Welcome to our blog. We look forward to spending some time with you!
Welcome to our blog. We look forward to spending some time with you!
There are requirements for authorized travel to Cuba
Thank you for following these posts of our Cuba travel. You’ve not only been reading our blog, but also the journal which is a required component of Cuba travel and must be kept for 5 years.
All travel to Cuba is regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Anyone, regardless of nationality, departing the U.S. for Cuba must comply.
We fell under the general license of a “self-guided people to people” program. We attended a morning lecture sponsored by the cruise line and we were required to engage, full-time, in activities resulting in meaningful interaction with the Cuban people. We had three goals for this trip: view the historic architecture of Old Viejo and contrast the renovations of that area with the neglected buildings of Havana Centro; follow the history of both the rum and cigar industries; and experience the highlights of Ernest Hemingway’s time in Cuba where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. Because of the heavy rain on our only day in Cuba, we did not visit Cojimar or Finca Vigia (Hemingway’s home.) We did, however, visit the home of a Cuban family in the Havana Centro district as well as the Rum Museum in Old Viejo. We also had the opportunity to converse, in length, with our driver, Fabio, as we sat out the downpour on the covered terrace of the Hotel Nacional. All the Cuban people we had the opportunity to interact with were warm, engaging and friendly.
The Cuban government required a visa and proof of non-U.S. medical insurance. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (for a $75.00 fee per person) arranged for both.
Interestingly, Cuba has two forms of currency: one for tourists and one for the locals. Not surprisingly, the tourist currency is a pricey 1 to 1 exchange rate with a 3% transaction fee (plus an additional 10% for U.S. dollars) and only available in-country! Credit cards are not accepted in Cuba. Cash only!
Upon our return, we were allowed to bring into the U.S., cigars and rum for personal consumption. They had to be in our hand luggage and normal duty applied (up to 50 cigars and 2.5L alcohol duty free).
This was a very interesting trip. We intend to return, sometime soon, to see more. We will, quite definitely, do so by cruise ship.
Did I mention, in Cuba, NOTHING IS AIR CONDITIONED!
The dock in Havana is extremely convenient. We cleared Customs and simply walked across the street to San Francisco de Asis Square. The square is dominated by the 16th century Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis. Surprisingly, vendors were in short supply. Only one artist had set up a stand to sell his work while he continued to create lovely images. In contrast, there were a gazillion hawkers touting tours and antique car excursions! Cuba may be communist but capitalism happens!
We walked over to Plaza Vieja, constructed in 1559. The Plaza was always a residential area encircled by the homes of wealthy citizens. From their balconies, they could watch processions, fiestas, bullfights and even executions. Today, cafes line the square. Outdoor seating is plentiful and even comfortable when there’s a breeze. But when the wind does not blow, indoors is better with electric fans set up everywhere. There is no air-conditioning! We found the Café Escorial to be typical. Umbrella tables set up outside; the interior sparse with rustic tables, lots of electric fans and all windows open to catch a breeze.
As the time approached to meet our car & driver for the afternoon tour, we made our way to the Rum Museum. Everything in Cuba was nationalized after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 including the distilleries. The Arechabala Family, producers of Havana Club, left Cuba for Spain and the United States. They stopped producing rum. Bacardi, on the other hand, already had facilities in Puerto Rico and the United states. They left Cuba and continued their business. Today, they are headquartered in Hamilton, Bermuda. We continued to Restaurante Dos Hermanos for libations while we awaited Fabio, our driver from Havana Vintage Car Tours. The restaurant is rumored to be the oldest bar in Havana. They are located across the street from Sierra Maestra Terminal (with its graffiti of Che Guevara) and the Regla Ferry Boats.
Fabio arrived a little early and we boarded our 1955 Buick chariot for a tour of the city. The first stop was a government-mandated visit to a military museum. After the propaganda stop, it started to rain. The convertible top went up. We continued through Havana Centro and the Vedado District to the Malecon and on to the Hotel Nacional where we escaped the downpour. We enjoyed drinks on the covered hotel Terrace. When the rain finally stopped, we returned to the ship and concluded our Cuban adventure.
We didn’t get to see as much as we had hoped. The rain put a real damper on that! However, there’s no doubt that Cuba will remain a port-of-call for many cruise lines. We expect to return!
It’s time to start planning the next adventure!
Key West, Florida
The first port-of-call on our cruise to Cuba was Key West. We docked at Mallory Square. Wall Street leads from the Square to Duval Street and along the way is the El Meson de Pepe Cuban Restaurant at the Cayo Hueso y Habana Historeum. Although founded in 1985, it exemplifies the historic connection between Key West and Cuba. Shipwrecks and their salvage created the first boom in Key West and attracted many settlers to the Island from Cuba. In the 1860s, the cigar industry with its many workers started a migration from Cuba to Key West. Soon, Key West became “Cigar City USA.” And remained so until a fire decimated the industry in 1886.
We walked over to the old Custom House where Seward Johnson’s sculpture “Unconditional Surrender” is displayed. I love Johnson’s work and, obviously, so do many others. Copies of this sculpture are installed all over the world! We first saw “Unconditional Surrender” in San Diego. It is also on display in New York. We were surprised to see it in Civitavecchia, Italy. But we considered it totally appropriate in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu. Other locations include Hamilton, New Jersey; Caen, France; Sarasota, Florida; Royal Oak, Michigan and Bastenaken, Belgium.
We continued along Duval Street to 428 Greene St. where Captain Tony’s Saloon is located. Here, many famous people such as Truman Capote, John F. Kennedy, and Harry Truman enjoyed a drink or two. Barstools are named for these famous patrons. There is even a life-sized statue of Ernest Hemingway. Jimmy Buffett got his start here and still comes by occasionally (but he will not perform here anymore; that is something he only does at his own Margaritaville Café around the corner!) This building has a long and interesting history. Constructed in 1852 as an ice house, it also doubled as the city morgue. In 1898, it was the telegraph station that reported to the world the sinking of the USS Maine. In 1912, it was a cigar factory. For the next 21 years it housed a couple of bars, a bordello, and a series of speakeasies. Then, in 1933, Josie Russell created Sloppy Joe’s Bar. It became a favorite hang-out of Ernest Hemingway. As a matter of fact, Hemingway suggested the name based on the original Sloppy Joe’s in Havana. When the landlord raised the rent, Russell and his customers picked up the entire bar and transported everything to Sloppy Joe’s current location at 201 Duval Street.
Before returning to the ship, we deemed it necessary to have a Margarita, on the rocks, at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Café. A stop at the gift shop followed.
Sailing out of Tampa
Before boarding the Empress of the Seas for our adventure to Havana, we spent a couple of days in Tampa, Fl. Our goal was to visit the neighborhood of Ybor City. Founded in the 1880s by Vicente Martinez-Ybor, Ybor City is a unique example of successful immigrant assimilation.
Ybor, was a prominent cigar manufacturer in Cuba. He moved his factory from Cuba to Key West in 1869 during political turmoil in the then-Spanish colony. But soon, desiring to establish his own “company town” with room for growth and expansion, he bought 40 acres of land northeast of Tampa; built hundreds of small pre-fab houses (precursor to the Sears house kits?) to attract skilled Cuban cigar makers; and welcomed other cigar manufacturers, eventually making Tampa a major cigar manufacturing hub. The humid climate, nearby port and Henry Plant’s new railroad line contributed to the success of Ybor city.
Further contributing to its success were the European immigrants from Sicily, Germany, and Romania. The Chinese came, also! Together, they built a real town. The Germans were managers, bookkeepers, and supervisors. It was the German immigrants who not only designed and created the cigar labels but also built the factories to produce the wooden cigar boxes. The Italians came and started small businesses such as bakeries, cafes, restaurants, food stores and boarding houses. The Romanians and Chinese were adept at the service trade and retail sales.
The city peaked in 1929. And then the Depression came. It wasn’t until 50 years later that artists and entrepreneurs came back to Ybor City. Today tourism flourishes. Hotels, restaurants, and shopping are in abundance.
A point of interest is the Parque de Jose Marti. It is owned by the Cuban government and enjoys status similar to embassies and consulates!
Next port-of-call is Key West, Florida.
Crossing the Atlantic
Every evening, before retiring for the night, we find a schedule of the next days’ activities in our mail slot. There is something (often many things) to do every hour of every day! Tai Chi, yoga, exercise & fitness in the gym or in the pool, sports, arts & crafts, bridge games and tournaments, board games, puzzles, lectures, passenger talent shows, choral, casino gambling, movies, book club, spa treatments, salon services, cooking demos, celebrity chef cooking classes & luncheons, mixology lectures & wine tastings, afternoon tea, dance lessons, ballroom dancing, evening DJ dancing, floral arranging classes, jewelry-making classes, computer classes, photography classes, reading, shopping, ship’s tours, eating and drinking and being merry! It should not be possible to get bored. But, you know, we often do! You feel confined on sea days. Even though you can go out and walk laps around the deck, you KNOW you’re stuck in this finite space. Sometimes, we just sit in the barco, watch the world go by, and take a nap!
Wednesday, we arrive in Ft. Lauderdale. Thank you for following this journey with us. We’ve enjoyed your company! Let’s do it again, soon!
Preparing to Transit the Atlantic Ocean
I apologize! I’m really, tardy in posting the last ports-of-call. The hold-up with Cadiz is simply due to the fact we’ve been here so many times that we tend to treat each return like being home. So, this time, we simply took a cab to the department store, El Corte Inglais, and started with a cappuccino at the café. After doing some normal shopping, we went back downtown and grabbed lunch at a local fast food restaurant. We were there the day before Easter and the downtown area was preparing for a celebratory procession. All the cafes were full with anticipatory revelers. The squares were filling up with kiosks and hawkers pushing their wares. It was all festive and fun. We simply enjoyed the pleasure of being there! And that was pretty much “IT” for Cadiz. As we returned to the ship, we could see all the provisions lined up and waiting to be stowed for the upcoming Transatlantic crossing. I’ve taken the liberty of including some old photos we have of Cadiz just to show you how beautiful it is. There are Roman ruins, museums, cathedrals, parks, beaches, and so much more. This is one of our favorite ports!
On the other hand, Casablanca not so much! We started coming to Morocco about 30 years ago, and have watched changes take place. It’s not all good. On this visit, we didn’t even leave the ship. But we certainly could have visited the Souk with its marvelous leather vendors selling beautiful jackets, wallets, bags, etc. that were once produced in Morocco for fashion houses such as Cartier and Chanel. The quality is still evident. And the prices are outstanding! The spice and olive markets are my favorites! Side trips to Fez, Rabat or Marrakech are exciting and exotic. The old Mdinas are mysterious and confusing. Carpets are still hand-made, but it’s getting harder to find them as machine-made is ubiquitous! However, the ceremony surrounding a carpet purchase remains the same. Copious amounts of tea are consumed and hours of pleasant conversation are spent before the deal is sealed and the carpet is folded into an amazingly compact “package” that is easy to carry and transport. Of course, a visit to Rick’s Café is always nice. And it is very close to the port. Rick’s was never anything more than a set on a Hollywood move lot until an enterprising American member of the diplomatic corps had the idea to replicate the Café in Casablanca. A faithful reproduction ensued. Rick’s Café is now a pleasant stop for lunch or a drink or to simply sit for a while and watch the movie, Casablanca, play on a continuous loop.
Funchal, on the island of Madeira is almost always a cruise ship’s last port before transiting the Atlantic. Madeira was discovered in the 15th century by two Portuguese sea captains blown off-course. Joao Goncalves Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira were sent by Prince Henry the Navigator to explore the west coast of Africa. When they approached the large, forested island they named it Madeira (which means wood in Portuguese) and claimed it for Portugal. Prince Henry immediately sent colonists to the island (most of them coming from the Algarve region of Portugal. Today, the climate and beauty of the island attracts more than a million visitors annually. And we are two of the happy visitors who love coming to this beautiful island! The following photos will tell the rest of the story.
Now, we are “at sea” transiting the Atlantic on our way back to the United States. The journey comes to an end.
The first aerial attack on La Barceloneta occurred on March 16, 1937. On October 1, 1937, Italian planes, flying low, approached Barcelona, dropped their bombs on Barceloneta and then strafed the local population killing 55 and wounding 87. Eighteen buildings were destroyed including a school. Barceloneta was attacked again on January 7, 1938. And, again, on September 16, 1938. The Mercato Barceloneta was hit, killing 34 and wounding 124. There is a memorial at the entrance to the market today. Most attacks were conducted by the Italians (113 missions in all) but the Germans also participated (with 80 missions of their own.) La Barceloneta was a strategic target because of its location on the coast near the port, the railway, and the gas plant. This is also notable because it is the first time a major city was hit with systematic bombings against all manner of targets—including the civilian population! The bombing of September 16, 1938 took place while Chamberlain and Hitler resolved negotiations regarding the Sudetenland. This attack nearly started WWII since a British ship was hit in the Barcelona port; but these attacks had nothing to do with WWII. They were conducted on behalf of Franco. Both Germany and Italy supported him in hopes of gaining his support later. But he kept Spain neutral. That was surely a major disappointment to both Mussolini and Hitler!
On our second day in Barcelona we visited Mercato Barceloneta. It is a bustling and lively market. Foodstuffs are inside and clothing, housewares, etc. circle the outer perimeter. We had coffee at El Guindilla and watched the pedestrians on the huge market square. We were told the square is full of revelers on summer evenings! We walked through Barceloneta and wound up at Maian’s Restaurant at the marina for a wonderful paella lunch! At the end of the marina, we found an outdoor market and the Emperado Restaurant where we enjoyed tea and a unique ice cream called Blueberry with Cheese. Quite tasty! And quite an interesting day!