Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor
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Trip: December 1998 PRELIMINARIES My wife Brigitte and I began soon to plan our next holiday after we returned from our trip in December 1996, which took us to Nicaragua and Cuba. Because we had really enjoyed our stay in Cuba, we decided to go there again. We looked through all the travel catalogues available in Austria, but we only found rather limited offers regarding Cuba. Then we happened to find an ad for the German travel agency Vacancia, which was able to do all the of the hotel and car rental reservations for us. We also had a few troubles finding a suitable flight. Originally, we wanted to fly with Iberia, but the return flight had a waiting list of 300 people in July. So we had to take a flight with the German LTU charter airline. ST.MARIEN - VARADERO (08.12.1997) Early in the morning, at 1:00 A.M., we left home and drove on almost empty highways to the Munich airport. Of course we were early and had to wait more than an hour until the LTU check-in counter opened. The LTU personnel are polite, but very strict. When a couple in the line in front of us checked in, the clerk criticized the one kilo overweight of their baggage. When it was my turn, he did not want to check in my hand baggage suitcase, which had flown many times around the world with me, because he found it was too large and too heavy. After some discussions, the suitcase finally was given a cabin baggage tag. The security check was really strict, too. I had to shoot a picture with each of my cameras to prove that were really cameras and not hidden bombs. In the waiting room after check-in there were only half as many seats as waiting passengers. The whole Munich airport is newly built, but not very friendly. Some parts already look worn out, particularly the restrooms which are a little bit smudgy. The flight with the LTU Airbus to Düsseldorf was quiet. After the landing we had to wait two more hours for our flight to Varadero. Though the Düsseldorf Airport was reconstructed after a fire some years ago, the charter terminal was still not very beautiful. The whole building was planned cold and built untidy. This is especially true of the restrooms which are worse than in Munich, a real shame. The flight to Varadero on the LTU MD-11 was rather convenient, but time did not pass quickly. You really felt that LTU was a charter airline. The cabin crew was really nice and helpful, but they had some trouble satisfying the needs of that huge bunch of passengers. Food was served in aluminum plates with plastic knives, forks and spoons, drinks supplied rather slowly, because the crew was busy with food service and the lavatories were not cleaned during the whole flight. There was a positive side though. Now we can really appreciate the service on Iberia and British Airways, not to mention the really outstanding service of the Asian airlines, like Thai International or EVA Air. Vienna Airport is also going up in our estimation and even Madrid Barachas appears in a better light now. After we landed in Varadero, we had to wait some time for the customs formalities. Then we grabbed our baggage, passed by the masses of tourists who were looking for their hotel buses, and took a taxi the ten kilometers distance to Varadero, to the Hotel Internacional. Varadero is a peninsula, about 20 kilometers long, and on the north side there is one of the most beautiful white sand beaches I have ever seen. The Hotel Internacional is one of the oldest hotels in the place. It is situated besides the sandy beach and you can walk from the hotel terrace directly to the beach. The water is shallow and the tide is calm. We checked in, changed to our bathing suits and jumped into the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. We swam for a while and then went to the room for a shower. For dinner we only had a light sandwich and a Daiquiri. Because of the jet lag, this day was six hours longer for us, so we were really tired. VARADERO - HAVANA (09.12.97) After we had breakfast from the good, rich buffet we went to the beach for a swim and a sun bath, and then we changed our clothes and waited for the bus to Havana. It arrived right on the dot at 2 p.m., and after a short circular tour through Varadero to collect all the other passengers, we headed for Havana. We had a short break on the road to have drinks and sandwiches, with live Cuban music. After a ride of about three hours through an interesting countryside and along the Playas del Este, we arrived at the Hotel Havana Riviera. This hotel was built in the fifties by the Mafia and it is said that because of that, there is no 13th floor, due to the superstition of the Mafiosi. The hotel could use some new paint, but it is really well equipped, and we were favorably surprised by our room. For dinner we took a Taxi Particular (a private taxi) to the La Cecilia restaurant in Miramar. This restaurant consists of three parts: a cabaret, a grill, and a Creole restaurant with Cuban dishes. We were guided to the grill restaurant. The steaks were very good, but not cheap. They were almost more expensive than at home in Austria. We finished the day with some Daiquiris in the hotel bar. HAVANA (10.12.) After breakfast we took a taxi to the Jardin Botanico, the botanical garden of Havana. There a biologist joined us in our taxi, and we drove around in the gardens for about an hour. On display are various kinds of trees of all continents and a very lovely Japanese garden. Expocuba (a kind of Cuban export trade show) was closed and we could not see very much in the Parque Lenin (the Lenin park). We went back to the hotel for lunch and then walked along the Malecon (Havana's famous seaside promenade) until we reached the Rampa. After our walk, we went back to the hotel. In the lobby we met Mrs. Wechselberger, the representative of Vacancia Travels in Cuba. She handed us our vouchers and then we chatted about the situation in Cuba and about traveling and about life generally. For dinner we went to the Chinese restaurant La Muralla in the Barrio del Chino, the Chinatown of Havana. Chinatown has been reduced to a block, but it still gives an impression of the Asian atmosphere. At the La Muralla they only had pork on the menu, which was rather fat. But prices were low, and the cooked rice was edible. HAVANA - VINALES (11.12.) We packed our belongings and checked out at the Habana Riviera Hotel. We took a taxi to the Hotel Sevilla in Habana Vieja, in the older part of the city, to get our rental car. The Hotel Sevilla looked a little worn from the outside but inside it was very nice reconstructed and looked really inviting. The representative of Havanautos was under pressure and asked us to come back in a quarter of an hour. Then he had time for us and we did all the paperwork. We checked the car, put our baggage in, and off we went. This time we got an older Daewoo Tico. The seats were worn badly, the tires didn't have much profile, the steering pulled to the right, and it was a bit noisy inside. As we would learn later, it leaked when it rained. But for all that, the Tico was really cheap to rent and economical on gasoline. We headed from Havana to the West by highway, stopping in Soroa where we visited the famous orchidary. Then we went on to Vinales using the street passing by Bahia Honda and La Palma. There we went to the Hotel Horizontes Las Jazmines. This hotel is really well situated with a great view of the Vinales Valley with its flat ground and the Mogotes, which are single standing rocks looking like big heads. The rooms were simply furnished but useful, with a fridge, room air-conditioning and a private bathroom. The restaurant isn't famous for its cooking, but food was acceptable and the buffet was well equipped. VINALES (12.12.) After breakfast we made the reservation for our trip to Cayo Levisa the next day. Then we went off to visit the Cuevas del Indio, a big cave. First we had to walk a short distance into the mountain, then we reached small jetty, from which we continued the tour by boat. The boat took us to the exit of the cave. Of course, there we were offered lots of souvenirs. The warden at the parking lot also wanted some money for having kept an eye on our car. We proceeded to the Cueva de San Miguel, a cave with a disco at one side and a reconstructed hideaway of former Afrocuban slaves on the other side. Next on our list was the Mural de la Prehistoria (the Prehistoric Wall), where a 200 meter high rock wall was painted by an artist during this century. (The word Prehistoric is related to the Dinosaurs that the artist had painted, and not to the age of the paintings.) Then we headed for the Cueva de los Portales near San Andrés. In this cave the Commandante Che Guevara, with his command staff, hide for 45 days during the Missile Crisis in 1962, protected from possible military attack of the United States by the cave itself. Through the picturesque countryside, with the Mogote hills and a lot of tobacco plantations, we drove back to Vinales. The Vinales Valley is not only famous for fresh air and great scenery, but also for the tobacco that is grown there and which is the raw material for the most renowned Cuban cigars. VINALES - CAYO LEVISA (13.12.) After breakfast we had about a one hour ride to reach the pier for Cayo Levisa. We had to drive some distance through a banana plantation, until we arrived at the flat buildings of the pier. We had to wait a while until we could get to the island with a small boat. Cayo Levisa is a little island, about three kilometers long and 300 meters wide. On its south side it is lined with mangroves, and on the north side there is a wonderful white sand beach. The sea was calm and shallow. We shared the whole beach with only six other tourists. There were also about ten Cubans on the hotel staff and another ten as staff of the coast guard station on the island. Cayo Levisa fully complies with the advertising slogan "Un Paraiso del Sol," what means a paradise of the Sun, but after a few days it would become rather boring there. At five p.m. we ferried over to the pier again and went back to Vinales. As always there were a lot of hitch-hikers that wanted to come with us, so we have some entertainment on the road. On passing La Palma, darkness fell and it was difficult to drive, particularly on the side roads. On the one hand you have to take care not to fall in one of the many potholes and on the other hand pedestrians and all kinds of domestic animals are running around on the road. Beside that, other vehicles seldom have lights. Cyclists are regularly on the road without any lights. The same is true of horses and oxcarts and even cars, trucks and motorcycles seldom have working lighting . VINALES - PLAYA GIRON (14.12.) That night there was a heavy rainfall. Also when we checked out at the Horizontes Las Jazmines, it was raining. The right front seat of the rental car was all wet, because the rain came into our Tico. We soon reached the highway to Havana, and our car was soon fully loaded with passengers. There are a lot of hitch-hikers, even for a Sunday morning. The rain was sometimes so heavy that I could make only 70 km/h. Besides, our Tico was rather sensitive because of its low weight and its distorted chassis, and the low profile tires did their part in making it even more sensitive to hydroplaning. At the right upper corner of the windshield, water came in, and Brigitte had to wear her raincoat inside of the car, too. We skillfully missed the center of Havana by driving a half circle along the suburbs. Our last hitch-hiker to Havana, who left us near the Airport, helped us to find our way and pointed us in the right direction towards the east. After we had passed by Havana the weather became slightly better, rain became less. The Habaneros lamented that it was horribly cold and such a winter was really bad for them. Temperatures were almost down at the 20 degrees Celsius, much to cold a weather in Cuba. We passed the rather boring scenery of the Havana and Matanzas provinces, with lots of sugar cane and orange plantations. We drove the Autopista Central (the central highway) to Jagüey Grande, where we got some gasoline for our Tico. We continued on about 50 kilometers to Giron, the car of course fully loaded with hitch- hikers. It had not changed much since last year, but this time we got a worse bungalow than before. There was no fridge, no ventilator, no new air-conditioning with remote control and the bathroom had seen better days, too. The bungalow was spacious with a bathroom, bedroom, living room and kitchenette, but there was not much furniture inside, and in the kitchen there was only a lonely sink and nothing else. GIRON (15.12.) After we had a disappointing breakfast, we went to the reception counter and demanded another bungalow. This was accomplished without much trouble. We almost got the impression that the receptionist had waited for our complaint. Maybe he knew the bungalow. Our new housing was in a better shape, particularly the bathroom. It looked much cleaner and contrary to the previous house, it had no ants running through it. As the weather was still not warm enough for swimming, we visited the Cueva de Pesces (the Fish Cave,) that is situated half way between Playa Giron and Playa Larga. This cave is a natural rock basin with about 50 to 100 meters in size and 25 meters deep, with an underground connection to the sea. The water in the pool was brackish and we could easily watch many different kinds of fish. The cook of the attached restaurant came out to bring us some bread to feed the fish. By the way, we were the only paying guests at this site. However, in the afternoon we saw two buses with tourists standing at the parking lot. Of course the restaurant staff and some other Cubans took the opportunity to watch the fish with us and to have a chat. We went on to Boca de Guama, where we glided in a small motorboat through a canal to the Laguna de Tesoro, a large fresh water lake. At the other end of the lake there is a Hotel that is built like an Indian village, with reed roof huts on stilts and walkways of wooden boards, plus some kind of a museum village with statues of Indians carved in wood. This hotel is said to be a favorite with Cuban honeymooners. After walking around there, we went back by boat to Guama, where we had an excellent grilled fish at the Rumbos restaurant. Then we went back to Giron and hung around in our bungalow. GIRON (16.12.) Finally weather was good enough for swimming. We headed for the Buena Caleta and were the only guests there for a long time. We enjoyed the peace and chatted with the staff. In the late afternoon two minibuses with tourists arrived. We had dinner in the restaurant at the Buena Caleta and the grilled fish was good. The Cubans wondered why tourists, who could also afford to buy beef voluntarily, ate fish which is not very popular as food in Cuba. The area around the Buena Caleta has expanded since last year. There are more huts than before and one building, that was begun last year, is now finished as a grill pavilion. Besides, a small cave was made accessible with an underground connection to the sea, and in that small pool there were lots of fishes. PLAYA GIRON - SANTA CLARA (17.12.) After breakfast, we checked out and went to Jagüey Grande where we refueled and then we headed for Santa Clara. The highway was in a good condition and we reached Santa Clara quickly. Once there, it became a bit more complicated for us -- the city is, like most colonial towns in Cuba, built in a square with a park square in the middle and the streets laid out in rectangular around it. In Santa Clara the municipal authorities have set up an elegant system of one way streets. We needed to make some extra circles around the center until we got closer to the central square where the Hotel Santa Clara Libre is located. The street around the Parque Vidal seemed to be a traffic-free zone. We did not see any police officers, so we stopped in front of the hotel and unloaded our baggage. The hotel guard sent me to a parking lot three blocks away. The robber-barons over there told me they wanted thirteen dollars for 24 hours of parking, an enormous amount of money for Cuban situations. I had no other choice, as there was no possibility of parking in the narrow streets around the old center of the town. Our room was disappointing, too. It was so small that one could hardly walk around the bed, the furniture was made up from sheet steel and the walls had not seen new paint for many years. In the bathroom there was cold water only running from the hot water tap, what also meant that the toilet flush could not work. Water in the cold water pipes reached our room at about five o'clock in the morning and we were lucky to wake up from the noise before the room was flooded. In the Hotel Santa Clara Libre, I saw for the first time a passenger lift (elevator) without the usual buttons for the desired floors. It was set for manual operation and had an operator who had a switch with the three positions -- up, down, and stop. The elevator was called with an electric bell, and when it passed by the floor where you were waiting, you had to knock on the door. Because the room was so very uninviting, we went off to the Plaza del Che. There is a memorial there, where are buried the mortal remains of the Commandante and his combatants. There were a lot of police officers around and it was a really religious mood there. Neither in the City of Santa Clara nor at the memorial did we see many tourists. After we had visited the Che Monument, we went to the other end of the city, to the railway station. There a reconstruction of the Tren Blindado (the Armored Train) is displayed. This train was dictator Batista's last hope and it was stopped and overwhelmed at the end of the year 1958 by Che Guevara's guerrillas in Santa Clara. The loss of this train and the general strike all over Cuba caused Batista to flee from Cuba, not without taking the whole public treasury with him, of course. A Cuban museum guard explained to us the whole story in thoroughly understandable Spanish and was visible pleased that two tourists found their way to her railroad cars. The dinner in the Hotel Santa Clara Libre was better than expected and very cheap. Of the city of Santa Clara, one could remark that it is situated in a strategically important place in central Cuba, has about 170.000 citizens, and has a nice, clean colonial old city. In and around Santa Clara there is a lot of industry, particularly textile industry. SANTA CLARA - CAMAGÜEY (19.12.) Early the next morning we left Santa Clara, after we had lugged our baggage the three blocks to the parking lot. Because of our early departure, we only had to pay ten dollars. As the roads were not very well posted with signs, we could not find the direct way to the highway. Instead we drove on a parallel road passing Placetas to the highway that ends shortly behind Jatibonico. We passed Ciego de Avila and Florida on our way to Camagüey. The scenery is boring and consists mostly of pastures and sugar cane plantations. In Camagüey we went to the Hotel Horizontes Camagüey. It is situated at the eastern end of the city. This hotel had spacious and clean rooms and the cuisine was good, too. The sights of Camagüey were seen quickly: the Plaza de los Trabajadores, the Parque Agramonte, the Casa Natal de Ignacio Agramonte (birthplace of Ignacio Agramonte.) and the city museum with an interesting biological exposition. Camagüey can offer only one national hero, Ignacio Agramonte, the son of a rich family, who became one of the leaders in the fight against the Spanish colonialists at the end of the 19th century. The city is rather large and has about 250.000 citizens -- and a lot of bicycle riders. Plus, Camagüey is the stronghold of the Catholic Church in Cuba. It is a neat and clean province capital, but without special attractions for tourists. On the other hand, the Hotel Horizontes Camagüey is a good choice for a stopover on the way from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. CAMAGÜEY - HOLGUIN (19.12.) After we had a good breakfast we checked out of the Horizontes Camagüey and headed for Holguin. We passed Las Tunas, situated in a countryside, with soft hills. There were a lot of cattle around there but fewer sugar cane plantations. In Holguin, our hitch- hikers showed us the way to the hotel. The Hotel Pernik is a building in best eastern European architecture tradition and seems to be connected to Bulgaria, as the restaurant is called Sofia and the discotheque Danuvia. The town has fewer attractions than Camagüey, so we decided to stay in the Hotel and spent the afternoon at poolside. The rooms as well as the restaurant are a level lower than the Horizontes Camagüey. One has to comment that food is cheaper, but the rooms are more expensive and not as nice. HOLGUIN + GUARDALAVACA (20.12.) In the night there had been heavy rain, and during breakfast it was still raining cats and dogs, but then it lightened up and we decided to go swimming. The street lead through soft hills towards Santa Lucia and from there took a left off to the Playa Blanca. We did a short inspection of the beach at the Don Lino Resort. There was no sign of a sandy beach. It is, as pointed out in the guidebook, picturesque, but rocky. So we headed for Guardalavaca, about 30 kilometers away. Between the hotels and clubs, we found a public access to the beach. We joined the other tourists there, got two beach chairs for free, and enjoyed the day. It was rather crowded there, with many tourists around. There are beach bars, loud music, souvenir sellers, a beer seller with donkey - in other words, there was a lot fuss, what we do not like. However, for one day we could stand it and we enjoyed the sun, and swimming in the clear sea. HOLGUIN - SANTIAGO DE CUBA (21.12.) Once again, we packed our belongings and went off to Santiago de Cuba. We decided not to take the road passing Bayamo, but cut across the triangle and took the road to Baguanos, Alto Cedro and Mella. We went on rather good side roads in direction to Palma de Soriano, where the Autopista (the highway) to Santiago begins. The scenery between Holguin and Baguanos is a little bit mountainous and if there weren't palm trees, you could believe to be in the Austria lower Alps. Then the hills became lower and the road passes sugar cane fields. In a marshland around Mella the road was under construction, which meant that on a stretch of some distance the asphalt was torn away and we had to climb through potholes and over rocks with our little Tico. We were astonished that even on a Sunday the Cubans worked to finish the road. The highway to Santiago led through the beautiful scenery of the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains, and the highway was maintained very well. They even had flowers planted on the dividing strip which looked really nice. In Santiago de Cuba we easily found our way to the Hotel Santiago, the best one in town. It was not really cheap -- 108 US$ per night for a room without breakfast is no bargain -- but the house has earned its five stars. The rooms are very spacious, clean, and well furnished and the restaurants have exquisite food and was not that expensive. From outside, the hotel looks a bit odd. It is the highest building around and because of the individual architecture that makes the steel skeleton of the building visible partially. It looks kind of like a grain silo. We enjoyed the luxury of a night in a really good hotel. SANTIAGO DE CUBA (22.12.) In the morning we enjoyed all the amenities of the Hotel Santiago. We had a long shower, because who knew when we would have the next shower where everything worked: enough water, right temperature, and the drain worked, too. Then we packed our baggage, checked out, and put our belongings to the baggage room. We returned our rental car and walked around in the part of the city near the hotel, had a look at the Plaza de la Revolucion. This is where they were already building the stage for the Pope's visit in January. We then went back to the hotel for lunch. In the afternoon, we took a taxi to the Hotel Balcon del Caribe situated out of town, near the airport, on a high rock above the Caribbean sea. The hotel belongs to the Islazul-Group and was unpromising to us. The Cabana that was our bungalow was spacious and pretty well furnished, with even a huge refrigerator. But we did not have water until the evening, and then only cold water. Finally, at 11 p.m. the group with the German participants of the round trip arrived, which came by plane from Havana and of course, that plane was late. SANTIAGO DE CUBA (23.12.) At 9 a.m. it was breakfast time for our goup, but at that time we found only Paulino, our Cuban tour guide. Later in the morning, we went to town to visit the Moncada garrison. Then we went some distance to the east to the Granjita Siboney, an old farmhouse, where Castro's Movement of the July 26th was hiding when they planned the strike to the Moncada Garrison. For lunch we went to a Paladar, a private restaurant, but food there was neither cheaper nor better than at the hotel. We went to the city of Santiago again, where our German friends wanted to visit the old part of the town while we sat leisurely at the terrace of the Hotel Casa Granda. It is situated directly at the central square and we had some Mojitos and listened to the wonderful band playing Cuban traditional music for the tourists. SANTIAGO DE CUBA (24.12.) This day, our program was really tough. We visited a kindergarden, called Circulo Infantil, a family doctor's place and in the evening we had a meeting with veterans from the revolution. The kindergarden and the doctor's house served the same neighborhood, a small quarter of the town. The doctor has to look for about 800 people and had two nurses to assist her. They not only care of their ill patients, but are also responsible for health care, education and advice. Patients that cannot be treated in the consultation room of the family doctor are passed on to the outpatient department or to the hospital. The kindergarten gave us a hearty welcome, the children performed a short play and some songs for us. Later we were, together with the doctor and her nurses and the local Delegado (the deputy of the town council), invited to a buffet consisting mostly of fruits. We exchanged our mailing addresses and promise to send them letters. They particularly wanted to get copies of the photos we made at our visit. Other goods would be welcome, too, but the transportation from Europe to Cuba is rather expensive, slow and not always reliable. The meeting with the veterans was very interesting, too. They were not just some combatants of the revolution, but rather prominent ones. We talked with a professor for publicity, a retired general staff officer, and two other combatants, as they called themselves, three of them Members of Parliament. Particularly the professor and one retired woman that fought in the underground at the time of revolution gave very interesting statements, but the discussion suffered from Paulino's slow translation. SANTIAGO DE CUBA - GUANTANAMO (25.12.) After the usual waiting time for the whole group to get together, we left the Hotel Balcon del Caribe and went to Guantanamo, the capital of the province of the same name. Arriving there, we stopped at the provincial office of the ICAP (Instituto Cubano para Amistad de Pueblos, the Cuban institute for peoples friendship), where we got a warm welcome with coffee and music. Then we went on to the hospital, where the head physician, another doctor, and the head nurse were waiting for us and were ready to answer our questions concerning the Cuban health care system. We also made a short round tour through the hospital. The equipment is not up to European standards, but Cubans are very proud of their health care system which enables every citizen to consult doctors and hospitals for free. After that we met again in the Casa de la Amistad at the ICAP office, where the head of the ICAP in Guantanamo welcomed us and gave us some facts but also some phrases about the province. A vital discussion developed soon. I talked to him for a while about sugar cane and about sugar, which is still the most important export product of Cuba. The Islazul Hotel in Guantanamo was, as we expected, a slightly worn out prefab concrete building where many Cubans stay and where it was rather loud, of course. The positive surprise of the day: they had warm water and the shower worked like a charm! GUANTANAMO (26.12.) In the morning we headed for the US Naval Base Guantanamo. The bus went through the military prohibited zone around the Naval Base and then climbed up a narrow mountain road. After walking through a short tunnel and some steps we finally reached a look-out platform. The United States have claimed the territory of the Naval Base at the entrance of Guantanamo Bay since 1903. The Cuban point of view is that US had annexed it illegally. On their territory, the US Navy has built two airports and a harbour, and about 7000 people are stationed there. Cubans say that US planes likely enter their airspace to provoke them. Supply of the Naval Base must be very expensive as it has no backyard. Everything must be brought in by plane or ship, even drinking water is said to come in tanker ships from Puerto Rico. In the evening we went to a meeting with a local CRD (Commite para Defensa de la Revolucion, Committee for the defense of the Revolution) in Guantanamo, that turned out to be a street party for us and for the people there. We got a hearty welcome and plenty of food and drink. GUANTANAMO - BAYAMO (27.12.) This day we had scheduled an approximately four hour bus ride from Guantanamo to Bayamo. After we had our welcome drink in the local Islazul Hotel, a part of the group went to take a ride in a coach while we preferred to stay in the hotel to relax. The coach ride is almost obligatory in Bayamo, if only to hear the song "A Bayamo En Coche," which means "Riding To Bayamo in a Coach." BAYAMO (28.12.) We visited an agricultural Contingente and talked for a while with the heads of this agricultural brigade. These Contingentes where founded in the first years of the Perioda Especial -- the time of economic crisis after the breakdown of the eastern block states -- with the aim to provide enough manpower to cover the Cuban demand of agricultural products, since the supply from Russia and the eastern European countries subsided immediately. The employees that came to the Contingentes voluntarily are living almost like in a garrison, get well paid, and have to work almost without the use of machines in areas that were not fully used up to that time or areas that were not fertile before. When the areas become productive after some years and can be cultivated with normal means, they are given to small farmers or to cooperatives. After some interesting discussions we got a cold buffet and then we went on to the botanical garden of Bayamo, that was like the one in Havana consisting mostly of trees. The Hotel in Bayamo was one of the better Islazul Hotels. It was rather quiet, food was good, and they had warm water sometimes, but not always. But the rooms are a bit worn out and the mattresses have holes in them like a hammock. BAYAMO - MANZANILLO (29.12.) With the obligatory delay we left the hotel and arrived at Manzanillo about an hour later. Here we had our first look at a monument for Cespedes, one of the leaders of the war against the Spanish colonialists at the end of the 19th century. Then we headed for the local Islazul Hotel called Guacanayabo. While we had our welcome cocktails consisting of beer with rum, the manager told us that the planned visit to the fishermen on Cayo Perla could not be done because the pier over there was out of order. After some of our fellow travelers had complained heavily, we took a boat trip and swam in the sea, but did not land on Cayo Perla. The Guacanayabo Hotel is one of the worst Islazul Hotels that we have seen -- there was loud music from the pool area, even when there was nobody listening, everything was a little bit dirty, the walls were smudgy, the mattresses defied any description and the phone was defective. They even left out a light near the bed. Reading in the room was almost impossible because where there was light you could not sit and near the beds it was totally dark. The shower looked nice at the first glance but it turned out that the tap was defective and the water could not make its way through the old hose to the shower head. MANZANILLO - SANTO DOMINGO (30.12.) The bus ride from Manzanillo to Bartolome Maso took about one hour. There we changed to an old Russian 6x6 truck, and our bus was parked there, because the mountain road to Santo Domingo was said to be too steep for a normal bus. With us standing on the open platform of the truck, we drove up a really very steep and curvaceous mountain road to Santo Domingo. There we stopped at the village hotel with the same name, unloaded our baggage and got served fruits and drinks. We rode in good old "Liz," which was the name of the Russian truck, about five kilometers up the steep hill. Then we climbed off the truck and went about three kilometers to the former headquarters of the guerrilla army. We made our way on slippery, rocky and muddy ground. At an old farmhouse we had a rest and had to leave our cameras there, because taking pictures in the region around the former headquarters was not allowed. We climbed up to the buildings in which the leaders of the guerrillas, like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, found shelter and from where they fought against Dictator Batista's army, beginning with only 200 combatants. After we walked back to the truck and got down to the Hotel Villa Santo Domingo, we got our bungalow and had to clean our shoes and clothing from the mud of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. For dinner we had about a 110 pound pig roasted on a stick, that had been prepared very patiently over an open fire by some Cubans since noon. We ate a lot, the pig tasted great and we were hungry, too. The leftovers, which was more than half of the pig, were eaten by the hotel staff and the people from the Santo Domingo village. For entertainment they had engaged the Quinteto Rebelde. These musicians had made music during the guerrilla time in the Sierra Maestra mountains, later in Angola and Nicaragua, too. They still played very well and in spite of being from 58 to 62 years old, they played regularly for the Cuban TV and for the Bosses in Havana. They were all unpretentious, nice and easy guys. SANTO DOMINGO - CIEGO DE AVILA (31.12.) We had breakfast with Quinteto Rebelde live music. Then when finally all members of our group had found their way to the truck, we went down to Bartolome Maso again. The musicians that lived near Bartolome Maso came with us, and during the ride they told us that this valley was very poor before the government had built the road in 1968. Back then, they had had no shops, no bakery, and so on. But with pride they pointed out their school and their kindergartens that were built since that time. >From Bartolome Maso we went in our tour bus along Bayamo, Las Tunas, Camagüey and Florida to Ciego de Avila, where we went to the local Islazul Hotel, of course. The one in Ciego de Avila would almost have earned an upgrade to a Horizontes Hotel. The rooms were a little bit more spacious, they even had bedside lamps, the mattresses were convenient, and the rooms were clean and made a friendly impression. What still was missing was a working shower, as the shower hose was broken and there was no warm water. CIEGO DE AVILA - VARADERO (01.01.) After the activities of New Years Eve, we all were a little bit tired at breakfast, and of course more delayed than on other days. Finally we headed for Varadero, made a quick stop in Santa Clara to visit the Che mausoleum and the Tren Blindado, but only from the outside, because on the national holiday on January 1st, the day of the victory of the revolution, all museums were closed. In Varadero we went to the Hotel Villa La Mar, of course an Islazul Hotel, too. Our room had mold spots at the wall, but we were lucky and the shower worked somehow. The restaurant had all the charm of the waiting room in a railroad station and food tasted like that, too. VARADERO (02.01.) We decided that we had seen enough Islazul Hotels for that year. Since the Hotel Varadero Internacional was booked out, we could not move to there a day earlier. We therefore did not hesitate to go to the Melia Varadero, one of the best and most expensive hotels in Varadero. It was not cheap at all, but the building and the lobby were really impressive. The room was very nice and comfortable and the many restaurants offered superb food. In the evening, we met our group once more and had some drinks together, and then we said good bye. VARADERO (03.01.) We had bad weather the whole day, even some rain. We checked out from the Melia Varadero about noon and then moved to the Hotel Varadero Internacional, where we had to wait until our room was ready. The Internacional is a good old hotel that was built before the revolution by DuPont and it is well maintained. The rooms are spacious and equipped comfortable, with two king size beds, a chest of drawers, a table with seats, wardrobe, refrigerator, air conditioning and a brand new satellite TV. The value you get for your money is surely better here than at the Melia Varadero. VARADERO (04.01.) Weather was better than the previous day, so we spent the whole day at the wonderful white sand beach directly at the hotel terrace. THE LONG WAY HOME (05. and 06.01.) We checked out at the Hotel Internacional, tossed our baggage into a taxi and went to the airport. There was a presentable queue waiting for us at the LTU counter, and the Cuban LTU employees did not let them move faster by allowing the still growing queue of passengers. After we finally had checked in our baggage and passed the passport control -- customs did not work really efficiently, too -- we had to wait a while for our plane to start passenger loading. First, some passengers got lost in the airport building and had to be searched for -- until they were discovered in a bar drinking. Then, in the meantime other planes had queued for the runway. The LTU MD-11 plane was full to the last seat and accordingly the flight wasn't that pleasant. They managed to place the seats so tight together that you could not cross your legs. Being seated for about ten hours without much possibility for moving was a real pain. Food was not famous, too, and the cabin crew had to struggle to serve that many passengers. There were steady waiting queues at the lavatories and they soon got dirty, too. After we had landed in Düsseldorf, we had to wait a while for our connecting flight to Munich. After a short flight, supplied with a dry sandwich, we arrived, grabbed our baggage, went to the car and drove home.
Trip 9/98 The first thing we noticed, flying over Curacao, was that it appeared to be more industrial than many other Caribbean islands.... but still with lovely towns and architecture, beaches and clear waters. I couldn’t wait to jump in the water! The second thing we noticed, as we exited the plane, were the hot dry tradewinds. American Airlines got us there on time, and with all of our luggage. :-)) We arrived at the Princess Beach Resort, which looked quite nice from the outside. We were not disappointed. The lobby is cool and elegant, and from where we checked in, we could see the casino, a lounge, a gift shop, and a tour/information desk. Check-in going smoothly and quickly, we headed toward our room which was in another building, about a five minute walk through lush, gorgeous gardens. We were extremely pleased with our room, on the third floor and very spacious, complete with a large beach view balcony. Housekeeping did a great job of keeping it spotless all week, as well. There’s a coffeemaker in the room, and when we returned to our room, later, after a little exploration, we found a bottle of wine and a welcome note from he hotel manager. Nice touch. The dive shop, Princess Divers, run by Peter Hughes organization, was efficient and helpful all week, as well. The shore diving was excellent, and they were always happy to point out where we might find this or that critter hanging out. Snorkeling in front of the hotel is great, too, as the reef starts in about 15 feet of water, and drops off deeper than 90 feet further offshore. Princess beach Resort, like other hotels and beach areas, has a wall of rocks protecting its beach from much of the surf, so it’s excellent for swimming wading and snorkeling, too, especially near the rocks, where just about every variety of common Caribbean fish could be found, especially huge schools of Blue Tangs. Another species we found abundant out by those rocks is the Trumpet Fish, some of them huge! Near dusk, though, watch out, as the Spiny Sea Urchins came out of hiding then. Some of the largest urchins I’ve ever seen, too. One looked twice the size of a basketball. Another sight we saw, inside the rocks, and “just” snorkeling, was a school of squid. Fifteen of them, we counted. They came pretty close, too, checking us out. I wished I had my camera right then. Outside the rock wall, the reef was awesome, too. Healthy corals, abundant fish and great visibility! And the reef seems to go on forever. We did several shore dives, and figured we could probably have done shore dives there all week and still not seen it all. There was pillar coral, fire coral, smaller heads of staghorn and elkhorn corals, and huge, huge heads of star and brain coral, and huge gorgonians, all in great shape. The boat dives were great, too. We dove mostly on the East side of the island, and each site had something great. I particularly liked a site where we found a huge bunch of pillar coral. It was said to be Peter Hughes’ favorite dive site off Curacao..... In general, there were a bunch of morays, both spotted and green, but we didn’t see any sharks or rays on any of our dives, shore or boat. One site, Tugboat, orange encrusting sponges were particularly abundant, practically covering the small wreck. Another wreck we dove, Superior Producer, was nice. It sat in about 110 feet of water, and was pretty wide open for exploration. I’m not much into wrecks, but the guys who requested we go there were *bubbling* with enthusiasm when we surfaced. On our night dives, we spotted the usual lobsters and shrimp, octopus, and for only the second time, what I thought was a horseshoe crab. My husband pointed out, though that it differed slightly from a horseshoe crab, and upon describing it to a local Marine Biologist, he said it was a “Spanish Lobster”. I’ve never heard of that, and I couldn’t find it in any of my books. I’m continuing the research, though. Unfortunately, I was out of film by then and didn’t get a picture of it. I came down with a little cold while we were there, interfering with a day of diving. The last day we dove from the boat, we stopped back at the shop after our first dive, to pick up a family who wanted to snorkel on our shallower dive. Mom, Dad and little girl of about 4. They were Dutch and spoke no English, so we were not able to chat. However, I could see their looks of horror when I got back on the boat after the second dive. I wondered what was wrong, as I settled my tank into its spot and removed my mask. When I did, I realized why they were looking horrified. My nose was bleeding, and that only happens when I am getting over a cold. When we started moving, “Dad” started to barf, and I don’t know if it was because he was squemish about blood, or if he was seasick. They didn’t look like they were having much fun. Seaquarium / Animal Encounter The Seaquarium was nice, but I think some of the animals there could be given more space.... We did the Aminal Encounter, and were lucky enough to be the only two signed up for the time slot The Animal Encounter is open to divers and non-divers alike, but if you’re certified, you don’t have to go through the hour-long briefing on how to use scuba equipment. The Seaquarium doesn’t offer a discount for using your own equipment, so we saved ourselves the hassle of carrying all our stuff and just brought our masks. The equipment they gave us to use was practically brand new and functioned beautifully. We entered the water with our drums of fish, and as in any animal feeding environment, were molested by various fish and stingrays upon entry. The sting rays came right up and swam over us, under us, between our legs and under our arms. Quite strange. The reminded me of marine cats, brushing up against us, and found that if you rub their underside, they will hover over you for quite awhile. There were also turtles and sharks (lemon and nurse) to feed, however they were behind barriers. There was plexiglass with holes in which you push the fish through. That experience was better than I expected. Restaurants on site at Princess Resort Good to Excellent. The Floating Market Restaurant served a full “American” breakfast (the works, eggs, meats, omelets, waffles, fruits, beverages, breads, name it....) which, when we ate that, we were not hungry again until dinner, even when we dove. Across the way in the bar area, a Continental Breakfast was available, with breads, coffee, tea, and juice. The days we did that, we ended up snacking in the afternoon, or having a light lunch. This restaurant also served lunch and dinner, tex-mex style. They made a worthy attempt at tostadas and fajitas, but some of it tasted strange..... not strange enough not to eat it, though. I ordered a dish with shrimp in it, and I was quite surprised that they used the tiny canned shrimp..... disappointing to say the least, as I expected fresh.... The Bar & Grill, open from 11:00-5:00, served up grilled fare and snacks, and an extensive drink menu. I had a tasty chicken filled pita and fries, which was really enough for two. My husband had the vegetarian pita, which was also quite generous, and judging by the way he devoured it, must have been quite good. There was also an Italian restaurant on site, called Don Luigi. We dined there several times, trying everything from appetizers to pizza to pasta, everything great, and really enjoyed the decadent desserts on the menu! The Oriental Grill was excellent, too, serving a variety of grilled fresh fish (the tuna was great) and meats. I tried ostrich for the first time, in a sesame glaze, and found it to taste much like steak. Soups, salads, and desserts were quite good there, too. The prices were a little higher than I would see here in Chicago, for food, but not too drastic. The sandwiches and snacks at the Bar & Grill ranged from (all in U.S.$) ranged from $5.00-9.00. Imported beers, $5.00, local beer $2.50, mixed drinks..... varied from $3.00- $6.00. At the Floating Market Restaurant, dinner cost anywhere from $8 - $20 per entree. Don Luigi, entrees went from $7.00 for pizza, to $11 - 16 for pastas, a and up to $25 for various steak and seafood dinners. The Oriental Grill ranged from $16 - 35 per person, but included soup salad a drink and dessert in the price. There was nightly entertainment at the resort, and a happy hour, where a different drink each night was on “special”. Some nights, snacks were available, too. The service was great, and the staff friendly and helpful. The guests were from many parts of the globe, too. Many Dutch & German, some British, some South Americans and Americans, and I commend the employees of Princess Beach, they were able to communicate with *everyone*!
Trip 9/98 We stayed at Couples Negril two nights. I took 8 of our agents there as we visited 22 resorts in 3 days. Our Detailed Findings: Elegant, Art Deco Decor, Dramatic Open Air Lobby The rooms are all large and nicely furnished with bright hues and Caribbean Art Deco Furnishings....many handmade in Jamaica from Intuitive Artists. The Oceanview One Bedroom Suites are HUGE with a bathroom the size of a typical hotel room! Jacuzzi tub with a neck massager, and a rain shower from the ceiling of the enclosed shower adjacent to the Jacuzzi. Decadence. I could live in that room. Even the basic rooms are beautiful. All have hairdryers, king size beds, safes, A/C, Satellite TV, good old CNN, balcony or patio. 24 hour food service available. Room Service at Breakfast only, limited menu. The gourmet restaurant, Otaheite was exceptional for a resort that just opened 6 weeks prior. The GM there was formerly at La Source in Grenada and has high standards which are apparent at this new property. Caroline Cousins, an 8 year veteran of SuperClubs is head of Sales and come with lots of experience. The resort sits on 25 acres and some of the room blocks are far away from the main area. Blocks 4 and 5 are a long walk and if there is rain there is no coverage. You could get stranded in your room in a downpour. The new au naturel area is near blocks 6-9 they are considering building a bar there, at the moment there is a somewhat private beach and natural Plunge Pool. The resort has a wonderful tennis program with clinics starting at 8:00 AM every day and also at 4, then a Round Robin at 5 every day. The Fitness Schedule is packed with Powerwalks, Stretch, Massage Class, Gym, Step, Butts, Guts and Thigh, Aquasize, Yoga, and Body Sculpting. They also have a scuba program and even offer PADI Courses Open Water $350 Rescue Diver $400, Dive Master $600, Night Dives $60 Single Tank Diving included for Certified Divers and Beginners course. Double Tank on Saturdays. The Spa at Couples Negril is very professional. The staff is highly trained and use excellent products for aromatherapy massages, etc. I always check out the products! The Spa has many services available for an extra cost: Facials, massage, Body Wraps, Scrubs, waxing, manicures and Hair. Other features at Couples include Wedding Gazebo, basketball court and when the landscaping fills in with growth, this place will like the Garden of Eden, I am sure. They also have a huge gym with fine new equipment, Beach Bar and Restaurant, Cardio Fitness room in addition to the regular gym!, Game room, Huge Restaurant and entertainment stage area. The Beach Party was great and the entertainment with fire eater, dancers, singers was superb. They even served Lobster that night. There are a few gift shops near the beautiful lobby. The main pool is very large and has a swim up bar. Also another Bar is next to the pool with a Restaurant, Italian, I think. The beach is a cove type beach, calm and relaxing, you could float all day long. The service problems associated with a newly opened resort are apparent, but will improve on a daily basis with training and experience. The room service in the am was slow to arrive, but management was even helping serve, they are fixing the problem. It is probably fixed by now. That about sums it up. We didn't want to leave. Then, we went to Sandals Negril for a few nights. I will detail that report on the Sandals Board when I get time, this week.
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