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I once came across this quote on a travel forum: “Not planning is a good way to miss things you wanted to see.” That may be true, but it misses the point of travel completely.
It’s not hard to compile a list of must-visit sights and attractions before you travel. Every guidebook will have a page dedicated to the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and the Taj Mahal. Many travelers feel like they absolutely can’t miss these touristy sites.
The problem is, if you only focus your trip only on these types of places, you’ll miss some of the most important travel experiences out there: the ones that are born of spontaneity and happenstance. Personally, I’ve been to New York without taking the boat to the Statue of Liberty. I’ve been to Paris without going up the Eiffel Tower. And while I did visit the Taj Mahal when I was in Agra, what I mostly remember is the crowds and the rain.
On the other hand, when I visited Egypt, I did something outside most tourists’ comfort zone and rented a bicycle to explore the Valley of the Kings, which is lined with the tombs of ancient royalty. It was so hot on the way back that we had to stop into a few shops and pretend we wanted to buy souvenirs just to get some tea. This was a memorable experience that we never would have had if we’d done a “normal” tour.
The “must see” travel lists are great for boring guidebooks and listicle-driven magazines, but at Triposo we feel that they fail to capture what travel is really about.
So what is it all about?
I came across some other comments on travel forums that I think capture the real spirit of travel:
One traveler said that, “For me, stumbling across a free open-air opera at dusk in a church courtyard in an old part of Rome — listening to the singers while swallows zoomed overhead — was pure European magic. I couldn’t follow the plot at all, but it didn’t matter.”
Another explained that his favorite travel experience was, “Accidentally coming upon a tiny outdoor fox shrine that had a mysterious door into a hill in Arashimaya, Kyoto, after visiting a small moss temple.”
A different traveler gushed about, “That peeled salted cucumber from the guy with the cucumber cart on a gorgeous April day in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Holy shit that cucumber.”
Of course, these types of experiences never make it onto a bucket list. No one sets out to have a transformative experience at a cucumber cart in Turkey or to discover a magical animal shrine. These are serendipitous experiences, the kind you simply can’t plan for.
However, you can do a few things that will help you find yourself in more serendipitous situations. Here are our recommendations for traveling more spontaneously and uncovering the adventure in each place you visit:
That’s number one, and while it may seem obvious, it’s worth repeating because not enough people actually do it. Just go somewhere. Then look around you and see what there is to see. You don’t have to be in Paris or Istanbul or anywhere exotic. It can be Pittsburgh. They may not have an Eiffel Tower, but the company that makes the paint for the Eiffel Tower is there, and maybe that’s where your serendipitous experience is hiding out. Just pick a place, get on the road and go.
2. Get Lost
Is there any sight more pitiful than a tourist struggling with his map in the wind? Sometimes I think that travel companies ought to issue an “anti-GPS.” One that tells you to turn left when what you’re looking for is to the right. My dad had one of these, and they’ve been married happily for more than 40 years (har, har.) Anyway, the point is to let go of your need for control and just follow your nose. The good news is that there is so much to see in most cities that you are likely to find something amazing as soon as you put the map down and look around you. It’s not to say that a good map can’t come in handy now and again (and we happen to think that the skobbler-powered open-source maps in our mobile app are some of the best out there), but there’s a lot to be said for just wandering and getting lost. And anyway, as a wise man once said, “Not all who wander are lost.”
3. Talk to Locals
Most travelers get their advice and recommendations from guidebooks, websites and fellow travelers — in other words, not locals. That’s a big mistake. Locals have the best possible perspective on what makes their city an awesome place to be, because they choose to live there. While a typical Boston guide might send you to shop in touristy Faneuil Hall, trace the Freedom Trail or have a beer at Cheers, real Bostonians will tell you that the best way to experience the city is to go for a bike ride on Memorial Drive along the Charles, take the T out to Brookline or trek to East Boston to enjoy the best lobster roll around while you watch jets take off over the harbor. These are the kind of things you miss out on when you don’t speak up and ask the locals what they love best about their city. Try to find someone who speaks your language or look up a simple phrase like, “Where do you recommend I have lunch?” Then take their advice; you won’t be sorry.
4. Do Random Stuff
Someone might tell you to make sure you enjoy a croissant at a typical Parisien café. Well, there are about 100,000 of those. So how will you decide which one? You could consult Yelp and other review sites until you go cross-eyed, or you could just randomly pick one and give it a go. Maybe you won’t get it right the first time, but that just gives you an excuse to have a second croissant, and a third. You won’t get the same level of satisfaction out of enjoying a restaurant that everyone and their mother says is great online. Instead, try it for yourself. Give yourself permission to make a random decision and determine what you like based on your own preferences rather than someone else’s (often arbitrary) tastes. At Triposo, we think that review sites have come to be more of a distraction than an aid for most travelers, and we strongly recommend that you just let go and try something new. It’s the best way to make memories when you travel.
5. Be Distracted
Often we think of being distracted as a bad thing. But when you’re traveling it can actually be a good thing. After all, you’re on vacation. You’re allowed to let your mind wander, and to follow your nose (or eyes or ears) toward anything that distracts you and grabs your attention. Do you hear music from a few streets over? Don’t worry about getting to the museum on time — go check it out! A great smell wafting from the restaurant you just passed? Skip your reservations and test that out instead. Relying on your own senses and intuition is a great way to happen upon the kind of serendipitous experiences that will make your trip more memorable and give you great stories to tell when you get home. Let go of your usual focused attention and allow yourself to be distracted. You never know what you might find.
To sum it all up, we’re suggesting that you don’t plan and don’t use a travel guide. Wait… What? We make travel guides for a living. So if we believe all this, why do we think you need Triposo?
First of all, if you plan on getting lost, you should have the security of knowing that you’ll be able to find your way again when it comes time. For example, you’ll want some kind of map to get you back to your hotel. And it’s good to have access to important phrases that will help you communicate with locals, especially in case of an emergency. In which case, you’ll also want to be able to find a local pharmacy, hospital or embassy. Additionally, you want to have all the information you need to use local public transit, book hotels at the last minute and even discover spontaneous events like small festivals and impromptu concerts that aren’t normally covered in guidebooks.
We want to help you travel more spontaneously. Help you get lost and distracted, be random, talk to locals and do it all without feeling stressed out. Not planning is a good way to miss the things you wanted to see, sure, but planning too much is a great way to miss the most important experiences — the ones you can’t plan for.
The same person who wrote the quote I opened with continued on to say, “It’s easy to be distracted by the daily life around you… the taxis, the markets, the restaurants, the bars, the beach…and the street scene…”
To that we say: that’s great! Get distracted. Wander into the market, sample the street food, have a drink at the local bar and sink your toes in the cool sand. Travel is all about soaking up the culture around you, and oftentimes the best way to do that is to put away the plans, grab your smartphone and get going. That’s starting to sound like my credo…
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SOUTH BEND — Though travel and training are sometimes necessary for business, do trips to resorts, including one in Florida, fit under that description?
According to some county officials, the answer is yes.
The Tribune dug into past St. Joseph County Commissioner consent agendas, which are published weekly at commissioner meetings and include such things as surplus equipment declarations and travel requests. Though not required by state statute, the county policies and benefits manual requires department leaders to submit travel requests for prior approval.
All totaled, including reimbursements from state and other grants, county officials and staff have requested $97,923.73 on travel and training so far this year. The funds used to pay this vary, from the General Fund to other grants provided by the state and federal government or user fees generated by different offices.
Not a single travel request made this year was denied, though they didn’t all get unanimous approval.
For a comparison, Allen County, which holds Fort Wayne, spent $368,000 for classes, seminars and state-called meetings in 2012, according to Nicholas Jordan, the county’s chief deputy auditor. That would put them near $184,000 for six months — higher than St. Joseph County’s expenditure for six months.
Compared with past expenditures in St. Joseph County, this year’s expenditures are nearly identical. County departments spent about $206,000. Through previous budgets, it appears travel costs haven’t changed greatly in the last 10 years — if anything, decreasing slightly.
The largest expenditure for travel comes from the prosecutor’s office, which, as of June 25, spent just over $30,900 for travel — around one-third of all county travel and training expenditure.
Prosecutor’s office spokeswoman Lora Bentley said the office has scheduled travel for 76 different employees, amounting to around $400 spent on travel each, when averaged.
The most expensive trip? A $10,967 trip to St. Pete Beach, Fla., for a Traffic Crash Reconstruction Conference at Tradewinds Island Resort.
According to Patrick Higgins, chief of staff for the prosecutor, the trip was necessary for the county’s Fatal Alcohol Crash Test investigation team. Capt. Tim Spencer, a Mishawaka police officer who has lead the FACT team since its inception six years ago, said the same.
“This conference is the only one of its kind in the country,” Spencer said. “I can’t think of another conference that has live staged crashes.”
The conference provided an atmosphere for Spencer, one deputy prosecutor and four crash reconstructionists with the Mishawaka and St. Joseph County police forces to test their knowledge that they use to reconstruct crashes, Spencer said.
“They actually stage a crash, using GPS and other instrumentation to measure it,” Spencer said. “We then take those measurements and check them against our formulas, validating the formulas we use when reconstructing crashes back home.”
The conference, which had about 160 attendees, actually didn’t cost much more per person than training trips in Indianapolis and other spots, according to Spencer. Higgins said training conferences like this are sometimes cheaper than conferences in non-vacation destinations.
“People get worried about the destination, but there are good reasons they put those on in places like that, because of the deals you can get there,” Higgins said. “It’s harder to get deals in places like Boston, Washington D.C. and even Chicago.”
Former commissioner Steve Ross said he “tended to question” travel requests during his time in office.
“To me, they seemed excessive, sometimes,” he said by phone in May. “They seemed more like parties.”
Ross said he didn’t go along with most requests, and that he would vote in favor only of the ones that provided a program of what the conference, seminar or training course was offering. According to the county handbook, itineraries and list of conference sessions are required in travel requests.
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Gay travel is surging — and not just for Gay Pride Weekend. This week’s marriage equality ruling is expected to fuel a gay honeymoon boom. Savvy travel operators are already figuring out how they can court the so-called pink dollar without turning away straight business.
“Obviously, there’s more camaraderie with fellow guests” at a gay-friendly accommodation, said Ed Jones, a gay traveler and New York accountant. But it’s more than that. “I’ve stayed at straight-owned BBs,” said Jones, “and it’s definitely not something that’s always welcomed. When two guys check in, there’s that surprise that clearly registers on people’s faces.”
Travel spots that have a reputation for not being gay-friendly risk missing out. One in four gay men and one in five lesbians say that an LGBT-friendly reputation is important in choosing a travel destination.
As the travel industry climbs out of the recession, gay travel is seen as a bright spot. Last year, gay men took an average of 4.7 leisure trips per year, and lesbians took an average of 4 trips, according to the 17th Annual LGBT Travel Survey by the market research firm CMI. That’s a one trip increase for both groups. Meanwhile, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical American traveler takes only 1.62 leisure trips per year.
“The gay traveler is quite savvy and won’t simply patronize a hotel that slaps on a rainbow sticker on their door or website,” said John Clifford, a San Diego-based travel agent who specializes in LGBT travel. “It’s important that there be a level of respect, sensitivity understanding, training and a sincere welcome environment.” Cliffords steers his gay clients not towards specifically gay hotels or resorts but towards 4 and 5 star boutique and design hotel accommodations.
And the LGBT community isn’t one size fits all either. “Men are going to go ‘where the boys are’,” said Merryn Johns, editor-in-chief of the lesbian magazine Curve. Lesbians prioritize safety. “We’re women, and we travel as women first,” said Johns.
Within days of the decision, some hotels had already unveiled new packages and promotion designed to celebrate the ruling, while also being inclusive to same-sex couples. The US Grant hotel in San Diego launched a $145 per person “At Last” wedding reception package designed to celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling, but available to both same and opposite sex partners.
In partnership with Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBT equal rights advocacy organization, W Hotels made its “HRC Pride 365″ package available across all its locations in the US and Canada. Besides the room, it includes triple starpoints, a one-year membership to the HRC, and a $10 donation to the HRC.
Even international destinations got in on the marketing peg. The Qualia Resort on Hamilton Island off the coast of Australia introduced a new seven night couples retreat package with one night free, “to celebrate the landmark Supreme Court decision.”
The Marriott hotel chain went even further than marketing packages, filing amicus briefs in the the Supreme Court marriage equality cases demonstrating how DOMA hurts their business.
After all, pink or green, a dollar is a dollar.
“Equality tends to foster a sense of prosperity,” said Johns. So among vacation spots and hotels that are still behind when it comes to accommodating the gay traveler, “Who really wants to be the holdout?”
By Kenneth Gloss
Summer is primetime for journeys to far-away lands by way of one’s imagination and by actually making the decision to travel! A collection of travel books is a great way to sample life in other countries and learn about their culture and history whether or not one makes the necessary arrangements to turn their dream into a reality. From the very first travel guide put out by Baedekers in Germany, collectors and travelers alike have been fascinated with books that provide a colorful verbal and sometimes pictorial view of the world.
The Baedekers are some of the best guides ever produced and can sell for $10 and up, depending upon the rarity and condition. These mini-books had been written specifically to be used on trips and were not designed to last for generations. Thus, many of those guides did not survive much beyond the journeys for which they were used. Generally, though, travel guides for popular destinations like Paris, London and Germany are plentiful. In the U.S., Niagara Falls has the distinction of having the most travel guides written about it because it continues to be a perennial honeymoon and family vacation spot. Bermuda is also popular with both British and American collectors.
As one gets a little more off the beaten travel path, old guides become very rare and more valuable. Guides for Greece are rarer than for Paris, while finding a guide for a country like Syria is even rarer. Aside from today’s struggles, one of the reasons tourist books on Syria are difficult to find is that the country used to prohibit them. The old guides to Syria contain a note that advises the traveler to hide it in a pocket before crossing the border because the guards would often confiscate them. That little side note is just one of the interesting tidbits you can find tucked inside a travel guidebook.
Guides to Russia are also rare. When communism closed the borders in 1917, travel writers were not allowed in to document the sites for many years, leaving a hole in the Russian travel guide history. Russian guidebooks had been one of the best sources for accurate maps. The State Department bought many because it was one of the few places where maps for the area were available. Therefore, there are not as many of them available to collectors today. A Russian guidebook pre-the fall of the wall, will sell for $200-350 because of this imposed shortage of guidebooks.
Travel guides are more than just information; they make incredibly interesting historical references as well. If you collect all the guides available on a particular area over a large period of time, you can gain an amazing picture of the culture and society of that area. Travel guides point out what areas people deemed important, how the buildings and streets changed and what was popular at the time. Any advertisements in the book can even be a valuable reference to the society and its culture.
Travel guides were produced by a variety of transportation industries in an effort to entice people to travel. During the mid-1800s, the railroads produced a number of books that focused on the West. Some of the railroad companies even built their own hotels and resorts, and would then feature those places in the guides. The railroads were one of the biggest promoters of travel books to the public. Later, steamship companies, auto clubs and airlines began producing travel guides. Oil companies also published a number of these books, complete with listings of gas stations, as did Duncan Hines with eateries around the country. The components of the travel guide, whether it pointed out depots, gas stations or docks, were directly related to what conveyance the traveler was using and which company was producing the book.
Before photography, the pictures in travel guides were hand-drawn. Some of the artwork in these booklets is exquisite. The prints inside are often detailed enough to be framed and many collectors look for travel guides with particular artistic merits.
There are mainly two types of travel guide collectors. The first is the person who is fascinated with reading travel accounts and loves to learn about the history of different places throughout the world. They can travel the world, journeying to a different country every night, just by reading a variety of travel guides. The second is the armchair traveler, a person who may have always dreamed of circling the globe, but never got a chance. Some people spend their entire lives planning a trip to a particular destination and collecting guides about the area. It’s sad to buy these guides from an estate and learn that Grandma or Uncle Joe always dreamed of traveling to Paris, but died before that trip became a reality. A handful of travel guides from years ago were even written by armchair travelers who never went beyond their local library to gather research. These particular books don’t depict as true a picture of an area as one where the writer actually made the journey.
The best part about collecting travel guides is the cost. For relatively little money, you can start collecting these books. They are also easy to find. Travel guides pop up in boxes at garage sales, inside antique shops and at flea markets. If you are concentrating your collection on a certain area or specific time period, it may take a little more effort to find the right books but the payoff is worth it. Like the gold miners who sorted through gallons of water and tons of rock to find a single nugget, an industrious travel guide collector can search through the bookracks in a bookshop or the boxes at an auction to unearth that tiny treasure that will top off a collection.
Kenneth Gloss is the owner of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston’s Downtown section. It is the oldest antiquarian bookstore in America celebrating its 64th year of Gloss family ownership. Mr. Gloss has appeared on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow as a guest appraiser for more than a dozen years. For further information about his open talks, getting old books and documents appraised visit the website at: www.brattlebookshop.com or call 1-800-447-9595. The shop is located at 9West Street in the Downtown Crossing section of Boston.
Article source: http://www.thesomervillenews.com/archives/39931
DAILY NEWS EXCLUSIVE
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Conway Confidential is a content syndication provider specializing in travel, food and lifestyle.
Question: I am currently sitting on a deck overlooking a park at a hospice facility while my mother lies in her bed taking a morphine nap. She will die in a couple of days.
My mother was diagnosed last year with soft-tissue sarcoma. We had expected her to be around for at least another couple of years. But last week we discovered that the tumors she had more than tripled in size, and a week later, she was given a few days’ life expectancy.
That bucket-list cruise to Alaska, which is scheduled for next week, ain’t happening. In an effort to reduce debt, I tried to cancel her trip. My mother says, “Don’t bother canceling. They’ll keep your money and then book someone else in my room making double what they should!”
So I called the airlines she was scheduled to fly on. They were more than accommodating. They said they simply needed a letter and some other details pertaining to her death, and I was told a refund would be no problem.
I called Princess Cruises, and they told me they would not refund her cruise for any reason. They stated that if she had bought the travel insurance they offered, she could get some money back, as long as it was not within two weeks of travel. It is within two weeks of her trip, so that wouldn’t have helped.
Is it true that Princess will now get paid twice for the cruise that my mother could not get reimbursed for? By canceling the cruise, they are informed that she will not be there, and they now have the opportunity to resell this space, even if it is at an incredible discount. This seems a bit unethical. What do you think?
– Shannon Tait, Wappingers Falls, N.Y.
Answer: I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. Between the time you first wrote to me and the time I closed your case, your mother passed away. My condolences on your loss.
I looked into the details of your cruise, and when you said this was a bucket-list vacation, you were not kidding. Your mother was terminally ill before she booked this trip with her sister, and most travel insurance would not cover her because of her preexisting medical condition.
This isn’t a simple question of a cruise line’s pocketing the money for a passenger who passed away. Your mother and your aunt were taking their chances by booking a cruise under these circumstances. I can certainly understand their desire to get away together one last time, but they also knew they were taking a risk.
Could Princess have resold the cabin? Maybe. But that’s beside the point.
The real question is: What should a cruise line do when a passenger dies? Airlines offer a refund, no questions asked. I believe that’s the right thing to do for cruise lines as well.
The Princess representatives you spoke with didn’t see it that way, mostly because your mother had not yet passed away. But after she did, I believe the cruise line’s position would have changed. I can’t imagine any company’s not refunding a dead passenger’s ticket, whether she’s insured or not.
Indeed, when I contacted Princess on your behalf, it said her case was still “open,” meaning it hadn’t decided yet what to do. After it reviewed the details of your request, it refunded both your mother’s and your aunt’s cruise.
Christopher Elliott is the author of “Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals” (Wiley). He’s also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the cofounder of the Consumer Travel Alliance. E-mail him at email@example.com.
WASHINGTON — Anybody in Florida who makes a living from tourism stands to gain from a surge of foreign visitors – and their spending money – if an immigration bill passed by the U.S. Senate last week becomes law.
Little-noticed provisions would make it quicker and easier for visitors to enter the country and avoid long waits at Florida’s busy airports and seaports. The same bill intended to block foreigners from entering or staying illegally is also designed to help legitimate travelers come and go without hassles.
That’s potentially good news for South and Central Florida’s economy, which thrives on international tourism, if the overall measure – or at least the travel provisions – can pass the U.S. House.
Immigration bill passes Senate, but far from becoming law
International travel to the U.S. expected to continue to grow
“For South Florida, it opens up an international market that has had huge growth, especially from Central and South America. And that market is very anxious to be here,” said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The critical issue for us is that people can leave their country without a long wait time [for a visa], and when they get here are not herded like cattle.”
She and travel promoters in Central Florida predict that the immigration bill would widen the flow of arrivals from populous nations like Brazil and Argentina and lead to new flocks of visitors, with shopping bags in hand, from nations like China and India.
“It will make a big difference,” said George Aguel, a former Disney executive and now CEO of Visit Orlando. “Folks from those countries have a decision to make: I can go to this other country or go to the U.S. Well, to go to the U.S. is kind of hard. You have to go through a lot of steps. It takes a longer time. We’re hoping that out of this [legislation] will come efforts to greatly reduce those challenges and obstacles.”
Despite bipartisan support in the Senate, however, the immigration bill faces fierce opposition from Republican conservatives in the House. Leaders have said they may break the Senate’s omnibus package into a series of bills, in part because of resistance to its “pathway to citizenship” for the 11 million people now here illegally.
The Senate’s bill tries to balance security needs and immigration control with efficient ways to get people in and out. The goal is to identify visitors who over-stay their visas – who now make up an estimated 40 percent of illegal immigrants – without discouraging business and leisure travel.
A key provision would require “biometric” identification systems, such as a fingerprint or eye scan, to track comings and goings and identify those who remain here illegally. Homeland Security officials would install biometric systems within two years at the 10 busiest airports – including Miami – and within six years at the 30 busiest airports, including Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood, Orlando and Tampa.
But the Senate bill also includes a host of provisions to make international travel easier. It would:
• Expand the Visa Waiver Program by empowering the secretary of Homeland Security to drop the usual visa requirement for visitors from certain nations, such as Brazil or Argentina. To get the waiver, those nations would have to sign a security agreement and show that less than 3 percent of their travelers have over-stayed their visas.
• Expand the Global Entry Program, which allows low-risk travelers to get approval before departure for swift passage through Customs checkpoints. The bill would extend the program to groups – such as athletic teams – not just individuals.
• Set up a pilot project to conduct interviews for visa requests via videotape, rather than require personal appearances at a limited number of locations in other countries.
• Provide a “retiree visa” that lasts 240 days for Canadians 55 and older who own or rent a U.S. residence, up from the current 180-day limit. More than 3 million Canadians visited Florida last year, and a longer visa for older visitors could entice more to stay longer.
• Extend indefinitely the Travel Promotion Act, now due to expire in 2015, which spends up to $100 million a year, matched by the travel industry, to market Florida and other U.S. destinations abroad. Part of this money comes from fees paid by travelers.
• Add 3,500 Customs and Border agents, which could greatly reduce wait times for travelers in Miami and other clogged entry points.
The bill sets a goal of reducing wait times at airports to 30 minutes for 80 percent of international passengers and 45 minutes for all of them by 2016.
“It’s unacceptable to have people waiting on the tarmac because there aren’t enough officers in the inspection area to process them,” said Patricia Rojas-Ungár, vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Travel Association. “Or to have people waiting in the inspection area for two or three hours after getting off a seven-hour flight to get [a connecting flight] to Orlando, Florida.”
Florida promoters are excited about the prospect of more international travelers because they stay longer and spend more money than domestic visitors.
Nearly 500,000 Brazilians came to the Orlando area last year and stayed for an average of 10 days, twice as long as U.S. visitors, according to Visit Orlando. Some of them shopped for vacation homes. A visa waiver would encourage repeat visits, generating more income.
HAVANA — When I entered Sloppy Joe’s Bar, one of Hemingway’s legendary haunts, I was surprised at how brand-new it felt in a city, and on an island, that seem suspended in time. Then I learned that, nearly 50 years after closing, it had recently reopened following an extensive renovation. Today, it is sleek and dark, with a DVD of Frank Sinatra crooning, photos of Marilyn Monroe, and rows of good whiskey displayed in glass-and-mahogany cases.
I preferred El Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway drank his daiquiris. The barmen still keep the blenders busy, and serve fine ice-cold daiquiris. The only difference nowadays is that customers can have their photos snapped next to the bronze statue of Hemingway, who is leaning on the bar, his elbow next to a bronze paperback. Wish we knew which one.
I recently spent a week in Cuba, visiting Havana and the countryside before checking out the beach. Because the country remains under US embargo and travel by US citizens is limited — journalists and academic researchers can go, and certain “cultural exchanges” are allowed — I wanted to get there and write about it before the floodgates open and tourists overrun the place.
Havana is really two cities. Its former beauty can still be seen, through squinted eyes and imagination, in the stately but crumbling colonial buildings that line some streets. Thanks to decades of sun and neglect, many of the colorful concrete and stucco buildings have faded to lighter shades of green, blue, yellow, and pink.
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Then there’s the post-1958 Havana. It can be seen in the pot-holed streets and run-down apartments where lines of clothes hang from windows and balconies. It can be seen in the ubiquitous image of Che Guevera, which adorns everything from billboards to T-shirts, and in the revolutionary signs that proclaim: “Be Proud of Our History!” and “Revolution is achieved by audacity, intelligence, and realism.”
It can be seen in the cars from the 1950s — from the bulbous Chrysler De Sotos to the finned Chevy Bel Airs — that somehow keep rumbling down the roads. The day after I arrived in Havana, a guide approached me as I left my hotel and asked if I wanted to take a tour of the city in his bright yellow 1953 Chevy convertible. I did.
For a couple of hours, Alberto and his father drove me around the city, hitting the highlights, including “The Fifth Avenue of Havana,” in the seafront Miramar section of town, where the wealthy lived before the revolution that ushered Fidel Castro into power.
It may be prime real estate, but many of the grand mansions are abandoned or in disrepair. Still, there are lovely embassies and lush foliage such as hibiscus, bright orange Flamboyant trees, and enormous banyans more than a century old.
Despite its pitiful infrastructure, Cuba maintains its natural beauty, and the balmy weather — except during hurricane season — means that people are outside a lot: families, couples, schoolchildren in uniforms.
Yes, there is poverty, but it isn’t the dire desperation that you see in other capital cities across the world. Health care and university education are free. But the socialist government can’t provide all the housing and jobs needed. Alberto told me that he worked a couple of days a week in a parking lot; he and others have to hustle up second jobs “to feed our families.”
I stayed at the Parque Central Hotel, which overlooks a park at the edge of Habana Vieja, the oldest and most interesting part of this city of 2 million. I loved simply looking out my window at the park, with its statue of José Martí, hero of the Cuban fight for independence, and lovers holding hands — or making out. Public displays of affection are common here.
Habana Vieja includes the
formerly walled section where the 16th-century city began. Later, in the days when pirates were a threat, a cannon would be fired at 9 every night, warning citizens that the gates were about to close. The gates are gone, but the cannon custom continues.
The old city is home to colonnaded buildings with domed archways and wrought-iron balconies of churches, mansions that are now apartments, hotels and museums that grace cobblestone squares. The architecture is a mishmash of styles, from colonial to rococo to Art Deco.
Alberto and his father took me to the Hotel Nacional, built in 1930 and apparently the premier place to stay, judging from the photos of luminaries that line the lobby bar, including Greta Garbo, Nat King Cole, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Murray. (In April Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed at the renovated Saratoga, another beauty.)
We rode past Chinatown — the Chinese arrived in the 19th century to work in the sugar cane fields — and then to the Plaza de la Revolución with its metal visage of Che Guevara on one government building, and a similar one of comrade Camilo Cienfuegos on another.
We stopped in at the Legendario Rum bottling plant and sipped various flavors of the famous Cubano elixir: pineapple rum, cherry, and mint. Then a bartender made me a cup of “rum coffee.” He heated some rum, lighted it, stretched his arm over his head, and poured the rum — now a thin, fiery stream of liquid — into a coffee cup on the bar, 4 feet below. Not a drop was spilled.
Old Havana is best seen on foot, and there are some great pedestrian paseos. I spent the next couple of days walking the city, along Empedrado and Calle Obispo, lined with shops and restaurants, small art galleries, and a crafts market. The staples of a Cuban meal are pork, beans, and rice, but the fish is excellent, the paella heavenly.
A couple of mornings, I ran along the Malecon, an oceanfront boulevard with one of the few wide, and uncrowded, sidewalks in the city. I loved watching the fishermen and divers in wetsuits.
The sweeping Plaza de Armas is ringed by bookseller stalls, featuring historical and political treatises in Spanish and English. Hemingway fans stop in at La Bodeguita del Medio, made famous by the writer’s penchant for the bar’s mojitos. They still know how to pour rum and muddle mint there, but it has become a tourist magnet.
The Hotel Ambos Mundos on Obispo is where Hemingway wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” A clerk told me that Papa lived there “off and on” for seven years. I didn’t spring for the $2 to see Room 511, now preserved as a mini-museum.
But I willingly sprang for the Buena Vista Social Club legends, who play traditional Cuban music. Though most of the original members are gone now, a few are left, and they are backed by a great band. At Cafe Taberna, they sang their way around the room, even getting some of the ladies up to dance. They are still fabulous after all these years.
I wanted to see more of the country and so, along with other hotel guests, I boarded a bus for a day trip to Valle de Vinales, about two hours west of Havana. We passed fields filled with tobacco and other crops, with an occasional team of oxen plowing. On the highway we passed horses pulling buggies; some even passed us.
The trip included a stop at a farmhouse, a modest concrete home with a roof of palm fronds. Tobacco farmers must sell 90 percent of their product to the government, keeping 10 percent for personal use, our guide said. A farm worker showed us how to roll a cigar, a painstaking process. He said each worker is expected to roll between 80 and 140 a day.
Last stop, the beach. In Varadero, I stayed at the Iberostar Laguna Azul Hotel, an all-inclusive place filled with Canadian, European, and Latin American tourists. The beach was wide, the water clear and warm, and it was a great chance to read “Our Man in Havana,” by Graham Greene.
He wrote, in 1958: “To live in Havana was to live in a factory that turned out human beauty on a conveyor-belt.” Here, even the dowagers are beautiful: those once-dignified buildings that have tried to withstand the vagaries of time, but could use a good facelift.
California’s tourism commercials that poke fun at some of the state’s stereotypes definitely reinforce one thing: sometimes, we really do wish we could reside in the land of Hollywood starlets, daisy dukes, convertibles, beaches, and surf galore. While relocating may not be an option, a visit to Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco is made possible by these airfare, hotel, and experience deals. Cali, here we come!
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First, head west with a 1-way flight on American’s number one airline, Virgin America (from $59, a low by $3; expires June 30). Or, take advantage of roundtrip flights on United Airlines (from $178, a low by $10; expires June 30) that’ll take you straight to SoCal or wine country.
5 great travel rewards credit cards
Southern California: Los Angeles and San Diego Hot Spots
The City of Angels can be all glitz and glamour or beach bummy and relaxing. It’s your choice: From Rodeo Drive to The Getty to Venice Beach you can explore all of L.A.’s neighborhoods from the centrally located Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites where a 1-night weekend stay starts at under $200 (a low by $10; expires June 30). The 4-star hotel is located in downtown LA, and is steps to the Philharmonic, the area’s galleries, and famed eatery Bottega Louie.
Want to feel like a celebrity while you are at it? Indulge in a spa day at the Beverly Hills Plaza Hotel Spa ($99, a low by $101; expires June 29). The deal includes an 80-minute massage with luxurious hot stone and bamboo, a 15-minute body scrub, complimentary blended fruit smoothies, valet parking, and access to the sauna and steam room.
Don’t stop there. Follow in John Travolta and Angelina Jolie’s footsteps by piloting your own plane with a 90-minute private flying lesson (from $99, a low by $126; expires August 30). With an hour of ground instruction and 30 minutes in the air, you’ll be able to control the cockpit and take in aerial views of plenty of Los Angeles sights, too.
Looking for something a little more romantic? Head an hour and a half south for a romantic summer escape to Southern California wine country. Stay in a deluxe two-queen or one king bedroom at the Temecula Creek Inn (from $89, a low by at least $21; expires July 1).
A touch further south you’ll find that San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline and reliably sunny weather will keep your spirits high. The city also has plenty of sights to keep you giddy from start to finish. Tour the world-renowned zoo, visit the historic Gaslamp Quarter, and be sure to enjoy a fish taco or two. Once the sun goes down, rest your head in nearby Torrey Hills at the affordable Hilton Garden Inn San Diego Del Mar (from $154, a low by $18; expires June 30). With this offer, you’ll also score a $50 dining or spa credit good towards the Serenity Spa and Salon, Bistro 39, or the NY Garden Deli.
Alternatively you could throw caution to the wind and stay at the AAA 4-Diamond Hilton San Diego Bayfront (from $179, a low by $20; expires June 30). The hotel is situated on the San Diego Bay and boasts easy access to the Gaslamp Quarter and Petco Park where you can catch a Padres game. If you prefer to kick back, take in the views from the hotel’s renovated outdoor space and go for a dip in the saltwater infinity pool. And like the Hilton Garden San Diego Del Mar, you’ll also enjoy a complimentary $50 dining credit to boot.
Northern California: Must-See San Francisco
San Francisco may not have the always-sunny and warm weather of SoCal, but it does happen to be “The City That Knows How.” Head to the diverse Bay Area with a 3-night stay at the Laurel Inn – A Joie de Vivre Hotel (from $1,050, a low by $50; expires June 29). Situated in the upscale Pacific Heights, the hotel sits on Sacramento Street amidst stylish boutiques and restaurants, so it’s no wonder that the hotel also offers a wide range of high-end amenities including afternoon lemonade and cookie service in the lobby, coffee and tea service 24-hours a day, and more. To see the rest of this vibrant city, wander over to the nearby historic Presidio National Park and catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, meander Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and Union Square.
With these deals to California, you’ll be enjoying the West Coast before you know it. But, if you’ve got different ideas for a vacation, be sure to check out our daily travel deals for other airfare, hotel, and vacation packages.
At the time of publication, these travel deals offered the lowest prices we could find. Deals may include blackout dates, additional taxes, and fees. Some of our prices may be based on mandatory double occupancy.