Cruise diaries: Santiago de Cuba

We never planned to take a cruise that would visit the historical-cultural cities in Cuba. For Canadians, Cuba has been a prime all-inclusive vacation destination for over 30 years, and since that’s not the kind of holiday we yearn for these days as a general rule (never say never, though), Cuba has never been on our radar. Not so with the American-based cruise lines, though, so it seems. It all began a week before our final payment was due on our recent Caribbean holiday.

We awoke one morning to an email from Silversea telling us that there had been a slight itinerary change in our upcoming voyage. Not a problem, we thought. The cruise lines reserve the right to make changes to itineraries, sometimes because of weather, other times it’s operational. When we looked at the “new” itinerary, though here’s what we saw (minus sea days):

Original Itinerary New Itinerary
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Jost Van Dyke

St. Thomas

St. Kitts

Antigua

Samana, DR

LaRomana, DR

Fort Lauderdale

 

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Santiago De Cuba

Georgetown, Cayman Islands

Cienfuegos, Cuba

Havana Cuba

Key West

Bimini, Bahamas

Fort Lauderdale

 

Not exactly what we bought, was it?  Our first thought, was, no, we wanted a relaxing putter around some laid-back Caribbean ports. This new one was nothing like what we bought and would mean several days of historical city tours, more in line with what we prefer on a European or Asian excursion. To make a long story short, they offered us the opportunity to re-book on a cruise more in line with our original thinking, at a discount, as week or two later from a different starting port, but this was really unacceptable. We had planned on the week in San Juan pre-cruise and had everything, including our airline tickets booked. At that late date, we would be hard-pressed to find suitable non-stop business class tickets to anywhere in the Caribbean. So, we asked them for the same discount if we kept our original date and sucked it up. We were going to Cuba.

After our wonderful six days in San Juan – replete with our mixology class at Casa Bacardi – we embarked on our unplanned journey. Like it or not, we were going to learn about Cuba, way beyond the beach resorts. First stop, Santiago de Cuba.

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The evening before we arrived in Santiago, we were informed that the ship would not, in fact, be docking at the port; rather we would be anchoring and taking tenders to reach the shore. According to the information we received on board, it had something to do with the fact that the dock had been damaged when a ship ran into it. Never mind that the next day we did note that another ship did dock at the one suitable dock. In any case, we were not too happy with the news that the tender ride would be some 45 minutes long.  In a crowded tender. Not very Silversea-like in our experience.

Arriving ashore, unlike other countries all throughout the world where you simply walk off the tender into the port, in Cuba you’re required to go through immigration and passport control at every single port. This means another line-up as you disembark the tender with your passport and visa in hand.

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About to enter the immigration “hut” on shore in Santiago.

Finally ashore, we boarded a modern bus for what turned out to be the single ship-organized tour that we would take on this trip. (You’ll figure out why.) Our Cuban group tour guide led us on a four-hour historical/cultural tour of Santiago with a very obvious emphasis on ensuring that we saw the aspects of Cuba that he (and his official employer) wanted us to see, minus the aspects he didn’t want us to see.  Let’s just say that there was much attempted indoctrination.

The truth is that Santiago de Cuba does, indeed, have an interesting and storied history. Founded in 1515 by Spanish conquistador Velasqeuz whom we all might remember from junior high school history classes, Santiago is today the second largest city in Cuba after Havana. Its historical significance to the Cuba of today, however, is based on the fact that a 27-year-old Fidel Castro, leading a group of rebels, kick-started the Cuban Revolution in 1953 in Santiago. On January 1, 1959 Castro proclaimed revolutionary victory from a balcony overlooking the square we’re in below.

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The city of Santiago, as we would come to learn of all the cities in Cuba, has a very well-kept façade of historically important buildings and monuments. However, the real Cuba of the citizens is very different. We only got a glimpse of it on this official tour, but later in our trip we would begin to form a more widely informed picture.

The tour guide, unfortunately, made the mistake of thinking that everyone on the tour was American. This meant that Patty seemed to be the only one on the bus who had actually been to Cuba before (that was before The Discerning Travelers years!). Unlike other tour guides we’ve known who always ask at the beginning of a tour where all the guests hail from, he did not. This seemed to have an impact on his behaviour toward us, the guests, as he barked orders at us to stay with the group (wholly unnecessary, but after all, he thought we were all Americans), and after telling us that we would all meet at the bus in 20 minutes, yell after the two of us to come back, as we headed out on our own. At one point, Art actually had to say to him quite severely, “You told us we’d meet at the bus in 20 minutes. We’ll be back in the bus in 20 minutes,” as we went off to photograph the fort

Ninety percent of the rest of the guests seemed to be too frightened of a communist country to leave his side. Canadians have much more freedom to come and go in Cuba, and we feel that way.

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[Some images of the real Cuba – Note the local “buses” at the top. Two of them are trucks with canvas tops over chairs – most are like this.]

The most obnoxious part of the group tour, though, was during the ride back to the tender dock. The tour guide told everyone that he was going to sing the Cuban national anthem, after which he wanted the guests to sing theirs. He did, and they did – breaking out into the Star-Spangled Banner as we sat there fuming. Not something we ever want to hear outside the USA. So inappropriate. As we disembarked the bus, Art handed him several bills as a tip, the uppermost one Canadian. As Art pointed to the Queen’s face on the bill, and the word CANADA emblazoned on it, he said, “A word of advice. Never make the assumption that all your guests are Americans.” The guide took an audible intake of breath and looked up at us sheepishly. He isn’t like to make that mistake again.

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[Street images of Santiago: The bottom shot is of the Bacardi museum…this is where it all started.]

The moment we got back to the ship we checked the cancellation date for the group tour we had booked of our next Cuban port, Cienfuegos. Thankfully, we had a port stop in Grand Cayman before that so were rushed to the tour desk and cancelled. No more group tours for us. Cienfuegos would now be on our own, and we had a private guide booked for Havana, so we were now safe! On to Grand Cayman!

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One perfect day…in San Juan, Puerto Rico

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The old fort in San Juan

There is nothing quite as nice to us Torontonians as getting on an airplane and jetting off to warmer climes in mid-winter. It’s magical to arrive at your beachfront hotel and shed those winter layers – of clothes and cares. We’re just back from a few weeks of doing just that and we started our adventure in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For a bit of background…A place we’ve been to on several trips in the past, San Juan never loses its charm as both a bit of the Caribbean with an American flavour. It’s not quite that sleepy Caribbean hideaway, and yet it’s not Florida either.

Since Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the US, we are able to pre-clear US customs and immigration at Pearson Airport before leaving Toronto making our entry into Puerto Rico as smooth as any domestic flight. San Juan’s population is just shy of 400,000 making it a city about the size of Halifax (with its surrounding municipality) in Canada. What we like about it is the combination of the old San Juan which everyone photographs, the lovely beaches and the modern shopping experience at the Mall of San Juan, the upscale place for that shopping fix. But our perfect day does not include that modern-day mall experience…

The perfect day begins with breakfast at the San Juan Marriott in the Condado district. A beautiful residential district, the Condado is home to an array of wonderful (and not so wonderful) restaurants, hotels and above all, homes and condos. It’s not strictly tourists, but on this beautiful, sunny 27C day, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that! No matter, we’re heading into Old San Juan, a 5 km walk along Ashford Avenue which follows the beach on one side and the lagoon on the other. Not many people walk this way, so it’s perfect for us.

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Enjoying our 5k walk int Old San Juan

We’ve been to San Juan at least four times before, so its maze of streets in the old district are not such a mystery to us. We have a destination today, though. Patty has been putting off her flip-flop purchase until she could browse an actual Flipflop Shop. She usually buys them in Phillipsburg on the island of Sint Maarten, but our original cruise itinerary (which included her favourite flip-flop spot) changed, so we’re in search of the San Juan franchise. The shop is easy to find among the cobbled streets, and we are successful in our purchase.

After strolling the fabled streets, it’s time for lunch…and a beer which we drink only when the weather is hot. This is the day! We’re looking for the pub/tavern/restaurant where we have eaten on two previous visits. Since we don’t have an address and cannot actually remember its name (!), we have to rely on our memory of landmarks in the vicinity.

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We don’t think we’ll forget Nano’s again!

Without too much difficulty, we find Nano’s where the people are friendly (and speak English), the beer is cold and the club sandwiches delicious. Then it’s time to find a taxi back to the hotel. It’s now too hot to walk another 5 km!

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Beer…the great rehydrator!

The hot afternoon is a perfect time for a long walk along the Condado beach. In the past, we’ve been able to go for miles without ever leaving the beach. What we find today, though, is extensive erosion since Hurricane Maria so much so that at a certain point we actually have to leave the beach, take to the street, and rejoin it farther along. Such a shame, but the walk is relaxing nonetheless.

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One of the reasons we’ve chosen the San Juan Marriot this time (in addition to the fact that our Platinum status with Marriott keeps us coming back to their properties) is because we’re able to have an oceanfront balcony. The times we’ve been here before, we always stayed down the beach at La Concha, a Marriott Renaissance. We do love the vibe of a Renaissance, but on our last visit things seemed to be changing – and they don’t offer beachfront balconies. Since we’re here for six days, we wanted to be sure we have private outdoor space. So, later in the afternoon we sit with a glass of local rum and coke and listen to the waves crashing on shore – and they are, indeed, crashing.

Later we dress for dinner which we have booked for Seraphina, the Italian restaurant at La Concha where we eat outside, enjoying the lively street scene. Later in the week we’ll have Puerto Rican cuisine!

The next thing on our “agenda” will be a mixology class at Casa Bacardi tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Visiting Hiroshima: A sobering day for travelers

mapWhen we first booked our recent cruise through Asia, we were looking forward to visiting Jeju Island, a short stop between leaving China and arriving in Japan. We were unfamiliar with it, but a bit of research uncovered the fact that it is something of a resort island – and a part of Korea. Well, we booked that cruise a year in advance because it was the perfect itinerary, and like world events are bound to do, Korea was much in the news. Never mind that the focus was North Korea and Jeju Island is part of South Korea, but one thing led to another and the cruise line altered the itinerary. We really don’t know why. We would now bypass the island and head instead to Hiroshima, which had not been on the original itinerary. We weren’t disappointed.

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The Hiroshima cruise terminal

We arrived in this, our first Japanese port, under grey skies. It seemed fitting somehow. As usual, there was a bus ride from the port into the city and when we disembarked the bus, we were in the middle of what is a somewhat unprepossessing town: a lot of drab, post WW II buildings. Naturally.

It seemed a bit ironic to us that the nuclear threat from North Korea may have played a part in the rerouting of our ship only to find ourselves in the middle of the city that was devastated on August 6, 1945 by the world’s first atomic bomb ever deployed – dropped from an American B-29 bomber killing some 80,000 people. A sobering thought indeed.

In the midst of all this post-war drabness sits a magnificent park with a river flowing through the middle of it. It then becomes clear to you that on the edge of that river, surrounded by gardens, walkways, a reflecting pond and a museum is what we now refer to as the “atomic dome.” It is what is left of the only structure left standing near the epicentre that fateful day when the bomb exploded above the city raining down destruction everywhere. It is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

Standing there beside the dome, which is really the remnants of a government building, the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall to be precise, we felt the poignancy of it. We cannot in any authentic way know what it was really like. But inside the museum, they have tried to make you feel it.

The museum includes a display that begins with the city as it was the day before the attack. The bomb then drops and the recreation demonstrates how the radiation spread out, destroying everything in its path. Frightening.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in the museum which is text-heavy (and yes, it is in English as well as Japanese); rather we left the group we were with (as usual) and walked around the park. The skies opened and the rain began.

When we boarded the bus, we headed to Miyajima Island and its famed Shinto Shrine.

That, however, would have been so much better if it hadn’t been for the torrential rain. And the tour guide who insisted on standing in the torrential rain blathering about this and that while everyone got soaked. We left that tour, too. Good thing we had a private guide waiting for us in Tokyo!

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Postcard from Beijing and the Great Wall (Part 2)

Snaking across a vast length of China, protecting an ancient border from marauding hordes from the north, The Great Wall of China, a UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the few man-made structures that, at least according to space mythology, is visible from the space station. Although it may be a cliché bucket list item, it’s one that truly ought to be on a traveler’s radar. We finally visited it this spring.

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It was such a beautiful day, we could see for miles. 

We left the marvelous Four Seasons Beijing on sunny morning heading for Badaling Great Wall Funicular, one of the points at which gaining access to the wall relies not on a half-day climb, but a shiny new funicular on the north side of the wall.

 

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The Badaling section, less than a two-hour drive from downtown Beijing, is one of the best-preserved parts of the wall and somewhat more accessible because it is not as steep as some sections.

 

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The entrance to the Badaling Funicular

After exiting the funicular, we left our tour group to walk the wall on our own. What a beautiful day it was standing there imagining what it must have been like back in the day when the wall actually served a purpose for protection and not tourist amusement. It’s hard to fathom something so ancient that construction on parts of it began some 2700 years ago, although as you probably know, not all of the wall is that old. In fact, much of the oldest part is now in ruins. What we visit is much younger, perhaps only 600 years.

And speaking of tourists, most of the other tourists we encountered were not from foreign countries; rather they were Chinese nationals who were visiting the wall for the first time themselves. And the young ones could not get enough of taking selfies with us Westerners in them!

So why did our tour guide take us to the north side you may reasonably ask? After all, this funicular is more expensive than other options, Well, just take a look at a photo of the south side access…

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Now see where we were…

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When you visit – because visit you must – take it slowly, and wear good walking shoes. As you look at the tower ahead of you and up at what looks like a mild incline, don’t be fooled. It’s much steeper than it looks. And hope for sunshine!