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!

Postcard from Beijing and the Great Wall of China (Part 1)

IMG_7637Whenever you pick up a postcard on your travels (even if only to look) you’re likely to find that that postcard-worthy photograph has the following characteristics: it’s framed to show the scene from its best perspective (which includes being minus the mobs of people who might be there from time to time) and the weather – if it’s an outdoor photo – will be perfection. For most people we know who have visited Beijing and The Great Wall of China, finding that perfect-weather day where the sun is shining, the air is clear and the crowds are minimal, seems just about impossible. But we did it. We were there that day. Let’s back up…

Using a small cruise ship – the Silversea Silver Shadow – as our transportation, we leave Shanghai to traverse the Yellow Sea enroute to Beijing. But Beijing isn’t on the coast, you might reasonably interject. No, it isn’t, but that won’t stop us from visiting inland. Before we left home in Toronto, we booked what Silversea calls and “Overland Journey.” This means that in mid-cruise, we will leave the ship, travel by bullet train to Beijing, tour the city, overnight in a first-class hotel, visit the Great Wall the next day, then rejoin the ship.

We arrive in the early hours of the morning to the eerily silent cruise-ship terminal in the port of Tianjin.

 

Steeling ourselves for the fact that this is a group tour (and everyone knows how much we love a group excursion – not!), we meet the tour guide shore-side then board a surprisingly well-appointed bus that leaves precisely on time and transports us to the Tianjin train station. It is a huge facility. Since we have a bit of time before we have to board our train, we take a walk around the terminal. It’s a peculiar feeling to be examined so closely by so many sets of eyes, as if they have never seen a people from the West, and it turns out that many of them in the station that day had seen very few.

 

We finally board the train for the 35-minute ride to North Beijing station at a speed that reaches 297 km/hour – we know this since the speed at which the train is travelling flashes across the screen in the front of the car. If we had taken a bus a many of the other cruise-ship passengers did, it would have taken upwards of two hours to get there. We arrive in Beijing. Despite the expectation that we will suffer from the smog, we marvel at the clear sky and sunshine. Our guide explains to us that it rained heavily the night before and the ever-present pollution is now spattered on every car, window and leaf. We notice. Then we are off to visit the Forbidden City.

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It’s hard to miss the evidence of the previous evening’s smog-rain!

The largest imperial palace in the world, The Forbidden City is truly the heart of Beijing. It was constructed in the fifteenth century through the efforts of over 1 million workers over a period of 20 years during the Ming Dynasty and was the imperial home of 24 Emperors of China for over 400 years. It comprises some 980 buildings and almost 9000 rooms! Forbidden to the common Chinese for centuries, it ceased being the seat of Chinese power in 1912 with the abdication of the last emperor of China. (Have you seen the film The Last Emperor? It was filmed here.) Of course, now it is known as the Palace Museum, because that’s what it is. According to our guide, it’s not very busy today. We beg to differ.

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Entering the outer courtyard of The Forbidden City

We spend time getting to the heart of the city through a series of courtyards and are mildly disappointed that you can’t actually go into the buildings. Even the throne room must be viewed from afar. But the architecture! Amazing. Tiananmen Square is next on the agenda.

The square itself seems smaller than it looks on television news reports. We are all old enough to be remembering the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, odd since the word Tiananmen is the name of the gate at the north end of the square that means “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The two of us break off from our tour group (nothing new in that!) and walk the entire square taking in the buildings and monuments: The Great Hall of the People, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, he National Museum of China, and of course, the mausoleum where Mao’s body still lies in state (we didn’t get inside). But we also see beautiful gardens and more security cameras than we have ever seen in our lives – even in Monaco! It’s an extraordinary juxtaposition of the political and the aesthetic.

 

We notice that one thing is missing: city noise. According to our guide, sirens and other loud nose is forbidden in the area surrounding the square. It is oddly peaceful.

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Extraordinary gardens around the square.

It has now been a long day and we check into our room at the Four Seasons Hotel Beijing. What an extraordinary property! We aren’t sure what we expected, but a five-star hotel smack in the middle of a very upscale, leafy neighbourhood of high-end shopping was not it.

The hotel has spared no detail in its amenities or décor. We choose the Asian restaurant (why would we choose North American while in Asia?) and are delighted with the ambience, the food and the service – the Chinese servers really seem to care. And even their halting English is a lot better than our Chinese, for which we are truly grateful.

 

We have only one night at this wonderful, surprising hotel and would like to spend longer enjoying a night cap in the beautiful bar, but tomorrow we are visiting The Great Wall and have to be up early. So, good night from Beijing.

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.

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.