In the nearly two decades that I have been writing on travel, few destinations have interested my audience as much as Cuba – I am asked about it all the time. For sure some of this is based on the principle of forbidden fruit, and some people are interested simply because our government makes it practically impossible for most American citizens to visit the Caribbean island. But much of it is Cuba’s legitimate appeal, be it cultural, natural, musical or historical, and for a variety of reasons, there is a sizable audience of Americans who would like to visit Cuba.
Now you can.
I recently wrote a column here about the finest upscale tour operators and travel specialists in the world, and it pretty much goes without saying that Abercrombie Kent is one of those, as I pointed out. In fact, this is exactly what I said: “They have been THE leader in guided cultural and active travel worldwide for more than half a century, and have the deep connections needed to make things happen all around the world.”
AK has been granted a license by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to offer a people-to-people educational exchange program that adheres to the US government’s restrictions for the travel of U.S. citizens to Cuba. They are not the only tour company with such a license, but these are far from commonplace (Insight Cuba is probably the best known alternative; Friendly Planet is another). What I find notable about this development is that while the September departure will be the first AK trip for Americans, the company’s London office has been regularly taking Europeans to Cuba for seven years, and as I alluded to above, one of AK’s biggest selling points is its contacts, expertise and ground experience. This is especially important in a country where individual US travelers cannot withdraw money, use traveler’s checks, or use credit cards. If you want to visit Cuba legally you will have to go with a tour operator anyway, so it might as well be one that is world renowned for its operations and staff.
To learn more about Cuba, read my story done in collaboration with a fellow journalist who visited last year, “Our Man in Cuba, Firsthand Reporting.”
This is a very immersive trip packed with interesting cultural experiences, and you can read the detailed itinerary and description online, but just a few highlights include:
-Experience Cuba and America’s shared passion, attending a baseball game where you meet the players and can even play a few innings. -Discuss the history of US-Cuba relations with a Foreign Service scholar in Havana -Walk Havana with a local architect, exploring historic styles and current restoration efforts. -Get a private salsa lesson from a Cuban salsa instructor -Visit a cigar factory; Explore Las Terrazas, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve; examine projects by José Fuster with the artist, followed by dinner in his home; attend an interactive cooking demonstration at a paladar, one of Cuba’s many alternative, hi-home family-run restaurants, and talk with the owners about this privately owned Cuban enterprise; meet with local musicians during a private concert and cultural discussion; and so on.
It is very important to note that this special people-to-people educational exchange program is much different from other AK programs – or pretty much any sort of “vacation.” Because it is allowed as educational experience, guests must spend full, enriching days visiting and interacting with Cuban people one-on-one. The whole purpose, for the US government’s perspective, is to intimately experience the day-to-day lives of residents while learning about Cuban cultural, social and religious organizations firsthand. For this reason, all participants are required to adhere to the approved full-time schedule of activities – beg off to relax by the hotel pool and OFAC could pull the company’s license. This is not a trip to consider unless you are interested in the subject matter.
AK’s very first US departure is on September 6, 2013, with 20 more trips scheduled between now and next June. The regular price is $5,295 (For the launch, all nine September, October, November and December 2013 departures are discounted $300 when booked by August 15), plus a very reasonable $525 for a private roundtrip charter from Miami nonstop to Cuba (there is no public alternative). It’s a busy 10-day trip that spends three days in northern Cuba, staying in Cayo Santa Maria, followed by six nights in Havana and touring around, all alongside AK’s expert Cuban guides, staying at the Melia Havana Hotel. All meals, lodging, tours and transfers are included.
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