Cruise diaries: Cienfuegos, Cuba

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Sunrise as we approach Cienfuegos.

Whenever most Canadians think about Cuba, they think, sun, sand and all-inclusive resorts. Throw in a day trip to Havana, and you’ve got a winter get-away. However, that’s not how we travel these days. So, that recent trip to Cuba that we inadvertently discovered ourselves on found us touring the historical cities of this Caribbean island. You last found us dashing to the excursion desk on the Silver Spirit as the ship left Santiago de Cuba, so that we could cancel any and all future group tours. After spending the day with the Cuban guide and a bus load of Americans who seemed to have an odd relationship with one another, we did not relish a repeat performance. Cienfuegos would be on our own.

After spending the next day in Georgetown, Grand Cayman (an unprepossessing port call if ever there was one these days), we sailed into Cienfuegos with the sunrise.

 

After a leisurely breakfast in the dining room, and knowing that the bulk of the passengers had already gone ashore, we made our way to the tender and stepped ashore in Cienfuegos.

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Of course, this being Cuba, we had to go through immigration for the second (but not last) time. A ship’s crew member ashore pointed us up a street just outside the “port area” and so we walked.

It wasn’t long before we realized that this was the road less traveled – by tourists or anyone other than locals. The streets were lined with crumbling buildings that held the shadow of a former glory with their Spanish architecture. But these days, they are sad collections of what appeared to be residences.

We were lightly accosted by a local “taxi” driver who assured us he could take us to the town square. We protested that we prefer to walk (which we do), but he kept returning on the off chance that we had changed out minds. This happened at least five times through the morning. Who could blame him, though? There was no doubt he could have used the fare.

We finally emerged into the historic town square, after having missed the turn affording us a bit longer walk through the not-for-tourists area!

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Located some 250 km from Havana, Cienfuegos has a population of 150,000 and has a town centre that is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its collection of neoclassical buildings comprises six buildings from 1819–50, 327 buildings from 1851–1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century.

After cruising the town square, we walked through a variety of city streets teaming with locals. Where were the tourists? Nowhere to be seen.

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As we walked along, an older man who appeared to be North American, stopped us and said, “do you speak English?” We thought that he was going to ask for directions.

“Yes,” we said, “we’re from Toronto.”

“Oh, I thought you might,” he said. Of course, we didn’t look local.

In any case, he proceeded to tell us that he’s from just outside Toronto, and he spends the winters in Cienfuegos. What he wanted to tell us, though, was that we shouldn’t miss a chance to step inside the new Melia hotel that had just opened a block or so ahead. He told us it had a terrific view.

We took his advice and visited the hotel. What’s interesting is how different it is from the rest of the town as we had experienced it. New and shiny, the hotel is clearly trying t attract tourists for winter holidays.

We then made our way back to the ship, just in time to enjoy a drink on the deck! Next stop: Havana!

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Live! From Beijing

It seems to us that if everyone in the world just had the chance to visit one another’s countries, we would all understand one simple fact: we are all more alike than we are different. That has certainly been the case in China ( and in the past in Turkey, Chile etc.)

The more we see in this astonishing country, the more we wish our respective leaders could look into the eyes of the children and others on the streets and see the smiles…and smile back. We’ve been here in China through a long weekend where folks from the countryside flock to the cities to see their own tourist attractions, and these are people who have seen few Westerners. We have provided endless amusement, and have been asked on numerous occasions to pose with the kids and the older family members for selfies! We always agree to their delight.

In the past few days we’ve strolled Tiannamen Square, explored The Forbidden City, and climbed the Great Wall which was made even more outstanding as a result of our Silversea overland experience. We had the good fortune to have a tour guide who took us to the northern entrance to the Great Wall area and we climbed the wall in almost utter seclusion, far from the crowds we could see in the distance. Oh, and overnight in Beijing? The Four Seasons was beyond divine.

We are now on our way to Japan but will forever be grateful we visited surprising China.

Discovering new places: Cruise ships as transportation

Sometimes you get in the car and hit the open road to discover new and exciting places and experiences. Other times you hop a train. There are also times when you can only see the places you want to see by flying (try driving between Tahiti and Fiji in the South Pacific!). In recent years, however, we’ve discovered that a cruise ship might just be one of our favourite ways to move between specific destinations.

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We prefer the one on the right! The Silver Cloud was our first Silversea ship.

Unlike others who love cruises, we are probably not what is truly meant by the term “cruisers.” Or at least that is only a small part of how you could describe us. When we embarked on our first cruise so many years ago, we were traveling with a young child, and we didn’t really know what to expect beyond our plan to have a great vacation. And we did. But we have learned over the years – and 15 cruises later – that we are not those people who believe that the ship is the destination. For us it has become a very comfortable conveyance for getting us from one interesting destination to another.

The truth is that we avoid like the plague those mega-cruise ships that offer everything from wave surfing to rock-wall climbing with wall-to-wall food in between. These days we confine ourselves to a small number of cruise lines and choose our trips by itinerary. And as for loyalty to one line? Like airline loyalty programs, they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  So we decide where we want to go and search among the cruises on offer from the lines we love: Cunard, Oceania, Seabourn, Regent and Silversea mainly. And now we’ll return to Silversea which captured our attention for our upcoming cruise to check a few things off our bucket list: The Panama Canal, Peru and Chile. In fact, we leave on Tuesday.

The first time we realized that a cruise ship was a wonderful way to discover new places to which we might like to return for a longer visit was our first Mediterranean cruise some ten years ago. The cruise left from Barcelona, so we planned a few days there in advance of the cruise. This is a key feature of a destination-rich cruise; the embarkation and disembarkation points. If all of your cruise experiences leave from the same port (e.g. Port Everglades or Miami), you’ll never be able to have that land-based adventure of a new city. This was the first lesson we learned: even if it’s a Caribbean cruise, if it leaves from, say Saint Martin (so sorry for their recent hurricane issues) or even Barbados, that provides a great opportunity for an add-on.

And the disembarkation point is also important: leaving and arriving at two different places is the best since you have two chances to spend time in new cities. On one cruise we left from Monte Carlo and ended in Venice. On another we sailed from Rome and ended in Istanbul.

That first Med cruise introduced us to cities to which we have returned – sometimes again and again. For example, while we were anchored off Monaco, we visited Eze, a place we thought we might never have a chance to visit again. It turns out we’ve been back several times! On that same cruise, we visited Rome for the first time and have since returned twice to get to know it better.

A few years ago we had another of those “bucket list” places that we had wanted to visit for some time: The South Pacific. But as we began considering how to arrange a tour of the islands, it became clear that flying in and out of those tiny islands would only eat up valuable time with at least a half a day each time devoted to airports and flying – and that’s if there are no delays. A small boat didn’t seem like a good idea at all since the distances are too great. So, what about a cruise ship?cruise map South Pacific

We discovered an Oceania cruise that left from Papeete, Tahiti (a chance to spend a week in Tahiti? Yes, please), visited a range of islands between which it cruised during the night giving each day over to an island, and ending in Sydney, Australia. Perfect!

Next week we begin our cruise with a few days in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It’s not exciting, but it will be fun. After three days of unwinding, we embark the Silver Muse, Silversea’s newest ship which launched earlier this year. We’ll cruise to Key West then onto Costa Rica. Only one day here is fine with us since we spent a wonderful two weeks touring the country some years ago. Then we’ll transit the Panama Canal before making our way down the west coast of South America stopping into Ecuador, Peru, northern Chile ending in the port city of Valparaiso. Once there, we’ll pick up our Tours-by-Locals private guide who has four days of cultural and wine country touring for us while we get to know Santiago. And all because we will use a cruise ship for transportation.

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We love to tell stories about our travels – that’s what this blog has always been about. This time, however, we’re going to also do some live blogging and post short pieces and photos along the way. I hope you’ll come along with us. We’ll save the longer stories until we get back home in Toronto.

See you on the high seas!

A Cruise Education: Using a Cruise to Learn Something New

 

A while back we mused about our 10 Rules of Engagement for Smooth Cruising. Among those “rules” was the following:

Rule #6: Never miss an opportunity to learn something new.

Although we choose a cruise holiday for a relaxing way to visit new places while being waited on hand and foot, any cruise you might consider taking is also a wonderful opportunity to actually learn something new.

A relatively new phenomenon in the cruise industry, hands-on cooking classes are available on only a handful of ships on only two cruise lines that we know about at this point. Oceania cruises pioneered this approach and evidently – although we haven’t experienced this since we haven’t sailed on HAL for some years – Holland America now offers this experience on several of its ships. Oceania offers this to groups of 24 lucky guests who register early enough on their two larger ships: the Marina and the Riviera. And we have taken classes on both.

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The chef instructor’s demonstration counter with overhead cameras and two viewing screens so that we could see everything she was doing.

We had no idea what to expect that first morning when we arrived in the cooking school to don our chef’s hats and aprons; we only knew that we were looking forward to that class on French Classics. Led by chef instructor Noelle Barille, we along with eleven other teams of two, were instructed in some of the fine points of classic French cooking and we were able to actually make several ourselves including classic haricots verts with shallots to accompany the Jacques Pepin roasted chicken, and classic quiche Lorraine. Later on that cruise we took a class on wok cooking and a brunch class.

 

What set this experience apart from others we’ve had on cruise ships was the sheer amount of organization and precise execution that was on show. The chef was assisted by two sous chefs and a kitchen worker who was responsible for cleaning up everything after us. Each time we were called to the front to observe the chef’s demonstration, when we returned to our stations (complete with individual work counters, sinks, cooking implements and induction cook-tops) the mise en place dishes were all lined up for us – pre-measured ingredients to facilitate the cooking process without wasting time to measure everything. Although to be truthful, it’s a prep technique that we took to heart and employ almost all the time at home now!

The chef herself was personable, extremely knowledgeable and entertaining – all important qualities for this kind of class. The experience was so useful – and the recipes so good that they are now in our permanent repertoire at home – that a few months ago aboard the Riviera we took three more such classes.

We were a bit nervous since that first time had been so good. The new chef instructor Karlis Celms was on his very first contract doing this and he had a hard act to follow. But follow it in good form he did! We enjoyed the three classes we took that time just as much (Asian cooking including a sushi experience, and two Italian-related ones including pasta-making).

The $60-70.00 per person or so we paid for these courses was worth every single penny. We’re not planning another Oceania cruise in the immediate future (we’re booked back on Silversea for South America and the Panama Canal next year), but if we ever do, we’ll be back in the kitchen.

Bon voyage to new learning experiences!