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

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

curacao

This year marked our third visit to the Netherland Antilles, otherwise known as the windward or ABC Islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. I didn’t realize until last week that governance has changed dramatically in the past few years. Nonetheless, they are still very much Dutch and within the Kingdom of Netherlands. These islands are 15-60 miles off the coast of Venezuela and almost as far south as we’ve ventured to date. (I think Grenada is just a smidgin further?) Our final port of call this year was Curaçao.

On prior visits, we’ve enjoyed poking around picturesque Willemstad. It a delightful blend of Dutch Caribbean and absolutely lovely. I enjoy the floating market — although the Hubs prefers to keep a safe distance from stinky fish. Later in the day it is safer, just fruit and produce. ;=) But the drawbridge is currently undergoing repairs and pedestrians must use water taxis, so we didn’t even try to go there. We knew it was time to get out of Willemstad and see more of the place anyway. I was glad we had made alternate plans.

Once you get past the beautiful capital city, most people visit Curaçao to dive or snorkel. We were looking for an inland tour rather than an underwater adventure. I contacted Martin’s Travel Tours. Martin was helpful in laying out the options; we settled on Shete Boka. However, I really wanted to see both sea turtles and flamingos, if possible, please. And we left open the option for a swim as well. Martin met us at the pier as promised and we were off!

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We made a few brief stops on our way north and west. First to a church with extensive crypt cemetery, volcanic rock prohibiting underground burial. Then to a humble two-room abode that once housed slaves. The bedroom, Martin explained, was reserved for the mother; the father and children slept in the other room. An enterprising woman born in this home has turned it into a museum. It is unique as the only remaining wooden structure of its kind on the island.

Then we stopped at a plantation house turned restaurant. In Curaçao, plantation owners had line of sight visibility from one to another across the island. We saw several of these beautiful old homes, all in very good repair, all situated on high ground. The surrounding countryside is completely overgrown now with cacti and scrub brush but Martin assured us this was once cropland. It’s hard to imagine. Old timers say rain was much more plentiful and many kept cattle then. Today, the countryside gives every appearance of desert — although Curaçao is not a desert island. We saw lots of little lizards, which don’t bother me too much, but I was quite relieved to hear there are only two snakes in Curacao, both scarce and only one venomous!

We drove on for awhile before turning down the narrow dirt road of the Turtle Trail at Boka Ascension. We scampered through a rock cave and climbed several sets of narrow wooden stairs built into the rock to find ourselves at the top, overlooking the cove. Cacti loomed large and prickly over the narrow path of sharp volcanic rock that we followed to the edge. From here, Martin thought we might see some turtles. And we did!

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The water was so clear that we observed perhaps a half-dozen leatherbacks feeding on the bottom. Occasionally, they would surface, all too briefly. I managed to capture a couple shots (look center of photo far R, above) but sure was wishing I’d brought my zoom lens along. The current here is very strong and sea urchins plentiful, so only foolish tourists snorkel or swim. Locals fish for crabs and others find their way, as we did, hoping for a glimpse of the amazing turtles.

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From there we drove on to Shete Boka, the park known for dramatic water sprays as the surf spouts through any of seven natural coves along the shoreline. We walked on narrow trails to view each, up close and personal.  I was surprised and delighted to see an Inuksuit village at the first, reminding me of our Yukon Territory experience. “Those crazy Canadians,” Martin remarked.

Well-marked crushed stone pathways and viewing platforms help keep boka tourists out of trouble. Sharks, Martin noted, are ready and waiting otherwise. The shoreline landscape changed dramatically, so spare that it seemed like another planet. The last of the seven bokas was a short drive along a rutted, hard packed trail. Indeed,”the pistol” (below) sounded quite like a gun going off.

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The sun was high and hot by then. I was quickly wilting and quite relieved for AC on the return loop — despite a missing rear window due to recent break-in. We stopped by Kanepa Grandi (“Kanep” to the locals, below, L), a favorite swimming spot and reportedly the “bluest water in Curaçao.” It was stunning. Who said Curaçao doesn’t have much for beaches? Maybe it’s not the silky soft sand of Aruba or Barbados, but these are beautiful beaches all the same. I think it’s a ruse — whether to help keep tourism manageable on Curaçao or entice tourists to other islands, I cannot say!

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Martin made another brief photo stop (above, R) before driving on to Playa Lagun (below) and the Bahai Apartments and Diving establishment, where we settled in for lunch overlooking the gorgeous bay. From the restaurant high above, a steep staircase leads to the shore. We enjoyed a delicious lunch and tried another pair of local brews — the Venezuelan Polar and Curaçao’s Amstel Bright. (Although it’s kind of strange to think of Venezuela as local, eh? We got a kick out of their polar bear mascot.) Bright won the second round! Martin also noted that this is one of the best bays for snorkeling in Curaçao. (And we’ve an eye on those apartment villas for the next vacation!)

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It would have been perfect if not for the creepy iguanas. I was vaguely aware of them, my chair in the corner against the stone wall, my back to the sea. As we ate lunch, the Hubs was watching them, watching them, watching them. However, he didn’t bother to mention until the last possible moment that, “You might want to move.” At which point, I turned to discover three huge monsters surrounding me and jumped with a yelp! He gritted his teeth and growled at me not to make a scene. “Too late!” I shot back.

The hostess appeared immediately to shoo them away. She patted my shoulder reassuringly, “They are our pets. Harmless.” The neighboring table returned to their lunch and we resumed eating in uneasy peace. It was the one small blemish on an otherwise beautiful day.  But those fellas were big! One, I’m sure, was a grandaddy iguana (photo above L). I videoed from a safe distance as they slithered along the wall, posturing with head and neck to make sure we knew we were trespassing on their territory. This, I am also sure, serves as sufficient evidence for the grandchids of GiGi’s narrow escape!

DSC_0082Our tour wrapped up with a visit to the flamingos on the salt flats. I couldn’t get nearly close enough and, once again, wished for my zoom lens, tucked safely away at home. On the final leg, we stopped by a bright and familiar grocery store, whereby we discovered English was a bit of a hurdle. We came out empty handed while Martin bore a bucket of muffins. A few miles later, he dropped us off at the Rif Fort in Willemstad, a lovely collection of shops and restaurants and an open market not far away. I picked up calabash instruments for the grandboys and macrame shoes for the grandgirls. Finally, we found our way to a round of refreshing adult beverages before boarding the ship. All in all, it was a great day in Curaçao!

~ René Morley

aruba

IMG_1253Aruba, Jamaica, oooh I wanna’ take you…   or so goes the song, for good reason. Aruba is a small island with miles of remarkable silky-white soft sand. If you can find a beach chair and umbrella, you’re set.

This time we visited a small island off the island. De Palm Island is a self-contained water wonderland. So many options! Bright white sand beaches on calm, shallow bays; a selection of water slides; snorkeling, snuba and Sea Trek adventures. The ticket price is all inclusive of food (two restaurants) and beverage (including adult beverages) and most facilities.

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We plunked down in the shade of a tiki-style umbrella at the beach furthest from the entrance with frozen fruity beverages for several hours aaaaaahhhh. The water was so clear I photographed fish from my iPhone. The surf was so gentle and shallow I imagined the delight of wee ones learning to swim. I watched a little boy snorkeling and screaming with glee every time he found a fish. His sister entertained herself playing in the sand and sea. I so very much wished our grandbabies were with us. We recorded a short video to let them know we were thinking of them.

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IMG_1265Next time I vow to take advantage of the snorkeling. I hear the parrot fish are stars of the show. “They’re on the payroll at DePalm!” Before we left, I snapped this photo near the dock. The sea is the most intense turquoise blue you can imagine. Just gorgeous! It was a wonderfully relaxing day.

We returned to the ship to shower and change, and soon disembarked again to meet up with family members who live in Aruba, Linda and Ricky. We asked them to take us to their favorite restaurant. We landed at the Old Fisherman, not far from the pier. They serve what they catch daily, so it is very fresh. They have plenty of non-seafood options, which suited the Hubs.

We enjoy trying local food wherever we travel.  The Hubs and I each tried a local brew and agreed that the Balashi Chill, served with lime, was the best. I tried the fish cakes, on Ricky’s recommendation, and they were good. The most notable new flavor at the Old Fisherman was an appetizer of small bites of a crunchy-fried bread (funchi) served with Dutch cheese. It was delicious!

After dinner we toured around the Oranjestad area. It was fun to get Linda and Ricky’s perspective on island life. I’ve always wondered why so many ships are at anchor in the harbor, within in sight of but not too close to shore. Linda explained this is because everything is shipped in by container. Everything. (As a desert island, that makes sense!) Container ships must wait their turn to unload, so it’s a ship parking lot, so to speak. This also means that the cost of living in Aruba is extremely high — basic commodities generally cost double what we pay in the States. Yikes.

Beaches in Aruba are all still public, fortunately, but it was disheartening to see the overgrowth of tourism since our first visit more than twenty years ago. Miles-long stretches of white sand so accessible then are now completely obscured. “It’s Little Miami all over again,” Linda proclaimed. After dark, the area was ablaze with shopping, dining, hotels, and casinos and congested with people. During the day, Linda noted, a 15 minute commute now takes over an hour. Beaches are busy with vendors and water sports. Claiming a quiet spot is quite a challenge. I was all the more thankful for our day on DePalm!

~ René Morley

limin’ in nevis

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On Wednesday, our ship sailed to St. Kitts. We enjoyed a day there not long ago, touring beautiful Brimstone Hill and other points of interest. So again, we chose to visit a neighboring island for something new. This time the ferry crew was local, which is always more interesting. The ferry took about an hour to get from St Kitts (L) to Nevis (R).

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Again, we broke into smaller groups for guided tours This time, we were loaded into the ubiquitous Caribbean taxi: mini-minivan. This van is no bigger than a granny van in the US but equipped to hold driver and co-pilot, followed closely by a bench for three, then two sets of three that are split with two seats on one side with a narrow isle and jump seat on the other, and finally, a bench for two in far back. Hard to imagine, but yes, you can cram 13 adults into this one smallish vehicle.

Our guide was a fairly young man and chock full of island history, facts, and figures. He took his job very seriously. I do appreciate the effort but found the details in the details just a bit wearying. No doubt that had something to do with the up close and personal mini-minivan dynamics. (That guy from Queens was quite something.)

We visited a hot stream that continually fills a public wading area and public bath. Fueled by dormant volcanic activity the water is mineral rich and believed to cure all kinds of aches and pains. Some locals soak daily and religiously. I hate to but have to admit I did not go in. I just couldn’t do it; the sun alone is easily too much for me. We also visited the Hermitage plantation turned hotel, a lovely hillside property.

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We didn’t see wild donkeys, unfortunately, although they are considered nuisances. Left over from cart-labor days, they have free range but are apparently inclined to raid trash cans and make a mess. We didn’t see wild monkeys, either. They are even more problematic. Early French settlers imported Vervet monkeys as pets. Their descendants now run amok on orchards and gardens. The locals, according to our guide, hate the monkeys, who destroy an entire mango crop with one bite out of each fruit. They will eat just about any fresh produce. Guns are illegal on Nevis so locals contact the police for assistance in shooting them. And then, sometimes they eat them. Our guide suggested that was only fair!

Along the way, we saw small herds of free-ranging goats and a few sheep. Every goat or sheep belongs to someone, although I couldn’t tell by looking at them. They are trained to return each afternoon to their owners’ whistle.  We passed by Gallows Bay, where escaped slaves and convicted criminals were once hung. That was a sobering moment, thinking on the desperation which drove men and women to that horrible place. Fortunately, this particular site has since been claimed by Nevis fisherman, who haul in each morning with the day’s catch. Later, they work their way around inland communities, blowing a conch shell to call buyers.

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“Lime” in Nevis (and other places, as I recall) means to “hang out.” All over Nevis we saw small signs on shopfronts announcing Lime and calling folks in to “top up.” But it is a rather quiet island. Charlestown is a sleepy little capital. There are 25 other small settlements on the island. Friday night is the one night of the week when folks do not cook dinner at home but go out to socialize over the local bar-b-que. Everything is closed on Sunday, when most everyone is in church. Sixty churches to choose from is an incredible church : resident ratio. It is like a Baskins-Robbins flavor selection for worship, eh?

We took in some lovely panoramic views of before settling at the Lime beach bar for a hot lunch of Grouper or chicken with lime-infused rice, fresh vegetables and then a delightful swim. Lime provided good food, friendly staff, clean facilities and beach umbrellas and chairs on the waterfront. Piney Beach was not silky-soft white sand but grainy grey, no doubt a result of the volcanic activity here, yet it was very nice. Another a good day; what could we possibly have to complain about?

~ René Morley

flying fish

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Today was a sea day: no wake-up alarm, no tour, no schedule. We were looking forward to fully relaxing, even if we are up at the break of dawn. This day started with a flash, literally: the phenomena of hundreds of flying fish!

Flying fish are not uncommon, in our experience, along a Carbbean cruise route. This morning was a bit unusual, as we observed them for several hours and many nautical miles. Sometimes two or three or four, sometimes a dozen or more, surfacing from beneath the sea, skimming across the trough of the wave, a sleek flash of silver before resubmerging. From our 9th deck balcony, they seem tiny. At sea level, they are perhaps the length of a man’s hand?

I don’t know much about them, really, except that lost-at-sea survival stories often mention the life-sustaining gift of flying fish. Gazing across the vast expanse of ocean rolling under a blazingly hot sun and nearly cloudless sky, neither a speck of land nor another ship in sight, I try to imagine the joy of receiving such a gift.

* * *

All week long I pondered this phenomena. It is quite magical: fish with wings! It happens so fast that you are not quite sure you see what you thought you saw. In a flash, it is there and it is gone. As I thought about flying fish, I realized that from time to time I have received another version of flying fish. By this I mean a wholly unexpected, largely undeserved, and all too fleeting gift.

The day my dad passed over was a flying fish — an extended period of lucidity and sacred immersion as we ushered him to the other side. The birth of each of our three children was a flying fish — a precious few hours when joy is unspeakable and the promise of a new life boundless, full to overflowing. Imagine my surprise and delight to discover the birth of each grandbaby to be a flying fish, too!

In the crazy-stressful-busyness of raising children, you might miss a lot of flying fish. I’m sure I did, no matter how reflective I try to be. That’s the biggest benefit to grandparenting: perspective. I didn’t know until this week that what I treasure most today might also be called “flying fish” experiences with each grandchild.

Sometimes it is when they learn a new sound or word, perhaps “moooo” and especially “GiGi.” It is in the warmth of recognition when they have come to know me and let me know that they want to be with me. It is in the pit-pat of tiny feet taking first steps, in their little arms wrapped around my neck, and in every sweet snuggle, settling in for rocking, reading, or lullabies. Unexpected, undeserved, and all too fleeting gifts.

Before we left for vacation, I was overcome with the sense that I would miss each of them terribly. Between my work travel schedule and our vacation and their parents’ vacations, February through April can be pretty tough for GiGi! It was 8 o’clock and I hadn’t begun to pack yet but I was compelled to do something to remind each of my love. I went into the glass shower where the acoustics might help the effort, sat on the bench, and recorded a song for each. For Rosie, “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” For Oliver, “Down by the Bay.” For Sadie, “Bicycle Built for Two.” For Henry, “Baby Beluga.”  Silly, I know. But I couldn’t help myself from leaving behind a smile and a song, just in case they missed me, too.

All week long I experienced flashbacks to our vacation a year ago, when 9-mos old grandboy Henry was on board with us. What a treat it was to vacation together! As the wee lad took his first flight, learned to peek-a-boo and to clap, savored mashed potatoes, enjoyed his first sail and the sea, and even when he peed on his GiGi we experienced a fleeting gift, not unlike a flying fish. Now Henry is almost two years old, growing all too quickly into an independent little boy. A couple of days into our trip, his mama sent a video of Henry singing his favorite new song, Snuggle Puppy, while playing his xylophone. Such a sweet performance! His Pops and I picked up the tune, singing along as I replayed it over and over, a lifeline in lonely moments away from our four grandbabies.

My dream has been to vacation regularly with each of our grandchids, to share experiences afar and adventure together removed from the responsibilities of home and work. I know that won’t happen anytime soon, farm responsibilities such as they are. Yet we are immeasurably blessed that they all live near by. In the daily routine, life is busy and can be stressful — for their parents as for us. I hope and pray we know flying fish when we see them.

~ René Morley

st john, usvi

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Most Caribbean cruise ships of any size stop at either St. Thomas U.S.V.I. or Sint Maarten/St. Martin (Dutch/French). Most of our itineraries have taken us to St. Martin, one of our favorite islands. But sometimes, as was the case this year, we visit St. Thomas. It is a shoppers mecca. U.S. residents, for whom it is duty free, go nuts for the shopapalooza of designer brands. (St Thomas (L) and St John (R) harbors)

On a big cruise day, six or more ships and 20,000 or more cruisers might descend on Charlotte Amalie, the capital and largest city in the U.S.V.I. This is the down-side of cruising: you won’t go far without a few thousand of your closest friends. Classy shops from beautifully repurposed old stone buildings set on a grid of narrow streets become a congested maze of bargain hunters, elsewhere known as outlet shopping. Sigh. When in St. Thomas, we look for something else to do. Sometimes that is a beach break or catamaran cruise. This week we realized we were long past due to visit neighboring St. John U.S.V.I.

Our St John tour made use of comfortable ferry service with an interior AC option that sure came in handy on the return trip. The entire crew were Caribbean transplants. Their spokesman was an aging, bleached-blond sailor dude from Florida. He enjoyed hearing himself talk but his local knowledge as we sailed also made for pleasant company.

We were split into smaller groups upon arrival in Cruz Bay, St John, some heading off to snorkel and others for the island tour. We boarded a comfortable open air safari style vehicle for the next couple of hours. Our tour guide was an older man with great pride in his island home and culture.

A well kept primary road forms a continuous loop around the island. It takes more than an hour to complete the loop. There are many sharp turns, each limited to one-way traffic. The on-rushing vehicle beep-beep-beeps it’s way through and everyone else patiently stops or at least slows and waits their turn.  Entirely civilized, eh? On the one occasion where a near miss occurred between safari vehicle and jeep resulting in a long angry beeeeep from jeep, our driver’s reaction was classic, laid-back Caribbean: “There’s no damage…” <big smile>.

St. John has 27 beaches, all of which are public.  We saw several on our loop, a good way to get the lay of the land for a return trip. Good luck finding parking at any of them in high season, though. Cabbing from Cruz Bay is probably the best bet unless you have a rental car and are staying awhile.

Accommodations do not come cheap, however; Caneel Bay Resort runs several hundred dollars per night and a meager cottage at the Cinnamon Bay campground costs $150 a night. (For $90 a night you may pitch a tent!) Kenny Chesney has a place at Upper Peter Bay Estates, and Carol Burnett, who filmed Four Seasons at Hawks Nest Bay with Alan Alda, also purchased a home. Much of the island is preserved through a national park, including surrounding reef; a portion of the island is privately owned. Land is especially precious as a result. Oh, and there is no airport service on St. John. Well, I suppose that’s why this island seems so sane.

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The famous Trunk Bay (above) and snorkeling trail was every bit as beautiful as promised and the sea seemed relatively calm. I would like to return with a snorkeling buddy. From all accounts, I should do so soon as the reef is threatened by the invasive lion fish and other environmental hazards.

IMG_1177Sugar plantation ruins dot the landscape and wild donkeys, descendants of cart labor days, roam free.We did not see any donkeys but observed plenty of flora and fauna as we made our way around the loop. Our guide stopped to point out a plant that requires only air to grow, developing roots, buds and leaves from tiny spikes at the edge of the leaves. And we learned, as we often do in the Caribbean, how fruits of the land cure various ills for which no self-respecting local would consider taking medication. Did you know papaya is the “Caribbean prune”? But wait, there’s more! In addition to being a great source of fiber, it aids blood pressure and inflammation. Pass the papaya, please. (In this photo, a papaya tree overlooks Maho Bay — where you can drop anchor for up to a week for a mere $15 a night. Best buy on the island, if you bring your own boat!)

IMG_1185We returned to the lovely little community of Cruz Bay with time to shop and relax. There is a nice collection of shops and restaurants there. I enjoyed browsing a bit while the Hubs found a friendly watering hole. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try a couple of Virgin Island brews. The Tropical Mango IPA, I am pleased to say, is perfectly fruity — in other words, not the least bit sweet, which is quite a feat. The Hubs enjoyed the Island Summer Ale. I carried the refreshing daily special back to the ferry — a local concoction called coconut and lime.  All in all, a very pleasant and low-key day in St John. This was not our most adventuresome tour but it was an easy launch to a long week of port of calls. No complaints!

~ René Morley

pastel perfect 

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After a very long travel day, getting up extra early to pack and hours of delay due to runway diversions affecting our second flight, on Friday night we arrived safely in Old San Juan. Sort of. As it turned out, I booked the wrong Sheraton! So we weren’t staying in the old city, as I intended, but near the convention center a few minutes away. This one was all on me. I was so excited about the room and rate that I neglected to note the address. Doggone it all!

We’ve stayed various places in San Juan before embarking on a cruise, including the Gallery Inn on Norzagaray (once was enough), Chateau Cervantes on Recinto Sur (repeatedly), and La Concha in Condado. I love being in the old city. I love boutique hotels. The Hubs, well, not so much. I thought the Sheraton OSJ would make for a decent compromise.

Well, the Sheraton on Convention Blvd turned out just fine. The room was wonderful and the property beautiful. We did incur additional cab fares to get to and from the old city on Saturday evening and Sunday morning. Otherwise, it was rather refreshing to be out of the stream of tourists flooding the narrow streets. We had more down time, for sure.  But next year our target is El Convento.  Every trip we enjoy breakfast in the inner courtyard, which feels, fittingly, like a sanctuary. Every time we think, next year we’ll stay here. Next year!

One of the things I love about OSJ is the rich variety of color and textures. Beautifully painted and maintained buildings in a glorious array of sun-washed hues and ornate wrought iron balconies line every street. Against the backdrop of the old city walls, grounded by ancient blue stone streets, capped by bright blue skies or seas, these vistas fill me with joy! I guess that is the way I was made. If you know me, you get it.

Every trip to San Juan, every cruise, we think of those we know who would love this pastel perfect slice of paradise.  Just before we left home we learned our dear friends D and L will join us in 2016. How exciting! We’ve got a list started of the places we hope they will enjoy with us. Let’s begin with the original, world’s best piña colada at Barrachina!

~ René Morley

nova scotia

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Our first port of call in Nova Scotia was Halifax, the capital city. As fate would have it, it was our only port of call in Nova Scotia! High winds prevailed upon our plans for Syndey and the Cape Breton highlands the following day. I was disappointed but ever more thankful we’d had such a wonderful day in the Halifax region.

Nova Scotia was memorable from the start, as two men played cheery bagpipes on the pier well before dawn. Quite fitting for New Scotland, don’t you think? It’s always nice to be welcomed, especially when you show up with a couple thousand of your closest friends.

I’d arranged a private tour for both Nova Scotia ports of call. In Syndey, we planned to meet up with Donnie (next time!) and Donnie had led us to his son-in-law, Stewart, in Halifax. We exchanged several emails before settling on an itinerary. I was was grateful we could do our own thing on our own timeframe, away from the hordes filling the tour buses lining the pier.

Stewart spent quite a bit of time in Halifax proper. We passed on the public gardens of great renown, given the season and our agenda, proceeding around and about neighborhoods of all varieties — from upper crust to lowly — several institutions of higher learning, the Citadel and the famous clock tower (so visible there is no excuse to be late), Stewart all the while recalling Halifax history for our edification.

Halifax is first and foremost a safe harbor. A long, narrow channel leads to a protected harbor, which doesn’t freeze despite (maybe because of?) the northern Atlantic climate. Halifax has long been an important allied naval base with substantial shipping infrastructure, always at the ready. It’s a good thing, because Nova Scotia is also, according to Stewart, the world’s shipwreck graveyard. More than 600 wrecks (if memory serves me correctly) lie off her coast.

DSC_0641In fact, Halifax became the epicenter of the RMS Titanic recovery mission. Not because she was the closest port but because she was able. So although I was quite anxious to get out of the city and see the countryside, I was eager to stop first at Fairview Cemetery, the largest, single final resting place for Titanic victims in the world.

More than 300 bodies were recovered; some were recommitted to the sea and others claimed and shipped elsewhere. In Fairview, 121 grave markers are arranged in long sloping rows that curve to resemble the bow of the ship. On some, there are flowers or other mementos. In a few places, the grass is worn away by visitors paying their respects. Many are the modest, standard issue grave markers and the deceased remain unidentified. It struck me as odd — a sign of our times — that Jewish victims were interred in a separate location, visible but distinct. (And apparently one non-Jewish victim remains in the “wrong” cemetery.) This visit was all the more poignant because of our experience with the Titanic Story exhibit at the Johnson GEO CENTRE in Newfoundland a day or two prior.

Leaving the city behind, we drove along the South Shore to Lunenberg, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is a lovely seaside town of brightly colored homes, many of which sport a distinctive exterior window treatment. Original settlers were German Protestants, Stewart noted. Today’s Lunenberg is an artsy place with lots of shops and restaurants and scenic vistas — a photographer’s delight. It is also home of the famous sleek and fast Bluenose schooner, a replica of which still sails.

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From Lunenberg we headed back east toward Halifax, following the South Shore through scenic Mahone Bay, stopping to admire the picturesque three churches. Many churches throughout the maritime provinces are a stark white clapboard dramatically trimmed with black. One of the three on the bay displays this unique style. We also stopped at the one and only Amos Pewter shop where artisans work their trade. I purchased a few gifts there before we continued on to Chester and, finally, Peggy’s Cove.

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DSC_0664Peggy’s Cove was a delightful place to land. The fishing village unfolding on either side of the narrow road approaching the sea is so quaint and serene that the aquadrama awaiting on the coast takes you by surprise. We had heard about Peggy’s Cove (“everyone” goes there, at least once) but were completely unprepared. Violent waves crashed against acres of flat rocks stretching along the jagged shoreline. Ka-BOOM! Ker-POW! The sea was sharp, slicing across the rocks, and saucy, spraying dozens of feet in the air on that bright, sunny day. Every so often, apparently, unsuspecting ignoramus are caught flatfooted and washed out to sea, many to their deaths. The conventional wisdom, “Stay off the black (um, yes, wet) rocks,” seems all too obvious. You don’t have to tell me twice.

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Stewart had given generously of his time and we were out and about a good deal longer than anticipated. It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived back in Halifax, which is, of course, another brew town. Hmmm, is there a theme emerging? It cannot be coincidence that that there are so many brightly colored and beautifully maintained homes and great craft brews in the Atlantic provinces. This could be a very foggy-gray and damp-cold place otherwise.  I was sure a craft brew or two were calling our names.

Sure enough, Garrisons Brewery near the pier all but beckoned. They didn’t serve food and we were famished, it being well past lunch. So we scooted into the fabulous farmers market just across the street, snagged some local cheese and seasoned nuts, and returned to the brewpub with our makeshift lunch. It was pleasant enough to sit outside with a flight of local flavors. The Tall Ship Amber took my vote — I think the Hubs settled on the Irish Red — for a most refreshing ending to a great day in Halifax.

~ Rene Morley

saint lucia

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One of the best things about cruising is stepping into a new place for a day. It’s a sampling; like tapas, a small plate. But still, a nice way to taste of a place before committing much time or money. The challenge — if you continue to cruise the same region and if you’re determined to accrue loyalty points and perks — is finding itineraries with ever new destinations.

It’s not a bad thing to return, to become increasingly familiar with a place. In some cases, we count on it. But this spring we were pleased for new tastes in both St. Croix and St. Lucia. Our initial plan in St. Lucia was to hike the Pitons, the twin conical seaside peaks which are her most notable feature. That is, until we were derailed by a zip lining misadventure. Then our back up plan became a land-and-sea group tour.

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We weren’t expecting much, given the circumstances, and were greatly relieved it was a small group. The bus was small, too, and that was a good thing. We spent the better part of the morning traversing narrow, winding inclines, hugging hairpin turns. Several times the driver pulled off for dramatic overlook views and photo opportunities. At each stop, local vendors called from small tables covered with island bric-à-brac, sheltered by umbrellas, eager to sell.

As we journeyed on, through tiny towns and countryside, I was surprised by the number of small but inviting hand painted signs along the roadside. Many advertised a local seafood specialty, apparently prepared in a private home, on one night or another. Several recommended the party on the beach, a sort of fisherman’s potluck, Sunday afternoon. Another promoted a car wash with live dancers! Were they targeting tourists or serving as a community bulletin board? It was hard to tell.

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We stopped in a quiet fishing village, the sun blazing high in the sky. Thin dogs lay in meager shade of small boats, disinterested in our arrival. Few fishermen lingered on the black sand beach, darkened by volcanic particles.

A lonely troubadour serenaded us on the small pier. “Looking for loooove, for youuuu,” he crooned. We chatted for a few minutes, or rather, he with the Hubs. He was also looking for ten dollars, five dollars? He proffered a weak pledge to paint his battered drum. It won’t impact his prospects and he won’t bother, as we both knew full well. Still, he had offered us something. We were happy to exchange a few dollars for the song and a memory.

We visited Diamond Falls and mineral springs, where a modest waterfall tumbles down a rock face stained and streaked gray and brown, resultant stream turned murky by minerals. Not the sort of place you are inclined to swim, in a gray flow. The island is blessed with restorative powers in this way and clear pools of mineral rich water were available for swimmers. Volcanic gurgling deep beneath the surface vent in some places, sending tell-tale wisps of steam skyward.

The surrounding botanical gardens were quite lovely, more lush and exotic than others we’ve toured in the tropics — and this was their dry season. Our guide was patient and thorough, maintaining a tireless commentary. Most notable was the ginger torch lily; fragile in flower, we were forbidden to touch. We took lunch there on the estate, a restored sugar plantation; an ample buffet arrayed with local fare. We were famished and it hit the spot. We didn’t hesitate to wash it down with a refreshing local brew, aptly named Piton.

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After lunch, it was a short jaunt to Soufrière, where our catamaran was tied to a dock nearly shadowed by the majestic Pitons. (Jade Mountain and famous resort also nearby.) By this point, the effects of the zip line were quite evident. My knee had swelled with an extra large, angry egg. I was so thankful we hadn’t been hiking all day! We were happy to find a shady spot on the boat and relax with Pitons in view and in hand.

The final hours passed quickly as we bounced on the waves, a refreshing breeze off the bow. There was a swimming break, for those so inclined, in a shallow bay. This provided yet another opportunity for locals to sell. Here was a first: entrepreneurs descended upon us by kayak, launching from a skiff nearby. They brought birdhouses of coconut shell, conch shells and more. (This island collects conch shells like no other we’ve seen. Even the architecture is adorned with conch!) But they had little success and moved on to a neighboring catamaran rather quickly.

Swimming break complete, the journey continued with rum punch flowing and old men dancing to impress their ladies. The captain detoured to explore a couple of bays, our guide pointing out with pride the more affluent areas as we made out way back to Castries. All of the islanders we met along the way were friendly, warmly encouraging us to return. “Please come back for a week. A month. Buy a vacation home!” (Not every island is so eager for a foreign influx, I can assure you.) All in all, it was a good day. No complaints.

We’ve become familiar with more than twenty Caribbean islands. Some you know you’d like to return to for a week or a month or a retirement dream. Others you know you wouldn’t. St. Lucia is somewhere in the middle, I think. Mostly because of the friendly St Lucians, I would be happy to go back. There is just so much left to explore!

~ René Morley

adventure antigua

We do not have the best track record in Antigua. Organized group tours, in general, are seldom as good as they sound. There was one nice catamran excursion, a few years ago. Others have been doomed.

The worst to date, by far, was a banana boat snorkeling and beach excursion. This was a speed boat with one faulty engine. (Read: no speed.) A boat that couldn’t reach plane (Read: long, cold, salt-saturated ride.) Arrogant and rude tour operators who were, please note, transplants from northeastern U.S. (Read: unprofessional and abusive.) All of this, topped off by choppy snorkeling conditions and deceivingly smooth rum punch. What a day.

People were complaining left and right. Some were cold and uncomfortable, after two hours under a sticky salt spray. Some were mad the swimming stop was nixed. Some were upset the ailing boat left the dock to begin with. The guide had no sympathy. “Go home and tell your friends, ‘I went to an island called Antigua and I got wet,'” he snickered. But the mood of the group did not bode well for tips.

So on the return, we made an abrupt and very brief stop at a beach. They floated a 48-quart Igloo chest cooler to shore and distributed a deadly concoction from plastic gallon jugs in generous quantities. It looked like Hawaiian Punch. Tasted like it, too. We, the unsuspecting, parched by salt and sun, drank greedily. (Read: sick. Sick like a dog.) I swear I can still hear them laughing as we tumbled off the boat. (Read: evil, evil men.) It was so bad that I petitioned and got our money back but it was small comfort. It was an introduction to Antigua we’d like to forget.

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However, this spring we were feeling adventuresome in Antigua. We wanted something active. Something to remind us that, though we’ve become grandparents, we’re young, yet! So we agreed upon a rainforest canopy zip line tour. Actually, we signed up for that plus a challenge course. This latter fact was somehow, unfortunately, lost on me. I was too busy swallowing my apprehension about zip lining.

Truth be told, I’ve been wanting to try it. I am not afraid of heights. Fast is usually fun, too. But I am not athletic, not by a long shot. What business did I have harnessing up in such fashion? The thought gave me pause.

Well, it turned out that I had reason to be apprehensive. I only wish I’d managed to take photos — though cameras are forbidden. Live action video on the Antigua Rainforest Company website will have to suffice. Don’t be surprised if you find me featured in the “what not to do” section!

In Antigua, it seems, there is a natural approach. (Read: OSEA compliance?) Zip line infrastructure is built into the trees, living or dead. (Drive those pins in deep, please.) In addition to these cables, platforms and such, your safety depends upon a few crucial elements: your harness (seemed perfectly fine); your brake — that would be your “strong hand”, gloved, applying pressure to the steel cable running above your head (ummm, okay); and your ability to remember as you zip and spin through the canopy how to position hands and feet. Most importantly, you should not place either hand in front of the wheels running along the upper most cable (yikes)!

This zip line course is a series of nine segments, each different. Some are fast; some are long. Some require you to sit and launch; others to step off into thin air. All require you to position for landing, raising your feet to avoid colliding with the platform, and braking with that handy dandy glove to slow down in time. Brake too hard, and you may hurt yourself. Brake too soon and you may become stranded mid-line, requiring a rescue. But if you fail to brake enough, you must trust their safety brake — a block of wood thrown out onto the line to slow your approach.

Once you start, there is no way to get where you’re going except go. When I felt myself moving too fast, out of control, spinning toward the landing platform, I’d lose my bearings and my grip. I was secure in the harness, thank God, but I wasn’t sure where I could safely put my hands to brake. So I didn’t. Instead, I’d yell, “BRAKE ME!” while hurtling along at God-knows-what speed toward a small wooden platform on a tall post of a tree high in the forest. Most of the time, the block sufficiently slowed my approach.

There was one time I nearly swept the attendant off the platform as I came crashing in. There was another time my feet clipped the landing platform. It didn’t bother me until later, when my knee swelled up with an extra large egg and it became painful to walk. That’s when I learned the value of the ship’s on board infirmary.* But I am getting ahead of myself, eh?

Meanwhile, I was counting down the segments. Everyone else in our group of twelve seemed to be relishing each zip — jocks and jockettes alike. I was too stressed about getting from point A to Z. I asked every platform attendant, “How many more?” because by the time I’d gotten through yet another landing I’d lost count again.

But then, finally, the end. Whew! And wooooo-hoo! I was proud to have conquered my anxieties. I’d survived the zip line, fingers intact. And I really wanted a cold brew…

Except, cruel fate, it was not the end! No, indeed, recall we had also signed on for the challenge course, six more segments constructed of ropes, cables, and ladders stretching through the canopy. It required a lot of balance and some upper body strength. My hair was plastered to the inside of my ill-fitting helmet, tilted askew. My shirt was stuck to my back. I was parched and weak all over. Oh, my mercy.

“I’ll go last,” I said. “I know I will be slow. I don’t want to hold everyone up.” The rest of the group seemed quite relieved.

“I’m nervous,” I confessed to the attendant.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re here to help.”

The Hubs offered to follow me, ready to help out if necessary. “No,” I said, “You go ahead. Just not too far ahead. Don’t leave me behind.” I was worried about connecting my safety cable. It was heavy and I was tired.

I did okay at first. And then that dratted cable got stuck. I couldn’t move it. I was alone, the Hubs far enough ahead to be of absolutely no help to me. I was frustrated. And angry. I said a bad word. About him. (Of course, then I also had to apologize. But not just yet. I’m getting ahead of myself again.) I mustered my strength, climbed up the side of the pole, and flung the cable into place with great irritation. This was more than I’d bargained for and I was not going to pretend to like it.

On the very last stretch, an attendant called out to me from the other side. “Are you okay?”

“I think so,” I said. “Why? Are you worried about me?”

“Yes,” he said, making his way toward me.

“Why?”

“Well, you look shaky.”

Hmm. I guess I could concede that point. I wasn’t sorry to see him, halfway across a particularly tricky obstacle suspended from the treetops. He gave me a few pointers as we worked our way through to the end. I thanked him for his help. “It’s sure nice to have friends in high places,” I said. And I meant it, although I know I could have managed.

It occurred to me then, in that very moment midst the rainforest canopy, that the challenge course is an analogy for life. We can go it alone. And we can be thankful we don’t have to.

~ René Morley

*Because I was injured on a tour purchased though the ship, the $111 fee to use the infirmary was waived. The doctor was very thorough, even offering to do x-rays. He provided a brace, heavy duty ibuprofen, and assurance that all would be well. He also supplied a doctor’s note, which allowed us to cancel our 5 hour hike of the Pitons the next day without penalty. He was right. I was in no condition to hike. I guess one adventure per cruise is enough!