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.
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!
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.
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!
Dining (not just eating) is one of the great pleasures of traveling. When we think back to that time several years ago when we almost bought a time-share, it was the dining issue that finally brought us to our senses.
While sitting in the lobby of said time-share property, we noted with growing alarm a phenomenon that is anathema to our personal traveling esthetic. First, there was neither bar nor restaurant on site. Second – and perhaps more shudder -inducing – was that people were one after the other schlepping groceries into the elevators. That was our eureka moment! We wanted no part of a traveling lifestyle that involved the expectation that one would regularly grocery shop, cook and eat in a suite. For us, finding those perfect places to eat is part of the fun of planning a trip; and enjoying the good and bad experiences as a result is all part of the pleasure of learning about new places. Oh, and the actual experience of a wonderful meal and its ambience is part of it, too. So, just how do we make dining plans?
First, not all dining while traveling needs be planned in advance. In fact, we’ve had some wonderful experiences that serendipitously came our way while wandering around unknown cities. We happened on Bentley’s in London this way and have since returned.
Recently we ate our way up the platinum coast of Barbados while spending five days at the wonderful property The House en route to a Seabourn cruise that left from Bridgetown. We used several approaches to find our experiences – most of which were phenomenal.
We usually begin our search for restaurants online – a search for the location uncovered a couple of restaurant names that we then took over t Fodors online for their review. We then looked at TripAdvisor, used our discerning approach to interpreting the reviews and wrote those names done in our little purple moleskine that we take on ever trip.
Once we got to Barbados we asked the concierge to make us reservations and asked her for further suggestions. She added a new restaurant to our list, made the reservations and we embarked on our terrific dining experience. Here’s what happened.
One not-to-be-missed place we had decided we wanted to dine before even leaving home soil was The Cliff. Here’s what we wrote in our TripAdvisor review when we returned home:
“The Cliff” is as much an experience as it is simply dining. Its breathtaking setting as the sun sets, the impeccable service, the beautifully served and wonderfully innovative food coupled with its terrific wine list, all serve to make the $245 per person minimum worth it! We think it turned out to be our most expensive dinner ever. But…It was worth it!
The other must-eat place (or so we thought) that was on our list was The Tides. We used the same approach to finding it as we did for The Cliff, its name residing in our little purple book. The concierge made us a reservation for 5:30 pm – this seems a tad early, but it was that or much too late. We arrived at the place perhaps ten minutes before our reservation only to be told that our table was not ready, and were ushered into the bar. An interesting bar filled with unusual local artwork, it seemed the place to order a small bottle of champagne, which we did. Time went by; other people entered the restaurant and were seated. We drank and waited. Then Art went out to the desk and asked if our table was ready. Oh, yes it was. Were they planning to ever seat us, or were we to continue drinking and racking up a bar bill? Not to worry. We were ushered into the restaurant and put at an unacceptable table. We were the only people in that section, and yet we were not permitted to sit at the table of our choice on the water’s edge. We were told that those tables were all booked for 8 pm and were not available to us. We promised to be finished by that time, and were told, no. We were unhappy. No, they told us, the other reservation might come early. We looked at each other – we had come early and that didn’t seem to matter to them. And, in fact if we had been seated at the time when our reservation was to be ready, we would certainly have been finished by 8. No. We could not sit there. The manager was brought to the table. An imposingly large man, he also said no. By this time we were not feeling too positively disposed to this restaurant. Perhaps if we had not had to sit and wait, being left drinking at the bar, Patty might not have been inclined to swear at him. To her later embarrassment (not one of her finer moments) she did; and we left. While waiting out front for our taxi driver to arrive, we remembered that we had not paid the bar bill. Art returned and paid it, taking the opportunity to snap a photo of the sign he had seen earlier in the men’s washroom.
So, there we were. Several glasses of champagne later, and still no dinner. Our own fault – we could have stayed, but we would have been severely ticked if we had eaten there and spent the entire time looking at the empty tables where we could have sat at the water’s edge. Serendipity to the rescue – sort of.
Our taxi driver was distressed that we had not been able to eat. So, he took us to Scarlett’s and asked the hostess if there was space. Well, she said, if they can be finished by 8:30 we certainly can accommodate them. Now why had that line been so hard to say at The Tides? It was now well after 7 pm, but we knew that we wouldn’t linger. We were not disappointed. What a wonderful find that was! The next morning we recounted our sad Tides story to a young American couple who we had chatted with the evening before. “Don’t worry,” said the young woman, “you didn’t miss anything.” Hmm…
We also ate at the new Cin-Cin on the recommendation of the concierge, as well as Daphne’s because it was actually at The House; these were equally wonderful experiences.
So, our recommended approaches to finding terrific restaurants are as follows:
Restaurant Apps: Our favorite one for North America is Open Table and its British counterpart Top Table. These apps have stood us in good stead many times. One evening when we arrived at a Washington DC restaurant just across from the White House with a 7 pm reservation, we found it extremely crowded, wildly noisy and boasting a line-up of people with 6:45 reservations who had yet to be seated. We looked at each other and turned back into the revolving doors, finding ourselves on the sidewalk outside and no dinner. The IPhone to the rescue! We searched on Open Table for restaurants near us with reservation slots within a half an hour. We were very shortly on our way to a new reservation at 10-minute walk away and had a wonderful evening. These are not the only apps that are worthwhile. Check out 9 Restaurant Apps Worth Downloading and Maximize Your Weekend with the 35 Most Popular Restaurant Apps.
Online Restaurant Reviews: As online reviewers ourselves, we know that these can be helpful (!). That being said, you do need to be a bit discerning when interpreting these personal perspectives – there is nothing very objective about it. However, you can make them useful to you by looking at a couple of things. If the review is very negative in the face of more positive reviews, note how many reviews the reviewer has done. Many times it’s a first or second-time reviewer who only posts to vent. Then read what people say. If they gave the restaurant in question five stars and then go on to say that it was noisy and kid-friendly, if you are looking for a quiet evening out as a couple, you probably need to steer clear despite its high rating. Then, you can actually read the profiles of reviewers on sites like TripAdvisor (ours is here). If they share your approach to travel, then you are more likely to find their reviews useful. Then go ahead and click that it was helpful if you find it to be so. This helps with the rating of the reviewer. (Interestingly, research conducted at UC Berkley found that ratings from online reviews actually do have an impact on a restaurant’s business – this means that those reviews are important to the owners.)
Recommendations from Hotel Concierges: Many people steer clear of recommendations from concierges because of a distaste for the probability that there is some kind of a kick-back or other relationship between the hotel/concierge and the restaurant. So what? That doesn’t mean that the recommendation isn’t going to be a great one. Remember that if guests take them up on their recommendations and are not happy, this does not reflect well on the property. This is a result that hotels try to avoid at all costs. So, tell the concierge what kind of diners you are and go for it. It is polite to tip for this service, although many people never do. Pity. They can be very helpful.
Obviously there are other ways to get ideas for where to dine when on holiday. Sometimes you follow the advice of a friend who has been there before. We do find, however, that not all our friends share our tastes and dining esthetic. We know which ones whose advice we politely accept and promptly ignore, and which ones to follow. In the end, you need to know what you’re looking for on any given day. Some days you just want a pint and a nosh at a pub; other times you want that full-out experience. Whatever you decide on, for better or for worse, just enjoy the experience – or at least laugh about it later.
The promotional DVD was impressive: a group of white-uniformed ship’s employees standing waist-deep in sparkling water just off a beach on some unnamed tropical paradise. Smiling, they offered caviar and champagne flutes to the beautiful people. What kind of gimmick is that, we wondered? But, when we booked our Seabourn cruise of Caribbean yacht harbors, we were determined that we’d find out. And we did.
The day began as we anchored off Prickly Pear Island in the British Virgin Islands. It was a spectacular day with calm seas and brilliant sunshine. We are not usually the type of travelers who like to spend entire days on a beach, reading, sunning and drinking. In fact, our plan for that day had been to stay on board the ship until near noon, then to take the tender ashore just in time for the caviar ‘thing’ and the beach barbeque. The thought of a beach barbeque and eating a hamburger in the sand wasn’t very enticing, but we thought we’d like to experience the event for ourselves. Oh how wrong our preconceived ideas can be!
We made our way into the lounge where passengers awaited the tenders, just to see how things were going. It was about 10:30 am and according to the crew members there, the preparations had all been made, crew had taken over to the island all of the trappings needed for the day, and we were free to go ashore. Never wishing to wait in crowded lounges for anything, we looked around, saw nobody and quickly scooted back to our suite to change into bathing suits and gather beach accoutrements.
Within minutes we were aboard the tender making our way toward the beach. As we arrived on the pier, we could see the grass hut where several hundred fluffy white towels had been individually rolled and stacked earlier by crew for the arriving guests. A young crew member approached us and offered water or fruit punch. We noticed that there were only a very few people who had evidently made it on to the first guest tender ashore before us – and this, despite the fact we thought the place would be mobbed. Silly us! With only 200 passengers on board in total, mobs were simply out of the question. And it must be noted that this is a deserted island, save for the beach bar and grill that was commandeered by Seabourn for the day. There was no one else there.
We made ourselves comfortable on lounge chairs mere feet from the lapping waves, and settled the umbrella so that we could have some shade. Then the beach service began. Barefoot bar servers from the ship, today in casual uniforms, delightedly served frozen drinks – any kind you want, as many as you want. After sipping a frozen margarita, we explored the beach and discovered something wonderful.
There were to be not hamburgers eaten in lounge chairs. No, Seabourn had something completely different in mind for its discerning travelers. They had brought china, silverware, table cloths from the ship and had set up an open-air dining facility. And on the menu was a vast array of barbequed pork, shrimp, and beef…too much food to even imagine. Then there were the sides, salads, desserts – all brought from the ship that morning by hard-working crew members.
Late in the morning, the water sports activities were live. We spent some time enjoying the island from the water in a paddle boat and later Art water-skied. All of these activities enjoyed while under the watchful eye of the two crew members aboard the fast rescue craft that floated unobtrusively offshore the whole day.
At around noon, the chef from the ship, accompanied by several of his bar staff took up striped sun umbrellas and waded into the water. Shortly after, a rubber dinghy, driven by the ship’s captain (!) left the ship making its way toward the beach – they were bringing the caviar and champagne. And so, we were served caviar by the chef himself while the bar staff happily opened bottle after bottle of wonderful champagne that the guests delightedly imbibed as they waded out of the water to the clicking of a hundred camera shutters. What impressed us most is that the crew members all seemed to be having as much fun as the guests – they never gave the slightest hint that they felt it was work.
After this impressive hors d’oeuvre we took up plates and made our way through the buffet. We had a wonderful lunch, not hunched over on a beach chair as feared; rather we ate at a white linen-topped table in the shade with a friendly American couple from the New York area, while sipping on a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc.
We were among the last guests to leave the island that day! So, was the promotional DVD honest? Absolutely – except for the champagne flutes. No glass was actually permitted – you’ll have to watch our video to see…or you can just book a Seabourn Caribbean cruise and see for yourself! Happy cruising!
There is a certain fantasy aspect to it: the formal invitation left on your stateroom door; the decision to say ‘yes’ to the invitation (who wouldn’t?); the decision about how to dress for this formal occasion(it’s always a formal occasion); the meet and greet in one of the ship’s lounges before the dinner; the parade down the inevitable great staircase in the middle of the two-tier dining room after everyone else is seated; the white-glove service; the sparkling conversation. Oh, wait a minute – there may or may not be sparkling conversation because (a) the captain might be unable to speak English; (b) the captain might be exceedingly uncomfortable with this required part of his otherwise marine-focused career; (c) your dinner companions might have moronic political views; or (d) all of the above. But then again, it might be a wonderful fantasy come true.
We started thinking back to our several dining experiences with ships’ captains and other assorted officers when we read an article on how to “score” an invitation to the captain’s table earlier this week. (When we find the link again we’ll post it.) We thought it might be fun to share a couple of stories that are imbedded in the travel memories of these discerning travelers.
Our first invitation to dine with the captain was on our 20th anniversary cruise aboard the Celebrity Century in the Mediterranean. It was our first cruise on a Celebrity ship, but we had booked one of the largest suites on the ship: a Royal Suite (see our earlier blog post about how once you book a suite, you can never go back!). We figured that this must be the reason for the invitation and decided that it would be a great bit of fun. We were right.
We were lucky. The group was congenial, international, well-dressed and well-spoken – and the table manners were impeccable. Since then, we’ve learned that ship’s personnel scour the dining room for just such people – even if you book the biggest suite on the ship, if you and six drunken friends are sharing, you’ll never get that invitation. The piece we read earlier this week was spot on when it suggested that the most fun part of it all might be the fact that so many of the others in the dining room that night are wondering, “How in the world did they get that invitation?”
The captain that evening drank nothing but water, and left after a couple of bites of dessert. We all then sat and talked over brandy since we were enjoying ourselves so much.This was in contrast to a more recent captain’s table dining experience aboard the Silversea Silver Cloud. The Silver Cloud is a small luxury vessel, and the day had been particularly rough – especially for such a small ship. Neither of us is usually prone to seasickness, especially Art, but even he was a bit green that night. And we were not alone. There was hardly a person at the table that evening (except for the jovial captain) who was not a slight shade of green. We ordered the dining room staples that are on offer every night regardless of the chef’s specialty of the evening: grilled chicken, steamed vegetables and a small salad.As the dinner progressed, we could see everyone else doing exactly what we were doing: we were pushing food around our plates, pretending that we were eating. A sip of wine here, a gulp of water there, a smile at a joke the captain was making, a hiccup suppressed. Would he never leave? (It is considered rude to leave before the captain who usually has the sense to leave early.)
Finally, after a glass of something resembling a digestif and a full dessert (or two, it’s hard to remember through the memory of the nausea), the captain finally dabbed his lips with his napkin and arose. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief. As soon as he was out the door, we all arose almost in unison, bid everyone a pleasant good night and made a bee-line to our suite. We crashed on the bed to recover from the longest dinner of our lives. Well, we suppose it only felt that way!
There’s a new book (actually it’s not that new) out by author Sarah Edington called The Captain’s Table: Life and Dining on the Great Ocean Liners – we’ve just ordered it online and will let you know what we think.