Caribbean Cruise

My husband and I decided to forgo a holiday gift exchange, and instead book a cruise as our gift to each other.  We travel often for work and adventure, but rarely do we completely let go with no calculated schedule.  At least not me since I research and plan our itineraries.  A seven-day Caribbean cruise in March aboard the Norwegian Dawn seemed perfect. Although our home state, Florida has many cruise departures, we chose Puerto Rico as our starting point.  Less time at sea and more time on the islands.

In San Juan, we rented a car and drove to the Serafina, a boutique beach hotel.  It’s located in Condado, the resort area of the city and perfect for staying close to the hotel at night with easy access to our car for day trips.  Since Hurricane Maria crime in the city had increased, but this area seemed safe with attractive restaurants.

“Let’s drive to the west coast,” my husband said the next morning. “It’s only an hour and forty minutes.”

I looked out our beach view and then down at the sunbathers by the pool.

“We have a two and a half days.  I’d like to spend one of those days in old town, but if you want to do a drive today, that’s fine.”  I secretly wanted to hang by the pool, something I rarely did.  “Why the west coast?”

“They have whales, and the waves and surf should be pretty big.”

“I’m game.” I said, knowing whale spotting wouldn’t happen so randomly.  “We can have lunch there.”

riconWell over three hours later of stop and go traffic we arrived in Ricon, a small but cute surfer hangout.  I was starving, irritated and ready to get out of the car. We stopped at a hilltop restaurant, luckily the food and drink amazing.

“Did you spot any whales?”  I asked after a while.  “Tomorrow, we stay closer to home.”

I got to know old town from my morning jogs.  We explored the fort and surrounding shops, had a leisurely pace and enjoyed the rest of our stay in Puerto Rico prior to boarding our ship.

biminibarOn the ship, we discovered the Bimini Bar on the top deck, aft overlooking the pool. Ironically, we were on the cruise to get away from some drama we have at our island house in Bimini.  It became our favorite bar where we could drink, smoke and meet new friends.  On our first day at sea, I sun bathed below it as I read, listened to live bands and swam in the pool.

At our first port of call, Barbados, we had no plans except possibly exploring the island by scooter. We walked through Bridgetown, an unattractive, busy port with our google map set on scooters for hire.  It led us to a questionable part of town, so we hailed a taxi.  After finding out the place closed our taxi driver, quite outspoken about deplorable conditions of Barbados economy, offered to drive us wherever we wanted to go.

“I’d like to see monkey’s,” I said.  “Or some history.”

“Well, I can’t guarantee monkeys since they’re wild.  But I recommend Gun Hill Signal Station for the views and history.”  He said with elegance.

It was worth the visit, so peaceful and full of information.  Next he suggested a good place for lunch only a 40 minute drive to the east coast, the wild coast.  The vegetarian choices were abundant, something I didn’t expect on the islands.  The scenery equally impressive.  Our driver pointed out a monkey crossing the road on our return drive, and he made it clear they were considered pests among the locals.  He was full of facts and opinions, and I liked his honesty.  Over lunch we learned he lived in Connecticut for a decade, but he’s truly Barbadian and loves his beloved island.

The following day, Antigua was a warm welcome.  An adorable port with plenty of shops, and friendly faces.  We found a scooter rental from a nice Canadian couple, turned local.  With map in hand, we set off sightseeing.  Up and down hills from St. Johns to historic Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour.  The marina was full of mega yachts and sailboats from around the world, admiring the view we sat for a beer.  Afterwards, we meandered through the rainforest along scenic Fig Tree road.  I felt free.  Our scooter hugged the coastline as I glimpsed at views of the turquoise sea, eventually finding our way back to the busy port.  It was a fine day indeed, and Antigua became my favorite port of call.

In St. Kitts I ran on shore, taking a break from the monotonous treadmill.  I’d been to the island previously, so I didn’t feel a need to see or do anything.  We took a taxi to a fort with a great view of the island, shopped at the port and chatted with others at the Bimini Bar.  Some never left the ship, while others ran to meet the last boarding call.  We fell in between the two extremes.

“So what are you doing tomorrow?” Someone asked.

“The airport beach.”  I said without hesitation.  “It’s a must see, they have YouTube video’s if you haven’t heard of it.”

“You’re the second one to say that,” she said.  “I guess I’ll get off the ship and check it out.”

I looked forward to our stop in St. Maarten with its famous airport at Maho Beach.  Jets arriving and departing so close, its wake sandblasting tourists below.  From the tiki bar we watched some tumble in the sand.  We spent hours observing, sipping and eating while checking arrival times for the larger jets. It was fun.  Prior to our afternoon stop we’d rented a car and drove a good portion of the island.  The damage from hurricane Maria was noticeable at the north tip, and traffic gridlocked leading up to Maho Bay.

stthomasOur last island St. Thomas, part of the US Virgin Islands, did not disappoint.  I sipped coffee while watching boats scoot about from our balcony.  Some sailboats seemed permanently anchored, and I felt in full vacation mode.  I wondered if the sailboats had to relocate from time to time to avoid fees.  After all they’re on prime property with a marvelous view.  We disembarked before noon and took a shuttle downtown, a short ten minute ride.  So many jewelry stores, but I didn’t need gems or diamonds.

“Free gift.” Several vendors called out as I passed.

I browsed a few, looking for a watch I’d seen with a certain brand and style in mind.  I didn’t find it.  We did stumble onto a quaint lunch spot.

“I’m craving a veggie burger.”  I told my husband prior to looking at the menu.

“Ha, you’re in luck.” He gloated.

Afterwards, we checked out a local art market and found our way back to the port.  We took a skyride to the top of a mountain for a good view.  A great way to overcome my fear of heights.  My hands sweated. The wind blew our hanging cage, but the view was priceless.cruiseship

Departure day was a full day of travel from the San Juan port to the airport with lots of waiting in between for our flight to Miami. We flew on a 737 Max, the same day and type of the one that crashed in Ethiopia.  My heart goes out to those on the plane and their family members.  It could have been anyone of those planes and I understand why they’re currently grounded.

Prague, Gotham City.

prague1Also known as the city of a hundred spirals, Prague’s architecture, history and energy has awed me since my first visit in 1991, and it certainly didn’t disappoint during my recent visit.

 

In December 1989 Czechoslovakia gained independence from the soviet union. Previously under communist rule since 1948, citizens feared persecution.  They were intimidated, interrogated, and imprisoned at the will of the secret police.  I toured Russia and many Eastern European cities after the dissolution of the USSR,  when a renewed independence seemed to prevail, albeit a slow and desolate one.  My most vivid memory was enjoying local musicians playing the Doors and other American classics along the iconic Charles Bridge. At a nearby cafe a friend and I sipped a cocktail while taking in the surrounding music, statues and spirals.  Not many tourists or tour buses existed then, in fact even though the vibe seemed good, the streets were fairly empty.  I bought a Bohemia T-shirt and cherished my limited visit, vowing to return in the future.p5

p1Our quaint hotel was located near the popular Wenceslas Square, lined with restaurants, shops, and hotels. We had a view of the Prague National Museum which unfortunately was closed for a few months of renovation.  We dined at a traditional Czech restaurant and booked a guided bus and walking tour for the following day.

My morning run through the city and along Charles Bridge ranks among the top ten.  The bridge was not crowded at that hour, but strangely Asian brides and grooms posed with professional photographers all around old town, the castle and the bridge.  I wondered what marketing they did in Asia for wedding photos in Prague.  My run became longer than I’d planned when I found myself lost while trying to find our hotel.  I have jogged cities around the world but this was a first, the trapezoid layout seemed a bit off of the normal grid.  Complicating the matter, I had forgotten the name of our hotel.  I had to call my husband and put it into my phone for GPS tracking.  I made it back for a quick shower before our 10:00 tour.

prague3Our excursion took us through town with a fifteen-minute van ride followed by a two-hour walking tour.  Awesome for me, not so much for my husband with an arthritic foot.  We started at the impressive Prague Castle, where many tour groups gathered.  Luckily we were a small group.  The castle complex is quite large, our guide covered the history and architecture while not venturing inside for a more in-depth view.  This was perfect for our first full day in Prague as a good general overview.  After the castle we landed at Charles Bridge, my favorite I cannot get enough of landmark.

 

It was so crowded we lost our tour guide until the other side where we randomly ran into our group again near the famous astronomical clock.  From my past visit, I clearly remembered the medieval clock located in old town square.  On the hour a mechanical parade the twelve apostles sets in motion other events such as a skeleton striking time, a rotating calendar and astronomical dial.  Considering when it was built, it was impressive to watch.  Myth has it that if the clock is neglected the city would suffer.  I hoped the myth was not true since the clock was not working and under renovation during our recent visit.

p8Our tour ended in old town square, a great place to end a tour with open air restaurants great for people watching which we did while dining.  Afterwards, we walked meandering streets full of quaint shops, churches and museums. We visited an interesting sex museum followed by a church visit to admire the architecture, alters and paintings.

The following day we opted for a hop on/off bus to just sit and listen while admiring the view, not getting off until we had the full loop, stopping just shy of our hop on point. My mom texted me the previous night to ask if I visited the infant of Prague.

“No, what’s that?”

“I remember saying prayers to the infant of Prague when I was little.”  She said.  “Your grandma used to tell us about it.”

p6I adored and loved my grandma dearly, so I decided I must visit, although I’m not religious myself.  I also wanted to get a photo for my mother who prayed to the infant.  It happened to be within walking distance to our hop off point.  The church holding the statue wasn’t overrun with tourists, in fact it seemed rather quiet and humble.  Inside, devout Christians prayed, and a small line lead to a passage in front of the statue for a prayer or picture.  Although its origins are unknown, the miniature statue has survived many wars and has become symbol for devotees worldwide.  Many who have prayed to infant Jesus claim miraculous healings and blessings as a result.  His clothes are changed seasonally according to liturgical tradition.

The neighborhood was off the beaten path and we decided to walk around and explore.  My husband, Brad, and I happened upon a pilot bar, and as pilots we had to check it out.  It was a bar designed like a 737, complete with a simulator.  My husband sat in the cockpit with his co-pilot/instructor, as a flight attendant brought me a drink to watch from the front row.  After a briefing, he took off and flew the virtual reality-based simulator.  Through the windows, I watched the control tower and ramps pass by, and then we were in the clouds.  His landing was great and then he did a night flight, and a few more flights in different environments.  The instructor, a captain of a 737, shared stories of flying into difficult countries and complex scenarios.  It was entertaining and educational.

Once outside I recognized where we were and it seemed easier to walk back to our hotel, instead of waiting for the bus.  Later that evening, an Indian restaurant near our hotel was excellent dinner choice.

We realized at the airport that we’d be flying back to New York on the 787 Dreamliner, the newest plane in the Polish Airlines fleet.  In first class we had plenty of room, were well fed, and each seat folded down into a twin bed.  A perfect end to our brief visit to Gotham City.p2

 

Croatia and its fortified cities along the Adriatic.

croatia12We landed in Dubrovnik around noon after an evening stop in Dublin to break up the long flight from Florida.  Dublin was fun as we pub hopped in the afternoon and evening with an early awaking for a three-hour flight to Croatia.  Upon landing I immediately felt the Mediterranean climate, and the dry scrub brush mountains reminded me of California. We rented a car and drove to a sea-side town for a lovely lunch at a gastropub. A small citrus arugula salad and a local beer was the perfect choice after hitting the pubs in Dublin the night prior.

first view of dbrovnikWinding roads along the Adriatic and through the mountains led us to a scenic view above old town Dubrovnik.  We parked on the side of the road as my heart raced seeing the fort from above.  We ran across the busy highway for a better glimpse, the first impression which would become minuscule compared to the following days of amazing panoramas from all angles of hiking, trams and exploring.

Another spectacular scene awaited us at the Hotel More overlooking the sea.  We strolled the promenade of sunbathers, restaurants and shops in the village below old town and then had a cocktail in the hotel’s cave bar.

We spent a full day exploring the fortified historic city, entering through the pile gate. We climbed the walls enclosing the fort spending a good hour above, looking into the ocean on one side and the buildings and people below on the other. Clothes hung out to dry as it was still a functioning city with permanent residents among the dominant tourist industry.  The ancient pathway was quite narrow and I could imagine during season, July and August, they’d have to limit the amount of visitors doing the wall walk.

We worked up an appetite for lunch below, settling in the town square at the bottom of a set of stairs.  As it turns out the stairs were famous from the hit series, Game of Thrones.  As many of the scenes from Kings Landing, the fictional city from the TV show, were filmed in Dubrovnik and the stairs were famous for the walk of shame scene.  “Shame, Shame, Shame,” the nuns repeated to Cersei as part of her atonement.  As we enjoyed our lunch I heard people shouting “shame”.  Afterwards, I couldn’t refuse to  walk the stairs myself, and I’m sure I deserved it from something I’d done in my youth.

IMG_2204croatia6

We popped into a few museums to gain a deeper understanding of Croatia’s history including a photo history of its most recent wars in the 1990’s.  Strolling down alleys and into churches, I admired the character of old town.  We watched tourists line up for gelato, as dogs and cats strolled by.  We decided to have a local beer prior to climbing the hundred stairs leading back to our car.

In the evenings we stayed close to the hotel, with plenty of good restaurants nearby. The waves, dim lights and ambiance reminded me of Positano, Italy only less busy.

The following day we decided on a different view of the city, one from the mountain above where within minutes the tram hauled people from the old town to the sky.  Initially we skipped the tram ride and drove to the top of the mountain, and it was the most terrifying drive of my life.  To start with it should have been a one way street, it was to narrow for two cars,  but a taxi coming down confirmed it was the only way up.  We attempted three times to ascend, only to be met head on by a car where we had to reverse down the mountain to let them through.  We let a van behind us pass so we had someone to follow, a bully to push through.  We drove on cliffs with no room for mistakes.  My hands sweated and I tried not to look over the edge of death, a real possibility with one miscalculated inch.

Once I saw the view up top I decided the heart palpitating ride was worth it.  We rented an ATV for an hour tour of the mountains where we sped though the dusty hills to arrive at a fort which played an important role holding off the Serbs during the 1990’s war, defending the city from occupation.  Goats, cows and a donkey roamed as we took photos of the bay from above. We then hiked down a rocky path for about an hour to arrive in old town for a late lunch.  My husbands feet were done and we took the tram back up to our car for the equally nail-biting ride back down to our hotel.croatia17

 

The following day we drove to Split.  We parked our car below Hotel More via a car lift which we had no problems until our departure day.  It was rush hour on the lift and about a half hour wait.  I was eager to get on the road, so I felt helpless during this time.  I practiced patience, a trait I’ve been trying to master the past few years.  The drive along the Adriatic simply breathtaking with the mountains on one side and quaint villages on the other.  We stopped at Ston, a small fortified town along our route famous for its shellfish farming.

Along our route we passed through the Bosnia Herzegovina border and enjoyed lunch by the sea.  Although a different county and one with a recent war-torn past, it seemed just as lovely as Croatia. While planning this trip I had considered going to Sarajevo for a night, but time didn’t really allow for it and I chose a few nights in Prague instead.  I  read many books about the war and had a fabulous lunch there, so maybe next trip.  I do love history including conflicts, religion and ever changing borders.  The former Yugoslavia is a classic and recent example of all elements.

IMG_2263Split was bigger than I imagined, but where we stayed among the red tiled roofs with a view of the harbor and within walking distance to the must see Diocletian’s Palace was ideal.  From our fifth floor balcony I watched pedestrian traffic below and ferry’s arriving an departing just beyond to the islands visible  in the distance.  I’d watch the lady hanging her laundry on the adjacent rooftop, and another resident cooking her dinner in an apartment below.  As in all of Croatia, olive trees and herbs in gardens and rooftops seemed abundant.

We toured the palace, the only Roman Emperor to ever retire did so in Split and he built a spectacular fortified residence with three entry gates, the silver, iron and gold surrounded by a moat.  He also had a lions den to use at will. It was expanded upon in medieval times and today houses museums, churches, shops, and restaurants.  We meandered through the narrow streets, ate traditional Croatian cuisine of goulash and spinach pie for this vegetarian.  Evening involved a random concert, dancing and just simply hanging out on the promenade.

After a morning visit to the mediocre archaeology museum, (as an archaeologist I’m picky) we headed to the ferry for our crossing to the island of Hvar, a playground for Europeans and celebrities.  I expected nothing and just wanted to relax by the sea.  Our hotel was again in a prime spot with a cool pool, lounge chairs on the Adriatic, and a promenade close to the town center.

We managed to find a fort and a winery to visit prior to relaxing by the salty sea. It was a pebble beach and quite cool, but a nice change from the Atlantic beaches of Florida and the Bahamas. Our trip to Croatia came to an end but continued to Prague for a few days which is a near future blog.

 

 

 

 

Berry Islands, Bahamas

harbor2

The Berry Islands are just 70 miles east north-east of Bimini and 120 miles from Miami, but it seemed like a world away.  In part because we work in Bimini and Florida and we’re always on the fly, where Great Harbor Cay allowed total relaxation and exploration.  Our one hour flight landed us for a weekend getaway on a fairly unknown island.  A marina townhouse, boat and car rental awaited.  The locals were very accommodating, friendly and helpful from the time we landed in our single-engine plane.

harborbeach2Our first day driving the seven-mile island took us to secluded untouched beaches.  We got a glimpse of the cruise ships offshore.  We hung out at a local beach club for drinks and conversation.  I felt like wild boar or elephants should be roaming.  It was a bit of an expedition without the wildlife, although I did see dead snakes in the road when I ran the following morning.

An abandoned golf course, beach resort and pool littered the landscape.  Not necessarily in a bad way as time stood still, the remnants of a glamorous era forgotten.  I longed for the clubs and golfing, although I wasn’t into the sport.  A random dilapidated bridge, and a once happening lodge sat as a skeleton.

But the island had a vibe, a strong one of resilience.  It brought out the explorer in me, and shall I say a pirate in a good sense.

Saturday we explored by land while Sunday was reserved for sea.  We rented a boat, conveniently docked under our rental townhouse.  We set out with our iPad for navigation, Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwiches for lunch, and then quickly stopped by government dock to grab a six-pack of beer. I jumped off our small boat, passed a church holding Sunday service, and found my way to a local bar selling beer on Sunday.  “Wasted Time,” was its name and empty except for a few local young men skipping mass.

As I passed back I heard singing.  A man of a cloth preached and sang loud from the open door, it made me smile.  I loved Sunday’s I remembered from my past, my young church-going youth attending mass with my grandmother.

We ran the boat to the cruise ship islands, Coco and Stirrup Cay.  They are private but the large ships drew our attention.  A dolphin swam off our bow.  The water temped us with its colophon hue, but we knew the recent cold front left behind freezing water for our tropical blood.  We pulled into Coco Cay, hoping to dock for some shopping and a picnic stop.  We were turned away with a “What the hell,” look from a harbor master.  I think he hollered and gave a few signals that only my husband recognized.  We left the harbor and continued onward.

mermaid2cococay

Strirrup Cay seemed much more relaxed.  No customs agents monitoring, cruise ship employees paying attention, or anyone tending the docks.  We figured we’d circle around eating lunch, and then docked when we realized nobody noticed us.

I went onshore to use the restrooms where staff greeted me and asked, “How do you like the cruise so far?”

“Oh, it’s been lovely,” I fibbed.  “I’m glad the sun decided to come out.”    This I knew because it was cloudy until about an hour prior.

I decided to check out some temporary shops set up in the sand.  I peeked over at my husband on the boat, he seemed fine.  I bought a Stirrup Cay shirt as a souvenir. I passed by an empty taco bar, and found myself in line for cocktails.

“Anyone else for a strawberry daiquiri?”  The bartender called out.

I raised my hand at the back of the line, passing ten or so others waiting for different drinks, and was handed a daiquiri.

“Do you have your ship card?” He asked.

“No, I have cash.  My husband has my card,” I feigned again.

“Only ship cards.  Take the drink and bring your card when you come back.”  With his busy schedule he waved me on.

I would have ordered a Miami Vice, but considering I got a free drink on an island where I wasn’t supposed to be… I fully enjoyed it.

“Honey, I could have gotten you a taco or a drink.”  I teased my husband as we pulled away from the dock.

He was a good captain staying with our rental boat somewhat satisfied with his PB&J and beer, although he showed interest in a taco.

cococay3We passed back by the lifeguard on the rock, watching over tourists.  Perhaps one of the most boring jobs in the world. But as my husband pointed out, “He’s probably making sure no sharks swim from the deep water just beyond the rock into the shallow waters to feast on tourists.”

 

It was a fun stop, a brief adventure before continuing on for our own private cruise in the shallow waters around the islands.  Not quite fifty-shades of blue, but pretty close.  We left the Berry Islands the following day to head to Nassau. SUNSET BAHAMAS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A busy summer’s end: Audible Available

2017 irma.JPGI’ve been crazy busy since hurricane Irma hit Florida.  I participated in the largest evacuation in history as the east coast, west coast and most of our state was threatened with the strongest recorded wind, peaking at 180 mph.  Facing a monster storm on the east coast, we fled with two cats and a dog in our single engine piper and flew to Helen, Georgia.  Although air traffic was busy, the highways were gridlocked and many friends took all night to arrive at our safe house in the mountains.  The east coast was spared as the cone shifted to the west coast with the initial landfall after the keys, Marco Island.

carlAfter making the best out of our spur of the moment evacuation trip, I flew out of Atlanta for a pre-planned trip to California.  I visited familiar places and found some new favorites. I bonded with my father, got to know my grandparents through photos, clipped newspaper articles and we visited their graves.  We had road trips and explored Palm Springs, San Juan Capistrano, Temecula, and then after dropping off my dad I spent a few nights in Santa Monica. While hiking in Topanga Canyon,  I noticed the mountains  were extremely dry and the memorable waterfall and flowing river nonexistent.  A week later devastating fires broke out in many parts of California.  Overall a fun, rewarding trip, but the homeless population is out of control.  That’s a subject for a separate blog post.

A few weeks later I arrived back in south Florida to my intact home housing hurricane evacuees, one couple with roof damage and mold issues and another from Key West with no job to return to and hoping to make money fishing in Broward County.  I welcomed our displaced family and went about getting back to normal.  Whatever that meant with my travel schedule.  Five weeks later they still reside at our home.irma

Business trips and writing schedules continued and at the end my audiobook is complete. It’s for sale on audible.com and iTunes.  Overall, I’m very impressed with Emma Lysy and her performance of Breakfast In Bimini.  If  you are not an audible member you can join at this link below and receive a complementary copy for free.

http://www.audible.com/offers/30free?asin=B076BM4KSW

If you are a audible member then send me your information including email and I can send you a promo code for a free download to my audiobook in exchange for an honest review. You can reach me at http://www.sierramichaels.com or comment in the section below.

Happy reading and I hope you enjoy the audio version of Breakfast In Bimini.  I think you’re enjoy the adventure!

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Familiar scenes in La La Land

lala landI recently watched the award-winning musical movie La La Land. In my 20’s I lived and played in the heart of  L.A., and embraced every moment including the jazz and Hollywood scene.  I was young, rebellious and passionate about the city, as I still am today at a distance.  The movie includes Universal Studios, Jazz and Griffith Park, as do these memories I share.

I somehow wandered into Universal Studios through a back gate with my BFF, my Asian twin.   I think the gate was unattended, or we simply smiled and walked through.  Tourists on trams were pointing at us and we seemed to be the only ones roaming the fake studios unattended.  I think we were walking through the set of Back to the Future, among others. The tram slowed and we hopped on the back as people took photos.  The driver was confused and pretended not to notice, or maybe he really didn’t.  After disembarking and spending the afternoon exploring, we asked one of the directors to give us a ride back to my car parked at the other end of the studio.

“How did you get here?”  He asked.

“We walked though the back gate, and jumped on the tram.  I think it’s a few miles that way, ” I said pointing.

“Without I.D?”

“Um, yes.  Nobody said anything.”

He grinned and told us not to try that again and then he had a conversation with the gate guard.

jax2My love of Jazz began in Los Angeles, with my first date night at JAX in Glendale. I think it’s one of the filming places in La La Land, or very close to it in ambience and location.  It was during the L.A. riots, 1992 and a curfew was enforced.

“Are you still up for getting together?” My future boyfriend asked.

“I’m game.  I need to get out for a while.”

The streets were smoky, eerie and strangely silent.  Live jazz at the close-by club reflected the mood.  We had a private booth, life altering conversations, and the beginning of a love affair that lasted until his sudden death.  Memories made but not forgotten.

griffithI considered Griffith Park my other love. It integrated nature and hiking, biking, the observatory, stargazing, drinking, and the famous Hollywood sign.  I’d hike or bike the trails and solve many of my problems.  Minor issues that seemed larger than life back then.  A breakup, head to the park.  A bad day at school, an intense bike ride through Griffith.  An hour at the planetarium watching projected stars on the ceiling while listening to Pink Floyd was a complete escape or sometimes a bonding experience with a friend as we sipped concealed cocktails.  I even watched a full solar eclipse with hundreds of others picnicking for popular the event.  A friend and I climbed the Hollywood sign and even met and flirted with the two Matt’s, young actors from the TV series Friends.  griffith 3

I was blessed enough to live close to the park.  When I moved near UCLA campus I found other places to enjoy the outdoors and jazz, but these moments will always hold a special place in my heart.  I’m visiting L.A. later this summer and I might visit Griffith Park, but not Universal Studios.  It’s too touristy and nothing can top my visit through the back gate.  I recently learned JAX jazz club and grill closed last year, such a shame since it was truly a unique local jazz club.

Cuba after Castro’s death: Nine days of mourning.

A few days prior to a second visit to Cuba, I turned on the TV and Fidel Castro’s death headlined the news.

“Holy Shit,” I shouted to my husband.  “Our trip just got more interesting.”

His funeral would take place during the end of our brief five-day visit.  I figured it was an opportunity to see Cuba in a different light, in a positive way.  Until I learned of the mandatory nine-day grieving period.  No celebrating, no music, no alcohol.

Mixed news and comments came from the online news regarding how these rules applied to tourists.  Absolutely no alcohol, from a few sources.  Plenty of drinks available reported others.  How appropriate, typical conflicting news coming from Cuba.

I suggested we buy a bottle or two of alcohol from the duty-free shop at the airport, just in case.  After all, the four of us traveling together to Cuba enjoy our evening cocktails.  A complementary food buffet awaited at our gate.cuba1

“This is nice, do they offer this on every flight?” A friend asked?

“This is the inaugural flight for Jet Blue from Fort Lauderdale to Havana.”

We also enjoyed a special bag full of goodies, including a special t-shirt marking the occasion.

Waiting for our luggage and rental car in Havana took three times as long as the flight itself.  But we easily found our way to our base for the next few nights, the famous Hotel Nacional’.  At the hotel there was no music, but conversation and drinks flowed. It hummed with energy. We ran into Jesse Jackson in the lobby.  I smiled and he naturally extended his hand, I shook it and turned around for a photo opportunity with our friends.cubajessejackson

We took to the town for dinner, a short walk to a recommended restaurant.

“What do you mean no wine?”  I expected it, but we still asked.  The food was excellent but the place was eerily quiet, not even music played overhead. This seemed true everywhere we went, including the rooftop bar at a neighboring hotel.

cuba5Starting my day with a run along the Malecon always brings a smile to my face and sets a positive attitude for the rest of the afternoon. We waited for the red hop on/off bus a little too long, and ended up taking a tok tok style wagon powered by a man on a bike.   He decided to give us a tour along the way, the ghetto tour as we later referenced it.  Everyday living up close in personal along streets and alleys.  Everyone stared and we wondered what kind of sign was plastered on the cart as they all gazed from us down towards the tires.  Although interesting, when we finally arrived at the artisan market I was ready to disembark.

 

havana3We shopped, found the historic old quarters and stumbled upon the only lunch spot in town serving beer.  It was crowded but we scored a table and people watched while waiting for food. I even bought a copy of Granma, the official communist newspaper covering the life and death of Castro.  I got it for its historical value.

We did take the red bus around town and back to the Hotel Nacional.  Along the way we passed revolution square where they disassembled the stands and speakers left over from the previous days of speeches, honoring and remembering Fidel prior to their southern march to his final resting place in Santiago De Cuba.  I wanted to witness the large masses of people in the square, but as my husband pointed out the traffic would have been a nightmare.

The following morning I ran into the vice president of China in the lobby. His security forces swept though the hallway just as I passed in the opposite direction.  I noticed one of the security guard’s eyes widen, so I stepped back as he passed straight through to his limo awaiting outside.  Li Yuanchao and his men wore small pins of Mao and the Chinese flag.  He was short and walked with determination.  I smiled at the thought of almost completely blocking his path by accident.

We left Havana for the next portion of our stay in Varadero, a beach side resort described as having beautiful water and beaches.  For lunch we stopped at a crowded roadside grill along the way. It was one of the best meals we had in Cuba and as a bonus they served cold beer.  Our all-inclusive resort seemed charming at first until we realized we had to walk a half mile to our room.  Not a big deal, if it’s a once a day stroll. But all the action, restaurants and bars revolved around the lobby.  Overall, I wasn’t impressed by Varadaro. The beaches were marginal, food bland, rooms unattractive and activities lacking.  We made the best of it and explored some nearby caves and went shopping in town.  We even ventured into another dilapidated town to see “the real Cuba” with many horse-drawn carriages one last time.

Our last evening we finally heard music, the mandatory ban was lifted the following day. Cuba without music is like sunbathing on a beautiful beach without the sun or sand.  It is a large part of their culture and when music and dance is taken away, the people seem disheartened.

Were they sorrowful because of Fidel’s death?  I’m sure some were since he was the only leader they knew.  He is portrayed as a hero in all Cuban media.  But the ban came about because people were openly celebrating in the streets.  Imagine all the income lost from tourists due to the ban.  Perhaps they should have had nine mornings of mourning.