Vinales, Cuba – Valle de Vinales and Cuevas del Indio

The Vinales Valley (so far, my favorite part of Cuba!) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of a series of interconnected, narrow valleys with scenery that is simply magnificent!  It is here, in the red, fertile soil and deep green fields (vegas) that some of the world’s finest tobacco is grown.  Peasant farmers tend the fields, dressed in army fatigues or white linens and straw hats.  There’s no serious machinery to help with their work, just traditional, oxen  drawn wooden plows.  Many of these farmers own their land.  They do, however, have to sell their crop to the government at a fixed rate.

Rest Stop in Pinar del Rio

The farmers welcome visitors to freely enter into their vegas and curing sheds to talk to them about the basics of tobacco farming.  They’ll even share the fruit from their fruit trees with you! Palm trees, banana trees and orange trees dot the scenes, and chickens, cattle, pigs and horses roam about the fields.  The valley is perfect for hiking, but do take a guide if you opt to scale a mogote (tall, conical mountains that add to the region’s beauty).  The views of the valley are best at dusk and dawn when the natural light is enhanced by the dimly lit lanterns of the thatched huts.

While there are several national monuments to visit in Vinales, we spent time at the breath-taking Cuevo del Indio (Indian Caves).  These underground caves are filled with interesting stalactites and stalagmites, and in places, reaches a height of 300 feet.  The cave is well-developed for tourists, complete with lights and a boat tour.  The entry fee is 5 CUC (about 5 USD).

Steps to Cueva del Indio

 

 

Inside Cueva del Indio

Just before entering the cave, I tried the Guayabita del Pinar rum, mixed with fresh sugar cane and lemon. Delish!

If you’d like to stay over a couple of nights instead of taking a day trip to the region, there are hotels and lovely guest houses to accommodate you.  The people, the food and scenery are some that I will not soon forget.

One of several lodging options in Pinar del Rio/Vinales region

Vinales, Cuba – Tobacco Route

Our day 2 in Cuba was my favorite.  It was a very, very long day.  The car ride from Havana to the province of Pinar del Rio was about 4 hours.  Our driver/guide, Jorge, was awesome!  He was an English Professor before joining the tourism industry.  With such a large amount of professors (and doctors, nurses and lawyers!) in Cuba, the salary for the profession is so low these days that it’s forcing those who are able to look elsewhere for career options.  After working for an international cruise line for a few years and traveling to more countries than I’ve ever dreamed of, Jorge was able to purchase a car with some of his savings and start his own business as a tour driver.  We were told by a few budding entrepreneurs that about 5 years ago President Castro realized that on some jobs there were close 20 people doing the job of one person,  he made sweeping lay-offs, and the government began to allow more and more Cubans to start their own businesses.  Of course, a pretty large portion of their earnings go to the government (taxes?), but it’s a start.



Farm Owner/Host

 

 

Jorge Tour Guide/Driver

Having Jorge as a guide was such a pleasure.  While he is from Havana, he knows Vinales Valley very well.  He also loves visiting with his family whenever he can.  It was he and his wife’s 13th wedding anniversary the weekend after our day trip there, and he told us that he’d planned to go back with his family for a couple of days.  Jorge’s English was excellent (former English professor), so he was able to explain a lot about the region to us, and to answer the million questions that I had.  With such an action-packed day, this post will focus on the tobacco farm (la finca).



En route to Vinales

 

 
 

Upon our arrival to the farm, we wandered around and took in the beautiful green scenery until the tourist couple ahead of us finished getting their cigar making education.  While waiting, we picked and ate guava fruit, met the 87 year-old farm owner (my favorite!) who picked peeled and served us green oranges (I’d never had one before.  It looked like an unripened grapefruit and tasted like a sweet lime!) .  He strolled around the farm with such swagger and ease.   He was slim and tanned and had such a gracious way about him.  A Cuban cowboy.

 When it was our turn, we entered the cigar-rolling room for our tutorial with Anuvys Gonzalez.  Like his grandfather, Anuvys was so proud of his work.  He took his time and taught us all about the production of the cigars, from seed to stick.  I’d brought along 2 gift bags filled with toiletries, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and the like, to give to the gracious people of Vinales that I’d grown so found of on my previous trips to the country.  These small tokens could never show our hosts how grateful I was for their time, education and friendliness.

 
Tobacco Leaves




Honey for Dipping the Cigar Tips
 

  
Packaged to Sell Directly From the Farm

 

Havana, Here We Come!

After months of planning and preparation for our trip to Cuba, the time had finally come!  We spent the first evening in Miami at the Sofitel Hotel, as our flight the next day was an 8:30am departure and we were told to arrive at the airport 3 hours in advance.  The Sofitel Hotel is a few minutes from MIA, offers a free airport shuttle pick-up every 30 minutes,  has nice rooms and a couple of nice dining options. It was just perfect for our overnight stay.

The next morning, we met in the lobby at 4:45am for our 5am shuttle.  We arrived at the airport, met with the Cuba Travel Services represenatative, picked up our Visas, roundtrip plane tickets and boarding passes, checked our bags (yes, I had to check a bag for the first time in ages!) because the weight exception is very light and very strict, paid our $25 entry/departure fee,  and waited patiently to board our non-stop 45 minute flight to Havana.  The process of submitting our itinerary and obtaining our special travel visas was a much smoother process than we imagined. 

We boarded our Sun Country charter flight, and departed on time. No sooner than we took off, we landed.  It was a sunny, hot day in Havana.  The airport was bustling with tourists, divers, people-to-people groups, clergy, families, officials and other workers.  It was exciting, festive. After quickly clearing customs and retrieving our luggage, we headed outside the airport and were greeted by our waiting minivan driver, then off on our 20 minute ride to our first stop, Hotel Palacio O’Farril in Habana Vieja.  We were hours early for the 4pm check-in, and the hotel, like almost every hotel in the city, was full, as Pope Francis was on the island for another couple of days.  We checked in, left our bags, and went in search of an early lunch.  The hotel doorman, Clemente, not only suggested a place for us to go for lunch, he walked us two blocks to El Zaguan restaurant.

We were the only customers in the restaurant.  It was only 11:45ish. I went in  thinking I’d start off my visit with a Cuban sandwich.  After seeing the menu, I opted for “Lobster Tropical”.  Great choice!  It was paired with pumpkin soup, rice, black beans, plantains and Cristal beer.  Dessert was flan and Habana Club rum.  All for about $20.(we had to pay for everything in Cuban Pesos, of course.)

Now, off  to walk around Habana Vieja before settling into our Habana home for the next 2 nights.  We are so looking forward to the week ahead.

Weekend Road Trip – Richmond Jazz Festival 2015

 Guest Blogger, Samantha

What a gorgeous day to be outside enjoying great music! We started the day off with some good ol’ soul food at Mama J’s Soul Food restaurant in Richmond, VA. You gotta try the catfish! From there we spent the day at the Richmond Jazz Fest listening to the sultry baritone voice of Will Downing, the smooth sax of Kirk Whalum, and the oh so sexy Joe. And to top the night off, we danced & sang along with the always exciting Ronny, Johnny, Ricky, Mike & Ralph…in other words, we partied with New Edition! I even got a kiss from Ralph & a wink from Ronny!
 
Oh what a day & night in Richmond, VA!
 
 

 

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In Antigua…Early To Bed, Early To Rise…And Shirley Heights

The ladies and I are night owls.  We wake early, work long days into the evening, then begin to unwind pretty late at night.  Well, not in Antigua!  We arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and learned that we had until Saturday at midnight, then Sunday until 10pm (unless we wanted to venture to an “after-hours” spot) to party.  Monday through Thursday the island closes pretty early.  That proved just fine by us.  We took advantage of our time on this calm island.  We were in bed by 10pm most nights, and out the door by 9:30am most mornings.  Don’t get me wrong…we partied.  We just adjusted our time to do so.  What a great concept!  Our days consisted of the fitness center or water aerobics first, then Blood Marys and mimosas with breakfast, the pool,white wine spritzers and champagne cocktails for lunch (and in the hours leading up to and after lunch!), and wine with dinner.  By nightfall, we were more than ready to turn in.

We were told that on Sunday we could not miss the opportunity to go to a place called Shirley Heights.  More specifically, to The popular Shirley Heights Lookout Bar & Restaurant that rests at the summit.  We did not hike up to the top as many do (I’m willing to back to do that after the ankle heals, though!).  Instead, we were picked up at the resort by our awesome, private island guide, Ozzie, and driven right to the door or the restaurant/bar/soundstage.  The festivities began at 5:30ish with the steel drum “orchestra” Digicel Halcyon Orchestra, full bar and a dining spread that was a showstopper!  After about 2 hours of the steel drum amazement, came a live reggae band until 10pm.
 

The place was packed!  Packed with tourists mostly, but there were some locals.  The mood was so festive.  The sun setting over the beautiful hills,  located approximately 492 feet above sea level,  with panoramic views of the southern island of Guadeloupe and the active volcano Montserrat. Simply breathtaking!

We secured spots on the front row of the stage at the picnic tables (not an easy feat at all!), and while I sat and enjoyed the music, the ladies went to buy drinks (rum punch, Dark and Stormy, rum and coconut water) and food (grilled lobster, jerk chicken jerk ribs, potato salad, rice and peas, coleslaw).  Yes, this place ROCKS!!!

We only stayed for half of the reggae set.  The food, drinks and steel drum orchestra more than satisfied us.  We had scheduled our pick-up for 9:30pm.  It was 8:30, and we were ready to leave.  Fortunately, we got Ozzie’s card.  And, fortunately Ozzie is well-known at Shirley Heights.  We went up to the bar, asked to use the phone to call him,  The bartender looked at the card, motioned someone from the doorway over to the bar, she looked at the card, told us to wait a second, and she returned with Ozzie.  We were resort-bound in no time!  What a great night.  And we were happily in bed by 10pm.

3 Besties, 2 Checked Bags, and 1 Carry On…Antigua, Here We Come!

We travel so well together.  London/Paris/Rome, Miami, Las Vegas, and now Antigua.  This was a much needed, BFF bonding vacation.  A few months ago, we loosely “saved the date”, and surprisingly, to all three of us, we pulled it off.  With our crazy schedules and family and work obligations, this was a long shot. But we did it! 

Our flight departed at 6am.  We wanted to arrive as early as possible and get our party started.  We kicked off the morning with Bloody Marys.  They seemed to make our plane fly faster.  One plane change later, we arrived safe and sound (and by 1:30pm!) in Antigua.  The small, sunny, festive airport was pretty crowded.  But of course…everyone wants to be in tropical paradise, right? There were visitors from all over.  The U.S., the UK, South America, Australia.  The customs line was pretty long.  But, there was the boot!  Yes, the bane of my existence helped soar us through the line (actually, through every line we encountered on the entire trip!)  During our speed-through, we learned that the creole greeting in Antigua is “wa gwaan” (what’s going on?).  We used it every chance we got during our stay.  Our hosts really seemed to appreciate our efforts.

We hailed a taxi, as instructed by the resort when we called ahead days earlier to request a pick-up.  There were plenty of friendly drivers waiting in a well-organized section of the airport for visitors.  The fare was exactly as the resort said it would be…$31 USD.  The driver’s side is on the opposite side of the vehicle for us US tourists.  That, combined with the curves, really small roads, and steep overlooks, made our 30-minute ride to the resort very interesting.
 

Upon arrival to St. James Club, we sought out the front desk agent that I had had the pleasure of speaking to on the phone a few times leading up to our vacation.  Shaneika.  She was awesome!  She seemed to smile through the telephone, so I was determined to meet her face to face and thank her for all of her pre-trip assistance…and patience.  We walked up to her at the counter, greeted her by name, and she smiled and said “I know who you all are.”  How cool.  As she began to check us in, we confirmed that we would have three beds.  We then joked about getting an upgrade.  She excused herself for a second, and came back smiling even larger.  “Ladies, I have some good news”, she said.  “You have been upgraded to a 2 bedroom villa.”  What in the world?  How awesome! She continued with our check in, and we happily accepted the glasses of champagne that were being handed to us by one of the hostesses.   “Ladies, I have some good news”, she said again.  “There’s more?”, we said, about to burst with enthusiasm.  “Your villa is ready for check-in.”  Great!  Then, just before we turned to walk away, one of us asked Shaneika if the villa, our private, get-away-from-the-world for 5 days had Wi-Fi.  Shaneika excused herself for a few seconds.  She returned and said “Ladies, I have some bad news.  Your villa is too remote to get the Wi-Fi signal.”  “Yes!”, I thought!  That’s not such bad news at all!  There was, she assured us, complimentary Wi-Fi in the lobby.  Perfect.
 

Our “buggy” (a 6-seater golf cart) arrived, with Vincent, our driver and personal resort guide, at the helm.  He drove us up the winding road, through the beautiful resort grounds to our villa.  It was a 3-level, 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, full kitchen, dining room and living room villa, with lounging patios/balconies on each level. Antigua, we’ve arrived.

Oh What a Host! Peppermill Resort, Reno

The Peppermill Resort in Reno, Nevada really “wowed” us!  This big, glitzy resort/casino is located a few minutes from the Reno/Tahoe international airport.  And while we didn’t get non-stop flights out of Washington, DC, the flight from BWI to Salt Lake City was a very smooth, approximately 4-hour flight that was over before we knew it.  The hour and some change flight from Salt Lake City to Reno…piece of cake.

Our host, Peppermill Reno, spoiled us rotten!  Round-trip limo service to and from the airport, VIP check-in, spa gifts waiting in our suite (AND shipped home free of charge!), an hour-long Wine Down massage in the amazing Spa Toscana, and tastings from their top restaurants.

Guest Suite

Guest Suite

Roman Opulence Suite

We spent a day on a visit to Lake Tahoe (in California and Nevada), and the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation in Incline Village, Nevada.  The views from this area are breath-taking.  The history of the place and its founder, George Whittell (he had it built and used it as his private retreat…unless he wanted company!) jaw-dropping!

The Thunderbird

Lake Tahoe

Private Beach at The Thunderbird Lodge

If you’re planning a wedding, anniversary party, girl’s or guy’s getaway trip, want to golf, ski, spa, hike, or simply relax, we urge you to put Reno on your list.  Stay and play at the Peppermill, then venture out and see what the area has to offer.  Prepare to be amazed!

This Ankle’s Ready To Hit The Road Again!

Its been a long haul.  My ankle was broken about 6 1/2 long months ago!  After the initial surgery, cast, boot, and physical therapy, I thought I was ready to resume roaming the globe.  “Not so fast!”, said my brand new (to me) ankle surgeon.  Turns out he needed to go in and tweak some things (my words, not his). This second surgery would require about 4 weeks down time, I was told initially.  Knowing this, I got a few quick trips out of the way the month before: Panama, Miami, and Casa de Campo, D.R.  I figured that would hold me over for little while.

The surgery was successful.  Soft cast, hard cast (6 weeks vs 4 weeks!), and now awesome new boot.  I must say, the new, post-op x-ray looks amazing! I have a few days to gain a little strength before finally heading off to explore again.  First stop Reno, then Lake Tahoe.  I am so looking forward to this trip!  So looking forward to breezing through the airports, catching up on mindless reading, posting a few blog entries, relaxing in decadently luxurious hotel rooms, not having to make my own bed each morning, casino nights, hiking, spa treatments, gourmet dinners and great wine.

While I still have a little while to go before I’ll be back to (or even close to) 100%, this boot is a far cry from the cast.  I’ll take it and run, er, walk…slowly.

Someplace Different – Reno and Lake Tahoe

After a short break to recuperate from Panama and The Dominican Republic, we are ready to hit the road again!  This time we’re headed to Reno and Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Our plans include the Lake, of course, along with spa days, casino nights and a rock art trail walk.   Any suggestions, travel buddies?  Let us know.