On La Habana

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Note: There is a lot in this post. The more you read, the more images you see, and the more links you follow, the more you will learn. Then again, I understand time is a limitation. Enjoy however you can. 

 

We Baby Boomers remember images of a fun-loving Havana from the 1950s movies. We also remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. Given the latter and the almost 60-year trade and travel embargo, I never imagined visiting Havana, Cuba.

 

While approaching the city, I was anxious with anticipation. The thought of a time gone by with a sea of vintage American cars. A place caught in a time warp. A place of disrepair from years of neglect. A place with unhappy people from years of suppression and poverty.

 

Pulling into the cruise terminal, I was struck by the two adjacent terminals appearing as weathered, empty shells of what they once were.

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I expected vintage cars dominating the roads. Yes, they are present – but most serve as taxis and tour vehicles, which are primarily visible when cruise ships are in port. Yes – old cars (clunkers) are present – but I see them at home. Yet in Havana, I also saw newer cars and vans. After all, do you think the European and Asian automakers are going to stay away just because the US automakers did?

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For our brief stay (10 AM – 5 PM), we spent most of our time on a walking tour of La Habana Vieja – Old Havana.

 

Old Havana allows visitors to engage with colonial Spain. Its narrow streets (many are closed to traffic), pleasant plazas, grand architecture, and an array of colors transports visitors into the past. Shops, vendors, music, and places of work allow visitors to engage with today’s Havana.

Old Havana’s colonial architecture is grand and serves as a sign of its prosperous past. The buildings drew me to Havana’s heart. After all, I love “old city” sectors – especially in Europe – and Old Havana has an Old World feel. Although worn buildings serve as a reminder of the past 60 years, renovations and fresh coats of paint delivered a sense of hope for the city and its people.

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We went into one pharmacy that I would not have known what it was if it wasn’t for the guide.

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Travelling in Florence, Italy about five years ago taught me something very important that has stayed with me when I travel – Look Up! Because people’s eyes tend to focus on eye level, especially looking into store windows, many never see the fabulous sights found above. If you ever visit Havana, look up!

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Havana does have a combination of oddities and time warp.

  • US Credit Cards and ATM cards are not accepted!!!

    Look around for the oddity in this image

  • Visitors cannot receive Cuban Currency in advance!

Tourists have a different currency than the locals. I have no idea how that is managed within its society! CUPs (Cuban Pesos) are for the locals. It’s bills have images of people on them. CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos), for the tourists, are obtained just outside the port of entry for a modest 15% exchange rate. CUC bills display images of monuments – so when receiving change after a payment, I always checked the bills because the two currencies are not equal.

Travellers may convert CUCs for currencies when leaving for another 15%. Because I don’t believe British Pound Sterling, Euros, and Canadian Dollars have as steep of an exchange fee – if at all! We came home with a 10 CUCs that we planned to give to a friend who is visiting Cuba in November. A win-win would be to sell them to her for $10 – but what the heck! However, President Trump’s latest travel restrictions changed her cruise itinerary, so she’s not going.

Cubans are economically poor. I could see it in some neighborhoods seen from the ship. Wages are low for most jobs. However, Cuban culture is rich and the people show their pride in their dress, music, food, services, and interactions. I saw and encountered a lot of kindness.

I also noticed that Cubans embrace their past, deal with the present, and are hopeful for their future.

Not only was Havana better than I expected, the sights, sounds, and people collectively worked in sync to captured my heart – so yes – I would be willing to return – well, if the travel door reopens.

I wonder what lies ahead for the nation and its people. Time will tell. For now, it seems capitalism is slowly working into society. Its Communist Party still runs the country, and I didn’t not see signs of that changing.

As the ship departed the port, I again look at those two weathered, gutted terminals – but this time I smiled because I was thinking that they are now being renovated in order to increase the number of spots for cruise ships from 2 to 6 – therefore a sense Cuba is ready to embrace the world – maybe even the US. On the other hand, the current administration wants to keep us distant. Would you want to miss sights like this?

 

Enjoy this 3-minute video of Old Havana by National Geographic

 

We recently saw Cuba, a new IMAX film, during a visit our museum center. The trailer is below.

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On Oceania Regatta

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In April 2019, we cruised from San Diego, California to Miami, Florida through the Panama Canal. The purpose of this post is not to report on the stops, but to review the cruise line and the ship.

This was our first time on Oceania Cruises. We primarily selected it because of the itinerary; plus, several friends raved about Oceania – so we decided to “step up” on this cruise.

 

Oceania is not a luxury, all-inclusive cruise line as Regency, Crystal, Silversea, Seaborne and others – but it is a higher standard/level and more expensive than our previous experiences on Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, and Princess. Then again, every cruise line has their niche and identity – that’s good business!

Oceania uses smaller ships. Our ship, Regatta, is about 600 ft (180 m) long with a customer capacity of nearly 700. The capacity of their larger ships is only 1200, where as the majority of Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, and Princess ships are 2000-3000, plus Royal has several mega ships capable of carrying over 5000 vacationers. It is important to remember ports with smaller harbors are more accessible to cruise lines with smaller ships (like Oceania).

 

Oceania markets itself as a cruise with a casual country club atmosphere. Although no formal nights, they want customers to dress casually nice in certain areas. The overall quality of food was better than previous cruises. Regatta also offers two specialty restaurants, and the price includes a meal in each. The larger Oceania ships have additional specialty restaurants.

Not only did we enjoy Oceania’s policy of no set time for dining or assigned seating, we were always willing to share our table with others. This also allowed us to meet many interesting and nice people.

This dessert looked like a hamburger with relish – but moose with fruit and more. Tasty! Here’s the menu description: “Chocolate Mousse Burger on Almond Bun Topped with a Layer of Apricot Jelly”

 

Entertainment was on-par with the other cruise lines, but with less lavish productions. Instead of a larger theater, entertainment was in a large lounge that provided an intimate, cabernet atmosphere. For cruise days (which this itinerary had many), Oceania offered very good enrichment lectures. Between the two of us, we attended most of them.

Staff is predictably friendly, and there wasn’t a push to buy drinks, services, and merchandise as on the other cruise lines. We didn’t even see a ship photographer! Coffee, tea, soft drinks, and bottled water are inclusive, which is a nice touch that isn’t always the case. Servers would graciously serve passengers those drinks. Plus, soft drinks and water are also in the cabin.

Complimentary wireless is a nice feature, but with the following twist: only one person per cabin at a time. My wife and I made it work, although Oceania offers a streaming upgrade.

On the downside, although cruise ships are not known for spacious cabins, Regatta’s cabins seemed smaller than normal. News about the ship’s upcoming renovation mentioned an additional shower door, which caused me to wonder “where’s the space” in an already small shower. However, Oceania cabins are known for having a plush mattress – oh yes!

The majority of the passengers are retired – including many in the upper 70s and into their 80s. Therefore, others must exercise an extra level of patience in dealing with slowness, standing, and waiting.

Atypical for us, we took our share of cruise excursions/tours, which are very much “hurry up and wait” operations in the cruise industry. We relied on the ship excursions because of our safety concerns in a region known for safety concerns. On the plus side, Oceania gives a 25% discount when booking 4 or more tours. Then again, we encountered several avoidable issues and heard of several others.

The Bottom Line

Would I consider Oceania in the future? Yes. Would they will be my first choice? No. Destinations and itinerary are the prime factors in our cruise selection – not the cruise line. Relative price would also be a factor. However, in my opinion, what we got did not justifies the extra price.

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On Our Spring 2019 Cruise Itinerary

 

Especially for my wife, travelling through the Panama Canal is the key reason we took this cruise. Especially since taking the cruise, there is no question – the Panama Canal is an engineering marvel.

A few months before the trip, my wife read Path Between the Seas (David McCullough) – a book that many feel is the most comprehensive and accurate about the canal’s construction. I know she highly recommends this book and would encourage others to read it before cruising the canal.

The second reason for our selection of this cruise was Cuba – that land Americans were forbidden to visit for many years – a land that Europeans, Asians, and Canadians would visit. Cuba – a land serving as another issue dividing Americans based on their political party. Because Havana was my favorite stop, I will definitely have a post featuring Old Havana. (Note: Visiting Cuba requires a ($75) visa.

Besides the Panama Canal and Cuba, I have never visited Mexico or any other country in Central America. (My wife had been to Mexico.) An added bonus was that friends of ours in Cincinnati also have a home in Guatemala, and this was a chance to visit them there (which we did not know at the time we booked the trip).

Because our travel history has focused on North America and Europe, we knew Central America would provide a different experience – which it did! Several quick notes:

  • People are very friendly and appreciative of our visits
  • Poverty is obvious
  • People are very proud of their culture
  • Pursuing tourists for sales can be relentless

For those wanting to cruise the Panama Canal in the future, your itinerary will most likely include ports you hadn’t imagined – which is OK! Besides, cruising the Panama Canal is very interesting. Keep in mind that some cruises advertise the Panama Canal, but don’t actually sail through it. They may actually port on one side, then provide excursions into the canal zone. We discovered that the rainy season is May through November. Amazingly for us, the first half of April only provide a few specs that would be cleared from a windshield with one swipe.

Bottom Line: If you want to cruise the Panama Canal, go!

On the Final Tidbits from Eastern Europe

For the final post in this series, here’s a potpourri of images.

Look closely for the street performer.

 

Trdelniks are abundant in Prague. These hollow, toasted pastries can be lined with various creams, filled with fruits and whipped cream, and even stuffed with mac n cheese.

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Do you remember Fred and Ginger?

 

Nothing like a collection of torture devices to get one’s attention

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I recall many readers enjoyed the Ljubljana Dragon.

 

One never knows what one can see in the windows …

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…. or out a hotel window in Krakow …

 

…. even through the front window of the bus.

 

This is the last of the series about our travels to Eastern Europe with a Rick Steves tour. Not only was the tour company outstanding, this region of the world is definitely worth the visit. For more about this trip, click here for a collection of all the posts. Below the tour map is a beautiful song that is special to the Czech people.

 

On Tidbits from Stramberk

The over 5-hour drive from Prague to Krakow is through the rolling plains of the Czech Republic. For lunch, our guide took us off the main highway and into the Carpathian foothills of the Moravian-Silesia region bordering Poland and Slovakia.

Arriving in the quaint town square of Stramberk, I wondered about the availability of restaurants because I didn’t see any people. It turns out that our group of 28 ate in 3 or 4 different places.

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After lunch, my wife and I explored the small town by walking up to the castle above the town. One of the unexpected surprises we encountered were the beautiful old homes.

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Stramberk Castle (also called “Trúba”) sits above the town, and easily reachable by foot. The castle was closed, but the views of the town and the surrounding valley were beautiful.

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Stramberk Ears are an acclaimed snack of the town – and the comes from a 13th century attack by the Tatars that you can read about here and/or here. These soft gingerbread cones are exclusively produced in Stramberk – and are an EU registered trademark. Made from the right proportion of flour, honey, sugar, star anise, clove, cinnamon, and more, they are soft like bread (not hard as a cookies). https://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/the-bloody-story-of-the-stramberk-ears
http://www.discovermoravia.com/our_man_in_moravia/places-of-interest/places-of-interest-in-north-moravia/stramberk/

Some fill them with whipped cream, others add a variety of toppings to them, and others eat them plain. My packaged served as a snack on the bus over several days. Yum.

 

Stramberk was a pleasant surprise for a 2-3 hour respite. Lunch was good and we enjoyed walking around. The 2+ minute video below is from a drone. Enjoy!

On Tidbits of Stained Glass

When travelling, we enjoy going into churches – especially in Europe! The history, the design, the grandness, the paintings, the organ, and yes – the stained glass. This collection is from various churches in Prague, Krakow, and Budapest.

My favorites? There are two, but which are your favorites?

 

Stained Glass of St. Vitas, Prague

God the Father, Church of St. Francis of Assisi, Krakow

On Venice 2018

 

After our days in Trieste, we took a train to Venice, actually our departing airport. Because we’ve been to this beautiful city before (but I hadn’t posted about it), our one-night stay would be in Mestre – the mainland side of the city. Besides, the airport is on the mainland and Mestre hotels are much cheaper.

As the train was approaching the train station (Venezia Mestre), I noticed our hotel is directly across the street. Then I learn that a train goes to the islands (Venezia Santa Lucia Station) every 10 minutes for 2 euros. Plus, the airport shuttle is a very short walk from our hotel (Best Western Plus Hotel Bologna). Cheaper, close to rail and the airport bus are all good things!

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With the weather being wonderful, we had to go to Venice to just wander. Part of the fun of this glorious setting is trying to get lost – because you can’t! The historical city is wonderful – after all, Venice is Venice.

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Our trip has ended, and what a trip it was. All the stops in the Rick Steves’ Eastern Europe tour were worthwhile and memorable. Then add-on stops to my birthplace and a touch of Venice was like extra ice cream and toppings on an already magnificent sundae.

 

Picking our favorite stop is not an easy task because the locations were so different. The three major cities were different from each other, then toss in the extremes of a natural wonder of a Plitvice (a Croatian National Park) to the horrors of Auschwitz, and a relaxing seaside locate as Rovinj, it was quite the tour.

Three important references for readers.

  1. I will probably do more posts about this trip with some tidbits. Time will tell.
  2. I didn’t realize that I posted very little about our Italy-Croatia cruise of how knows how many years ago. Maybe I’ll go back in time. Thoughts?
  3. Click here for all the posts about this tour.
  4. Although it’s also in the previous collection, click here for my review of Rick Steves’ Europe tours.

To see more of the island wonderland known as Venice, watch the 2+-minute video below. Thanks for coming along for my journey.