Monthly Archives: October 2016

Why family travels never been better

Then: plane travel was considered a luxury, low-cost airlines had yet to take to the skies and, for many, family holidays were annual events bookended by seemingly never-ending drives, complete with squabbling siblings and ‘are we there yet?’ on repeat.

Now: thanks to a boom in affordable air travel, the modern child may take numerous trips each year, blending close-to-home camping expeditions or farm stays with urban adventures in the world’s ‘must-see’ cities such as London, Paris or New York.

What were once considered ‘trips of a lifetime’ are also more likely to be regular fixtures in childhood, with long-haul holidays spent zip-lining in Costa Rica, snorkelling off Thailand’s beautiful beaches or penguin-watching off the Cape in South Africa all boosting a young jet-setter’s memory bank.

 

We all sleep easier, family style

Then: the whole clan often crowded into one unappetising hotel room, slept top-to-toe in a cramped tent or descended upon some kindly old friend or distant relative who had once politely suggested ‘you should really come and stay some time’.

Now: hotels are generally far better prepared for families, offering adjoining rooms, cots and even babysitting services. There’s a whole range of luxury places created specifically for the family market – Cavallino Bianco (cavallino-bianco.com) in Italy, the UK’s Watergate Bay Hotel (watergatebay.co.uk) or Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawaii to name just a few – with kids’ clubs, child-friendly food, play areas in the grounds and so on.

But the accommodation revolution does not stop there. Thanks to popular home swap and rental sites it’s now super easy for families to locate great apartments, often with toys, bunk beds and all the mod cons required by today’s child. If you really want to go the extra mile, companies such as Bush Baby Travel (bushbaby.travel) offer safaris where the whole family can sleep comfortably under canvas in the bush. There’s also the family cruise option, with entire ships devoted to entertaining your children… did we mention Disney?

 

Our digital natives engage differently with a trip

Then: without portable screens and global roaming, children were kept busy while travelling by what now looks like a relatively limited repertoire: playing games, reading books, writing a travel journal or filling up a sketch pad.

Now: technology has transformed how children engage with a trip. Sure, the tech-free pursuits still apply – kids from any era adore reading, writing, drawing and (hopefully!) playing games as a family. But now they supplement these with a wealth of digital aids: Google Earth (google.com/earth) to see what their destination looks like before they arrive; translation apps to converse easily with locals; search engines to help locate fun things to do while away; and of course Skype or social media to share stories with family and friends back home.

Tablets are now key weapons in the parental arsenal against ‘I’m bored’: they get families through delays and meltdowns, and provide respite for siblings who need a bit of space from each other. Just don’t forget to pack the charger.

How tourism works in a changing Cuba

On my last day in Cuba, I stood on the impressive staircase at the University of Havana taking in my final views of an island I’d waited years to visit. By this point, I had walked along Havana’s famous Malecón, shared a bench with a bronze John Lennon, taken a ride across the country in ’52 Bel Air, celebrated Jose Martí’s birthday, followed a trail of mojito stands to a disco in a cave, learned salsa on a rooftop, and bought a bottle of (what turned out to be fake) rum.

While the rest of the world has always had Cuba at its fingertips, Americans are still adjusting to the fact that this terra incognita is now within reach. What I found when I arrived was a place altogether strange and familiar, a place whose unique cityscapes frequently graced the silver screen, whose spirit we had seen in the homes our Cuban American friends, but a place we’d only ever really heard about in the context of prohibition. You can’t go there. It’s illegal.

Despite Americans’ newfound excitement, Cuba has long been on the tourist trail of those looking for a travel destination without all the conventional trappings of the western hemisphere. It’s a country valued for its isolation, even though said policy imposes a wide range of challenges for those living there. Now that Cuba’s biggest neighbor is gaining access to the island nation thanks to recently relaxed diplomatic relations, the inevitable question is this: will this new source of capital and traffic ‘ruin’ the country with consumerism? Since 2015, Cuba has seen a whopping 30.6% increase in visitors; in 2015 alone, American visits went up by an incredible 77%. When asked about the potential impact of American tourism, one of my tour guides summed it up rather succinctly: ‘more money will come into the country and it will adapt. But Cuban culture has a lot of personality.’ Cuba won’t be changed that easily.

But as tourism begins to really take hold in Cuba for the first time in decades, an internal shift has started to take place. The cities hum with activity like they always have, but with a distinctly more international flair, and new energy is being poured into homegrown initiatives: new paladares (private restaurants), casas particulares (private homes), watering holes, art studios, venues and museums are all ready for business. As visitors continue to pour in, Cubans frustrated with low state wages (most make around US$30 per month) are turning to tourism to make up the difference. Many of these opportunities have been made possible by Raul Castro’s policy shifts permitting more private businesses and better internet access, but such advances are highly regulated.

 

Havana: the epicenter of change

Havana doesn’t ever seem to stop moving, locals and tourists pulsing through its arteries, a network of dusty streets walled with jaw-dropping buildings dressed with beautiful details: intricate ironwork, towering windows, open balconies, stained glass, worn paint. Don’t wonder at your surroundings too long, though – bicycle taxis whiz by and have little regard for careless pedestrians.

Wandering the streets you’ll find banks, historic plazas and impressive colonial churches, but also hip boutiques, kitschy-cool bars and stunning casas particulares. Edgy street art splashes across walls, tattoo shops host community building events and young designers create fashionable goods for both visitors and Cubans alike. This capital city has served as the nexus of creative change as Cuba marches headlong into an uncharted future where tourism just might be king.

 

Take a ride: the private taxi’s new starring role

Perhaps the single biggest symbol of Cuban-ness in the eyes of a foreign visitor is the antique car. Held together with ingenuity and sheer willpower, these vintage machines can be found on all the country’s roadways – a rainbow armada of Bel Airs, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs that shuttle visitors and locals from neighborhood to neighborhood, and even city to city.

My first private taxi driver drove me around the dusty streets of Havana as part of a history tour – we stopped at a Café Arcangel in Centro Habana, took in the explosion of color known as Fusterlandia, and cruised out to what the locals call El Bosque, a park full of old trees covered in shrouds of dangling vines, a rare green spot in Havana’s urban sprawl. A soft spoken gentleman who formerly worked as an electrical engineer for the state, he drove a beautifully kept Chevrolet so old that the sound system design only featured a single large speaker in the middle of the dashboard. Today, he works closely with his wife and an unofficial coalition of drivers to organize local and cross-country tours.

Best spice markets

Rahba Kedima, also known as Spice Square, is the obvious place to head to for brash, bright and brilliant flavourings when in Marrakesh. The mixed spices for flavouring fish and meat are a must for adventurous cooks, while you can also snap up anise, mace and fresh cinnamon for a snip of the cost back home. If you want good saffron, don’t buy the ground stuff – ask to see the fresh strands. It can get pricey, so make sure you shop around before parting with your cash.

Try before you buy: take a break from the busy crowds at Café des Epices. The mint tea here is particularly good.

 

Long Bien Market, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi’s labyrinthine Old Quarter is home to a wide variety of spice stalls. But for something a lot more visceral, set your alarm for 4am and head to Long Bien Market on the banks of the Red River. This pre-dawn, wholesale spot is the place to buy the freshest mint, lemongrass, cinnamon, coriander and ginger. This is a working market, meaning tourists are few and far between, so be respectful when taking pictures.

Try before you buy: vendors selling steaming bowls of pho (noodle soup) are easy to find. All use fresh spices and herbs, perfect for a pep up after an early start.

These cars and the people who drive them are on the forefront of the state-to-private sector shift, and the Cuban government is searching for ways to manage this form of entrepreneurship as demand for better transport systems increases. The government has mandated price and route controls on private taxis, who in turn recently reduced their trips in protest. Whether a compromise will be reached remains to be seen – for now, growing pains are the name of the game.

 

Creative casas: finding Cuban culture in homestays

Casas particulares make up another industry on the forefront of Cuba’s changing tourism infrastructure, and as visitors continue to arrive in droves, casa owners are finding new ways to attract potential guests. Some have found unique niches by offering dance or art classes, while others offer city tours or excursions (often conducted by friends and family).

At colorful Casa El Ceramista (homestay.com) in Trinidad, Alexey, a professional ceramicist, offers pottery classes to his guests. Trinidad has a strong pottery tradition, and local ceramics can be found in shops all around town. Luckily, I had the opportunity to take this class during my time at the casa – Alexey gave careful directions as I tentatively applied pressure to the spinning mound of clay on the throwing wheel in efforts to create something resembling a bowl. While we worked, the smell of spiced shrimp and pumpkin soup wafted over from the kitchen and guests laughed on the upstairs terrace. Forget the Hotel Nacional – this was Cuba.