Friday, November 22, 2013

Two Cuban All Inclusives in Trip Advisor Top 10 Lists

TripAdvisor Names 2013 Travelers' Choice Awards for All-inclusive Resorts

TripAdvisor announced the winners of its 2013 Travelers' Choice Awards for All-Inclusive Resorts. The awards recognize a total of 100 properties, including the top 25 in the world, and dedicated lists for seven regions around the globe including Africa, Asia, Europe, Caribbean, Mexico, Spain and Turkey.
Award winners were determined based on the most highly rated all-inclusive resorts on TripAdvisor, according to the reviews and opinions of millions of travelers worldwide. The average nightly rate of award-winning resorts was approximately $485 per night.
"All-inclusive resorts are an outstanding option for travelers who want an all-in-one vacation solution, and we're thrilled to highlight some of the finest around the world," said Barbara Messing, chief marketing officer for TripAdvisor. "For those considering a no-hassle stay that provides the convenience of having almost everything you need on property and included in the price, travelers suggest these amazing properties."
Top 10 All-Inclusive Resorts, World
    Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraiso, Playa Paraiso, Playa del Carmen, Mexico
    Royalton Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba
    The Beloved Hotel, Playa Mujeres, Cancun, Mexico
    Iberostar Grand Rose Hall, Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica
    Excellence Playa Mujeres, Playa Mujeres, Cancun, Mexico
    Le Blanc Spa Resort, Cancun, Mexico
    Iberostar Grand Bavaro Hotel, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
    Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun, Playa Maroma, Playa del Carmen, Mexico
    The Reserve at Paradisus Palma Real, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
    Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado Don Pablo Collection, Bahia de Samana, Samana Province, Dominican Republic
Top 10 All-Inclusive Resorts, Caribbean
    Royalton Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba
    Iberostar Grand Rose Hall, Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica
    Iberostar Grand Bavaro Hotel, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
    The Reserve at Paradisus Palma Real, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
    Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado Don Pablo Collection, Bahia de Samana, Samana  Province, Dominican Republic
    Sandals Royal Plantation, Ocho Rios, Jamaica
    The BodyHoliday, LeSport, Castries, St. Lucia
    Beaches Negril Resort & Spa, Negril, Jamaica
    East Winds Inn, Gros Islet, St. Lucia
    Melia Cayo Coco, Cayo Coco, Cuba

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Cruise Option

A New Way For Americans To Get To Cuba … Through Canada

NOVEMBER 18, 2013
A New Way For Americans To Get To Cuba … Through Canada
For decades, American-based cruise ships have gone out of their way to sail around the elephant in the Caribbean Sea — Cuba.
Canadian adventure travel entrepreneur Dugald Wells — he previously ran companies including Cruise North Expeditions and Marine Expeditions — has partnered with Athens-based Louis Cruises on the new Cuba Cruise, which is scheduled to depart on its first voyage Dec. 16.But now a new cruise company is about to debut weekly voyages that explore that fascinating and mysterious island that is, for the most part, off-limits to U.S. citizens.
The 1,200-passenger Louis Cristal will operate 15 weekly circumnavigations around Cuba through March 24.
Wells opened bookings in April. “It’s going great,” he said. “The numbers are right at where expected them to be. Well over 100 tour operators around the world are offering the product. Scandinavia has been a huge producer for us. It’s been terrific.”
But the bulk of the passengers will be Canadians, Wells said. “A million Canadians are going to Cuba every winter,” he said.
The cruises will depart from two ports — Havana on Mondays and Montego Bay, Jamaica, on Fridays. (Havana’s cruise terminal, built back when European lines called on a regular basis, is in terrific shape, Wells said.)
Fares start at $586 Canadian (about $568 U.S.). Cuban ports of call include Santiago, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Punta Frances on the Isle of Youth.
“We’re making one stop in Montego Bay to get fuel because the Cubans are not able to guarantee that they’ll have enough,” Wells told Travel Pulse. Plus, Montego Bay has plenty of air lift.
“We’ll see how the season goes,” Wells said. “I’d love to have a ship there year-round. There is quite a summer tourism market in Cuba, not so much from the Canadian side but from Europe. It’s something to keep an eye on for the future. Now we’re targeting the winter sun holiday.”
Wells is handling sales and marketing while Louis is primarily handling the ship operations. The ship will bring in Canadian food, including beer and beef, but also will offer Cuban specialties. Local Cuban performers also will sing and dance to Cuban music.
Shore excursions include tours built around Ernest Hemingway and Bob Marley, remote beach outings, and a guided tour of Havana in American automobiles from the 1940s and 50s. Of course, there also will be tours of cigar and rum factories.
U.S. residents legally barred from doing business with Cuba can take the cruise as part of a longer trip operated by Road Scholar, the not-for-profit tour division of Elderhostel that has a “People to People” license from the U.S. Department of Treasury to legally operate educational trips in Cuba for U.S. residents.
Road Scholar includes five nights on the Louis Cristal as part of a 12-night tour priced from $4,795.
Now, the Louis Cristal is undergoing final outfitting, undergoing safety inspections, training crewmembers down to specifics such as stocking olives for martinis, upgrading the ship’s satellite systems to play North American sports and installing ceiling hooks for the aerial circus act.
The last detail before its Nov. 24 departure from Greece will be painting huge brightly colored flowers on the ship’s hull.

Monday, November 18, 2013

New Climate of Pragmatism

Analysis: New climate of pragmatism prevails in U.S.-Cuba relations


The flags of the United States and Cuba are seen flying in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Florida
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The flags of the United States and Cuba are seen flying in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Florida …
By David Adams

MIAMI/HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. relations with Cuba have undergone a surprise warming in recent months, raising expectations of possible agreements to bring the two countries closer after more than 50 years of hostility.
U.S. and Cuban officials overcame a series of potentially divisive incidents this summer with mutual displays of pragmatism rarely seen since Cuba's 1959 socialist revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
President Barack Obama appeared to recognize this publicly on November 8 when he said at a fundraiser in Miami that it may be time for the United States to revise its policies toward Cuba. "We have to be creative and we have to be thoughtful, and we have to continue to update our policies," he said.
Hostile rhetoric has long characterized relations between the two countries, separated by only 90 miles of sea. But U.S. and Cuban officials now are privately expressing appreciation of each other's handling of the incidents.
They include Cuba's decision not to offer a safe haven to fugitive former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is sought by the United States for alleged espionage, and the diplomatically deft U.S. handling of a North Korean ship carrying Cuban weapons in possible violation of U.N. sanctions.
"I think there is a willingness on both sides to engage more pragmatically, but we are not on the cusp of any great policy changes," said one U.S. official involved in discussions on Cuba policy. "We are not as optimistic as the Cubans are, but there's interest in moving things along."
Cuba has made no official response to Obama's speech but chose not to criticize him for hailing two leading Cuban dissidents who attended the fundraiser as champions of democracy. Nor did they react to the holding of the event at the home of the president of the Cuban American National Foundation, a longtime foe of the Castro government. In the past, the Cuban authorities have often issued stinging rebukes of a U.S. president in similar circumstances.
"For Obama to say what he said, and do that in Miami, is not easy. That didn't go unnoticed here," in Havana, said Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat and former ambassador to the European Union. "There is still a great lack of confidence between the two sides, but I think both sides want to do something."
Despite the lack of formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, U.S. and Cuban officials do have contact "when it is our interest to do so," one senior U.S. government official told Reuters.
U.S. officials met with a top Cuban diplomat in Washington to request that Havana refuse entry to Snowden, U.S. officials told Reuters. Cuba made no guarantees, but unlike some of its allies in Latin America it chose not to extend a hand to Snowden.
"There's a lot of sympathy with Snowden's cause here, but it wasn't in Cuba's interest to get involved," Alzugaray said.
In July, when the Obama administration detected a North Korean vessel carrying a hidden cargo of Cuban weapons, including two MiG-21 fighter planes and 15 MiG jet engines, departing from a port in Cuba, U.S. officials say they decided not to intervene directly so that they could avoid a high-profile bilateral incident.
Instead, they tipped off Panamanian officials, who raided the ship and found the weapons, allowing the case to be handled in a more low-key multilateral manner by the U.N. Security Council, which is investigating whether the shipment violated a ban against weapons transfers to North Korea.
Cuba says the aging, Soviet-era weapons were being sent for repair, to be returned to Cuba. It has remained silent since then, raising no objections to the way the issue is being handled, and has cooperated with U.N. weapons inspectors who visited Cuba last month.
"Both sides, Cuba and the United States, have acted with great care," Alzugaray said.
President Raul Castro, who replaced his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, has earned a reputation as a pragmatist. His attitude toward the United States also may be a hedge against political uncertainty in oil-rich Venezuela, Cuba's staunchest - and most generous - ally in recent years.
U.S. officials are closely watching as Cuba implements a series of free-market reforms to the Soviet-style economy. Cuba shows no signs of changing its one-party, communist-run political system, although is has relaxed travel restrictions, allowing dissidents to travel abroad.
"Because of the economic reforms under way in Cuba the conditions are being put in place for a more normalized engagement with the U.S.," said Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow of the Washington-based Brookings Institution who briefed senior administration officials last week on a newly published study highlighting the role of a new middle class of emerging entrepreneurs.
"I was given the impression that its basic analysis - that important changes were occurring in Cuba and that the U.S. should be more engaged - was widely shared and that some new initiatives would probably be forthcoming," he said.
Obama is likely to face opposition in Congress to attempts to thaw the relationship with Cuba at a time when he is already under fire for trying to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear ambitions.
Two powerful senators of Cuban descent, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez and Florida Republican Marco Rubio, both hold to a firm line of limited engagement with Cuba.
"The administration is willing to ignore all of the obvious signs of continued and even ramped-up repression because it is overly eager to warm up relations between our countries," U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami, told Reuters.
The Obama administration's hands are tied in many ways by the 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, an executive branch decree first issued by President John F. Kennedy and reinforced by Congress in the 1990s.
The fate of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, serving a 15-year jail sentence in Cuba for his role in setting up an illegal underground Internet network, also has made for a diplomatic impasse, as have four convicted Cuban agents jailed in the United States for spying.
U.S. officials say the Gross case remains "a serious impediment" to improved relations, but his detention has not ruled out all engagement with Cuba.
"He's an American prisoner, and we should do all we can to obtain his release but we shouldn't let it guide U.S. foreign policy," said U.S. Representative Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American Democrat from Miami.
U.S. officials also are upbeat about Cuba's role in hosting continuing peace talks between the Colombian FARC rebels and the government of Colombia.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also thanked Cuba for its help late last month in securing the release of a U.S. army veteran held by the FARC in Colombia.
One of the signs of a thaw could be Cuba's removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which could ease strict curbs on financial transactions involving U.S. citizens.
Talks between the United States and Cuba to renew direct postal service, which was suspended 50 years ago, also have progressed better than expected.
"The Cubans usually spend the first day lecturing the U.S. on the embargo and the next day stalling," Garcia said. "This time after 15 minutes of required rhetoric they decided to move forward."
(Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Editing by Martin Howell, Prudence Crowther and Bill Trott)

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Intriguing Words of President Obama in Miami

Obama Calls for Updated US Policy on Cuba

VOA News
U.S. President Barack Obama says it is time for the United States to revise its policies regarding Cuba.

Speaking in Miami Friday, Obama said it doesn't make sense that policies put in place more than 50 years ago would still be effective in the Internet age.

The president pointed out that Cuban leader Fidel Castro came into power in 1961, the same year Obama was born. The United States cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba that same year and imposed an economic embargo a year later.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba is controversial internationally. In October, the United Nations voted to condemn it for the 22nd time.

The Obama administration has engaged in recent discussions with the Cubans on migration and mail, and has relaxed travel and remittance rules for Cuban Americans.

Obama Tells Dissidents He's Begun To See 'Changes' In Cuba

Published November 09, 2013

MIAMI –  U.S. President Barack Obama said in a meeting here with Cuban dissidents that he had begun to see "changes" on the communist-ruled island.

Obama met Friday with a group of prominent Cuban government opponents, including Guillermo Fariñas and the leader of the Ladies in White, Berta Soler, at the residence of Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation.

The U.S. president referred to Cuba's recent relaxing of economic and travel restrictions, adding that the United States needs to be "creative" and imaginative in its relations with the Caribbean island.

Obama lamented the growing "partisanship" in Washington with respect to Cuba, saying it was blocking the chance for further progress on that foreign policy front.

The United States has started to see changes on the island, Obama said in his first meeting with Cuban dissidents in his five years as president.

Havana has introduced free-market reforms since President Raul Castro took over from his older brother Fidel in 2006 and this year loosened restrictions on Cubans traveling abroad.

At the start of the 40-minute gathering, attended by roughly 30 people, Fariñas said it was proof of the White House's support for Cuba's dissident movement and added that he would personally ask Obama not to hold any meeting with the Cuban government without the presence of the opposition.

Asked after the meeting if he feared returning to the island, Fariñas said he was not concerned but he also did not rule out "reprisals" by the Cuban authorities.

Soler, who was dressed in white at the gathering, told reporters afterward that "Cuba's freedom depends exclusively on Cubans."

Obama visited Miami Friday afternoon for a Democratic fundraiser and returned to Washington on Saturday.

Obama says U.S. needs to update policies on Cuba

9:07 p.m. CST, November 8, 2013
MIAMI (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Friday that it may be time for the United States to revise its policies toward Cuba, against which it has had an embargo for more than half a century.

"We have to be creative and we have to be thoughtful and we have to continue to update our policies," he said at a fundraising event in the Miami area.

"Keep in mind that when Castro came to power I was just born, so the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet, Google and world travel doesn't make sense," he added, referring to Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban revolution.

Incremental changes in U.S. Cuba policy have allowed greater communication with people on the island and the transfer of remittances, Obama said.

"But I think we all understand that ultimately, freedom in Cuba will come because extraordinary activists and the incredible courage of folks like we see here today," he told a small audience at the home of Jorge Mas, a telecommunications equipment executive. "But the United States can help."

A younger generation of U.S. politicians and Americans of Cuban ancestry are likely more open to finding "new mechanisms" to bring about change on the island, he said.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba is controversial internationally and the United Nations in October voted for the 22nd time to condemn it. Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, said the fact that the embargo has been in place for more than half a century is "barbaric."

Obama said before taking office that he wanted to recast long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations, but his efforts have been a disappointment to the Cuban government, which hoped he would do more to dismantle the embargo.

U.S. diplomats have said that while the United States welcomes some of the recent changes in Cuba, the country still has one of the most restrictive economic systems in the world.

Even so, the two countries have made small advances toward one another. Diplomats sat down in September to discuss re-establishing direct mail between the United States and Cuba, which has been suspended since 1963.

Obama restarted the talks, along with discussions of immigration issues, in 2009. However the negotiations broke off after Cuba arrested U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who was sentenced in 2011 to 15 years for his role in setting up an underground Internet network.

(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

US may revise its 50-year old embargo against Cuba
"The Voice of Russia"
The US may revise the currently effective sanctions that Washington slapped on Cuba in 1960.
This came in a statement by the US President Barack Obama during his visit to Florida. "We have to be creative and we have to be thoughtful and we have to continue to update our policies," he said.
"And we have to continue to update our policies," said Obama, speaking at a political fundraiser at the home of Jorge Mas Santos, head of the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF).
Obama said that the embargo against Cuba imposed more than 50 years ago may not be as effective today, adding that a revision of the US decisions of the 1960s would allow greater communication for the Cubans, the ITAR-TASS news agency reports.
Obama said that a younger generation of Americans is likely more open to finding "new mechanisms" to settle problems in bilateral relations.
The US imposed discriminatory economic sanctions on Cuba after the Fidel Castro government had seized the property of US nationals and corporations in Cuba.
In 1962, the sanctions were toughed to an almost full embargo. The US has made the sanctions removal conditional on Havana’s progress towards democracy and respect for human rights in Cuba, as well as ending Cuba’s military cooperation with other countries.
Addressing Mas Santos, Obama said: "I think that partly because we're of the same generation, we recognize that the aims are always going to be the same. And what we have to do is to continually find new mechanisms and new tools to speak out on behalf of the issues that we care so deeply about."
The CANF is the leading Cuban-American activist group.
It was founded by Mas's father Jorge Mas Canosa, and during the elder Mas's leadership was a bastion of conservative, pro-Republican politics.
The Cuban-born Mas Canosa was a favorite of Ronald Reagan, and visited the White House in the 1980s.However his son, Mas Santos, a successful telecommunications businessman, supported Obama in his presidential bids in 2008 and 2012.
Under Obama, Cuban-Americans can travel and send money to the island more easily, and mail restrictions have been eased.
The two countries however have yet to resume full diplomatic relations.Obama arrived in Miami on Friday after visiting the port of New Orleans, Louisiana, and is scheduled to depart on Saturday.
According to the Miami Herald he is in Miami for three political fundraisers.
Voice of Russia, TASS, AFP

The Miami Herald
Posted on Fri, Nov. 08, 2013
‘Incredible night’ as Obama meets Cuban dissidents in Miami

By Juan O. Tamayo

 President Barack Obama told two of Cuba’s leading dissidents in South Florida Friday that he admires their sacrifices, a rare White House recognition of the peaceful opposition on the communist-ruled island.

“The most important thing here was the recognition by the president of the United States, the most powerful democracy in the world,” dissident Guillermo Farinas said minutes after the meeting.

Farinas, spokesman for the Cuban Patriotic Union of Cuba, and Ladies in White leader Berta Soler met with Obama during a fund-raiser at the Pinecrest home of Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).

Farinas said the two dissidents urged Obama during their private meeting to ensure that any negotiations on the future of Cuba include the opposition on the island as well as exiles.

They also counseled the president to listen to dissidents, because they are the ones who live on the island. Fariñas and Soler have both advocated tough U.S. sanctions on Havana until the government moves toward democracy.

Mas Santos told El Nuevo Herald that the president listened to the dissidents, “encouraged them and spoke of his admiration for their sacrifices.”

Obama’s visit “lasted an hour but seemed like 10 seconds,” said Mas Santos, who hosted one of three Obama fundraisers Friday and Saturday for the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Speaking by the pool of Mas Santos’ house, Obama said his policy of supporting civil society in Cuba is beginning to show results, but that Washington must continue to be “creative and thoughtful” in its policies.

Soler wore the traditional white clothes of her group, and Farinas wore a suit and tie with a Band-Aid over the spot on his scalp where he suffered a cut during a beating just last Sunday by a pro-government mob.

Meetings of U.S. presidents with dissidents from any country have been historically rare, although Vice President Joe Biden received Soler in the White House last month.

Both the Ladies in White and Fariñas have won the European Parliament’s top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of conscience. The women won it in 2005 and Fariñas, who has staged more than 20 hunger strikes to protest abuses, in 2010.

Mas Santos, son of CANF founder Jorge Mas Canosa, has been a strong Obama supporter since his 2008 campaign for the presidency. Conservatives in CANF broke off in 2001, four years after Mas Canosa’s death, and founded the Cuban Liberty Council.

The other Obama fundraisers were being hosted by Leslie Miller Saiontz, a businesswoman and philanthropist who contributed $57,300 in 2012 to various candidates and committees, and Ralph G. Patino, a Coral Gables personal-injury attorney who contributed $88,800 last year to various committees and candidates.

Many donors at the Mas Santos fundraiser moved on later to Tropical Nights, the separate annual fundraiser for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba.

“Unquestionably, this has been an incredible night,” Fariñas said. “This has been a triumph for the entire opposition, above all for democracy in Cuba, for those who are on the island and those outside, those who died trying to get out and those who live outside.”

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Family Holiday That a General License Could Make Possible

Cuba: There's more to this island than icons of the revolution

1 / 2

A family holiday reveals how to capture the best images of a photogenic country, from cigar-rollers and Cadillacs to its mighty mountain ranges and cowboys, as Mike Unwin discovers


Behind the opulent carved front door it's a typical colonial Cuban living room. Framed Spanish ancestors glower down on to antique furniture; afternoon sunlight streams through wrought-iron window bars across the tiled floor. Typical in all respects except, perhaps, the two horses that stand patiently between the bamboo easy chair and mahogany coffee table.

My daughter is dumbstruck as we edge past the animals to the tray of welcome drinks. "This is Luna," explains our host, Julio Muñoz, patting the larger beast, "and this is her foal." The youngster has been unwell so he's brought her inside to keep an eye on her. As you do.

To be fair, Julio – photographer, horse whisperer and local celebrity in the Unesco World Heritage town of Trinidad – is probably not your average Cuban. But, one week into our tour, "average" is proving tricky to pin down. Cuba seems to be one bizarre juxtaposition after another – rumba dancers jiggling in front of revolutionary slogans, old ladies chewing on stonking cigars – and we are learning to expect the unexpected.

It is such images, of course, that make the island so famously photogenic. I'm here, with my family and four others – our children ranging in age from eight to 15 – on an innovative tour. The idea is to combine a holiday, taking in some of the island's classic sights, with a basic photography course. Something to keep all ages both busy and happy.

Julio is the second of two local photography guides on our trip. Already he has led us on a walkabout through town, doffing his cowboy hat to elderly señoras. We clicked away at his promptings: stooping low to capture a rose-pink 1960s Cadillac before the crumbling Convento de San Francisco; panning wider for a full street tableau – barefoot children, pastel houses, skinny gent with pet iguana. Now, back in his living room, we are learning the theory.

"See how it leads the eye in." Julio explaining the one-thirds principle of picture composition, uses his own slide show to demonstrate that placing the subject at the intersections in an imaginary grid of thirds, rather than centering it, gives the viewer a sense of expectation. "Aaah!" we chorus, as he illustrates the point with one stunning image after another.

Our clicking began a week earlier in Havana, where government tour guide Ari Perez met us at the airport. Over the past week, driving from A to B, he has been regaling us with the virtues of his homeland, how it has clung to its ideals through five decades of US imperialist aggression. His commentary has not been without its subtext: a frustration at the lack of passports, internet access and other Western indulgences. But all that may be about to change. Once the first trickle of private enterprise opens the floodgates, so popular opinion has it, the island's unique qualities will – for better or worse – be swept away in a deluge of bland Western consumerism.

And so, with just one full day in Havana, we piled into a fleet of vintage American cars and rumbled out from our hotel in search of the capital's legendary faded grandeur. Our Cadillacs and Chevrolets cut an incongruous dash in the Plaza de la Revolución as we passed beneath a vast mural of a clearly disapproving Che Guevara. Dismounting in the city centre, we followed Ari on foot into the labyrinth of Habana Vieja (the old town). Our cameras fell greedily on the life and colours of the street: elegant colonial interiors, street vendors hawking ballet shoes, a caged parrot in a chocolatier's window. For a nation squeezed into austerity, the place seemed brimful of life.

At a tourist restaurant – ice cream for youngsters, mojitos for parents – the toasties were unimpressive (Cuba is not for foodies) but the house rumba band was fabulous.

The following afternoon saw us high above a valley, some 175km to the west of the capital, gawping at the panorama of Viñales. "Switch to aperture priority and try a low F-stop," suggested Harold, the self-effacing young photography guide who had joined us in Havana. We scrolled through one another's images, trying to decide who had best captured this improbably chocolate-box landscape – its massive limestone buttresses punching up through a green patchwork of field and forest against a storm sky of angry purples.

Farming in Cuba remains highly traditional, the collapse of the sugar industry after the demise of Soviet Russia having spelt the end of large-scale production. This, after all, is a country with one of the lowest per capita carbon footprints on Earth. It all made for an appealing mix the next morning as we set out on foot to explore the Viñales valley. We snapped away as pigs rootled beneath grenadilla hedgerows, a farmer led his bullock through an arrowroot field and a heron flapped over the spiky palisades of pineapple plants.

At the end of a village track were the tobacco sheds, wrinkled leaves arranged on drying racks in the dark. Cuba's cigar industry is hailed as a paragon of the small-scale, organic and community-based – and yet it is tobacco. Nobody dared interrupt Ari's spiel with awkward questions, however, as he explained how the traditions are passed down through generations, that cigars are in fact good for you and how all that imperialist anti-smoking propaganda was just aimed at destroying Cuba's economy. Certainly the details were remarkable: a cigar receives such loving attention, on its long journey from field to humidor, that an estimated 173 hands touch each leaf.

"Try turning off the flash," suggested Harold, as we entered a dark room to watch a wizened tobacco farmer rolling a cigar – aromatic triga leaves for the inside, tougher capa leaves for the sheath. "A blur gives you more action." The aroma of roasting coffee beans competed with that of the leaves twisting between his nimble fingers as we jostled to capture pictures. The children, meanwhile, were thrilled at having pretend puffs on the finished product. "Did you get a picture, Dad? How cool was that!"
Deep in Cuba's pastoral interior it is easy to forget you are on a Caribbean island. But it was the Caribbean that provided our next stop. The Bay of Pigs, in the island's southwest, is best known for the ill-fated American sponsored "invasion" of 1961. It was in the warm, shallow waters of Playa Girón – near our beach hotel – that a CIA-trained team of 1,400 exile paramilitaries came ashore, only to be defeated by Castro's revolutionary guard. Among the relics at a nearby museum, colourful rhetoric celebrated the deeds of the heroes – one of whom, before expiring, had scrawled "Viva Fidel" in his own blood on the side of a tank. Outside, belligerent-looking land crabs scuttled across the sand, their pincers echoed the military hardware on display.

Cold War history – along with cameras – were abandoned the next morning as we headed to the nearby coral lagoon of Caleta Buena for a spot of snorkelling. The sea was suitably turquoise and the darting reef fish did their kaleidoscopic stuff. My daughter and I watched a line of cuttlefish hang above the bottom, warning colours pulsing along their spaceship bodies, until a swish of my flipper sent them rocketing away. Piña coladas followed with our al-fresco lunch beneath the palms ("sin alcohol, para los niñas," of course).

As we continued east, via the French-influenced coastal town of Cienfuegos and the beaches at Costa Sur, Ari warmed to his themes. Tongue-in-cheek complaints about "our American friends" had become more vehement as he bemoaned the suffering wrought by sanctions, but just as quickly dissolved into a grin. "In Cuba," he explained, with a wink, "we solve all our problems with rum, cigars and 'cushy-cushy'." Indeed.
And so to Trinidad, jewel of southern Cuba, tucked away among a picturesque cluster of hills halfway along the south coast. Having met Julio and his horses on day one, day two sees us clambering into the saddle and trotting after him into the lush countryside. We wind among sugar plantations and splash through streams before reaching a hacienda, where raw cane is crushed into syrupy drinks and an old-timer belts out Spanish love songs on a battered four-string guitar. Finally we dismount, gingerly, for a lavish lunch at La Finca de Leonardo, Julio's family home, where a table is laden with rice, beans and shrimp salad, and a pig turns slowly on a spit. "I want to visit Scotland," says Julio's daughter María, as she pours Cuban Colas for the children. "I want to meet J K Rowling."
Julio does not forget his responsibilities. After lunch we pull over at a ford where, parked in the river – rear wheels in the water – is a classic red Cadillac. Julio lines us up on the bank, with the light behind us and then plays his trump card: a cowboy gallops into the shallows and, with dazzling horsemanship, makes circuit after circuit around the vehicle, sending plumes of spray across the gleaming fenders. We snap away from every angle – trying to distill into one winning image all we've learnt in the past week about movement, colour and composition. Those with more ambition or fancier cameras have ample time to experiment with different settings. The results, at least in my case, are rather less impressive than the spectacle. But it's a breathless and thrilling half hour.
Cadillac, cowboy … all we need to complete the cliché is Che Guevara chomping on a cigar. But these images are famous for a reason. Yes, our tour has doubtless given us a rose-tinted impression of Cuba and glossed over its numerous difficulties. But it's a gorgeous place, we're on holiday, we've got our cameras and now – at last – we're not afraid to use them.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Mike Unwin travelled as a guest of The Adventure Company (0845 450 5316; which offers a 12-day Viva Cuba! family holiday, from £1,670 for children and £1,855 for adults, including flights, hotel accommodation, some meals, transport and services of a local tour leader. It also offers tailor-made tours for families or groups (minimum two people) which can include photography tuition and assignments, prices on request.

Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406; flies from Manchester and Gatwick to Holguín and Cayo Coco; Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; flies from Gatwick to Holguín; and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; flies from Gatwick to Havana.

More information

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Road Scholar On Board Again As Long As It Doesn't Start in Miami

Cuba tour operator now in compliance with U.S. regulations

By Gay Nagle Myers
Road Scholar is back with a new Cuba program that complies with U.S. regulations.

The Boston-based company was forced to cancel Cuba sailings in August when the U.S. government denied the company permission to transport U.S. citizens to Cuba on a cruise ship.

The new itinerary begins with a flight from Miami to Havana and includes six nights in hotels and five nights aboard the 1,200-passenger Louis Cristal.

"Participants on the program circumnavigate the island, utilizing the ships as a means of transportation to travel quickly to ports such as Holgin, Punta Frances and Santiago de Cuba," said Stacie Fasola, associate vice president, Road Scholar.

Departures are weekly from Jan. 6 through March 17; rates start at $4,995, not including roundtrip air from Miami to Havana.

The itinerary includes 23 interactive experiences and meetings with Cuban families, artists, dancers, students, community leaders and farmers.

Road Scholar also offers five people-to-people land tours of Cuba for 2014.

Three seaborne trips had been scheduled from December through March 2014, but the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control said that "travel to and from Cuba, whether originating or terminating in the U.S. or a third country, may not be aboard a vessel."

The itinerary includes 23 interactive experiences and meetings with Cuban families, artists, dancers, students, community leaders and farmers.

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. 


OFAC has an irrational aversion to boats.  It has refused to allow ferry service to be launched from the US to Cuba despite the substantial reduction in cost that would result for the likely Cuban American clientele.  

Now it has consented to allow Road Scholar to use shipboard housing as long as the voyage does not begin in the US.  Is there a deeper meaning for US policy toward Cuba by such parsing or are we dealing with OFAC's desire to make travel as complicated and costly as possible to placate the Miami hard liners? 

President Obama, its past time to take OFAC off the case.

Cuba Cruise to Offer Exclusive Cuba Circumnavigation Sailing; U.S. Not-For-Profit Travel Organization Road Scholar to Present This New Way for Americans to Discover Cuba

Cuba Cruise introduces an exclusive Cuba circumnavigation sailing and welcomes US not-for-profit travel organization Road Scholar to present this brand new way for Americans to discover Cuba. With Road Scholar, guests participate in a land and ship-based education exchange program, absorbing the energy of Havana, interacting with local Cubans, and discovering the remote parts of the island that are difficult to access by land.

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Explore Havana via Cuba Cruise with Road Scholar
Explore Havana via Cuba Cruise with Road Scholar
We’re excited to offer the travel market something truly unique...a top-notch cruise experience and exploration of Cuba’s remarkable sights, sounds, flavors, history, and culture.
Calgary, Canada (PRWEB) October 31, 2013
Newly-launched Cuba Cruise breaks new ground with their Cuba circumnavigation itineraries, making the island’s fascinating but otherwise hard to reach ports more accessible and affordable than ever. Each cruise, aboard the Louis Cristal, includes visits to world famous cities and off-the-beaten path towns, UNESCO world heritage sites and national parks, as well as in-depth exploration of Cuba’s dynamic culture. The experience offers the best qualities of cruising and inclusive getaways combined with a Cuba that few American travelers have seen.
Cuba Cruise will dramatically increase the otherwise limited supply of Cuba travel options for American travelers in the years to come. The upcoming season will run sailings from December 16, 2013 to March 24, 2014.
“We’re excited to offer the travel market something truly unique,” said Cuba Cruise President Dugald Wells. “We provide the best of both worlds to our guests – a top-notch cruise experience and the type of in-the-know exploration of Cuba’s remarkable sights, sounds, flavors and history that is usually reserved for locals only.”
US not-for-profit travel organization Road Scholar joins Cuba Cruise to offer Americans this completely unique voyage. With Road Scholar, guests participate in a land and ship-based education exchange program, absorbing the energy of Havana, interacting with local Cubans and discovering the remote parts of the island that are difficult to access by land. Travelers with Road Scholar will experience 5-nights onboard the Louis Cristal ship. The company expects the special program to fill very quickly, so seize the moment and enroll today.
-- Cruise Line Veteran as CEO, and Award-Winning Partner Louis Cruises --
Cuba Cruise is in steady hands with President Dugald Wells at the helm, a 20-year veteran of the cruise industry. Having been honored in 2006 by Travel + Leisure Magazine as one of the Top 35 Innovators in travel today, Dugald is uniquely qualified to bring Cuba Cruise to the market. With ownership partner Louis Cruises, industry leaders with 25 years of experience in cruising and an award-winning history in tourism, Cuba Cruise is sure to see success in the years to come.
-- Your Cuba, Accessible & Authentic --
The line’s launch diversifies traditional Cuban travel options to provide access to authentic Cuba, offering unique opportunities to experience an inspired culture and visit Cuba’s fabled colonial cities, renowned UNESCO sites and remote wilderness nature reserves.
-- Louis Cristal --
Louis Cristal is a modern cruise ship with a sleek and unique yacht-like design and a cruising speed of 18 knots. It features an array of amenities with all the comforts expected of today’s contemporary vessels, including spacious staterooms and suites (some with balconies, and each one equipped with shower, WC, wash basin, telephone, hairdryer & TV), elegant lounges and restaurants, casino and open promenades. The ship also features modern communication facilities including an internet corner, WiFi and roaming GSM mobile phone service.
-- Quality Cuisine Meets Cuban Entertainment --
Each cruise will feature the company’s signatures of impeccable service and delicious meals served onboard. All dining aboard Cuba Cruise will feature quality imported Canadian produce, beef and other food products -- most notable in the a la carte Alberta Prime Steakhouse -- and specialty Cuban dishes.
Cruises will also feature a first-rate entertainment program of Cuban music and dance by local Cuban performers.
-- For U.S. Citizens --
Americans are required to make their Cuba Cruise reservation through licensed companies, such as Road Scholar who is authorized to travel to Cuba under OFAC License #CT-19201-3.
For details on Road Scholar’s Cuba trips, visit or call 1-800-454-5768.
For complete details on Cuba Cruise sailings, call 1-855-364-4999 or visit