken. One of several government restoration projects, this spectacular edifice holds its own against all I’ve seen in America and Europe. The façade is magnificent, decorated with sculptures of marble and bronze featuring four groups of statuary representing charity, education, music and theater. Home to the famous Cuban National Ballet, her 1500 seats are just a part of this enormous building, constructed to serve as a cultural hub. Open since 1915 and now housing several rotating art galleries, a guided tour is your best bet in exploring the palatial building.
Dog lovers that we are, some research led us to The Aniplant Project, a group of animal lovers and volunteer veterinarians who exhaust every resource at their disposal to medically treat and adopt out as many dogs as they can. We packed an extra suitcase with things they simply can’t get like gauze, syringes and antiseptic. Calling upon their humble clinic we encountered a basic but spotless facility. A small colony of un-adoptable pups lives on site, headed by house dog “Cuba”. He runs the show and makes sure you know it. While our visit was brief and burdened by language, we managed to convey our gratitude for their work and theirs for our gifts. Very little words were needed for respect to be shared and a connection made evidenced by tears, shed as we left.
Many Americans long to see Cuba and many do not. At least not until their government changes.
Fielding many rumors, uncertainties and the unstable relationship the US has with Cuba we still chose to go. And while it wasn’t love at first sight, with the help of an amazing guide named Frank, we departed Cuba feeling educated, enlightened and unexpectedly changed.
Frankly, Havana…we can’t wait to see you again.
Images from Cuba
Who could forget May 5th, 1977…the day “The Love Boat” first aired on TV?
Sing it with me: “Love, exciting and new. Come aboard. We're expecting you...”
Everyone wanted to take a big cruise with Captain Stubing, Cruise Director Julie and bartender Isaac. But the “Love Boat” or her real name, the Pacific Princess, was in today’s terms a small ship. Over the years cruise ships have gotten downright gargantuan. It’s likely you get off the ship having no clue there was a cruise director on board. How could you know? You were too busy ice skating, rock climbing and riding the surf simulator to notice.
The phrase, “too big to fail” comes to mind pondering these new massive, floating mini-cities. And while the mega-ships won’t be going out of style anytime soon, they have caused the resurgence for the old days and the “Love Boat” style of cruising. Small ship cruising is big again. If getting away from it all with 9,000 other people sounds daunting, why not take a cruise that’s a bit more intimate. While those big ships do serve their purpose, we love the small ship experience. Here’s a few reasons why.
It’s hard to make friends with thousands of other people in a week’s time. But what if you were on board with a mere 100 other people? On a small ship, you run into the same guests and crew every day. The conversation you started the evening before picks up right where you left it. You compare your days and what you’ve enjoyed on the ship or how you spent your time in port. Suddenly, you are downright chummy and making plans to have dinner together or planning an adventure in the next port!
Small cruises cater to a specific kind of traveler, one who has researched with precision, their destination of choice. You did it too. You’ve likely gone with a purpose to not only get away, but to learn and discover. The cruise line knows this already and they have developed a series of experiences to help you immerse yourself in your chosen surroundings. Many small ship cruises have guest speakers ranging from astronomers, to historians, to marine biologists all to enhance your trip. Instead of boarding one of nine busses to the rum factory, you might walk into town with a destination expert to a small artisan distillery with five or six fellow enthusiasts.
And it’s hard to feel like it’s 1492 and you’ve conquered paradise when pulling into port you discover someone has beat you to it and already built a Senior Frogs. There they are, hundreds of people shooting Cuervo, singing “Tequila” because the song only has one word in it, and it’s all they can remember. No, you want to feel like you’re the first explorer to set foot on the island, or stumbled into a village cut off from civilization and lost to time. Small ship cruising lets you do that.
Your heart is full. You’ve made new friends, learned about small-batch infused rums in a tiny hut, and conquered an island half destroyed by a volcano. Now it’s time to relax! Captain Stubing is charting a new course, Julie is planning a deck barbeque and Isaac has poured you a drink. And there you are, up on the top deck of your ship and there isn’t a soul in sight. You sit down in a deck chair, squeeze the lime, take a sip and close your eyes. That’s small ship cruising and it’s real.
Small ship cruising isn’t just about ships. You have a slew of options. Hire a crewed catamaran with just 10 of your best friends. Take a European river cruise with less than 200 guests. Book a true small ship with vessels holding only a few hundred passengers. The options are endless, in every corner of the globe, on every body of water from oceans, to rivers and lakes. The next time you think about cruising, think small.
A couple of our favorites?
For River Cruising - Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours. And for Ocean Cruising - Windstar Cruises.
Had I not grown up Mormon, I’m not sure Utah would have made my list of places to visit. Rumors of polygamists, a bizarre attraction to green Jell-O and the “Zion Curtain” (more about that later) are enough to scare any gentile off the path to Utah. A brief stint at Brigham Young University in 1988 changed my mind. I discovered then, that it’s a lot more fun to play, not pray, in Utah.
I’ve been visiting Utah for nearly 30 years. I have a routine. Fly into Salt Lake City, grab a rental car and head up the canyon to heavenly, Park City. A quick stop at the State Liquor Store for provisions (yes, all the fire water is state controlled) and the fun can begin. So, the Zion Curtain thing… Utah has long had weird liquor laws. For one, in restaurants, you’re not allowed to see the booze bottles or your drink being made. Restaurants must build partitions blocking the view. These rules are crumbling and the cocktail culture in Utah is changing. Drinks with dinner or out on the town are no problem.
Park City is Utah’s cultural crossroads. The mountains are its main draw. Once a sleepy silver mining town it has become one of the world’s greatest ski destinations boasting over 7000 acres for every conceivable winter pursuit. Accommodation choices abound for all tastes and budgets, with the mountain surfer types heading to Park City Mountain. Families with active kids love The Canyons and the tony set heads straight for Deer Valley to soak in the luxuries of the St. Regis and Montage hotels.
When the snow melts, the mountains become a playground for nature and adventure lovers. Hiking, mountain biking and trout fishing are popular pastimes, but the less outdoorsy are just as enthralled with shopping and dining on historic Main Street. Like to enjoy it all? Take the chair lift up the mountain in the morning and hike your way down. Magically the trails all seem to end at an open air, terrace cafe where your afternoon becomes an alpine la dolce vita complete with a charcuterie of handmade cheeses, meats, clover honey and huckleberry jam. Wash it all down with a locally made “Polygamy Porter” and you’ll feel perfectly sinful.
Don’t linger too long though, Utah has a lot more to offer. A visit to Salt Lake City offers cosmopolitan comforts. A busy, bustling downtown, it sets itself apart from other metros with a concentrated area of shopping, dining and historic attractions. The world’s largest dinosaur bone exhibit? Salt Lake City. It’s easy to navigate and one of the prettiest downtowns I’ve visited. In the winter, Temple Square is home to a million Christmas lights and in the summer, it’s an urban garden with endless flowers in bloom.
Utah is a big state and it holds a lot of other big attractions. Down in southern Utah you can visit the “Mighty Five”, Arches, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Bryce and Zion National Parks. The National Park experience is enhanced by the rich cultures of the Navajo and Ute tribes. In Canyonlands, you can view 9000-year-old cave artwork.
Utah is known as the Beehive State. Everyone is as busy as bees. After the work week is done, seemingly every Utahan heads out for adventure. They take campers into the wild. They weekend in Park City. They raft, bike, hike, fish, zip-line, spelunk, shop, eat green Jell-O, hunt for more wives and sneak around the Zion Curtain. Whether you are a fan of the great outdoors or more of a café-culture aficionado, in a state with so much to see and experience, when you visit Utah you’ll be buzzing around too.
We're going places and so are our clients.