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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Travel Planning: Asia in our sights

It’s mid-April and here in the northern hemisphere the calendar says it’s spring. One look out our windows here in Toronto, however, tells a whole different story. We’ve been in the grips of a late-season ice storm for the past few days and it could not look more like winter out there. What better time to be thinking of Hong Kong and its current 25° C temperatures!

We’ve been actively planning this Asia trip for some time. It all began some time last year when, despite Asia having been on our travel bucket list for some time, we mused that perhaps we didn’t really need that 15-hour flight. When our son got wind of our thoughts on the subject he implored us not to give up the idea. In his view we HAD to visit Hong Kong and Tokyo at least. He had performed in both cities on various tours with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo a few years ago and told us that we’d love both experiences. So, we decided to take his advice and plan a trip that would include both.

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It was just the two of us and Kevin, our guide, in his Mercedes when we toured Ireland a few years ago. Here is our transportation parked out front of Ashford Castle. 

We looked at land-tour options and those included a number of regional flights in China. We wondered if we really wanted to spend that much time in airports where we didn’t speak the language, and worse, couldn’t even read the language characters. That seemed like a bit of a drag to us, although we considered a Kensington private, guided tour, since we had used them before in Ireland and were more than satisfied. But there were other options. We could consider transportation between cities by ship.

As long-time readers know about us, cruise ships are really just comfortable methods of transportation for us usually. Okay, we sometimes do like an island hop in the Caribbean on a six-star ship, but in recent years, our “cruises” have been selected based on their itineraries. So, we decided to check out our favourite cruise lines to see what they offered in Asia.

We explored Oceania, Regent and Cunard. We even considered Holland America, although we haven’t travelled on them in years. It turns out that the vast majority of the itineraries on offer include one but not both of the must-see cities on our list – Hong Kong and Tokyo – and truth be told, most cruise lines don’t actually seem to go to Tokyo at all. Then we hit on Silversea. (You might remember that we sailed on Silversea’s new ship the Silver Muse in the fall down the western coast of South America – in actual fact, we had booked this Asia cruise even before we left for that one!)

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We’ll be sailing aboard the 382-guest luxury cruise ship the Silver Shadow. [Photo credit: https://www.silversea.com/ships/silver-shadow.html]
Silversea was the only one we found that began in Hong Kong and ended in Tokyo. That was perfect: we could spend a few days in Hong Kong before sailing, then end with four or five days in Tokyo. So, we booked. One of the nice features of this itinerary was also that the ship spends two days in each of the important ports of call: Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka. It also offers a couple of mid-cruise land tours where you leave the ship for an overnight on shore so that you can explore places you couldn’t do in a single day. Next on the agenda – right after touching base with our long-time travel agent Angela (Maritime Travel) who booked our non-stop flights to and from our destination – was to plan how we would see the sights.

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First, we looked at the cruise line’s own offerings. We decided to book their overland trip in Beijing. When the ship docks in Tianjin (the port for Beijing) we’ll be on the fast train into the city for touring. Then we stay overnight at the Four Season’s Hotel in Beijing. The next day we head to The Great Wall then back to meet the ship. Unlike the shore excursions which, on Silversea, you book in advance but pay for when you disembark the ship, this overland trip had to be paid for in advance. Done.

As we looked at the other offerings, it occurred to us that there were choices among them that would permit us to see as much of the stops as possible. So, we booked a number of excursions. Silversea’s shore excursions, in our experience, appear expensive to the untrained eye, but they do have fewer people on buses and are generally good value for the money. That took care of planning for Shanghai, Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto. That left us with our book-ends: Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Naturally we looked to Tours-by-Locals, our go-to company for private touring around the world.

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Our private guide in Hong Kong has now arranged our transportation from the airport to our hotel on Hong Kong island, will provide us with a private tour of the city and arrange for our transportation to the pier. Our Tokyo guide has arranged three days of city touring and a day of touring outside the city – then will drop us at the airport after four days there. And all of this was arranged through Tours-by-Locals’ web site where we were able to arrange all the details which are personalized for us. Our Tokyo guide has even provided us with materials to help us acclimatize to Japanese culture as well as an extensive list of recommended reading. Well, we opted to prepare for this trip not through too much reading, but via two video-based courses.

We bought two courses from The Great Courses, a site that we’ve gone to throughout the years for a wide variety of educational programming: Foundations of Eastern Civilization (Craig G. Benjamin PhD), which was 48 half-hour lectures and Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (Mark J. Ravina PhD), 24 half-hour lectures. And yes, we watched every one of them.

Both professors are experts in their fields, but more important perhaps even than that is that their passion for their respective specialties is palpable in their terrific delivery. We didn’t take notes, but we feel that having done this in advance, we can more fully experience the history and culture of our Asian destinations. We’re looking forward to seeing in real life many of the places and experiences both shared with us.

Now that we’ve booked and finalized everything, and prepared our brains for new adventures, we’re just about ready to board that plane. We leave in five days. Hope you’ll come along with us!

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Getting ready…trusty Briggs & Riley carry-ons. 

What to wear on a cruise: The discerning traveler’s guide to packing & dressing well

formal night portrait
Yes, there are still formal nights on most cruise lines – a gown and a tux will always be right.

There are two questions potential cruisers ask us about their on-board wardrobe:

  1. What should I wear?
  2. How should I pack?

It comes down to three fundamental issues: the cruise line you’re traveling on, where you’re going on the cruise (and of course the time of year goes along with this), and how much luggage you plan to take. Of course, underlying all of this is the discerning travel assumption that you want to dress well: dressing well meaning that you are comfortable, appropriate for your destination, and looking good. Let’s begin with cruise lines.

Cruise lines have dress codes. These dress codes (and their interpretations) vary widely and are largely, but not entirely, dependent upon the “category” of the cruise line you choose – and how cruise lines are categorized varies as well. For example, the cruise blog “All Things Cruise” classifies them into the following categories: contemporary (others call this group “mainstream”, upscale contemporary, premium, ultra-premium and ultra-luxury. [See their complete listing HERE.]. If we were to use their approach to categorization, we travel exclusively on ultra- premium and ultra-luxury cruise lines (Silversea, Regent and Seabourn fall into the ultra-luxury category, Oceania into ultra-premium for example) – but of course there’s also Cunard which transcends the norms because it has the usual dress codes in addition to three classes of service.

There are also those confusing dress code labels: formal, informal, casual, smart casual, country club casual and the list goes on. The cruise lines do provide descriptions even if they are occasionally a bit opaque. And don’t get us started on the extent to which the cruise lines fail to observe their own rules by not turning away inappropriately dressed cruisers from dining venues (there’s always a place to dine if you insist on wearing your baseball cap to dinner – just not in the dining room).

We have noticed that although over the years dress codes have generally become more informal, on some of the cruise lines you can expect people to dress well all the time. In fact, we recently read of cruisers new to Silversea who felt decidedly out of place in their “casual” wear even on casual evenings. Casual to the average Silversea cruiser is a step or two up from the norm. You won’t find T-shirts or ball caps on Silversea casual nights – although it can happen and these are the guests who tend to feel very out of place (and they do get the stink-eye from many fellow guests!).

Coco Chanel once said that being well-dressed is a “beautiful form of politeness” and that suits our personal approach to life. We have our own interpretation of the dress codes, and it has never made us feel the least bit out of place. Our general mantra is: dress up a bit. On a casual evening, go smart casual. On informal evenings, go cocktail. On formal – well, go all out. So, here’s how we do it and some of the travel-friendly clothing brands we love (strictly our own unbiased opinions – we get no freebies from anyone).

First, let’s consider the difference between what we might wear on a Caribbean cruise where every day is in a casual, tropical port, and a Mediterranean cruise where you might well be in a big city every day. For tropical weather, you need casual tropical clothes: the Caribbean is casual and laid-back, but the evening on your cruise ship might be more dressed up.

In European cities, you need to be mindful of the weather at the time of year you cruise, and be prepared to walk long distances among people who are generally dressed for their usual work day whatever that might entail. In some senses, dressing simply amounts to common sense. Be respectful of your surroundings and the people who live there; be respectful of yourself by dressing in a thoughtful and comfortable way. And no big sneakers and fanny packs! But that’s just us. But then, how do you pack for all of these eventualities. [Art in Sienna, Italy on excursion and Patty on board a Regent ship in Europe a few years back…]

For us, that means selecting types of clothing and brands that travel especially well, and taking pieces that can do double duty. Here are some examples from our recent trip to South America…

Art took three or four Columbia shirts with him and an Orvis (below – top right shirt). Believe it or not, each of these shirts is easily hand-washable and over-night dry-able. They look like real clothes rather than “travel wear.” Columbia is well-priced and easily packable – and looks good!

But not to be outdone, Columbia makes some terrific choices for women as well…

But those Columbia shirts Art wears aren’t just for day-time touring. The right one with a jacket in the evening takes him to dinner on a casual night (remember, casual on a Silversea ship is this kind of dressing)…

In addition to Columbia, Art likes Tilley shirts. They’re more expensive than Columbia, but they last for years…

…and unless we’re headed to the Caribbean or the South Pacific, we don’t leave home without a packable jacket — Cole Haan is a favourite…

…then there are the evenings. Finding packable evening wear isn’t as challenging as it might appear. There are several approaches. First, Art has a wonderful new tuxedo which, since it’s Italian wool, actually packs well. But how can he make a tux do double duty? The wonderful sales associate at “Tom’s Place” in Toronto where he bought the new tux last fall, suggested that this shawl-collared jacket would be terrific as a dinner jacket on a more informal night. So, that’s what it became…

 

formaltux

dinner jacket

But what about cocktail dresses and formal gowns? Patty has found that Joseph Ribkoff and Frank Lyman are probably the best for “packability.” And now she has added a Lisa Drader-Murphy (all Canadian designers) to her list.

…and a Lauren Ralph Lauren jersey gown never goes astray…

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…with the SJP (Sara Jessica Parker) sparkly shoes, anything can look dressed up! Patty has owned a strapless Joseph Ribkoff gown for about ten years. Paired with a variety of little jackets, it looks like a completely different dress each time she wears it on a cruise.

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Let’s finish off with a family portrait from the Queen Mary a few years back when our son joined us. Formal nights on Cunard are true formal nights. Love it!

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Now it’s time to decide what to pack for the upcoming Asian cruise!

A Singular Travel Experience: Transiting the Panama Canal

DSC00394Listed as one of the “1000 Places to See Before You Die” in the book of the same name, the Panama Canal also stands as one of the seven wonders of the modern world” – man-made engineering feats that are testimony to the ingenuity and capabilities of modern men and women (among the others are the Channel Tunnel between the UK and France, the Golden Gate Bridge and Toronto’s own CN Tower to name a couple). All of that aside, transiting the Panama Canal has been on our personal “bucket list” for a very long time. We finally did it and it was impressive.

So, why is sitting aboard a ship as it makes its way from the Caribbean Ocean through a series of locks, one large and one small artificially-created lake, a canal and another set of locks such a memorable experience? We’re not really sure it’s a logical thing, but the experience of the transit was just as good as thinking about it for years in advance. And initially, it’s really all about the planning.

With the idea of transiting the canal in our minds, we embarked on a search to find the best route to get there. It would have to be on a cruise ship, we knew for sure. First there are those cruises that don’t actually transit the canal all the way from the Caribbean to the Pacific. They usually enter the Canal from the Caribbean side, make their way into Gatun Lake, the largest of the two man-made lakes, cruise the lake for a few hours and then go back through the Caribbean side locks to carry on a Caribbean cruise – a “partial Transit” as it is known. We wanted to go all the way through.

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The map our on-board lecturer provided – we think it came from Wikipedia

There are lost of cruises that begin in Florida – Fort Lauderdale or Miami – visit an island or two, transit the canal, visit a port or two in Mexico and then end in Los Angeles or even San Diego. We aren’t that stuck on Mexican ports, and had been to LA last winter. This approach would not have permitted us a real travel experience to see new places. So, it would have to be a canal transit that then turned southward upon exit. Enter the Silversea Silver Muse’s inaugural season, picking up passengers in Florida as it continued its way south and around the far southern tip of South America. That’s where we jumped on. So, you see, selecting a cruise for us is not focused on the cruise line or the ship per se. It’s not the cruise that’s the draw: it’s the itinerary.

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Attending Corey’s lecture

When we boarded the ship (more about the ship itself in due course), we found we had lucked into a wonderful on-board lecturer experience. Silversea, to their credit, does offer an on-board enrichment program that provides in-depth information about the ports visited. For us, this was a very important feature on this itinerary since we were completely in the dark about places like Manta, Ecuador and Pisco, Peru (among others) before we embarked on this journey. Former journalist and on-board lecturer Corey Sandler made the entire cruise so much more consequential, and never more so than on the day we transited the canal. One interesting piece of trivia we learned from him is the price ships pay to transit the canal. Our online research suggested that many commercial ships pay around $30,000 (USD) for a transit. Corey told us that Silversea was paying over $150,000 for this one trip! That will add to the price of a cruise!

About two days before, we attended his lecture that provided us with the history and geography that made the transit so much more meaningful. The complete transit is 77 kms (48 miles) from one ocean to another and took over 75,000 workers more than 10 years to complete – finally reaching its completion in 1914. In simple terms, it elevates ships from the Caribbean part of the Atlantic Ocean (in the direction we were traveling) to a series of lakes and canals and across the continental divide in the middle of the isthmus, then down through another series of locks into the Pacific Ocean. It took us a full day.

We entered the first lock at 8 am just behind our sister ship the Silver Expedition that was on its way to the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. We spent three hours on the very top deck where no one ever goes (except for the crowd on the day we transited the canal) in the blazing sun of Panama watching as we entered the first lock. Then the water from above poured in to raise the ship one level; we watched the gates ahead open, then close behind us to elevate us another level, then a third until we emerged in Gatun Lake.

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We approach the first lock. We’ll follow the Silver Expedition into the lock on the right. You can see a large container ship heading our way on the left.

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In Gatun Lake, dotted with islands which are really the tops of mountains rising above the level of where the area was flooded and surrounded by Panamanian jungle, we anchored for a few hours. We had to wait our turn to proceed through the canal into another small lake then eventually to the Pacific side locks where the procedure would be reversed.

During the transit through the locks, and every once in a while, throughout the day when something interesting was going on, Corey, our on-board lecturer who spent the day on the bridge with the ship’s captain, narrated the passage. Without that narration the experience would have been so much less.

After the first few hours we left the upper deck, we had lunch then ensconced ourselves on the stern deck of the Panorama Lounge with a Sea Breeze (or three) in hand to enjoy the afternoon in the lake. As we began our passage into the canal the sky, which had been threatening for several hours, finally exploded into a thunder storm, the rain pelting the deck as we watched from under the awning. We did some lightning-spotting and felt truly in a jungle as we watched the steam rising from the dense greenery on all sides. It was magical.

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We were so much smaller than most of the ships we saw that day!

As we entered the final three locks, we watched from the stern for a bit then it was time to get ready for dinner. We finally removed ourselves from the Panorama deck and made our way to our suite where we turned the television on to the bridge webcam channel so that we could see ahead as we made our way out of the final lock, passing by Panama City, now glittering in the evening darkness.

Yes, it took from 8 am until after dark for the passage and we had a wonderful day knowing that we were benefiting from the blood, sweat and tears of thousands o workers who put their lives on the line – they dealt with accidents, jungle weather for which they were not prepared and most of all, malaria and other contagious diseases. The opening of the Panama Canal changed forever the destinies of a number of formerly major ports on the west coast of South America, a situation that would become even more obvious to us as we began our passage south to visit them.

If you have some time, and would like to see the transit as we experienced it, here’s our video…