My AtoZ 2015 Theme Reveal

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It’s that time of the year, where I participate in the AtoZ blogging challenge.  First, what is the challenge?  During the month of April, bloggers participate in a challenge to write a blog based on the letter of the day — one post on Monday through Saturday. Last year was my first year and I didn’t really have an overall theme — just highlights on some of my favourite travelling adventures.

This year will be a little more focused. It is still about travel, and over the past twelve months, I’ve had some amazing adventures — a trip to the British Isles with my mom, a trip to the Canadian Maritimes with my friend Marshall, and I just got back from a trip to Cuba.  So, which one will I focus on for this year?

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Join me on another adventure to Cuba for the 2015 AtoZ Challenge!

My Last Days in Cuba

All good things must come to an end – but in this case, the Cuba Cruise has one more day of relaxation in the form of a semi-private beach on the Isle of Youth. The Isle of Youth, or Isla de la Juventud is a sparsely populated island that is home to some of the best scuba diving sites in Cuba. For us, it was the access to Punta Francis and its long beach of white sand.

Punta Francis, Cuba

The ship anchored and tender boats ferried people across to the island for a nice, peaceful retreat. The water is clear blue and there are rum drinks. What more could you want? Back on board the ship, staff setup a barbecue by the pool and we had a perfect day in this bit of paradise.

As the day wore on, there was entertainment all around the ship and the main lounge show was a highlight. As the evening drew to a close and luggage placed outside the stateroom doors for pick-up, I knew I was going to miss the many people who made this such a great experience.

The sail into Havana is a great photo opportunity – especially since you should be able to see the sunrise over the city. It was almost like sailing into Valletta, Malta, the way the Morro Fortress guards the entrance – stunningly beautiful.

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After breakfast, I said a special good-bye to my stateroom stewardess and found a place to sit and read until we got the notice we could disembark the ship. Again, there are protocols to follow.  In this case, for those of us disembarking, our luggage had to be off the ship, scanned twice and sniffed by dogs. Then, we could leave, have our temperatures taken one last time, show our passports and another customs form before collecting our luggage.

The transfer to the airport was easy.  Next to where the luggage, all transfer agents hold signs so you can check-in and get information on how you are getting to the airport – or transfer to other locations. Pretty easy.

Our bus driver liked me because my luggage was small and light. We headed out of Havana to the Varadero Airport, with a brief stop for a bathroom and smoke break, arriving at the airport right at 1:00.

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Check-in was easy – show your passport and they find your information and print a boarding pass. The next stop is to pay the airport tax of $25 CUC (and don’t forget this step – if you do, you will have to go back and then stand in the immigration line again). Next is the immigration line – one person at a time where they take the immigration form, your picture and you then are on your way to the next line – scanning! Finally, you are through all the lines and can head to your gate.

There are duty-free shops, just in case you forgot to pick-up your bottle of Havana Club rum or a few cigars. I was drinking a coffee when they announced the boarding call for my plane. We were loaded on the plane and set to leave thirty minutes ahead of schedule. I guess, once everyone has checked in, the plane can take-off.

We arrived thirty minutes early to Toronto, so of course, there was no gate for us and we had to wait. At least it was warm on the plane – it was not warm in Toronto. I was home and now I have more stories to tell of my time in Cuba.

I’m already planning my next trip — I love Cuba!

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Cienfuegos and Trinidad, Cuba

After our brief stop in Jamaica, the Cuba Cruise headed back to Cuba, docking at Cienfuegos. Because we were re-entering Cuba, we had to go through the full immigration procedure again. This included a new immigration and customs landing form. Before the ship docked, several immigration and medical staff loaded the ship and all of us entered into the Muses Lounge to have our temperature checked and immigration forms reviewed. Everyone on the ship had to go through this procedure before anyone could disembark form the ship.  It did not take long – except for one missing person that they finally found – and I headed for the next adventure.

Waiting for us were three women dressed in traditional Yorban-Orisha costumes and drummers. Then, we had the scanning procedure before handing over our custom forms. One of the customs dogs took a liking to me – I was not sure if I should be nervous or pleased to interact with such a friendly dog.  I opted for the latter and had a nice conversation with the dog’s handler.

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Then, I headed to a bus for my next tour. The nice thing about Cienfuegos is that you really do not need a tour if you just want to hang out in the town.  It is an easy walk from the ship and has a nice plaza area and beautiful French colonial buildings.  I, however, wanted to see the town of Trinidad.

We drove through the town of Cienfuegos, and learned that their baseball team was the Elephants – there was a huge elephant statue next to the stadium. We drove past the medical centre area and a cemetery before heading into the countryside. The drive to Trinidad takes about ninety minutes, and you see several types of terrain, from fields to mountains to the sea.

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For some reason, I felt this could be my home. I felt such a deep connection that was a bit overwhelming. Part of the drive reminded me of driving along Pacific Coast Highway between Monterey and Half Moon Bay – one of my all-time favorite drives.

This is also the time that all of my camera batteries died – two before I left the ship and one halfway through the journey. However, I did manage to take a few pictures along the way and once we got into Trinidad.

Our first stop on Trinidad was as a beautiful, but run-down plaza. On one side was a former Spanish prison, turned into a restaurant where we had lunch and listened to Cuban music. On the other side, stood a church partially destroyed by a hurricane. I was amazed that the bell tower complete with bells, was still standing.

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Our next stop was at a private pottery business run out of a family home.  The Santander family started this pottery business in the 1890s. The business still runs out of the family homes around Trinidad. In 2007, UNESCO recognized the work of this family with a Master Artisan award.

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We entered the back of the family house into a pottery showroom, complete with a dog asleep near a counter and a parrot in a cage. An elderly man walked up a pottery wheel, and demonstrated how they make the pottery cups that you will find in bars all over Trinidad. I picked up a small bowl, asked how much and told $2 pesos. I should have bought more but I did not know how much would fit in my luggage! They have a wall of pictures that show many of the famous people who visited the shop. Here is a YouTube video that tells more of the story of this pottery business.

After this, we made our way to Plaza Mayor with its stunning architecture. Like most of the plazas, there is a church. This one is the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad. Next to the church is a flight of stairs that lead to the Casa de la Musica.

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To the left of the church is the Palacio Brunet built in 1812. It now houses the Romantic Museum and displays furniture and other objects that used by the Brunet and other wealthy families of this era. The kitchen has the original painted tiles. It is a step back in time and the collection is lovely.

Our next stop was for rum, of course.  This time it is in the form of the “original” rum drink, canchanchara. It is a mixture of rum, lemon and honey and served in the little cups made by the Santander pottery business. Because the day was hot, they served it cold and you had to stir the honey to mix the drink. I think this was my favorite of all the rum drinks I had in Cuba (or maybe I just liked stirring the honey into the rum)!

I wandered a bit on the cobbled stone streets of Trinidad, enjoying the energy and the beauty of the town centre before we headed back to Cienfuegos.

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The last “stop” was made was a quick tour around the main plaza in Cienfuegos. While Trinidad is vibrant yellows and bright blues, Cienfuegos is pale blue, pink and white. It was nice to see the difference between the two before heading back to my home on the ship.

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Montego Bay Jamaica

After a couple of hectic days in Cuba, our ship sailed to Jamaica.  This is a port where some people embark and some disembark. For the rest of us, we change gears from needing a passport and Cuba dollars to just using our seapass and US dollars.

The port at Montego Bay is nice and has a large duty-free area for shopping, but it is a bit of a distance to any beaches or the main Montego Bay “drag.” There are shuttle buses that will take you into town.  I opted for another adventure – a transfer to the beaches at Negril, Jamaica.

It is about an hour or so drive to Negril, but it is interesting and has great scenery. Our first stop was Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.  This of one in a chain of restaurant/bar/beach destinations, so I wasn’t expecting a lot – I just wanted a nice place to sit on the beach for a bit and just do … nothing. And, for that it is good. The staff greeted us with a rum punch and we headed to beach chairs. The day was a bit overcast and the sea was rough, but when you are on vacation and it is -30o C at home in Toronto, what are a few clouds and high tides? I found a chair and one of the staff brought me a little table – and everything was perfect!

Eventually, I did order a margarita – I had to try one at least – and an order of nachos.  As you can see, the nachos were HUGE.

Nachos at Margaritaville
Nachos and a margarita at Margaritaville

Several people walked by trying to sell various things and services, including massages and hair braiding. Really, all I wanted to do was sit on a beach – it has been a long time since I have done that!

Just as the sun was starting to come out, we headed for Rick’s Café, supposedly one of the top ten bards in the world. Whatever… It is nice, the views were great but no one was cliff diving that day.

We eventually headed back to the ship, thus ending a lazy day at the beach.

That night, on the cruise, we had a bit of rough seas – enough that you could feel the ship rocking and it was a challenge to walk. The entertainment crew even had to forgo they normal show for a modified version because of safety concerns for the dancers. Still, they did put on a great show. The talent in the group is very deep with singers who can do just about any genre – from opera to classic rock.

And that was my day … nice and relaxing

Sailing into Santiago de Cuba

Sailing into Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba, was breathtaking. Santiago rests in the heart of a picturesque bay protected by the Morro Fortress. The ship docks at the foot of the city, which rises up before you with colourful buildings.  This is a city filled with energy and life – traffic and people. Called the City of Heroes, Santiago remembers its sons and revolutionaries. This is where the revolution began.

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Before revolution, pirates attacked the city until the Spanish built the Morro Fortress. It was the first capitol of Cuba, until it moved to Havana. It is the home of Cuban music, dancing and produces the best rum. Its streets are chaotic and people can be “very friendly.” Welcome to Santiago!

Before we could enter Santiago, we had to go through an immigration checkpoint and get our temperatures taken (again). The difference this time is that we had to turn in our immigration forms and get a temporary pass because we would be leaving Cuba when we sailed away from this port. Sounds a bit confusing, but just follow the instructions.

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My first stop was at the Morro Fortress.  This impressive fort provides amazing views of the harbour and the city of Santiago. Inside the fort is a complete history of its construction and lists of various pirates who made life in early Santiago challenging. Most of the information is Spanish, but you will recognize a few names, including Henry Morgan. Walking around the fort can be a bit tricky – the cobblestones can be slippery and it can be very windy. However, the views are worth it. Note that to take pictures in the fort; you will have to pay $5 CUC.

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There is also a nice restaurant next to the fort – and it is always time for a mojito! There are also a number of private craft vendors along the road to the fort.  I bargained for a hat and there were lots of woodcarvings and other items for sale.

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Santiago has a number of beautifully restored colonial houses, many of which are now schools.

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It also has monuments to many heroes. One of which is a monument to Che Guevara and the men who were killed with him in Bolivia.

Che Memorial

The largest monument to a Cuban hero is in the cemetery – the tomb of Jose Marti. Every thirty minutes, there is the changing of the guard ceremony. The tomb is impressive – and setup in such a way to honour his wishes, as expressed in this poem:

I wish to leave the world
By its natural door:
In my tomb of green leaves
They are to carry me to die.
Do not put me in the dark
To die like a traitor.
I am good and like a good thing
I will die with my face to the sun.

This is a monument to him – a tower that is open at the side and the top is stained glass that reflects the sun that shines on the wooden casket draped with a Cuban flag. Every morning, they place white roses at the casket. It is a beautiful memorial.

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The cemetery has a number of other notables, including the Bacardi Family, several sections for revolutionary fighters, and a section for Cubans who aided in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Like the fort, you will have to pay to take photos — $5 CUC seems to be the going rate.

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The main plaza in Santiago is similar to other plazas throughout Cuba. At the heart is the main church, and the open area is surrounded by other colonial buildings.  This one had building from different eras in Santiago’s history, including one that is the oldest building in Santiago.

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Overall, Santiago is a beautiful city, but it can be chaotic for a first-time visitor. Streets are crowded and there are few, if any pedestrian-only areas. In the main plaza area, I found some of the people more aggressive in requesting things from you. No one asked me for money, but it was more for items such as soap or cosmetics. Even saying no, did not deter them from continuing to ask me to things. This did not happen to me in Havana, so it was surprising.

I only mentioned the highlights of some of the things I did in Santiago – there are many more!

Antilla Cuba and swimming with the dolphins

Antilla, Cuba is a small village on the coast of Cuba. For me, this was going to be an exciting day filled with wonder. I had a very special tour arranged that day, so everyone in tours met in the lounge and got our bus assignments. Then we headed off to load into the tender boats that would carry us to shore.  There is not much at this post – just a place to dock a couple of the tenders. A group of locals who were playing Cuban music and dancing greeted us as we docked in Antilla.

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I just had to find Bus number 13 – seemed 13 was the number of the day.  My cabin on the ship was 3113, our bus was 13 and there were 13 people going on this tour. One of the tours for this stop went to Fidel Castro’s family farm and village, another one went to another family farm, and a third was the Paradise Party day. However, our tour was different – we were going to swim with dolphins!

Antilla is a very small, run-down community.  There is a lot of hurricane damage and little money to fix what things. As we drove through the countryside of Holguin Province, we learned about the different types of farms, including sugar care, bananas, and mangoes, etc. we passed many modes of transport – classic cars and trucks, horse or oxen-drawn carts, bikes, transport trucks, and pretty much anything you could think of to help some get from one place to another.

Restaurant in Antilla, Cuba
Restaurant in Antilla, Cuba

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After about an hour’s drive, we finally made it to the place where we caught a boat to take us to the dolphinarium.  It is a complex built in the middle of the bay on several small islands. It has several different “pools” with a couple dolphins in each one, a restaurant, gift shop, a bar and two areas for different types of shows – a sea lion show and a dolphin show.

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We were offered drinks as we arrived – mine was a rainbow concoction with rum – and I’m not sure what else!

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The first show we saw was the sea lion show. .

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Then we saw a dolphin show.  Everyone was staring to get excited – we really wanted our turns to engage with the dolphins


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Everyone there divided into smaller groups.  Most were putting on life jackets to get into the deeper pools, but my group went to a shallow pool where we did need the life jackets. It was larger than the other pools and felt like its own little island. On the way, we saw a species of crocodile that is native to Cuba. They had professional photographers on hand to take pictures – and our guide took care of our cameras to take pictures for us.  With that, we got into the water with our dolphins and their trainer. There were three dolphins in our pool – two ten-year-old sisters, Brenda and Doris, and a 10-month old baby that we really did not interact with, although she did swim up to me a few times – I think I’m the only one as no one else mentioned any interaction with her. We then interacted with Brenda and Doris.  Each of us got a single kiss, and then we petted and held one of the dolphins. Their skin is like silk – and Doris really like her belly rubbed! Next was the chance for each of us to get a kiss from both dolphins at once! All I can say is this was amazing. I seemed to get extra attention from the dolphins – the trainer was having trouble getting them to come to him! There are no words to describe how I felt during this experience – I had a dolphin on either side and the baby swimming around my legs!

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After that, we had a bit of a break.  Some people took the opportunity to try a trick with a dolphin where they would lift you out of the water with their noses, but I decided to just sit and think about what it was like to swim with them – it was a lot to experience. We had lunch – lobster, shrimp and fish with rice, salad and fruit – before sailing off from the dolphinarium.

We then headed to a craft market and beach before heading back to the ship.

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Another perfect day in paradise!

The Cuba Cruise

My home for the rest of my Cuban adventure was on the ship, Louis Cristel, for its Cuba Cruise. I do a lot of cruising, so to combine that with a way to see more of Cuba and not be “stuck” on an all-inclusive resort just fit my travelling needs.  There is nothing wrong with all-inclusive resorts in Cuba — I understand they are fantastic. For my first time in Cuba, I needed to see more. For me, cruising allows me to get a taste of a country and I learn where I really want to spend more time on subsequent visits.  And I definitely want to go back to Cuba!

After my Coco taxi tour of Havana, I returned to the ship for a late lunch and took the opportunity to get settled into my new home. I talked a little about the ship when I boarded, but here is some more information. I had pre-booked some excursions with the ship, so I exchanged my vouches for the actual tickets. I was told that the daily ship newsletter would let me know when and where to meet up for each of the tours. My first four was that night — a trip to Havana’s famed Tropicana. We met at 8:15 at the Muses Lounge, which is where the production shows all take place. Since this was the only tour scheduled, I figured it would be pretty easy to organize, and it was. We were loaded into two buses and headed to the Tropicana where we were treated with champagne, then our own bottles of Havana Club rum and cola.  Of course, there was an incredible show! Great music, drumming dancing and over-the-top costumes.

Our next day on the ship was the only sea day scheduled on this cruise. A nice, lazy day with the only formal dinner. After the sea day, we would be making stops in Antilla, in the Holguin province (try finding it on a map!), Santiago de Cuba, then a quick trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica (where the ship picks up other passengers), then back to Cuba for a stop in Cienfeugos/Trinidad, then a beach day at Punta Frances on the Isle of Youth before heading back to Havana.

So, why go on the Cuba Cruise?

  1. See more of Cuba!
  2. Great excursions and easy organization.  If you have ever taken an excursion on other ships, there is this whole process of checking on, getting a bus assignment, and generally being herded. Maybe because the ship is smaller, it felt so much easier and I liked the process so much better. You meet at the assigned meeting place. Your tour is called along with a list of bus numbers assigned to the tour. You go to the debarkation area, where Cuban medical personnel check your temperature, then out to one of the buses for your tour. With the exception of the Tropicana show, none of the groups I was with were over 25 people.
  3. Incredible shows — the entertainment on this cruise is comparable — or better — to what I have seen on other cruises. Most of the in-house entertainers on other ships do 3-4 production shows per cruise, depending on the length of the cruise and fill-in with other professional entertainers.  On this cruise, every night,for seven nights.  the in-house entertainers did a production show with a mix a variety of live music, dance and acrobatics — and great performances.  These are not-to-be-missed!
  4. Great ports of call! Antilla is a small village — you will be amazed by the tiny dock!, Santiago is filled with interesting architecture and unique sights — and the energy is very different from Havana. Cienfeugos is easy to explore from the ship on your own, but outside the city are beautiful natural wonders. There is also a tour that goes to Trinidad. The drive is about 90 minutes one-way, but the scenery will surprise you (I thought I was in California for a few moments) and Trinidad is a very special place. Punta Francis is a glorious white-sand beach that will make you feel that you are the first person to step foot on it.
  5. The staff is amazing.  I cannot say enough of how wonderful they all were.  From the cook who created made-to-order omelets, to the incredibly talented waitstaff (wait until you hear Ronny sing!) to cabin staff. Everyone did their best to ensure you had the time of your life.  For me, this ranks as one of my top two cruises of all time!
  6. The spa was a nice treat! I loved my massage and facial — really helped with my bad knee.
  7. Cuban dance and zumba lessons!
  8. Did I mention great musicians?
  9. Then, there is just the incredible Cuban people that you meet along the way.

Cuba is beautiful, warm, inviting and the Cuba Cruise is a great way to see it.

So, after a relaxing sea day, I would be off to see Holguin province and a real treat…

Louis Cristal