sailing with celestyal

Sailing on Crystal with Celestyal Cruises is a great way to visit Cuba, especially if you are a U.S. citizen and eager; even more if you’d like to explore beyond Havana. The “Authentic Cuba” program ensures you will meet conditions for U.S. cultural exchange. Celestyal is not the only way or necessarily the best way but it is a relatively easy way to explore the largest Caribbean island and archipelago country.

Most Americans seem surprised to hear that “travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited, and U.S. federal regulations restrict travel to Cuba to licensed travelers engaged in certain specified activities.” I.e. It’s illegal for Americans to beach bum in Cuba!  Who knew Old Uncle Sam imposed barriers? I do know Americans who have struck out on their own and more power to them. If you choose to do so, be sure to educate yourself on criteria for the 12 categories under which U.S. citizens may legally travel. You may (or may not) be called to account for your time in Cuba and if so, it’s easy enough to do if sailing with Celestyal.

There are many upsides to sailing with Celestyal, including ease in obtaining Cuban visa and navigating customs and immigration, documentation to satisfy the U.S. government, simplicity in logistics, consistency in accommodations, the assurance of a culturally-rich experience, and a nice variety of Cuban entertainment, food and drink on board.

Evening shows exceeded our expectations, performed by an entirely Cuban staff (in Spanish). They truly put the “singers and dancers” on the big brands to shame! The itinerary was especially good, circumnavigating Cuba with an overnight in Havana and two additional cities, both of which we enjoyed at least as much as Havana. We truly have few complaints.

Celestyal staff told us that 150 to 200 Americans sail weekly with the Authentic Cuba program; in our case that was about half of the guests on board a ship sailing well under capacity. It was a wonderfully diverse international mix. Although this was a small, old ship, it seldom felt too small because it was undersold.

Most of our disappointments in this trip were attributed to restrictions on U.S. citizens imposed by Uncle Sam. For example, we had very little flexibility on shore — literally, just a few hours in Havana.  In addition to highly structured excursions, there were expectations to participate in educational programming at least once daily on ship. We enjoyed the seminars with Professor Arocha and friends on a wide range of topics —  from history and politics to musicology, cigars and rum. These were supplemented by non-program options such as cooking demonstrations with Cuban chefs or mixology. All were terrific. But always, there was at least one more thing we felt obligated to do every day of vacation.

There was no beach time. This is a tough break on a Caribbean vacation! The Isle of Youth was inexplicably removed from the itinerary months after we booked in exchange for $50 on board credit (each). This was reportedly a Cuban government decision, so I guess Uncle Sam is off that hook.

However, I am sincere when I say this was a good trip and we have few substantive complaints. Still, there are a few things you should know before you go.

1. Celestyal sails with an elderly clientele. The average age when we embarked in Montego Bay seemed to be more than 65 years. We felt like spring chickens! New passengers boarded in Havana a few days later and the average dropped by another 5 years or more. Don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely no problem with a gray-haired sailing. It’s just a different experience than we are used to or had anticipated in this instance. There were only two children on board and no evidence of youth programming or accommodations. In truth, I don’t think the U.S. program would work well with children under 10 or 12 as it is so highly structured and intense.

2. Crystal is an aging ship, well-maintained and clean but still a clunker by modern standards. We knew it would be “old school cruising” going in and were not surprised. It is what it is, recently refurbished to add balcony staterooms. (Quite limited, you  must book early.) Unfortunately, there is only so much you can do with a 1990s deck plan. One pool, very small; one tiny hot tub, poorly placed. Social space and entertainment venues are limited.

Our suite on the bow of the ship was comfortable. It had a massive balcony and ample shade. You could only see the ocean while standing at the railing, the walls were so high! Ours was one of two such suites on the ship. The interior did not feel particularly luxurious. The floor plan was rather odd. But it worked. The private “whirlpool” on the deck was a disappointment, a 1980s throwback jacuzzi tub that we filled ourselves … with from a spigot, water tinted brown. Oh, and just so you know, suite guests receive no perks — beyond a few toiletries. Odd and disappointing.

3. Our sailing offered only one dinner seating (contrary to website info) with identical menus in both dining rooms. The quality of the food was acceptable (because we didn’t cook it or clean up after it) but not remarkable. The menu included Cuban fare yet seemed to target the European market, particularly Germans. Both restaurants had open dining (i.e. random, shared table assignments daily). We were not enthused but managed to land a table for two (a rarity) on our first night. Accommodating staff made this “our table” thereafter, which was hugely appreciated.

4. The staff were friendly and mostly competent (a few exceptions) but not highly service-oriented. Service was spotty in general. None were particularly interested in engaging on a personal level. We always try hard to make personal connections with cruise staff but it was strangely difficult on this trip. Most seemed disinterested, distanced. It seems likely that Celestyal also overstates opportunities to interact with Cuban staff as we had to make extra effort to seek those out and they were few and far between in our encounters — beyond the daily seminars. They said 60 Cuban staff were on board but I’m not sure where.

5. In our experience, cruise companies are eager for opportunities to help you feel celebrated; with Celestyal it seemed just the opposite. Between the missing suite perks and weeklong failure to acknowledge our anniversary, I have to admit we were disappointed with Celeystal. It felt oddly discordant for a celebratory sailing. Our general take-away from the service culture and available amenities was that Celestyal has no interest in building brand loyalty. Not a deal breaker but good to know.

6. Celestyal runs like a mom-and-pop shop, which has its charm when you’re not completely frustrated! The website is clunky and incomplete. We felt unsettled from the beginning about what we were getting into, Cuba travel still being quite novel in the U.S.  Call center staff were only vaguely reassuring. Phone lines often went unanswered, no matter the day or time, as did several emails. Positive Cruise Critic reviews encouraged us to trust it would be okay — and it was. It truly was. Yet I spoke with numerous cruisers, many first-timers, on board who had similar perceptions, discomfort, unease. I really don’t know if I would cruise again if this had been our first experience. Fortunately, it’s a blip on our radar.

I made numerous calls to customer support in the months and weeks leading up to our trip and received so many varied responses that it became almost comical. We packed a pile of supplies for Cuban school children based on shopping lists I found online, assured by Celeystal staff that there were plenty of opportunities to donate locally and Havana would be the easiest. Once on board, however, we learned we would not be allowed to disembark with supplies in any quantity. The guest relations staff were incredulous about our experience before boarding. A Cuban employee was dispatched to distribute on our behalf. A disappointing but a acceptable solution.

7. We returned much less refreshed than typical for spring break. “Authentic Cuba” is an intense experience from beginning to end. Still, I must reinforce, we have no regrets! But as our brains were continually grappling with new information and the juxtaposition of communism in the Caribbean, there was no way around this strain. The tours were long, sometimes too long, and there was not enough free time to wander or explore on our own. Tour groups were generally slow, given the average age on board. It’s an adjustment, no matter where you are coming from.

In the grand scheme, our disappointments and frustrations were truly minor given the itinerary. No regrets! Celestyal’s Cuba cruise was an experience we’re happy to recommend. We returned better educated and interested in returning when U.S. restrictions lift. You’ll find many more reviews on Cruise Critic. Do your homework, adjust your expectations, approach the trip as an adventure and sail safely!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

cienfuegos

Our final port of call was Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South. We entered port Punta Gorda through yet another a long channel opening up into a massive bay. The day was dawning as we approached, too dark to appreciate the small communities and tidy properties scattered along the flat shoreline.

Our itinerary included two projects: Trazos Libres, a neighborhood collective developed by artist Hermes Santiago, and the Graphics Society of Cienfuegos, a group of printmaking artists who work with children with special needs. This was followed by a walking tour of the historical Cienfuegos city center. But first we had to get there.

We boarded our tour bus at the pier in Punta Gorda. Group 5, independents. Saralie was easily our favorite tour guide of the week. She was warm, friendly, and spoke flawless English, providing just the right amount of information at the right time. She was extremely patient with a group that only seemed to slow by the day.

Our bus made a brief stop at Jagua Hotel in Punta Gorda before getting down to city business. This stop must have been a bid for return visitors. Several group members inquired about the rate and seemed hooked, so in that sense it was a success. Indeed, the Jagua seemed lovely at first glance — but buyer beware.

Adjacent to the hotel is a much more interesting property, unfortunately now closed. Saralie recounted how many years ago, an entrepreneurial housekeeper there opened the restrooms for public use. She collected fees and constructed a small restaurant across the street. Her food was so good that Fidel went out of his way to eat there on his triumphal cross-country tour, post-Revolution, headed to Havana. Yet another irony…

Our first stop was at Trazos Libres. The entire street was transformed to a stage and the whole neighborhood seemed to have turned out for the occasion of our visit. We were greeted by artists in character as the band played and small girls danced and a grandmother kept close watch. This gift of sunflower and smile made my day.

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The neighborhood was beautiful and warm and welcoming. I just couldn’t stop smiling; I loved this place! I met the artist, Hermes Santiago, and brought home some pottery for my friend, Ana, who was born in Cuba. I interacted briefly with a mama holding a beautiful brown baby; neither of us spoke the other’s language but I knew she understood.

Our next stop was the Graphics Society of Cienfuegos. This is a collective that specializes in various types of printmaking. Their are a number of artists in residence. On any given day, they are working with local children with special needs. I was especially impressed with the many modifications Cubans have made to create art with readily available supplies. For example, sone etch on X-ray film!

The walking tour was pleasant enough if not remarkable. We passed several private restaurants and others clearly state-run. We knew that Cuban media is completely controlled by the government and were interested to pass a newspaper office along the way. We passed by a store that sold imported goods on the CUC (convertible peso) market and another that sold only Cuban-produced goods for CUPs (local pesos; green awning in photo below). Cubans and foreigners can shop in either location with requisite currency but I must admit that neither seemed compelling on a quick scan of display windows. Our tour guide noted that Cubans shop at the local store to make ends meet. For example, a bar of local soap sells at a small small fraction of imported soap.  Cienfuegos was clean and tidy, as every Cuban city we’ve visited has been, despite the occasional rubble.

Our walking tour concluded in the historic city center which was lovely. Public buildings included the Teatro Tomas Terry opera house. As typical in Cuba, we could have paid 5 CUCs for the privilege to take photos inside but we did not. The interior was original, from rows of hard wooden seats to hand-carved Cuban hardwoods and Italian Carrara marble. Saralie noted noted that all big acts touring Cuba play here, even though this is a small venue and Cienfuegos is out of the way. Local Cubans can attend for a nominal fee: power to the people!

We had some time to shop the large craft market and local stores, purchasing coffee and Santiago de Cuba brand rum, a few straw hats, and some small leather purses for the grandgirls. We wished for more time on our own; alas, Group 5 was waiting to return to the pier at Punta Gorda. I had one last opportunity at the pier to spend out my Cuban CUCs. I was pleased to find a set of wooden dominos in a handsome box. We brought home just a few coins and a single paper peso for posterity.

We had great views through our departure sailing of all that we had missed in the dim light of dawn. A few locals here and there waved farewell. As we neared open sea, a large colorful structure came into view. It was impossible to discern its purpose. University? Hospital? Research? Through online maps I determined it to be the Islazul Hotel Pasacaballo, remote but conveniently located for diving. Again I say, buyer beware!

We thoroughly enjoyed Cienfuegos and could have spent a lot more time there. When we return, it will be on the short list!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

 

costumes, cathedrals, and old cars

Throughout our tour of Cuba, the U.S. government-approved program required participation in prearranged tours. We’ve no complaints; we understood the deal going in. However, it was important and refreshing to have some free time, too. We only wished there were more of it!

We had flexibility to explore on our own only in Havana. On Monday, we wandered around Old Havana and enjoyed a lovely lunch at la Moneda Cabana. On Monday evening, we enjoyed the Tropicana Cabaret. On Tuesday afternoon we enjoyed another meander around the old city, some shopping, and an old car tour. Each brief experience further endeared this place and these people.

Initially, I’d wavered on purchasing tickets to the Tropicana. The show didn’t start until quite late. It was yet another bus ride. We were running low on energy reserves. But the Hubs urged me on, “You’ll regret it.” He knows me so well. He was right. It was worth it!

This world-renown celebration of Cuban culture did not disappoint. Elaborate costuming, intricate choreography, powerful vocals and Cuban rhythms in a lush tropical venue under the palms and the stars. In a word, fantastic. Loud and proud seventy-five years in the running, this cabaret knows its business. It was conducted completely in Spanish. We hardly noticed.

Our tickets came with prime seating and beverages — much more than we would care to consume. We gifted excess Havana Club Special to a couple of Russian tourists at an adjacent table. They were very appreciative, their rudimentary English much better than my (non-existant) Russian! It was cool to make another international connection.

We were fortunate the weather cleared enough after Tuesday’s programmed tour for an old car excursion late that afternoon. Initially, we’d booked this tour through the ship. It was relatively expensive and, as it turned out, completely unnecessary. Old cars tours are widely available in Havana for 40-50 CUCs per hour. We were relieved the ship canceled our tour and refunded our money due to lack of interest in their extended version. We negotiated independently on the fly for less than one-quarter of the cruise ship price. Granted, it was a shorter but still quite sufficient.

There is no shortage of old cars but we took our time selecting both car and driver. The Hubs was determined for a convertible and we hoped to find a driver who spoke English. Most drivers use a predictable route unless you request otherwise. We didn’t mind as this was an entirely different vantage point from the open back seat of a 1954 Dodge.

The car was in great shape — inside and out — and original except the battery, he claimed. We had no reason to doubt him. Glossy vinyl upholstery in cream with contrast trim was meticulously maintained, covered with clear plastic protector. It was clearly an old car; every time we cleared a corner, the driver’s door swung opened. He nonchalantly reached out to haul it back in as he hand-signaled the turns. There was the distinct smell of exhaust trailing our progress around and about the city. It was never clear if this was from our vehicle or the many others we encountered emanating black smoke. Probably both.

Our driver welcomed questions and supplied frank responses, his perspectives notably different from state-employed guides we’d encountered on programmed excursions. Yes, Cubans are free to travel. But who can afford to? Yes, Cubans receive monthly rations and government paycheck, free childcare, education and healthcare. But it is not nearly enough to live well or thrive. Yes, Cubans may be approved to pursue private enterprise. But taxes and licenses are formidable hurdles.

His wife is a doctor; he is a private businessmen. He is also an expert mechanic, required to keep his car running. (Cubans are the best mechanics, we heard time and again.) They struggle with two children and aging parents. His father worked forty years for the state and receives a measly pension, half the meager current wage.

I asked about leisure activities; for example, how would he spend a day off with his family, just for fun? He seemed confused by the concept of fun, or day off, perhaps both. Did they go to the beach? Perhaps picnic? He hesitated. “It’s expensive.” I was reminded of the privilege of leisure, lost on much of the world.

He supplied ample commentary on the sights we passed. One building he pointed out was an incredibly ugly Russian concrete housing structure with twin towers rising 17 stories. His uncle lived there, he noted. No elevators, by design. Yikes.

One of the most interesting components to our conversation was religion. We drove past the cathedral from which Pope Francis celebrated mass just a few months prior. An enlarged image of the leader of the faith still adorns one side of the structure. It struck me as odd and hopeful at the same time. Nearly every image we saw in public was of a limited selection of national heroes; a few of artists and many of revolutionaries. On the Venezuelan embassy we saw a large poster Hugo Chávez. Comadante, the sign read.

Pope Francis spent several days in Cuba and gave personal audience to Fidel Castro — or vice versa? I’m not sure. Oh, to be a fly on the wall. How powerful to hear the Pope proclaim the gospel to the multitude at Revolution Square, if also an ironic setting.

Our cabbie confirmed that Cubans enjoy freedom of religion and remarked that he is among a minority practicing Catholicism (Christianity) in Cuba. We heard several times how, in deference to their masters, slaves made pretense of worshipping the Christian God while using church time to worship African gods. Most Cubans continue with African traditions.

I’d become somewhat familiar with Santería via Celia Cruz series on Netflix  in advance of our trip; one of her contemporaries became deeply involved. We were exposed to several “saints” up close and personal at the African Cultural Center in Santiago de Cuba. These encounters left me feeling unsettled, uneasy. It seemed dark, foreboding,

In our Caribbean experiences, it’s easy to find hand crafted religious artifacts. Despite several market inquiries, I was disappointed not to locate a Cuban Christian cross. I’ve a small hole on my world of crosses wall, waiting for Cuban completion.

~ Renê Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

one day in havana


There is much to love and celebrate about Havana. Granted, we were only there for two days — hardly time to develop an informed opinion. And yet. Havana strikes me as a study in contrasts symbolic of Cuba, at least as much as we experienced in our whirlwind circumnavigation of the archipelago.

On one hand, grand old buildings beautifully restored. On the other, crumbling architecture and abject poverty. Tourists careening around corners in neon-bright old cars; dingy and crowded public transportation. Large plazas and ample social space, often with militaristic theming; crowded and humble personal dwellings. Miles of Malecón, the seawall “sofa of the city” where waves roll and crash; dusty and rusty recreational spaces, sunburned dry and brown where fountains lie empty. Security and safety, night and day; blackouts, isolation, poverty, and conditions ripe for crime in any other country. Government laborers toeing the party line; private entrepreneurs creating a new social class. Those were my first impressions.

We entered port early, the sun rising over military vessels as the moon set over the old city. I’d been up for hours, watching the shoreline appear through the moonlight. To get to the pier we navigated another long channel into a perfectly sheltered harbor (map); Cuba seems particularly blessed that way. Cristo de La Habana greeted us from the hillside opposite the Malecón as we sailed slowly on. San Francisco pier alone of the piers in port was nicely restored; the others in decay, almost ruins.

We became acquainted the best way: an Old Havana historical walking tour. This included visits to several city plazas: San Francisco Square (on the backside of the pier), Saint Francis of Assisi Square, Cathedral Square, Old Square, Arms Square. I must admit I wasn’t paying much attention to the tour guide’s descriptions of these sites, taken up in the sights, sounds and smells of Habana Vieja — a veritable feast!

Most cruisers returned to the ship for lunch but we were determined not to miss a Habana moment. We meandered through a fascinating book sellers market tucked away on a narrow side street. Old books and books in many languages were on display, most were subjects of the Revolucion. I found an English trade copy of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and purchased for 5 CUC. It was published in the U.S., a delightful irony, don’t you think? On our tour guide’s advice we returned to the paladare la Moneda Cubana for a lovely celebration (recounted here).

We returned to the pier in time to join the afternoon tour required by our people-to-people program. We boarded the bus with Group 5, the independents. Every bus used throughout our travels was first-rate coach in like-new condition, which is quite a feat in our Caribbean experiences. The explanation is simple: state-owned transportation.

We spent the next few hours in a panoramic tour which means mostly driving by sites of interest in a scramble to fit them all in. We were weary from miles on our feet in the heat, so it was not a huge disappointment. However, iPhone images snapped from the bus leave something to the imagination. We drove through Central Havana and other neighborhoods less accessible by foot. We had some time on the ground at Revolution Square, the largest of public plazas in the city, blacktop steaming in the midday sun. Here the old car taxis line up for tourists, adding a fun element to an otherwise stark stop.

We drove past the Old Capitol Building under renovation (remarkably similar to the U.S. Capitol), the University of Havana, up and down La Rampa, as our guide pointed out the Yara theater and Copelia ice cream parlor, the former a social icon and hub and the latter renown for affordability and modernist architecture, a la Revolucion. She made a big deal out of the Habana Libre, formerly a Hilton, quickly nationalized after the Revolution.

The Habana Libre was only the first of several “excellent” hotels cited by our tour guide which looked to us like 1950s throwbacks in desperate need of renovation. In fact, there were very few Havana hotels that warranted a second look if we were to consider a longer stay. One exception was the Saratoga, sporting a U.S. flag and favored by celebrities. We were quite surprised to see U.S. flags flying in numerous public locations — and not surprisingly at the recently opened U.S. Embassy.

There were multiple references to Ernest Hemingway, morning and afternoon. He seems to be Cuba’s favorite import. The Hotel Ambos Mundos was his residence for a time, we’d passed by on our walking tour as a band played and drinks flowed early in the day. He was also fond of the Floridita. I came to appreciate both the Floridita (lemon) and Hemingway’s Favorite (grapefruit) daiquiris for the crisp and refreshing citrus in the Caribbean heat.

popsOur excursion concluded with a brief stop at an indoor craft market, where selection was poor and prices high. Nonetheless, I purchased children’s baseballs with the Cuban flag for the grands at an exhorbitant price (8 CUC each), uncertain of shopping opportunities ahead. The Hubs was not enthused, considering these just one more in a pile they undoubtedly own. It seemed unique to me but in fact, we found plenty more before we were through at half that price. None with the Cuban flag, so I wasn’t unhappy with my decision. Besides, he was suckered into purchasing a horrible caricature of himself — drawn in sharpie on cheap cardboard — five minutes off the pier. Worse, when the price suddenly doubled to 10 CUC to “support the arts”   he still shelled it out. How can he complain about my baseballs? Ha!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

santiago de cuba

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Sailing from Montego Bay, Jamaica, for Cuba, our first port of call was Santiago de Cuba (map), the provincial capital for a province by the same name. The city is second to Havana in size and stature. It is protected by a deep bay on the easternmost coast of Cuba. The Sierra Maestra range rising in the distance reminds us that this is a wild and untamed region. The province has sheltered rebels and revolutionaries throughout Cuban history. It is also the heart and soul of Cuban-African culture, originating many important traditions and rhythms.

The sun was only thinking about getting up for the day as we approached the shoreline. One loud warning blast from the captain, then another, was enough to shake my sleepies out as I peered over the edge of the bow directly below the bridge. Small fishing boats working close to shore seemed unconcerned by the behemoth bearing down.

We sailed slowly inland past the point, Castillo del Morro imposing even in the dim light of dawn. Several more fishermen were anchored along the increasingly narrow channel, tiny wooden boats dwarfed by our vessel. Conversations in Spanish carried clearly across still water; roosters crowed and a dog or two joined the chorus. A few locals emerged from humble homes clinging precariously to the hillside as we passed. A small, skinny boy in a bright red shirt played alone on an abandoned pier, hopping from one pillar to the next as I held my breath.

We disembarked to a modest port: a long walk across the blacktop to enter a simple, small metal customs building. There was no welcome wagon, i.e. no locals in song or dance as we often experience in port. Nonetheless, it was exciting to be on the ground in Cuba!

Three or four Cuban agents were waiting to examine our documents. They were friendly enough as we surrendered U.S. passport and Cuban visa. I don’t know if any spoke English but we managed okay. The agent stamped my visa in bright pink ink and retained half of it. Upon request, he also stamped my passport. This is a new day for U.S. citizens! Before restored diplomatic relationships under President Obama, most U.S. travelers would avoid a passport stamp. I was proud to do otherwise if also slightly nervous about the questions it might raise clearing U.S. customs and immigration on the return. (Irrational, I hope. I clear customs a lot.) There was one small walk-through scan and one small conveyer scan and not much fuss about either. Huh.

Most of the 200 or so U.S. travelers sailing on Celestyal Cruises were in organized groups traveling together. The Hubs and I were placed on the ‘independents’ bus with about 30 others like us. Normally we avoid bus tours when traveling but we understood the conditions of this program and determined not to complain. The tours were generally good; just a bit much crammed into the day and more quality time with our new best friends than we preferred. By the end of the trip we were ready to be done with the group and the bus — and the infamous national heroes!

In Santiago de Cuba, our itinerary included a city tour with multiple points of interest: Castillo El Morro  (17th century fort, era of pirates and imperialism); Moncado Barracks  (site of Fidel’s failed July 26 Movement and origin of the Revolution), Fernando Ortiz African Cultural Center (traditional dance, religion and art), the Patio of the Artisans and Conga Gallery (contemporary Cuban art).

We drove past Revolution Square and I wondered if every Cuban city has one of these? By the time we got to San Juan Hill (site of the only land battle of the Spanish-American war and where Teddy Roosevelt led the Rough Riders to victory), I was fried from the sun and information overload. It may not surprise you to learn that Cubans have another name for this conflict but I was puzzled by consistent qualifiers of Roosevelt’s supposed victory. Our final stop was for a taste of famed Santiago de Cuba rum while a band played and a cigar maker demonstrated his art. It was quite chaotic; I was glad to call it a day!

Throughout the day, as the bus made its way around the city, we caught glimpses of Cuban life. I don’t know what I expected but it seemed so very normal for a Saturday. We saw a few old cars and a few horses with carts — both, as we would learn, part of every day transportation across the country. We saw many humble homes and a few grand estates, the latter nationalized to become property of the people. When the Bacardi family fled they abandoned property but took their trademark so Bacardi rum can no longer be produced in Cuba. Their grand home is now an educational enrichment center, replete with small military craft for children to play on.

We saw families out and about everywhere we went. We drove past the Hatuey beer manufacturing plant, a busy bus and train station, and an old amusement park in poor repair. This was the first of several worn and tired outdoor recreational facilities we were to see in our travels. In each case, the local guide extolled the state for providing such wonders for the people.

We also noted a consistent police presence in uniformed officers at regular intervals. None were overtly militaristic or even slightly threatening. If they were carrying weapons, they were discrete. I must admit the nonchalant effect was a surprise!

How to sum up a day in Santiago de Cuba? The museum at Moncado Barracks was fascinating. The cultural center and traditional dance performance truly enlightening. The rum was tasty and very smooth! Glimpses of Cuban life were helpful to level set my assumptions about life in a communist country. But the very best moment of the day occurred early, at el Morro.

Sister sun was wide awake and beaming steadily as we walked the incline, crossed the moat, and entered the cool interior. In the midst of the tour of historical artifacts, an angelic sound rose from below, seeping through the cracks between the wide floor boards to fill the chambers above. We descended the stairs to discover a female quartet, a capella in the chapel. We listened awhile, mesmerized. Just as I began to examine their CD for sale, the Vocal Vidas broke into one of our favorite songs, a multilingual rendition of “Michelle, My Belle.” Sold!

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A few hours after we departed Santiago de Cuba, we sailed past Guantanemo Bay. It was cloudy, the view obscured. Both the U.S. presence on Cuban soil in Guantanemo and hardships imposed by the U.S. Embargo are significant sore spots for Cubans. Who can blame them?

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

crash course cuba

We returned from Cuba late on Friday night, satisfied, enriched and exhausted. In a word, I am grateful. I hardly know where to begin to relay our experiences. My head is still spinning! This was a trip unlike any other. Cuba tested my assumptions at every turn.

All I’ve known about Cuba was basic: a socialist state with an official party of communism. As an American growing up in 60s and 70s, continuing my education into the 90s, I learned the evils of communism and experienced the tensions of the Cold War. I couldn’t resist the allure of adventure and determined to visit as soon as it became feasible for U.S. citizens. Still, I had questions and concerns.

What freedoms do Cubans enjoy? (Familiar freedoms, it seems.) How are they restricted? (Hmm. In at least a few ways.) How does this all work? (It’s complicated.) Will I be safe? Will I feel comfortable? (Yes and mostly yes.) Does it matter that I don’t speak Spanish? (Not much.) Should I go now or wait awhile? (That depends.) I’ll get to this and more in subsequent posts, I promise.

Evidence of long history and rich culture abound in the beautifully blended Cuba. There you will find happy people, exquisite art, soulful music, delicious food, lovely language, graceful architecture, diverse customs and traditions. At first glance, especially in Havana, you will notice grand structures in poor repair, literally crumbling underfoot. Restoration efforts have been underway for some time but barely scratch the surface after decades of decay. The old city is particularly congested, infrastructure out of sync with modern tourism. Press on! Plan your itinerary to allow for deeper and broader experiences and you will not be disappointed.

Despite the odds or the obvious, resilient Cubans continue to assert that “the system works.” They extol heroes like José Marti, Che Guevera, Fidel and others. There are irrefutable pride points: low infant mortality, high life expectancy, low crime, free education, universal literacy, free medical services. Who can argue with this? Medical professionals are an export and health tourism is actually a thing here, so that tells you something. The country is remarkably well kept, rubble, smokestacks and smoldering fires notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Cubans lack sufficient resources to maintain their homes, feed their families or enjoy many amenities and small niceties we take very much for granted — not to mention travel abroad. There is no way up or out for most.

Our taxi driver conversed in fluent English. “In Cuba, everything is the government.” All Cubans receive free health care, childcare, and education through to doctoral degrees, if they choose and prove capable. All receive a monthly ration book to obtain staples free of charge such as rice, beans, poultry, cooking oils, eggs, salt, sugar, and matches. Additional supplies may be age- or health-specific, like milk or fish. Supplies are scarce and frequent shopping required to keep the pantry stocked.

Most Cubans earn a meager monthly wage from the government, equivalent to ~$20 USD, regardless of occupation. Even combined, state resources fall far short for daily subsistence. Cubans supplement or find ways to game the system. Those few who work directly in tourism are most fortunate in that they may earn tips.

Despite his claim that ‘everything is the government’, our cabbie is part of a new and upwardly mobile class in Cuba. It’s a win-win, as taxis supplement a public transportation infrastructure under significant strain. It is only in the last few years that the Cuban government has allowed private enterprise and it is still very limited. Startup requires some capital, often sourced by relatives abroad. It requires initiative and a will to cut across the grain of 60 years of socialist dogma, a belief that you can do better than the state to improve your future. It requires annual licensing fees and monthly income tax payments. Relatively few Cubans can clear these hurdles. Nonetheless, private enterprise appears to be critical for sustaining the state.

Private homeowners may provide accommodations in casa particulares. These are essential in Havana, where hotel capacity cannot meet demand and most facilities are outdated. Find private accommodations by word of mouth, by wandering and looking for distinct signage or, more recently, through Air BnB. We saw a few properties with Trip Advisor signage as well. Alternatively, sail with Celestyal Cruises, as we did. (More on this option later.)

Private homeowners may operate restaurants known as paladares, serving delicious local fare. Cuban food is disparaged due to lack of knowledge about the distinction between paladares and state-run restaurants. The latter are usually located in elegant properties nationalized after the revolution. They look nice but offer relatively poor quality food and service, albeit on the cheap. I cannot personally speak to the casa particulare experience but assure you the paladare will not disappoint!

We visited three cities on our one-week whirlwind circumnavigation: Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and Cienfuegos. One of our favorite memories occurred mid-trip in Havana at la Moneda Cubana. We were enjoying a rare couple of hours away from the people-to-people program offered by Celestyal Cruises, the “authentic Cuban experience” that meets current U.S. government requirements.

We landed at this paladare on the advice of our tour guide and climbed two narrow flights to a third story patio overlooking the old city. We chatted with our waiter briefly, inquiring about his experiences with U.S. tourism, mentioning the reason for our trip. We were surprised when we finished our meal to be served a delectable caramel-coconut flan and Havana Club rum aged 7 years, completing our celebration with memorable flair. Absolutely perfect.

“Mon amour, mon amie,” he said. “I’d do it all over again,” she said.

This relatively simple meal was not a cheap by most standards, ringing in at $67 USD. Of course, U.S. dollars are not generally accepted so we paid 57 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) cash. Such is the nature of business in Cuba, particularly U.S. tourism. But that’s another story. I’ve much more to tell you …

Viva Cuba libre!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

countdown to cuba

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The Hubs and I are celebrating our 35th anniversary in November 2017. We make it a practice to celebrate The Big Ones all year long. I can’t even tell you how excited I am to start with a Cuba cruise in March!

Many people have asked: Why Cuba? Lots of reasons, actually. We’re always looking for new destinations in the Caribbean. This largest island has been tantalizingly close but yet too far until recently, when travel restrictions were lifted enough to become feasible for most U.S.travelers.

By all accounts, Cuba is an amazingly beautiful, warm, and friendly place. Everyone I know personally who has visited has loved their experience. I feel a strong urge to get there before large-scale American tourism gains a foot-hold on the island — or before US policies change and Cuba travel becomes more restrictive again. I especially wanted our spring anniversary trip to be an adventure and Cuba fits the bill!

An air of mystery and intrigue still surround this historically “off-limits” country. I remember well the Cold War era; the prospect of visiting a communist country fascinates me. Cuban people have suffered terribly under a long history of dictatorial regimes, foreign occupations and interventions, including our own. Tourist dollars are critical to an economy significantly impaired by the U.S. embargo. Most Cuban people are very poor and lack access to so many basics we take for granted, like over the counter medicine, vitamins,educational and art resources, or personal care products. This is an opportunity to give back as we stock supplies to distribute on our journey.

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We’re sailing with a small cruise company on a small, old ship with a checkered past (recently refurbished, thankfully!) reminiscent of our first big adventure abroad together in 1992. The entire itinerary is authentic Cuban, a program carefully aligned with U.S. government requirements for cultural exchange. This is not the typical tourist junket (forbidden for US citizens) yet suits me perfectly and the Hubs is game. The educational program on board — think Cuban cooking classes, mixology, dancing lessons, cigar history — and cultural tours on shore plus Cuban visa and other documentation included in the base price makes for very easy trip planning. I am comforted by the option to sleep on ship (as opposed to casa particulares) and thrilled to experience so much of this very large island within a short time.

At the time of booking, there were no direct flights to Havana from the U.S. Fortunately, Celestyal Cruises offers a convenient option to board in Montego Bay, Jamaica. We set sail on a Friday for Santiago de Cuba. After a day at sea, we’ll dock in Havana for an overnight stay to extend our time in the capitol city. We’ll complete our circumnavigation with another day at sea and visit to Cienfuegos before returning to Jamaica. That’s the plan, anyway. I’ll keep you posted on our adventure!

~ René Morley

P.S. The original itinerary included a stop at  Punta  Frances National Park on the south coast of the La Isla de la Juventud, now replaced by a day at sea. <sigh> The “Isle of Youth” was a very nice thought…

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

adirondack potato soup

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Have you ever heard of Adirondack red potatoes? Me, neither! Last week I received a few, passed along from my sister who’d visited my uncle who lives on the periphery of the Adirondack Park. Potatoes are just one of the cool things about this region.

The Adirondacks are gentle mountain range with 46 peaks reaching 4,000 feet or higher. The Park encompasses small towns and farmland, forest flush with timber, graceful foothills leading to what seems an endless array of small mountains rounded off by the ages. There are 6 million acres, both privately and publicly owned, harboring a gazillion rivers, streams, ponds and lakes rich with wildlife. Here’s a glimpse.

The Adk Park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States, greater in size than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Park combined! (apa.ny.gov) Scattered amidst “forever wild” public lands are charming small towns and villages. The most famous of these is the lovely Lake Placid, NY, home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. In a word, awesome.

But, I digress. Back to the potatoes. Standing on the precipice of autumn, the potatoes spoke to me of soup. This is one of the Hubs’ favorite comfort foods and mine, too. The spuds cooked up to a pearly-pink, with delectable flavor and perfect texture. Hungry? My potato soup recipe is simple.

Part 1. Dice a large onion and fry with several half-slices of bacon in a large soup pot. While bacon and onion are cooking, peel (or not) and dice potatoes. When onion is soft and translucent, remove bacon and drain off bacon fat. Separate any additional fat from bacon and return bacon to pot. Add raw potatoes to onion and bacon. Add chicken broth to cover. Simmer until potatoes are soft.

Part 2. In separate sauce pan, prepare a simple white sauce. There are lots of recipes available online, for example this Betty Crocker version. I have a slap-dash method with 2-3 tablespoons butter, 1/3 cup flour, fresh ground pepper, and a brisk whisk while   adding in a cup of milk (give or take) at a slow simmer.

For the potato soup, I add to the white sauce 4 ounces of cheese and continue heating until melted. I’m not fussy about the cheese and use whatever I have on hand. If it is a softer cheese, like muenster, I also add some parmesan to give it some bite.

Part 3. Add white sauce to soup mixture. Stir gently. Enjoy at once or keep warm in crock pot until dinner.

Even better than making Adirondack potato soup, I hope you will learn more about the park  and plan your visit!

~ René Morley

gananoque

gananonqueOur final stop on the mini-getaway was a quaint St. Lawrence River town. “There’s not much there,” a Canadian forewarned. “A couple of blocks. Yeah, and a few shops.” Never you mind, I thought. I’d read that Gananoque was worth a visit and so it was!

We strolled up Gananoque’s main street, stopping in several shops with local character. The best was the ancient hardware store, Donevan’s; I couldn’t resist the window displays of items purchased decades ago. Inside we found two older gentleman at the helm. The younger appeared to be at least 75 and the elder was navigating by walker. His was the voice of authority when I had questions. Turns out Charlie is a local legend at 92 years old!

The store was a combination of genuine hardware (at the rear), household goods, trinkets and flea market fare (at the fore), some with an invitation to make an offer. I found a miniature tea set, Fiestaware style (for the grands) and a percolator knob (that didn’t fit, as it would turn out) but the real value was in the cultural and generational exchange.

The tea set was unmarked and the Hubs suggested we make an offer. “Well, you could do that,” the younger clerk said, “but make it fair.” I turned that over in my mind. ($10? $15? Surely no more that.) Before I could respond he tried to dissuade me, perhaps one of the other tea sets would do? (No, not really.)

Finally, he pulled his phone out of his pocket with a flourish to call Mary. “Hello, Mary, this is Gary.” For whatever reason, the proprietor’s daughter was not on front desk duty this day. (Is Gary her husband? Such mystery and intrigue!) These three must make for some sort of retail sales staff record.

It took only slightly less time to place the call and receive a return call and finally get a price ($15) than it did to make the actual transaction … but not by much. Gary preferred I pay in cash but our Canadian was in short supply and he had no American change. He agreed to process by credit card only after warning we’d pay taxes to do so. This led to commentary about local and national politics and other disturbances. I don’t know that we’ve ever spent $20 with more interest!

IMG_4681The Tuesday afternoon sun was brutal, beating down relentlessly, so we were thankful for a reprieve on the Lost Ships of the Islands St. Lawrence River boat tour. Despite our familiarity with the region and abundance of excursions from American shores, the Canadian perspective is unique.

We saw many more islands than we have on U.S.-based boat tours with much better narration and a much nicer boat than good ol’ Uncle Sam provides. My favorites were the historic island stop for American slaves escaping via the underground railroad and two islands linked by reputedly the world’s shortest international bridge, a small white structure connecting stony footprints in each country. This must be among the world’s friendliest borders. It seems that every island flies a flag but some fly flags for both the USA and Canada.

Most islands are independently owned and many are so small that a few trees and single family home consume them. This is typical of the region; only a few are large or lavish. There are nearly 2,000 islands; some are far too small to inhabit, others are state or provincial parks open to the public. We sailed past millionaire’s row which sparks our imagination for living the high life. The most famous among the rich and famous are Boldt and Singer castles on Heart and Dark Islands, respectively. We’ve toured each and were happy just to sail by on this trip.

What set this St Lawrence River boat tour apart was a rich media presentation as we passed over sunken ships. The turbulent Great Lakes and rocky shoals and shifting sandbars of the St Lawrence River have claimed far more than their share of ships and lives. It was intriguing to see below the surface through videos of divers as the story of each wreck was relayed. We sipped ice cold Canadian beer in comfortable shade as clouds rolled above and small skiffs, boats and ships of all sizes sailed past on either side.

We followed a large vessel for a while — whether saltie or laker I cannot say. The Great Lakes Seaway System is amazingly versatile and vital to both countries. As our northern border and “fourth coast” it is worth a visit, in and of itself. We locals tend to take it for granted. The large ship stayed true to the deepwater channel as we veered off under another span of the Thousand Islands International Bridge. It was a perfect day on the mighty St Lawrence.

 

Disembarking, we had just enough time to stop by the Gananoque Brewing Company for local libations before dinner.  Delicious! Our final stop was a perfect landing. I’d learned of the Maple Leaf Restaurant in a Lonely Planet guide book. With this inside scoop, we were determined to stop for a bite. Inside we found an impeccably clean and tidy restaurant with old world charm. The menu included several types of light and tender snitzel and delicately seasoned spatzel; top that off with strudel and you simply cannot go wrong.

I mentioned to our waitress how we’d landed there and the next thing we knew, Vlad, the proprietor, was at our table. He has been running this place for 28 years and is justifiably proud of the results. We left with a cool cloth bag filled with leftovers for dinner the next day. We will return, I am sure.

Thus we wrapped another modest but meaningful Canadian adventure. We never fail to find warm and welcoming people, fantastic food, and adventures midst our northerly neighbors. I hope I’ve inspired you to visit!

~ René Morley

 

kingston

IMG_4605Kingston is a small historic city with loud and proud loyalty to the crown, interesting architecture, and quaint English pubs. We got into town late in the day and drove directly to the hotel. We ate dinner at the Pilot House because it was an easy walk and we were exhausted from the dunes in the heat! They offer several varieties of their famous fish and chips.

Being farmers and all, we were up early to seize Monday. It was overcast and drippy, a sleepy morning where not much was happening. Martello Alley is currently the #1 thing to do in Kingston, so we headed there — unwittingly a full hour before they opened.

The proprietor is just that great that he flung wide the gates and welcomed us in. We spent the better part of an hour enjoying the place and his company. He was admittedly perplexed about the Trip Advisor rating. I think his winning personality plus innovative approach help explain this success.

It really is a great idea! He’s transformed a decrepit old alley into a year round art gallery that is owned and operated collectively. He quickly unlocked doors hanging on brick walls to reveal a sampling of artwork for sale, each door a different artist. An inner courtyard revealed more art, flowering plants and a cafe seating area. Even further into the alley, more valuable artwork was on display on walls and tables in the main gallery.

By then, Kingston was waking up but we weren’t sure how we wanted to spend the day.  We haven’t visited in years so we hit the reset button and joined the hop-on, hop-off trolley tour. Yes, it’s touristy but it’s also an easy and relatively cheap way to get the lay of the land. At times we had the trolley to ourselves. It is a thorough tour, which includes the Royal Military College of Canada, some government buildings, Fort Henry, and several museums, including the Canadian Penitentiary Museum.

This latter museum is free but unrelated to Kingston Penitentiary tours, which are among the hottest tickets in town. (Book in advance.) Who knew Kingston was the penitienary capital of Canada and had seven prisons in operation? The tour also passed through the Queens University campus. Near there we hopped off and found our way back to a glass artist before taking a delicious lunch at Chez Piggy.

As an aside, I will say that Fort Henry  is  among the best North American military forts I’ve ever visited. Interpreters dressed in period costume vividly portray fort life as it was back in the days of American and British conflict. I was tempted for a repeat visit but the Hubs wasn’t overly interested. It was hot and we were doing a lot of walking so it didn’t take much to convince me to stay on the trolley. I expect we will go back with the grands in tow someday. They will love it!

Later that afternoon, we took the Wolfe Island ferry. It’s a pleasant surprise to find ferries run free in Ontario as part of the highway system. This particular ferry is large but very busy; you must plan ahead to drive on. Locals queue early, park in place, and return when the ferry docks to board. The line of cars and trucks was much longer than the ferry’s capacity on this trip. We were walking on, so no worries! It’s a short sail across the St. Lawrence with lovely Kingston harbor vistas. I enjoyed chatting with several locals and lifelong islanders heading home from work.

On one lady’s advice, we walked off the ferry, hung a left, and landed at the Wolfe Island Grill. There we were greeted with friendly staff, a delightfully fresh and innovative menu (for example, a watermelon, feta and mint salad), waterfront patio and local brews. What more could we need?  After dinner, we caught the ferry back to Kingston. Easy peasy.

On Tuesday morning we had “The best breakfast in Kingston” at Peter’s Place because, well, the Hubs insisted. Breakfast is the meal he most often has to forgo due to his work schedule and so he doesn’t like to miss it on vacation. This  was classic diner food and just that, no apparent local specialties. It was my least favorite meal of the trip but he was happy!

About this time, I realized that we’d missed the annual military tattoo  at Fort Henry by one full day. Drats and double-drats! We won’t make that mistake again. I was suffering some regret as we wandered around town, strolling down Princess Street, browsing and shopping. There is lots of variety in Kingston retail therapy and local flavor in arts and antiques. It was a pleasant morning. The best part was a vibrant farmer’s market where I found unique preserves and pastry gifts to bring home.

My only real disappointment in Kingston was in our hotel, the Marriott Delta Waterfront. It’s a great location but a truly disappointing property and hardly worth two of the four star rating. I won’t bore you with details; suffice to say we were satisfied only because we were staying for free. If you’re headed to Kinston, try the Sheraton?

~ René Morley

 

prince edward county

IMG_4685Last weekend, the Hubs and I struck out for Canadian adventures across the river. Our northerly neighbor is vast, second only to Russia in landmass and leading all in coastline. Fortunately for us, about 75% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border. That means one of the best things about the North Country is Canada.

Toronto, Ottawa (tulips, tulips, more tulips!) Montreal, and Quebec City nearby in the east: what’s not to love? But there is so much more to Canada than her major population centers and for this birthday get-away, I wasn’t in a city frame of mind. We had less than three days and two nights. I developed an itinerary for modest hotel reward points and a few new explorations centered on the St Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. When the Hubs asked, “What should I pack?” I said, “Sand shoes and all kinds of casual.” We left home Sunday morning, headed to Prince Edward County. All he had to do was drive.

I recently read that Prince Edward County is emerging as a foodie mecca and assure you that is for good reason. The County is farm country; field after field of oats, corn, soybeans and other crops followed by acres of fruit and orchards and fields of vegetables. There were a few dairies, no Holsteins but other breeds in pasture. It is also wine country, with endless vines and plenty of wineries. We tasted a lovely range of sophisticated selections, from crispy-dry to appertifs; my favorite was the full bodied Sandbanks Cabernet Franc.

IMG_4599The Sandbanks Winery makes it easy to explore with $5 per glass and free tasting when you buy two bottles. And my, oh, my mercy, if you also have a thing for butter tarts, be sure to buy some there! You will never find a more delicate, melt-in-your-mouth crust or delicious filling. What’s your pleasure: the quilt trail, wine trail or butter tart trail? Yeah, it’s rough living in the County.

The gentle landscape is flecked with small towns, antique shops, fruit and vegetable stands, bed-and-breakfasts with “no vacancy” signs and cottages with lakeside views. There is no hotel on the peninsula currently but a forlorn structure in Picton has been leveled to make way for progress. I only hope the place doesn’t lose it’s sense of self in the process.

IMG_4580County roads are narrow, the scenery spectacular from nearly every vantage point –hilltop to furrow to lakeshore. I loved reading names of roads and establishments suggesting Scottish or Irish heritage but the County is foremost loyal to the crown; we’ve never seen so many Union Jacks!

We followed the progress of the combines as long, golden ripe fields of oats heavy with seed became brush-cut hollow stalks, the fields shaved close like an old man’s head, wagons piled high and tight with massive bales of straw. “Every farm has a combine,” the Hubs commented, “no matter the size.” Farming must pay here, I mused.

We delighted in dizzying dunes of silky-soft sand at Sandbanks Provincial Park — an anomaly on the Great Lake I happily credit to a Creator with infinite imagination. These dunes out-do the Outer Banks in their unique way. Seriously, get in your car right now and just drive because you do not want to miss out on this place. Entrance to the park is pricey ($17) but given the free ferry at Glenora, that was okay. We arrived fairly late in the day and there was no cut rate available which also explains why, when we left only an hour or so later, some rascals were scrounging passes from departing vehicles.

We savored refreshing craft brews accompanying an artful ploughman’s lunch and amazing views at Miller House at Lake on the Mountain. This lovely lake holds close her mystery, high above the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario. Spectacular views rival many we’ve relished abroad.

We’d go back just to repeat any one of these County experiences. At the end of a long day, tired and sand-dusted but fully satisfied, we ferried from Glenora to Adolphustown and continued on our way.

~ René Morley

 

 

wild walk

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October 11 was the thirty-fifth anniversary of our first date. “Did you think you’d marry him?” our daughter asked. No, not yet. We were shy and unsure, immature teenagers with hardly a thought beyond next week. It must have been fate.

On Sunday, I was getting ready for church, waiting for mister Ollie sweetums to arrive, when I got a text from the Hubs, who was at work. What would I like to do to celebrate? He’d be done around noon. The Wild Walk, a new feature at the Wild Center, has been on my list for months. It was closing for the season in a few days so that settled that: we’d go ‘splorin.

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After church, lunch, and barn-boys play time, we took Ollie home and headed south toward the Adirondack Park. Fall foliage was at (late?) peak, a rich tapestry of red, orange and gold hues woven into the evergreen forest. A brilliant blue sky laced with whispy cirrus clouds and distant mountain peaks capped the view. I’d brought my knitting along but decided better of it — spectacular!

The Wild Center is a natural history museum and Adirondack treasure. There are interactive wildlife exhibits, historical exhibits and multimedia explorations of our natural world. Inside are lots of fish and other critters in residence but a family of playful otters always wins the crowd. Outside are miles of trails and ponds to explore. You won’t want to miss it if you visit the area.

The newest attraction, the Wild Walk, is quite something. A series of elevated trails and suspension bridges lead to a great view and perfect perch, in the form of a huge birds nest set 3 stories above ground level. Along the way are interactive exhibits and play areas. The trail branches off at one point to take you inside and down the center of a huge hollow white pine tree, a four-story snag. Coolness.

The Wild Center was super busy on Sunday — if they didn’t set an attendance record then they must have come close. It was fun to be there midst wee ones, old ones, every age and ability enjoying themselves. It was nice to have some quiet time together, between the drive there and back and our walk in the sunshine. Who could have known that an awkward CYO dance in St Mary’s gym in the fall of 1980 might lead to this wild walk we’ve enjoyed — 35 years and counting?

~ René Morley

 

the seashell speaks

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Captiva Island, on Florida’s gulf coast, is known as a great place for shelling. I imagined big intact shells of all shapes and sizes and easy picking after the tide rolled out. Maybe that happens in certain places or seasons, or maybe knowledgeable locals scoop up the big ones before tourists roll out of bed. I don’t know. Instead, we found gazillions of small but intact shells in shades of pink, corral, gray and pearly-white spread over miles of sand. En masse, they were stunning.

I was especially fascinated by the miniature creatures washing up on shore with each roll of the surf. At first I thought they were tiny stones in a beautiful array of colors — orangey-corral, peachy-pink, lavender, grey, even yellow. But they were very much alive. As soon as the wave receded they burrowed in like mad, leaving a tell-tale hole on the seamless surface of wet sand. Meanwhile, an unending parade of small birds peck-peck-pecked away at this feast, waves lapping at their spindly legs.

Nonetheless, we continued to look for big flashy seashells. We combed the beach morning and afternoon, hoping for a lucky break. Nada. Mile after mile, only fragments of larger shells and many more millions of small shells. Until one morning, as I walked and prayed. “God, my sister really wants a nice seashell to commemorate this trip. Would you toss one up for her?” A few moments later, I caught sight of a fairly large shell coasting through the surf. I lunged, plunged and snagged it. Perfectly intact.

Well, that was easy, I thought, as I handed it off to my sister. No big deal to the God of the universe. I’ll try again. “One more, Lord?” But then, don’t we always want just one more?

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As it turned out, there was one more, also perfectly intact. I found it upside down in the tide-line, tangled up in seashells and seagrass. It was a beautiful burnished copper color but looked like an old man of the sea, covered in crusty barnacles and green moss. Inside was a snail, startling me in his emergence. I couldn’t resist closer observation. I swooshed him in the surf to get a better look. “I don’t think he likes that” she said, as he ventured out of his shell again. I dropped him in surprise whereby she, most compassionate, scooped him up and tossed him back into the sea before I could protest.

Maybe we are the only two people on this planet who will ever lay eyes on this fellow? Indeed, there’s an amazing array of beauty in our universe, most of which most of us will never see and some of which none of us will ever see. The beauty of this place — from the highest heavenliness to the intimacy of a single seashell — speaks to me as a powerful testament to our Creator.

Praise the Lord, O heavens! Praise him from the skies! Praise him, all his angels, all the armies of heaven. Praise him, sun and moon and all you twinkling stars. Praise him, skies above. Praise him, vapors high above the clouds. … Let everything he has made give praise to him. And praise him down here on earth, you creatures of the ocean depths. ..For he alone is worthy. His glory is far greater than all of earth and heaven. Hallelujah! Yes, praise the Lord! (Psalm 148)

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)

~ René Morley

island smile:)land

IMG_7076Last weekend I enjoyed a few days on Florida’s gulf coast. This was a special occasion, celebrating with my next younger sister her 50th birthday.

This trip has been in the works for months. I booked a villa at the South Seas Island Resort in February and coordinated flights through award miles. My cousin came on board, generously offering to provide custom taxi service after securing time off to join the party. Then we looped my mom and aunt into our plans. These ladies both celebrated big birthdays this year as well, turning our event into a dual-location and multigenerational celebration.

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The resort was lovely. Lot of seashore, silky sand, and sunshine. Our South Village villa provided expansive coastal views and direct access to miles of shell-strewn soft grey sand. We were situated between two pools and not far from resort shops — plus a pond inhabited by a small alligator, just to keep it real. A resort trolley made for convenient access to the other end of the property, North Pointe, with its outdoor pool complex, tiki bar, marina, restaurant, spa, fitness center and more shops. We all had good intentions for that fitness center!

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IMG_7223.JPG-1Despite all of the planning, I had few expectations for this get-away. A vacation is usually better that way: surprise me! The villa was perfect, with three bedrooms and four beds. The resort staff were so pleasant, launching our celebration with bottles of wine and other freebies in honor of the birthday girl.

My cousin brought along a huge cooler of food and birthday cake. We enjoyed a couple of dinners out and an excursion to Ding Darling preserve on Sanibel Island, searching for ‘gators. We found one big one — at a safe distance. Otherwise, only a few odd birds and horseshoe crab happy hour. :=) Mostly we hung out and did nothing much of anything, low-key and Captiva-easy.

IMG_7783My sisters and I are different from each other in many ways, and from my cousin in still other ways. But at the end of the day, we are much more alike than we are different. We share common traits, like generosity and compassion. We share appreciation for simple things, like a good cup of coffee with the sunrise or a glass of wine at sunset. We enjoy travel adventures, near and far. We share fond memories of early childhood summers on Grampy’s farm with our mothers. I hear myself in my cousin’s laugh and see myself in the shape of my sister’s feet or the arch of her brows.

Even so, our differences are real. Sometimes they create tension, especially when I am overtired and irritable and not prone to listen to anyone’s advice. Or when I allow self-doubt or insecurities to creep in and cloud my better judgement. I should know by now she’s in my corner; if I can’t trust her, who can I trust? Seriously.

More often than not, however, our differences are a gift. I’ve learned to listen closely to the small silences, to examine the gaps between me and she. I usually find something in that space that I need. I’ll take a tip from my Aunt Bea and hope that at eighty I’m still up for challenge of becoming my best me.

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On Monday night we drove back to Fort Meyers to rendezvous with my mom and aunt. We enjoyed a nice Italian dinner and another round of Happy Birthday to You! Have you ever seen 50, 75, or 80 look so good? Me, neither.

~ René Morley

long walk

IMG_0256Last Saturday I completed a goal set last spring: to walk a half-marathon. I did it mostly for the discipline imposed over 14 or 15 weeks of training. I enjoy the experience on race day, on a beautiful route in a supportive community. But I’m always slightly embarrassed to be walking in the midst of the runners.

This is the fourth half-marathon I’ve walked in the past few years and the second in Lake Placid, the most historic of beautiful Adirondack venues. When I mention my self-imposed challenge to friends or co-workers, they assume I’m running. I feel compelled to clarify, almost apologize. “I’m just walking.”

Not long ago, a long distance runner and colleague gave me new perspective. When she heard that I was walking a half, she congratulated me and said, “I think walking is harder than running.” Huh?

She and her husband are both amazing athletes. They run up and down grueling mountain trails or in oppressive dessert heat, wallowing in mud puddles to stay cool enough to continue 80 or 100 miles. When her husband is competing she will run alongside in the dead of night for awhile to pace him. When the going gets tough and his body is begging him to stop, his mantra is “Keep running. The only thing worse than running is walking.” No doubt because it’s only going to take you longer to finish!

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Sharon and I began our preparation in late May, training separately during the week while gradually increasing distance on weekend walks together. We’d start by 7:00, sometimes 6:00 a.m., to go the distance — up to 10 miles. Lately, it’s been near dark when we met up on the trail. As summer winds down to fall and daylight hours shorten, it’s harder and harder to rise extra-early on Saturday.

In mid-July I also began working with a personal trainer. My birthday present to myself was 6 months with Carrie and 12 months of gym membership. I’m surprised to find that I’m enjoying the gym, with Carrie’s support. I’m glad to put event training behind me and focus there. I guess I like best to compete against myself. But first, there was a long walk. We were ready!

We enjoyed a lovely evening in Lake Placid, followed by a beautiful sunrise. It was a chilly forty-some degrees; the mist hung heavy over Mirror Lake as the sun climbed over the mountains. Starting at the 1932 Olympic oval, we walked uphill and down, around the lake and through town, alongside mountain streams and rivers, past horse barns and vegetable farms, under the watchful gaze of the 1980 Olympic ski jumps and ever-present old mountains.

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We even jogged a couple stretches, letting the momentum of the long hills carry us down, praying we’d have the strength to climb back up. We were particularly motivated by a group of noisy French Canadians in pink tutus. We followed closely for awhile before they pulled out in front. For perhaps half the race, we trailed them, scheming of a victory. We made our move to pass in a slow but stealth jog on a fairly crowded stretch, blending in with the running pack. Boo-yah! They never caught up. ;=)

It was a wonderful experience although a rather long 13.1 miles. I was ever so thankful to have a partner for the journey. I’m proud that we finished the race on our intended pace and that we didn’t finish in last place. Sometimes our victories are small and very personal but still they are important.

~ René Morley