Category Archives: Travel

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.

 

Solo Female Travelers Tips

The truth is, solo traveling to another country as a woman is actually not as threatening as it may seem. While there are some countries where a woman traveling alone will certainly draw more attention, in general a willingness to respect local customs and a cautious awareness of your surroundings will see you through.

Sometimes, though, it’s easier not to worry about extreme culture differences. Sometimes you just want to have fun. In these ten destinations, it’s not uncommon to see women traveling alone, so you can feel free to relax without standing out.

 

Wales

This country in the west of the United Kingdom has an amazing landscape and an even more amazing cultural history. If you’re interested in the King Arthur mythology, you’ll find a number of important sites from those texts. If you’re into outdoor sports, try a solo hike on the Pembrokeshire coast. Cardiff, the capitol, also offers a number of theaters (including the famous Millennium Center), museums, sports arenas, and shopping centers.

 

Canada

Almost all of my trips to Canada have been solo journeys and I’ve always felt extremely safe. In Quebec, you’ll find a huge cinematic and television culture like the Festival of International Short Film, as well as the famous winter Carnavale in Quebec City. Ontario houses the country’s largest city, Toronto, whose theater, music, and comedy venues are comparable in both quality and number to those in New York City.

The number of national parks, from Niagara Falls to Mount Revelstoke’s 1,000-year old forest, will give you plenty opportunities to hike, camp, ski, surf, and star-gaze. Wildlife lovers, like myself, often find Canada to be one of the best places to head out into the wilderness.

From spending the day with wild grizzly bears and getting up-close and personal with puffins to kayaking and snorkeling with whales, I’ve had some of my most magical solo (and non-solo) wildlife experiences in Canada. There’s plenty of tour operators who provide amazing outdoor experiences in this country, so you don’t need to worry about being completely alone in the wild.

 

Costa Rica

This country is excellent for ecotourists and those looking to learn more about sustainability — also, those looking to enjoy some aquatic fun! Watch and help sea turtles at their nesting grounds in Tortugero National Park or surf amazing waves at Playa Bonita. Costa Rica is also quickly becoming known for its large number of thermal spas, hot springs, and yoga retreats. What’s better than a solo yoga retreat?

For more ideas about what to do in Costa Rica, visit Pura Vida – Costa Rica.

 

Bali

Though some of the other Indonesian islands can be more conservative, intercultural Bali is a great and accepting place to travel on one’s own. With amazing beaches and underwater exploration sites like the USS Liberty shipwreck, it makes a perfect place for snorkel and scuba adventures. There are many carved temple sites to explore, including the famous Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary.

What to Pack on a Road Trip

Ready to take a road trip? This packing guide will help you prepare and double-check so you can hit the road with confidence.

Use duffle bags for most of your luggage—it’s easier to stack and squeeze soft bags into any car arrangement that you need. If you’re stopping overnight, pack one bag with sleep essentials and next-day clothes so it’s compact and ready to go. You can use a soft, wheeled suitcase for this if you have a lot of people. Finally, each person can keep a small bag — like a tote or backpack — next to their own seats for easily-accessible snacks and activities.

  • We use this duffle bag on our road trips–it’s compact, has several pockets for easy organization, and it’s even slash-proof. This slightly larger duffle bag is great for longer trips or two people who like to keep it simple and share one bag.
  • This insulated tote bag doubles as an ice chest and it folds up nicely when not in use.
  • Daypacks are a must if you want to get out and hike during your journey. We use this small daypack which has an internal padded sleeve for a 3L hydration bladder.

Wear clothes that are loose and breathable, and that you’re comfortable being seen in at stops. Dark colors hide dirt, stains, and wrinkles better. Even for long trips, you only need two bottoms and a few tops, especially if you can do laundry at hotels or your destination.

  • A drawstring laundry bag works if you do need to store dirty garments.
  • This portable laundry system wash bag is perfect for doing laundry on the road!
  • Make sure to take weather into account—if it’s often rainy, keep some waterproof items — like travel umbrellas and backpack rain covers — in easy reach, and light layers if it might get cold. (In Norway, be prepared for anything–even snow in the summer!!)

The Royal Suites Yucatan is Best For Your Accomodation

The adults-only, all inclusive resort is a smaller 130-suite exclusive area of the larger Grand Palladium Resort, but allows complete access to the full resort’s 5-star amenities.

The privacy and VIP treatment at The Royal Suites Yucatán by Palladium is all any peace-seeking adult could ask for on a vacation. With everything this resort includes — a private beach with Bali beds, first-class spa, exclusive bars and restaurants — it’s not hard to see why this is paradise on the Yucatán.

 

The Rooms

The rooms at The Royal Suites are quite literally “the height of luxury.” A private terrace with a jacuzzi soaking tub is standard in each room with the option to upgrade to the Mayan Suites, which are right on the water with lush, green terrace views. In these separate indoor/outdoor suites, the additional outdoor shower and hammock are an added bonus.

 

The Restaurants

There is no shortage of dining options here, with 14 restaurants and buffets and a whopping 27 bars scattered throughout the grounds. Two of the restaurants and bars are exclusive to Royal Suites guests, which I recommend taking advantage of for the sake of comfort and convenience.

The a la carte Japanese restaurant is wonderful, but the outdoor ocean-side cabana restaurant really embraces the luxury beach resort atmosphere. Helpful tip: be sure to make a reservation for the individual restaurants a day or two in advance.

Also, be sure not to miss the swim-up bar at the La Laguna pool; this is one treat you won’t be able to enjoy at home.

 

Activities

With the variety of activities available both on and off the resort, it’s likely you’ll want to spend more than a little of your time out and about. You’ll have the chance to get out on the water to snorkel, scuba dive, and windsurf, or you can hang back for a game of beach volleyball or — my personal favorite — yoga on the beach. Live music and entertainers every night, with the occasional karaoke contest, are sure to keep you entertained once the sun goes down.

Tips After 10 Years of Traveling the World

After over ten years of consistent travel, I’ve definitely learned my fair share of lessons. Like the time I was robbed on a train because I let my guard down or the time Scott and I showed up at the Bozeman Airport only to find that we no longer had a car rental.

Some of these travel mishaps can be avoided and some of them are just a part of traveling. You simply cannot plan for everything. However, keeping a few important things in mind will make your travels much easier.

 

Be Flexible

We always plan for delays and try not to get upset when things inevitably go wrong. Patience is extremely important when traveling!

 

Make a List

About a week or so before each trip, I make a mental list of items I don’t want to forget — which I WILL forget if I don’t write them down. I’ve learned that when I think of something, I need to write it down.

 

Learn Common Phrases of the Local Language

A simple “Please,” “Thank you,” and “I’m sorry” in the local language goes a long way. I also like to learn the word for beer, but that’s just me.

 

Don’t Forget an Extra Camera Battery (or Two)

Have you ever gotten to that epic sunset photo spot and realized your camera battery is dead and you don’t have a back up? I try to bring at least three camera batteries on all of our trips so that we don’t miss out on that perfect shot.

 

Always Bring a Sarong

Sarongs can be used as a wrap when you are cold, a towel, a curtain, or a piece of clothing that can be worn dozens of different ways. Solid colors are great, but if you want something that stands out, I love this sarong.

A regional guide to Europe

Packed with ancient history, sophisticated cities, cultural treasures, fine food and even finer art, Europe has an embarrassment of riches and is a dream for all kinds of travellers. And with landscapes boasting rugged coastlines, rolling country fields and mighty mountains (to name but a few), this is a region that suits road-tripping down to a T.

These nine diverse and dynamic countries – all featured in our Europe’s Best Trips guide – represent some of the top spots to hit the road in Europe. Discover what makes them so special and kick your trip planning into gear with our recommended road trips.

 

Italy

Few countries can rival Italy’s wealth of riches. Its historic cities boast iconic monuments and masterpieces at every turn, its food is imitated the world over and its landscape is a majestic patchwork of snowcapped peaks, plunging coastlines, lakes and remote valleys. And with many thrilling roads to explore, it offers plenty of epic driving.

 

From Rome to Venice, this tour of Unesco World Heritage Sites takes in some of Italy’s greatest hits, including the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and some lesser-known treasures.

 

France

Iconic monuments, fabulous food, world-class wines – there are so many reasons to plan your very own French voyage. Whether you’re planning on cruising the corniches of the French Riviera, getting lost among the snowcapped mountains or tasting your way around Champagne’s hallowed vineyards, this is a nation that’s full of unforgettable routes that will plunge you straight into France’s heart and soul. There’s a trip for everyone here: family travellers, history buffs, culinary connoisseurs and outdoors adventurers. Buckle up and bon voyage – you’re in for quite a ride.

 

Great Britain

Great Britain overflows with unforgettable experiences and spectacular sights. There’s the grandeur of Scotland’s mountains, England’s quaint villages and country lanes, and the haunting beauty of the Welsh coast. You’ll also find wild northern moors, the exquisite university colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, and a string of vibrant cities boasting everything from Georgian architecture to 21st-century art.

Hidden gardens of Washington

Japanese cherry trees are the stars of spring in Washington, DC, when thousands of visitors flock to the Tidal Basin to stroll beneath billowy branches of pink and white blooms. But it’s not all about the cherries. Washingtonians have long prided themselves on their spring gardens, a tradition that stems back to colonial days, when homegrown fruits and vegetables – and a handful of decorative blooms for your windowsill – were a necessity of life. For those looking to soak in natural beauty without the crowds, here are some of Washington’s most inviting spring gardens.

Famous landscape architect Beatrix Farrand designed this botanical panorama in northern Georgetown. At Dumbarton Oaks, each sweet-smelling garden is more beautiful than the next. Be sure to check the website (www.doaks.org) before your visit to see what’s in bloom, but must-sees include the Orangery, where the climbing ficus dates from the 1860s; the rose garden, arranged by color; the Prunus Walk with its flowering plums; and the Pebble Garden, best viewed from the terrace above to take in the intricate, swirling neo-baroque designs of grey and white stones. It’s a shame that picnicking isn’t permitted on the grounds.

Did George Washington ever wander past the centuries-old Osage orange tree that dominates River Farm’s Garden Calm? It’s possible. The first president owned these 25 park-like acres along the Potomac River just south of DC, and the story goes that the tree was a gift from Thomas Jefferson to the Washington family. Among the pocket gardens here, you’ll find a grove of Franklin trees (extinct in the wild), an orchard of pear, apple and plum trees, and an azalea garden with a rainbow of different species. The American Horticultural Society (www.ahsgardening.org)  now resides in the restored estate house and hosts such popular events as the Spring Garden Market in April.

The 13 acres of magnificent floral gardens surrounding cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post’s gracious manse give visitors a taste of how the one percent might live. Each formal garden is designed as an outdoor “room,” with a progression leading from the rose garden, to the French parterre, to the Friendship Walk and so on. The gardens put on a spectacular, ever-changing show throughout the year, though spring is naturally the most breathtaking. Join a seasonal tour, or take in the blooms from the café terrace.

 

US National Arboretum

Some of the best cherry trees beyond the Tidal Basin reside at the US National Arboretum, where 446 acres of gardens offer a full dose of spring and very few tourists. Pick up a brochure at the arboretum and go on a self-guided tour to discover such diverse varieties as the early flowering “Dream Catcher,” the mid-season flowering “Pendula” (aka the weeping cherry), and the Yoshino, cultivated from cuttings from the original Tidal Basin beauties. Take the 40-minute tram tour for an overview.

 

Great ideas for next holiday

Newfoundland in its entirety is impossible to experience in one trip, so it’s best to instead focus on one area and enjoy everything it has to offer.

Eastern Newfoundland’s rich history, culture and scenery have plenty to see and do in the span of a week or two, so pack your bags (and your jacket) and set off for the youngest and most colorful province in Canada!

 

The Best Time to Visit Eastern Newfoundland

The simple answer? Summer. While it’s usually easy to reason that off-season might be fairly less expensive and attract less tourists, there’s really no better time to see this Canadian island than in the summer months from June to August.

Visiting in the summer gives you the chance to see the best that Newfoundland has to offer: lively festivals, wildlife watching of puffins and whales, colorful scenery and pastel wildflowers. The eastern coast is also known for a belt of massive icebergs known as Iceberg Alley, best viewed in May and June.

 

Flights

Standard US/Canadian airlines like Delta and Air Canada fly into St. John’s international airport on a regular basis; I’ve found Kayak’s comparison site to have the cheapest prices on round-trip airfare.

Since you can expect a relatively long flight (depending on where you’re departing from) and at least one or two layovers, take advantage of them! Toronto and Vancouver are the most common stops before heading to St. John’s — use this time to explore two of Canada’s largest and most diverse cities before setting off for Newfoundland! Oftentimes, longer layovers offer cheaper airfare as well.

 

Climate in Eastern Newfoundland

Average summer temperatures hover around a mild 60˚F (16˚C) but can reach the low 70’s, while winters are much colder at freezing or below freezing temperatures! The general weather changes drastically during any given day, week, or season, so “expect the unexpected” and be prepared for unexpected fog or showers!

While no weather is really predictable in Newfoundland, there is typically a bit of rainfall in fall and spring months with plenty of snow in winter. Summer months  — from late June through August — are pleasant, but can be chilly in the evenings so always pack warm layers.

Packing Checklist for Campers

Thinking of taking an adventure in the great outdoors? While specific gear will depend on climate, terrain, whether you’re car camping or backpacking, and your camp setup (e.g. tent or RV), these packing tips will help you cover all of the necessities — with specific recommendations on the gear we use on all of our camping trips.

Be sure to start compiling your own specific item list well ahead of time so you know you’ll have everything when the time comes!

Tent: If you’re packing a car, pack your tent last so it’s the first thing you’re able to set up. Double-check you have all your poles and stakes, a mallet, and your rain-fly (if applicable). We use this lightweight Marmot tent.

Sleeping Bags: Down or down-substitute sleeping bags are the lightest and easiest to compress.
Sleeping Pads: These Therm-a-Rest compact sleeping pads give you cushion and help radiate heat back to your body.
Tarp: An extra tarp for the tent’s floor will keep you warmer and dryer at night, and if you get one with some extra length, you can use it to wipe shoes off outside.
Clothesline: If there’s a chance you’ll get wet, bring an adjustable bungee clothesline and clothespins for drying.
Hammock: Hammocks are a great addition for relaxing if you have the space. This one is under $20!
Games: Be sure to bring some games like dice or cards.

 
Firewood: Collecting firewood is not allowed in some areas, so be sure to bring your own. Don’t forget a lighter and kindling!
Headlamp: Bring a headlamp for each person in your group and a few extra batteries.